Part 2 of 9: Is Christianity Borrowed From Pagan Myths/Religions?

Written By Thomas Perez. June 15, 2010 at 8:42PM. Copyright 2010.

Another very common alleged similarity is the virgin birth. Other religious figures, especially warrior gods (and actually some heroic human figures such as Alexander the Great) over time became associated with some form of miraculous birth, occasionally connected with virginity. It is all too easy to simply accept this on face value without investigating further. In Raymond Brown’s research on the Birth Narratives of Jesus [BM:522-523], he evaluates these non-Christian “examples” of virgin births and his conclusions bear repeating here:

“Among the parallels offered for the virginal conception of Jesus have been the conceptions of figures in world religions (the Buddha, Krishna, and the son of Zoroaster), in Greco-Roman mythology (Perseus, Romulus), in Egyptian and Classical History (the Pharaohs, Alexander, Augustus), and among famous philosophers or religious thinkers (Plato, Apollonius of Tyana), to name only a few. “Are any of these divinely engendered births really parallel to the non-sexual virginal conception of Jesus described in the NT, where Mary is not impregnated by a male deity or element, but the child is begotten through the creative power of the Holy Spirit? These “parallels” consistently involve a type of hieros gamos (note: “holy seed” or “divine semen”) where a divine male, in human or other form, impregnates a woman, either through normal sexual intercourse or through some substitute form of penetration. In short, there is no clear example of virginal conception in world or pagan religions that plausibly could have given first-century Jewish Christians the idea of the virginal conception of Jesus.”

And the history-of-religions scholar David Adams Leeming (writing in EOR, s.v. “Virgin Birth”) begins his article by pointing out that all ‘virgin births’ are NOT necessarily such:

“A virgin is someone who has not experienced sexual intercourse, and a virgin birth, or parthenogenesis (Gr., parthenos, “virgin”; genesis, “birth”), is one in which a virgin gives birth. According to this definition, the story of the birth of Jesus is a virgin birth story whereas the birth of the Buddha and of Orphic Dionysos are not. Technically what is at issue is the loss or the preservation of virginity during the process of conception. The Virgin Mary was simply “found with child of the Holy Ghost” before she was married and before she had “known” a man. So, too, did the preexistent Buddha enter the womb of his mother, but since she was already a married woman, there is no reason to suppose she was a virgin at the time. In the Ophic story of Dionysos, Zeus came to Persephone in the form of a serpent and impregnated her, so that the maiden’s virginity was technically lost.”

What these scholars are talking about is the textual data in the account. In other words, does the relevant sacred text describe or imply in any way, a means of impregnation or conception? Leemings comment that Mary was “simply ‘found with child'” documents the textual data from that miraculous conception story-the text simply omits any comment, description, or implication about the method/manner of her becoming pregnant–the sexual element is simply missing altogether. If other accounts suggest or give details of this process-even if not the ‘normal’ type of intercourse (e.g. a snake, a piece of fruit)-then, according to these scholars, it is not a ‘virgin conception’ (by comparison). Ancient gods and goddess were typically very sexually ‘explicit’ and sexually ‘active’ (!), and this element is completely absent from the biblical narratives and material, especially the story of the virginal conception of Jesus.

This issue of agency/means is a distinguishing trait of the gospel accounts, compared with other stories of divine-engendered births:

“In our discussion of the genre of the birth Narratives we noted that any comparison of Matthew 1–2 and Luke 1–2 to pagan divine birth stories leads to the conclusion that the Gospel stories cannot be explained simply on the basis of such comparisons. This is particularly the case in regard to the matter of the virginal conception, for what we find in Matthew and Luke is not the story of some sort of sacred marriage (hieros gamos) or a divine being descending to earth and, in the guise of a man, mating with a human woman, but rather the story of a miraculous conception without aid of any man, divine or other wise. The Gospel story is rather about how Mary conceived without any form of intercourse through the agency of the Holy Spirit. As such this story is without precedent either in Jewish or pagan literature, even including the OT.” [NT:DictJG,s.v. “Birth of Jesus”]

