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Jesus’ (Young?) Mother and (Half?) Brothers? The Proto-Gospel of James

A few days ago lot of readers made comments on the question (thanks to the Roy Moore newsflashes) of whether Mary was a young girl when she got married; and now I have mentioned Jesus’ mother and brothers in Mark’s Gospels.  So let me say a few more things about them.

The earliest non-canonical source that talks about Jesus’ mother (indicating she was a teenager — not something found in the NT) and his brothers (were they really is brothers?) is in the non-canonical Proto-Gospel of James, from some time in the second century.  I thought it might be useful for me to re-post a discussion of the matter from a number of years ago, here:


The Proto-Gospel of James was very popular in Eastern, Greek-speaking Christianity throughout the Ages, down to modern times; and a version of it was produced – with serious additions and changes – in Latin, that was even more influential in Western Christianity (a book now known as the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew).   In some times and places, these books were the main source of “information” that people had for knowing about Jesus’ birth and family – more so than the NT Gospels.

The idea that Joseph was an old man and Mary was a young girl?  Comes from the Proto-Gospel (not the NT!).   The view that Jesus was born in a cave?   Proto-Gospel.    The notion that at the nativity there was an ox and a donkey?  Pseudo-Matthew.   And there were lots of other stories familiar to Christians in the Middle Ages not so familiar to people today, all from these books – for example, a spectacular account (in Pseudo-Matthew) of Jesus as an infant, en route to Egypt, helping out his very-hungry mother Mary who was eyeing with longing some fruit at the top of a palm tree, by ordering the tree to bend down and yield its produce to her.  It does, and Jesus blesses the tree and guarantees that one of its branches will be taken to Paradise.

The Proto-Gospel was also responsible for the popularity of one particular view of Jesus’ brothers.

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Could Q Have Been Lost? Readers’ Mailbag December 3, 2017
Jesus’ Mother and Brothers in Mark



  1. Avatar
    godspell  November 20, 2017

    Well say what you will about his preferences, Jerome would not have been a Roy Moore voter.

    Raised as a Catholic, as were all the generations before me going back to the conversion of Ireland (poor snakes), I was certainly aware of the belief that Mary was ever-virgin (it’s in the Apostle’s Creed), but I didn’t really get it drilled into my head that Jesus’ siblings were not related to him by blood.

    Being the eldest of four myself, I would have thought it sad for him to have no brothers and sisters to call his own. Though I suppose at times one likes to imagine being an only child. Less competition for the bathroom.

    Vatican II changed a lot about the way Catholicism was taught, and my parents took us to the most liberal parish within easy driving distance. So you wouldn’t have shocked me at all. I did consider going to Rutgers, but it would have been before your time, and I never took bible study classes at Fordham, so moot point.

    As I may have mentioned before, my parents, in an act of courageous ecumenism, would at Christmastime take us to a nearby Protestant church that had a living nativity scene, with cows, horses, chickens, geese (there may have been turkeys, memory fails), and of course donkeys (my favorite).

    I still believe there were animals around that manger. I will always believe it. Try and stop me.

    (Of course the manger wouldn’t have been in Bethlehem of Judea).

  2. Avatar
    saavoss  November 20, 2017

    May I ask a personal question? What is your personal (not historical or professional) opinion or belief regarding the supposed virgin birth, the Pantera legend, and the bodily resurrection of Jesus? I’ve heard that you are now an atheist. So, do you teach Christian History simply from a literary or mythological POV (as someone would teach Egyptology, or ancient Persian religions), or do you think there is some historical revelance (“truth”) to the gospels and other early Christian sources? I assure you, I mean no disrespect. I’m asking because I always imagined myself with an academic career. Life seems to have had other plans & my dream of teaching at a university never materialized, but I often wonder how I would teach is there was something I strongly disagreed with (such as the incarnation, immaculate conception, virgin birth, bodily resurrection, etc)… So I’m just curious about what you believe, personally, and how you reconcile atheistic or agnostic beliefs with teaching the history & development of ancient Christianity… Thank you…

    • Bart
      Bart  November 21, 2017

      I don’t think those particular miracles happened, if that’s what you’re asking. But other stories in the Gospels do contain historical elements, and the historian’s task is to determine which is which.

