Joseph went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. Luke 2.5-6
REGISTRATION for non-Romans in the Roman Empire was concerned primarily with taxation rather than birth and identity. But, apart from that, some of the mysteries surrounding the birth of Jesus do have odd symmetries with complexities that surround birth registration today.
Various experts contributed to a recent symposium on birth registration in the context of IVF and surfrogacy. All were aware that, although the formal questions asked on birth registration forms differ little today from those that were first issued two centuries ago, actual practice is different.
Most significantly, two parents of the same sex can now be entered on a birth certificate. For example, two men whose sperm have been mixed together to enable an unnamed woman to conceive and give birth can now be recorded on the resulting child’s birth certificate. And two women, only one of whom is genetically related to the child, can both be recorded, with no mention of the male who provided the necessary sperm.
Elsewhere in the world there
are so-called three-parent children (with the third parent providing mitochondria): how have they been recorded?
FOR one of the lawyers who spoke at the symposium, there was no problem: “Birth records are simply administrative evidence of a child’s current legal parentage. They are not, in and of themselves, legal determination of parentage.” From this perspective, there is nothing new about putative fathers appearing on birth certificates when (with or without their knowledge) some other male provided the sperm. The Archbishop of Canterbury has just such a birth certificate. And adoptive parents have long been able to add their names to birth certificates.
Another lawyer, who was also a family expert, was more ambivalent: “Is it the registration of an event, a person, legal relationship, or a mixture of all three?” A social worker also took a wider view of birth registration beyond the narrowly legal: “Birth registration is an official record of our parentage. Or is it? Which ‘parents’ shall it include: those who contributed their genes to us, those who carried us in their wombs, or only those who are our legal parents?”
Significantly a donor-conceived person also contributed, and she asked: “What is a birth certificate for? Is it a record of a birth? An identity document? A legal statement of
biological parentage?” Asking the question in this way points beyond intention to practicalities that
many of us face at times, and their implications for family rights and entitlements, and for citizenship rights.
Because my father and paternal grandfather were born in Gibraltar, I, my wife, and my children and their spouses can all claim citizenship there. We now have full Gibraltar citizenship identity cards, which allow us to visit the monkeys at the top of the Rock without being charged (at least by the humans). Theoretically, the cards also allow us to travel around Europe without a passport (although I do not recommend this: even before Brexit, as few officials have ever heard of Gibraltar identity cards).
SOME New Testament scholars argue that there are hints in the Gospels about Jesus’s birth identity, especially in Mark 6.3: “‘Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence at him.” What is the “offence” here? That a local man is teaching in the synagogue at Nazareth? But the previous verse says only that they were “astounded” by his teaching, rather than offended.
Or is that he has demonstrated “deeds of power”, or that he claims to be a “prophet”? Possibly. But why did the offended people mention only his mother (and brothers and sisters), and not Joseph? Might it not be a question about his birth legitimacy that was causing such offence here? Local communities have long memories.
In addition, there is the well-known oddity of Matthew 1.16. Matthew goes to great lengths to trace the Davidic genealogy of Jesus through Joseph, rather than via Mary’s family tree, concluding: “. . . Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah”.
Matthew, of course, did believe that Mary was “with child from the Holy Spirit” (1.18), just as we affirm today in our Creeds. But his use of the word parthenos, or “virgin” — found in the later Greek version of Isaiah 7.14 rather than the Hebrew version’s “young woman” — has been debated by scholars since Irenaeus and Origen.
A GENERATION ago, some theologians speculated about the possibility of parthenogenesis as a naturally occurring phenomenon. Since asexual reproduction is possible in plants and single-cell creatures, could more advanced forms of animal life also reproduce asexually? Worms chopped in half were often mentioned at this point.
Eventually, it dawned on most of us that any examples of naturally occurring parthenogenesis were entirely irrelevant to the birth of Jesus, born spontaneously of Mary. He would have had to be female, since Mary had no Y chromosomes.
Fortunately the Creeds make no mention of chromosomes. I have always considered it anachronistic and impertinent to speculate about the origins of Jesus’s Y chromosomes. Theologians need to tread carefully here, in order to avoid an account of Jesus that presents him as not fully human. Today, it also seems anachronistic and impertinent to enquire about the origin of a donor-conceived person’s chromosomes or DNA, if he or she chooses not to enquire beyond the information given in the birth certificate.
Those people of Nazareth who were offended by Jesus obviously knew nothing about chromosomes or DNA, but their suspicions about his birth legitimacy (if that is what they were) seem equally impertinent.
BEYOND such impertinence, we might show compassion for those embarrassed about having non-standard birth certificates. And we might show understanding for those who love and care for children who are not genetically related to them, but whom they do wish publicly to affirm.
I have no idea how, or whether, this should involve a change in legislation, or what by-products such legislation might entail — although at least some consequences are already obvious. For example, the new practice of not naming sperm or gamete donors on birth certificates carries a risk, however small, of consanguinity. (That danger, of course, was there from the introduction of birth certificates, since some putative fathers named on them were not in fact the biological fathers.)
In addition, the 20th-century practice of anonymous sperm-donation carried a similar danger of consanguinity (today, at least, regulated sperm or gamete donation in the UK can no longer be anonymous, although even now parents are not legally obliged to tell their children that their conception depended on such a donation). Lawyers will doubtless be alert to other off-target consequences, relating perhaps to inheritance or political rights; so I will trespass no further in this area.
But we can, in my view, avoid theological impertinence by going no further than Matthew in affirming that Mary was indeed “with child from the Holy Spirit”. The doctrine of the Virgin Birth is surely an affirmation about God’s unique initiative in Jesus Christ, rather than a statement about the origin of Jesus’s Y chromosomes.
Canon Robin Gill is Editor of Theology and Emeritus Professor of Applied Theology at the University of Kent.