By: LARRY SITES
Re: Virgin birth myth 1
The following posts are from the electronic version of
THE STORY OF RELIGIOUS CONTROVERSY
from Bank of Wisdom, Box 926, Louisville, KY 40201
This file was downloaded from America OnLine.
THE MYTH OF THE VIRGIN BIRTH
THERE are few doctrines of the Christian faith so vulnerable,
so slight in their foundations, as this of the virgin birth of
Jesus. It is the feeblest statement about Jesus in the whole of the
Gospels. It is unknown to Paul. It grows under our eyes in the New
Testament. And from end to end of the Greco-Roman world, in which
the books of the New Testament were gradually evolved, we find the
mythical material which is suggestively wrought into the familiar
Let us first examine the story in the Gospels. The earliest
Christian writings are Paul's Epistles. Paul insists that Jesus was
"born of a woman"; but who the woman was he cares not the toss of
a coin, and he knows of no miracle in the conception.
The next writing, chronologically, is the Gospel of Mark. As
we have it, there is no proof that it existed within forty years of
the death of Christ; yet it is ignorant of the tremendous miracle
of the virgin birth. Jesus, in Mark, enters history, becomes more
than an ordinary man, at the age of thirty. Apparently the original
Mark was just a description of a singularly gifted prophet who was
called by God, or converted by John, in his early manhood.
Matthew, the next Gospel, also seems in its original form to
have known nothing unusual about the birth of Jesus. The first two
chapters are an afterthought. The Gospel really begins, at the
third chapter, as that of Mark does. Then someone prefaced it with
one of the two genealogies of Jesus that were in circulation (i,
1-17). Next -- the new beginning is quite clear -- somebody added
a short account of how Jesus was born (i, 18-25). Lastly some other
hand added the legends of Chapter ii.
Luke, a later Gospel, has a much more developed version of the
conception and the birth, How, by the way, we have come to speak,
as we always do, about the "virgin birth" or "miraculous birth," I
do not know. It is the conception, not the birth, that is held to
have been miraculous. The practice has misled more than one
Rationalist into thinking that the "immaculate conception" of Mary
-- that is to say, the conception of Mary by her mother -- is the
same thing as the virgin birth of Jesus.
However, let us look closely at this late story given in Luke.
Strange, isn't it, that Mary and Elizabeth and Zacharias had such
remarkable experiences, and kept them such a dead secret that Paul
and Mark never heard of them! One desperate and learned divine,
Professor Sanday, suggests that Mary, late in life, confided these
things (including, I suppose, the very words of the long impromptu
poem she composed) to a lady friend, and she, late in life,
confided them to the writer of Luke. But Professor Sanday forgets
to explain the long secrecy. Four times in the New Testament the
brothers of Jesus are mentioned, yet Mary is supposed to have known
that he had none. Joseph knew it still better. For some mysterious
reason the great events of Chapters i and ii, which would have
converted half of Galilee, had to remain a family secret until the
end of the century.
Well, let us try again. We are first told that a priest named
Zacharias had a barren wife, and "an angel of the Lord" appeared
and told him that his wife would have a son. This son is to be
"great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor
strong drink"; and then the angel went and said much the same to
Mary, except that her son was to be fatherless.
Now, divines very delicately avoid bringing to the notice of
their readers another passage of the Bible which I will here
reproduce. It is many centuries older than Luke -- it is in Judges,
Chapter xiii -- and is really interesting:
2. And there was a certain man of Zorah ... and his wife
was barren and bare not.
3. And the angel of the Lord appeared unto the woman, and
said unto her: Behold, now thou art barren, and bearest not;
but thou shalt conceive and bear a son.
4. Now, therefore, beware, I pray thee, and drink not
wine nor strong drink, and eat not any unclean thing;
5. For, lo, thou shalt conceive and bear a son; and no
razor shall come on his head; for the child shall be a
Nazarite unto God from the womb.
Rather suggestive, isn't it?