    • Avatar
      godspell  November 21, 2017

      Um–how would you reconcile teaching Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream with not believing in Oberon, Titania, and Puck?

      How would you reconcile teaching Marxist economic theory with believing Marxism was a disaster that led to totalitarianism and genocide?

      I never understand this kind of question. At all. It makes no sense.

  3. Avatar
    stokerslodge  November 20, 2017

    Bart, don’t you think this old world would be a much happier place if we all took a leaf from Jerome’s book: “no pleasures of the flesh. No rich foods, no good wine, and no sex.”? Especially the latter!

    • Bart
      Bart  November 21, 2017

      God no!

      • Avatar
        godspell  November 22, 2017

        I think we can agree Jerome took it too far in one direction.

        Certain modern persons of high prominence and active twitter feeds have, I hope we can also agree, taken it too far in the other.

        Moderation in all things.

        • Avatar
          SidDhartha1953  November 23, 2017

          I’ve heard Jerome went so far as to castrate himself to make certain that he would never violate his own dictum. Not my idea of a happy life.

          • Bart
            Bart  November 24, 2017

            Are you thinking of Origen?

          • Avatar
            godspell  November 24, 2017

            Self-castration–to avoid distraction from higher contemplations–is not unknown in other religions, including pagan ones, I believe.

            But Jerome himself did not practice it. Well, I don’t suppose you’d really get to practice it, per se. You pretty much have to get it right the first time. Ouch.

      • Avatar
        stokerslodge  November 22, 2017

        Ah! You don’t know what you’re missing!

  4. Avatar
    Wilusa  November 20, 2017

    Fascinating! I was raised Catholic, and I remember being taught – in a rather prosaic way – that Jesus’s “brothers” were really “cousins,” the contrary opinion being based on a mistranslation. And I certainly had the impression that Joseph, like Mary, was understood to have been a virgin all his life.

    On the other hand, I never understood the idea of Joseph being an old man as anything but a strange notion people had at one time. I’m sure that by the time I was an adult – no longer a believer – the opinion that was becoming most common among Catholics was that both Mary and Joseph were very young.

    I live about 150 miles from New York City; and in that era, we were able to receive some NYC TV channels. I always watched the Christmas Midnight Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, for the music. And I remember being irked at hearing a Cardinal say – as *fact*, rather than speculation – either that Mary was 14 and Joseph 17, or that their respective ages were 15 and 18.

    • Avatar
      godspell  November 22, 2017

      I read Catholic children’s literature that talked about Joseph being a young, handsome and strong man (and a good carpenter, of course)–maybe a bit older than Mary. I never felt like I was being told they never had sex in their entire lives.

      The contradiction for Catholicism, in this regard, is that they have to propagate the notion that Mary was ever-virgin, but they also want their parishioners to be fruitful and multiply. Ascetic marriages between teenagers and elderly men don’t really fit the bill.

      Earlier generations, where birth control wasn’t an option (unless you really were in a sexless marriage), they could make Joseph a kindly old man (who could somehow make the lengthy dangerous trip to Bethlehem with his pregnant wife, and then off to Egypt for a spell).

      I never once heard the notion as a child that Mary’s virginity was magically restored to her after she gave birth. The hymen grew back. This was actually taught to some Catholics in Ireland. But it does not seem to have made the journey here, or it had died out by the time I was going to CCD. I guess it would be awkward explaining to young children what a hymen is.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  November 22, 2017

        Ah, yes! I never thought about that aspect of it, but if I had (when I was old enough to know what a hymen was), I would have assumed it was miraculously restored, without having to “grow back.”

        Here’s something amusing that I think about occasionally. We were taught the “Hail Mary” prayer, that begins: “Hail Mary, full of grace. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” As a child, I had no idea what a “womb” was! Let alone what it had to do with fruit.

        And since I never had any genuine *interest* in religion, it didn’t occur to me to ask anyone. But when I recited the prayer, I didn’t pronounce it as one properly would with that comma after “womb.” I pronounced it as if it was “blessed is the fruit of thy friend Jesus.”

        Oh, and about birth control? I remember being taught about the “ryhthm” method – determining when a woman was or wasn’t fertile, depending on her period.

