In the Gospel accounts of Matthew and Luke, we read that Jesus was born of a virgin girl named Mary (Matthew 1:18, Luke 1:34-35). Christians today view this as a miracle of God that wows and amazes us. Other Christians who believe in the concept of “original sin” believe that the virgin birth allowed Jesus to escape an inheritance of sin, but to the original first-century audience, the virgin birth of Jesus didn’t mean either of those things. Those living in the empire of Rome who heard that Jesus was born of a virgin wouldn’t have thought of it as a miracle or some theological concept. Instead, they would have heard the virgin birth as a challenge to Roman power. Today we should read the virgin birth as an indictment to the superpowers of our day.
Miracles are evidence of the existence of some other-worldly being. We modern readers of the gospel stories view the miracle birth of Jesus as God at work, proving that Jesus is special. For ancient people, this was only part of the story. What ancient people would have understood (that we gloss over) is that a miraculous birth meant that Jesus was given his God-ness by another God-being.1 In the Gospel books, it was the Holy Spirit who brought divinity down from heaven to Earth and into Jesus. The idea of Godhood being passed down was a very well known pagan concept.
The way ancient people figured it, to have a god-man here on Earth, you needed two things: a source for his godness and a source for his humanity. Ancient pagan myths and legends are full of divine men. In nearly every single story, there are details that include these two details. Where did the divinity come from? A god. Where did the humanity come from? A woman. The miraculous births in these stories show their audiences that these godmen were different from regular men.
Alexander the Great was said to be the result of his mother being impregnated by one of Zeus’ thunderbolts.2 Several Greek demigods were said to have been the result of a conception between Zeus and a woman; Hercules, Dionysus, and Perseus most notably. The famous Greek philosopher Plato was said to be born of a virgin and the god Apollo.3 Romulus, the founder and first king of Rome, was said to be birthed from a virgin conceived with the god Mars.4 The first Roman emperor Augustus (62BC-14AD), was the son of the God Apollo, conceived by a holy-snake.5 As you can see, in the first-century mind, Jesus was just one of many men said to be of divine origin by a miraculous birth.
Jesus from a Virgin
A virgin birth, or a conception between a god and a woman, was a commonly understood and accepted concept in ancient times. Because the two Gospel accounts claim this very same thing about Jesus that many other pagan religions claimed, the Church at times needed to respond to scrutiny. Here is a third-century Christian church father, Origen, writing about Jesus’ divine birth and how it is so similar to all the other divine births:
For some have thought fit, not in regard to ancient and heroic narratives, but in regard to events of very recent occurrence, to relate as a possible thing that Plato was the son of Amphictione, Ariston being prevented from having marital intercourse with his wife until she had given birth to him with whom she was pregnant by Apollo. And yet these are veritable fables, which have led to the invention of such stories concerning a man whom they regarded as possessing greater wisdom and power than the multitude, and as having received the beginning of his corporeal substance from better and diviner elements than others, because they thought that this was appropriate to persons who were too great to be human beings.
-Origen, Against Celsus, Book 1, Chapter 37
When ancient people wanted to make someone out to be more than a normal person, they invented “facts” for their story that showed how he received his divinity from someone or something. We know this because the ancients said so themselves. When Caesar Augustus was claimed to have been the son of Apollo, it wasn’t to show how Apollo had done a miracle; it was to show that Augustus was a son of god and had a right to rule. God and the Gospel writers seem to have had a very specific reason for the miraculous virgin birth of Jesus: there was a new king in town.
A New King
As we’ve seen, the idea of a virgin or miraculous birth was not new. As modern Christians, we tend to view the virgin birth as a unique miracle, but to Christ’s contemporaries, the phrase “born of a virgin” was a political statement more than it was a sign of a miracle. At the time of Christ’s birth, the Roman emperor was said to have been fathered by a god. It was said he was sent to the people as a gift to restore “peace,” to “save” the people and to bring “good news.” Angels announced the birth of Jesus, but angels also announced the birth of Caesar. Terms like “prince of peace,” “savior,” and “gospel” were all Roman terms applied to Caesar before Jesus was even born.
We tend to hear these terms and think of Christianity, but to those Jesus was talking to would have thought of Caesar and Rome.
For Jesus to be born of a virgin, have a heavenly announcement, use terms like “savior” and “gospel” was really tantamount to treason. These were things that were applied to Caesar and Rome, not a poor Judain from Nazareth. It was almost always violent, powerful leaders who crushed their enemies that were said to be “born of a virgin.” Peace and salvation came by the end of a sword in the world Jesus was born into. But just like Jesus would come to subvert terms like “peace,” “savior,” and “gospel,” the term “born of a virgin” would come to mean something far different than what people were used to as well. Jesus came to subvert the empire.
Caesar was born in a palace. Jesus was born in a stable. Caesar ruled his kingdom with the sword. Jesus said to put down your sword and that those belonging to his Kingdom do not fight (Matthew 26:52, John 18:36). Caesar brought peace by slaughtering all who oppose him. Jesus brought peace by loving and dying for his enemies. Caesar ruled his kingdom with fear. Jesus rules his Kingdom with love.
Caesar was selected by an eagle, a symbol of war, while Jesus was selected by a dove, a symbol of peace.
Saying that Jesus was “born of a virgin” and then using all the terms applied to Caesar was the most subversive way you could declare that Caesar’s rulership was false. But it was more than that: Jesus wasn’t just another Caesar. The ways of Jesus opposed the ways of Caesar. The Jesus movement was in opposition to the ways of empire. The Church was originally a political protest. Jesus was a radical alternative.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
God moved and spoke very intentionally and specifically in a way that was very relevant to those he was interacting with. God used the surrounding culture, customs, and understandings to bring new meaning and subvert the old. Caesar had his gospel, but Jesus brought his own Gospel, and we shouldn’t forget what a threat this really was. The Gospel was and is the pronouncement of a new nation that has arrived, one that will outlast all the others. While Rome would eventually crumble, God’s Kingdom would still be standing. The message is the same today. Jesus being “born of a virgin” is a political indictment against empires like America, just as it was against Rome in the first century. Jesus, being born of a virgin, needs to become a politically provocative statement again, or else the Gospel will continue to become increasingly irrelevant.