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Miraculous (Not Virgin) Births in Ancient Pagan Texts

In my previous post I pointed out that there do not appear to be any instances in the other religions of antiquity of a virgin birth – where a woman gives birth without having sex.   In this post I’ll lay out the more typical view of how a “son of God” came into the world.  It very much does involve sex.   Most of the post will deal with one (very funn) story in particular which is emblematic of the rest.    For this post I will quote a section from my recent book, How Jesus Became God.

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 Even though Apollonius of Tyana was understood to be a pre-existent god come in the flesh, that is not the normal Greek or Roman way of understanding how a divine human could be born of a mortal.  By far the more common view was that a divine being comes into the world – not having existed prior to birth – because a god has had sex with a human, and the offspring then is in some sense divine.  In Greek myths it is most frequently Zeus who engages in these morally dubious activities, coming down from heaven when he sees an attractive woman that he has to have, leading to a rather exotic sexual encounter and a highly unusual pregnancy.  But tales of Zeus and his mortal lovers were not simply the matter of entertaining mythology.  Sometimes such tales were told of actual historical figures, such as Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE).

According to his later biographer, the Greek scholar Plutarch, whose book on famous Greek and Roman men provides us with biographies of many of the greatest figures of both Greece and Rome, Alexander’s birth was sometimes believed to have been altogether miraculous.  Many people believed that Alexander was one of Zeus’s offspring.  Alexander’s actual father was the famous and powerful Philip, king of Macedonia, who had fallen in love with a woman named Olympias.   According to Plutarch, the night before the two were to consummate their marriage, Olympias dreamed that a thunderbolt came down from heaven and entered into her.   Presumably this was Zeus doing his magic.  In any event, Philip apparently looked in on his wife that night and saw a serpent engaged in conjugal embrace with her.   As Plutarch indicates, and as one might understand, this sight very much cooled Philip’s passion for his bride.   In ancient times Zeus was often represented in the form of a snake.  And so, for those who believed this tale, the child – Alexander – was no mere mortal.  He was literally the son of a god.

In mythology we have even more striking accounts of Zeus, or his Roman counterpart Jupiter, engaging in such nocturnal activities.  No story is more intriguing than the tale of the birth of Hercules.

There are several forms of the tale in antiquity.  But perhaps the most memorable is the hilarious recounting…

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Roman Religion as the Context for Christianity
Widespread Claims of Pagan Virgin Births

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Comments

    • Bart
      Bart  December 31, 2014

      I’m a big believer in consent.

      Luke’s account does not appear to be a rape, since Mary willingly agrees.

      • godspell  May 13, 2015

        If, as Celsus claimed, Jesus was the child of a Roman soldier, that could well have been non-consensual–in fact, by modern standards, Mary would have been considered too young to give consent–that would also be true if she had consensual intercourse with Joseph during their betrothal. And of course we can speculate from now until the Second Coming, and never get anywhere. I assume there was intercourse, because virgins don’t have babies. And if Jesus had claimed to be the son of a virgin, or was believed to have been one at the time of his death, that seems like something Paul and the author of Mark would have mentioned.

      • Theonedue  December 22, 2015

        Ok.

  1. LWH  December 30, 2014

    Your point that that there do not appear to be any instances in the other religions of antiquity of a virgin birth and that many people have claimed the opposite is born out by a tract from the FFRF (which I generally support), written by Kenneth F. Taubert, Sr. The tract, called a non-tract by FFRF, includes the following examples of gods claimed to be born of a virgin: Mithra, Attis, Buddha, Krishna, Quexalcote, Horus, Adonis, Quirinus, and Indra.

    Can you comment on any of these?

  2. Tnewby4444  December 30, 2014

    I think we tend to over think it. To paraphrase Thomas Paine….”His (Jesus) historians, having brought him out of the world in a supernatural manner, were obliged to bring him in to the world in the same manner, or the first part falls apart”. I think the reason for the advent of the the Virgin Birth narrative is that simple.

