Christians, there’s an elephant in the room that we need to discuss: was Jesus really born to a virgin? If so, isn’t it only fair other recorded stories of immaculate conceptions are given credence too?
I’m happy to entertain the notion Mother Mary was fertilised by God’s seed, the Holy Spirit, and gave birth to a child known to many as Christ. This Christian “fact” potentially supports the “fact” that Pythagoras, Plato, and Alexander were also fertilised by supernatural means, namely Apollo’s seed. Alternative perspectives include rejecting all virginal births or believing Jesus is the one true exception. Before reaching any conclusive judgment, lets look at the arguments for and against Jesus, Pythagoras, Plato, and Alexander being born to virgin mothers.
Legends of Apollo’s Earthly Parenting
Apollo was a Greek God, the son of Zeus and Leto, and sister to Artemis. He is affiliated with truth and prophecy, healing and diseases, the Sun and light, archery, the Arts and more. His complex nature was also revered by Romans. Unlike most deities, Apollo’s name was not altered when Greek mythology was Latinised.
Brief accounts of the men whose mothers were impregnated by Apollo:
- Pythagoras (c.570—490 BCE) was born on the Greek island of Samos. His birth was predicted by an oracle to be beneficial to humankind. Legend says his mother, Parthenis, was called the Virgin and that she was impregnated by Apollo. Contemporary audiences know Pythagoras best for his mathematical prowess and the infamous theorem associated with his namesake. To his contemporaries, however, Pythagoras was a renowned spiritual leader who imparted great wisdom that included the dangers of eating beans and knowledge of how the Gods created the world using patterns that could be defined by numbers.
- Plato (427—347 BCE) also amassed a group of disciples who followed his spiritual and mathematical genius. While some speculate he was a cultic offshoot of Pythagoras’ genius, he’s mostly considered a Master in his own right. Even in his own lifetime, Plato’s amazing intellect was so impressive it left little doubt he had a divine conception. Legend says, Apollo impregnated Plato’s mother, Perictione, and then appeared to his father in a dream and told him to not have any sexual relations till after Plato was born.
- Alexander the Great (356—323 BCE) had his divine heritage authenticated by interpretations of dreams and symbolism. His mother, Olympias, sensed a thunderbolt entering her womb the night before she married. Her new husband then had a dream of a snake. Apparently, these signs made for the rational conclusion that Apollo was Alexander’s biological father, in turn his Demi-god status was reflected in bravery and determination to conquer lands through the Mediterranean. It is through Alexander that Greek culture, beliefs, and language became the standard of many lands that Rome later ruled.
What Christians Say About Jesus’ Virgin Birth
Idle Googling of Christian blogs and chat rooms quickly reveals comparing virgin births of famous Ancient Greek men to Jesus is not welcomed. Logic, it appears, is no match for faith. Common sentiments include: “Those other examples of immaculate conceptions have not been passed down through accurate historical records like the story of Jesus within the Bible.” Which is often followed by: “The New Testament is the infallible word of God!”
I want to laugh because the situation is so bizarre.
Above: Map of the world indicating countries (in gray) that recognise December 25 as a public holiday to Celebrate Christmas. Source: Wiki Commons
Christmas Day Quiz Today is December 22, 2022, and in three days time countries around the globe will have a public holiday to celebrate Jesus’ historic birth in a manger. I would like to propose that as families sit around the dinner table, they discuss how many people in history have been conceived by a holy host or similar spiritual means? Virgin conception may be considered in various contexts of a miraculous intervention. Essentially, any human that came into existence other than the usual process of male sperm and fertilizing female ova may be considered. For instance, Romulus and Remus, Horus, Zoracaster, and so forth are all contenders. The creative ability of humans' to perceive supernatural forms of conception should be acknowledged and praised, I say.
How Did the Virgin Birth Become a Thing?