        • Avatar
          Wilusa  November 22, 2017

          Easy to see I haven’t been a Catholic in a very long time: I forgot that there’s another phrase after “Hail Mary, full of grace”! It continues, “the Lord is with thee.”

          Also, that “r” word is one I have trouble spelling. “rhythm”?

        • Avatar
          godspell  November 24, 2017

          Nobody teaches the rhythm method anymore, but a more sophisticated system that involves taking basal temperatures, is now encouraged. Some couples who aren’t especially religious but want to be more ‘natural’ will take classes offered at Catholic parishes. If followed scrupulously, it’s fairly effective. And, of course, nothing but abstinence or sterilization is 100%.

          I have never understood the reasoning that it’s okay to consciously avoid conception by abstaining from sex during certain periods, but wrong to use any artificial means to prevent it. I don’t think the writers of Humanae Vitae understood their own reasoning either, but they pretended to. 😉

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  November 25, 2017

        More about that hymen!

        I’m sure that in one of those “infancy” gospels, the author said Joseph had gone to find a midwife; but when he came back with her, the infant had already been born. Mary and Joseph claimed the birth had been miraculous, the mother a virgin. The midwife said she wouldn’t believe it unless she was allowed to put her hand in Mary’s body and feel an intact hymen. She did; then her hand was “withered” or something, as a punishment. But I think it was, ultimately, miraculously healed.

        And in either that or some other telling of the tale, it was said that what came out of Mary’s body was pure *light*; outside her body, it took the form of a human infant. If one could believe in a miraculous virgin birth at all, that explanation might actually make the most sense!

  5. Avatar
    rivercrowman  November 20, 2017

    The full text of The Proto-Gospel of James is included in Bart’s book “After The New Testament – A Reader in Early Christianity,” Oxford Press, 1999. It’s #39 of 76 readings. … And I’m *still* reading!

  6. Avatar
    Tony  November 20, 2017

    Well, at least I got the Catholics on my side – on brothers that is. What is the Catholic interpretation of Gal 1:19? Thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 21, 2017

      The view that has become most common (since Jerome) is that “brother” means “blood relative” — in this case, cousins.

  7. Avatar
    ardeare  November 20, 2017

    It was only a couple of years ago that I learned the term “immaculate conception” refers to the premise that Mary was conceived and born without original sin and *not* that she miraculously conceived Jesus. I wonder if I’m late to the party or if most people, especially non-Catholics, aren’t aware of this?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 21, 2017

      In my experience *most* Protestants and other non-catholics come late to that party — or, in most instances, never arrive at all!

  8. Avatar
    Stephen  November 20, 2017

    Why “proto” instead of just Gospel of James?


    • Bart
      Bart  November 21, 2017

      Because it is the “Gospel before the Gospel” — focusing on the events before Jesus’ birth.

  9. Avatar
    JamesSnappJr  November 20, 2017

    Well, I guess, in a way, yes, but Isaiah 1:3 is in the equation somewhere.

  10. Avatar
    fishician  November 20, 2017

    So, mankind was created to be fruitful and multiply, the OT is full of sex, but by the time of early Christianity sex was considered naughty if not downright sinful. Any thoughts on why the transition? What influenced them? Do you address this in any of your books? (If not, future book subject?)

    • Bart
      Bart  November 21, 2017

      Now *that’s* a complicated question! I’ll add it to my mailbag.

    • Avatar
      rbrtbaumgardner  December 10, 2017

      Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity by Elaine Pagels is a helpful resource on that question.

  11. Avatar
    Hon Wai  November 20, 2017

    Who do you find more frustrating to handle – the evangelical students who get upset over your claim of errors and contradictions in the Bible, or the Catholic students over issues such as whether Mary had other children?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 21, 2017

      My knee jerks a bit more with the inerrantists, possibly because that is the camp out of which I myself emerged.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  November 22, 2017

        But I – as a Catholic – was also taught that the Bible was inerrant! The idea was that the Church knew how to reconcile any and all apparent mistakes or contradictions, and lay Catholics weren’t supposed to question it.

