There are common themes in ancient religion that make one wonder if Christianity was not the one exception to the rule that societies tend to adopt beliefs, stories, and traditions from one another.
True, it’s not always clear whether common themes are a testament to the human exchange of ideas or to the universal imagination of early human thought (parallels may exist between religions on entirely different continents, for example, but that does not necessarily mean one influenced another).
But what is clear is where certain ideas in human history did not originate.
Long before Yahweh and Jesus Christ, many religions had gods who were born in strange, miraculous ways, at times to virgins, who came to earth, and (though these are not the focus of this article) performed miracles, taught about judgement and the afterlife, were killed, reborn, and ascended into heaven.
True, these stories are different from those of Christ, but the common archetypes in cultures in close proximity to Palestine suggest pagan influences on the biblical story of Christ’s birth.
For example, December 25 was an important birthday for many human gods.
Most Christians understand Christ was not actually born on this date (biblical scholars believe he was born in the spring, because the Bible mentions shepherds in the fields at the time of his birth).
The idea that Christ was born on December 25 doesn’t appear in the historical record until the fourth century A.D.; the earliest Christian writers, such as Origen, Tertullian, Irenaeus, and the gospel authors, are silent on the subject.
Late December, the time of the winter solstice (in the Northern Hemisphere, the shortest day and longest night of the year), was full of pagan European celebrations. The Roman Empire declared December 25 a holiday to celebrate the birth of their adopted Syrian god Sol Invictus in 274 A.D. Some 50 years later, Roman Emperor Constantine officially adopted December 25 as the day for celebrating Christ’s birth.
Before 1,000 B.C. we have the following gods or demigods born on December 25: Horus, Osiris, and Attis. Before 200 B.C. we have Mithra, Heracles, Dionysus, Tammuz, Adonis, and others (see All About Adam and Eve, by Richard Gillooly). Some of these characters, you will see below, were also born to virgins.
Interestingly, in ancient mythology, many gods are born to women with names derived from “Ma,” meaning mother: Myrrha in Syrian myth, Maia in Greek myth, Maya in Hindu, Mary in Hebrew.
A god or demigod’s birth was often accompanied by incredible sights and came about through the actions of another god.
John D. Keyser writes,
We learn, from classical authors, that the notion of the gods visiting mortal women and becoming fathers of their children was commonly entertained throughout the near East in Greek and Roman times…
‘The gods have lived on earth in the likeness of men’ was a common saying among ancient pagans, and supernatural events were believed in as explanations of the god’s arrival upon earth in human guise.
Stars, meteors, and heavenly lights allegedly signaled the birth of many man-gods, including Christ, Yu, Lao-tzu, various Roman Caesars, and Buddha (see Gillooly). This parallels the strange and fantastic events that surround the births of purely mythological figures, such as Osiris in Syria, Trinity in Egypt, and Mithra in Persia.
But nothing was more spectacular than virgin birth.
Virgin birth, and a reverence and obsession with virginity, was a common theme in ancient religions before the time of Christ and near where Christianity originated (see “The Ancient Beginnings of the Virgin Birth Myth,” by Keyser). It marked the child as special, often divine.
Two thousand years before Christ, the virgin Egyptian queen Mut-em-ua gave birth to Pharaoh Amenkept III. Mut-em-ua had been told she was with child by the god Taht, and the god Kneph impregnated her by holding a cross, the symbol of life, to her mouth. Amenkept’s birth was celebrated by the gods and by three kings, who offered him gifts.
Ra, the Egyptian sun god, was supposedly born of a virgin, Net. Horus was the son of the virgin mother Isis. In Egypt, and in other places such as Assyria, Greece, Cyprus, and Carthage, a mythological virgin mother and her child was often a popular subject of art and sculpture.
Attis, a Phrygian-Greek vegetation god, was born of the virgin Nana. By one tradition, Dionysus, a Greek character half god and half human, was the son of Zeus, born to the virgin Persephone.
Persephone also supposedly birthed Jason, a character with no father, human or divine. Perseus was born to a mortal woman named Danae, and fathered by Zeus. Zeus also slept with a mortal woman (though daughter of a nymph) named Io, and they had a son and a daughter. He slept with the mortal Leda, who gave birth (hatched, actually) Helen of Troy and other offspring.
Even Plato in Greece was said by some to have been born to a virgin, Perictione, and fathered by the god Apollo, who gave warning to Ariston, Perictione’s husband-to-be.
Some followers of Buddha Gautama decided he was born to the virgin Maya by divine decree. Genghis Khan was supposedly born to a virgin seeded by a great miraculous light. The founder of the Chinese Empire, Fo-Hi, was born after a woman (not necessarily a virgin) ate a flower or red fruit. The river Ho (Korea) gave birth to a son when seeded by the sun. Krishna was born to the virgin Devaka. In Rome, Mercury was born to the virgin Maia, Romulus to the virgin Rhea Sylvia (see “An Old Story,” Chapman Cohen).
The Persian god Mithra was made the “Protector of the Empire” by the Romans in 307 AD, right before Christianity was declared the official religion. Some versions of Mithra’s story, predating Christianity, make him the son of a human virgin. His birth, on December 25, was seen by shepherds and Magi, who brought gifts to a cave, the place of his birth (see Godless, by former pastor Dan Barker).