Now that Christmas is weeks past, I have a post on the birth of Jesus. It argues three basic points: 1) there are substantial differences between the narratives of Jesus’ birth and those of pagan births involving pagan deities that include but go beyond the virgin conception, 2) the authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke were aware of the pagan birth stories involving deities and sought to distinguish Jesus’ birth from them, and 3) the efforts of Matthew and Luke to distinguish Jesus’ birth from rival pagan accounts help explain why some early Christians did not highlight the virgin birth of Jesus in their preaching and writing.
The Absence of the Virgin Birth in Other Christian Writings
Half of the canonical gospels do not mention Jesus’ virgin birth. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke both narrate Jesus’ birth and the virgin conception, with some points of contact but divergent events and focus. As for the Gospel of John -- likely written decades after Matthew and Luke -- it is not surprising that it does not mention the virgin birth. As Darrell Bock notes, “John’s omission is the result of his presenting an even higher Christology at the start of his Gospel: the incarnation of the preexistent Word.” Luke (Baker), page 104. Jesus is not just the Son of God, he is the pre-existent Word of God who created the universe.
Bock also points out that Mark “ignores Jesus’ childhood entirely, so his omission may be explained simply as literary choice.” Ibid. This may also explain why Paul never mentions it explicitly in his letters and why it is not found in the early preaching recounted in Acts. Although I do not discount the viability of this point, there are other possible explanations. The virgin birth account may have created obstacles to successfully spreading the Christian message by inviting claims that Jesus was illegitimate or that the story was an imitation of miraculous birth stories involving pagan deities. The latter could be especially problematic among Jewish audiences; even those of a more Hellenist background.
How attractive or acceptable would these pagan legends have been to Greek-speaking Jewish Christians? Would they have wanted to fashion the conception of Jesus after them? Many of the legends involved gross or amoral sexual conduct on the part of the deity who was thought to have begotten the child; and Wisdom 14:24,26 and Rom 1:24 show how Greek-speaking Jews and Jewish Christians would react to such conduct.
Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, page 523.
Even with Hellenistic audiences the virgin birth account ran the risk of promoting misunderstanding. If they interpreted the birth of Jesus through the lens of the pagan stories about births involving deities, their impression of God would be greatly distorted. As discussed below, such stories depict vain gods driven by fleshly, weak human appetites who rape and deceive. If you start talking about a god who gets a virgin pregnant, you play into the worst stereotypes of pagan culture. This helps explains why the virgin birth, though obviously known to the early Christian fathers, was not as prominent as it is now. E. Earle Ellis explains the likely reason for the the absence of teachings on the virgin birth among other early Christian writers:
The teaching is absent in the earliest writers of the hellenistic Church (e.g., Paul and Mark) and seems to have no place in most of the earlier post-apostolic writings. This suggests that the virgin birth was much less important for the earliest Christians than for the later Church. It also suggests that it was not a tradition created by hellenistic Christianity to popularize Jesus as a new ‘god.’ It looks more like a tradition of the early Palestinian Church which was publicly avoided to prevent Jewish offence and ‘Greek’ misunderstanding of Jesus and his messiahship. It became important to publicize the tradition as a counter to tendencies that, in time, denied Jesus’ humanity (Docetists’) or his divine origin (‘Adoptionists’) or his legitimacy (Jewish polemic).
The Gospel of Luke, page 73.
In addition to the above downside, the upside of including stories of Mary’s miraculous conception may not have been as high as it initially appears. Although modern Christians tend to associate the idea of the virgin birth with Jesus’ status as messiah, it is unlikely that the earliest audience to the Christian message would have had the same expectation. As Raymond Brown concluded in his extensive work in this area, “we remain without real proof of the existence in Judaism of the idea of a virginal conception.” The Birth of the Messiah, page 524. Indeed, “it is doubtful that the idea of a virginal conception was part of Jewish messianic expectations in or before the era when the Gospels were written. . . ." B. Witherington, “The Birth of Jesus,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, page 70. As a result, “[t]hey expected messiah to be fully and only human.” Ben Witherington, Matthew, page 52. Accordingly, the virgin birth was not a necessary element to the Christian claims that Jesus was messiah (as the Gospel of Mark and Paul’s letters prove) but it could cause great offense or misunderstanding in the gospel's intended audience.
