The deep anxiety of Christians is often revealed in their desperation to convince themselves they aren’t just new fangled pagans who stole everything from other religions. The virgin birth is a classic example, and the fact-challenged ill-logic of trying to deny it is best represented by the otherwise seemingly smooth and authoritative article Was the Virgin Birth of Jesus Grounded in Paganism? by Jon Sorensen, published in 2013 at Catholic Answers (obviously).
Another example, of course, is the dying-and-rising God mytheme, which I may treat more acutely in the future, but I’ve already demonstrated it was not only pagan, but fashionable among pagans by the time the Jews decided they wanted one of their own (see On the Historicity of Jesus, pp. 45-47, 56-58, 98-100, 105-06, 168-73, 225-29). Derreck Bennett’s Ehrman Errs: Yes, Bart, There Were Dying & Rising Gods is also a good effort at trying to catalog the same point, although I think there are errors in Bennett’s article as well, and the task of fixing them will benefit from examining the parallel case of the same debate over where the idea of a virgin birth came from.
What I’ve Said Before
Bart Ehrman is one of those secular historians who, all too often, can’t be bothered to check his facts, but just repeatedly apes Christian apologetics, again and again, on both the dying-and-rising mytheme (no, Dr. Ehrman, Jonathan Z. Smith did not refute that mytheme; he didn’t even address 99% of the evidence for it, but flat out ignored almost all of it, and focused on only one obscure and consequently irrelevant example—much as did, also, N.T. Wright), as well as the virgin-birth mytheme. For example, in reviewing his infamously miseducating Huffington Post article on the historicity of Jesus, I noted:
Ehrman says “we do not have accounts of others who were born to virgin mothers and who died as an atonement for sin and then were raised from the dead (despite what the sensationalists claim ad nauseum [sic] in their propagandized versions).” Taken strictly literally, this sentence is true. But that is misleading, and therefore disingenuous. As such, it amounts to a straw man (at least of many mythicists; some few mythicists, the more incompetent of them, make that specific claim, but attacking only the weakest proponent of a position is precisely what makes this a fallacy). No competent mythicist makes this claim. Rather, they claim that virgin-born gods were a common phenomenon in the region at the time and dying-and-rising gods were a common phenomenon in the region at the time (in precisely the way these were not anywhere else, e.g. in ancient China), and so for Jews to suddenly start claiming they have one, too, looks pretty easily explained in terms of standard theories of cultural diffusion. (See my chapter on the origins of Christianity in The End of Christianity, ch. 2, pp. 53-74.)
[He is forced to assume T]hat they “just happened” to come up with the idea of a virgin born son of god, when surrounded by virgin born sons of god, as if by total coincidence. (Can you imagine it? They independently think up the idea, then go preaching around Gentile cities and discover there are all these other virgin born sons of god…why, golly gee, what a coincidence! See Not the Impossible Faith, pp. 76-78, near the end of chapter 2, where Perseus is an example recognized even by early Christians as being “virgin born”; and to which can be added … Ra, in the tradition that had him born of the virgin Neith; … etc.).
What we see here is what we see in standard Christian apologetics like Sorensen’s: false claims about the facts (anyone who says there were no virginally-born deities in pre-Christian pagan mythology is either a liar or incompetent as a historian), and shocking fallacies of reasoning (as with here, assuming only “virgin born dying-and-rising gods” count, thus allowing you to ignore all the actual virgin-born gods; insisting a remarkable coincidence is more likely than a commonplace phenomenon like cultural diffusion, contrary to the very laws of mathematics and the entire science of cultural anthropology; and pretending that if there was any variant of a myth that removed the sexless conception, we can conclude there was no variant of the myth that contained it, even though we know for a fact the latter variant existed). We’ll see Sorensen twisting his mind up with the same fallacies and falsities.
Some of Ehrman’s mistakes could just be bad writing. For example, he says, “In none of the stories of divine humans born from the union of a god and a mortal is the mortal a virgin” (p. 24). When I first looked at this line, nearly two hundred people had highlighted it in the kindle edition, showing the danger of Ehrman’s lazy writing (or thinking? or research?) miseducating the public. As an expert, I know enough to imagine that what he actually means is “remains” a virgin, not “was” a virgin. Certainly many divine conceptions in Greek and Roman legend were bestowed upon virgins, in fact that was a common trope (for obvious narrative reasons: the only way to be sure the conception was supernatural is if the mother had never yet been with a man, especially, if such was the case, whichever man she was at the time married or betrothed to).
