I thought I would complete this week’s series of Christmas blogs by addressing three common objections to the virgin conception of Jesus. I’ll start with the objection that the virgin conception was borrowed from prior pagan mythologies such as those of Mithras or Horus. Skeptics have properly observed that many ancient legendary heroes and kings were said to be the offspring of the gods, and a number of non-Christian religions describe virgin conceptions as well. Did the early Christians simply apply the idea of the virgin conception to the evolving fiction of Jesus? I think there are a number of problems with this idea:
The Mythologies Aren’t That Similar
First and foremost, the pre-existing mythologies described by critics are not as similar to the “virgin conception” of Jesus as they would like people to believe. As an example, neither Mithras nor Horus was the product of a “virgin conception”. Mithras emerged from rock and Horus was conceived through a sex act between Isis and Osiris. While it is true that many pagan mythologies describe the gods having sex with mortal women, the blatant sexual activity of these mythologies is missing from the Biblical narrative.
Isaiah Wasn’t That Specific
Some have argued that paganism may have influenced Judaism first and corrupted the writers of the Old Testament prior to its transferred influence on New Testament writers, but this theory is also deficient. If Isaiah was borrowing the idea of a virgin conception from pagan sources, wouldn’t he have used more explicit language to describe the mother of God as a virgin? Isaiah uses the Hebrew word, “almah” in describing the mother of the messiah. This word means literally “young woman”. As a result, many Jewish apologists have historically argued that Isaiah was not describing a virgin at all, but was only referring to a young woman. While Matthew interprets Isaiah as describing a virgin, it is reasonable to assume that Isaiah would have been more explicit if he was trying to express an idea borrowed from paganism.
The Jews Weren’t That Accommodating
It’s unreasonable to presume that Greek, Babylonian, Egyptian or other pagan mythologies related to the birth of God would be embraced as part of a narrative targeted at Jewish believers. The Gospel writers were clearly trying to convince their Jewish readers that Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies related to the Messiah; it is irrational to believe that these Jewish readers would embrace any part of paganism in the story of Jesus’ conception as being continuous with the Jewish narrative from the Old Testament.
New Christians Weren’t That Accepting
Early Christian converts were called to a new life in Christ and repeatedly told that they were merely travelers passing through this mortal (and pagan) world. They were called to live a life that was free of worldly influences and told to reject the foolish philosophies and stories of men. This group, in particular, would be the last to return to pre-existing pagan stories and superstitions; we would expect the early Christians to be vigilant in protecting the Biblical narrative from the insertion of paganism given the repeated admonitions of the New Testament writers.
The Narrative Wasn’t That Late
The insertion of false pagan mythology into the birth narratives assumes the late writing of the Gospels. If the Gospels were written early (as the evidence confirms), the earliest eyewitnesses would have been available to challenge the false insertion of the supposed “virgin conception” narrative. Jesus’ own relatives would have been among the first century “fact checkers” who would have exposed this narrative as mythology.
The Borrowing Wasn’t That Directional
Even the weak resemblances between the Biblical account and pagan mythologies may be the result of Judeo Christian influence rather than contamination from a pagan source. Justin Martyr recognized this in the second century. In “The First Apology of Justin”, he argued that the surrounding pagans adopted elements of Judaism into their own religious beliefs.
The Similarities Aren’t That Surprising
Finally, the fact that some pagan mythologies describe gods who were born through some supernatural manner really shouldn’t surprise us. As early men and women began to think and dream about God, it was reasonable that they would imagine that an incredibly powerful, supernatural being would emerge into the natural world in some unexpected, supernatural way. For this reason, we would expect pre-Christian mythologies to bear some resemblance to the truth of the Christian narrative. This resemblance does not, in and of itself, invalidate the “virgin conception”.
There are several problems with the notion that the virgin conception was borrowed from prior pagan mythologies. I think the early dating of the gospels is perhaps the most important (this dating actually rebukes a number of other skeptical claims about the New Testament). Tomorrow we’ll look at another objection. Merry Christmas week!