  3. Wilusa  December 30, 2014

    Might there be *some* suggestion, in Luke, of an actual mating? The bit about the Holy Spirit “overshadowing” the woman? I can’t help imagining a “shadow” actually *mounting* her. More tasteful than a “serpent,” but still a presence that wouldn’t normally have been there…

    Separate topic: Isn’t there a disconnect between saying the early Christians came up with a virgin birth story because Jesus’s birth really had been illegitimate, and that they came up with it because they wanted him, in the only way their traditions would permit, to be truly the Son of God? Which motive do you think came first, in the oral traditions that influenced the Gospels?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 31, 2014

      Yes, the overshadowing does sound a bit physical, I agree. But for Luke, evidently, there was no physical penetration.

      • bAnn  March 1, 2015

        In my own theology, I have imagined that Mary was impregnated by someone as she went to visit her kinsman, Elizabeth, on a prior visit, or that she was traveling alone on another occasion. She didn’t object in that she was naïve and he had a good line about being from God. I would imagine she was an impressionable young woman. I think she fully believed that he was from God. I think she no doubt passed this information on to her son. How would you feel about yourself if you were told such? I think it influenced him greatly.

        • godspell  May 14, 2015

          The problem with that is that there’s no reason to believe that story about Mary visiting a cousin who happened to be pregnant with a baby who became John the Baptist. That’s only in Luke, and it’s clearly part of a trend of Christians trying to absorb the Cult of John–it was a problem that in Mark, Jesus went to John to be baptized. People were wondering how the Messiah and Son of God would need to be baptized by a mere mortal, and why Jesus would say “No man born of woman is greater than John.”

          So in the subsequent gospels, you see a very determined attempt to say “Yes, John was very great, but clearly subordinate to Jesus, and clearly John was not the Messiah but was simply there to proclaim Jesus as Messiah.” It seems evident that many people believed John had been the true Messiah, not Jesus.

          I wouldn’t call it my personal theology, but here’s what I like to think happened–Joseph and Mary were betrothed. Joseph was still a young virile man, but much older than Mary (say late 20’s/early 30’s) and it was going to be a fairly long betrothal, because she was still a bit young to be married, even by the fairly lax standards of the time. Betrothal was a very serious thing in that culture–it was not the same thing as being married, but you have to believe many betrothed couples jumped the gun, so to speak. Joseph jumped the gun, and as the Irish like to say, his foot slipped.

          She got pregnant, and it was a problem. Because they weren’t technically supposed to behave like man and wife before the wedding. He couldn’t very well call off the marriage, because she was carrying his child, but it wasn’t socially acceptable for them to admit what really happened, so they talked around it. We know that one or both sides of the family must have had a tendency towards extreme religiosity, because Jesus’ siblings were very involved in the early Jesus cult– his brother James was eventually murdered for his role in it. So probably there was some attempt to say God had blessed their union early–not intending to claim a virgin birth, just looking for a way to excuse what was an understandable lapse of proper moral behavior (it wouldn’t be too hard to find modern examples of this among some modern Christians, I bet).

          So it was a minor scandal, mainly hushed up, and then all these years later, people show up in Nazareth, asking around, and they got a garbled account from people who had heard it from somebody else. And this became the story of the Virgin Birth.

          Could be total nonsense, but it’s the only explanation I can think of. If Mary had actually gotten pregnant by somebody else, it’s very hard to see how Joseph would have married her. And the same gospels that tell us Mary got pregnant by the Holy Spirit tell us that Jesus was descended from David through Joseph. I can easily believe Joseph’s family might have had some belief they were descendants of David, but it makes no sense to say Jesus was descended from David through if it wasn’t well known that Joseph was his biological father.

  4. smackemyackem  December 30, 2014

    Maybe you will address this in a later post but if not… Are there any examples from ancient myths of a god suffering / dying to bring salvation to the world?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 31, 2014

      Not exactly the way the Christians worked it out, although there are some instances of one person suffering in the place of someone else so that they would be ‘saved’ from suffering or death.

  5. toejam  December 31, 2014

    Carlton University NT professor Zeba Crook said in an article recently: “Questing for the historical Jesus can no longer be done because we do not have the means for distinguishing between reliable and unreliable memory, and because the traditional criteria, relied upon for so long, are now bankrupt” (http://www.hts.org.za/index.php/HTS/article/view/2716/5202)

    Crook of course isn’t a mythicist or even an a-historicist. He still believes a historical Jesus existed. He even debated Richard Carrier on the issue in favor of historicism. But it seems he’s now another scholar who has thrown up his hands in defeat, accepting that we can’t really “know” anything significant about the historical Jesus.

