Last week, the House of Representatives voted to expand the use of embryonic stem cells in medical research. House Republican leader Tom DeLay opposed the bill, saying that "an embryo is a person, a distinct internally directed, self-integrating human organism. We were all at one time embryos ourselves. So was Abraham. So was Muhammad. So was Jesus of Nazareth."

No argument, if we're talking about Abraham and Muhammad, who were always considered human men--period. But what about Jesus? If, as Christians traditionally believe, the Holy Spirit impregnated Mary, who subsequently gave birth to Jesus--was Jesus actually an embryo? The Bible is silent on the topic. We asked some of Beliefnet's columnists and writers to consider the question. Here are their replies.

Gregg Easterbrook:

Since Christ was given birth in the usual way as a normal child, it seems fitting to assume his fetal development also began in the usual way, including with an embryo stage. Some form of supernatural genetic engineering must have been involved if the "born of a virgin" prophecy from Isaiah is correctly understood and Jesus arrived on Earth via divine conception. If Jesus was divinely conceived, then his X chromosome came from Mary but his Y chromosome came from God. The Y chromosome, which determines maleness, can be inherited only through a baby's father; women do not have Y chromosomes. Some translators think the Isaiah prophecy should rendered "born of a young woman," in which case Jesus's conception could have been wholly natural. But whether the initial fusing of chromosomes that caused Christ to come into existence was wholly natural or divinely control, there's no reason not to think that Jesus went through the same embryonic stage everyone else does. That Jesus went through the same things everyone else does is part of the point!

If you assume Jesus started as an embryo just as all babies do, bear in mind, new research shows that 2 out of 3 fertilized embryos fail naturally. If the spark of human life is really struck at the moment of conception, then two-thirds of created humans never draw a breath; two-thirds of souls are never born into bodies.

That most embryos fail naturally at an early point in gestation makes me wonder if sacred life begins with the first onset of brain activity, which new research shows occurs toward the end of the second trimester. Cessation of brain activity is now often used to define the end of life; why shouldn't its onset define the beginning? A legal scheme based on this thinking would allow abortion early in pregnancy and ban it late.

Ben Witherington:

I would assume that it is possible Jesus was an embryo, being fully human..... though I suppose one would say she [Mary] might be the most unique example of in vitro fertilization.

John Dominic Crossan:

Jesus is totally human and, for a Christian believer, is also totally divine. Ditto for Caesar in that first-century world. It is a matter of choice by faith. "Human" is a substantial term--like myself saying (which I can) I am a man. "Divine" is a relational term--like myself saying (which I cannot) I am a father. For me, as a Christian, Jesus is BOTH utterly human and utterly divine. He is divine because he is, for me or any Christian, the fullest image and best revelation of the character of God. That is shown by his life, in his life, and after his life. Only then can it be retrojected into a conception-parable. And, by the way, I would presume that the most thorough fundamentalist, would presume that Jesus began as an embryo BUT from God's action in Mary rather than by Mary and Joseph together.

Darrell Bock:

Yes, an embryo in the womb at some point...yes, even though conceived by the Holy Spirit. Fully human, fully divine.

Michael Root:

If Jesus' humanity is full and uncompromised, one would think that he went through a normal development and thus was once an embryo. The church has assumed a full period of gestation, hence the dating of the Annuncation as March 25, a full nine months prior to Jesus' birth. A problem, of course, is that many of the traditional discussions of the incarnation assume pre-modern understandings of human conception. While operating with such pre-modern understandings, however, Aquinas (Summa Theologiae, Third Part, Question 31, Article 5) seems clearly to indicate that the conception of Christ in the womb of Mary includes the formation of a body that is itself simply natural (although produced supernatually). I see no reason to deny, and every reason to affirm, that Jesus was an embryo.

Charlotte Allen:

All human beings start out as embryos. Jesus was/is fully human as well as fully divine. Therefore, Jesus started out as an embryo. QED, no?

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