Science Ch.31 - Can a Virgin Birth Produce a Real Man?

Spontaneous virgin birth is scientifically very unlikely – although not impossible. Theologically it is more problematic: How can Jesus be a natural man if he is born by unnatural means? One proposal helps to solve both sets of difficulties.

The first scientifically recorded human virgin birth almost happened in 2004, though the Korean team led by Hwang Woo-Suk didn’t let it come to term. However, he didn’t publicize this fact because he was trying to fraudulently win the race to produce the first stem cells from a cloned human embryo. To do this, he had to create a clone, but he found it simpler to perform the first human parthenogenesis (“virgin birth”). He stimulated an egg to divide and start growing by itself – and it worked. By the time his fraud was uncovered, another team had done what he’d set out to do. He was publicly shamed for claiming what he hadn’t achieved. However, what he had achieved was successfully initiating a “virgin birth.”1 Growing this kind of human life beyond a few days is ethically forbidden throughout the world, but we now know that it may not be too difficult.

       Parthenogenesis – the birth of an animal without involving a father – is a normal form of reproduction in some animals such as goblin spiders, the New Zealand mud snail, freshwater guppies, whiptail lizards, and the Komodo dragon. It also occurs in domesticated turkeys, where live chicks are occasionally hatched in an all-female population. It may also happen among wild turkeys, but this is difficult to demonstrate without very intensive observation – a limitation that also applies to other species – so it may be more common than we know. No natural parthenogenesis has been observed among mammals, although it has been induced in rabbits, mice, and monkeys. This rarely produces live births, although some academics have suggested that parthenogenesis may have occasionally succeeded naturally even among humans.2

       So, from a scientific point of view, a virgin birth is not impossible – merely extremely unlikely – and God could presumably perform the minor manipulations necessary to make a parthenogenetic fetus develop correctly. Normally, one would expect this to result in a female baby, though a male is a statistical possibility – as discussed below. The probability of this happening by accident is so small that we wouldn’t expect it at any point in human history, let alone at the precise moment when the Messiah was due to be born or to parents who were anticipating it. It is not something we could envisage happening without divine intervention – which is what makes it a miracle. But equally, it would not break any scientifically discovered laws of what is possible.

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Fully human

The theological problem is potentially a much greater issue than any scientific improbabilities. The difficulty is that a virgin birth separates Jesus from “normal” humanity, making him different from everyone else. This is an issue because theologians recognized from a very early date that the incarnation of Jesus as a real human was a key factor in salvation. That is, in order to save humans, Jesus had to become a human – a real human.

       Irenaeus first enunciated this in the second century AD when some people said that Jesus had a divine mind but not a fully human one. He argued against this, saying that Jesus must have had a human mind; otherwise our minds wouldn’t be saved along with the rest of us. He said, “To destroy sin, and redeem man … He should Himself be made that very same thing which he was, that is, man.”3 Ephrem the Syrian echoed this theme in the fourth century, saying, “He descended and became one of us that we might become heavenly.”4 This understanding was encapsulated most memorably by Gregory of Nazianzus, also in the fourth century, who summarized it in this way: “That which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved.”5 In other words, Jesus had to be incarnated with all the aspects of a full human in order that every part of us could be saved.

       Irenaeus didn’t consider Jesus’ virgin birth to be problematic because he felt that as long as Jesus faced all the same temptations we do, then he represented all of humanity.6 However, his special form of birth is clearly something that sets Jesus apart. More recent theologians have pointed out that Jesus didn’t share some important aspects of humanity and therefore he might be said to not understand or represent them – including being female and being disabled.7

       I don’t think that Jesus could realistically be expected to represent every strata and state of humanity. However, he shared an amazingly wide gamut of our human existence. Jesus suffered poverty, persecution, and, perhaps, racial profiling at the hands of the Romans. He experienced physical labor, emotional and physical pain, and torture. It is surely unreasonable to suggest that he didn’t represent everyone because he wasn’t both male and female, or that he had to experience every type of human condition, such as paralysis, blindness, or mental disability. He could still represent all of humanity by being fully human. Having said that, one way in which God could have caused the virgin birth may actually make Jesus even more representative of all humans – as we will see below.

XX men

One characteristic of parthenogenesis is that it normally results in the birth of females. This is because females have two X chromosomes, while males have an X and a Y. So an egg will always have an X chromosome, while sperms can either contain an X or a Y chromosome. Therefore, if a female egg is stimulated to form an embryo by parthenogenesis, the embryo will only have X chromosomes because there is no Y available without a sperm. This means that all parthenogenesis should result in females – as indeed normally happens.

