Order books by and about Joseph McCabe now.
The Story Of Religious Controversy
Pagan Christs Before Jesus
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 story.
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:
Rather suggestive, isn't it?
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.
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, temporarily.
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 ears."
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 the event?"
As I have said, there is no clue in the Gospels to the time of the year when Jesus is supposed to have been born: except, indeed, that it cannot have been midwinter, for that is the rainy season and shepherds would not be out at night. Even Jewish mothers would cherish birthdays; but Miriam of Nazareth either forgot the date of that very wonderful day or omitted to mention it in her communication, late in life, of the remarkable story. Early Christendom found itself in the peculiar position of telling the world of the most tremendous birth there ever was on this planet and being quite unable to say when it happened. It was centuries before even the year could be determined; and then it was determined wrongly. Nobody now holds that Jesus was born in the year 1 A.D.
The result was that for several hundred years the various Churches celebrated the birthday of the Lord on different dates. The eastern Churches generally kept it on January 6th, which is now the Epiphany. Other Churches chose April 24th or 25th; and some placed it in May. It was not until 354 A.D. that the Church chose December 25th as the anniversary of the birthday of Christ. Rome was then the leading Church; and why Rome hesitated so long, and why in the middle of the fourth century (when it was, with imperial aid, trying to bring in the whole Roman Empire) it had to choose December 25th, we must now see.
In order to realize it, to see how the rise of Christianity is a very human part of human evolution, let us imagine ourselves as members of the small and obscure group of Christians in Rome, say, in the fourth century. We have two poor meeting-places -- one of them is a room above a small wine-shop -- in the despised quarter of Rome beyond the river (the slope of the Vatican Hill) where criminals live and the dead are buried.
Mid-winter approaches and Rome is lit up with joy. It is the festival of the old vegetation-god Saturn who (as a god) died, or was displaced by Jupiter, the sky-god. But he has a fine temple on the Capitol, and his festival lasts seven days and is the most joyous time of the joyous Roman year. For one day slaves are free. They don the conical cap of the freedman -- as good Christians continue at Christmas to don such caps of paper, and hilarious Americans don them at festive dinners today -- and sit at table while masters wait on them.
Stalls laden with presents line the streets near the Forum; and the great present of the season is a doll, of wax or terra- cotta. Hundreds of thousands of dolls lie on the stalls or in the arms of passers-by. Once, no doubt, human beings were sacrificed to Saturn, and, as man grew larger than his religion, as he constantly does, the god (or his priests) had to be content with effigies of men or maids, or dolls. Crowds fill the streets and raise festive cries. It was a time of peace on earth -- for by Roman law no war could begin during the Saturnalia -- and of good-will toward all men.
For a whole week, from December 17th to 24th, no work is done. The one law is good cheer, good nature. But the 25th also is a solemn festival, for it is marked in large type in the Roman calendar "Birthday of the Unconquered Sun."
Neither Romans nor Christians understood these things. The festival went back far into the mists of prehistoric times. It had been earlier a one-day festival, the feast of Saturn: a very important magics-religious festival for insuring the harvest of the next year, rejoicing that the year's work was over, and, no doubt, helping and propitiating the god of fecundity by generous indulgence in wine and love. Dimly, also, these people knew that the mysterious winter dying of the sun was arrested. It was on the turn. But only an accurate astronomy could decide which was the real day of the solstice, so they celebrated the 25th as the great day of the sun's rebirth.
We can well understand the anxious debates of these early Christians about the birthday of the Lord. Christ was the real sun that had risen upon the world. Why not boldly take "the birthday of the unconquered sun"? That would, incidentally, help to conciliate "the masses." But all this ribaldry and license and fooling ... Besides, there was another reason.
While the Christians gathered dingily in their two little back-rooms on the Vatican Hili, there was another and more prosperous Asiatic religion housed on the same hill. Mithraism, as it was called, gave the Christians a very anxious time: not merely because it spread more rapidly, and was more respected, but because it was so strikingly like Christianity.
Mithra was an old Aryan sun-god. The reform of the Persian religion by Zarathustra had put the ethical deity Abura Mazda so high above the old nature-gods that he was practically the one god. But Mithra stole upward, as gods do, and Persian kings of the fifth century B.C. put him on a level with Ahura Mazda.
Then the Persians conquered and blended with Babylon, and Mithra rose to the supreme position and became an intensely ethical deity. He was, like Aten, the sun of the world in the same sense as Christ. He was honored with the sacrifice of the pleasures of life, and was himself credited with no amours as Zeus was. Drastic asceticism and purity were demanded of his worshipers. They were baptized in blood. They practiced the most severe austerities and fasts. They had a communion-supper of bread and wine. They worshiped Mithra in underground temples, or artificial caves, which blazed with the light of candles and reeked with incense.
