Born of a Virgin

I cannot be the first person to think of this. But when I mention it, people are taken aback, as if it were the first time they’ve thought of it. So it probably bears asking this of those wiser than I am in the ways of language and history.

We have the miracle of the Virgin Birth of Jesus, some 2000-ish years ago. This is a central tenet of faith for Christians, and a lot of people have been tortured and killed for questioning it — or at least, they would have been tortured and killed for questioning it, had they dared do so. It’s still grounds for expulsion from most Christian congregations to deny the Virgin Birth.

However, our modern world has a much stranger medical condition at birth than the virginity of the mother, and the condition is relatively common.

These are infants who are born with silver spoons in their mouths.

We have a number of other puzzling modern medical conditions that surround us constantly. We have the “swelled head,” sometimes referred to as the “head too big for a hat,” that comes of an excessive sense of self-importance. It’s an age-related ailment, since sassy youngsters swell in the buttocks rather than the head and become “too big for their britches.” Those we truly respect exhibit an inexplicable expansion of the feet, making it hard for any of the rest of us to “fill their shoes.” And of course, we have the very common, if bizarre, spinal flexibility that allows someone to have his “head up his ass.”

These strange circumstances vary by geographic region as well. I understand that in Colombia, there are people who “piss perfume” (orinar parfume). In Germany, there are people with birds in their head (vögel im kopf).

I don’t want to belabor the point, though I find it entertaining to envision each of these as a literal reality. The point is that all of these are idioms. Figures of speech.

We know that idioms, hyperbole, and metaphor are not modern inventions. In fact, we find the virgin-born Jesus, in the Gospels, speaking of passing camels through the eye of a needle, or pulling a plank or a log from a neighbor’s eye.

It also seems that most ancient gods had miraculous births, many of them being born of a virgin (and many with far stranger origins.) But this was not restricted to gods — a fair number of civic figures around Year One CE were also “born of a virgin,” including the very Emperor Augustus mentioned in the Gospel of Luke. Virgin birth was pretty common in those days, it would seem.

So my question to those wiser than I am in the ways of history and language: was there, in fact, a common idiom within the Roman Empire around Year One that would translate literally as “born of a virgin?” If so, how was it used? What did it really mean?

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