However, the angel tells Mary that she will conceive. As she
is engaged to be married , this should not be a very startling
announcement; but Mary is troubled and expostulates that she "knows
no man." We might leniently suppose that the angel had a cold, and
that Mary understood him to say that she had already conceived. But
the oldest Latin manuscript of Luke has not the words: "How can
this be: I know no man." Somebody, still later, has tampered with
Luke and put in a stupid interpolation. And the source of the
interpolation is known. An apocryphal gospel of the second century
describes Mary as vowed to virginity for life, not engaged to
Joseph; and such virgins sometimes observe their vows.
Next we are told that "these things were noised abroad through
all the hill country of Judea," and created an enormous sensation.
But apparently everybody forgot all about them again, when Jesus
was a boy, and the secret was only let out a hundred years later.
The other inspired writer makes Mary herself and her sons think of
putting Jesus under restraint on the ground that his mind became
deranged by his idea of a mission! So Mary also had forgotten it,
However, the birth-time arrived; and it was a very romantic
birth, in the manger of a stable. You see, the Old Testament had
predicted that the Messiah was to be of "the seed of David"; as the
Pharisees are made to remind Jesus in the Gospels. The poor Gospel
writers here were in a dilemma. Mary, being related to the priest's
wife, was presumably of the house of Aaron, not David, yet they had
to bring in David. So they made Davidic genealogies -- which seems
to have been unknown to Jesus when the Pharisees wanted his
pedigree -- for Joseph; and, after all, Joseph was the father of
Jesus in every sense except one -- his seed.
Then, since the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, as the
Old Testament said, Luke explains. The Emperor Augustus decreed
that "all the world should be taxed," and each man was to go, with
his family, to the city of his fathers. This meant a journey of
eighty miles for the poor carpenter and his bearing wife; and since
every family in Judea had to do this musical-choir's performance,
and get to the city of his ancestor of a thousand years earlier,
Judea must have presented a highly interesting spectacle. The most
practical Government of ancient times, the Roman, is supposed to
have ordered this piece of lunacy, through the Governor Cyrenius.
But we learn from the historian Josephus that what Cyrenius really
did was a very much smaller matter, and that it was done in the
year 6 A.D., or ten years after the birth of Jesus. Moreover,
northern Palestine was not under Cyrenius, but under the
independent prince Herod Antipas; and the Jews had so little in the
way of tax-registers that in the year 66 A.D. they had to calculate
the population from the number of paschal lambs.
No Gospel says that Jesus was born in winter. The snow-that-
lay-on-the-ground is an artistic addition of a much later age. But
the journey to Bethlehem and the manger have now melted away like
the snow. Jesus was presumably, as Mark intimates, born in Nazareth
in the usual prosy way. His genealogy in Matthew ends, in the
oldest Syriac version of the Gospel, with the plump statement, "And
Joseph begat Jesus."
But Luke's fairy tales are not yet over. There were more
miracles, which the shepherds "made known abroad"; and everybody
forgot in a few years. Then the incarnate God submitted to the
delicate operation known politely as circumcision; and there were
more miracles. Yet, when this wonderful being, at the age of
twelve, showed signs of precocious wisdom, his father and mother
"were amazed" (ii, 48) and they nearly went so far as to "box his
Matthew -- to turn to him for a moment -- tells us of other
wonders. A miraculous star brought three wise men from the east to
Judea. How the star moved along in such a way as to guide them, and
why it ceased to guide them any longer when they got to Judea (and
so caused the murder of thousands of innocent babes), we are not
told. This story makes its first appearance about the year 119
A.D., and in Rome; and, curiously enough, three wise men had in 66
A.D. been brought to Rome from the east to worship the emperor! As
to the star, had not the inspired Balaam predicted: "There shall
come forth a star out of Jacob"? (Numbers xxiv, 17).