        The reason we *didn’t* question it was that nobody actually *read* the Bible. I couldn’t have understood why anyone would *want* to read such a thing. Unless they really believed they’d get “indulgences” for doing so…and in that case, they wouldn’t have been *interested* in what they were reading. Just performing an unpleasant task.

        • Avatar
          godspell  November 24, 2017

          I was never taught any such thing. Nobody talked about the bible having errors, but you certainly were not expected to believe the sun went around the earth, or that the earth was only a few thousand years old.

          I went to CCD after Vatican II, which made a fairly big difference. We were actually taught what other religions believed–Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism–quite respectfully too. Though of course Catholicism was best. And we didn’t discuss Protestants much. Well, there have to be some limits.

          • Avatar
            Wilusa  November 26, 2017

            Tee hee – I would never have realized the Bible *said* the sun went around the earth, or the earth was only a few thousand years old! I didn’t know what was in it. (My Catholic high school certainly taught *evolution* as fact.)

            I spent two horrific years attending a very bad Catholic women’s college. One of the few *good* things about it was that we were taken to a Jewish synagogue and given a tour of the place, with what I thought at the time were wonderful explanations of the Jews’ practices and beliefs.

            It’s great that the Catholic college was on such good terms with the local Jews. But…I think it was more than coincidence that the Jews were letting the college use their swimming pool!

  12. Avatar
    4Erudite  November 20, 2017

    When I was very young and first read the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew and Luke)…I was always told it was to track Jesus back to (House of) David…but…both Gospels traced the genealogy of Joseph, and not Mary the closest blood relation of Jesus. Joseph was not (blood) related to Jesus…but yet (as I was always told) the purpose was to confirm Jesus was from the House of David. It was always very confusing…and when I questioned this, I was promptly told to, basically, ‘shut-up, and sit down’ (i.e., I shouldn’t question the inspired words of the Bible). What is your take on this…do scholars think the purpose of the genealogy is to trace Jesus back to David (and in Luke to Adam as well)…and if so…why isn’t this questioned openly since it traces Joseph instead of Mary…even though Mary is considered by some as a Virgin after birth, she still had an ‘umbilical’ blood connection to Jesus making her the only ‘blood’ sharing person to Jesus…based on NT Gospels.

  13. Avatar
    HawksJ  November 20, 2017

    So if Jerome hadn’t condemned it, what do you think it’s status would be today?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 21, 2017

      No way to know! (Maybe someone *else* would have done so, e.g.)

  14. Telling
    Telling  November 20, 2017


    The Christianity problem is, it focuses on a man, not the teachings. The problem isn’t seen with other recognized ancient Masters. Buddha taught the four noble truths and the eight-fold path, a sure way to liberation without any need to have Buddha in your life; Krisna taught the paths of action and meditation to Arjuna while on the battlefield. Myths develop around these Masters, but do not circumvent the message. But the same higher teaching is there in the Christian bible. It is misunderstood, however, and was prohibited by the Church. When Jesus speaks of “I” and “Me” he is speaking as the Self within, not as himself. “Follow Me” means identify with the self within. It’s all there. My Christian friends are certain I’m crazy, or at least wrong. I walk on eggshells, with them.

    • Avatar
      godspell  November 22, 2017

      I think ‘prohibited’ is a strong term.

      Many many influential Christians throughout history have seen it that way–including Ireneaus (not a liberal) who said the goal of Christianity was for Christians to become God themselves, as Jesus had.

      Catholicism has been the most centrally organized of all large global religions (it works–look how many Catholics there are), and there has been a natural conservatism about trusting the rank and file, that you would find in any hieararchical organization.

      It’s loosened up a lot. Well, there’s no secular arm to enforce things anymore.

      You can’t very well listen to Pope Francis and think he doesn’t believe in a higher teaching.

      And you know, Buddhism and the other great faiths have their own sins. We’re all sinners. And we have a great capacity to corrupt the teachings we are given. That is a fact.

      • Telling
        Telling  November 22, 2017


        This idea of us being sinners is not in the Buddhist and Hindu religions. These religions tell of becoming self-aware, the lack of such is “imperfection”, but not sin. As we become more aware of ourselves and of the present moment, we will naturally embrace the virtues of love, peace, patience, etc.

