I suppose the short answer is: “anyway they wish!” The question in the title may seem silly to some, but I find it to be a serious question that has largely gone unnoticed, as far as I am aware.1 First some disclaimers. Divinities are not beings, since they have no existence in time and space, as rocks and people do. If any characterization is appropriate, divinities are spirit, if they are at all. If they are spirits, they are not existing in time and space. By spirit I mean to suggest that they are wholly other than the beings, creatures, and things of this universe. In one sense they are eternals; even if they fall out of fashion, they are still there waiting to be rediscovered. Personally, I have no independent knowledge of the nature and character of spirits, I only know what I have been told by others and what I have read. And that includes information as to how they procreate.
As it turns out, literary evidence exists for examining what people thought concerning the origin of divinities in western religious traditions. The Gods of the ancient Greeks, for example, were generally thought to procreate on a human model, by means of a male and female of the divine species, or with human partners, but the fertile imagination of the Greeks devised even more novel ways for how their Gods procreated.2 The “birth” of Aphrodite, for example, was a kind of spontaneous generation: one tradition of her birth was that “she rose naked from the foam of the sea.”3 There are stories about the “sperm” of the Gods as well. The Goddess Athene was set upon by the God Hephaestus. As she tore herself away, Hephaestus ejaculated on her thigh a little above her knee. She wiped it off with a piece of wool and threw it away. The wool with sperm fell on Mother Earth and impregnated her. Erichthonius was born as a result.4 So Greek Gods were known to reproduce by means of sperm, and people were also quite aware that human births occurred from the pairing of the male sperm with matter provided by the female.5
The story of Onan (who spilled his sperm on the ground, Gen 38:7-10), rather than father a child (in levirate marriage) with his brother’s wife (Tamar), suggests that the issue in the story was the identity of the child in the family as the son of Er. Hence, in the final analysis inheritance was the issue: the recognition of the child as the son of the dead brother (Er).
In the Christian tradition Matthew (1:18-23) and Luke (1:26-35) imagined that Yahweh, the ancient Israelite God, procreated by a human female, as did the ancient Greek Gods on occasion. Paul also appears to think that Jesus was born naturally, for he was “born of a woman, born under the law” (Gal 4:4). Only in Matthew and Luke is Mary referred to as “virgin” (Parthenos), a term that applies to the period before she became pregnant. Her description as virgin can only apply before her pregnancy—that is, prior to her divine encounter (Matt 1:18, 20).6 In Matthew, Mary’s pregnancy was from a holy spirit (an attribute of God).7 In Luke (Luke 1:34-35), Mary’s pregnancy was going to happen in the future from holy spirit and power of the Most-High (Luke 1:35).8 There must be some connection between the deity, the woman, and the child for him to be acknowledged as the child of the deity. Aristotle associates both these terms (spirit and power) with the process of human procreation.9 For Matthew and Luke spirit and power are attributes of God. Because of the way Matthew and Luke narrate Jesus’ generation (birth through a woman), it is reasonable to suppose that conception might have involved a kind of spiritual “sperm” (so to speak). At least, the author of first John appears to believe that God used spiritual “sperm” in producing the children of God:
Those born of God do not commit sin, because his sperm [sperma] remains in him, and he is not able to sin because he has been born of God (1 John 3:9).
The question boils down to this: what did Matthew and Luke think occurred in the generation of Jesus? Not being a mind reader of paper characters in a text, I have no idea. But the historical context and the way they describe Jesus’ birth suggests that spiritual “sperm” is a likely possibility, if not a probability.
The author of the Gospel of John has no birth narrative, but the narrative speculates that the origin of the Word is lost in the fog of “the beginning” (John 1:1-5, 9-14).10 The Word is both distinguishable from deity and yet identified with deity (John 1:1). The Word comes to be in flesh (John 1:14; cf. Phil 2:7); that is, he was not born so there is no issue of “sperm,” spiritual or otherwise.
