Komodo Dragons and the Virgin Mary: a Belated Christmas Story
Komodo Dragons and the Virgin Mary: a Belated Christmas Story
It's a tad late for this, but the story only broke a few days before Christmas. The London Times ran with the headline, "Wise Men seek a virgin Mother." Another newspaper ran the headline, "Lizard's Immaculate Conception." The story was not about Mary and the baby Jesus born in a stable in Bethlehem, Judea; it was England! And not just one mother, but two: "Flora" in Chester, and "Sungai" in London. Nor was it the birth of one male offspring, but, in the case of Flora, seven, and in the case of Sungai, four. Both of the mothers are komodo dragons, the world's largest lizards and native to Indonesia. In both cases, the birth was asexual, or, to employ the jargon, a case of parthenogenesis.
Parthenogenesis or "virginal birth" is not an unknown event in the animal kingdom, though this is the first documented case for the komodo dragon. It is widely documented that over fifty species are capable of asexual reproduction.
Is this possible in humans? The recent fiasco over the Korean veterinarian scientist, Hwang Wu Suk, has muddied the waters. His claim regarding human cloning from a single cell proved a fraud, but the science involved a single embryonic stem cell line produced from thousands of human oocytes - the result of parthenogenesis. Parthenogenesis in humans has been difficult in the laboratory because human embryos (unlike amphibians and insects) depend on genes in the sperm for the development of the trophoblast, which becomes the placenta. Human embryonic parthenotes usually die after a few divisions, and do not form blastocysts.
The motivation for research into human parthenogenics is easy enough to discern: the production of stem cells which can be regarded as "non-human," (no male is involved in the process--a chauvinist judgment, to be sure) thus obviating the ethical dilemma of aborting human life. For Christian ethicists, the reasoning is entirely flawed. Such an ethic would justify the abortion of Jesus from the womb of Mary!
Whether the science of human parthenogenesis is viable under "laboratory" conditions remains to be seen. In theory, at least, there is little to suggest that this is impossible. What seems likely however, is that the result would be a female offspring, lacking the "Y" chromosome.
Skeptical scientists like to ask the question when confronting the Christian claim to the virginal birth of Jesus, where did the "Y" chromosome from? It assumes, of course, a non-Docetic view of Jesus' flesh. In humans, females have two X chromosomes and males one X and one Y chromosome. Komodo dragons and other species of the Varanus genus have W and Z chromosomes instead, and dissimilar chromosomes always produce a female. When parthenogenesis takes place, the egg originally carries just one chromosome, either W or Z, which is duplicated. This means that all offspring are male, and able then to breed with their mothers.
According to Matthew's Gospel, Joseph had no union with Mary 'until she gave birth to a son' (Matt 1:18, 25). What explanation, then, does Matthew offer for the pregnancy? This: 'what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit' (v.20). This angelic pronouncement was given to Joseph as he considered ending the relationship and all thoughts of future marriage. Based on the biblical testimony, the church has confessed: 'we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ ... begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer...' (Chalcedon, 451 AD).
Lest it be misunderstood, the birth of Jesus was an ordinary event; it was the conception that was extra-ordinary. Nor is the virgin birth meant to confess that Mary remained a virgin. The perpetual virginity of Mary was affirmed by the second century document, the Protoevangelium of James (c. 120-150), as well as many of the Church Fathers, including Athanasius, Jerome, Epiphanius and Ambrose (though not Tertullian). It was given official status in the Lateran Synod of 649 in Rome by Pope Martin I: "If anyone does not confess that the holy and ever-Virgin and immaculate Mary did not conceive without seed by the power of the Holy Spirit the very Word of God, give birth to Him without corruption, thereafter that very virginity remaining ever integral, let him be anathema." The reference to Jesus's "mother and brothers" (Luke 8:19; Matt. 12:46) has been variously interpreted: they were sons of Joseph by a previous marriage (Epiphanius), or cousins (Jerome). The most natural reading, despite the hesitancy of the Reformers at this point, must surely be that they were sons of Joseph and Mary, younger half-brothers of Jesus (the view taken by the fourth century author, Helvidius).
