On December 14 I will be giving a one-off remote lecture, with Q&A, called “The Other Virgin Births in Antiquity.” This will not be connected with the blog per se, but with my other venture in which I produce online courses and lectures (BEPS: Bart Ehrman Professional Services). You can learn about the lecture here: https://www.bartehrman.com/other-virgin-births-in-antiquity/
Jesus is decidedly conceived by a virgin in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. This is better called a “virginal conception” — and in my course I’ll explain the difference between the ideas of virginal conception; virgin birth; perpetual virginity; and immaculate conception. All very different ideas!
BUT, for the sake of convenience, I’ll simply refer to Jesus’ conception and birth as “the virgin birth.”
Since, oh, I don’t know, the 19th century I guess, there have been people who have claimed that virgin births were common in the ancient world. You find that claim widely today still among those who call themselves “mythicists” — those who think Jesus didn’t exist but was just a myth. One of the most common claims of the mythicists is that there were numerous other divine men in Jesus’ day who were very similar – in fact, in almost every respect – to Jesus.
I deal with all this material in my book Did Jesus Exist (HarperOne, 2012). Here I reproduce in edited form some of what I say there.
A terrific example of mythicist claims comes in a classic in the field, the 1875 book of Kersey Graves, The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors: Christianity Before Christ, which has been reprinted for wide circulation here in recent years. A number of mythicists simply take Graves’ word for it when he claims that Jesus was just like all the other invented figures of his day; they sometimes simply restate what he says as “fact” (hey, it’s in print!).
Early on his “study” Graves states his overarching thesis:
Researches into oriental history reveal the remarkable fact that stories of incarnate Gods answering to and resembling the miraculous character of Jesus Christ have been prevalent in most if not all principal religious heathen nations of antiquity; and the accounts and narrations of some of these deific incarnations bear such a striking resemblance to that of the Christian Savior – not only in their general features but in some cases in the most minute details, from the legend of the immaculate conception to that of the crucifixion, and subsequent ascension into heaven – that one might almost be mistaken for the other. (p. 29)
Graves goes on to list thirty five such divine figures, naming them as Chrisna of Hindostan, Budha Sakia of India; Baal of Phenicia; Thammuz of Syria; Mithra of Persia, Cadmus of Greece; Mohamud of Arabia; and so on. Already the modern, informed reader sees that there are going to be problems. Buddha, Cadmus, and Mohammed? These had lives that were remarkably like Jesus’, down to the details? But as Graves goes on to contend:
These have all received divine honors, have nearly all been worshiped as Gods, or sons of Gods; were mostly incarnated as Christs, Saviors, Messiahs, or Mediators; not a few of them were reputedly born of virgins; some of them filling a character almost identical with that ascribed by the Christian’s Bible to Jesus Christ; many of them, like him, are reported to have been crucified; and all of them, taken together, furnish a prototype and parallel for nearly every important incident and wonder-inciting miracle, doctrine, and precept recorded in the New Testament, of the Christian’s savior.” (pp. 30-31)
Virtually everything Graves says is wrong. In my lecture I won’t be addressing Graves or any of the mythicists directly, or be dealing with each of these claims — just the bit about there being lots of virgin births in the ancient world. You find claims like that far more recently.
As a more recent example, appearing in 1999 was the (intended) blockbuster work by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, The Jesus Mysteries: Was the ‘Original Jesus’ a Pagan God?. Freke and Gandy have collaborated on a number of books in recent years, most of them uncovering the conspiratorial secrets of our shared past. In their book they argue that Jesus was invented by a group of Jews who resembled the Therapeutae in Alexandria Egypt, leading to the invention of a new mystery religion (the Jesus Mysteries) that flourished at the beginning of the third century CE. In their view, however, Jesus was not a sun-God. He was a creation based on the widespread mythologies of dying and rising gods known throughout the pagan world. And so their main thesis:
The story of Jesus is not the biography of a historical Messiah, but a myth based on perennial Pagan stories. Christianity was not a new and unique revelation but actually a Jewish adaptation of the ancient Pagan Mystery religion. (Jesus Mysteries, p. 2)
At the heart of all the various pagan mysteries, Freke and Gandy aver, was a myth of a godman who died and rose from the dead. This divine figure was called by various names in the sundry pagan mysteries: Osiris, Dionysus, Attis, Adonis, Baccus, Mithras. But “fundamentally all these godmen are the same mythical being” (p. 4).
The reason that Freke and Gandy think so is that all these figures share the same mythology: their father was God; their mother was a mortal virgin; they were each born in a cave on December 25 before three shepherds and wisemen; among their miracles they turned water to wine; they all rode into town on a donkey; they all were crucified at Eastertime as a sacrifice for the sins of the world; they descended to hell; and on the third day they rose again. Since these same things are said of Jesus as well, it is obvious that the stories believed by the Christians are all simply invented as imitations of the pagan religions.
Historians of antiquity as a rule have trouble believing that anyone takes these kinds of claims seriously. It takes very little research in the ancient texts themselves to see how odd they are. The authors provide no evidence for them: they don’t even cite any sources from the ancient world that can be checked. And so it is not that they have provided an alternative interpretation of the available evidence. They have not even cited the available evidence. And for good reason. No such evidence exists.
What, for example, is the proof that Osiris was born on December 25 before three shepherds? Or that he was crucified? And that his death brought an atonement for sin? Or that he returned to life on earth by being raised from the dead? In point of fact, no ancient source says any such thing about Osiris (or about the other gods). But Freke and Gandy claim that this is common knowledge. And they “prove” it by quoting other writers from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who have said so. But these writers too do not cite any historical evidence. This is all based on assertion, believed by Freke and Gandy simply because they read it somewhere. This is not serious historical scholarship. It is sensationalist writing driven by a desire to sell books.
Well, there’s a lot of that about. In my course I’ll be talking specifically about ancient virgin births. Were there a lot of them? Were there any? Were there *other* kinds of weird birth stories? That’s actually the most interesting question. The answer: Oh boy were there.