Pagan Births Caused by Pagan Gods
A long running dispute about Jesus’ miraculous birth is how it relates to pagan stories about the births of prominent mythical and historical figures with divine fathers. Sometimes these pagan myths are -- erroneously -- referred to as “virgin” births like that of Jesus. Prominent examples of these stories include Perseus, Hercules, Romulus & Remus, and Alexander the Great.
Perseus’ mother was locked away in a tower by her father to prevent her from bearing any children -- her offspring was fated to slay her father --, but Zeus was taken by her great beauty and infiltrated the tower as what the Roman poet Ovid described as “a shower of gold” into her lap and impregnated her. Metamorphoses, Bk. IV:604-662. According to Sophocles, the conception was the result of “a deposit of the seed of Zeus that had fallen in a golden rain.” Antigone, 944. Notably, the Greek historian Herodotus is aware of the account, but does not consider it historical, alluding to Perseus' parnetage but “leaving the god out of account.” The Histories, Bk. VI.53.
Zeus struck again with Hercules’ mother. Princess Alcmene was described as a woman of great beauty. She caught Zeus’ eye and he posed as her betrothed and impregnated her. Next on Zeus’ hit list was the beautiful and formidable Olympia, the mother of Alexander the Great. Zeus came to her in the form of a thunderbolt or a snake shortly before her marriage to King Philip.
It is fitting that our next example involves not Zeus, but Mars, the god of war. According to the Roman historian Livy, the mother of Romulus and Remus -- Rhea Silvia -- reportedly conceived after she was “raped” by Mars. Her uncle had forced her to become a “vestal virgin” to avoid retribution from any possible descendants for displacing her father. Hers was no virgin conception, however, because it resulted from sex with Mars. In a twist similar to Perseus, the twin offspring went on to found Rome and overthrow their uncle who had conspired to kill the mother and her children. Livy attributes these events to “fate” but -- like Herodotus -- expresses skepticism towards the story, noting alternative explanations, such as that Silvia made the story up. He also refers to aspects of the story as a “fable.” Livy, The Early History of Rome (Penguin), trn. by Aubrey de Selincourt, 1.6, pages 37-38.
All of these accounts include gods driven by lust to have sex with beautiful mortal women, usually against the woman’s will or by using deception. But there are more. Many more. A helpful summary of such incidents is provided by Ovid, as told by one of his characters -- Atachne -- as she depicts various rapes perpetrated by disguised pagan gods:
The Maeonian girl depicts Europa deceived by the form of the bull: you would have thought it a real bull and real waves. She is seen looking back to the shore she has left, and calling to her companions, displaying fear at the touch of the surging water, and drawing up her shrinking feet. Also Arachne showed Asterie, held by the eagle, struggling, and Leda lying beneath the swan’s wings. She added Jupiter who, hidden in the form of a satyr, filled Antiope, daughter of Nycteus with twin offspring; who, as Amphitryon, was charmed by you, Alcmena, of Tiryns; by Danaë, as a golden shower; by Aegina, daughter of Asopus, as a flame; by Mnemosyne, as a shepherd; by Proserpine, Ceres’s daughter, as a spotted snake.
She wove you, Neptune, also, changed to a fierce bull for Canace, Aeolus’s daughter. In Enipeus’s form you begot the Aloidae, and deceived Theophane as a ram. The golden-haired, gentlest, mother of the cornfields, knew you as a horse. The snake-haired mother of the winged horse, knew you as a winged bird. Melantho knew you as a dolphin. She gave all these their own aspects, and the aspects of the place. Here is Phoebus like a countryman, and she shows him now with the wings of a hawk, and now in a lion’s skin, and how as a shepherd he tricked Isse, Macareus’s daughter. She showed how Bacchus ensnared Erigone with delusive grapes, and how Saturn as the double of a horse begot Chiron. The outer edge of the web, surrounded by a narrow border, had flowers interwoven with entangled ivy.
Metamorphoses, Bk. VI:103-128.
In Part 2, I continue this topic with sections exploring in detail the ways in which the authors of Luke and Matthew wrote their respective accounts of the conception and birth of Jesus so as to distinguish it from the pagan birth accounts involving deities and avoid offense to Jewish readers and misunderstanding by Greek readers.
UPDATE: Part 2 is now available.