Is the “Virgin Birth” of Jesus Grounded in Paganism?
“A friend says that the Bible account of Jesus’ virgin birth is a mere ‘myth’ that New Testament writers borrowed from the literature of ancient paganism. He says there were many virgin-birth stories, and that the ones in the Gospel accounts are no different from the others. Can you comment on this?”
The “pagan myth” charge, relative to the birth of Christ, is made frequently by the uninformed. Here is a classic example:
“The idea of a supernatural or virgin birth is pagan, and it must have found its way into the story of Jesus through Gentile-Christian channels” (Bundy, p. 11).
The truth is, however, there is a vast difference between the record of Christ’s conception and birth, as recorded in Matthew and Luke’s Gospel narratives, and those alleged “supernatural” births of primitive paganism. Here are some very important points worthy of reflection.
(1) Mary was a virgin girl of Nazareth. She was “betrothed” to Joseph but they had never been intimate (Mt. 1:25; Lk. 1:34). Her conception was a miracle (Mt. 1:18ff; Lk. 1:35ff).
(2) It must be stressed, however, that, unlike the stories of paganism which had maidens consorting with the gods, there is no indication whatever in the biblical accounts that Mary had any sort of sexual union — either with God the Father, or with the Holy Spirit. It was simply by the “power” of God that the conception occurred (Lk. 1:35).
(3) The scriptural narratives are not cumbered with the absurdities that are uniformly characteristic of the so-called “miracle” births of antiquity.
(4) The New Testament records of the virgin birth were penned by writers who stood in close historical proximity with the actual birth event. Matthew was one of the Lord’s apostles. And Luke, a physician (Col. 4:14) and first-rate historian, was a companion of Paul. He researched carefully the data regarding Jesus (Lk. 1:3).
Sir William Ramsay, once skeptical of Luke’s reliability, after much on-site research, was forced to conclude that “Luke’s history is unsurpassed in respect of its trustworthiness” (p. 81).
Both Matthew and Luke, of course, wrote under the oversight of the Spirit of God. Moreover, these men were willing to lay their lives on the line to authenticate the credibility of their messages.
What about the Pagan Accounts
By way of startling contrast, consider the data relative to the alleged “miraculous” birth of “the Buddha” — one of the supposed parallels, to which appeal is commonly made.
(1) The earliest records available are agreed that “the Buddha” (whose actual name was Siddhartha Gautama) was the son of a king of the Sakyas, a people of the warrior cast near the Himalayas in what is now Nepal. One ancient document speaks of his being wellborn on his mother’s and father’s side for seven generations (Digha Nikaya i.113). There is absolutely no early indication of a “virgin” birth.
(2) There are no authentic accounts of Buddha’s early life from historians contemporary with him. The oldest information relating to the life of Gautama is found in the Pali canon, which is believed to have originated about two hundred years after his death. And the even later stories, of a supposed “miracle” birth, enter the historical scene some five to ten centuries after the philosopher’s sojourn on earth (see Machen, p. 342). Such is hardly credible history.
(3) And so, centuries after his death (cir. 483 B.C.), legends regarding him evolved, some of which suggested an “unusual” birth —to express the matter as diplomatically as possible.
For example it is said that at the time of his conception his mother dreamed that a “white elephant” with “six tusks” entered her belly. Supposedly, Gautama left his mother’s womb (from her side) like a man descending “from a ladder.” The new-born child was described as having “legs like an antelope,” and having “webbed” feet and hands —hands that reached down to his knees even when standing erect. His skin was the color of gold and his head was shaped like a turban (see Boslooper, pp. 139ff, for full documentation).
Another legend, this one from Tibet, suggests that the Buddha was born from the “right arm pit” of his mother (McClintock, Vol. I, p. 907). Further comment regarding such absurdities are scarcely necessary.
The reckless claims of skeptical critics, who attempt to connect the New Testament narratives to such pagan fables, have been answered time and time again by competent scholars. Machen was exhaustive in his treatment of this matter.
Following his own critical examination of this theme, Louis Matthews Sweet wrote:
“After a careful, laborious, and occasionally wearisome study of the evidence offered and the analogies urged, I am convinced that heathenism knows nothing of virgin births. Supernatural births it has without number, but never from a virgin in the New Testament sense and never without physical generation, except in a few isolated instances of magical births on the part of women who had not the slightest claim to be called virgins. In all recorded instances which I have been able to examine, if the mother was a virgin before conception took place she could not make that claim afterward” (p. 188).
Even Thomas Boslooper, a modernist who repudiated the historical reality of a literal virgin birth of Christ, conceded:
“The literature of the world is prolific with narratives of unusual births, but it contains no precise analogy to the virgin birth in Matthew and Luke. Jesus’ ‘virgin birth’ is not ‘pagan’” (p. 136).
In conclusion we must firmly insist that those who contend that the record of the Lord’s virgin birth takes its rise out of a heathen background, simply are not informed relative to this topic. Or else, from a personally biased agenda, they choose to distort the facts.
- Boslooper, Thomas (1962), The Virgin Birth, Philadelphia: Westminster Press).
Bundy, Walter (1955), Jesus and the First Three Gospels (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).
Machen, J. Gresham (1930), The Virgin Birth of Christ (New York: Harper & Bros.).
McClintock, John & Strong, James (1968 Reprint), Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature (Grand Rapids: Baker).
Ramsay, William (1979 Reprint), The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament, Grand Rapids: Baker).
Sweet, Louis Matthews (1906), The Birth and Infancy of Jesus Christ (Philadelphia: Westminster).
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.