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 funny) 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.
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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