Next Matthew tells us the tallest story in the whole of this
tissue of legends. These wise men, led by a star which nobody sees
but themselves, and which moves in such a way as to guide them
across country -- one apologist suggests that it was a meteorite
(which moves at the rate of about a hundred miles a second!) --
arrive at Jerusalem and lose the scent. The divine guidance then
acts in a way which certainly perplexes the mere human mind. The
sages are moved to go and tell King Herod that a new "King of the
Jews" has been born somewhere; and Herod, in a fury, and believing
the statement with childish credulity, orders the murder of all the
children in Bethlehem and the entire region under the age of two
and a half years. The little Almighty is taken, presumably on
donkey-back, hundreds of miles across the desert, to get out of the
way, and let the innocent suffer. Miracles and apparitions crowd
the narrative; but the simple miracle of changing the king's heart
and sparing the children occurs to nobody.
The Christian cannot expect a non-Christian to write politely
about such things as this. What we may more profitably do, however,
is to remind him that just such a massacre and hiding of a child of
great promise from the wrath of a king is one of the oldest themes
in mythology. Turn to Exodus (i, 15-22):
And the King of Egypt spake to the Hebrew midwives. ...
And he said, When ye do the office of a midwife to the Hebrew
women, and see them upon the stools; if it be a son, then ye
shall kill him. ...
And so Moses was (like Sargon of Babylon thousands of years before)
hidden in an ark of bulrushes on the river. Herodotus, the Greek
historian, tells us that King Cyrus of Persia had similarly to be
hidden away at birth from a jealous king; and every Jew knew the
story of Cyrus. Suetonius, the Roman historian, gives a similar
legend about the birth of the Emperor Augustus. But one could fill
whole pages with legends of new-born gods and mortals of great
promise thus pursued by reigning monarchs, and we will return to
the subject later. The wholesale "massacre" alone is peculiar to
the Jesus-story; and that horrible detail is enough of itself to
damn it. No Jewish writer ever heard of the horror.
Thus the wonderful story of the birth of Jesus, which grows
before our eyes in the New Testament, does not appear until at
least a century after the event. "What," asks the learned divine
Bishop Rashdall, "would an historian make of a legend about the
birth of Napoleon which did not appear until a hundred years after
In addition to watching the story of the virgin birth grow as documented in
the bible by the 2 previous posts, it is interesting to note that this
series of continuing embellishments did not end with the books incorporated
into the bible. Two additional books, "The Gospel of the Birth of Mary",
and the "Protevangelion" which are documented in the 1926 book, _The Lost
Books of the Bible_ expand the growing myth to include the marvelous story
of Mary's birth to a barren mother and how Mary was dedicated at birth to
be an eternal virgin, living her life free from sin in the sanctuary of the
temple till she reached puberty. The two account then differ on weather it
was young marriageable or elderly widowers that were gathered together to
have one selected to take her from the temple. In both cases this group of
men including Joseph were to "bring forth their rods" to determine which
would fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah that "there shall come forth a rod out
of the stem of Jesse, and a flower shall spring out of its root".
What a hoot! And then the book of Mary has the gall to say in 7:18-19,
"For, without lying with a man, while a Virgin, you shall conceive; while a
Virgin, you shall bring forth; and while a Virgin shall give suck. For the
Holy Ghost shall come upon you, and the power of the Most High shall
overshadow you, without any of the heats of lust."
The "Protevangelion" 9:2 gives an interesting insight into the varieties of
virgins available to the high priest when he specifies seven "undefiled
virgins" are needed to weave a new temple veil, Mary being one of them.
While I have no information on when these 2 books were written and when
they were cut from the bible, the intro says that "Mary" was considered by
many christian sects as authentic and was found in the works of Jerome in
the fourth century. Now I ask you, is it more likely that these 2 books
just appeared for no apparent reason and later just as casually
disappeared; or is it more likely that they were created in response to a
very logical and likely criticism of the evolving theology of christian
redemption. Specifically is it not likely that early critics of Jesus
supposedly being without sin so he could qualify as some kind of "perfect"
sacrifice, would quite naturally ask how he could be free from sin if he
was born to a human mother. Doesn't it make sense that the expanding nature
of the virgin birth is not just a tale that grows in the retelling, but
also expands to produce stories that attempt to preempt criticism? As to
why they were dropped, even the most outrageous of liars cuts back on his
boasts when they become too embarrassing.