By Eoin Molloy
We all know the Catholic Church’s stance on the Immaculate Conception, otherwise known as the virgin birth. With Christmas coming up, perhaps it’s time to evaluate a lesser-known fact about the virgin birth: It is not unique to Christianity.
According to the Gospel of Matthew (which was written roughly 30 years after Jesus’s death) the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. God told Joseph that his wife will have a son by the Holy Ghost, that his name will be Jesus and that he will save the people from their sins.
Most Protestant traditions also adhere to this so-called Marian perspective, believing that she was the Theokotos or bearer of God who was without sin.
However, the story of the Immaculate Conception would be far more compelling were it not recurring constantly throughout history, across different religions and traditions.
The story of Leda and the Swan from Greek mythology also concerns Godly conception. Leda’s father was the king of Aetolia, and the thunder-God Zeus admired her very much. Being the randiest of Gods, Zeus decided to transform himself into a swan in order to seduce her.
Their copulation produced two eggs, from which Helen of Troy, Clytemnestra, Castor and Pollux were born. Although there are material differences between this story and Jesus’s, the central fact of a ‘miraculous conception’ by a deity is present.
The myth of the Immaculate Conception is also present in pagan Roman mythology. Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, were conceived by the God Mars, who decided to use their mother Rhea Silvia as a vehicle.
In Egyptian folklore, Horus (the dude with the falcon head) was the God of vengeance, sky, protection and war. Incidentally, he was also born of the virgin Isis. Ancient Egyptian chronicler, Herodotus, records that Isis was impregnated by having intercourse with the spirit of the dead deity Osiris, a ‘Holy Ghost’, if you will.
Therefore, it seems as though the myth of the Immaculate Conception is present across almost every religious tradition in the world and is not in fact unique to Christianity.
But why would the Church borrow such a widely-used cliché? It is broadly acknowledged that the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) borrowed certain things from pagan traditions to make conversions easier. Take for example, the pagan Roman holiday of Saturnalia.
Around the 4th century AD, the RCC fixed Jesus’s birthday to December 25 so that it would coincide with the above-mentioned pagan festival. Saturnalia was associated with drunkenness, over-indulging on food, gambling an even singing naked in the streets (perhaps a pre-cursor to modern carolling!).
The Romans also initiated the practice of gift-giving during the festival of Saturnalia. It is interesting to note that many of these customs have persisted to this day. It appears the the RCC simply borrowed some of these traditions and stapled them onto Christianity. But why would they do that?
By fixing Christ’s birthday to coincide with Saturnalia (which was the favourite holiday of many Romans) the RCC made Catholicism easier to stomach for those Romans who were reluctant to part with their old Gods and traditions.
As Romulus and Remus were born of Godly conception, it is little wonder that the RCC perpetuates the same myth about Jesus. This would also have made him easier to stomach for common Romans. However, under the light of modern scrutiny, the Immaculate Conception seems rather fishy.
There is another reason why the RCC would attach the myth of the Immaculate Conception to Jesus’s story: purity. In Catholicism, everyone is born with original sin. We are all guilty of having been conceived sexually, and therefore we need the RCC to save our souls. Therefore, saying that Jesus was conceived by otherworldly means is a handy way to side-step the question of his original sin.
Therefore, it is abundantly apparent that the myth of the Immaculate Conception is not unique to Christianity. It seems as though it was simply tagged on to give a little historical precedence to Jesus’s story. Alas, does the fact that Jesus may not have been born to a virgin mother actually make any difference to his message?