A Multicultural Story
The Virgin Birth
In order to authenticate Jesus as the fulfillment of the expected Messiah, the evangelists refer often to the Hebrew Bible. As scholars such as Vermes point out, on occasion this leads to complications. The genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke are not the same, yet both, in order to establish Jesus as the Jewish Messaiah, have to establish that he was “of the house of David”. Matthew makes a point of describing Joseph as “the husband of Mary” and Luke states that he is the “supposed father.” “For if in order to proclaim the virgin birth, they had to deny the real paternity of Joseph, they were unavoidably bound to undermine the royal messianic claim of Jesus.” (The Nativity, Vermes).
Christians are familiar with this passage in Isaiah 7:14 (King James Bible): “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” But the Hebrew noun ha‘almah, a feminine noun with a definite article, translates as “the young woman,” not “a virgin.” Scholars agree that more likely it means “a young woman of marriageable age” (that is, old enough to bear a child) with no indication of whether or not she is a virgin.
To view some of the many Sons of God and Virgin Births in the Ancient World, Click here.
The idea of the Resurrection is also to be found in the legends of antiquity. To quote just two sources:
And, W. R. Halliday in his book The Pagan Background of Early Christianity tells us: “As in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox celebrations of the Passion and Easter, the dying god [Osiris] was often represented in effigy. The scene must indeed have been extraordinarily like that to be witnessed today in any church in Greece at Easter. The crowd of worshippers joined with passionate emotion in the lamentations over the death of their god, and burst into no less ecstatic joy, when the still small voice (lentu susurru) of the officiating priest announced the glad tidings of his resurrection: ‘Be ye of good cheer, ye initiates, for the god is saved. For he shall be to you a Salvation from ills.’ ‘We have found him! We rejoice together!’ was the jubilant cry which was raised at the culminating point of the ritual of the mysteries of Osiris.”
As F.C. Conybeare (Prof. Theology, Oxford University) remarked in Myth, Magic and Moral, “Such passages aid us to understand the rapid spread of the belief in the Virgin-Birth and Resurrection. Men’s minds were already full of similar beliefs, and the ground prepared for their reception. The Christians claimed acceptance of their myths because the pagan religion was already full of similar ones.”
“Likewise, it is easy to infer that early Christianity found itself facing stiff competition where miracles were concerned. In order to impress in the pagan world, a saviour had to contend with a host of gods and goddesses who made the miraculous ‘par for the course’. Healing was a particular attribute of divinity. Isis, Imhotep and Serapis of the Nile were all efficacious healers – as were Ishtar and Marduk of Babylonia and Astarte, the Phoenician moon-goddess. Thoth restored the eye of Horus with his spittle. Aesculapius the Greek god of medicine and son of Apollo, healed the leper, the insane and the deaf and dumb. Horus performed great miracles, including raising the dead to life.” (The Marketing of Christianity: The Evolution of Early Christian Doctrine, Institute for Cultural Research, London, 2000).
As Robert Doran (Prof. of Religion, Amherst College) notes in his book Birth of a Worldview: Early Christianity and its Jewish and Pagan Context: “Among the scores of religious sects that offered eternal hope or present ecstasy to the diverse peoples of the Roman Empire in the middle of the first century, Christianity was not conspicuous. An impartial observer, asked which of these cults might someday become the official religion of the Empire, even a world religion, would perhaps have chosen Mithraism. He certainly would not have named the inconspicuous followers of a crucified Jew.”
Paul is certainly pivotal to the spreading of early Christian faith among the Gentiles. He and others did this through relentless effort, skillful marketing and a willingness to adapt, compromise and absorb traditions and predispositions of potential converts. In addition, unlike Mithraism, which had become the official religion of Rome, Christianity was inclusive; it appealed to poor people who felt alienated by mainstream religions and to women who were excluded from Mithraism.
Despite the sporadic persecutions, Christians persevered. Between the beginning of Christianity’s presence in the Roman Empire to the end of the Great Persecution, some say the death toll reached as high as 100,000. In 321 Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and made it legal. As a result, the faith expanded rapidly, as many felt that it was socially or politically desirable to embrace Christianity. With a convert’s zeal, Constantine acted aggressively not only against non-Christians but also against “Heretic” Christians whose views differed from the larger established Church.
At the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, in which some 300 bishops from all over the Empire assembled to discuss the state of the church, important doctrines were developed to counter “heretic” ideas. The core dogma of the Christian faith was developed and the concept of the Holy Trinity as the supreme deity was officially adopted. Theodosius the Great made Christianity the official state religion of Rome, and completely banned worship at pagan temples in 391 CE.
The Christian Church was now a powerful and far reaching institution.
Thus Pauline Christianity survives today with its influences of ancient pre-Axial religious beliefs and rituals intact. It continues to offer emotional stimulus and release, automatic cleansing and redemption through quasi-magical ritual, and spectacles of a misrepresented sacrifice and passion.
Yet modern Christianity, to some extent, offers both Axial and Pre-Axial traditions. While Pauline Christianity survives at the expense of our individual responsibility, we can decline to accept it and become actively involved in our own ethical and spiritual development. It is exactly this kind of individual responsibility which comes through very clearly in the teachings of Jesus preserved, for example, in the Gospel of Thomas and elsewhere.
Parable of the People with a Higher Aim
Imam El-Ghazali relates to tradition from the life of Isa, ibn Maryam, Jesus, Son of Mary.