        The Hindu Bhagavad-Gita ihas been thought to be a literary masterpiece. The story takes place on the battlefield, Lord Krishna (who is Christ) giving a lesson in self-awareness to Arjuna, while serving as his charioteer. Historians generally believe it is a made-up story. Here is where Eastern religions depart from Christianity: It doesn’t matter whether the story happened or is myth. The elevated message told by Krishna, not the battlefield story, is the thing of importance. If Krishna wasn’t a real person, the author of the story was, and communicates the story effectively through an action narrative. Readers obtain the same result, because the information transferred from originator to reader is the essence of it.

        The Gospel of Thomas tells of heaven being in our presence now at this very moment. We need only learn to change our conscious focus, to use the energies that spring from within us, to discover the whereabouts of the great promises. There are no methods given in surviving Jesus teachings except one powerful method given in Thomas Saying $22 (which didn’t survive until it was found hidden and buried 1600 years later – what I meant by “prohibited”), here:

        “… when you make eyes in place of an eye, a hand in place of a hand, a foot in place of a foot, an image in place of an image, then you will enter.”

        The method will bring you closer to this intended result also in same Thomas saying: When you make “the two into one, and when you make the inner like the outer and the outer like the inner….”

        This is a message similar to that taught by Buddhists: Bringing the waking and dreaming worlds together, or as in Buddhism, to quiet the mind so that the mind awakens.

        These elevated teachings are lost to orthodox Christianity.

        • Avatar
          godspell  November 24, 2017

          I think you’re splitting a pretty fine hair between ‘sins’ and ‘imperfections.’ It’s not that different. You also carry not only your own sins, but because of Karma, the sins of past lives.

          I think the great majority of devotees have no notion of this higher truth you speak of. It’s just the religion they follow, because they always have. And there have always been Christians who did seek a higher truth.

          It’s a lot less different than you want to believe. Or, for that matter, many devout Christians want to believe. At base, religions mainly say the same things differently.

          • Telling
            Telling  November 27, 2017


            The difference between sin and imperfection is “guilt”, and this translates to maliciousness and recklessness and lack of concern, as opposed to ignorance respectively. Guilt is prevalent in Christianity, but not so much with Buddhism, I think. That is, knowing what you’re doing is wrong, as opposed to not knowing.

  15. Avatar
    Smiling_Monk  November 21, 2017

    Dear Prof,

    I don’t think you ever commented on the document called The crucifixion, by an eye-witness; a letter, written seven years after the crucifixion ‘https://archive.org/details/crucifixionbyeye00richrich’. Could you throw some light on its origins?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 21, 2017

      It’s a modern forgery. I talk about it in my book Forged, final chapter.

      • Avatar
        PeteSammataro  November 22, 2017

        I read it… it’s kind of like something Dan Brown might write.

  16. Avatar
    obrienma  November 21, 2017


    Do Greek scholars agree with Jerome regarding the word’s dual meaning at that time, or is that Jerome’s own interpretation to explain Jesus’ brothers?

    “Jerome insisted that the Greek word for “brother” actually could and often did mean “cousin.” “

    • Bart
      Bart  November 21, 2017

      No, the word used ADELPHOS means brother; there was a different Greek word ANEPSIOS that meant cousin.

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  November 23, 2017

        Was there yet another word the gospel writers and Paul would have used for “kinsman/woman” generic?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 24, 2017

          No, ADELPHOI (the plural) could refer to “brothers” as either “male” persons or a combination of “male and female” figures. Anyone who wanted to refer to specifically “female” persons would use the feminine “ADELPHAI” There was no generic-specific term to be used.

          • Avatar
            SidDhartha1953  November 28, 2017

            I was thinking more of what a generic term for a relative (or specifically a cousin) would be. What would Jemes et al have been called if they were Jesus’ cousins?

          • Bart
            Bart  November 29, 2017

            The word for “cousin” is ANEPSOS.

