This is the second instalment in the “Debunking the Nativity” series and I will concentrate on the virgin birth. These posts sit alongside my book The Nativity: A Critical Examination.
The first thing to note is that the Gospel authors had an agenda. They were pro-Jesus non-eyewitnesses who were hoping to convince their readers of not only the greatness of Jesus, but of the notion that he was the long-awaited Messiah. In other words, this Jesus has to be bigger and better than all comparative and contemporaneous deities, all local great leaders (Herod and Caesar Augustus, for example), and all previous biblical greats: Moses, Daniel and the like.
There were several techniques used to do this: genealogies, Old Testament prophecies, Midrash (retelling old OT stories in new ways to make them current), and a miraculous and amazing birth (amongst others).
This was an amazing birth and it had much mythological precedent.
We essentially have the Holy Spirit impregnating Mary, who was a virgin at the time, although as Raymond E. Brown says in The Birth of the Messiah (1977, p. 124-5), the Holy Spirit is read as being a creative influence as opposed to anything sexual. As the angel Gabriel told her in Luke 1:35: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God.” It is fairly explicitly explained that the Holy Spirit will be responsible for the conception, and true to the angelic words, Mary fell pregnant with a God for a son. Some sceptics claim that Luke does not deny the possibility that Mary could not have got pregnant naturally between the Annunciation and the conception.
On the other hand, some liberal commentators suggest that the virgin birth claim was an answer to counter-claims that Mary conceived illegitimately. In order to cover up this rather embarrassing situation, a virgin birth is supposed. I would probably side with Christian apologists who state that this is a highly unlikely excuse. In reality, if my partner got pregnant without my assistance, and the neighbours heard that this was the case only to be told “actually, it’s the Son of God, impregnated immaculately by the Holy Spirit”, then one would be met with ridicule. Also, the claim that Jesus was actually illegitimate and this was simply a defensive ruse cannot run alongside other claims that are also thrown about. For example, as we shall see, some claim that the word for virgin is a mistranslation. It cannot both be a mistranslation and a defensive ruse. Such skeptics cannot have it both ways. We must be careful not to advance every possibility mutually.
Some theories suggest that Mary was raped by Panthera, a Roman soldier, and that this was a defense against such an illegitimate birth (claimed by early Jew Celsus). While this holds with some more fringe scholars, the theory is generally rejected by most mainstream scholars. Interestingly though, if we take (as we shall see in the next section) the word almah, used to describe Mary, as meaning a nubile young woman, and not virgin, and we see it in context of Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, then perhaps Tabor is not far off. Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba are women bizarrely included in a patrilineal genealogy (as we shall also see) and were all known adulterers and harlots. With Mary included as a female in this list, perhaps Matthew is hinting something covertly.
Interestingly, we can see that not all early Christians ascribed to the virgin birth. As Justin Martyr wrote:
It is quite true that some people of our kind acknowledge him to be Christ, but at the same time declare him to have been a man of men. I, however, cannot agree with them, and will not do so, even if the majority [of Christians] insist on this opinion and impart it to me ; for by Christ ourself we have been commanded to base our conclusions, not on human teachings, but on predictions set forth by the blessed prophets and imparted in his own teaching.
In mythological context, many have claimed similar traits of the birth narrative of their own gods or divine people.
Patrick Campbell in The Mythical Jesus (1965, p. 45) points out that Hercules, Osiris, Bacchus, Mithra, Hermes, Prometheus, Perseus and Horus share some intriguing characteristics with Jesus, as all were thought to have:
- Been male.
- Lived in pre-Christian times.
- Had a god for a father.
- Had a human virgin for a mother.
- Had their birth announced by a heavenly display.
- Had their birth announced by celestial music.
- Been born about Dec 25th.
- had an attempt on their life by a tyrant while they were still an infant
- Met with a violent death.
- Rose again from the dead.
Almost all were believed to have:
- Been visited by “wise men” during infancy.
- Fasted for 40 days as an adult.
Miraculous births, whether virgin or otherwise, are commonplace motifs in ancient literature and culture since such an event clearly signposts a very important being coming into the world. These births break natural laws and appear impossibly wonderful, and they act as a herald welcoming the figure into earthly existence. From a cynical point of view, in order to compete with all of these other religions and myths, which were themselves believed to varying degrees, and in order for Jesus to be taken seriously, a miraculous birth is simply a prerequisite.
Even Julius Caesar is claimed to have been descended from Aeneas, supposed son of the goddess Venus. More importantly was the birth of Emperor Caesar Augustus. He was claimed to have born of the god Apollo.
This is a crucially important point and it perfectly illustrates the use of the fallacy of special pleading employed by many Christian theologians and historians. Caesar Augustus is especially important because he was Emperor at the time of Jesus’ birth and who, at the time, would have been enemy number one in Judea and surrounding areas. If Jesus was going to compete with anyone, it would make most sense to do so against the ruling God-like Emperor and subjugator of Jewish lands. Augustus called himself “Divi filius” (son of the Divine One) and “Dei filius” (Son of God) which, as scholars like Crossan have argued, might well have been co-opted by the Christians for Jesus.
There is more to say on this topic, not to mention the mistranslation issues. I will save these points for the next few days.
Essentially, those these points to not invalidate the birth claims per se, they do cast some good deal of doubt on the claims. Context is always important.
 As Charles Foster states in The Christmas Mystery (2007, p.80).
 Fred Cornwallis Conybeare in Myths, Magic and Morals, 1910, p.180
 As referenced at http://www.religioustolerance.org/virgin_b1.htm (retrieved 07/01/2012)