For example, Plutarch says legend had it the mother of Romulus was a virgin, impregnated mysteriously by the god Mars while she was locked away (specifically to prevent that very thing). One might suppose this was accomplished sexually, but that isn’t really as relevant a distinction as Ehrman makes out. And here yet again Ehrman simply acts like a Christian apologist, arguing as if this distinction matters, when in fact it doesn’t: all syncretism combines the borrowed concept, here a god impregnating a virgin to establish divine patrimony, with a native concept, here the common Jewish disgust for sex, which motivated the Judaizing of the borrowed mytheme by simply deleting the sexual element from it (see That Luxor Thing). But even the absence of sex is attested in pagan mythology. Most famously, in the case of Perseus, a golden shower (drops of gold falling from the ceiling into his mother’s vagina) is far closer to Mary being overshadowed by the Holy Spirit (just as magical a substance, which just as surely went into her womb to impregnate her). So she remained as much a virgin as Mary did, as even early Christians conceded (Justin, for example, had to admit Perseus was born of a virgin). There were also sexless conceptions of other kinds, for example in the myth that has Hera giving birth to Hephaestus by act of will rather than sexual union. So the Jews did not want for precedent in pagan mythography.
So did Ehrman simply misstate what he meant, by accident? In the example he cites, Ehrman says the woman was not a virgin even before the god visited her (Alcmena, who “had already had sex with her husband”), so bad writing does not appear to be the best explanation of this error. It certainly looks like Ehrman is falsely saying there were no women in these divine conception legends who were virgins when first approached by a god, which is incorrect. Even the mother of Alexander the Great claimed God had impregnated her on her wedding night (in the form of a thunderbolt; later the story became it was a giant snake), before her husband had consummated their marriage. And obviously she had to, otherwise Alexander’s divine patrimony would be in question. Similarly the famous Osiris myth, carved into the very pyramids, describes the God getting with the mother on her wedding night, disguised as her husband, before her real husband gets his turn (see, again, That Luxor Thing). And precisely the same was being said of Plato in the Christian era (as Origen reported, “For some have thought fit…to relate as a possible thing that Plato was the son of Amphictione, Ariston being prevented from having marital intercourse with his wife until she had given birth to him with whom she was pregnant by Apollo,” Against Celsus 37). So Ehrman’s example of Alcmena is disingenuous and deeply misleading.
I’ll parse the nuances here again when I get to Sorensen. But by being so incompetent with words that Ehrman actually claims no women were virgins even when they conceived a demigod by sexual union (losing their virginity to that demigod’s heavenly father, at least in legend), we have a gross misstatement of fact (Alexander and Romulus already refute it; Ra and Perseus only refute it more). Errors are excusable, if you correct them (even in this very article I’m correcting some past errors of my own). But will Ehrman correct his? The past suggests not. But here’s to hoping.
And that point comes even before we get to noticing that there were also full-on virgin births (at the very least, Perseus and Ra) and conceptions without sexual union regardless of the mother’s virginity otherwise (Hephaestus, directly created in Hera’s womb; Mithras, spontaneously born from a rock; and Dionysus, in the myth by which his mother Semele conceives him a second time by drinking a potion; and many more I’ll enumerate shortly), which are actually far more pertinent precedents of the the ideas stolen by the Jews to invent such a comparable miraculous origin for Jesus (in defiance of even their own logic that he was supposed to be conceived by the seed of David, or in any case the seed of his necessarily human descendants—hence Matthew’s genealogy for Joseph, for example).
Not knowing how syncretism works is also evident here, and also a sign of incompetence to discuss the history of any religion, much less Christianity, which originated in a massive nexus of cultural cross-pollination (see OHJ, Element 30, pp. 164-68)—contrary to claims, typical from Christian apologists, that the Jews were so insular they would never have known any of these things, which is not even true of Judea, much less the authors of the Gospels, whose education in Greek composition would have been saturated in Greek mythology.
Now to illustrate these points for Sorensen.
