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The Virgin Birth Was Not A Pagan Myth

Graham Veale
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THE FIRST MYTH OF CHRISTMAS – Christ was Born of a Virgin This was an impossibility in those days, but the myth was nevertheless a common one. Zoroaster, Mithras, Perseus, Horus and Krishna were all alleged to have been born of a ‘virgin’. It was taken as a sign of purity.

Astonishing births are, indeed, common in mythology. So are the themes of creation, salvation and revelation. Mere similarities prove very little. The fact remains that there is a world of difference between the Gospels and the pagan myths that the first Christians were familiar with. Jesus was not sired by a philandering god; his birth was the result of a simple act of creation.

Furthermore, the “purity” of Mary is not something that the Gospel writers sought to defend or expand upon. Mary had not chosen a life of celibacy, and the Gospels casually inform readers that Mary went on to have other sons . The Virgin Birth has nothing to say about sexual morality because Jewish culture was not at all “squeamish” or “reserved” about sex within marriage. Martin Goodman states in Rome and Jerusalem “Most Jews..discussed sex as an enjoyable and desirable activity for both husband and wife…” In fact, the Gospel writers only mention the virginity of Mary to stress the miraculous nature of Jesus’ birth.

The Gospels are thoroughly Jewish documents; their authors would not have been influenced by pagan myths. It would be much more likely for Jewish Gospel writers to create stories to fulfill the Jewish Scriptures. Yet, as NT Wright has pointed out

there is no pre-Christian Jewish tradition suggesting that the messiah would be born of a virgin. No one used Isaiah 7:14 this way before Matthew did. Even assuming that Matthew or Luke regularly invented material to fit Jesus into earlier templates, why would they have invented something like this? The only conceivable parallels are pagan ones, and these fiercely Jewish stories have certainly not been modeled on them.

We are left with something of a puzzle. If the story of Jesus Virgin Birth was not based on pagan myths or Jewish traditons, why would Matthew and Luke include such a tale in their Gospels? As NT Wright asks

if the evangelists believed them to be true, when and by whom were they invented, if by the time of Matthew and Luke two such different, yet so compatible, stories were in circulation?

Ben Witherington III also points out

  Evangelistic religions, like early Christianity, grounded in the life of a historical figure, Jesus, were unlikely to make up stories about their hero that would leave them wide open to the charge that Jesus was the offspring of an unholy union of man and woman.

The simplest answer, then,  to our question is: “The first Christians believed that Jesus had been born of a Virgin.” There is no evidence of any Christian group opposing the idea in the first decades of Christianity. Members of Jesus’ family had a prominent role in the early Church, and it seems safe to assume that the story began with them. No other Church leader would have knowledge of this period of Jesus’ life, and it is only natural that others would turn to them for the facts.

The first chapters of Matthew and Luke are portraying the first years of Jesus life; whatever the Christmas cards tell us, we should not picture all these events happening in one night! It is not at all unlikely that shepherds would be in the vicinity of Bethlehem. Evidence from Josephus, Suetonius and Tacitus tells us that, at the turn of the millenium, there was a belief that a world ruler would emerge from Judaea (Josephus pegged Vespasian with the title). So it is not surprising to hear of Persian wise men scouring Israel for a new born King.

The death of Herod and the census under Quirinius marked periods of rebellion and social upheaval in the Holy Land. A family might well flee to their ancestral home, or to relatives in the large Jewish community in Alexandria.  Augustus did order a taxation assessment of the provincial empire. Infamously, the census conducted by Quirinius did not take place until 6AD; however, Luke’s wording in 2 v 2 is unusual. It could be translated:

  This was the first registration, before the one the one when Quirinius was governor of Syria.

So we cannot dismiss the virgin birth as a childish fable. But why would God have brought about a virgin birth? This doctrine has something to say about Jesus’ divinity. Jesus is fully human; but he is not merely human. He did not become God the Son, but was fully God before his birth. The New Testament is clear: only God can save and the human race cannot produce its own saviour.

Now, we need to be clear – the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke establish that Jesus is one of us; he was born, weaned and raised just like any other human child.  Our saviour did not appear in a flash of light, a mature and fully formed adult.  There are several miraculous birth narratives in the Scriptures, and not one suggests that Isaac, Samuel or John the Baptist were less than human. The story of Jesus’ birth was not given to make Jesus seem less human; the point is that God gives Israel this child as  pure gift.

Jesus has an exalted geneaology, which includes David and Solomon. Yet, even that bloodline could not produce the saviour of mankind.The human race has taken a wrong turn; we have chosen rebellion and ruin.  Our ancestors began the rebellion against God, and we have been caught up in the tide of insurrection. Jesus is a “second chance” for humanity; a new beginning and the head of a new family.  We are, to a man, damaged by self-inflicted wounds; we are scarred and dangerous creatures. But we retain God’s image; God values us, not for what we have become, but for what we could be.

Consider the efforts of Olympians and the sacrifice of a people at war. Now imagine that the human race put a fraction of that effort into compassion. Imagine the human race motivated by Jesus love and self-sacrifice. This is who God wants us to be. We are not worth God’s only Son; but we are not worthless. And Christmas gives us a chance to become something more -  if we accept what God has provided; a Son, given for us.