Using Young Women
Throughout history men with power have used young women to get what they want. This fact has made all the allegations against Bill Cosby easily believable. They also made allegations against Bill Clinton believable along with how many politicians and other powerful men.
It is now common to dismiss the Bible stories of the virgin birth as pagan copying. There are numerous examples of ancient religious texts from around the world of male gods impregnating young women. The Bible too has in the book of Genesis a story of the “sons of God” going to the “daughters of men” to have children with them. There are two levels at which many see the story of of the virgin birth of Christ as discrediting Christianity:
- The virgin birth is just a pagan knock off attempting to give divine credibility to the man, Jesus of Nazareth
- This is just another example of reinforcing patriarchy: male deities using women for their own selfish means against their wishes or welfare.
A Pagan Knockoff
It’s easy to believe something if it seems consistent with a broader narrative. It’s easy to believe the Bill Cosby story and the allegations may well be true, yet its also easy to believe something if you don’t do any research about it.
If I were to tell you that Zeus portrays himself like a bird just like the Christian god in the form of the Holy Spirit represents himself like a dove you might say “hmm”. If I were to say that Zeus slept with human women and impregnated them giving birth to children who were half god and half human you might say “hmm, that kind of sounds like the Bible doesn’t it.” It’s then not a big stretch to say “early Christians made up a story about God being Jesus’ father in order either to account for Jesus’ power or to lend him credibility against ancient religious competitors.” This sounds very plausible.
What if I we look at the actual Greek myth that we are talking about. How does this image strike you?
The reason we easily find the borrowing suggestion compelling is because we might not have a good grasp on the Biblical material and probably have no grasp at all on the mythological accounts. Read how the gods impregnate women in stories from other religions.
Similarly the children of these unions are extraordinary in the most obvious ways. The sons physically strong and excel in battle while the daughters are beautiful and excel in seduction.
This account is consistent with many of them. Gods become snakes or elephants and the children sometimes proceed as miniature adults or out of places other than the birth canal. CS Lewis who taught this stuff in Oxford in middle of the 20th century simply encouraged people to read ancient mythology because if they did and then read the New Testament they’d immediately see that the literature if very different indeed. You don’t find Yhwh coming down disguised as a man or an animal in order to seduce Mary to impregnate her. The story is very different indeed.
Were Ancients Dupes?
Another idea that people easily believe today because its consistent with a broader narrative is that ancient people were more prone to believe in miracles than we are today. We have science which has dis-proven the miraculous. Ancient peoples were gullible in a way we are not.
This idea too seems like a good one unless you actually read the ancients. The idea that Jesus was the son of Yhwh was met with absolute resistance by the Jews and skepticism by the broader world. It was finally this assertion at the trial of Jesus that sealed his death before the Jewish religious leaders and very early in the church we have church fathers through this issue in their writings. If anything the assertion of the virgin birth and the divinity of Christ from conception were liabilities, cultural and religious obstacles that both Jews and Gentiles had to overcome.
It’s similarly difficult to say that “the gospel writers made this up to account for Jesus’ miraculous power” without conceding that the most ancient writers actually bore witness to miraculous power.
If you look at this problem you begin to see that in fact the modern argument itself is fragile. We might say “science proves that miracles don’t happen” but how would science prove such a thing? Science studies cause and effect in the world we can measure with our senses. The assumption of science itself is that every effect must have a “material” cause. If we find an effect we can’t account for we simply say we don’t know it but the our rule rushes in and we say “there must be a material one” which is simply begging the question. The frightful reality is that if in even only one circumstance an effect can be seen to have no material cause the entire rule of “all effects have only a material cause” comes crumbling to the ground. This is why secular materialist won’t even talk about miracles just like Christians won’t talk about Mary having sex with a dove. Its a violation of their worldview.
What if God Were One of Us?
Probably the item most incongruous with the notion that Christianity is just a cheap knockoff of paganism is Jesus himself. Again I encourage you to read the other ancient religious stories. Read the Greek myths. It’s fun. This is some of the world’s best literature.
The demigods of ancient religious do great works for personal renown and political ends. They frequent the courts of kings to run errands or slay monsters or win wars. Even with the Hebrew’ unique resistance to ancient fables this was the kind of hero they were looking for. Even the words of Gabriel could encourage this kind of imagery. This Jesus will sit on David’s throne and have an everlasting kingdom. That little line itself invites us into a world we cannot conceive. We might, as in the book of Samuel imagine a lineage or a royal house that goes on forever, but in the age of decay no king lives forever and all empires have their sun set.
