Birth stories

“At a very early date Christians began improving on the gospels’ sparse accounts by making up stories… … The clearest cases of invention are in the birth narratives. Matthew and Luke write that Jesus was both in Bethlehem but grew up in Nazareth…[but they] have completely different and irreconcilable ways of moving Jesus and his family from one place to the other….It is not possible for both these stories to be accurate. it is improbable that either is.” (EP Sanders – Professor Oxford)

“…one would not realise from listening to the harmonisation of fragments of them in Christian Christmas celebrations that the Gospels agree in hardly any detail about Jesus’s infancy”. (Diarmaid MacCulloch – Professor Oxford)

Regarding the contradictions between Matthew and Luke, the names of the ancestors of Jesus are irreconcilable [i.e. the genealogies].  The original place of residence of the parents is the Galilean Nazareth in Luke, but apparently the Bethlehem of Judaea in Matthew.  The extraordinary conception of Jesus through the Holy Spirit is announced only to Joseph in Matthew, and only to Mary in Luke.  In Matthew, Joseph’s first thought on noticing that Mary is expecting a child is that she has misbehaved; hence his intention to divorce her.  There is no question of Matthew of Jesus being born in an improvised shelter.  The family is found by the wise men in a house in Bethlehem.  Only Matthew reports the apparition of a prodigious star, the visit of the Magi and the vicious intervention of Herod, the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt and their subsequent choice of Nazareth in Galilee as their permanent place of residence.  (Geza Vermes – Professor Oxford)

[Persian King Cyrus who conquered Babylon in 539 BC and released its Jewish population]  Cyrus himself believed in Hura Mazda the winged Persian god of life, wisdom and light, in whose name the prophet of the Aryan Persians, Zoroaster, had decreed that life was a battle between truth and lie, fire versus darkness.  But there was no state religion just this polytheistic vision of light and dark that was compatible
with Judaism and later Christianity.  Indeed their Persian word for heaven
– paridaeza – became our own “paradise”.  Their priests – the Magi – gave
us the word magic, and the three eastern priests said to have heralded the
birth of Christ.  (Simon Sebag Montefiore – Professor University of

[from “Mr Churchill’s Profession”]  Genealogy, of course, is roughly one part “genes” to ten parts “alogy”.  (Peter Clarke – Professor Cambridge)

The genealogies by which ancient peoples linked themselves to mythic, and often
common, ancestors.  (from book review by James Romm – Professor Bard)

[birth of Samson] A certain man of Zorah, named Manoah, from the clan of the Danites, had a wife who was childless, unable to give birth. The angel of the Lord appeared to her and said, “You are barren and childless, but you are going to become pregnant and give birth to a son.  (Judges 13:2-3)

“Like the miraculous birth, the tradition of the “noble death” was well known in both Jewish and Gentile Greco-Roman contexts… Homeric imitations in the Gospels raise the inevitable question of the extent to which the Gospels report “what happened” and the extent to which they reflect what anyone familiar with Homeric models…presumed happened… … Along with classical templates, the Evangelists drew upon biblical precedents … to recount Jesus’ suffering and death.. Also influencing the Gospel writers, and, quite likely, Jesus himself, were Isaiah’s Suffering Servant songs”.  (Amy-Jill Levine – Professor Vanderbilt and Cambridge)

“Son of God began
as a relational metaphor. Within Judaism by the time of Jesus, it had a number
of meanings. In the Hebrew Bible, it could be used to refer to the king on the
day of his coronation: ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you”(Ps 2.7). It
could also be used to refer to Israel as a whole: ‘When Israel was a child, I
loved him and out of Egypt I called my son” (Hos. 11.1). According to Jewish
traditions near the time of Jesus, this metaphor could be used to refer to
other Jewish persons. What all of these have in common– the king, Israel, a
Spirit person–is a relationship of intimacy with God. Thus to call Jesus Son
of God was to speak of an intimacy of relationship between Jesus and God. As
Son of God developed in early Christian tradition, it moved from being a
relational metaphor to being a biological metaphor in the birth stories in
Matthew and Luke. In these stories, Jesus is conceived by the Spirit and, if
the texts are read literally, is Son of God became conceptualized. Specifically
to call Jesus Son of God became an ontological and doctrinal statement about
the ultimate status of Jesus, reaching its climax in Nicene Creed. There, in
the language of fourth century Christian theology, with strong undercurrents of
Hellenistic philosophy, Jesus is spoken of as ‘the only begotten Son of God,’
true God of true God’, and ‘of one substance as the Father.” Metaphor became
doctrine.” (Marcus J Borg – Professor Oregon State)