  17. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  November 21, 2017

    I agree that my Catholic friends do not seem as disturbed, as my Protestant fundamentalist friends, by Gospel contradictions. One of my Catholic friends explained to me that this is because Catholics have three ways of knowing what they know, namely the Bible, the magisterium (the pope), and tradition and any two of the three can establish that something is true whereas Protestants rely entirely on the Bible. So, the Catholic faith is not as dependent, as the Protestant faith, on the Bible, and only the Bible, and, hence, is not as threatened as much by Gospel contradictions.

    • Avatar
      dragonfly  November 21, 2017

      How many ways does the Pope have?

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  November 22, 2017

        The Pope is said to be “infallible” when he’s speaking “ex cathedra” (meaning that he’s making a formal statement *as* Pope), on a matter of faith or morals, affecting the whole Church. So the Pope’s only way of “knowing what he knows,” other than the Bible and tradition, is the belief that he himself is, in those circumstances, divinely inspired to recognize some great truth.

    • Avatar
      godspell  November 22, 2017

      The Reformation put the bible in the hands of people who didn’t know much about it. It translated the bible into the vernacular, which was on the one hand a great thing (mass literacy was greatly accelerated by that), but on the other it meant that the many poorly educted people reading it tended to see the text as what they were reading themselves, and to reinterpret it in accordance with their own culture and experiences, which led to a lot of misunderstandings.

      If the bible is the source of all Christian authority, then he (or she) who can convince others that his or her interpretation is best has supreme authority over the convinced.

      A great temptation, and many have fallen.

  18. Avatar
    nbraith1975  November 21, 2017

    When a religion grounded in Judaism is founded on documents that have been corrupted both before and after they were cherry-picked by a bunch of self-appointed “church” leaders, (none of whom were Jewish mind you) you end up with over a thousand denominations and sects.

    These sects pick and choose biblical interpretations that best fit their particular doctrines in order to keep unity among the mind-numbed lemmings that sit in their pews and pay their salaries.

    The bottom-line is that if all biblical historical research stopped today, there is still more than enough evidence to prove that the god of the bible is an invention of bronze-age men and that Jesus was nothing more than a failed apocalyptic preacher.

    A good quote I came across recently:

    “If you start with the necessity of a human sacrifice to enable an omnipotent god to forgive his creation, it’s all downhill from there.”

    “The Triple Tragedy of a Human Sacrifice” By David Madison 11/10/2017


    • Avatar
      godspell  November 22, 2017

      If you take a jaundiced attitude towards any highly influential idea or group of ideas created by humans, it’s pretty easy to belittle and dismiss both those ideas and those who created and propagated them, but you are still living in a world they helped create, and it’s not just the things about it you don’t like they get some credit for.

      All ideas, religious or secular, change over time, and if you want to regard this as corruption, you can. But it’s going to happen regardless.

      Jesus failed on his own terms, sure, but so do all visionaries who arrive ahead of their time. His obscurity in life only makes the Triumph of Christianity more remarkable. (Hope you appreciate the plug, Bart)

  19. Avatar
    Wilusa  November 21, 2017

    Sort of OT, but suggested by Jerome’s negative attitude toward sex: I know Jerome came later. But did the *early* Christians advocate chastity because they didn’t want children to be born so near (as they thought) to the End Times?

    If they were anticipating a Judgment prior to the institution of the Kingdom, they may have thought only adults could be judged. No one would know how a child would ultimately have turned out! And that would be true whether their criterion for admission to the Kingdom was a morally good life or a belief in Jesus.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 21, 2017

      I’m going to have to post on the questoin: someone else asked something similar, and the answer is too long for a comment here.

  20. Avatar
    Wilusa  November 25, 2017

    Still thinking about that virgin birth…I remember having heard someone, many years ago, make this ridiculous claim. A very, very few people are born with some body parts of both sexes. (*That*, of course, is true. I think most of those who discuss it publicly choose to be called “Intersex.”) This proponent of Biblical truth was claiming that if Mary was that way, she could have impregnated *herself*. (Unwittingly?) A good, scientific explanation of her conceiving a child without having sex with another person! Even if the odds were millions-to-one against it.

    Critics immediately responded that an individual like that would almost certainly have too small and underdeveloped a uterus to permit a successful pregnancy. But the main objection, of course, is that the Gospel authors didn’t *want* the pregnancy to have a “natural explanation”: their whole *point* was that the birth was miraculous!

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