Let’s look at church father Origin’s engagement with ancient skeptics.
and in the first place, he accuses Him of having “invented his birth from a virgin,” and upbraids Him with being “born in a certain Jewish village, of a poor woman of the country, who gained her subsistence by spinning, and who was turned out of doors by her husband, a carpenter by trade, because she was convicted of adultery; that after being driven away by her husband, and wandering about for a time, she disgracefully gave birth to Jesus, an illegitimate child, who having hired himself out as a servant in Egypt on account of his poverty, and having there acquired some miraculous powers, on which the Egyptians greatly pride themselves, returned to his own country, highly elated on account of them, and by means of these proclaimed himself a God.” Now, as I cannot allow anything said by unbelievers to remain unexamined, but must investigate everything from the beginning, I give it as my opinion that all these things worthily harmonize with the predictions that Jesus is the Son of God.
For birth is an aid towards an individual’s becoming famous, and distinguished, and talked about; viz., when a man’s parents happen to be in a position of rank and influence, and are possessed of wealth, and are able to spend it upon the education of their son, and when the country of one’s birth is great and illustrious; but when a man having all these things against him is able, notwithstanding these hindrances, to make himself known, and to produce an impression on those who hear of him, and to become distinguished and visible to the whole world, which speaks of him as it did not do before, how can we help admiring such a nature as being both noble in itself, and devoting itself to great deeds, and possessing a courage which is not by any means to be despised? And if one were to examine more fully the history of such an individual, why should he not seek to know in what manner, after being reared up in frugality and poverty, and without receiving any complete education, and without having studied systems and opinions by means of which he might have acquired confidence to associate with multitudes, and play the demagogue, and attract to himself many hearers, he nevertheless devoted himself to the teaching of new opinions, introducing among men a doctrine which not only subverted the customs of the Jews, while preserving due respect for their prophets, but which especially overturned the established observances of the Greeks regarding the Divinity? And how could such a person—one who had been so brought up, and who, as his calumniators admit, had learned nothing great from men—have been able to teach, in a manner not at all to be despised, such doctrines as he did regarding the divine judgment, and the punishments that are to overtake wickedness, and the rewards that are to be conferred upon virtue; so that not only rustic and ignorant individuals were won by his words, but also not a few of those who were distinguished by their wisdom, and who were able to discern the hidden meaning in those more common doctrines, as they were considered, which were in circulation, and which secret meaning enwrapped, so to speak, some more recondite signification still?
Origen. (1885). Origen against Celsus. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe (Eds.), F. Crombie (Trans.), Fathers of the Third Century: Tertullian, Part Fourth; Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second (Vol. 4, pp. 408–409). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.
The Way God Comes To Us Is Informed What He Must Overcome
If you read Greek mythology you very quickly see a very different approach to the world. The gods are are selfish and foolish like us but unlike us possess immortality and great power. This is very telling. If you look at how most of us approach the world we do so in a very Greek fashion. What solutions we long for are shaped by what we see our problem as being. Would you rather have the life of a Greek demigod or Jesus? Would you like to be strong like Hercules, invincible like Achilles or beautiful like Helen? Are the solutions that you seek power to overcome your adversary and achieve your goals, money to solve your problems, health and long life? We like the Greeks imagine our problem is that we don’t have enough power, money, fame or good looks and if we only had more of these things then everything would be wonderful for us.
The Bible says our problem lies not in our lack of beauty, power, fame, health, security or money, but in our hearts. This is why Jesus doesn’t come like a son of Zeus and Mary is not seduced by some animal or hero. Jesus comes to suffer, like we do, but to change our suffering into glory. Jesus comes to establish a throne the likes of which the writers of Greek stories could not dare to imagine or assert.
We began talking about Bill Cosby. What if in fact you were given what he has. What if you had wealth, fame, reputation. All if us imagine “we would use it for good” but the truth is that we know what we do even with the limited power we possess. We also know that power corrupts and it its tremendously difficult to have great power and not use it to use other people for our own pleasure, glory and security. Does winning the lottery usually make people’s lives better? If you have more power and less accountability what are the ways that you would use this power to get what you want at the expense of others?