Empires prefer a baby and the cross to the adult Jesus…  The adult Christ who calls his followers to renounces wealth, power and violence is passed over in favour of the gurgling baby and the screaming victim.  As such, Nicene Christianity is easily conscripted into a religion of convenience, with believers worshipping and gagged and glorified saviour who has nothing to say about how we use our money or whether or not we go to war.  Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire with the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in 312, after which the Church began to back-pedal on the more radical demands of the adult Christ… in the hands of conservative theologians, the Nicene religion of the baby and the cross is a way of distracting attention away from the teachings of Christ..  It’s a form of religion that concentrates on things like belief in the virgin birth while ignoring the fact that the Gospels are much more concerned about the treatment of the poor and the forgiveness of enemies.  (Giles Fraser – Church of England priest, Oxford)

The difficulty about fixing the time and place of Jesus’ birth may be

used to introduce us to the difficulty of using the gospels as sources of information about him. According to Matthew 2 he was born shortly before the death of Herod the Great (2:1, 19). This is supported by Luke 1:5 (cf. 1:26Ð45). According to Luke 2:2, however, he was born while Quirinius was governor of Syria. Luke adds that the birth was at the time of a general census, which required everyone to return to ‘his own town’.

Joseph, being descended from David, went to Bethlehem. Luke’s census will be explained just below. Now we note only that these bits of information do not harmonize. Despite valiant efforts by scholars, Quirinius’ term as governor cannot be made to overlap with Herod’s reign. Herod died in 4 BCE and Quirinius FIrst served in Syria in CE 6Ð7.8 According to both Matthew 2 and Luke 2, Jesus was born in Bethlehem but grew up in Nazareth, in Galilee. They achieve this result in mutually contradictory ways. According to Luke, Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth, went to Bethlehem only because of the census, and after Jesus’ birth there returned to their home (see Luke 2:39). According to Matthew, Mary and Joseph lived in Bethlehem, fled with Jesus to Egypt to escape King Herod’s supposed slaughter of innocents, returned to their home in

Bethlehem after Jesus’ birth, and moved to Nazareth because of fear of Archelaus ( Matt. 2). We learn two things from these contradictions between Matthew and Luke. One is that on many points, especially about Jesus’ early life, the

evangelists were ignorant. There was no possible motive for either evangelist to have altered the date of Jesus’ birth; they simply did not know, and, guided by rumour, hope or supposition, did the best they could. We shall later see other examples of ignorance, though few are as obvious. There is a different explanation for the contradictory ways in which the two evangelists place Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem and his early life in Galilee. It was theologically desirable to have Jesus, whom both regarded as the Messiah, born in Bethlehem, David’s city. Matthew explicitly quotes Micah

5:2 ( Matt. 2:6), while Luke refers to the birth of the Messiah in the city of David (Luke 2:11). Theological considerations here create biographical ‘facts’, and also historical ones: Luke creates the story of a census in everyone’s ancestral home city, while Matthew creates Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. Both serve the purpose of having Jesus born in Bethlehem and growing up in Galilee. Once we see that Bethlehem was named as Jesus’ birthplace for theological reasons, we must conclude that we do not know where he was born, but Galilee seems the obvious place. What is most important is to see the way in which theology could influence the composition of the gospels.  Thus the difference between the synoptic gospels and John is not absolute: the synoptics are not straightforward historical accounts, but rather they offer ‘kerygmatic history’, history coloured by the intention to proclaim the saving significance of Jesus Christ.  (W.D. Davies – Professor Princeton and E.P. Sanders Professor Oxford)   [italics added] 