Theologians have fallen over themselves in the rush to explain away the doctrine of the virgin birth. Based, in part, on the correct observation that neither Matthew nor Luke (or for that matter, Paul) make any apologetic use of the doctrine, the suggestion was made that claims to a 'virgin birth' were made late in the first century to bolster the evidence for Jesus' deity. A virgin birth, after all, adds a layer of mystery to an otherwise bland story about a child born into an obscure family in Palestine.
Skeptics begin with the hypothesis that 'Miracles do not happen'. Think of Hume's adage: "only a miracle would make me believe in a miracle!" Having stated this premise, they must then offer some alternative explanation. Why did Bible writers such Matthew and Luke record the birth of a child to a virgin?
Some dismiss the story as an example of the church's confusion over the propriety of sex. inappropriate. Even the great Augustine flinched here, his doctrine of concupiscence revealing Manichean traits. Others complicate the issue by claiming that Mary herself was 'immaculately conceived'. This safeguards the sinlessness of Jesus, they argue -- the virgin birth means that none of Joseph's chromosomes were passed on to Jesus. But Mary's chromosomes were present. So Mary has to be sinless too! Others have gone on to insist that Mary remained a virgin for the rest of her life -- despite the fact that Bible records the fact that Jesus had siblings (Matt 12:46-48). Needless to say, there is nothing in the Bible to support any of these theories.
We are left, then, with the miraculous as an explanation of Jesus' human origin. At either end of Jesus' life stands a miracle! The virgin birth signals that Mary's child is unique in human history. No one else has been born this way, before or since. The 'scientific method' will be found wanting as a means to comprehend Jesus. There are aspects of his Person that transcend the limitations of human thought. He defies identification and classification. The power of God lies behind his human genesis.
The theistic evolutionist and Roman Catholic, Kenneth Miller, a cell biologist and skilled platform debater for Darwinism, writes in his book Finding Darwin's God that "a key doctrine in my own faith is that Jesus was born of a virgin, even though it makes no scientific sense-there is the matter of Jesus' Y-chromosome to account for." Phillip E. Johnson has pointed out the inconsistency of Miller "claiming to believe in an event while saying that it makes no scientific sense, especially since he is vigorous in judging all other claims of supernatural influence on the natural world by the standards of science":
Miracles, by definition, do not have to make scientific sense. They are specific acts of God, designed in most cases to get a message across. Their very rarity is what makes them remarkable.' I suspect that most of Miller's materialist colleagues will wonder how serious he can be in claiming to believe in an event while saying that it makes no scientific sense, especially since he is vigorous in judging all other claims of supernatural influence on the natural world by the standards of science. If he makes this one exception then why not others, and how does he decide where to draw the line? They may also wonder what Miller could possibly mean by his quest to `find Darwin's God,' when it is so widely known in the scholarly world (and even to Miller himself) that Darwin in his later years was an agnostic. (Philip E. Johnson, The Wedge of Truth: Splitting the Foundations of Naturalism, Intervarsity Press: Downers Grove IL., 2000, pp.90-91).
The virgin birth (like the empty tomb) solicits faith. It says: 'you must believe this even though it goes beyond anything you have ever witnessed in your life'. The virgin birth reminds us that salvation comes from outside of ourselves. Jesus came into the world to save sinners (1 Tim 1:15). No one within the family of mankind could be found to serve as an adequate Savior. This is a reflection on the extent of our fallen condition.
Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit 'overshadowed' Mary (Lk 1:35). The same word is used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament story of the exodus. There it describes the cloud of glory that descended on the Tabernacle, signifying the very presence of God among his people (cf. Exod 40:35).
This is the essence of the matter. Another name for Jesus is 'Immanuel', which means 'God with us'. Jesus Christ was God in human flesh. No wonder his birth was unique!
There is no escaping the supernatural in any "explanation" of the birth of Jesus. At some level, the naturalist explanation will fail and we are forced to adopt another world-view, a counter-cultural one that questions everything we hold dear. It will stand before us and ask us to submit. And if we fail, every edifice collapses. There is no half-way house. We are either on one side or the other. There is more at stake than the well-being of either Flora or Sungai!