In fact, it is quite different from the many stories of miracle births in the ancient world:

“Ancient biographers sometimes praised the miraculous births of their subjects (especially prominent in the Old Testament), but there are no close parallels to the virgin birth. Greeks told stories of gods impregnating women, but the text indicates that Mary’s conception was not sexual;nor does the Old Testament (or Jewish tradition) ascribe sexual characteristics to God. Many miraculous birth stories in the ancient world (including Jewish accounts, e.g., 1 Enoch 106) are heavily embroidered with mythical imagery (e.g., babies filling houses with light), in contrast with the straightforward narrative style of this passage (cf. similarly Ex 2:1–10). [BBC,Matt 1.18]Let’s take a quick look at the gospel narratives, to see this clearly…Remember the background and sequence of these events:

“Marriages were arranged for individuals by parents, and contracts were negotiated. After this was accomplished, the individuals were considered married and were called husband and wife. They did not, however, begin to live together. Instead, the woman continued to live with her parents and the man with his for one year. The waiting period was to demonstrate the faithfulness of the pledge of purity given concerning the bride. If she was found to be with child in this period, she obviously was not pure, but had been involved in an unfaithful sexual relationship. Therefore the marriage could be annulled. If, however, the one-year waiting period demonstrated the purity of the bride, the husband would then go to the house of the bride’s parents and in a grand processional march lead his bride back to his home. There they would begin to live together as husband and wife and consummate their marriage physically. Matthew’s story should be read with this background in mind. “Mary and Joseph were in the one-year waiting period when Mary was found to be with child. They had never had sexual intercourse and Mary herself had been faithful (vv. 20, 23). While little is said about Joseph, one can imagine how his heart must have broken. He genuinely loved Mary, and yet the word came that she was pregnant. His love for her was demonstrated by his actions. He chose not to create a public scandal by exposing her condition to the judges at the city gate. Such an act could have resulted in Mary’s death by stoning (Deut. 22:23-24). Instead he decided to divorce her quietly.

“Then in a dream (cf. Matt. 2:13, 19, 22), an angel told Joseph that Mary’s condition was not caused by a man, but through the Holy Spirit (1:20; cf. v. 18). The Child Mary carried in her womb was a unique Child, for He would be a Son whom Joseph should name Jesus for He would save His people from their sins. These words must have brought to Joseph’s mind the promises of God to provide salvation through the New Covenant (Jer. 31:31-37). The unnamed angel also told Joseph that this was in keeping with Gods eternal plan, for the Prophet Isaiah had declared 700 years before that the virgin will be with Child (Matt. 1:23; Isa. 7:14). While Old Testament scholars dispute whether the Hebrew almah should be rendered “young woman” or “virgin,” God clearly intended it here to mean virgin (as implied by the Gr. word parthenos). Mary’s miraculous conception fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy, and her Son would truly be Immanuel…God with us. In light of this declaration Joseph was not to be afraid to take Mary into his home (Matt. 1:20). There would be misunderstanding in the community and much gossip at the well, but Joseph knew the true story of Mary’s pregnancy and Gods will for his life.

“As soon as Joseph awakened from this dream, he obeyed. He violated all custom by immediately taking Mary into his home rather than waiting till the one-year time period of betrothal had passed. Joseph was probably thinking of what would be best for Mary in her condition. He brought her home and began to care and provide for her. But there was no sexual relationship between them until after the birth of this Child, Jesus. [Bible Knowledge Commentary, at Matt 1.18ff]

The most detailed text we have about this event is Luke 1.35:

“And the angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon (epileusetai) you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow (episkiasei) you”

The “Holy Spirit coming upon you” is not to be conceived as some kind of spiritual ‘intercourse’-this is a stock, generic phrase from OT literature. It means empowerment, being set apart for a special task, and the such like. Look at some of the examples:

The Lord therefore said to Moses, “Gather for Me seventy men from the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and their officers and bring them to the tent of meeting, and let them take their stand there with you. 17 “Then I will come down and speak with you there, and I will take of the Spirit who is upon you, and will put Him upon them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, so that you shall not bear it all alone. [Num 11.16]

And when the sons of Israel cried to the Lord, the Lord raised up a deliverer for the sons of Israel to deliver them, Othniel the son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother. 10 And the Spirit of the Lord came upon him, and he judged Israel. [Jud 3.9]

Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Gideon, and he blew a trumpet, summoning the Abiezrites to follow him. [Jud 6.34]

Then Samson went down to Timnah with his father and mother, and came as far as the vineyards of Timnah; and behold, a young lion came roaring toward him. 6 And the Spirit of the Lord came upon him mightily, so that he tore him as one tears a kid though he had nothing in his hand; [Jud 14.5]

Then the Spirit of the Lord will come upon you mightily, and you shall prophesy with them and be changed into another man. [1 Sam 10.6]

Then the Spirit came upon Amasai, who was the chief of the thirty, and he said, “We are yours, O David, And with you, O son of Jesse! Peace, peace to you, And peace to him who helps you; Indeed, your God helps you!” Then David received them and made them captains of the band. [1 Chr 12.18]

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. [Is 42.1]

And it will come about after this That I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind; And your sons and daughters will prophesy, Your old men will dream dreams, Your young men will see visions. 29 “And even on the male and female servants I will pour out My Spirit in those days. [Joel 2.28ff]

[and of course, all the prophets spoke in the name of the Lord, as the “Spirit came upon them”]

On of the more interesting uses occurs is in Isaiah 32.15, which might be echoed in the Virgin conception and in the cases of ‘barren conceptions’-the image of miraculous/spectacular fertility:

Until the Spirit is poured out upon us from on high,
And the wilderness becomes a fertile field
And the fertile field is considered as a forest. [Is 32.15]

This is part of the reason why the NT scholars I cite here are so confident (even for ‘cautious’ scholars) that pagan sexual elements are NOT in the New Testament texts.

The angel had paid a visit to her home, and “gone into/unto/to her” (same Greek phrase as Joseph ‘going into Pilate’ to ask for the body of Jesus in Mk 15.23; the angel ‘going into/unto’ Cornelius in Acts 10.3; and the accusation of Peter ‘going into/unto’ Gentiles and eating with them in Acts 11.3). The angel announced the good news of God’s promise to Israel and Mary asks ‘how’? The verse in 1.35 actually doesn’t answer the question at all, but it does avoid saying some things (even ‘coyly’):

“There is not the slightest evidence that either of the verbs involved has ever been used in relation to sexual activity or even more broadly in connection with the conception of a child (cf. Fitzmyer, TS 34 [1973] 569; not eperchesthai but epibainein would be needed to express the notion of coming upon [mounting] sexually [e.g., PhiloDeSom 1.200]). [WBC,in.loc.]

Instead, the verbs express more general notions of God’s providence and faithfulness to His promises:

“[T]o come upon,” is Septuagintal idiom but is used in connection with the Spirit only at Isa 32:15 where the MT has (“will be poured out”). Acts 1:8 “when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.” Since Luke nowhere else refers to the coming of the Spirit in these terms, he is probably drawing attention to the Greek text of Isa 32:15 in both cases: this is the eschatological coming of the Spirit that will cause the wilderness to become a fruitful field…“will overshadow,” like “will come upon,” has probably been influenced by the LXX text of Exod 40:35, perhaps via the transfiguration account (Luke 9:34): Mary’s experience is to be compared to the dramatic way in which Gods glory and the cloud marking his presence came down upon the completed tabernacle” [WBC,in.loc.]