Virgin birth

[the virgin birth]  Matthew wrote…”All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet “Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel””.  Matthew took this quotation of the prophet Isaiah from his Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint:  Behold a parthenos shall conceive… Here the world parthenos certainly means a virgin.  But if Matthew had gone back to the original Hebrew in which Isaiah wrote, he would have found that this word was almah, which means simply “a young woman”.  Hebrew has a word for virgin, bethulah, but Isaiah chose not to use it.  He was predicting a perfectly natural birth.  There is no idea of virgin birth in Isaiah’s original prophecy.  Matthew can only use it as a proof text because of this mistranslation form Hebrew into Greek .  It remains just possible that Matthew inherited an independent tradition of the Virgin Birth, which he thought he could support with Isaiah’s prophecy.  But historically it seems much more likely that the whole idea simply arose from this mistranslation.  (Don Cupitt and Peter Armstrong – Cambridge and BBC)

Virgin women…. Had been part of the timeless religious landscape of the classical world.  (Peter Brown – Professor Princeton)

The median age of Roman girls at marriage may well have been as low as fourteen. (Peter Brown – Professor Princeton)

The absence of a human father has doubtless helped some Christians to think of Jesus as the Son of God, wand many still seem to think that this is a proof of divinity.  What few Christians realise is that 800 million Muslims also believe in the Virgin Birth or virginal conception, while firmly denying the divinity of Christ.  (William Montgomery Watt – Professor Edinburgh)

When Atia had come in the middle of the night to the solemn service of Apollo, she had her litter set down in the temple and fell asleep, while the rest of the matrons also slept. On a sudden a serpent glided up to her and shortly went away. When she awoke, she purified herself, as if after the embraces of her husband, and at once there appeared on her body a mark in colours like a serpent, and she could never get rid of it; so that presently she ceased ever to go to the public baths. In the tenth months after that Augustus was born and was therefore regarded as the son of Apollo. (Suetonius, Life of the Deified Augustus, Chapter 94)

As soon as he [Augustus] began to talk, it chanced that the frogs were making a great noise at this grandfather’s country place’ he bade them be silent, and they say that since then no frog has ever croaked there.” (Suetonius, Aug. 94.7)

In Suetonius , you get the whole
story of Caesar. Along with Tacitus, he’s one of two major sources for history
about the Roman emperor. He goes through the whole life of Caesar–tells you
all he did. Then you get into the death of Caesar and you’re ready to believe
Suetonius is telling you something big was happening. And then at the very end,
he says, “By the way, this is how he was conceived.” You see the
story first, and then you’re ready to believe this guy can’t be conceived by
just anyone. According to the story, his mother, Atia , went to the temple
of Apollo, fell asleep during the service, and Apollo impregnated her in the
guise of a snake. Therefore, Augustus is the son of Apollo–so it’s another way
he’s divine. Not only is he the son of Julius Caesar who is divine, he is also
directly conceived by Apollo. I have no idea how many
people took that story literally. Or how many people took it metaphorically.
And I think most of them didn’t make that distinction. They heard the story,
they got the message. If you’re going to tell the story of Jesus and you’re
going to play it off against this, then you’re going to have divine birth and
divine conception. The story of Jesus’ conception comes up late in the gospels.
It’s only in Matthew and Luke, which were written after Mark, the oldest
gospel. But even if the gospel writers created a story of Jesus’ divine
conception and birth, the top question someone in the first century would
nevertheless ask is: “What has he done for the world?” Because that’s
how they thought of the “Son of God.” Not just what he’s done for me
or how he makes me feel. What has he done for the world? And that’s where Paul,
as Jesus’ apostle, has to come up with an explanation.  (John Dominic Crossan – Professor Chicago)

The idea that the blood

of the human victim was not spilled, that the sacrifice had been

avoided at the last moment, was of course a central idea in Jewish

consciousness: this was exactly what had happened to Isaac,

whose sacrifice had not been performed. The binding of Isaac,

his Aqeda in Genesis 22, was a theme of central importance in

first-century Jewish imagination. Much later, when this binding

became a sacrifice, it remained a key theme in patristic thought

and also in Christian representations, as is shown by the ubiquity

of the scene on sarcophagi. Isaac, indeed, quickly becomes

in Christian thought a typos, or a figure of Christ…

... ...  Philo of Alexandria comes back several times to the significance of the name Isaac. At some

point, he even adds, using the esoteric language of the mystics and announcing the revelation of a great secret, that Isaac was not, contrary to appearance, the son of Abraham, but rather of
God! The maternity of Sarah is not in doubt, but Philo believes
he knows that God, before giving birth to Isaac, miraculously re
turned Sarah to virginity. Thus we have from a contemporary
of Paul’s the idea that Isaac was the son of God and of a virgin!
The texts are irrefutably there and yet nobody seems to have
discussed them.
How can one explain why such a tradition does
not seem to have been remarked upon and interrogated, except
because it is quite simply too “huge” and overthrows too many
firm convictions? (Guy Stroumsa – Professor Oxford) [italics added]

