In the ancient Hellenistic world, based largely on Platonic or Aristotelian ideas, women were considered to be failed men. In that conception, the male sex was more divine, and closer to the divine ideal. To many of the ancients, women were born because something went wrong in the developmental process. They asserted that “successful” development resulted in a male baby, and imperfect development resulted in a female baby.
In reproduction, they assigned higher and lower roles to men and women. According to Greek thinking, the process of insemination created the “form” of a person, while the woman who received semen simply contributed the base matter of which people were made. Unsurprisingly, the Greeks thought semen was a very special thing, full of all sorts of wisdom and goodness derived from the “higher” type of humanity, the male.
In hearing the story of the Virgin Birth, I would guess that the average listener or reader in the ancient world would view the Annunciation along similar lines. Mary, the handmaiden of the Lord, contributed the base material of Jesus’ body, while God create the “form” of Jesus. In an ancient understanding, God substituted his act of incarnation for insemination.
The notion of Jesus’ humanity and divinity was a major point of controversy in the early church. From the late 1st century on, the heresy of docetism asserted that Jesus did not have an earthly body, and that he only appeared as human. In 1 John, we see the author countering this type of claim. Many Gnostics made similar claims. The corporeal body of Jesus was a doctrine of the earliest Christian creeds, including the pre-Pauline creed found in 1 Corinthians 15.
Modern biology seems to throw a curveball into the traditions of Jesus birth. Now, we know that human fertilization requires both a sperm and an egg, each contributing one of each pair of the 23 chromosomes that make up the human genome. With this modern scientific understanding of biology, it seems that the Church may need to reexamine its understanding of the Virgin Birth.
The notion that Jesus did not have two sets of chromosomes is not biologically plausible. No living person has half of each pair of chromosomes. People with irregular numbers of chromosomes experience profound developmental problems. Furthermore, for Jesus to be a male, he had to receive a Y chromosome from one of his parents, and Mary did not possess one.
These are the types of questions I think are reasonable to ask:
- Did Mary contribute an ovum (unfertilized egg) to the conception of Jesus?
- Did God implant a sperm in Mary or a fertilized conceptus (egg)?
The answers to these questions seem to directly bear on our understanding of Christology. Does that make sense?