The cynical may say stories of virgin births were just an ancient means of unmarried mothers avoiding stigma, moreover, turning that stigma into glory. If so, I commentate women for rebuking patriarchal shame on single mothers. Alternatively, perhaps women were pulling the wool over men’s eyes and virgin births were a culturally approved way of covering up sex outside a formal partnership?
Either way, the concept of virgin births beacons the question of whether or not some people in the past were totally ignorant of the procreation process? I mean, did individuals, sometimes of very high intellect, really believe a woman could have a child without having sexual intercourse with a man? Apparently so.
The discovery of DNA, scientific understanding of genetics, and acceptance of non-nuclear families appear to have not done away with the belief in the impossible.
For what it’s worth, I get it. I totally understand why so many people still believe Jesus was miraculously born to a virgin. I was once a believer too.
Birth of Jesus, Vyšší Brod, c. 1350. Source: Wiki Commons
I was born and raised Catholic. As a child, I had it impressed upon me that Jesus’ virginal birth was a Holy event that needed to be duly reflected upon with reverence, especially at Christmas time.
Adding to the basic nativity story, I recall being told Mary never experienced any labour pain. Apparently, her baby flowed out from her womb in defiance of Eve’s sinful nature. Thus, she is the only female to have avoided the curse of labour pains God placed upon every other female. Mary was truly blessed.
As an adult, weighing up the evidence that supposedly supports the “fact” that Jesus was born to a virgin, feels like trying to fill up a sieve. It can appear full while the tap is running but as soon as it’s moved away from the facet, it’s obvious the vessel cannot hold the water. In other words, Jesus’ miraculous birth only appears valid when placed under a stream of Christian belief.
About a year ago, I wrote a blog in which I described my journey of deconstructing Jesus’ virgin birth. The path I took was not one of simple logic, rather it came about by investigating Biblical symbolism. In particular I’d been researching the Jewish practice of personifying religious structures using a family analogy. Initially, it came as a great shock to be confronted with the prospect that such a long held Christian teaching was a lie.
It was as though I’d had the “fact” that Jesus was born to a virgin poured over me so many times my sieve had become clogged. Holes needed to be poked clean before the reality of an empty vessel was clearly evident. A few years on, entertaining the idea that any man (Jesus, Pythagoras, Plato, Alexander, or any other) was ever literally born to a virgin mother sounds like a fairytale.
Summaries of Arguments Supporting Jesus’ Virgin Birth
- The Bible says so
- The Bible is the impeccable word of God (usually based on the premise it has been passed down through the ages without error)
The extent one wants to believe God’s divine intervention inspired the people who wrote the Bible is a subjective matter. Objectively, there is a lot of evidence to support the argument that the Bible has been translated so many times – through numerous cultures, changing social values, and various languages – that modern day editions are a far cry from the original.
In addition to the above points, some Christians may claim Jesus’ virgin birth was prophesied in the Old Testament, thus providing circumstantial evidence. Isaiah 7:14 is a popular verse to quote when making this claim:
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel (‘God is with us’).English Standard Version
However, in Hebrew the verse is more frequently interpreted as “young women”, not “virgin”. Thus a clash of values between Judaism and Greek is identifiable. In Hellenised groups it was culturally acceptable to call young women “virgins” but such colloquialism did not readily occur in Jewish communities.
Therefore the Lord Himself shall give you a sign: behold, the young woman shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.JPS Tanakh 1917
Christianity is a blend of many influences, most notably Jewish and Greek. The alignment of these cultures was not always straightforward. Therefore, perhaps the virgin/young women conflict is an innocent misunderstanding which has been further compounded by third parties who interpreted “virgin” to be a woman who never had sexual intercourse? Maybe, maybe not. Some people, like Rabbi Tovia Singer, are of the opinion the error was not innocent at all. Rather, Singer accuses Church Fathers of deliberately misconstruing Hebrew text so it aligned with Greco-Roman world views and values.
Summaries of Arguments for Rejecting Jesus’ Virgin Birth
The main reasons why I do not believe in the immaculate conception are (in no specific order of importance):
- Current scientific theory and understandings of human reproductive processes prove that parthenogenesis is impossible for our species.
