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Was the Virgin Birth Story Created by the Church

What would you say if someone asked you if the Virgin birth of Christ of Christ was patterned after myths or made up by the church?

This post will help you think through some challenges to the historicity of the Virgin birth of Christ narrative in the Bible. First, we’ll answer the question “Was the Virgin birth of Christ copied from myths?” Then, we’ll consider the allegation that the church made up the entire story.

Where should we begin when we hear of an alleged parallel account in pagan mythology? The first thing we need to ask is, “Does this myth actually contain a true virginal conception?”

The Virgin Birth of Christ was Not Patterned after Myths

There are three stories that tend to come up in conversations about the Virgin birth of Christ:

Horus

Since 2007, millions of YouTube viewers have heard Peter Joseph’s conspiracy theories in his film, Zeitgeist. One of his claims is that the story of Jesus’ virginal conception was based on pagan myths. For example, the film suggests a parallel with the Egyptian god, Horus. But does the myth itself really say that Horus was born of a virgin?

In Egyptian mythology, Horus’ mother, Isis, was already married to the god Osiris for some time before his conception. Furthermore, the best Egyptian account of the myth reveals that Horus was not born of a virgin.[1] So the idea that the church copied the story of Jesus’ Virgin birth of Christ from Horus does not work as there is no ancient evidence of a story about Horus being born of a virgin.

Mithra

Still, others suggest that the story of Jesus’ virginal conception was copied from the birth of a god named Mithra. Are there really any ancient stories saying that Mithra was literally born of a virgin?

There are a few versions of how Mithra was created, but none of them include anything like Jesus’ virginal conception. For example, in the Roman version, Mithra was born as a full-grown adult when he emerged from the side of a rock. Indeed, there is an ancient inscription that describes Mithra as “born from the rock.”[2] Here, not only is there no virgin, but there is no woman present in the myth! The only way one can even begin to suggest a parallel with Jesus is by equating a rock with a human virgin.

Caesar Augustus

Finally, others compare the story of Jesus’ virginal conception to the idea that the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus was believed to be the son of Apollo. But does Augustus’ story include a virginal conception?

According to the Roman historian Suetonius, Augustus’ mother had already been married for years before a snake suddenly showed up while she was sleeping. As a result of this incident, Augustus was born 10 months later.[3] In this story, there is no virginal conception. Augustus even had an older sister![4]

Consulting the sources for alleged parallels is a good place to start when thinking through the idea that the Virgin birth of Christ was borrowed from pagan mythology. In this case, we can be confident that the story of Jesus’ virginal conception was not patterned after Horus, Mithra or Augustus because not one of them was born of a literal human virgin in any ancient myth.

But did the church just make this up out of whole cloth? How should we respond to the claim that church fabricated the story of Jesus’ virginal conception?

The Virgin Birth of Christ was Not Fabricated by the Church

Here are three reasons why it doesn’t look like the early church fabricated this story of Jesus’ virginal conception.

Principle of Embarrassment

Creating a false story about Jesus’ virginal conception would not make Christianity appear more palatable to the Jews. Rather, this would invite strong suspicion about Jesus as well as questions about his biological father and Mary’s sexual morality into question.

Why make it more difficult to accept the Christian message? The ancient church wouldn’t have taught that Jesus was born of a virgin unless they had good reasons for believing he actually was.

Lack of Emphasis in Preaching

Others suggest that a Virgin birth of Christ story would make Christianity seem more attractive to Greeks and Romans. After all, these cultures were familiar with worshipping human leaders as gods. But that’s just one part of the story.

When we see the gospel preached in the New Testament, the church does not emphasize the Virgin birth of Christ narrative. Why wouldn’t the earliest Christians make more of Jesus’ virginal conception if the idea was created in order to attract potential converts in the Gentile world?

Dissimilarity to Myths

Gentiles who thought certain human rulers were divine only understood them to be a lower god in the context of polytheism. For example, no one thought Caesar Augustus was the one, true God who made the heavens and the earth. Furthermore, there is no snake sneaking up to Mary in the gospels accounts. Jesus is conceived in her womb as miracle of God, and the Bible doesn’t say much about how that actually happened.

Conclusion

In the end, it is unlikely that the early church would fabricate the Virgin birth of Christ narrative because this story would not help advance the Christian cause. Indeed, if they thought it would help their case, why didn’t they emphasize this story in their preaching? If the Virgin birth of Christ was patterned after myths, why doesn’t it look like these myths?

If there is a creator God who made the heavens and the earth, and if Jesus left heaven to come to earth, it is reasonable to believe the story of Jesus’ virginal conception as recorded in Scripture.

For more on comparing biblical accounts with mythology, see Comparing the Bible to Other Creation Accounts.

 


[1] The Great Hymn to Osiris from Dynasty 18 (stela Louvre C 286): Isis “took in his seed and created the heir…Osiris’ son, Horus, stout of heart, justified, son of Isis, heir of Osiris.” See Jan Assmann, Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt, 24-25.

[2] “Mithra was known as the rock-born god. The inscriptions confirm this nomenclature: one even reads D(eo) O(omipotenti) S(oli) Invi(cto), Deo Genitori, r(upe) n(ato), ‘To the almighty God Sun invincible, generative god, born from the rock’ . See Manfred Clauss, The Roman Cult of Mithra: The God and His Mysteries, 62-63.

[3] Suetonius “Twelve Caesars” Augustus 94:4, accessed online at http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Suetonius/12Caesars/Augustus*.html.

[4] Octavia was Augustus’ full sister. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/424838/Octavia.

Mikel Del Rosario
Mikel Del Rosario is a doctoral student in New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, Project Manager for Cultural Engagement at the Hendricks Center, and Adjunct Professor of Apologetics and World Religion at William Jessup University. Mikel co-authors The Table Briefing articles for Bibliotheca Sacra, manages the Table Podcast, and helps Christians defend the faith with courage and compassion though his apologetics ministry. He holds a Master of Theology (ThM) from DTS and an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University.
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