It looks certain to me that this translation of the Greek is simply wrong: the Greek says conceived EK the Holy Spirit, a preposition which means from, out of, rather than by. Modern English Catholic and Methodist translations have “in the power of the Holy Spirit” which seems right. After all the child is conceived BY the woman even in ancient physiology. The angel in Luke chapter 1 says to Mary, “you will conceive in your womb.” I’m not sure what is meant by “conceived by the Holy Spirit.”
It has been pointed out that in Jewish Rabbinical thinking all conception involves the creative spirit as well as a man and a woman. But it appears that the Gospels of Luke and Matthew leave out the man in the case of Jesus, Matthew explicitly, Luke by implication, although some scholars argue that as Luke does not explicitly rule out sex between Mary and Joseph, he leaves the possibility open. I am happy to think of the Holy Spirit as involved in the conception of Jesus, working through the ordinary processes of genetic inheritance. I do not see any need for Jesus’ conception to be different from mine. Indeed, how can anyone ask me to be like Jesus if he had the advantage of a supernatural birth? But the declaration that Jesus’ conception is from the Holy Spirit, reminds me that the creator God is ever active in her creation.
Within Greek culture virgin birth is a mythological motif asserted of persons with extraordinary abilities. It does not exist in Jewish culture, although extraordinary persons like Samuel are born from previously childless women. In Greek religion sex between Gods and mortals is common enough, but would have seemed a blasphemy to those who believed in Yahweh. So the story of Jesus’ birth has to be handled with great delicacy by Matthew and Luke, so that God is not depicted as playing the part of the missing male. Mark,John and Paul show no acquaintance with stories of a miraculous birth.
It is possible that the purpose of the virgin birth motif, is less positive than negative, emphasising that Jesus was not a product of human reproduction and patriarchy, pointing towards his own treatment of women as equal with men. As part of a story it may make beautiful sense, but as a creedal fact it must be resisted. The humanity of Jesus is too important to be jeopardised by theological poetry, however lovely. Either Jesus is a product of evolution, human sex, conception and birth or he’s as mythological as Aeneas whose daddy made love with Venus. My creed would mention Mary and Joseph as the parents of Jesus.
This would clear away one of the foundations of the pernicious Roman Catholic teaching about sexuality, and its nonsense about “purity.”
Still, the 11th century mosaic of the Virgin in Santa Maria Asunta on Torcello island, is for me an astonishing image of the femininity of God.