Friday, April 20, 2007

The Origin of the Virgin Birth Stories

To read more on the tradition of the virgin birth stories, see my newest series of essays:
The Virgin Birth: Miracle or Legend? Part I
The Virgin Birth: Miracle or Legend? Part II
The Virgin Birth: Miracle or Legend? Part III

A thread on the Internet message board I frequent recently had a post by one of the prominent atheists and skeptics that said:

"The virgin birth thing always makes me laugh. What probably happened is Joseph knocked up Mary, but they were too afraid to tell anyone, so some story about a virgin birth got made up. ("Really mom! I don't know how it happened! I had this dream...")"

While I certainly can agree with this person that the virgin birth stories in the bible are mythological, he is as wrong in his perception about the origins of the virgin birth stories as the literalists are in assuming the stories are literal histories.

The virgin birth stories did not get made up in an effort to explain away an illegitimate birth. More than likely, Jesus was born to Joseph and Mary, who were lawfully married and had normal marital sexual relations that produced a normal, healthy child.

Long after Jesus's death, and even after the deaths of all those who knew him personally - a good 3 generations after Jesus died - virgin birth stories began to circulate within the Christian community as a result of the natural progression of the mythology surrounding Jesus.

The concept of a great man being the literal son of a god, and therefore born to a human virgin who is impregnated by said god, was a common theme in ancient mythology.

The most prominent such theme during the time and location in which Jesus lived was the mythology surrounding Romulus, the founder of Rome. He and his twin brother were said to have been birthed by a Vestal Virgin who was raped by a god and later put to death for having children (if a Vestal Virgin lost her virginity, the punishment was death). This mythology was part of the way that later Romans justified raising Romulus to the level of a god himself. Julius Caesar had a statue built next to Romulus and other Roman gods, which was one of the actions that led to his assassination - he seemed to be claiming godship.

Another common virgin birth mythology, that would have been known to many people in the 1st century, was from the Mithras cult. Many parallels, in fact, exist between earlier Mithraic traditions and Christianity - much of what we understand today as Christian traditions were actually Mithraic traditions, later overlayed onto the emerging Christian religion. Mithraism was common in ancient Rome, up until the 4th century C.E., and Mithras was said to have been born of a virgin (although that was one of only many stories about his birth - others said he sprang from a rock). Incidentally, his birthday was celebrated on December 25th, which was the day the ancients calculated to be the date of the Winter Solstice, otherwise celebrated as the day the sun is born (because it's the day that the days begin getting longer; we know now the Winter Solstice actually occurs on December 21st or 22nd).

The Egyptian version ususally didn't involve a heavenly god impregnating a virgin, but it most certainly included a god-king impregnating his queen to produce a god-prince who would someday rule the kingdom.

Mithraism, the story of Romulus and Remus, and the general idea that great men must be conceived by gods rather than regular mortals, explain the genesis and development of the virgin birth stories surrounding Jesus. It had absolutely nothing to do with attempting to cover up any illegitimacies. If such scandals had surrounded Jesus's life - for instance, from enemies trying to discredit him - the last thing that people would do is say "Oh, well, his Mom got impregnated by God, that's how it happened!!" To even suggest such a thing is absurd. They clearly would have come up with some way to show that Joseph and Mary's union was lawful and that, therefore, Jesus's birth was legitimate.

It is clear that the virgin birth mythology surrounding Jesus has an origin completely unrelated to any attempt to cover up an embarassing illegitimacy. It does not appear in the Christian tradition until about 80-85 C.E., and it seems to disappear from the Christian tradition after about 95-100 C.E.

Indeed, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are the only Christian writings in existence that mention anything about a virgin birth. None of the letters of Paul (written much earlier than any Gospel), none of the letters of later Christian leaders, neither the Gospels of Mark nor John nor any of the earliest Gnostic Gospels, nor any other canonical text, ever mentions a virgin birth.

Paul, the earliest Christian writer, actually uses terms to refer to Mary that would only be used to refer to a married, sexually-active woman. Mark, the earliest Gospel writer, mentions no virgin birth at all, and the writer of John (the last Gospel to be written), in addition to having no virgin birth tale, actually calls Jesus the "son of Joseph" in chapter 6!

The virgin birth may have, in fact, not even been a widespread belief among 1st century Christians - it may well have been a regional thing among Jewish Christians living in a small area of Roman Jerusalem, established first in writing by the author of Matthew, continued by the Gentile author of Luke, and then dying out thereafter, until resurrected by 2nd and 3rd century Christians who were beginning to study and assemble early Christian writings and attempting to develop a doctrinal view of the meaning of Jesus's life.


Anonymous said...

As usual, I disagree. Most historians agree with two different dimelines that date Matthew, Mark, and Luke as either in the 50's/60's or late 60's/early 70's. Either way, virgin birth stories were documented before the deaths of all those that knew Him. And if the early Church was a bunch of mythological conspirators, as you always suggest, why wait so long to explain Isaiah 7:14? Why not start that fake prophesy being fulfilled as soon as possible, much like the empty tomb and stolen body?