The Actual Facts
Sorensen skirts every substantive point to instead make issues out of irrelevancies until you feel like he has actually debunked the idea that the Jews stole virgin mothers and sexless conceptions from the pagans all around them. By this convoluted device, he probably even convinces himself of this. But just as with Ehrman, at every twist and turn Sorensen makes, we have errors of fact and logic. Without which, he’d crash headlong into the realization that, well, yeah, the Jews got this idea from the pagans. Just like they stole almost everything else that defined them from the pagans (circumcision, pagan; pork taboo, pagan; resurrection, pagan; monotheism, pagan; the apocalypse, pagan; hellfire, pagan; on the Zoroastrian origin of many of these beliefs, see my discussion and sources in Not the Impossible Faith, pp. 90-99).
Sorensen focuses specifically on:
[T]he claim that other pagan deities were also born miraculously of virgins, making the birth of Jesus nothing new in the history of world religions. As the argument goes; Horus, Osirus [sic], Mithras, Dyonisus [sic], Krishna, and others all fit this description. In fact, as it is often claimed, there are also heroes and historical figures like Ion, Romulus, Asclepius, and Alexander the Great who were believed to be the generation of gods and virgin women.
Of course it’s easy to straw man this by picking on the figures that don’t quite fit. For instance, all the actual birth narratives for Horus were not virginal, but involved sexual acts at conception (either with gods, or their dismembered penises, or magical dildos acting as stand-ins). Now, one could quibble and say a woman who only ever has sex with a magical golden dildo remains a virgin (as maybe many a Christian woman is wont to do today), but we shouldn’t straw man his position, either. What Sorensen wants to say is that a sexless conception is a unique idea, and perhaps being born to a virgin, too, is unique; that the Christians were the first to contrive these things. And therefore, perhaps he would then try to insist, it must have actually happened! Because no one ever invents anything in the history of religions. Oh no…wait, that would mean every detail of every religion on earth wasn’t ever invented and therefore is true! Uh oh. Okay, so he’s not going to be able to get much use out of the result that Christians invented the virgin birth concept. But at least he could say they invented it! “Woo hoo!”
Except, no. They didn’t.
It’s important, first off, to distinguish two different things here: sexless conception, and virgin birth. You might think the latter entails the former, but that depends on what you mean. Sometimes you can have really weird combinations. Consider the goddess Hera. Definitely not a virgin, by the standard that she has in her mythology plenty of sex. She might not get much amour from her philandering husband Zeus, but at least enough to beget a gaggle of children. And yet she “regains her virginity” every year by taking a magical bath. So technically, by that concept, every one of her children was virgin born. Just not virginally conceived. Well, all except for Hephaestus, who was not conceived by any sexual act at all (not even with magical dildos). Hera simply willed the existence of his fetus into her womb. Sound familiar? Hmm. And since she is per balneum magicum always a virgin when she gives birth, Hephaestus was also virgin born!
This makes the background difficult to tangle with for the likes of Sorensen. He would balk and insist magic can’t restore virginity, or at least not in the way he wants to matter. Once a goddess has had sex, you can’t ever wash that stink off! Not even with magic. Apparently. Somehow Sorensen knows best how physiology works in mythological worlds. But anyway. We can grant I suppose that if he wants to be super-specific and say, well, okay, Hephaestus was a well-known, virgin born, sexlessly conceived god who predates Jesus, but “I” mean born to a woman who never had sex, regardless of what “you” weirdo pagans mean by virginity. And by that standard, Hephaestus is not virgin born per se. Although we’re pretty damn close. A god not conceived sexually but grown in a womb by Divine will alone, and born to a woman everywhere proclaimed a virgin at the time. That’s starting to sound super familiar, don’t you think?
But here we also have that “variant myths” fallacy just waiting to happen. Because in some versions of the Hephaestus myth, he is conceived by the usual way: sex with Zeus. But you can’t use that as an excuse to ignore the very popular (arguably the more popular) variant in which he is conceived by direct will of Hera (indeed specifically to defy Zeus for all his having sex with other women). That’s Hesiod’s take. The ordinary one is Homer’s. And Hesiod’s mythography was often regarded as the more canonical. But regardless, Hesiod’s version was extraordinarily well known. Since Hesiod was a standard school text, right alongside Homer. Meanwhile the Argive “virgin Hera” cult was a mystery religion well enough known to be attested in Pausanias (and as Marguerite Rigoglioso documents in Virgin Mother Goddesses of Antiquity, we have inscriptions to the effect, verifying the fact).
