A Miraculous Conception?: Jesus' Birth In Context, Pt. 3

For a great majority of Christians, the "virgin conception / birth" of Jesus is a cherished belief. In fact, I recall stumbling across a poll a couple of years back which said that something like 91% of Americans believed that Jesus was conceived of a virgin (even though 91% of Americans aren't Christians). Of course, this teaching, doctrine, belief or whatever you want to call it, has, since its inception, not been without its critics. As early as the 2nd century, just a few decades after Jesus' death, we already have persons and groups denying that Jesus' birth was "miraculous". Some even suggested that Mary was raped. The rumor also flew around that Mary was promiscuous (perhaps, even sleeping with or cheating on Joseph).

Rarely discussed, especially in evangelical or conservative circles (perhaps liberal ones too) are some interesting pieces of literature. I don't know if it is because of the fact that persons have no idea that these texts exist, that they have purposefully been supressed or that they are irrelevant. I can't say for sure if the previous two answers have any bearing to them but I can say that the third one isn't correct. So, what texts am I talking about?

Well, I'm talking about the birth accounts of Plato, Alexander the Great, Augustus, Pythagoras, Heracles, etc. (by the way, David Dungan, a great scholar who passed away this week, his work, Documents for the Study of the Gospels should be consulted on this matter). It is intriguing to me (not scary) that in Mediterranean antiquity, the birth accounts of prominent persons, typically had what we could consider "miraculous signs", attached to them.

For example, Diogenes Laertius speaks of a vision surrounding the birth of Plato and also says that the philosopher was born of the deity "Apollo". Origen, in his "Against Celsus" (I.37) says (most likely to persons of Christian identity): "It is absurd not to use Greek stories (historia) when talking to Greeks in order that we might not seem to be the only ones using such an incredible story (paradoxes historia) as this one (e.g. Jesus' birth)."

If one reads about Alexander the Great's birth, as mentioned in Plutarch's "Lives", they find all kinds of "miraculous" things. There are visions (by both mother and father) accompanying the birth, strikes of thunder, lightning bolts hitting his mother's womb as well as a seal engraved on it, a great fire, encounters with animals (via dreams / visions), etc.

As for Pythagoras, like Plato, he was believed to be the product of Apollo. In Iamblichus's "The Life of Pythagoras", Pythagoras is said to have "sent down from heaven to be among men...having great wisdom in his soul". Iamblichus says that he was considered by many to be a "son of God". On a similar note, Diodorus says that Herakles was born of the great Greek god Zeus, who slept with Alkmene one night. Power and might were to go before and accompany this great being known as Herakles. Seutonius says that with Augustus's birth, there were natural phenomena like lightning, shooting stars and odd actions of the sun. Out of place things also happened in the temple and there were also visions and dreams. As Christians, I would submit that we must take such accounts seriously when thinking about the birth narratives of Jesus. When we do, suddenly, Jesus' conception begins to look a little differently...perhaps because it "looks" a little more contextual.

I would also point out here that in antiquity, the language of "son of God" wasn't uniquely applied to Jesus. Instead, it was applied to great persons, especially emperors. Thus, using it to attempt to draw some totally unique theory about Jesus is probably not the best way for us to go, especially in regards to the birth account(s). Instead, we should ask how the first Christians were using it and how they were understanding what they meant by it.

So, we have to ask the question now: Was Jesus' birth considered uniquely miraculous in antiquity or were the NT authors attempting to (as Origen alludes to) cast and tell it in such a way that Greeks could easily relate to and understand it? To answer that question, however, I think one must first answer the following query: How, in light of the other birth accounts of great personages in antiquity, is Jesus' birth similar or different, more legitimate or less legitimate, more contextually and culturally shaped or not?

In closing, I want to ask you, if you read this post in its entirety, to please read the next one all the way through too. In that forthcoming post, I am going to make a connection between the evidences I offered here, which are from antiquity, and a very important modern example. I do hope that you will read the next post in conjunction with this one. Blessings to you and yours this holiday season!


  1. Looking forward to your next post, Michael.

    If it were God's intent to speak in and through the cultural expectations of the time, Jesus pretty much had be born of a virgin - you fail to mention Jewish tradition, closer to home than Plato and company. Plenty of virgin or otherwise miraculous births in Jesus' own cultural matrix.

    Finally, the theological point of the virgin birth, sola gratia with no human concourse, is best not overlooked.

  2. John,
    Thanks for the pointers and points. I'll certainly have to think on the "sola gratia with no human concourse" argument. At this point, in my view (and as I'll show in the following post), I question whether or not the NT writers and/or first Christians attached any particular theological concept to Jesus' birth at all.

    I would say, however, without having mentioned Jewish tradition(s), I think the simplicity of what the Gospel writers are suggesting is often overwhelmed by or swamped in "theology" and/or theological premises and arguments. Again, I hope the next post elucidates what I'm suggesting even more. I hope you will share your thoughts there too!


  3. I am looking forward to the next post in this series, also. Be sure to discuss Luke 1:35 at some point - since here (and only here) a theological conclusion is drawn from the nature of Jesus' birth.