And every year they celebrated the birthday of this god who had come, they said, to take away the sins of the world; and the day was December 25th. As that day approached, near midnight of the 24th, Christians might see the stern devotees of Mithra going to their temple on the Vatican, and at midnight it would shine with joy and light. The Savior of the world was born. He had been born in a cave, like so many other sun-gods: and some of the apocryphal Gospels put the birth of Christ in a cave. He had had no earthly father. He was born to free men from sin, to redeem them.
F. Cumont, the great authority on Mithra, has laboriously collected for us all these details about the Persian religion, and more than one of the Christian Fathers refers nervously to the close parallel of the two religions. The Savior Mithra was in possession, had been in possession for ages, of December 25th as his birthday. He was the real "unconquered sun": a sun-god transformed into a spiritual god, with light as his emblem and purity his supreme command. What could the Christians do? Nothing, until they had the ear of the emperors. Then they appropriated December 25th, and even bits of the Mithraic ritual; and they so zealously destroyed the traces of the Mithraic religion that one has to be a scholar to know anything about it.
The Saturnalia and "the birthday of the unconquered sun" and the birthday of Mithra were not all. A Roman writer of the fourth century, Macrobius, in a work called "Saturnalia" (i, 18) discusses the practice of representing the gods in the temples as of different ages. He says:
These differences of age refer to the sun, which seems to be a babe at the winter solstice, as the Egyptians represent him in their temples on a certain day: that being the shortest day, he is then supposed to be small and an infant.
And this is confirmed by, and receives very interesting addition from, a Christian writer, the author of the "Paschal Chronicle." He says:
Jeremiah gave a sign to the Egyptian priests, saying that their idols would be destroyed by a child-savior, born of a virgin and lying in a manger. Wherefore they still worship as a goddess a virgin-mother, and adore an infant in a manger. (Col. 385 in the Migne edition, vol. XCII.)
The explanation is, of course, ludicrous. As I explain in the chapter on Egyptian religion, Horus, the deity in question, was a very old sun-god of the Egyptians. In the adjustment of the rival Egyptian gods, when the tribes were amalgamated in one kingdom, Horus was made the son of Osiris and Isis. The latter goddess was, as I said, the sister and the spouse (or lover) of Osiris; but whether we should speak of her as "a virgin mother" is a matter of words. In one Egyptian myth she was fecundated by Osiris in their mother's womb: in another and more popular, she was miraculously impregnated by contact with the phallus of the dead Osiris. Virginity in goddesses is a relative matter.
Whatever we make of the original myth, however, Isis seems to have been originally a virgin (or, perhaps, sexless) goddess, and in the later period of Egyptian religion she was again considered a virgin goddess, demanding very strict abstinence from her devotees. It is at this period, apparently, that the birthday of Horus was annually celebrated, about December 25th, in the temples. As both Macrobius and the Christian writer say, a figure of Horus as a baby was laid in a manger, in a scenic reconstruction of a stable, and a statue of Isis was placed beside it. Horus was, in a sense, the Savior of mankind. He was their avenger against the powers of darkness; he was the light of the world. His birth- festival was a real Christmas before Christ.
In passing, we may recall that just such a spectacle is presented in every Roman Catholic church in the world on December 25th. Catholics will tell you that St. Francis of Assisi invented this tender and touching method of bringing home to men the humble birth of the redeemer. I know too much about Francis of Assisi to imagine that he had ever read the obscure "Paschal Chronicle," in which I discovered this interesting passage some years ago. But certainly some other Christian writer had seen and reproduced it, and it had come to the knowledge of Francis. If a Catholic prefers to believe that Francis of Assisi did in reality conceive this method of representing the birth of Christ, he could not give us a better proof of the identity of the Christian and the Egyptian belief! The Catholic "crib" is an exact reproduction of the "show" exhibited in Egyptian temples centuries before Christ; and the Egyptian legend itself is thousands of years older than Jeremiah. On the analogy of the Christian practice we may infer that the Egyptian legend described Isis as having given birth to her divine son in a stable. In Alexandria there was a similar Greek celebration on December 25th of the birth of a divine son to Kore (the "virgin").
And this is not the end. The Greeks had a similar celebration. The general idea of a divine son being born in a cave was, as we shall see presently, common; or there were actually several scenic representations of the birth of these gods in their festivals. J.M. Robertson gives three in his "Christianity and Mythology" (p. 330). Hermes, the Logos (like Jesus in John), the messenger of the gods, son of Zeus and the virgin Maia, was born in a cave, and he performed extraordinary prodigies a few hours after birth. He was represented as a "child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger." Dionysos (or Bacchus) was similarly represented. The image of him as a babe was laid in a basket-cradle in the cave in which he was born. There is good reason to think that Mithra was figured in the same way.