[empty tomb,
appearances, birth - parallels]  That the
absence of the hero’s physical remains points properly to an ascent to
heaven is known because of (a) predictions/oracles during the hero’s life that
he would be taken up;14 (b) a heavenly announcement at the end of his earthly
career stating or implying that he had been taken up; and (c) appearances of
the hero to friends or disciples
confirming his new status.  In addition, another feature frequently
present in the description of the immortals is a reference to the man’s
being begotten by a god of a human mother (the usual procedure)
, or his being
the child of a goddess and a human father.
Almost always, both the unusual circumstances concerning his birth and
those relating to his passing are present. Occasionally, for whatever reason,
if the reference to a supernatural begetting is missing, the ascent into heaven
is constant. When one spoke of an
immortal in the Greco-Roman world, therefore, he meant a mortal who had become
a god, and this was usually expressed in terms of an extraordinary birth
(one of his parents was a deity) and an ascension into heaven (witnessed
to by such circumstances there being no remains of his body to be found).
Originally, the concept belonged to accounts of legendary or mythical figures
of the distant past. Egyptian, Greek, and Roman examples are readily available
(Charles H. Talbert – Professor Baylor) [italics

It was about Romulus that the Roman traditions
clustered in a special way. They claimed he was the son of Mars and a virgin,
either Ilia or Rhea Silvia. His great achievements led to the belief that, when
he disappeared during a sudden darkening of the sun amidst a descending cloud,
he had been added to the number of the gods. This was witnessed to by
the fact that no portion of his body or fragment of his clothing remained to
be seen
. The belief was rein-forced by the claim of one of his friends,
Julius Proculus, that Romulus appeared to him on the road and announced
that he was to be worshipped as the god Quirinus
. (Charles
H. Talbert – Professor Baylor) [italics added]

Dio Chrysostom,
(Discourse, 4.18-23) has Diogenes tell Alexander of the two criteria by which a
man was regarded as divine, i.e., as a son of Zeus: (1) being conceived
supernaturally; (2) being self-controlled and noble. (Charles H. Talbert – Professor Baylor)

The mythology of the
immortals also attaches itself to Augustus in historical and
biographical writings of the empire. In Dio Cassius’ Roman History the normal
chain of social and political events in Rome’s history is broken both at the
birth and at the death of Augustus by the inclusion of the myth. In 45:1, in
the narrative about his birth, we read of the belief that he was engendered by
Apollo. The narrative of his death in 56:46 tells of Augustus’ being declared
immortal, with attending priests and sacred rites. Tradition also had it that
Numerius Atticus, a senator and ex-praetor, swore that he had seen Augustus
ascending to heaven after the manner of Romulus and Proculus. (Charles H. Talbert – Professor Baylor)

Genealogies and titles

“Matthew and Luke provide two ancestor lists for Jesus which agree very little in the personnel involved… Matthew’s list unconventionally includes descent through women…all associated with eyebrow-raising sexual circumstances and also, Jesus’ mother, Mary, excepted, with non-Jews. The messages here seem to be that Jesus (and maybe also the circumstances of his birth) transcends petty conventions of behaviour in Jewish society, and also that even while he is a Jew, his destiny is confirmed as a universal one, not simply for the benefit of Jews”. (Diarmaid MacCulloch – Professor Oxford)

[from “Mr Churchill’s Profession”]  Genealogy, of course, is roughly one part “genes” to ten parts “alogy”.  (Peter Clarke – Professor Cambridge)

The census

[Luke] “…assumes that [Roman governor] Quirinius and King Herod were contemporaries, when they were separated by ten years or more… Luke’s nativity story hinges on its “decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed” .. [but] Herod never coincided with a Roman taxing of Judaea. It is even doubtful if the Emperor Augustus ever issued a decree to Rome’s provinces that “all the world should be taxed”…. Luke’s story is historically impossible and internally incoherent. It clashes with his own dates for the Annunciation (which he places under Herod) and with Matthew’s long story of the Nativity which also presupposes Herod the Great as king. It is, therefore, false.” (Robin Lane Fox – Oxford)