In other words, the idea of a virgin born, sexlessly conceived god already widely existed in paganism before Christianity arose. And Hera isn’t the only example. If you really insist on the idea being gods born of women who never had sex at all, the pagans had those, too. Perseus was most famously conceived by golden rain falling from the ceiling into the womb of the virgin Danaë, who remained a true virgin, never penetrated by any sexual organ anywhere, all the way to the god’s birth. One might still quibble and say gold coins counts as sex (as later painters imagined the myth to imply), but that’s a stretch, and in any case, it’s neither how the notion was conceived in antiquity (ancient iconography showed the gold falling in droplets, like a literal rain, more evocative of a ubiquitous urban myth of parthenogenesis: semen entering a womb without any organ penetrating the hymen) nor how it was universally understood by pagans: as even Justin Martyr had to admit, this counted as a virgin birth, and everyone said so.
“When I hear, Trypho, that Perseus was begotten of a virgin,” Justin insists, “I understand that the deceiving serpent counterfeited also this,” meaning he can only explain how the idea of a virgin birth preceded Christianity by proposing Satan invented it, so as to discredit Christianity before the fact (Dialogue with Trypho 70). Notably, that he has to resort to this ridiculous defense, rather than “Danaë wasn’t a virgin” or any such argument, is proof positive the virginity of Danaë in legend was well-established and everywhere proclaimed and understood. Hence, Justin elsewhere concedes, “if we even affirm that [Jesus] was born of a virgin, accept this in common with what you accept of Perseus,” thus indeed arguing there was nothing unusual about virgin born gods among the pagans (Apology 1.22). The analogy was recognizably strong to Justin, for whom rather than golden drops, Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, understood in antiquity to be a magical substance, the pneuma, that could enter and fill people, and effect changes in the world. What material element the god used to effect the conception could not be a relevant distinction. The conceptions are otherwise effectively identical.
Then there is Romulus, for whom an analogous myth was constructed. To compel her continuing virginity like Danaë, Rhea Silvia was forced to join the ancient equivalent of a convent, where legend had it she was ravished either by a rapist or a god (in iconography, while she slept, having been roofied). But that there was such a rumor his mother really had sex, and this was just an excuse, was just as true of Jesus, about whom the same thing was said (that Mary actually had sex with the Roman soldier Pantera, and sold the holy spirit story as a cover). So the difference is not that great. But here at least we have no explicit variant that has God the Father (whether Mars or Hercules, variants have either) employ miraculous means instead of ordinary. Though the legend, related in Plutarch’s biography, in which Romulus declares to Proculus that he was a pre-existent god who had become incarnate (another direct analogy with Jesus in Christian theology, even as early as the time of Paul), would normally entail Romulus could not have been begotten by intercourse, we still have no extant version of that account, whatever it was. So I think we can knock Romulus off the list of good examples. His mother was famously “a virgin,” but in a less exact sense.
A better example is Alexander the Great, whose “mythical” conception came either by a snake (in presumably sexual fashion) or in the form of lightning from heaven, striking the virgin mother Olympias as she slept before her groom consummated their marriage, a decidedly sexless conception, and one much closer in model to Justin’s idea of Mary being impregnated by “the Spirit and Power of God,” a description assignable to a thunderbolt, since lightning is an ephemeral substance like the pneuma, and a very manifestation of the power of god. But here, though we have sexless conception, Olympias is not a virgin by the time she gives birth. So we only have half the idea in place. Similarly in the myth of Io’s impregnation by a “light touch and breath” from Zeus (Aeschylus, Suppliants 16-18), a sexless conception, though still of a non-virgin (although curiously this is exactly the same way Jesus impregnated the Disciples with the Holy Spirit: John 20:22, 25, 27). The same can be said of Nana’s sexless conception of Attis: by placing a magical almond on her belly (Pausanias, Guide to Greece 7.17.8; Arnobius, Against the Pagans 5.6.7). Nana was certainly a virgin (because in her legend, at becoming pregnant, her father unjustly punishes her for having sex), and although the almond came from a tree that grew from a severed penis, that’s still several steps removed from sex. So now we’re getting even closer. And then we have the whole idea in place for the Egyptian tradition of Neith: Neith was indeed a virgin goddess, who gave birth to gods spontaneously, among them Ra. That’s right, she conceives children without the involvement of any man, whether god or mortal, and remains a virgin at birth (see Barbara Lesko, The Great Goddesses of Egypt, pp. 45-63; and the brief at Wikipedia). You can’t get a clearer precedent than that.