We understand why the Church so long hesitated to put the birth of Christ at the winter solstice, and why there was no scenic representation of the birth until the Middle Ages. From end to end of the Roman Empire December 25th was the birthday of the unconquered sun, of the Savior Mithra, and of the divine Horus and they and the others I have mentioned, whose festivals were in other seasons, were represented almost exactly as the birth of Christ was described in the Gospels and is depicted in Catholic churches today.
And we must not overlook the Teutonic element. Every Roman was familiar from childhood with the great mid-winter festival; and in the earliest days of the Christian era the religions of Persia and Egypt, with similar festivals, spread over the Empire. But the nations of the north also had their greatest festival of the year in mid-winter. To these northern barbarians, shuddering in the snow-laden forests beyond the Danube, the return of the sun was the most desired event of the year; and they soon learned, approximately, the time -- the winter solstice -- when the "wheel" turned. The sun was figured as a fiery wheel; and as late as the nineteenth century there were parts of France where a straw wheel was set on fire and rolled down a hill, to give an augury of the next harvest.
Hence "Yule" (from the same old Teutonic word hoel or wheel) was the outstanding festival of the ancestors of the French and Germans, the English and Scandinavians. The sun was born; and fires ("Yule-logs," such as are burned in British homes at Christmas today) flamed in the forest-villages, the huts were decorated with holly and evergreens, Yule trees were laden with presents, and stores of solid food and strong drink were lavishly opened. This lasted until Twelfth Day, now Epiphany.
Thus almost the entire civilized world of more than two thousand years ago "had its Christmas before Christ." "The figure of Christ," says Kalthoff, "is drawn in all its chief features before a line of the Gospels was written." At least the figure of Jesus in what is deemed its most captivating form was drawn in every feature long before it was presented in the Gospels. The first symbol of the Christian religion, the manger or basket-cradle of the divine child, the supposed unique exhortation to humility, was one of the most familiar religious emblems of the pagan world. Had it been exhibited to a crowd in one of the cosmopolitan cities of the Empire, it would have been strange or new to very few. One might pronounce it Horus, another Mithra, another Hermes, another Dionysos; but all would have shrugged their shoulders nonchalantly at the news that it was just another divine child in the great family of gods. The world flowed on. The names only were changed.
It is difficult to keep a firm sense of proportion in studying such a question as that which now occupies us. We swim in a stream of myths that almost makes us dizzy. We find Christs and Christmases, virgin mothers and divine sons, stable births and persecuting monarchs, angelic annunciations and foster-fathers throughout nearly the whole religious world of two thousand years ago.
These things are now a settled part of our knowledge. The celebrations of the birthdays of Mithra and Horus are as certain as the Saturnalia. It is as certain that there were scores of legends of the miraculous birth of gods, demigods, and heroes in the ancient world as it is that the Chaldeans knew astronomy and the Romans knew shorthand.
There is, therefore, a strong temptation to dissolve away the whole story of Jesus into mythical elements: to regard it merely as a mosaic made out of differently colored bits of marble from the quarries of the older religions. The sun-myth theory, in particular, is strained to explain all kinds of innocent-looking statements of the biography of Jesus in the Gospels. I cannot follow these writers. The criticisms which Dr. F.C. Conybeare (a doctor of theology, yet an Agnostic, and a fine scholar) has too harshly directed at them in his "Historical Christ" seem to me in substance justified.
But in that work (and his equally useful and judicious "Myth, Magic and Morals," which also is really about the subject we are discussing) Dr. Conybeare makes one serious mistake. He knows well all the figures of history and mythology to which are attached these legends of supernatural birth and world-redeeming character. But are we to suppose, he asks, that the not very well educated writers of the Gospels knew these things? The objection certainly holds for some of the mythical elements which have been traced to Rome or India, and to obscure poetry and ritual. The writers of the Gospels were ill-educated Syrians or Greeks (I prefer to think, Greeks) whose acquaintance with comparative religion was limited. "Not too much zeal" is a good motto for mythologists.