    Do you feel this is a growing tendency within scholarly ranks? Are more and more doubting our ability to know about Jesus? Sometimes I question whether much, if any, progress has been made since David Strauss took the gospels through the cleaners.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 31, 2014

      There is a growing dissatisfaction with the criteria used to reconstruct the life of the historical Jesus, but I personally think most of the dissatisfaction is seriously misplaced. Of course it’s quite easy to be skeptical about everything and to say that NOTHING in the past can be “proven.” That strikes me as a very dangerous position.

    • Jonathan_So
      Jonathan_So  December 31, 2014

      I have to agree with Prof. Ehrman here, the whole argument of that we cannot truly “know” or “prove” the historicity of things is dangerous. It is a slippery slope. Without going on too great a tangent, I’ll try to provide an example.
      Post-modernist approach all to often can be used to dismiss a source in favor of shoddy revisionist narratives. While any rational historian or scholar who works with older texts is quite aware of and has often been taught of the influences which affected translation,archaeology or narrative (“history is written by the victors”), revisionist movements at times take Post-Modernism and run with it to an extreme. In the worst case we end up with examples such as “Black Athena” being taught as curricula considered ‘just as valid’ similar to how in some places Intelligent Design is taught as an “alternative”.

  6. Sidmartin  December 31, 2014

    Perseus was conceived when Zeus transformed himself into a shower of gold and impregnated Danae. Granted, the shower of gold was thought to have entered her womb so there was a penetration of sorts but certainly not intercourse in the ordinary sense. Whether she lost her virginity is a moot point. Not exactly “incarnate by the Holy Spirit” but not a roll in the hay, either.

    • godspell  May 16, 2015

      But it’s Zeus transforming himself–there’s no proxy, like The Holy Spirit, and the sensuality of the language used to tell that story is obvious. “Golden Shower”–seriously, that’s the stuff of porn. The conception of Jesus is, by contract, asexual–and that was taken still further as Christianity deveoped, to the point where we were expected to believe that not only did Mary never have sex in her life (even with her poor husband), but that her virginity was magically restored after she gave birth (that’s the Catholic version, anyway).

      There is no sense that Jehovah was making it with Mary–gratifying his lust–that’s not a part of this story, as it is in the stories the Greeks told. In any event, stories of this nature occurred independently in many cultures that had no connection to each other, all over the world. So I think the notion that Matthew and Luke were copying from older stories just doesn’t hold up very well. They were, if anything, trying very hard to avoid seeming to tell that same pagan story. To tell a new story, about a decidedly non-lascivious God.

      I think they had their own reasons for wanting to believe Jesus was born of a virgin. Starting with Paul (who does not seem to have believed in the Virgin Birth), it became more and more important for Christian writers to make Jesus more than human. But they started out with a very human man, who died a very human death. As the people who had actually known him died, it became easier and easier to ignore his humanity and accentuate his purported divinity. What better way than to say he was God’s begotten son? But to argue that nobody could have possibly thought of this without referring to pagan myths is nonsense–how did the authors of the pagan myths think of it?

      Some stories we tell over and over again, even if we’ve never heard anybody else’s version of that story. Jung knew that. I think some people have intentionally forgotten it.

      • godspell  May 16, 2015

        I don’t know how I typed ‘by contract’ (auto-correct? I thought I turned that off), but it’s not what I meant to type. Just in case anyone reading that post was confused.

  7. Wilusa  December 31, 2014

    Say, here’s an off-topic question that just occurred to me. I was thinking about some of Jesus’s disciples being “illiterate fishermen,” and sudden;y remembered thoughts I’d entertained years ago.

    Is it possible they were illiterate peasants, but *not* really “fishermen”? The authors of the Gospels were well-educated…by the standards of their day. Might they have been familiar with astrology, believed they were living at the beginning of the Age of Pisces?

