Born of a Woman

Born of a Woman

by John Shelby Spong

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John Shelby Spong, bestselling author and Episcopal bishop of Newark, NJ, challenges the doctrine of the virgin birth, tracing its development in the early Christian church and revealing its legacy in our contemporary attitudes toward women and female sexuality.


John Shelby Spong, bestselling author and Episcopal bishop of Newark, NJ, challenges the doctrine of the virgin birth, tracing its development in the early Christian church and revealing its legacy in our contemporary attitudes toward women and female sexuality.

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Chapter One

Escaping Biblical Literalism

For most of the two thousand years of history since the birth of our Lord, the Christian church has participated in and supported the oppression of women. This oppression has been both overt and covert, conscious and unconscious. It has come primarily through the church's ability in the name of God to define a woman and to make that definition stick. It was grounded in a literalistic understanding of Holy Scripture thought of as the infallible word of God and produced in a patriarchal era.

Patriarchy and God have been so deeply and uncritically linked to gender by the all-male church hierarchy that men have little understood how this alliance has been used to the detriment of all women. In a unique and intriguing sense, the parts of the Bible that have contributed most to this negativity have been the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke. These stories, far more than is generally realized, assisted in the development of the ecclesiastical stereotype of the ideal woman against which all women came to be judged. The power of these birth narratives over women lies in their subtle illusions and romantic imagery. Those biblical passages that contain obvious prejudice against women can be quickly confronted and easily laid aside. But subtle, unconscious definitions and traditional unchallenged patterns resist so simple an excising. So it is that through these passages of Holy Scripture the picture of a woman known as "the virgin" has found entry into the heart of the Christian story, and from that position she has exercised her considerable influence.

Each year at the Christmas season she is brought out of the church and placed in a position of public honor for about two weeks. She is dressed in pale blue, portrayed with demure, downcast eyes, and defined in terms of virgin purity. No female figure in Western history rivals her in setting standards. Since she is known as "the virgin," she has contributed to that peculiarly Christian pattern of viewing women primarily in terms of sexual function. Women may deny their sexuality by becoming virgin nuns, or women may indulge their sexuality by becoming prolific mothers. But in both cases, women are defined not first as persons and second as sexual beings but first and foremost as females whose sexuality determines their identity.This means, in my opinion, that the literalized Bible in general, and the birth narratives that turn on the person of the virgin in particular, are guilty of aiding and abetting the sexist prejudice that continues to live and to distort women even as late in history as these last years of the twentieth century.

I want to challenge publicly and vigorously this view of both the Bible and the virgin tradition and sexual images that gather around the stories of Jesus' birth. But I want to do this quite specifically as a Christian and as one who treasures the Scriptures. That task represents for me a willingness to walk the razor's edge of faith. I intend to claim the Bible as my ally in the struggle to end the oppression of women. I also intend to celebrate Christmas each year using the traditional readings and symbols of that season, but I will seek to free that birth tradition from its destructive literalism. I do not believe that Mary was in any biological sense literally a virgin. I do not believe that someone known as a virgin mother can be presented with credibility to contemporary men or women as an ideal woman. I do not believe that the story of Mary's virginity enhanced the portrait of the mother of Jesus. To the contrary, I believe that story has detracted from Mary's humanity and has become a weapon in the hands of those whose patriarchal prejudices distort everyone's humanity in general but women's humanity in particular. But before examining the birth narratives specifically, it is necessary to look briefly at the Bible as a whole.

I am amazed that given the knowledge revolution of the last six hundred years anyone can still regard the Bible as the dictated words of God, inerrant and eternal. This claim, however, is still made with effective power and still finds a fertile field in the hearts of many who refer to themselves as simple believers. It is this audience to whom the television evangelists direct their appeal. These electronic "preachers of the Word" offer to their legions biblical security, certainty in faith, and even superiority in their sense of salvation. In return, their supporters provide the evangelists with a following that can be translated into political power and enormous financial resources. Neither the political power nor the financial resources are always used, history has revealed, in a responsible way.

In recent years I have been given the opportunity to engage two of America's better-known evangelists in televised debates about the Bible. I am for them an interesting study, for I grew up as a biblical fundamentalist and had the content of the Bible made a part of my very being. I have read this wondrous book on a daily basis since I was twelve. The remarkable biographical detail of my spiritual journey is that when I ceased being a fundamentalist I did not cease to love the Bible. The Bible remains today the primary focus of my study. I am therefore a strange phenomenon, at least in Christian America. I am known as a theological liberal. Yet I dare to call myself a Bible-believing, Bible-based Christian. Such a combination is, for many, a contradiction in terms.

When I hear a public person suggest that the Bible means literally exactly what it says, I am so amazed that I have to remind myself that some seven decades have passed since the famous Scopes trial in Tennessee...

Born of a Woman. Copyright © by John Shelby Spong. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

John Shelby Spong, the Episcopal Bishop of Newark before his retirement in 2000, has been a visiting lecturer at Harvard and at more than 500 other universities all over the world. His books, which have sold well over a million copies, include Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy; The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic; Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World; Eternal Life: A New Vision; Jesus for the Non-Religious, The Sins of Scripture, Resurrection: Myth or Reality?; Why Christianity Must Change or Die; and his autobiography, Here I Stand. He writes a weekly column on the web that reaches thousands of people all over the world. To join his online audience, go to He lives with his wife, Christine, in New Jersey.

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