The late, great, and aggressively atheistic Christopher Hitchens compiled (or plagiarized) a list of ancient myths which featured what he described as virgin births, and he loved to rattle it off at every opportunity. Other skeptics point to “dying and rising gods” that appear in mythologies from around the world. The point? That Christianity is just one of many man-made stories which rely on what Hitchens called “the wiring of legend in our mammalian, primate history,” adding, “Apparently, if you want to have a prophet, it’s better if his mother is a virgin.” In other words, there is something in human nature which finds the idea of a virgin-born savior, or a dying and rising god, appealing. Therefore, the motifs pop up in myths around the world, including in Christianity. There is nothing special about the Christian story and there is a perfectly natural explanation for how it came about.
One problem with this argument is that the case is tremendously overstated. In fact, most of the stories of “virgin births” cited by Hitchens, aren’t. Some of the stories do feature a woman, previously a virgin, being impregnated by a god, but accounts such as the origin myths of Perseus and Romulus all include physical intercourse between the god and the woman. The story of the miraculous impregnation of Mary, with new life created in her womb by the Holy Spirit, appears genuinely unprecedented, even in mythology.
Similarly, the “dying and rising god” mythological motif appears noticeably and consistently different from the biblical resurrection account. Some of the mythological gods die but do not rise again, like the Norse Baldr. Other gods die and then rise symbolically, or in some other form, like the Egyptian god Osiris, who was temporarily reconstructed from his dead body in order to impregnate his wife before dying again and becoming lord of the underworld. He became associated with the cycles of rebirth seen in nature, of spring crops and the life-giving flooding of the Nile, but he himself was “Lord of Silence,” king of the dead. A number of other ancient religions featured gods or goddesses who “died” and were “reborn” in the seasonal agricultural cycle, but there was no hint of a physical body which literally resurrected in this world. The idea of a personal God who died and then actually rose again in a tangible body is, again, unique to Christian theology.
So, there is a very real sense in which the Christian story truly was unprecedented, even in myth. But today I am actually more interested in the real and striking similarities between the biblical accounts and these recurrent mythical themes of virgin birth and a resurrected god.
Some symbolism is simply more true for particular needs or feelings. It is not a coincidence that mythical heroes the world over tend to be outnumbered and motivated by some sort of love. It is no coincidence that the hero tends to be clad in white or bright colors, while the villain wears “the black hat.” There is a reason the good guy comes with the morning and the bad guy prefers the night. Foxes are tricksters and eagles are noble; dragons are untrustworthy and horses are honorable. It’s in the nature of the thing. Visit a hut on a remote island on the Pacific and start telling the inhabitants about a dark man who comes in the night accompanied by a snake, and they will know he is the villain. That is really all he could be. (The overturning of this instinctive and healthy symbolism is one of the dominant themes of recent television and cinema, but that is a topic for another day.) Symbolism is not wholly arbitrary. Certain symbols have natural meanings, and certain meanings have natural symbols.
What meaning is attached to a virgin birth? It is striking that both Perseus, the first Greek hero and a foundational figure in Greek civilization, and Romulus, founder of Rome, are said to have been the offspring of a god and a virgin. Other, similar stories likewise use the motif of a virgin birth to signal a new and glorious beginning, a springing up of something unexpected and hopeful and better.
Of course, the mythology of a fallen people will always have a grimy sheen, so these stories often involved an element of coercion by a lustful deity, utterly unlike the account of Jesus’ conception (Luke 1:26-38). But, nonetheless, the instincts of the ancient mythmakers kept coming back to a virgin-born hero to usher in a new beginning for a new people. They knew what they were looking for, if only dimly.
So we come to the New Testament, and to the resolution of the great dilemma of the Old. And the first verse reads, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1). The son of David; David, the great hero-king, the protector and representative of his people before God, perhaps the most hopeful figure in the Old Testament, but in the end, not good enough. The one whose throne was to endure forever, but whose sins hurled his family into fratricide and his kingdom into civil war. David, who reminds us what it means to come from Adam’s seed–the inevitable, vitiating taint of sin and death on even the best of men.
We are reminded of all this, and then we read that “an angel of the Lord appeared to [Joseph] in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins'” (Matthew 1:20-21). And what the ancient poets half-imagined becomes living reality as God sends a son to establish a new people. “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (I Corinthians 15:21-22). What symbolic instinct had vaguely sketched in myth, God’s love incarnated into reality.
As with the virgin birth, so with the resurrection. Death has always been the one enemy we could not beat; the infinite darkness that no light of human reason or power could pierce. It is inevitable, but it is also somehow surprising and unnatural. At a gut level, no one really expects to die today, and it takes a great deal of willpower to embrace death as routine and ordinary, as some rationalistic moderns suggest. Throughout history, we have been trapped between the crushing inevitability of death and its grotesque wrongness. We have sensed that it could be beaten, and that it ought to be beaten, but we also realize that we are utterly unable to do so ourselves.
Is it therefore any surprise that we have invented myths of a god who dies and then breaks the bonds of death, if only partially? The highest that mankind could dream was of gods who rose to rule the underworld or to bring fresh shoots of vegetation in the spring, but the myths hoped that death was not ultimate, that perhaps a god could beat it into some sort of compromise or accommodation. If death ought not exist, but is far too big for us to challenge, is it any wonder that the old poets wished for someone stronger to fight his way through ahead of us?
The instinctive symbolism rings true, though the hope turned out to be too modest. In the virgin-born hero, fully God and fully man, the Bible describes a champion who hurled himself into death, not to force it into compromise, but to destroy it completely. Paul is able to cry what no worshipper of Osiris ever could, “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (I Corinthians 15:54-55). The poetic instinct was right: we did need someone stronger to pass through death ahead of us, reigning and bringing new life on the other side. The old myth-makers only missed the mark in being unable to imagine that the God who fell down into death would leave it gutted behind him as he reemerged, alive, from its clutches.
When unbelievers dismiss Christianity as just another ancient myth, they miss the significance of the fact that those ancient stories grew out of a profound, instinctive understanding of the human condition and the human dilemma. Symbolism is not random or meaningless, and the motifs that found their way into the old myths spoke of human hopes for a new beginning and a stronger champion. Perhaps, as the skeptic argues, Christianity is just another expression of those ubiquitous yearnings. But is it not also possible that the gospels record the moment when imprisoned humanity first looked up from charcoal sketches of a champion on a white horse and heard, through the bars of her cell, the pound of hooves and saw the glint of polished armor?
2 thoughts on “Yes, some Bible stories sound like myths, and that’s a beautiful thing”
Excellent stuff! My kids will especially love reading this with all the mythological background they’ve acquired via Rick Riordian. I would love to see a piece on the modern attempts to invert dragon/snake symbolism etc. Maybe you could also touch on the idea of “good witches” like in Oz and Harry Potter?
Hmm. I would like to write something about that. A friend recently wrote a lengthy analysis of how dragon symbolism has changed recently—very interesting topic. I think C.S. Lewis has some great material about why symbolism really matters. Planet Narnia, by Michael Ward, is a very interesting look at how Lewis used pagan cosmological symbolism in the Narnia books because he felt the ancient planetary myths were “deeply true,” even if the ancients didn’t fully recognize how or why.