Much of my reading recently has been on the issue of the virginal conception of Jesus. One of the most intriguing things I’ve read comes from Raymond Brown. His book The Birth of the Messiah is must reading for anyone interested in the subject. In an article he originally wrote for Theological Studies (#33 – 1972; 3-34) he argued that the parallels between the annunciations of John the Baptist and Jesus offer an argument for the virginal conception of Jesus. This argument in fact convinced Joseph Fitzmeyer to change his mind and return to the traditional view that Luke did believe in a virginal conception. The argument can now be found in The Birth of the Messiah. (Pages 300-01 in the Doubleday edition.)
Most scholars recognize the parallels between the two accounts and Brown says “it is generally agreed that Luke constructed this parallelism between the two annunciations to underline the superiority of Jesus over JBap [John the Baptist].” (361 Page citations are from the journal article.) The parallels are:
1) John the Baptist is “great before the Lord” (1:15) while Jesus is “great” without qualification (1:32).
2) While John the Baptist is “filled with a holy spirit even from his mother’s womb” (1:15), Jesus’ very conception involves God’s holy spirit coming upon Mary
3) While John the Baptist will “make ready for the Lord a prepared people” (1:17), Jesus will actually rule over the house of Jacob/Israel and possess an eternal kingdom (1:33).
Now Brown points to a critical point in the parallelism.
“Now what kind of conception of Jesus is indicated by this pattern of a parallelism indicating superiority? The manner of conception of JBap is extraordinary: the power of God is necessary to overcome both the barrenness of Elizabeth and the advanced age of the two parents. To have a natural conception of Jesus would reverse the pattern of his superiority, since it would mean that there was nothing extraordinary about the manner of his conception. But a virginal conception of Jesus would fit the pattern perfectly, for then the power of God would overcome not simply the incapacity of the two parents but the complete absence of a human father.” (361)
Jane Schaberg, in her book The Illegitimacy of Jesus: A Feminist Theological Interpretation of the Infancy Narratives, says Brown is correct about the parallel but wrong about the content of the parallel. She argues that what is “‘greater’ in the case of Jesus is not the miraculous manner of his conception, but God’s overcoming of the deeper humiliation.” (29, As cited in David Landry’s article “Narrative Logic in the Annunciation to Mary (Luke 1:26-38). This supports her theory that Mary was not a virgin but was probably raped or seduced by someone other than Joseph. For a good summary of her position and a response see the article by Landry which you can find here.
At the end of the day I think Brown’s view is correct.