Those who are sceptical of the historicity of the biblical accounts of the virgin birth of Jesus largely base their objections on supposed parallels with other supernatural birth stories in the ancient world.
As long ago as 1796 Charles Dupuis suggested that the biblical account borrowed from the stories surrounding the birth of Krishna. Early Christians ‘drew on’ such stories, it is claimed, in order to find ways of demonstrating the uniqueness of Jesus. This idea was popularised by James Fraser, in The Golden Bough (1890, 1912).
Examples of divine birth stories certainly abound in other world religions. They are often associated with great leaders. For example, the Egyptian god Amon was said to have fertilized the mothers of the Pharaohs. In Greek mythology, Dionysis was fathered by Zeus, Romulus was the son of Mars, Alexander the Great the son of Re, and Plato and Augustus were the offspring of Apollo.
In most cases, the divine being took on a physical form in order to impregnate the woman. The stories often involve seduction and even rape.
Similarities with the biblical accounts of the conception of Jesus are more apparent than real:-
- there has been no effective explanation of how such stories found their way into the early Christian community, in order for the alleged ‘borrowing’ to take place. It is not even certain that such stories would have been known by 1st-century Christians;
- early Christian authors were opposed to the kind of sexual misconduct that underlies many of the pagan stories, cf. Rom 1:24, and so it is unlikely that they would have been influenced by them;
- there is a significant difference between the Gospel accounts and other divine stories: in the latter always involve physical impregnation, but this is clearly not the case in the former.
- the New Testament was written by contemporaries of the events recorded. Myths do not arise when eyewitnesses are still around who can refute inaccuracies.
- the New Testament generally does not partake of a mythical character. The people, places and events are historical. Where these can be compared with other sources, their factual accuracy has been demonstrated.
- the gods of pagan myths were utterly different from the transcendent God of the Bible.
See art. ‘Divine Birth Stories’, in New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics, IVP, and Baker’s Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics.