If you missed it in school, chromosomes are the very, very basic stuff of life. These microscopic chromosomes contain the instructions for proteins to multiply and combine in such ways as to make up your brain, your heart, everything in your body.
Humans have 46 paired chromosomes, 23 from your father and 23 from your mother, the former contained in the sperm and the latter in the mother’s egg. When the sperm penetrates the egg, the two sets combine to produce your own chromosome, which you pass on to your children. (Different species have different numbers: cows have 30 pairs, chicken 39, flies 4, and bananas have 22.)
This is not a theory, but a fact, and discovered only starting 1888, and developed into a rigorous science that for the first time in man’s 10,000 years of civilized existence explains in excruciating detail how life forms. No sage, no religious leader could have known about it, simply because the tool for discovering these – the microscope — was invented only in the 17th century.
In this season during which a huge part of the world, Christendom celebrates the birth of its central figure Jesus Christ, and claims that he was both man and God, and born from a virgin, it should be interesting to ask the question: Who provided the other half?
Mary provided half of Jesus’ 23 pairs of chromosomes; but who provided the other half? The Gospels say Joseph had not “known’ Mary, and that Mary remained a virgin, which means no male provided those 23 chromosomes.
If it was God, or the Holy Spirit, as Catholic dogma would have it, the question will be more difficult: how did God “inject” his chromosomes into Mary’s womb? Did these materialize inside her, beamed down into her ala Star Trek teleportation —as medieval painter Philippe de Champaigne in fact suggests in his masterpiece “The Annunciation” (image above). But if that were the case, then God must have those chromosomes in a human body somewhere in his Heaven, or he wouldn’t have anything to teleport.
There is just no escaping it. Humans and most creatures on earth (there are exotic species that have asexual reproduction though) have paired sets of chromosomes, one coming from the father and one from the mother.
To say that Jesus was conceived and became a genuine human with only one set of 23 chromosomes, from Mary, without the other 23 chromosomes contributed by a father would be as ridiculous as claiming some human did not have a heart inside his chest, nor a brain inside his head. If he didn’t have the full pair of 23 chromosomes, the very definition of a man, he couldn’t have been human, but a creature like Superman from Krypton or a Na’avi from Pandora.
Or is the conundrum simply because humanity, when the Gospels were written and even up the 17th century, had different, even confused notions of sexual reproduction?
That’s actually the topic of an article by Andrew Lincoln “How babies were made in Jesus’ Time” in the Nov.-Dec 2014 issue of my favorite magazine. Biblical Archaeology Review. Lincoln is current Professor of New Testament Studies in the University of Gloucestershire.
Even before genetics and modern biology, most cultures, obviously from experience, indeed thought that sexual intercourse by which the liquid released by the male organ in orgasm called semen and impregnated inside the female’s sexual organ “somehow” created the fetus that would grow into a human being.
But in contrast to modern biology, the ancients did not see this as the male’s sperm uniting with the female egg, to create a unity containing the “essences” of both parents. Rather, the process was thought to be something like a seed planted on a pot which would grow into a plant or a tree. The male provided the seed while the female the matter for life, thus the term “semen” comes from the Latin word seed.
But in the patriarchal societies of most cultures, especially in the Middle East and then Europe, the male seed was raised to a higher pedestal, that it was really the “life force,” with the female’s fluids in her womb providing the gross matter for sustaining that life force.
The great philosopher, St. Thomas Aquinas in that pillar of Catholic dogma Summa Theologia summarized humanity’s notions of human reproduction from classical antiquity until the start of the scientific age: “The female supplies the matter, while the male is the active principle of generation.”
The notion had a practical purpose for the ruling classes in antiquity, as kings and heroes would claim that their fathers were deities, therefore they had the right to rule. Theseus, the first king of Athens, had Poseidon as his father. Romulus the legendary founder of Rome had Mars. One of the towering figures of antiquity, Alexander the Great, claimed his father was the Big Boss of gods, Zeus. The Roman emperors claimed they were descended from gods, with Julius Caesar calling himself Jupiter Julius.
The Biblical Archaeology article even claims that Alexander’s case—having two “fathers” might have been the template for Jesus’ claims of divinity. Alexander thwarted the many claimants the throne to become Macedonian king as he was son of Philip, and therefore the legal successor. Yet as he conquered the great empires of that period, he claimed that he was the son of Zeus.
Similarly, the Gospel writers claimed Jesus was the Messiah, or savior of the Jewish nation long prophesized, as he was as well, at least technically, the son of Joseph, whose lineage the Old and the New Testaments traced to King David. But he is also the Son of God, so that he will save all of humanity.
“Evidently it was not unusual for ancient readers to entertain simultaneously two different stories about the origins of a great figure,” the article pointed out. “The other, suitable in the light of his later heroic achievements, involve a miraculous conception and envisaged him as a son of the gods.”
It is easy to understand how the ancients including those during Biblical times thought how humans are created since even in this modern era, children have no notion that their parents must have sexual intercourse as the first step to create babies. Most children simply believe that “love” between their parents in some way make babies – that is, just as the Holy Spirit simply hovered over Mary to produce Jesus.
Indeed even uneducated people in our country still have confused notions of sexual reproduction. A television episode last year by Korina Sanchez featured a teen-aged lady in the boondocks of Cebu province who claimed some troll (“dwende’) in their backyard fathered the baby she carried in her womb, simply by staring at her as he sat atop his mound.
There are several theses about who Jesus’ real biological father was, as the Gospels were quite categorical that it wasn’t Joseph. But that for another column.