The Pagan Origins of the Virgin Birth

Adapted from When God Speaks for Himself: The Words of God You’ll NEVER Hear in Church or Sunday School, by Mark Tier and George Forrai (Inverse Books, 2016). Reprinted with permission from Mark Tier.

From Chapter 3: The Virgin Birth and the Many “Sons of God”

“Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”
Douglas Adams

“Faith may be defined briefly as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable.”
H.L. Mencken

“The same people who wrote the bible thought that the world was flat.”
Unknown

The “Virgin Birth” and the Many “Sons of God”

Of the four Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — only Matthew and Luke tell of Jesus’ virgin birth; John merely calls Jesus (and John the Baptist) a “Son of God”; while Mark — which, most scholars conclude, was the first of the Gospels to be written — doesn’t mention Jesus’ birth at all.

Nor is there any mention of the Virgin Birth in Corinthians, Thessalonians 1, Philippians, Galatians, or Romans — the books of the New Testament attributed to Paul’s authorship and reputedly written before any of the four Gospels.

Indeed, Paul repeatedly stressed the very opposite, referring on multiple occasions to Jesus as “the seed of David,”

So either Paul and the author of Mark:

— Didn’t know about (or believe in) the Virgin Birth of Jesus; or

— they did know about it — and forgot to mention it.

In the context of the Greek-speaking world of the time — the second possibility is highly improbable.

When Paul began preaching to the Gentiles, his converts came from the Greek and Roman religions of Zeus and Jupiter, Mithraism, Zoroastrianism, and many other creeds and sects where virgin birth stories were common. A few examples:

Perseus was the mythic Greek hero who killed the Medusa. His mother, Danaë, was impregnated by Zeus

— Cyebele (or Nana), the mother of Attis — a semi-diety of Phrygia (eastern Turkey) — was impregnated by an almond or pomegranate tossed away by the gods

Ra, the Egyptian sun god, had no father. His mother, Net, conceived by parthenogenesis. Horus was another Egyptian god conceived parthenogenically by Isis

— Other pre-Christian figures believed to have been born of a virgin include Sargon (Babylon), Adonis (Syria), Osiris (Egypt), and Dionysus (Greece)

— Even Apis, the sacred bull of Memphis, was believed to have been fathered by a god striking a cow with a ray of moonlight.

So common, indeed, was this belief in the Graeco-Roman world that many mortals were elevated retroactively to the status of Virgin Births: Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of Rome, Pythagoras, Plato, Apollonius, Alexander the Great, the Roman emperor Augustus, the Roman general who defeated Hannibal, Scipio the Elder, all Egyptian Pharaohs — even Buddha.

Some scholars believe that, at the time, a virgin birth was widely thought (except by Jews) to be a prerequisite for divinity. Whether true or not, Paul’s Gentile audience was primed to accept a Virgin Birth as clear “proof” of the arrival of a messenger from God. So why didn’t he use it?

Paul’s clearest statement on Jesus’ origin is in Romans 1:3-4: “Concerning his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh; And declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead.”

In other words: Joseph was Jesus’ father, and by resurrecting him, God later elevated Jesus to the status of a “Son of God.”

So by the time the second Gospel, Matthew, was written (sometime between 70 and 100 CE) the idea of Jesus’ Virgin Birth had crept into Christianity. The obvious source is the Virgin Birth stories of all Christianity’s pagan competitors.

This is hardly a new hypothesis. Justin Martyr, writing in his The First Apology of Justin (2nd century) claims that devils went back in time and planted stories similar to Christ’s miracles (e.g., that Bacchus was the son of Jupiter and ascended to heaven after being torn to pieces, and the virgin birth of Perseus) merely to muddy the waters when Jesus came along (chapter 54). But in chapter 22 of the same work he says: “And if we even affirm that He was born of a virgin, accept this in common with what you accept of Perseus,”[1] in effect positioning Jesus as just one of many “Sons of God.”

Other early writers claimed that Christianity was the source of Virgin Birth stories in contemporaneous pagan religions — contradicted by the evidence of the New Testament itself (if scholars are right that Mark was the first Gospel written, and all the Gospels were written after Paul’s epistles had been committed to papyrus), and the fact that most other Virgin Birth stories pre-dated Christ — some by many centuries.

Ultimately, the only refuge for Christians is, in the words of Dr. Dan Hayen:

The virgin birth of Jesus Christ is not something we believe because we can prove it by some scientific explanation. We believe in the virgin conception because the Word of God says that that is how it happened. It is a matter of revelation, not a matter of reason. God said so, and that settles it for us.”[2]

Except — as we saw above — God (well, the Bible) also said the opposite.

This matter was “settled” by decree of the Lateran Council held in the time of Pope Martin I in 649 CE, where “the virginity of our Blessed Lady was defined under anathema” (i.e., threat of excommunication).[3]

Excerpted from When God Speaks for Himself by Mark Tier and George Forrai. Copyright © Mark Tier and Pronto Express, 2010. All rights reserved.


[1] Justin Martyr, First Apology, newadvent.org/fathers/0126.htm.

[2] “Before the Manger,” solagroup.org/articles/understandingthebible/utb_0001.html.

[3] The Catholic Encyclopedia, newadvent.org/cathen/15448a.htm.

Mark TierMark Tier, an Australian based in Hong Kong, started writing when he was 14 – and hasn’t stopped since. His first work, Understanding Inflation, was a bestseller in his native Australia in 1974. That was followed by The Nature of Market Cycles, How To Get A Second Passport, and The Winning Investment Habits of Warren Buffett & George Soros, which has been published in 3 English (New York, London, & Hong Kong) and 11 other-language editions. Once labelled “the Eclectic Investor” for his wide range of interests, he co-edited two science fiction anthologies which won a Prometheus Award in 2005, an analysis of Christianity, When God Speaks for Himself, and a political thriller, Trust Your Enemies. His website is marktier.com.

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