But the chief mythical constituents of the life of Jesus were known all over the cosmopolitan Greco-Roman world: most particularly in that overlapping fringe of the Greco-Roman and the Persian-Egyptian worlds -- the eastern coast of the Mediterranean -- where the Gospels were certainly composed. Whatever city we may favor as the cradle of the Gospels, Alexandria or Antioch, Smyrna or Ephesus, every myth and ritual representation we have so far mentioned was familiar there. Mithraism spread from Persia to Britain. Roman soldiers prayed to Mithra in the towers in which they guarded the north of England from the marauding Scots. The religion of Isis and Horus was even more familiar round the Mediterranean. The legend and ritual of Dionysos were hardly less familiar.
And this is not yet half the story of the saturation, before the time of Jesus, of the Greco-Roman world with Christ-like myths. It is advisable first to lay the whole material, or as much of it as can be compressed here, before the reader, and then we may consider how it must affect belief in the story of Jesus.
I am mainly concerned in this chapter with the legend of the virgin birth, but the death and resurrection legends were just as widely diffused. Now, in the face of the matter it may not seem necessary to appeal to any pagan beliefs to explain this Christian legend. The Septuagint (Greek) version of the Old Testament plainly (by a false translation) said, "A virgin shall conceive"; and this was referred to the Messiah. Moreover, the belief in the divinity of Christ, which very quickly developed, would of itself inspire the idea that the divine Jesus, who frowned on or despised conjugal relations, had not chosen to come into the world by that agency. But the world of the time was so steeped in myths of virgin births that the Gospel writers, or the early Christians in whose circles the Gospel stories developed, must have had many cases in mind.
But we must not be tempted to wander over that world of weird and wonderful superstitions of two thousand years ago. No idea was more familiar than the impregnation of a woman by a deity; and, if she had been hitherto a virgin, she was held to be a virgin mother. Every Greek and Egyptian knew a score of such; and it was in the Greco-Egyption world that the Christian legend evolved. Most prominent of all were the greatest of Egyptian goddesses, Isis, and the greatest of Greek goddesses, Cybele. When at last the Church was forced to permit a veneration of a semi-divine mother, to compete with the most popular feature of pagan religion, statues of and hymns to Isis and Cybele were appropriated to Mary.
We may now pause to consider the moral, the suggestion, of this rich mythology of the old Jewish and pagan world. Had I the leisure and space of Sir J.G. Frazer, I might expand and arrange this material in a series of volumes which would show the human imagination developing the mythical forms of its religious ideas and passing gradually from prehistoric poetry to the dogmatic creed of the new religion. Here I must be content to summarize the facts and briefly indicate what seem to be the reasonable conclusions from them.
And the first consideration which, on a reasonable view, must occur to any impartial person is that, if the birth of an incarnate god had been annually celebrated for ages in the ancient world, and was celebrated particularly in the region where Christianity developed, it is not in the least likely that such a birth at last took place as an historical event. Setting aside religious sentiment, taking a purely human or historical view of the matter, there is a very strong presumption that the early Christians attributed to their savior the kind of birth that was ascribed to the deities of rival religions.
This presumption becomes a practical certainty when we recall how slowly the belief grew up in the Christian body, and how late it was. Paul knows nothing of it. Mark, which on many grounds we know to be the oldest Gospel, knows nothing of it. Matthew in his original form knows nothing of it. Luke, the latest, has a long story about it. We reach something like the third decade of the second century before the story appears; though it must unquestionably have circulated in the Churches for some time before Luke could write it.
The real difficulty, which is often not appreciated by Rationalists, is to understand the frame of mind of men and women who, while regarding pagan religions as inventions of the devil, could borrow any mythical material from them. Clerics would do better to use that argument, rather than ask people to believe the virgin birth because it is in Luke, when there is not a shred of evidence that it was in Luke before at least the end of the first century.
But we must not exaggerate this difficulty. Rome, when it forced Christianity upon Europe, deliberately adopted a very large amount of paganism. Bits of ritual, altars, statues, hymns, local deities, etc., were taken into the new religion. Does even the orthodox suppose that Jesus ordered the use of candles, incense, holy water, and vestments? Yet these things were fully adopted by the new religion.
The truth is that we have very little historical knowledge of the Christians of the first century. Between the simple groups of Jesus-worshipers of Paul's Epistles and Acts, and the developed Christian doctrine of the second century, lies a whole world of evolution on which we have no positive light. The reasonable view, for this part of the life of Jesus, seems to be that the influence of the Old Testament, the shape given by the Jews to the supposed messianic prophecies, the natural impulse of ascetic believers to isolate Jesus from all sexual intercourse, and the broad beliefs of the Persians, Egyptians, and Greeks about the birth of their saviors," cooperated in that obscure and loosely organized world to give shape to the traditional figure of Jesus.