Ra, Hephaestus, and Perseus thus remain the most secure exemplars. And Perseus was the most familiar, which is why Justin names him as his prime example of a widely known virgin birth before Jesus. Apart from the method being golden raindrops rather than an infusion of pneuma, all the elements are identical: the mother conceives sexlessly and is a virgin still when she gives birth to the god. But this wasn’t just an amazing one-off. There clearly was a fashion for the idea. Hints of wanting a virgin mother for a god can be found even in the Romulus tale. And in the legend of Plato’s divine conception. And outright sexless conception existed in some of the Alexander legends that Christians could readily borrow from, simply swapping out pneuma for lightning, and keeping the mother from catching any dick—as any sex-disgusted Jewish authors would prefer. Similarly, Dionysus was conceived (albeit a second time) by his mother drinking a magic potion with his muddled organs in it (according to The Fables of Hyginus, par. 167); and though she was not a virgin then or after, we still have in this popularly known tale the pre-Christian concept of a god being conceived without a sexual act (or indeed anything at all penetrating the vagina).
We also have the case of Mithras, who in iconography was spontaneously born from the living rock. Though not exactly the same as having a human mother, this is exactly the same as being spontaneously formed without sex, thus evincing once again the popularity of this concept, ripe for the stealing in any adaptation. Erechtheus, the mythical founder of Athens, was also born of Mother Earth, in result of divine semen being wiped off of Athena’s thigh and thrown onto the ground, which is as strange a para-sexual conception as one can imagine. Except perhaps the men born from planted dragon’s teeth. But in each of these cases, we again have sexless conceptions, without penetration, and in some cases even without semen. I won’t count in this list the birth of Athena, though, since though she sprang from Zeus’ head (and fully armed just like Mithras), that was only after having been conceived the normal way and Zeus having eaten her pregnant mother. However, the Roman version of this myth, applied to their parallel goddess Minerva (one of the most well-known goddesses in the Western world), omitted that part, thus imagining a truly spontaneous birth. In fact, they created a dual narrative of sexless conceptions: Jupiter’s consort Juno was so offended that he could spontaneously create a person out of his head that she contrived to do the same, and by touching a magic flower to her belly, thus begat Mars. Here we have two sexless conceptions, and a good example of syncretism causing exactly that innovation: the Romans evidently found the Athena story distasteful and thus removed the sex from it; the Jews would have done the same, and for the same reason. No more explanation needed.
Perseus is still a more apt example than those. There we have a magical substance impregnating a woman who remains a proper unpenetrated virgin all the way through birth, just like for Jesus (the only difference being the substance). But second to Perseus is Hephaestus, born to Hera, who maintained virginity by magic (albeit still engaging in sex from time to time), and thereby by some even worshiped as a virgin, and then conceived a god entirely sexlessly—in fact by her own direct act of divine will, which is a direct precedent for how the Christians invented the conception of Jesus. She also birthed him in her magically virginal state, thus evincing another form of virgin born god.
But even more apposite than Perseus as precedent was Ra. Though as a god more obscure, being limited mostly to Egypt, Egypt neighbors Judea, and contained an enormous community of Jewish scholars making pilgrimages to Judea. Justin was writing to a Roman audience a whole continent away. But the originators of the virgin birth narrative of Jesus could easily have had strong connections with colleagues from Egypt, or been from there themselves. And in this pre-Christian mythology, we have every element: a mother who never has sex with anyone and remains a perpetual virgin, who conceives a child by direct act of spontaneous divine will (albeit her own, like Hera), and births them while a virgin. So it cannot be claimed even this notion was not pagan or pre-Christian. (BTW, attempts to equate Neith with Isis or Cleopatra as also virginal mothers are not well-founded: see my discussion in That Luxor Thing Again.)