“The word for “overshadow” (episkiazo) carries the sense of the holy, powerful presence of God, as in the description of the cloud that “covered” (Heb. sakan; NIV, “settled upon”) the tabernacle when the tent was filled with the glory of God (Exod 40:35; cf. Ps 91:4). The word is used in all three accounts of the Transfiguration to describe the overshadowing of the cloud (Matt 17:5; Mark 9:7; Luke 9:34). [EBCNT, in. loc.]So, one needs to be VERY careful and detailed in examining alleged parallels between figures widely separated in space and time. [And remember, we are focused only on the formation of the New Testament documents (and the content-traditions behind them)-NOT what the post-apostolic community will do with them!]

Consideration: We need also remember that our question deals only with the issue of the New Testament content–not the Councils, not the hymns, not the Fathers, not the sects, not the Apocrypha. We are concerned with the Jesus of the gospels and of the message of the post-ascension early Church. Items and elements ‘borrowed’ from non-Christian religions after the first century AD. simply cannot be used to argue for borrowing in the years 33-70 a.d., when the NT was composed.

Push-back: “Well wait a minute, bud…didn’t the late church start ‘stealing ideas’ from paganism–like Sol Invictus’ December 25th birthday for Jesus? And if later Christians did that, why in the world would we believe the first ones wouldn’t steal ideas, too?!”

This is a different type of argument, dealing with motivation/psychology (‘what might have happened’) instead of history (‘what the evidence indicates’), and so our approach may have to be a bit different. But before we get into this, let’s examine the oft-stated belief about the stealing of December 25th…First, let’s note that it is not at all certain that this theft actually occurred-the data is mixed:

“In regard to the day of Jesus’ birth, as early as Hippolytus (A.D. 165–235) it was said to be December 25, a date also set by John Chrysostom (A.D. 345–407) whose arguments prevailed in the Eastern Church. There is nothing improbable about a mid-winter birth. Luke 2:8 tells us that the shepherds’ flocks were kept outside when Jesus was born. This detail might favor a date between March and November when such animals would normally be outside. But the Mishnah (m. sûeqal. 7.4) suggests that sheep around Bethlehem might also be outside during the winter months (Hoehner). Therefore, though there is no certainty, it appears that Jesus was born somewhere between 4–6 B.C., perhaps in mid-winter. Both the traditional Western date for Christmas (Dec. 25) and the date observed by the Armenian Church (Jan. 6) are equally possible. The biblical and extra-biblical historical evidence is simply not specific enough to point decisively to either traditional date. The celebration of the nativity is attested in Rome as early as A.D. 336 and this celebration also involved recognizing January 6 as Epiphany, the day the Magi visited Jesus.” [NT:DictJG,s.v. ‘birth of jesus’]

“The exact day of Jesus birth’ is unknown. The Gnostic Basilidians in Egypt (late second century) commemorated Jesus’ baptism on January 6, and by the early fourth century many Christians in the East were celebrating both his nativity and baptism then…In 274 Emperor Aurelian decreed December 25 as the celebration of the ‘Unconquerable Sun,” the first day in which there was a noticeable increase in light after the winter solstice. The earliest mention of a Feast of the Nativity is found in a document composed in 336. Some feel Constantine (who died in 337) may have selected this day for Christmas because of a deep-seated respect for the popular pagan solstice festival. Others argue that the date was chosen as a replacement for it, that it, to honor the ‘Sun of Righteousness.’ Firmly established in the West within a few decades, another century passed before the Eastern church adopted December 25…The only holdout was the Armenian church, which still observes the nativity on January 6.” [TK:104f] “Aurelian celebrated the dies natalis Solis Invicti (“birthday of Sol Invictus”) on December 25. Whether this festival was celebrated earlier than the third century is unknown. Nor is it certain that December 25 was the birthday of Mithras as well as of Sol Invictus. This has not prevented many scholars from assuming that Mithraic influence upon Christianity was involved in the adoption of this date for Christmas…Roger Beckwith concludes that ‘a date in the depths of winter (January-February) is therefore one of the two possibilities; and it may be that Clement, and through him Hippolytus, were in possession of a genuine historical tradition to this effect, which in the course of time had been mistakenly narrowed down to a particular day’…Clement of Alexandria (circa 200) in his Stromateis (1.146) noted that Gnostic Basilidians in Egypt celebrated Jesus’ baptism either on January 10 or January 6. By the early fourth century Christians in the East were celebrating Jesus’ birth on January 6…” [OT:PAB:520f]