    I know the early Christians used a fish as their symbol (supposedly, because the letters of the Greek word for “fish” were the initials for “Jesus Something-or-other”). And it was convenient to say humble fishermen had become “fishers of men.” (But anyone who really thought about it would remember that fishers for fish intended to *kill* the fish!) Could the emphasis on fish have been rooted in astrology?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 31, 2014

      It’s an interesting idea. The problem, I think, is that the Gospels show no interest in astrology. (Though some interpreters read astrology *into* the Gospels; they can’t, though, read it *from* the Gospels)

    • Betho  August 30, 2015

      The disciples possessed professions, merchants, networks, boats. Jesus made it clear that the poor were a distinct class of the twelve disciples.

    • marcrm68
      marcrm68  May 8, 2016

      sometimes you have to say, if it looks like a duck, and sounds like a duck, it must be a duck….whether we have any hard evidence or not… we don’t really have much evidence for any position here…

  8. Jonathan_So
    Jonathan_So  December 31, 2014

    Prof. Ehrman, you write, “But the monotheistic Christians had far too an exalted view of God to think that he could have temporarily become human to play out his sexual fantasies.”

    At first recall I am only bringing to mind examples within Tertullian’s Apologeticum and Origen’s Contra Celsus, which support your claim. Sadly, I am struggling to recall any other examples (my memory seems to need a workout)
    Could you point me to some other examples?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 3, 2015

      I can’t think of written examples of people who actually say this. It’s the sort of view that most Christians today would agree with but no one would feel like they need to say.

  9. smackemyackem  December 31, 2014

    This is slightly off topic…but similar. Do you see any connection between ancient religions practicing human sacrifice and Christianity? I still cant get passed Jesus being a human sacrifice despite what apologists claim. Orthodoxy says Jesus was fully human…and fully God…but fully human. And he was a sacrifice for mankind. But, according to Christians, he wasn’t a human sacrifice. ??? Fully human and a sacrifice but not a human sacrifice. Am I dense? It seems like many ancient religions had an animal / human sacrifice element to their beliefs. Any connections in your view?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 3, 2015

      Yes, it’s a bit hard to escape the logic that Jesus is a human sacrifice!

      • godspell  May 16, 2015

        But a voluntary one, which I must say, makes a difference to me. Of course, we can’t know for sure that Jesus intended to sacrifice himself–maybe he believed to the end that God would intervene. Maybe that’s why he asked God why he’d been forsaken.

        It is, all the same, a remarkable thing, the story we’re told–can you think of any other story, ancient or contemporary, in which a cult leader tells his followers to live, while he willingly dies in their place? Cult leaders typically either order their followers to die with them, or instead of them.

        I want to believe that’s because he loved them too much to ask them to sacrifice themselves. Though of course many of them did anyway, in the coming years. But that was their choice, and they were not ripped open on some ceremonial altar. Do we call Martin Luther King Jr. a human sacrifice? He clearly had some idea what was coming. You’ve seen his last speech.

        A terrible beauty, Yeats called it.

        • Betho  August 30, 2015

          The logos is God only when engendered in God. Outside, the logos retain the divine substance. Jesus is the logos tabernacled. In bastismo with John the Baptist, the Holy Spirit becomes fully divine Jesus for the ministry. In bastimo the crucifixion, Jesus becomes fully human for the death. Never acredtei in religious dogma, God incarnate, triune God, Jesus = God etc …

  10. webattorney  January 2, 2015

    Do you believe that Jesus had a beard like most (?) Jews of his times? Did most Jewish males have beards and/or mustaches? I always found it funny that Jesus was portrayed on TV movies as looking very much un-Jewish with no beard.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 3, 2015

      Hmmm. Good question! Off hand I don’t recall the standard sartorial style of Galilean Jews in the first century!

  11. curious  January 4, 2015

    what about the birth of Romulus and Remus from Mars’ rape of a vestal virgin? Is that not evidence of a virgin birth by a god in pagan myth.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 5, 2015

      If she was raped, she was no longer a virgin.

      • curious  January 5, 2015

        Yes, of course you are right. I guess I didn’t think my comment through. I still don’t understand how Matthew and Luke could be independent of each other in their birth narratives. Was there another common source for the virgin birth story that they used? Also what motives did these writers have for presenting the story of Jesus’s birth by a virgin. Were they simply emphasizing Jesus’ divine status in comparison with stories of pagan god-men? I agree that belief in Jesus’s virgin birth should not be prerequisite for one to be considered a “Christian” If it was, one would expect to see the virgin birth story in Mark, John, and the writings of Paul as well.

