One of the constant themes among unbelievers, that is particularly pronounced during this time of year, is the claim that the birth narratives in the gospels are simply adaptations of pagan myths. This is not a new assertion, it goes back at least as far as a work entitled The Golden Bough in 1890, but most modern’s beliefs are tied to Joseph Campbell works, most famously The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
To begin, we need to note that Campbell’s theories are popular among non-experts in fields related to mythology, but those theories are accepted by few scholars. The study of myth is actually far more complex than what Campbell or other writers who hold to universalist theories of mythology put forward. All schools of thought, which argue for universal interpretations are asserted to be true, often on the basis of similarities in various stories without taking serious consideration of differences, and then assuming a common source. There are some cases where this might be the best explanation, but this does not mean it is the best explanation in all cases, and only when discussions of the differences as well as the similarities have been carefully factored into the discussion.
These factors are important in looking at the discussion of virgin births outside of Christianity. In many cases, one must begin by ascertaining when the accounts we have of a myth were written; much of the content of the arguments that Christianity borrowed from the mystery religions is based in question-begging. Additionally, in most cases, the comparisons contain more differences than similarities. For example, many of the classical references to heroes being born of the gods are not examples of virgin births; they are examples of the classical deities seducing or raping human women (or in a few cases, goddesses seducing human men). In a sense, the heroes then, were less men born with a purpose (as say, being born to redeem mankind), instead their heroism is an accidental byproduct of lust.
There is also a common element of myth that is absent in the New Testament documents: myths, legends and folktales are of the “a long time ago” variety; in fact, this is an important part of identifying a myth or a legend, the only exceptions I’m really aware of are modern myths and legends, such as misinformation about those in Columbus’s day believing the world was flat. Yet, Luke discusses the birth of Jesus as being during the time of the census before Quirinius was governor of Syria, and the birth narrative reference persons in recent memory, such as Herod the Great. Pilate was not an unknown figure and Luke’s portrayal of the man is consistent with what we know of the man from Flavius Josephus’s writings.
Among other charges noted, Campbell has been accused of being sloppy, he makes no attempt to differentiate between myth, legend and folk tales. Additionally, his mono-myth is not found complete in any one place, he simply weaves in various strands of material where he believes it would fit in a manner that appears to be completely arbitrary, without demonstrating why this material can be placed in such a manner. He also does not reckon with the serious deviations within mythical materials themselves; some of which indicates conscious borrowing and adaptation. In a few cases, such as the marriage of Psyche and Eros, the myths we have exist in multiple forms, and there are indications that other myths may have forms not extant. In other cases, depictions of the gods are inconsistent. For example, Theogeny lists Eros as being older than the Olympians, but most sources imply that Eros is the son of Aphrodite. Similarly, Aphrodite in Theogeny is the aunt of Zeus, in other works she is portrayed as his daughter.
Myths, Legends and Folktales have a multiple options in interpretations. They might be misremembered history, as has been a common interpretation of the legend of Thesus and the Minotaur after archeological digs at the ancient Minoan city of Knosis. They might be etiological tales, explaining the origin of something, they might be connected to ritual, or they might be political propaganda, such as the adaptations of certain myths by Athenian playwrights, or they might fill multiple roles as the story is passed down through time.
These would include Frazer’s The Golden Bough, Campbell, and Psychologist Karl Jung along with a few other writers.
Sometimes, the importance of the twenty-fifth of December (or the Winter Solstice) is specifically noted as a connection between Christian discussions of the birth of Christ and various mythical figures. But this simply shows the ignorance of the source material with which many making this argument are operating under, the text of the Bible no where specifies the date or month on which Christ was born. This, in fact, was a later adaptation of the Church after it was legalized by Constantine the Great, and is not really germane to the discussion at all.
For example, there are a large number of cultures that have stories of a flood wiping out most of humanity, and I believe this is evidence that supports, but does not itself prove, the Genesis account.
Stephen Neill and Tom Wright, The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861-1986. 2nd edition. Oxford University Press, 1988, reprint 2003, 182-195.
Besides begging the question, Paul’s admonition to not change the gospel because it was of divine origin (Galatians 1:1-10) compared to the common pagan tendencies towards borrowing indicates, but does not prove, this is more likely.