At all events, Asiatic religion had its Christs as well as the religions of nearer Asia and of Europe. The Shin Ho (Holy Mother) of the Chinese and Japanese is commonly represented with a divine son. Even Kong-fu-tse, who escaped the common fate of reformers -- deification -- was credited with supernatural portents at birth. It is a natural urge of the devout mind to invest its hero with superhuman experiences.
It is, however, in India chiefly that we find parallels. Buddha's teaching, as settled by modern scholars, was so decidedly non-religious that one would not expect him ever to be adorned with a supernatural halo. He not only plainly disavowed all the gods of India, but he bade his disciples waste no time in disputing about God and personal immortality. He was an Agnostic, a humanitarian. Yet, pure Buddhism almost perished from the earth. What is generally called Buddhism in Asia has no more relation to Buddha's teaching than Roman Catholicism has to the teaching of Jesus. It is a system of temples and statues, priests and monks, rosaries and censers, rites and vestments, heavens and bells.
In that atmosphere the figure of Buddha himself was bound to be degraded to the divine level: I say "degraded," because what would seem admirable and superior in Buddha and Jesus if they were men, becomes petty and trivial when one measures them by a divine standard. Here I am concerned only with the birth-stories. Christian apologists deny that there is any parallel with Jesus on the narrow ground that Buddha's mother, Maya, was married. The real parallel is that the later Buddhists would not have their deity born of carnal intercourse, and he was therefore said to be the outcome of a miraculous conception. Whether in such case we ought or ought not to call his mother a virgin is a matter of words. But Mr. Robertson shows from St. Jerome that the Buddhists themselves did call Maya "a virgin" -- they believed in a "virgin birth" -- and he rightly rejects the statement of Professor Rhys Davids that these Buddhists understood the birth of Buddha quite differently from the Christians because "before his descent into his mother's womb he was a deva." That is exactly what Christians say of Jesus.
In the very popular Hindu deity Krishna, however, we have, in many respects, a closer parallel to Christ. It is so close in some details that earlier scholars were tempted to think that these were derived from an early Christian mission to India. Modern scholars reject the idea, and they wonder only if some parts of the Christ and the Krishna legend did not come from a common source: a source which some find in the legends about the Persian King Cyrus given by the Greek historian Herodotus.
The Hindu branch of the Hindu and Persian race, the eastern part of the Aryan race, lost in the luxuriant plains of India the severity of the older religion, and richly developed its phallic and sensual elements. In that world Buddhism failed, and the cult of Krishna gained in popularity until it appealed more than any other of the numerous religions of India. We have clear proof that the religion flourished in India two or three centuries before Christ; but whether there is any historical personage at the root of it, as in the case of Buddhism, we cannot say.
The orthodox legend of Krishna is that he was born of a married woman, Devaki; but like Maya, Buddha's mother, she was considered to have had a miraculous conception. We come nearer to the story of Jesus when we read that King Kansa was warned in a vision that the son of Devaki would destroy him, and take his place, and the child had at once to be taken away out of reach of the monarch. The king had Devaki's earlier children put to death ("murder of the innocents"), and Krishna had to be saved, as King Cyrus was saved from the King of the Medes and Moses from the King of Egypt. Krishna, moreover, gave signs of his real divine origin soon after his birth and in his boyhood. In the end Krishna -- who is most unchristlike in his amorous adventures among the milkmaids, which endear him to the unascetic Hindu -- killed King Kansa, took his place, and wrought marvelous things for his people.
Thus one of the familiar religious emblems of India was the statue of the virgin mother (as the Hindus repute her) Devaki and her divine son Krishna, an incarnation of the great god Vishnu. Christian writers have held that this model was borrowed from Christianity, but, as Mr. Robertson observes, the Hindus had far earlier been in communication with Egypt and were more likely to borrow the model of Isis and Horus. One does not see why they should borrow any model, In nearly all religions with a divine mother and son a very popular image was that of the divine infant at his mother's breast or in her arms.
Two more different conceptions of an incarnate deity than those of Christ and Krishna it would be difficult to imagine. Krishna is, in a sense, a patron, a model, of amorous adventure and, in his manhood, a great warrior. Jesus is the prophet of sin, the denouncer of love, the archetype of the pacifist. Yet worshipers far away on the plains of India came to conceive the appearance on earth of their deity much as the Christians of the first century conceived theirs. Neither borrowed from the other. Was there a common source in some of the older mythic material I have described, or shall we see here only a parallel evolution of the religious imagination playing about the birth of a god? Perhaps both; but the answer does not concern me here. The Jesus-ideal is so far from unique that it is, on the contrary, one version of a legend which stretches over three thousand years of time and is found equally in Egypt and Syria, Greece and Rome. The stream of religious evolution flowed on.