Scott said...

I wonder if you are too emotionally tied to your beliefs to consider non-doctrinal views? Maybe not, but something to consider.

There are a few evangelically-oriented biblical scholars who, without much evidence whatsoever, attempt to date the Gospels 40 or so years earlier than 95% of the rest of the scholarly community. I haven't ever read anything that causes me to have any reason to suppose the Gospels were written as early as the 50's and 60's C.E. For starters, a very basic textual study makes it clear that the Gospels are far later than the writings of Paul.

As for mythological conspiracies, I've never, to my knowledge, suggested such a thing. Do people conspire to create mythologies about famous people? Was Washington and the Cherry Tree a conspiracy? Was Paul Revere's Ride a conspiracy? Mythology is a natural development when oral stories about great people are passed around over a wide area for a long period of time. There wasn't anything "conspiratorial" about any of it. The only conpsiracy is the one that takes place in modern evangeliacl circles, attempting to pretend that 1st century mythology is relevant to 21st century spirituality.

Larry said...

It's obvious that the virgin birth never happened. The miracles can't have happened either. And nobody comes back from the dead. I begin to suspect that Jesus did not exist!

Scott said...

Thanks for reading, Larry.

You can't throw the baby out with the bathwater. Just because mythology built up around the figure of Jesus of Nazareth in the decades following his death does not mean that Jesus never existed. Mythology exists around George Washington too -- does that mean he's a mythological character as well?

The fact that so much mythology was built around Jesus in the decades after his death is evidence that this Jesus was an extraordinary person who greatly affected the lives of the people who followed him. There is almost no evidence whatsoever to suggest Jesus, himself, was an invention. To abide by such a belief would take an enormous leap of faith -- a leap of faith equal to believing in virgin births, physical resusciatations of dead bodies, and walking on water.

Ron1944 said...

Scott, I am willing to consider your point of view. But specifically you referenced "John" as saying that Jesus was the son of Joseph. The narrator of John, is clearly not the one saying that Jesus is the son of Joseph. Instead it is the people who are saying that. Because there are no quotes by anyone who had intimate knowledge of Mary, declaring her to be a virgin, how can anyone say with certainty that Jesus was the product of virgin birth. In my mind a person can accept such a phenominum or not. I think it is likely that Jesus did exist. It is likely he did affect people deeply. Beyond that, every person has to make up there own mind about which stories are closest to the reality of the period.

Scott said...


Thanks for posting and for bringing up an interesting point.

In this post, I mentioned that John calls Jesus the "son of Joseph" in chapter 6. You are correct in pointing out that it is the Jewish crowd referring to Jesus this way, and that it is a bit of a stretch to imply that this was therefore John's own perspective as well.

The whole point of that passage is that Jesus uses a metaphor to describe himself: specifically, he calls himself the "bread of life" who "came down from heaven" - an obvious and explicit allusion to the story of the Exodus and the manna from heaven.

The crowd responds to this by saying: "Wait a minute. Isn't this Joseph's son? How is he now saying he came from heaven?"

In that context, the comment about Joseph's son seems to be a statement of widely known fact. It's used by the writer of John to show how the crowd missed Jesus's point. They took him literally, when he was speaking metaphorically. Of course he's not *literally* bread from heaven!

So in that sense, I think it's fair to say this passage may represent the writer of John acknowledging that Jesus was born of Joseph.

A much more significant statement, however, is found in chapter 1 of John, and I failed to note that in this essay I wrote nearly 4 years ago.

In chapter 1, Jesus calls Philip of Bethsaida to be his disciple. Philip immediately goes to tell his friend, Nathaniel, that he has found the person that "Moses and the prophets" wrote about - i.e., the Messiah. He tells Nathaniel that his name is "Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph." Nathaniel immediately says, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" - which is probably akin to saying something like, "Can anything good come out of the backwoods?" Philip responds by simply encouraging Nathaniel to come and meet Jesus. Nathaniel agrees, he is ultimately impressed by Jesus, and he declares Jesus to be the "son of God and king of Israel."

In this story, one of Jesus's own disciples calls him the son of Joseph, a native of Nazareth. Nothing is said or implied to suggest this is a misguided assumption. Clearly the writer of the text considered it to be a reasonable statement of historical accuracy.

It is important to remember, when looking at this issue, that we have to judge the Gospel of John on its own merits. *We* know what the other Gospels say, but we can't analyze John through the lens of Matthew, Mark, or Luke, because John wasn't writing in light of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. He wasn't writing "the Fourth Gospel of the New Testament." He was just writing his own text - which eventually BECAME the Fourth Gospel.

As such, if we read John only through the lens of John, it is clear that this writer considered Joseph to be Jesus's father. He mentions nothing of a virgin birth, and twice he has characters in his story call Jesus the "son of Joseph." If someone knew nothing at all about Jesus, and then sat down and read John's Gospel, that person would come away believing Jesus was the son of a man named Joseph.

That's the point of my comment.

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