Later church tradition remembered it as a ‘competitive strategy’: “The reason, then, why the fathers of the church moved the January 6th celebration to December 25th was this, they say: it was the custom of the pagans to celebrate on this same December 25th the birthday of the Sun, and they lit lights then to exalt the day, and invited and admitted the Christians to these rites. When, therefore, the teachers of the Church saw that Christians inclined to this custom, figuring out a strategy, they set the celebration of the true Sunrise on this day, and ordered Epiphany to be celebrated on January 6th; and this usage they maintain to the present day along with the lighting of lights.” (12th century bishop, cited in [HI:CP68C:155]

“The equinoxes and solstices must have been especially sacred. This was verified for the spring equinox of 172, the day when the Mithraeum ‘of the Seven Spheres’, at Ostia, was opened to a new community. The vernal equinox marked the anniversary of the sacrifice that had revived the world. Perhaps at the winter solstice (25 December) they celebrated the birth of Mithras emerging from the rock…” (HI:TCRE:234, emphasis mine…and I might ask the question here as to how many solar deities did NOT celebrate the Winter Solstice as a ‘rebirth’?! All the ones I know of did (e.g. HI:SSK:157-65), not sure that really counts as a ‘historical birthday’ in the same sense as Jesus’; so, Eliade: “The anniversary of the Deus Sol Invictus was set at December 25th, the ‘birthday’ of all Oriental solar deities” [WR:HRI2:411]…)

Secondly, what difference would it have made?The Roman Empire, with the “conversion” of Constantine, knew quite clearly the difference between the Jesus of the Christians and the Sun God of the Roman elite or the Mithras of the military. There would be no confusion between the two. The fierce struggles “for the minds of men” between Christian thought and pagan thought of the past two centuries kept the distinctions very, very clear…”Converting” a holiday from Sol/Mithras to Christ would even “make sense”, given the early Kingdom-theology of the Church (see below discussion)…Just as ‘converting’ temples would look to them a bit later, and maybe even ‘converting’ statues (and changing the names, obviously). And you can rest assured that Mithraists no more celebrated the birthday of Christ on that day, any more than the Christians did Mithra’s. For someone to assert that this could only happen if the two ‘gods’ were already very similar, simply does not understand the intense Christian-versus-pagan polemic of those times, and the highly developed positions within that polemic. The major exchanges between the second and third century Christian apologists and theologians, and the sharp and powerful attacks of Celsus and Porphyry, were only the tip of the iceberg. The Roman legislation battles and the constant watchful eye (and interventions) of the Roman government over this ‘dangerous sect’ insured that the battle lines were always clear to the rulers, elites, and urban middle-class. And, we don’t even have to get all the way to ‘conversion’–it might have been picked for ‘protest’ reasons: “The purpose was that it should be celebrated in opposition to the sun-cult” [NIDNTT]

So, It’s not clear that it was deliberately set to the same day as the birthday of Sol Invictus (it may have be December 25 anyway). It’s not clear that it was established later than the first known celebration of Sol’s birthday (Hippolytus is writing before Aurelian’s law). It could have been deliberately set to the same day, as a ‘protest’ or ‘opposition’ movement, or as a ‘conversion’ initiative-without true ‘borrowing’ of the holiday itself (i.e., the content and conceptual meaning of the holiday would certainly be massively different, and clear to the participants, even if the ‘trappings’ were the same)

And, therefore, it is not at all clear that the action was a case of ‘borrowing pagan ideas’ and smuggling them into Christianity. But back to the push-back: There are two ways to look at this issue:

To Be Continued In Part 3

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