       However, there is a condition where someone with XX chromosomes is actually born a male. This happens in about one in twenty thousand male births – which means that about eight thousand men living in the US today have XX chromosomes, like women do. We don’t hear much about this because they are unlikely to tell their friends and, actually, they may not even know about it themselves because they often look identical to other men. Some are born with sexual ambiguity, so that their condition is diagnosed at birth, but it may not be discovered until later, during tests for other things such as abnormal development or infertility.8

       Some, however are never diagnosed, because they may have normal levels of testosterone so that they look and feel like ordinary men. The XX-male syndrome usually results by the process of gene “crossover” – that is, the swapping of the testosterone gene SRY, which is on the Y chromosome, with a very similar gene that is on the X chromosome, during the production of sperm. In 10 percent of cases, however, it occurs by the mutation of that gene which is already on the X chromosome in the sperm or egg, into the form of male SRY. The International Olympic Committee is aware of this problem, so they now define males by the amount of testosterone produced rather than relying on X and Y chromosomes.9

       You have probably guessed where this is going: the simplest way that God could produce a male offspring by parthenogenesis was by creating an XX-male. This would never happen by itself because the improbabilities are just too extraordinary. Parthenogenic birth has a vanishingly small probability of occurring among humans, and the extra improbability that mutations would cause this XX-male syndrome makes it even less likely. In fact, we should conclude that it would never happen – except by a miracle.

       But why, in any case, would God use this kind of mechanism based on normal human genetics? He could simply give Mary a fertilized egg containing DNA with any pattern of his choosing. In this way, Jesus could have been born looking like the blue-eyed Scandinavian envisioned in some modern art, or with the chiseled Roman bone structure depicted by early Christian artists. But as the early theologians pointed out, this would mean that Jesus was not really related to humanity. The whole point of being born from Mary was that he inherited the full human condition – including all our temptations and imperfections – as well as the Jewish royal genetic line.

God uses his creation

The other reason I think God didn’t use a more interventionist approach is that (as I have pointed out throughout this book) he prefers using his own creation to carry out his purposes. After all, that’s why he created it. If, by simple adjustments, he can use the processes he has already created, we should expect that he would do so. And, like any modern engineer or programmer, we’d also expect him to make the bare minimum number of changes, so that his original creation was preserved as much as possible.

       This is, of course, only a conjecture. But if Jesus’ parthenogenesis did indeed produce an XX-male, this would have some profound theological consequences. Externally, it is likely that he would show no discernible difference from an XY-male. However, as an XX-male he could, arguably, be said to symbolically represent females as well as males. And, in a representative way, he would have a link with those who are “different” from the majority, like those with a multitude of different traits that result in them being marginalized, or feel isolated by knowing they aren’t like others.

       In ancient Israel, if this condition had been known, he would have been excluded from the Temple as someone of indeterminate gender.10 This could almost be regarded as a symbolic disability. Theologically, it means that the incarnation involved sharing one of those many minority traits that a large number of people are born with. When they wonder “Why me?” the knowledge that Jesus also had a genetic trait that made him different from the majority, may help to answer that question. It certainly helps to ground the incarnation more firmly into the mess and reality of human experience.

       So science and theology may end up helping each other. The biological sciences have now progressed to a stage where we can induce human parthenogenesis; we know the kinds of processes that would be needed to make this viable and how to produce a male. However, it is so unlikely to occur by natural processes that we would have to call it a miracle if it did – and especially if it were predicted before it happened.

       If Jesus’ virgin birth did indeed happen in the way described here, it would help us understand the magnitude of God’s love for us by showing us his involvement in humanity in such a real way. And it may be particularly helpful for those who feel marginalized because they are different, and those who feel they have the wrong gender or simply aren’t sure what their gender is.

       When I first realized that this was a possible conclusion about the virgin birth, it felt wrong to me, as it may feel to you now. Thinking about it, I realized that it felt wrong because I expected Jesus to be utterly normal. This shows that I share humanity’s prejudice against anyone who is slightly different. Accepting incarnation through virgin birth is yet another way that Jesus humbled himself to become fully part of the human condition.


• Theologically speaking, Jesus had to be fully human in order to represent and save the whole human condition.
• Scientifically speaking, parthenogenesis (virgin birth) is very unlikely but not impossible.
• A parthenogenic baby will always have two X chromosomes, but XX males can be born who are indistinguishable from XY males.
• Proposal: Jesus could have been born by a fully human parthenogenic process as an XX male. This would make him even more representative of humanity, including (to some extent) females and those born different in various ways.

1^ See Christopher Williams, “Stem Cell Fraudster Made ‘Virgin Birth’ Breakthrough,” The Register, August 3, 2007 (
2^ See Wikipedia, “Parthenogenesis” (, and Gabriel Jose de Carlia and Tiago Campos Pereira, “On Human Parthenogenesis,” Medical Hypotheses 106 (September 2017): 57-60 (
3^ Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.18.7 (
4^ Ephrem the Syrian, Hymns on Nativity 3:16, cited in Jung Kim, “Catechesis and Mystagogy in St. Ephrem the Syrian” (ThD diss., Boston University, 2013), 211 (
5^ Gregory Nazianzen, “To Cledonius the Priest against Apollinarius,” Epistle 101 (
6^ Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.19.3 (
7^ For an erudite and brief exploration, see Maria Gwyn McDowell, “Choose, Francis: Incarnation or Imago Dei?,” Women in Theology, May 14, 2016 (
8^ See Wikipedia, “XX Male Syndrome” (
9^ See Wikipedia, “Sex Verification in Sports” (
10^ The rabbinic interpretation of Deut 23:1. See Tosefta Yebamot 10.2 and Mishnah Yebamot 8.2 ( and

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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