Legendary stories of gods fathering humans, so common in Greco-Roman culture, may well have contributed to accounts of Jesus’ miraculous birth in Matthew and Luke but I would suggest an alternative. I am convinced that the idea of Jesus’ birth from a virgin–without a human father–implicitly goes back to the apostle Paul.
Christians regularly affirm that Jesus was “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.” This faith is embedded as a cornerstone of all the major Christian creeds and is recited by hundreds of millions each week. Surprisingly, the gospel of Mark has no account of the birth of Jesus. It opens with Jesus as an adult, traveling from Nazareth down to the Jordan River to be baptized by John. Since Mark is our earliest gospel the question arises–what is the origin of the idea of Jesus’ virgin birth? When and where did it originate?
In contrast to Mark both Matthew and Luke give us different versions of the “Christmas story,” but they both agree on the source of Mary’s pregnancy. In Matthew’s account Joseph had a dream shortly after finding out about the pregnancy. In this dream an angel told him that her pregnancy was “by a holy spirit” and that he was to go ahead with the marriage regardless. He was to name her child Jesus. By marrying a pregnant woman who carried a child that was not his, and legally naming that child, he was in effect “adopting” Jesus as his legal son. The phrase “by a holy spirit” implies that the pregnancy came from the agency of God’s spirit but falls short of saying, outright, that God was the father of Jesus in the sense that, say, Zeus was said to be the father of Hercules by his seduction of his mother, Alkmene. In that sense the account is different from those miraculous birth stories so common in Greco-Roman mythology.
Nonetheless, scholars who question the literal truth of Matthew and Luke’s birth stories have suggested that they are a way of affirming the divine nature of Jesus as “Son of God” by giving him an extraordinary supernatural birth. This idea of humans being fathered by gods is quite common in Greco-Roman culture. There was a whole host of heroes who were said to be the product of a union between their mother and a god–Plato, Empedocles, Hercules, Pythagoras, Alexander the Great and even Caesar Augustus. In text after text we find the idea of the divine man (theios aner) whose supernatural birth, ability to perform miracles, and extraordinary death separate him from the ordinary world of mortals. These heroes are not “eternal” gods, like Zeus or Jupiter. They are mortal human beings who have been exalted to a heavenly state of immortal life. In the time of Jesus their temples and shrines filled every city and province of the Roman Empire. It is easy to imagine that early Christians who believed Jesus was every bit as exalted and heavenly as any of the Greek and Roman heroes and gods would appropriate this way of relating the story of his birth. It was a way of affirming that Jesus was both human and divine. Modern interpreters who view the stories in this way usually maintain that Joseph was likely the father and that these supernatural accounts were invented later by Jesus’ followers to honor Jesus and to promote his exalted status in a manner common to that culture.
These legendary stories from Greco-Roman culture may well have contributed to accounts of Jesus’ miraculous birth in Matthew and Luke but I would suggest an alternative. I am convinced that the idea of Jesus’ birth from a virgin–without a human father–implicitly goes back to the apostle Paul. Paul’s letters date several decades before our New Testament gospels and it is Paul’s understanding of Jesus as the pre-existent, divine, Son of God, that lays the conceptual groundwork for our Christmas stories.
Paul never explicitly refers to Jesus’ virgin birth nor does he ever name either Mary or Joseph. What he does affirm is that Jesus pre-existed before his human birth and subsequently gave up his divine glory through his birth as a human being. He writes that Jesus “though existing in the form of God” emptied himself and took on human form, “being made in the likeness of humankind” (Philippians 2:6-7). He says further “though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). He has to be referring here, metaphorically, to the “riches” of Jesus’ pre-existence with God, since all our sources have Jesus born of a poor peasant family. Paul also writes “In the fullness of time God sent forth his Son, made of a woman …” (Galatians 4:4). The implication of these texts is that Jesus’ mother was merely the human receptacle for bringing Jesus into the world. It is not a far step from these ideas about Jesus’ pre-existence to the notion of Jesus as the first-begotten Son of God–eliminating any necessity for a human father. Paul’s entire message centers on a divine not a human Jesus–both before his birth and after his death. For Paul he is the pre-existent Son of God, crucified, but now raised to sit at the right hand of God. Like the Christian creeds that jump from Jesus’ birth to his death and resurrection in single phrase, entirely skipping over his life, Paul paves the way for a confessional understanding of what it means to be a Christian. As Bultmann once put it, it is the “thatness” of the Gospel which interested Paul–that he was born of a woman, he died, that he rose, that he is coming again–with nothing inbetween.
The Jewish followers of Jesus later known as the Ebionites (see my previous post here) by the Orthodox Church Fathers, rejected Paul, used a version of Matthew in Hebrew that did not contain the account of the virgin birth in our present chapter 2 of the Greek text, and followed James the brother of Jesus in observing the Torah. It is difficult to imagine the virgin birth idea arising within these original Jewish circles whereas the perspectives of Paul lend themselves so easily to such mythology.
An alternative way of thinking about being a Christian is preserved in the gospel of Mark–our earliest narrative account of the career of Jesus. Mark mentions neither Jesus’ birth, nor any resurrection appearances on Easter morning (according to our earliest manuscripts that end with chapter 16:8). When a would-be follower addresses Jesus as “Good Teacher,” Jesus sharply rebukes him with the retort: “Why do you call me good, there is One who is good, God” (Mark 10:17-18). Mark emphasizes the suffering of Jesus on the cross, but only as a call to others to also “take up a cross” and thus give their lives as servants to others. In Mark Jesus defines true religion as loving God and loving ones neighbor, in contrast to all systems of religion. His version of the Jesus story is surely one that should not be forgotten despite the ubiquitous triumph of Paul’s theology.