Miraculous births

[the infancy narratives]  Their basic genre is that of the popular “personal legend”, which was well known in the world of Israel, as well as in the world of Greece and Rome.  In all these legends, some kind of divine agency at the conception or the birth of a great hero, king, or religious leader is a constitutive element.  (Helmut Koester – Professor Harvard)

Sarah, the ninety-year old matriarch… conceived Isaac when she was alone with God …(Genesis 21.1)

There are, of course, also interesting parallels in the narratives of the two figures [“Gautama the Buddha and Jesus the Christ”].   Both have miraculous births; the future greatness of both is recognised by sages at religious ceremonies (Jesus’ presentation in the temple and Gautama’s naming at his father’s court); both undergo a period of testing or temptation; and both perform miracles.  (Peggy Morgan – Oxford)

The birth stories however are designed to illustrate Jesus’ exceptionality, even to correct the impressions of his human ordinariness. Any indifferent reading of the nativity accounts of Matthew and Luke see them as epiphany stories whose closest analogies are accounts of the birth of Hermes in the Homeric “hymn,” or of Augustus’ in the account of Atia’s pregnancy. That miraculous components from biblical sources are intertwined with these allusions is equally plain and as far as I can tell uncontroversial.  (R. Joseph Hoffman – Professor Beijing, Oxford)

The sexual conquest of a mortal woman by a god usually resulted in the birth of heroes.  Europa gave birth to three [fathered by Zeus]:  Minos, Rhadamanthys, and Sarpedon. .. Sarpedon’s “bloody death” is one of the most climactic scenes in Homer’s Iliad and reveals much about heroes – and gods – in classical mythology…. The emphasis is on the hero’s relationship with his father, Zeus.  Observing the action from the safety of Mount Olympus, Zeus realises that his son is in trouble.   Lamenting the unkindness of Fate, the god acknowledges that it is Sarpedon’s destiny to be killed by Patroclus.  His dilemma is whether or not to intervene and save his son:  “I am in two minds” he says to his wife, Hera.  “Shall I snatch him up and set him down alive… or shall I let him fall”.  Hera is indignant.  She points out that to intervene would be the thin end of the wedge; if he saves his son then all of the gods will expect their sons to be saved.  Zeus concedes, “but he wept tears of blood that streamed to the ground, honouring his beloved son”.  (Helen Morales – Professor California, Cambridge)

“rape” in our commonly accepted, though not uncontroversial sense of the word (sexual intercourse without the woman’s consent) did not exist as a concept in classical antiquity… it was not so much the woman’s consent that was at issue (although Roman writers in particular did worry about what constituted consent); rather, it was the insult to the woman’s father, or other male guardian, that constituted the crime.  But it was more an honour than an insult to have your daughter “taken” by a god. (Helen Morales – Professor California, Cambridge)

The star

Suetonius [Roman historian] cites Julius Marathus as reporting that in 63 BC, some months before the birth of Octavian, the future Augustus, the public portent of a star forwarded the senate of Rome about the impending advent of a king.

The “Magi”

“Where the truth had been lost, stories filled the gap, and the desire to know fabricated its own tradition. Luke told a tale of angels and shepherds… Instead of shepherds Matthew brought Wise Men following a Star in the East and bringing gifts… By c. 200 Christian authors had already begun to upgrade the Wise Men from academics into kings or courtiers”. (Robin Lane Fox – Oxford)

Relationship with the “Old” Testament

Jesus’ infancy story is a revised version of the story of the birth of Moses.  The moss version is told in Exodus.  Matthew follows its general sequence with specific and detailed borrowings and echoes of action and languages.  But as usually in religious stories, the original had been often retold and changed…  One version has an Egyptian scribe telling the Pharaoh that a Jew (namely, Moses) would be born, who would surpass all men in virtue and moral renown.   The wicked foreign king on hearing this prophecy orders the slaughter of all Jewish male babies.  … The Jesus birth-story is a compound of well-known sacred tales, and of their contemporary elaborations.  (Keith Hopkins – Professor Cambridge)