Raymond Brown’s famous commentary The Birth of the Messiah adds more to this conclusion (his entire discussion of Mary’s virginal birth covers pp. 517-33). Brown was a Catholic like Sorensen, and relies on the singular fallacy of “if it’s not exactly the same, it can’t have influenced them.” But Brown still had to admit that Plutarch attested to a widespread notion among pagans that gods could indeed impregnate women directly through their “divine spirit” (pneuma theou) and “divine power” (dunamis theou) rather than sexual intercourse (Plutarch, Dinner Questions 8.1.717-18 and Numa 4.1-4; Brown, TBM, p. 602, n. 83); exactly the same words used of how God impregnated Mary. And Plutarch evinced the same ideological preference for such a notion himself, finding the idea of gods having sex distasteful and thus this other method superior to imagine, just as the Jewish authors of the Jesus myth would have. Thus, Plutarch’s pagan fondness for sexless conception was shared by the Jewish authors of the Gospels, which is therefore already an adequate explanation of why they would choose that mechanism over the other. Pagan precedent existed. They chose the precedent that didn’t gross them out. Voila.
Brown insists that one substance (the “neuter” gendered “Holy Spirit”) is so radically different from another (Zeus’ breath; or magical golden droplets) that the latter is too icky sexual to have inspired Jews to borrow the idea. But this is a bogus argument. That they would prefer the one substance to the other is precisely their Jewish contribution to the syncretic hybrid. It therefore does not argue against their having gotten the idea from these pagan precedents at all. Paganism was awash with sexless conceptions and virgin births. They had many models to choose from, even ones that involved no “icky sexy stuff” at all (Ra; Mithras; Minerva; Mars), and even many of those that did, were so close to what they ended up with as to defy any claim they weren’t so inspired: e.g., replacing golden rain with holy pneuma, a la Danaë; or simply deleting the mother ever having sex but keeping her totally sexless conception and renowned virginity at birth, a la Hera; or both, replacing one symbol of divine power for another (pneuma for lightning) and adapting the resulting sexless conception to a betrothed virgin instead of a married bride, a la Olympias. Even Io, impregnated by divine breath, and Dionysus, born of a potion (his second time around), afforded models to adapt. All you needed was the desire that the mother be unsullied. A notion already extant in paganism (Ra; Perseus). And then the rest remained to choose from—as pagan mythology proliferated plenty of ways for gods to impregnate someone without sex, up to and including simply willing the fetus into existence (Neith; Hera).
So the notion that the virgin birth was not a lift from paganism is highly improbable. The idea is obviously a Jewish adaptation of a popular motif in surrounding cultures. There is no other credible explanation for why it ever became important to claim such a thing of Jesus. Just as “our God must be able to do things your God can” led to syncretistic innovation within Judaism (whereby, for example, the Jews suddenly “discovered” their God would resurrect them, at oddly the very same time they learned the Zoroastrian God would), so “our godman must be as awesome as your godmen” had the same effect. Thus, Jesus couldn’t be sexually conceived, because that was gross, and yet he had to be a pre-existent being inserted into a woman’s womb to reify prophecy. A conundrum. But as soon as Jews saw how the pagans solved this problem for their godmen, they would obviously have stolen the very same solution. This is how all ideas and technologies proliferate from one culture to another. “Well if pagan gods can directly create fetuses just with their divine pneuma, then so can ours, damnit!”
A good treatment of the virgin-born precedent and how it influenced Christianity is in M. David Litwa’s Iesus Deus: The Early Christian Depiction of Jesus as a Mediterranean God, in a chapter he amusingly entitles, “Not Through Semen, Surely” (pp. 37-68). It’s endnotes contain an ample bibliography of the latest and best scholarship on the subject. Highly recommended. Litwa covers the whole cultural context more thoroughly than I have, and focuses on the general theological remarks of Plutarch that I referenced above. And he comes to the obvious conclusions. He also debunks Christian apologetic attempts to deny our obvious conclusions. Among which he reiterates a point I’ve been making so well I have to quote him:
[Raymond] Brown’s statement that “there is no exact parallel” between Jesus’ divine conception and that of other heroes and gods in the ancient Mediterranean—though often repeated—is founded (it seems to me) on a misunderstanding of the very nature of comparison. The first rule of comparison is that it does not assert identity. As a result, there is never an “ exact ” parallel.
In other words, that argument is a fallacy. The same fallacy that would have us conclude that Westside Story cannot possibly have been at all influenced by Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. Christians who repeat this argument do not make themselves look intelligent. They make themselves look foolish.