- From a science fiction perspective, if the impossible were to happen and a virgin were to get pregnant, one of her eggs would have to produce, on its own, the biochemical changes indicative of fertilization, and then divide abnormally to compensate for the lack of sperm DNA. Consequently, if this rarity were to occur, due to the absence of a Y chromosome which only a father can supply, the child is more likely to be female not male.
- Judaism has a tradition of personifying characters and characteristics to convey meaning. Ie., Mary is the personification of the Christian Church, and her virginity reflects the idea of a Mother who is pure and free of (original) sin. Even the Pope is well aware of this symbolism.
- The word “virgin” can be interpreted in more than one way. Ie., young woman, daughter, and/or a woman who’s never had sexual intercourse with a man. Even if the Bible is the authentically inspired word of God, humans are not necessarily perfect translators and interpreters.
- History is filled with miraculous births that supposedly took place between earthly women and God/s. Given these are widely accepted as fictional, the premise that Jesus’ case is the only one that really happened and all others are myths, is highly unlikely.
- Accounts of Mary’s virginity are only recorded in the Gospel of Matthew and Luke, not Mark and John. Further, documents outside the canonised Gospels (like apocryphal writings and the Dead Sea scrolls) indicate Early Christians lacked agreement surrounding the details of Jesus’ birth, infancy, and upbringing. Did the Bishops who attended the Nicene Council in 325CE really get it right? Or is it possible political interests got in the way of discussions?
- Circumstantially, the depiction of Jesus being conceived by supernatural means can be viewed as a Greek literary device used to emphasise Him being an important man. Potentially, the sentiment “born to a virgin mother”, was never intended to be interpreted literally, it was merely a figure of speech.
- Some early sects of Christianity, known collectively as Gnostics, are renowned for their belief that the narrative of Jesus’ life was primarily symbolic. These Christians were later condemned as heretics by literalists, their beliefs outlawed, and their writings destroyed. According to the rulings of the Nicene, following any belief not approved by the Roman Catholic Church was an excommunicable offence.
- The authority of the Church, especially after it was Romanised, remained so strong that up until relatively recently, anyone who challenged its assertions of “facts” could still face dire consequences. A prime example is Isaac Newton who studied some of the oldest surviving scriptures written in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. He concluded forgeries and mistranslations were clearly evident. Specifically, he attested to Early Christians not following Trinitarian doctrines, which puts Jesus’ immaculate conception in further doubt. Newton kept his opinions to himself out of fears of losing his teaching career and the respect of his peers.
Overall, the chance and probably that Jesus was really the product of woman’s ova and Holy Spirit semen is very slim. My guesstimate, if all other virgin births throughout cultures and the ages are considered, is roughly one in a zillion.
Rejecting the idea that Jesus was physically the son of God does not necessarily mean there is no truth in the Biblical legacy of this man who wandered around Nazareth preaching a revised vision of Judaism. Street preachers were a lot more common 2000 years ago than now, and given most of the world still recognises his birth with a public holiday, Jesus was evidently more popular than most.
Personally, I find the notion that Jesus came into the world in the usual way very reassuring. If He was human, just like the rest of us, using him as a role model who embodied peace and love is a lot more realistic and relatable.
When Pythagoras, Plato, and Alexander were called “Jesus”
In Hellenistic traditions, to say a man was born of a virgin could be viewed as an euphemism that expressed greatness. The achievements of people like Pythagoras, Plato, and Alexandria were considered so extraordinary they were placed on the highest tier of patriarchal value: they were sons of the gods. In Ancient Greek, the saying was more likely to be the son of Zeus. In turn, it’s interesting to note, “Son of Zeus” in Ancient Greek era that overlaps with New Testament writings was “Iesus”, which literally translated into modern English is “Jesus” … therefore, one could say Pythagoras, Plato, and Alexandria were all “Jesus’” …
Perhaps the message Early Christians intended to spread was that every person on earth was the offspring of God?