The most striking feature revealing the non-Jewish origin of the birth of Jesus is the divine conception of the child.  “The idea of divine generation from a virgin is not only foreign to the Old Testament and to Judaism, but it is completely impossible” (Bultmann).  … This concept is Hellenistic and, ultimately, Egyptian. … …  These stories utilise the genre of the “personal legend” and cast it into the language of scripture, but they transcend the traditional frame of this genre.  They are, first of all, eschatological proclamation.  Inasmuch as nothing less than the new age of the world begins with the birth of the child, the story of God’s miraculous intervention into the natural processes of birth and death requires a resource to ta mythic language that is unheard of  in the traditional vocabulary of Israel and has few parallels in the language of the world of Greece and Rome.  Perhaps the only true parallel to these stories can be found in the Fourth Eclogue of Vergil that also speaks of the turning point of the ages in the birth of the child… Norden in his monograph about “The Birth of the Child”… has demonstrated that the roots of the concept of the birth of the divine child, who will usher in the new age, like in Egyptian mythology and mystery language.  Not that one could trace either Vergil’s eclogue or any of the gospel stories directly to one or several Egyptian legends or myths.  But Egyptian lore about the birth of the god Aion (= Eternity,  New ages) and about the birth of Horus / Harpokrates from Isis, as well as the statuettes of Isis with her child on her lap, had become widely known in the Greco-Roman world, beginning even before the Hellenistic period.  (Helmut Koester – Professor Harvard)

Despite the proscription of heathen cults by the emperor Justinian in AD 553 the deep wellspring of ancient Egyptian religion proved a fertile force for the development of early Christianity, for Isis and Horus substitute the virgin and child – the iconography (and much of the underlying theology) remained virtually identical.  (Toby Wilkinson – Cambridge)

isisandhorus Birth stories

Isis and Horus, Mary and Jesus


It is generally agreed that the infancy narratives belong into a relatively late phase of the development of the gospel tradition.  For Paul, the sonship of Jesus dates from his resurrection from the dead (Rom 1:3-4).  This is reflected in the Gospel of Mark where the confession of the centurion at the cross of Jesus constitutes the first time that a human being applies the title “son of God” to Jesus.  That the two later Synoptic Gospels, Matthew and Luke , date the divine sonship of Jesus from his birth is not only related to a Christological development which eventually resulted in the formulation of a christology that assumed Christ’s pre-existence as God’s Son from before the beginning of the world.  It is also related to the full realisation of Christianity’s entrance in to the world of Hellenism and Rome.  (Helmut Koester – Professor Harvard)

The majority of the ancient sources are agreed that the city of Rome was founded by Romulus, a member of the royal house of Alba Longa, a mythical city in the Alban Hills. He and his twin brother Remus were the sons of Rhea Silvia, daughter of King Numitor. Numitor was deposed by his brother Amulius, who made Rhea a Vestal Virgin
in an effort to prevent the emergence of any rival claimants
to his throne. When she nevertheless became pregnant and gave birth to twin boys, Amulius ordered them to be drowned in the Tiber. But the twins
were washed ashore at the foot of the Palatine, where they were suckled
by a she-wolf and subsequently rescued by shepherds… … These elements
form the bare bones of a story that is richly embellished in the surviving accounts. There is a fair degree of unanimity about the main structure, but the sources record
endless disputes on matters of detail… … Controversy centred upon such matters
as the parentage of the twins. In most accounts their father was the god Mars; but other versions also circulated, the most interesting of which asserted
that their mother had been impregnated by a spark from the hearth – a motif which has many parallels in Italic myth
(T.J. Cornell – University College London)