So how does Sorensen avoid admitting any of this? How does he maneuver his way into concluding the Christian claim of a virgin born god was then unique to history?
He starts by insisting that in every instance of the putative pagan parallels, either:
- The pagan god is not born of a virgin mother.
- The birth of the pagan god is the result of a sexual encounter.
- The parallel exists, but the Christian tradition antedates the pagan mythology.
This is, of course, false. Ra is born of a virgin mother, was not conceived sexually, and predates Christian mythology (by a lot). Perseus, too, is born of a virgin mother, was not conceived any more sexually than Jesus was (both Perseus and Jesus involve magical fluids impregnating their respective mothers), and also long predates Christian tradition (and was even acknowledged by early Christians themselves as doing so). Hephaestus was also in popular conception born of a virgin (albeit a magically reinstated virginity), was not conceived by any material means at all, and again in a tradition well antedating Christianity.
But even that list disguises the plethora of precedents. Because Sorensen is fallaciously assuming all these attributes had to be in a single god for the precedents to be available to assemble the Christian myth from. But that’s not true either. Sexless conceptions abounded, in many examples. Christians would have been influenced by all of these traditions. So, for example, with ample variety of sexless conceptions in pagan mythology to inspire them, including sexless conceptions to virgins (as in the famous case of Olympias) who just didn’t stay virgins. That’s all the pagan inspiration needed to spark the whole construct. Syncretism explains the rest: the remaining-a-virgin component is then the Jewish contribution to the hybrid idea. But we don’t even need to propose that, because, again, pagan mythology already showed these innovating Christians several models for actual virgin births.
By drawing the trichotomy as Sorensen has, he has blocked his mind from seeing the obvious possibility of combining pagan sexless conceptions with Jewish adoration of virgins to produce a pagan-Jewish hybrid, the Son of a Virgin. But he has also simply not even examined the facts. He has, in fact, studiously avoided them. And so he not only floats on a fallacy, but also asserts what is simply false: that no pagan gods were sexlessly conceived and born to virgins in pre-Christian mythology. Because notably, his article never mentions Ra, Perseus, or Hephaestus. That’s weird. Because those are three of the strongest examples of the very pagan precedent he claims didn’t exist. In fact, they are the three examples that refute him. So it’s very convenient of him to pretend they don’t exist.
Sorensen also violates the first rule of comparison, as noted by Litwa. He insists Mithras can’t have inspired Christianity, because virgins and rocks have nothing in common. He thus ignores what in fact their stories do have in common: spontaneous generation by God without sex. Though here at least we have a Jewish analog in Adam and Eve (and the Angels), so such an idea needn’t have come from contact with Mithraism. Though it’s part of a fashion for asexually conceived gods, it may well not be the precedent that sparked the Christian idea. So we’ll give Sorensen a pass on this one.
Similarly his rejection of Krishna as a parallel. There I agree we can’t show that the story doesn’t derive from the diffusion of Christian ideas, rather than the other way around. We can’t establish it was pre-Christian at all. Not even close. He also rejects it on the grounds that the mother in that story was never a virgin, only the conception was sexless. But that’s his same fallacy, which we already dispatched above. But the “the Christian tradition antedates the pagan mythology” argument is one that, though here correct, is often not. Other apologists will often want to say that things reported by second century authors like Apuleius or Plutarch cannot evince pre-Christian traditions, but that’s false three ways from Sunday. Not only can they (and sometimes do) specifically cite or quote pre-Christian authors (and, sometimes, not only are there still pre-Christian sources surviving), but it’s generally impossible that something reported as being a ubiquitously central component of a pagan cult in the second century was “borrowed from” Christianity, an invisible, almost universally unknown—and when known, hated and damned as barbaric—religion. Christianity cannot have had such an influence, certainly not so early, and definitely not so widely. If Christianity looks a lot like ancient, long-established pagan cults in the second century, it almost certainly means their similarities with it long predate it.