        • Bart
          Bart  January 5, 2015

          My hunch is that there was a tradition of the Virign birth floating around, and both Matthew and Luke heard it.

          • bamurray  January 6, 2015

            You said: “My hunch is that there was a tradition of the Virgin birth floating around, and both Matthew and Luke heard it.” Any ideas on where *that* tradition came from?

          • Bart
            Bart  January 6, 2015

            My hunch is that it originated as a response to widespread claims that Jesus’ had been born out of wedlock.

          • Simeon  August 16, 2015

            Yes, and they disguised it so that you wouldn’t find out or even guess it, why should they show their whole hand in an environment of competing religious groups, and why are the stories so simple yet inspiring, because the last thing that they wanted was people who could intellectualise, their beliefs.

            S

      • Gary  February 22, 2015

        I don’t understand why, Dr. E., that you make a distinction about Mary’s impregnation by the Holy Spirit from the pagan cases mentioned above. If there was no sex act involved in this encounter, why did Luke use the figurative language of “overshadowing” her? Why not just say, “And God spoke, and it was done.” Does Luke have to spell out actual penetration in order for us to know that an act of divine sex has occurred?

        Mars raped a virgin, making her a non-virgin.
        The Christian god “overshadowed” a virgin, caused her to conceive, making her a non-virgin.

        I see no difference.

        • Bart
          Bart  February 23, 2015

          I think the idea in the pagan texts is that the god becomes a human (or other animal) and penetrates the woman. That’s different from having a shadow come upon a person — though maybe not *hugely* different?

  12. bradseggie  January 7, 2015

    I always thought that Jesus was born of a virgin not to fulfill pagan expectations but to fulfill a mistranslation of Isaiah 7:14 from Hebrew into Greek.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 7, 2015

      For Matthew, I’d say that’s true. For Luke Jesus was born of a virgin because he was literally God’s son.

      • Betho  August 30, 2015

        I’ve read in Matthew, that the Joseph refused to marry Maria for not commit adultery against the angel, that he (Joseph) thought have had intercourse with her (Maria). So far, the pagan stories are similar, however, the angel back to the Joseph and warns that the embryo is generated by something of neutral genre (male nor female), the Holy Spirit in the Hebrew and Greek language. Similar reports in the OT.

  13. magic  February 27, 2015

    Test Comment

  14. Philbert  April 24, 2015

    Awesome Post and Great Comments! Thank You

  15. bAnn  April 4, 2016

    Mary probably told her story to Luke who recorded it. I would imagine she was a very devout person who accepted some man’s line that he was of God and that she would bear a special child, the Messiah. I have no doubt but what she believed that and taught the same to her son, Jesus. That made all the difference.

  16. Judi  April 6, 2016

    I would tend to look at the more mystical then the Hans on physical.

  17. Kazibwe Edris  May 17, 2016

    ” But the monotheistic Christians had far too an exalted view of God to think that he could have temporarily become human to play out his sexual fantasies. ”

    Dr Ehrman

    if we understand that christian theology has said that the unseen god has become seen in ancient israel and has had physical communication with his people, how can luke 1:35 rule out some kind of physical “overshadowing” and “coming upon”
    if we are to inject later christian theology in to luke 1:35 then isn’t their some kind of physical act considering a god is unknowable unless he take on physical form?

    i think david litwa has said luke 1:35 does not exclude the idea of physical contact between mary and god/holy spirit

    theology says that god became phsycal being in the womb of mary so if we inject theology into luke 1:35 then can the words like “over shadowing ” and “coming upon” imply physical contact ?

    your thoughts Dr

    • Bart
      Bart  May 17, 2016

      Yes, Luke envisions an “overshadowing” by the Spirit. What he does not envision is God becoming a human with human sex organs and having sexual intercourse with Marh.

      • James Cotter  September 15, 2017

        did gods in the ancient world reproduce other gods through “spiritual copulation” ?

        • Bart
          Bart  September 17, 2017

          Do you mean as opposed to *physical* copulation? No, not really.

  18. jhague  July 14, 2016

    Mark 6:3 (NRSV) Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.

    Does this verse provide support for Jesus being born out of wedlock by saying “the son of Mary” rather than the son of Joseph?

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