It is also clear that the [Roman] story [of Romulus and Remus] contains folk-tale
elements which are echoed in myths and legends from many societies throughout the world. These legends concern the birth and upbringing of persons who grow up to become kings, founders, religious leaders, heroes or conquerors. Well-known examples include Cyrus of Persia, Semiramis the founder of Babylon, Sargon the founder of the Akkadian dynasty, Ion the ancestor of the Ionians, the Trojan princes Paris and Aeneas, the Greek heroes Perseus and Oedipus, the usurper Aegisthus (the murderer of Agamemnon), Cypselus
the tyrant of Corinth, the Sassanian king Shapur, and Pope Gregory the Great. It will be evident, moreover, that the Christian nativity story contains many of the same mythical elements. An ideal type can be constructed, roughly as  follows. The child is conceived in a union that is in some way irregular, miraculous or shameful: a princess and an unknown stranger or lower-class person (e.g. Sargon, Cypselus), an incestuous relationship (Moses, Gregory), or, very commonly, a mortal and a god (Semiramis, Ion, Aeneas). In many cases the father is a god, the mother a virgin (Perseus, Jesus, Romulus and Remus). In the next stage the child is ordered to be killed by a wicked king (often the child’s father, grandfather or uncle), who has been warned by a dream or oracle
that the child will one day kill or overthrow him (Cyrus, Oedipus, Perseus, Romulus, Jesus, Shapur, and the rest – the list is endless). The method chosen is usually to abandon the child in a forest or on a mountainside (Oedipus, Paris, Aegisthus, Semiramis, etc.),
although in many stories the child is placed in a box, boat or basket and cast adrift, at sea or in a river (Perseus, Sargon, Cypselus, Romulus,
Moses, Gregory). The child is then rescued by a shepherd, gardener or fisherman, who either rears the child himself (Sargon, Romulus, etc.) or hands the baby over to his employer – either a local
king (Oedipus, Perseus), princess (Moses) or abbot (Gregory). In many of these tales the foundling child is substituted for the recently stillborn baby of the foster-parents. The most striking feature of many of the stories, however, is the intervention of an animal,
which carries out the immediate rescue and sometimes itself suckles the child. This event in the life of Romulus and Remus (wolf)
was also experienced by Cyrus (bitch), Semiramis
(doves), Paris (bear), Aegisthus (goat), and many others. As they grow up, these children of destiny tend to exhibit signs of their future greatness by their precocious behaviour and natural charisma. They become leaders of their own age group (in some stories, for example that of Cyrus, they play the king in a royal game); eventually their true identity is revealed by tests, tokens,
scars or simply by the fulfilment of the original prophecy, which sometimes
happens by accident, as when Oedipus unwit­ tingly kills his father. In many stories there is an element of rivalry, violence and even murder: Cyrus
beats the boy who disobeys him in the royal game, Moses kills the Egyptian,
and Romulus kills Remus. It will be seen from this brief selection that the same popular motifs recur in stories from all parts of the Mediterranean and the Middle East, and from all periods of ancient history… …
characteristic elements of these stories are also attested in the folk mythology of Scandinavia, India,
Central Asia, and even from southern Africa, Polynesia and South America.
To give just two examples: Birta-Chino, the founder of the Turkish race, was reared by a wolf, and Tiri, the founder­ hero of the Yuracares tribe of Brazil, was fed by a leopard.
(T.J. Cornell – University College London)

The attempt to connect
Pythagoras’  teachings if not  his person  with the supposed ancient oriental
is so widespread
that Porphyry can present it as the common opinion
(which he is happy to do). Connection with the mysterious  East was a standard trait
of  the holy man; thus Matthew brings
the Magi to acknowledge the superiority of Jesus, and thereafter sends
the Holy Child to Egypt (details
the other Evangelists had not heard of).
(Life of Pythagoras by Porphyry – Haddas and Smith)

Well, then, the night before that on which the marriage was consummated,

the bride dreamed that there was a peal of thunder

and that a thunder-bolt fell upon her womb, and

that thereby much fire was kindled, which broke into

flames that travelled all about, and then was extinguished.

At a later time, too, after the marriage,

Philip dreamed that he was putting a seal upon his

wife’s womb ; and the device of the seal, as he

thought, was the figure of a lion. The other seers,

now, were led by the vision to suspect that Philip

needed to put a closer watch upon his marriage relations

; but Aristander of Telmessus said that the

woman was pregnant, since no seal was put upon

what was empty, and pregnant of a son whose nature

Avould be bold and lion-like. Moreover, a serpent

was once seen lying stretched out by the side of

Olympias as she slept, and we are told that this,

more than anything else, dulled the ardour of Philip’s

attentions to his wife, so that he no longer came

often to sleep by her side, either because he feared

that some spells and enchantments might be practised

upon him by her, or because he shrank from her

embraces in the conviction that she was the partner

of a superior being. (Plutarch – Life of Alexander)


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