What is lost or gained in considering the question? I personally think nothing is lost but that something may be gained. It fills out the image of the human model of procreation Matthew and Luke chose to use. The spiritual “sperm” inseminating Mary and producing the child was holy Spirit (Matt 1:18) or holy spirit and power (Luke 1:35), or so Matthew and Luke must have reasoned and wanted (or allowed) the reader to think.
Missouri State University
1One welcome exception willing to peel back the mystery of Matthew and Luke’s myth of origins is Robert Miller’s, Born Divine. The Births of Jesus &the Other Sons of God (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge, 2003).
2See Robert Graves, The Greek Myths (2 vols in 1; George Braziller, 1959). Hesiod, The Theogony: https://users.pfw.edu/flemingd/Hesiod%20Theogony.pdf
3Graves, The Greek Myths, 1.49; 11.
4Graves, Greek Myths, 1.96-97.
5Aristotle, Generation of Animals, 1.xviii; Peck, Aristotle: Generation of Animals (Loeb), 71-89; see also Richard Smith, “Sex Education in Gnostic Schools” in Karen King, ed., Images of the Feminine in Gnosticism (Philadelphia, Fortress, 1988), 345-60; and https://journals.openedition.org/cliowgh/339
6Matthew does not narrate this event; in Matthew it occurred prior to Matt 1:18, 20.
7Robert J. Miller argues that “Matthew’s use of ‘begotten by the holy spirit’ does not imply a virginal conception”; that is, it does not rule out human sperm. See Miller’s conclusion: “Did Matthew Believe in the Virgin Birth?” The Fourth R 21.6 (November-December 2008), 7-8, 26. Luke, on the other hand, reports “that Jesus was born in the manner of pagan sons of God, the offspring of a human mother and divine father. . .” (p. 26). In both cases insemination would have happened by spiritual “sperm.” Miller notes, however, that Luke is “cautious to describe God’s role in a non-physical way” (p. 4). On the other hand, it appears to me that Luke’s language is mildly evocative of a sexual encounter; in Luke 1:35: “a holy spirit will come over you and the power of the Most-High will overshadow you. For a more complete discussion of the issues involved see Miller’s book Born Divine.
8Luke does not narrate this event; in Luke it occurred somewhere between Luke 1:34-35 and 2:1, off stage as it were.
9Aristotle associates dunamis (power) and pneuma (sprit) as being involved in the process of the generation of animals. Dunamis is the physical substance in the semen by which impregnation is effected (p. lii). Pneuma is a substance used as the instrument in the generation of offspring (p. liii). See Peck’s introduction in Generation of Animals, xlix-lix.
10Unlike the “Word,” whose origin at the beginning is not described, Lady Wisdom was specifically described as being created at the beginning (Prov 8:22-31).
I found several answers I thought interesting, as I was looking at this question. “Spirit and power” (footnote 9) found its way (in a different direction I think) into Tertullian’s “Against Marcion,” 4.21, in which he claimed that Marcion believed Christ “...was revealed from heaven, full-grown at once, at once complete; immediately Christ; simply spirit, and power, and god.“ (Tertullian, writing in Latin, was using Marcion’s text of Lk. 9.26 to say that if Christ hadn’t been born, he wouldn’t have known “shame,” which he largely equated to Jesus in the womb, being born and a baby.
A different much later take of the birth...
Fulgentius (To Peter on the Faith, 17) tells us that Jesus was conceived in a “new way,” without lust, which Fulgentius considered the sin that God took away with the birth, more or less, of himself. He goes into some depth explaining that there was no copulation and that this “preserved the integrity of virginity in his mother.” When I read that, I get more the idea of God taking custody of the womb than a pregnancy.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Divine beings obviously procreate and do anything else they want in any way they want in the imaginations of human beings. Thanks for digging out a few more examples, Dennis!
How about heading in the other direction, Charlie. What evidence do we have of any human characteristics of Jesus?
What do you mean by characteristics? we are fortunate to know only a few items of his vitae that are probably correct.
I think that it was the Docetic movement in the early church that claimed that Jesus only "appeared" to have a human body and to die on the cross. So "characteristic" would mean anything that would indicate that his self-presentation was fully human.
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