A Nativity Story
The man stood, dumbfounded, attempting to comprehend the news he had just been given. The Messenger of God had just informed him that his wife– his Virgin– was now with child, and would present him with a son who would surpass all who had ever lived in beauty and wisdom. The boy to come would be a divine gift, the greatest beneficence that the human race would ever know. Though coming into this world by birth through woman, the infant boy had in fact pre-existed his human form, and was wholly divine in nature. The man rushed home to his wife to find that the Messenger of God had spoken true. She was, indeed, with child.
Thus, Pythagoras was born into this world.
What? You thought I was talking about somebody else? This account is from the Life of Pythagoras, written by the great Neoplatonist philosopher Iamblichus in the 3rd Century, CE. Now, I will completely admit that I paraphrased the story in order to obfuscate it, a bit. The “Messenger of God” that spoke to Mnesarchus (Pythagoras’ father) was the Oracle at Delphi. And the reason that I capitalized “Virgin” in my paraphrase was because that was the name of Mnesarchus’ wife, before he received this news from the Oracle– Parthenis, in Greek. As soon as he received the announcement from the Oracle, Mnesarchus changed his wife’s name to Pythais, in honor of Pythian Apollo (which, Iamblichus tells us, was also the source for Pythagoras’ name). Still, the paraphrase stands: a Messenger of God informed a man that his wife’s womb had been filled by deity, and that the child would be divine, the greatest gift the world could hope to receive.
Now, before anyone goes jumping to conclusions, I’m not telling this story to imply that the Christian Nativity story was stolen or adapted from this– or any– specific pagan tale. Iamblichus wrote this account around two centuries after the nativity stories in Matthew and Luke had already been in circulation. In fact, I might argue that there was some influence in the other direction, since Iamblichus specifically tells us Epimenides, Eudoxus, and Xenocrates had asserted that Apollo physically copulated with Parthenis at Pythagoras’ conception, though he rejects these claims for the view that Pythagoras was a pre-existent divinity incarnated through a woman. So, why am I telling this story?
Pythagoras and Jesus are not alone. There were numerous people, throughout antiquity, whose births were linked with miraculous and divine events. This was actually a very common motif. When a group began to venerate or deify a particular person, they could not bring themselves to believe that this person had a mundane birth. Try to place yourself in the mindset of people, from that time. If you were born to peasants, it was all but certain that your destiny in life was to be a peasant. If you were born to a rich or noble family, it was almost set in stone that you would be a rich and noble person. If your father was a king or an emperor, you would be a king or an emperor. So, what about venerable holy men– men who were deified and even worshiped as divine? Surely God could only have been born from God! Thus, legends arose and spread.
Apologists often argue that Jesus’ nativity is unique because Mary was a virgin and God did not physically copulate with her. However, every nativity story has some unique element which is absent from the others. Uniqueness is not an adequate qualifier for discerning history from legend. This is something akin to claiming that oaks and cedars and maples might be trees, but the pine is not a tree because it has needles instead of leaves. If I am being consistent, I cannot accept the birth of Jesus as being historical instead of legendary any more than I can do so with the miraculous tales surrounding the birth of Pythagoras or Thutmose III or Alexander or Julius Caesar or Augustus or Apollonius of Tyana or any of scores of other personages from history.
The nativity stories recounted in Matthew and Luke are beautiful stories. We can read them and be filled with awe and wonder and emotion. We can find in them incredible religious meaning and purpose. However, we can say precisely the same thing about any of the miraculous nativity stories from antiquity. The realization that the Nativity is likely legendary does not lessen our appreciation for the tale; quite the contrary, it ignites our interest for discovery: who was this man who so inspired his followers that they began to believe he must have had a divinely miraculous birth? Who was this person, worshiped and revered as deity? Who was Jesus? Who was Pythagoras?