Sorensen then tackles Horus, Romulus, and Dionysus. Straw men if ever there were. I already noted there is no good evidence for a sexless conception of Horus (unless, perhaps like a Catholic high school girl, you insist sex with dildos isn’t really sex). And Dionysus, too, is conceived the usual way, and is only conceived a second time (after being killed, minced, and mixed into a potion) without sexual union. Though Sorensen doesn’t seem aware of that myth, which at least establishes an inspiring precedent—it’s part of the fashion for sexless conceptions that would have contributed to giving Christian authors the same general idea—but the god was still conceived at least once by sex, and his mother was never a virgin. Sorensen is also right that Romulus is too ambiguous to include as a precedent. His mother was famously a virgin (and the god could have been conceived miraculously), but the trending legends were otherwise, and though there are hints of a variant tradition, we don’t have it.
Sorensen then tackles the Alexander myth, but shows no signs of having researched it. He doesn’t seem to know anything about the “conception by electricity” variant. And he seems to think if there were other variants (like the “snake sex” one, although he doesn’t mention that, either), that the relevant variant can be ignored—another fallacy I pointed out at the beginning of this article. But no. That’s not rational. All that matters is that there was a widely known myth that included a sexless conception in the womb of a virgin. That there were other versions is no more relevant to that fact than the fact that there were other versions of the Jesus myth that had him conceived sexually (not just from polemics, but as even Paul can be taken to have claimed in Romans 1).
And that’s it. Sorensen doesn’t address any of the other evidence I document above; the evidence he does address, most of it he addresses illogically or inaccurately; and he specifically overlooks all the best examples refuting his thesis. Christian apologetics at its finest.
The virgin birth myth for Jesus was, certainly, almost entirely modeled on Jewish precedents, both in and out of the Bible—from the miraculous impregnation of Sarah in the OT, to the miraculous conception of Moses in Philo’s Life of Moses and the Biblical Antiquities. But it was a syncretic creation, combining those Jewish elements, with pagan, producing a hybrid, just like every other instance of cultural diffusion (e.g. the way the Romans altered the Athena story when adapting it to Minerva): something different from anything before, yet fully explained by all its precedents. I should also add, for those who will inevitably ask, yes, it’s true, the original Hebrew scriptures did not predict a virgin birth, although their Greek translations could still have inspired the idea, evidencing a third source, the paganized Judaism of Hellenism: see my discussion in The Problem of the Virgin Birth Prophecy.
More relevant though I think was the fact that the idea of God spontaneously creating people was already a Jewish notion for centuries before Christianity came along: it’s precisely how Adam and Eve came to be. If God could fashion them without sex, he could fashion Jesus without sex. Just as he would fashion our future new bodies without sex (2 Corinthians 5). And like Romulus as a pre-existent deity given a body, Jesus was a pre-existent deity given a body (see OHJ, Element 10, pp. 92-96), making sexual conception less pertinent a means anyway, even if the authors were not already disgusted by the idea of sex and thus already inclined to leave it out of any pagan model they borrowed from.
But borrow they did. Before Christianity arose, pagan theology was already awash with women conceiving asexually, and also promulgated the idea of women giving birth as still virgins. Judaism had no comparable idea. Even the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 would have been read by Jews through a Jewish interpretational filter—a filter that lacked any other notion except that a virgin would conceive on her wedding night in the usual way—until they had a pagan filter to see it through. Only then, though Isaiah 7 never mentions a virgin birth (only that a maiden will become pregnant; not that she would then remain a maiden), would any Jew imagine it could have said what pagans might have imagined: that this mother will remain a virgin, thus portending a miracle. That step in reasoning is pagan. And only comes from a pagan milieu. The Christians assimilated their godman to pagan godmen, by Judaizing the pagan elements required. Thus, they preferred the pagan godmen who were fathered sexlessly by God’s pneuma and dynamis (a la Plutarch), upon women who chastely never had sex with anyone else either, so that even the vagina itself that the godman would pass through would be pure of sexual corruption. Ra came by such a way. Perseus as well. And if we allow revirginizing magic, Hephaestus, too. And if they, why not Jesus?
Christians just need to get over this, and accept that their religion is just another evolution of paganism, one more splinter sect of competitive superstitions and mythologies. Its ideas have been cobbled together from the dismembered parts of other religions that preceded it. And when you really think about it, this Frankenstein’s monster is, well, kind of silly. Sexless reproduction and virginal birth canals? How desperate must you be to deny the natural facts of human bodies. And how ruined and sullied your minds must be, to think there is anything at all bad or dirty about one random awkwardly shaped piece of flesh touching another for fun—or babies.