God and Mary
God comes to Mary and unlike Zeus he does not seduce her or rape her or use her sexually. Many who have conducted an exhaustive study of ancient literature note that while there are many miraculous births in paganism a virgin birth, one not involving fantastical or mythological seduction is unique. When you hear skeptics charge that this is simply a cheap knockoff I invite you to actually READ the competing accounts. The differences will be evident.
The true strangeness of the story is how it undermines our assumptions and exposes our desires to be as they really are, attempts to assert our own claims on the universe and our desire to co-op God or any other power in this pursuit.
While I can understand skepticism about the virgin birth I’d invite you to consider what it would take to actually come up with a better scheme quickly enough to make it into texts as early as Matthew and Luke or possibly a Q before the both of them.
- Embracing a virgin birth was an obvious liability for both Jews and Greeks given the unique nature of Jesus’ exceptionalism
- The divinity of Christ itself was hugely problematic again for but Jews and Greeks but too seems to arise very early in the process we see documented in ancient texts
- the stories unlike competing accounts do not bear the kind of legendary elements common in pagan accounts, they seem wholly different in their literary nature
- Jesus himself does not seem to use these birth accounts as leverage to get power over people.
- Other mechanisms by which Yhwh would invade earth (glowing demigod, conquering prince like Alexander, etc.) betray crucial elements of the logic of the Christian narrative. The extensive and interwoven theology that makes Christian theology coherent would have have to been developed very early indeed to justify the fabrication of this at such an early date
To me the most likely cause of the story is its foundation in history.
God and Suffering
Where the story goes is that God comes to Mary and invites her to be a part of his entrance into our story. The Christian story does not work if Jesus comes as a glowing demigod who like Hercules and Achilles defeats the Romans in battle. The Christian story does not work if Jesus is just a guy who somehow achieves great things only to in the end be beaten by the age of decay.
- Jesus is both more humble than we could dare imagine, and more triumphant than any other story dares to assert.
- Jesus will be one of us, fully human, but also fully divine, not half and half.
- Jesus will save us from our rebellion by bearing the penalty for us of our rebellion.
- Jesus will save us from suffering by joining us in our suffering and making our suffering his own.
Mary becomes in a way the proto-convert to God’s redemptive path. Mary trusts God, submits to him by willingly embracing a self-sacrificial path and through it receives what she never could receive if she had simply tried to angle her way into more power, more options more privilege and more security. God invites Mary to be His partner in the rescue of the world from the devil, the age of decay and our own selfish selves which launched her on a path of suffering that lead to glory. While there would be times of hardship and doubt she would follow Jesus in his cruciform redemption just as we do.
You may or may not be able to get your head or your heart around the virgin birth. I get that. You are within a cultural context where many find embracing this challenging. While it is an integral part of the fabric of Christian theology and dates back to Christianity’s earliest creeds, you may need to trust in Jesus even while struggling with this point.
The core of our misery isn’t really figuring out how to mentally appropriate all of this material, it is about recognizing that our problem does not really lay in our limits but in our hearts. We are users and abusers of gods, nature and people and the more power we have the more prone we are to this abuse. You may try to annihilate your ego or your self but even if you master this you will not master the age of decay. Self-annihilation while addressing the problem of desire does not save the creation, it only takes us out of it.
The good news is that God did not try to rescue us by our subjugation, by using us for his advantage, but did exactly the opposite. He came into our suffering and showed us that he can in fact be trusted to rescue us not just from the age of decay but from ourselves as well. In fact the two must always go together because if he rescues us from the limitation of death without rescuing us from the tyranny of our desires our desires will simply continue to destroy us in this world and the next.
Jesus comes to us, he is God with us, and by his stripes we are healed. He as David’s son becomes the heir to his throne, the everlasting king whose flesh does not decay and who is not corrupted by power.
If you read Luke 1 where the angel comes to Mary she is first given good news and then invited into the story. She embraces it in gratitude. This gratitude will have the shape of the redemption of her son. She will suffer. It will cost her.
David Brooks in a recent lecture noted that we are all split between seeking resume virtues and eulogy virtues. Mary, as a young woman could have said “I want a hot husband, with lots of money who uses it to buy me what I want, to give me beautiful children and servants to raise them and a nice home and good clothes and great food cooked for me every day, and I always want to be young and hot and famous and…”
She exchanges this all for the admiration and favor of God, a central part in the rescue of the world, and an everlasting name synonymous with virtue and sacrifice and glory. Looking back from this point of view she chose well.
What will you chose?