Most people are familiar with the basic elements of the stories of Jesus’s miraculous conception and birth as recounted in the New Testament gospels of Matthew and Luke. Though there are numerous differences between the two stories (a fact not often recognized or acknowledged – see my posts Are the Nativity Stories of Jesus Based on those of John the Baptist?, Elements from the Christmas Nativity Display, and The Imagery of the Nativity), the authors of both gospels agree that Mary conceived Jesus without the participation of a human father. Both credit the missing ingredient to the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus, Jesus becomes, from the very start, a god-man: part human and part divine.
Stories of the birth of such god-men were in wide circulation throughout the Greco-Roman world at the time the gospels were composed. That is not to deny (or affirm) the reliability of the gospel narratives with regard to Jesus’s circumstances. But it cannot be ignored that the authors were writing their stories using well-known narrative forms and tropes. After all, both writers and readers of the gospels were Hellenists (Greek-acculturated people) steeped in the culture of their day. They would have recognized the similarities (and the differences) in the stories which helped them to make sense of the profound interworking of the divine and the mundane.
One ubiquitous story of divinely initiated birth was that of Hercules (Herakles). According to one version (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 4.9.1-10), Hercules’s mother, Alkmene, was impregnated by Zeus. In order to sleep with her, Zeus took on the physical appearance of her husband, Amphitryon, and entered her bedchamber. The erotic undertones of the story are enhanced by the fact that Zeus tripled the length of the night for the purpose of lovemaking although Diodorus cautions that this was not done out of sexual desire but to foreshadow the exceptional power of the child thus conceived. Um-hmm.
Not only did mythic heroes begin life by divine concupiscence. Highly revered philosophers, for example, were sometimes thought to have been miraculously conceived. Pythagoras, the sixth-century BCE Greek philosopher whose teachings were an essential seedbed for later philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, was also believed to possess a divine lineage. His story begins with another mythical hero, Ankaios, another son of Zeus who sailed with Hercules aboard the Argos to find the Golden Fleece. It is from the Ankaios family tree that Pythagoras descends. Others thought that the god Apollo directly fathered Pythagoras. Though this was considered doubtful by the fourth-century Arab Neoplatonist philosopher Iamblichus (Life of Pythagoras 3-9), he admitted that the soul of Pythagoras, at least, did come from Apollo. It was sent down from heaven to dwell among human beings. Pythagoras, according to Iamblichus, “was the most beautiful and godlike of those written about in history.”
Apollo also figures in the genesis of the fifth-century BCE Greek philosopher, Plato. According to three sources consulted by the third-century biographer Diogenes Laertius (Lives of the Eminent Philosophers 3.1-2), Plato came close to not being conceived at all. His parents, Ariston and Periktone, were trying desperately but without success to have a child. About to give up, Ariston saw a vision of the god Apollo which he took to be a sign. He thereafter abstained from having sex with Periktone who, as a result, later conceived, it was assumed, utilizing the “divine sperm” (Origen, Against Celsus 1.37) of Apollo.
Divine parentage was by no means limited to philosophers. Alexander the Great, the fourth-century BCE Macedonian conqueror who made the entire Near and Middle East part of his Greek empire, could not possibly have had normal, everyday origins according to some ancient writers. Preserved for us by the first/second-century Roman biographer Plutarch (Parallel Lives, 2.1-3.2) is the story of Alexander’s direct begetting from Apollo. It happened like this: Philip II, the previous king of Macedon, looked through a crack in the door of his sleeping wife’s bedchamber and saw a huge snake wrapped around her naked body. Repulsed, and perhaps thinking it was an omen, he sent representatives to the oracle at Delphi to inquire of the god Apollo what the imagery might portend. The response was that Philip should begin worshiping Zeus above all other gods and put out his own eye that had spied on Apollo, in serpentine form, mating with his wife Olympias. Olympias herself later recounted this sexual liaison to her semi-divine son, Alexander, and charged him to act worthily of his special beginnings.
Not to be outdone, stories of the Apollonian origin of the first Roman emperor, Augustus, flourished in Roman circles. Quoting the mysterious book Theologoumenon by the equally shadowy Asclepius of Mendes, Suetonius (Lives of the Caesars 2.94.4) says that the niece of Julius Caesar, Atia, once took up with a number of other women and visited the temple of Apollo to perform the customary rites. Staying late, they fell asleep in the temple. But it was Atia who succumbed to the erotic designs of a great snake who slipped up on her that night. In the morning, the irremovable markings of a snake appeared on her body. Nearly ten months later, she gave birth to Octavian (Augustus).
Early Jewish literature also featured stories of divine conception though these generally concerned elderly or barren women who had no further expectation of childbearing suddenly becoming pregnant. Among such stories in the Old Testament are the birth of Isaac to an elderly Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 17-18, 21) and that of the twins Esau and Jacob to Isaac and the barren Rebekah (Genesis 25). The texts do not overtly credit God with inseminating either of these women but neither do they describe any further sexual activity between the parents leading to the miraculous conceptions. In fact, God tells Abraham, “I will bless her (Sarah), and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her…” (Gen. 17:16). The emphasis is on her reproductive abilities being rejuvenated not his. The same is true in Genesis 25:21: “Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived.”
Things are clearer in a first-century Jewish recounting of the birth of the priest Melchizedek (Gen. 14:18-20). In the Second Book of Enoch, Nir, a priest, and his wife Sothonim, cannot have children because she was sterile. In her old age, she conceives but without the aid of Nir. Furious, Nir berates his wife for her (presumed) infidelity. She vainly professes her innocence but it was not until the angel Gabriel announced to Nir that the child, Melchizedek, was “righteous fruit” that Nir accepted the situation as divinely ordained. There is no question in this Jewish text that Sothonim conceived by divine insemination.
The third-century Christian theologian Origen recognized the similarities especially in the Greco-Roman divine-conception stories and those offered in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. But in typical exclusivistic fashion, he wrote off the non-Christian stories as “really fables (Greek = mythos).” He explained that “people just fabricate such things as this about a man whom they regard as having greater wisdom and power than most others.” It seems likely that Origen never stopped to consider that the same might have been said by non-believers of the man he thought once possessed greater wisdom and power than others.