A Resurrection for Christianity? — The Virgin Birth and the Resurrection of Jesus
This is the latest in an ongoing conversation between myself and Gerald R. Baron about the resurrection of Jesus. (It isn’t necessary to have read what has preceded but, if interested, links to previous articles are in footnote 1.) He is trying to persuade me that this was an actual physical event, that Jesus literally returned to life, having been clinically dead. I am not convinced. This is not because I am an atheist, a secularist, or that I don’t believe in miracles; it is simply because I believe that there is a simpler, more credible explanation. I am actually a Christian (sort of), although probably not one that the Church would recognise as such; in earlier times I would probably have been condemned as a heretic. I am in the middle of a personal process of deconstructing the Christianity that has been handed down to us, having been formulated by the early Roman Catholic Church, and reconstructing it in a form that I believe is closer to what was originally intended.
Baron has recently invited me to read some material in an attempt to persuade me. I am in the process of studying some of this, and preparing a response. In the meantime, however, I’ve come across some relevant Medium articles which have prompted me to offer a few thoughts. I originally intended this to be quite short. Thinking about the whole subject, however, has stirred up a lot of related material, so I’m going to do a brief series, in order to avoid one lengthy article.
In this first one, I’ll provide some background discussion. (The other Medium articles I just referred to will feature in subsequent articles.) The first question to ask is why anyone would think that a human being who is truly dead could be brought back to life. Christianity offers the simple answer that Jesus was not merely human, but also God incarnate. This seems to add credibility to the possibility of the resurrection — for God all things are possible.
So the next important question is, was Jesus really God incarnate? Obviously I don’t know for certain, but one reason not to believe this is that the Jesus of the (synoptic) Gospels seems to be profoundly mistaken about his mission, which he believes will be imminently successful. Thus we read: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1.15), and in similar vein, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (Matthew 16.28). Especially interesting is a passage known as The Mission of the Twelve (Matthew 10.5–40), when Jesus sends out his apostles to preach, expecting the almost immediate fulfilment of this mission. Relevant verses are 7, “As you go, proclaim the good news. ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near’ ”, and 23, “you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes”. This suggests that Jesus was expecting his prophecies to be fulfilled not merely within his lifetime, but within a few weeks. There is also the strong implication that Jesus thought that his mission was going to be successful; the Son of Man would arrive. (I’ve discussed this issue in detail, including the Mission of the Twelve, in this article.)
Jesus speaks of this Son of Man in the third person, so is presumably not referring to himself. From what we know about history, there is no reason to believe that these prophecies were fulfilled. There may well be deeper, more esoteric meanings of these passages but, on the face of it, Jesus was completely mistaken about all this. How could he get things so wrong if he were God incarnate, allegedly omniscient? (The idea of the Second Coming seems to have come into existence in order to avoid this implication.)
For the sake of the argument, let’s assume therefore that Jesus was merely a human being, even if a very special one, some kind of prophet. The next question would then be, why do we have four gospels which apparently all say that Jesus died and was resurrected, something impossible for a human?
That brings me to the simpler explanation for the resurrection I referred to above. In the fourth century Constantine wanted a single religion to unite his Empire, and the Roman Catholic Church duly obliged at the Council of Nicea. Because they wanted to appeal to pagans, they adopted the well-established mythological motif of a dying-and-resurrecting saviour god, and declared it a dogma, thereby turning mythology into history.
The most obvious evidence that this is what happened is not the resurrection itself, rather the adoption of the literal truth of the Virgin Birth, which was a consistent feature in the lives of various pagan gods and hero figures. One outstanding example would be Dionysus, born to the virgin Semele, who was impregnated by one of Zeus’s bolts of lightning². (Is that another way of saying the Holy Spirit?). Jesus, according to the Nicene Creed, is “the only Son of God… of the same essence as the Father”. Dionysus is the “Son of Zeus, in his full nature God”³. Jesus is “Very God of Very God”⁴. Dionysus is “Lord God of God born”⁵.
Other examples are: Attis born of the virgin Cybele, Adonis born of the virgin Myrrh, Aion born of the virgin Kore, and Tammuz born of the virgin Semiramis. Such an idea is not restricted to Europe and the Middle East, for in Hinduism “Krishna is the god Vishnu in human form; he was born of a virgin named Devaki who, because of her purity, was chosen to be the mother of God”⁶. (Does that sound familiar? Does any Christian believe that this is a true story?) Also, in Ceylon (now called Sri Lanka) Salivahana was a divine child born of a virgin. He was the son of Tarshaca, who (can you believe it?) was a carpenter.
Furthermore, the whole Gospel story of Jesus is virtually identical to that of another founder of a spiritual tradition, the Buddha, including the significant detail “a celestial ray shone into the body of a sleeping woman, as it seemed to her in her dream”⁷.
Virgin birth is also a common feature, not only for gods, but hero-figures. Zeus fathered many children by human women, usually virgins, including Perseus to the virgin Danaë, and Sarpedon to the virgin Europa.
Special mention is reserved for the god Mithras, born to the virgin Anahita, who:
- was born on December 25th
- was wrapped in swaddling clothes, placed in a manger and attended by shepherds
- was considered a great traveling teacher and master
- had twelve companions or “disciples”
- performed miracles
- sacrificed himself for world peace
- ascended to heaven
- was called the Good Shepherd, the “Way, the Truth and the Light,” the Saviour, the Messiah.
Furthermore, Mithraism emphasised baptism, and had a Eucharist (Lord’s Supper)⁸ although, interestingly, no death and resurrection. It was widespread throughout the Roman Empire at that time. If that list is not enough to persuade someone that Christianity has been moulded onto Mithraism, for the obvious reason of seeking to appeal to these ‘pagans’, thus converting and absorbing them into Christianity, then I don’t know what would be. In that context, it’s interesting to note that Mithras’ sacred day was Sunday, hundreds of years before the appearance of Jesus. Could that be the reason the Catholic Church adopted Sunday as the Sabbath, rather than the expected Saturday, given that Jesus was Jewish?
The Church was obviously successful in its plan, since “this religious practice (Mithraism) dissipated with the recognition of Christianity by emperor Constantine in the fourth century”⁹.
It could be argued that the Church was merely basing its religion upon the texts that it had at its disposal, i.e. what are now the canonical gospels. In that case we would then have to ask why the life of a Jewish teacher was so remarkably similar to that of Mithras. Since the only extant versions of these gospels are relatively late, we don’t know to what extent they have been edited and amended, in order to conform with the Catholic religion, although we do know that such editing took place.
Tom Harpur concludes: “Historically, virgins don’t have babies, but stories of virgin births abound in myths”¹⁰. This did not prevent the Catholic Church from declaring Jesus’s virgin birth to be a historical fact, which true followers must believe. Their hope was presumably that followers would be impressed that Jesus was born of the Holy Spirit to a virgin, and that this made him special, perhaps God incarnate. This is not mentioned in Mark or John; the Church chose, however, to adopt the stories they found in Matthew and Luke¹¹. If the author of John, the most ‘spiritual’ of the gospels, the one that actually proclaims Jesus to be God (the Word/Logos) incarnate, knew nothing about the Virgin Birth, or chose not to include it, why should we take it seriously?
The Church presumably thought that they could get away with this; their congregations were mainly uneducated and illiterate, and would therefore believe what they were told to believe. They also took the precaution of trying to burn all the books which contained knowledge of these earlier traditions, in the hope that their version could not easily be contradicted. Fortunately for us they failed to achieve this, and we know that, if Jesus was indeed born of a virgin, there was certainly nothing special about this, as it had happened many times before, in fact was commonplace. To be born of a virgin is an indication of being a pagan god or hero-figure, not of being God incarnate. Thus the pagan writer Celsus “catalogues numbers of figures in whom legend similarly attributes divine parentage and a miraculous birth and accuses Christianity of clearly using Pagan myths ‘in fabricating the story of Jesus’ virgin birth’. He is disparaging of Christians who interpret this myth as historical fact”¹².
In the gospels, what we seem to have therefore is a quasi-Mithras figure superimposed onto the life of a failed eschatological prophet (i.e. one predicting an apocalyptic end-times, as discussed at the beginning of the article).
To conclude, the Virgin Birth motif was therefore beyond any doubt a prominent feature of earlier mythological traditions. If we therefore do not take this idea seriously as history in the case of Christianity, which we shouldn’t, why wouldn’t we apply the same logic to the resurrection? That will be the subject of the next article.
The Roman Catholic Church has never done the sensible thing, admitted what happened, and retracted the dogma of the Virgin Birth of Jesus. Even more strangely, it has continued to insist on Mary’s perpetual virginity, even though its own Gospels refer frequently to Jesus’s brothers and sisters. Thus in 1992 Pope John Paul II reaffirmed this dogma: “The Church, in confessing her faith in the Mother of God’s virginity, proclaims as factually true that Mary: a) truly conceived Jesus by the Holy Spirit without human intervention; b) truly and virginally gave birth to her Son; c) remained a virgin after His birth in everything that concerns the integrity of the flesh. She lived in total and perpetual virginity after Jesus’ birth. Together with St. Joseph, who was also called to play a primary role in the initial events of our salvation, she devoted herself to serving the Person and work of her Son”¹³.
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here).
2. Joseph Campbell, Occidental Mythology, Arkana, 1964
3. Euripides, The Bacchae, 222, line 836
4. the King James version of the Holy Communion
5. as 3, line 723
7. see Tom Harpur, The Pagan Christ, Thomas Allen, 2004, p 31
8. There is more than one Mithras. This list is a selection, not from a single figure.
10. as 7, p 127
11. Interestingly, the reference to ‘virgin’ was not included in the Nicene Creed of 325, but found its way into the revised version, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan creed of 381. It appears in the Apostles’ Creed, but not the Athanasian.
12. Timothy Freke/Peter Gandy, The Jesus Mysteries: Was the Original Jesus a Pagan God?, Thorsons, 2000, p 38, referring to R. J. Hoffman, Celsus on the True Doctrine, Oxford University Press, 1987