The story of the Blessed Virgin Mary accepting the Son of God is related to all the pagan myths of gods and girls. It is related to all the Cinderella stories of poor girls swept off their feet by powerful masters, but it is related to these stories as the birth of a child is related to a schoolgirl’s dreams of being a mother…
The expert storytellers tell us that there are only seven stories and we keep telling them in many different forms. One of these stories is the tale of Cinderella. In a Cinderella story, a humble, good and beautiful orphan girl captures the heart of a handsome prince who, admiring not only her beauty, but her goodness, marries her and sweeps her off to live happily ever after. The story is told in a multitude of ways in virtually every culture and in every time from the ancient Greeks to modern Hollywood.
What is it about this story that so captures our imagination? It undermines the powerful, haughty, and rich. Invariably there are ugly sisters and a wicked stepmother who have all the money and contacts and a hairdresser. They are brought low by Cinderella’s wonderful goodness. The girl herself is a virgin. Not only is she a pure maid, but she is made of purity. She is honest and simple and young and free. We want our daughters to be like her. The handsome prince is wise as well as wonderful. This is how we wish all our young men were. In fact, the prince is like a god in his greatness. He comes down from the palace on high and takes the hand of the humble handmaiden. Her humility ennobles him and his nobility humbles her. They condescend to each other. He magnifies her with his wealth and power. She magnifies him with her humility and grace.
In fact, the girl Cinderella is given the nickname by her cruel sisters. It is a name of derision for she is “Cinders.” She sweeps the floor. That’s why she is lowly. She scrubs the grate, and that is why she is great. She mixes her tears with ashes. She is not only lowly she is filthy. Cinders are ashes and ashes are dust and Cinderella is ashes to ashes and dust to dust. We love Cinderella because she is one of us. She is lowly. She is ordinary. She is hard working. She is a woman of the earth and hearth. She is the earth mother and the hearth mother in the purest sense.
I have said that the Cinderella story is universal, but that it takes different forms in different places for different people at different times. Think of the Hollywood movies that are Cinderella stories: The Sound of Music and Pretty Woman and Maid in Manhattan and My Fair Lady and Annie and Working Girl and Beauty and the Beast and the list goes on. These are our versions of the Cinderella story, but what interests me is that the ancients also told the Cinderella story, but with a disturbing and curious twist. They add a supernatural dimension, for in their stories the girl is not swept off her feet by a powerful prince, but by a powerful deity. The gods look down on human girls and are delighted. They do not waste their time with pumpkins turning into coaches, mice into footmen and a glass slipper left behind. Instead, they overwhelm and ravish their beauties. What is it about Zeus that makes him seduce? What is going on in these lascivious adventures? Why in so many cultures do the gods decide to mate with mortals?
As in all the stories, there is something more than meets the eye. The stories were not just ancient forms of pornography. When the gods met and mated with mortals their actions pointed to something greater. They were pointing to a desired union between heaven and earth—between the invisible power of heaven and the visible beauty of earth. Their union was a union of invulnerability of power with the vulnerability of beauty, and what could be more beautiful and more irresistible than a fair young maiden? There is more. The result of the unions were demi-gods—half-breeds who were human heroes because they had divine capabilities. When Zeus mated with Alcmena and Hercules was produced, everything pointed to another event that would really happen in human history. When the human girls in the pagan stories produced a heroic son like Hercules they were hinting at the hope that such a godman might come true. The pagan stories were pointers and prophecies of the future.
A Divine Plan
God did not interact with Hebrews simply for an interesting past time. He had a plan and the plan had order and majesty and loveliness. Just as all the pagan heroic stories were played out in the dust and dirt of that unremarkable nomadic race, so this greatest myth of all was to be enacted in real time with real people in a real place. God’s plan in playing out the human myths within the Hebrew history was a way of hiding himself within human history, and he hid himself within human history because eventually he planned to hide himself within a human being. The myths of gods mating with maidens gave the hint of how he would do this.
Of course, what I am referring to is the greatest Cinderella story of them all. The girl (like the girl in every Cinderella story) is a pure and innocent virgin. She is alone in the world. She is poor and lowly. Then the magical visitor comes. Not a fairy godmother, but an angel Gabriel. Her prince is not from the palace on the hill, but from the palace beyond the heavens. The Blessed Virgin Mary accepts the word of love from God and becomes pregnant with his son. Here, the Christian says, is God come to earth. Here through a miraculous marriage of heaven and earth God takes human flesh and blood and steps into history. Here the God-Man is born as a little child.
Stop! I hear you cry. You are admitting what the anthropologists and mythologists and teachers of comparative religion have said for ages, that the Christian myth of the incarnation is simply another fairy tale like all the ancient myths of old. It is simply the Christian version of the pagan myths. The clever Christians adopted and adapted the existing pagan ideas and applied them to their martyred hero, the tragic rabbi Jesus of Nazareth. He became the hero Hercules and his mother Alcmene. In his rising and victory over the underworld, he stepped into the shoes of the ancient Egyptian Osiris. All the Christian rites were simply transferred wholesale from the old religion into the new. So Washburn Hopkins writes, “The religions of the divine Mother and of Mithra had already taught the doctrine of a redeeming god, whose experience was shared by the initiated believer. Mortal man through the death and resurrection of the god became by partaking in the sacraments a partaker also in the divine nature; he was mystically cleansed of sin by blood or water and became a sharer in divine immortality. The epiphany of Dionysos became the epiphany of Christ.”
Because of the similarities between the ancient religions and Christianity we are expected to dismiss Christian doctrine as no more than a human construction—a natural evolution of the religious mind, of no more real consequence than the development of indoor plumbing from an aqueduct. It seems so obvious does it not, that the Christian religion was a simple adaption of the existing pagan religions? I do not deny the similarity between the stories of Zeus and Alcmene and the Annunciation of the Angel Gabriel to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Not only do I not deny the similarities, but I am delighted by them. What would disturb me is if there were no similarities between the incarnations of the pagan gods and the incarnation of Almighty God. It would be very suspicious indeed if the Christian beliefs did not connect with the beliefs of the religions that came before. I am not disturbed by similarities. What would disturb me is if the Christian beliefs were totally unconnected with what came before. Then I would suspect that someone had sat down to make them up out of his own mind.
Checking the Facts
No, the similarities exist, and that is what makes the Christian beliefs so very fascinating, for once we admit the similarities we must then go on and analyze the differences. If we are to avoid smug assumptions and sweeping statements, then we must not only examine the similarities between the ancient religions and Christianity, but we must see how they are different, and it is the differences, not the similarities which are most remarkable.
First, we must consider the Hebrew setting in which the Christian beliefs were formulated. The idea that Jesus Christ was God who was born by divine intervention to a virgin girl, was first recorded by Jews. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Peter and their communities of faith came to believe in the idea of Jesus Christ the God Man. What makes it unlikely that they simply adopted and adapted pagan ideas is that the surrounding pagan ideas were anathema to them. Already they were struggling against the opposition of their fellow Jews who considered them to be radical heretics and the members of a weird cult. Are we to believe that the first Christians would be so radical and revolutionary as to deliberately import pagan ideas and practices that ordinary pious Jews would have considered the height of blasphemy? Hardly. We must find another answer for their idea that Jesus was the God Man born of a simple virgin, and the only other reason we can find is that this truth was revealed to them by the God they trusted.
Because of the improbability that first century Jews concocted the doctrine of the incarnation of God by stealing the idea from pagans, scholars have proposed that the first pagan Christians grafted their ideas into the fledgling Jewish-Christian faith. Unfortunately, the documentary evidence doesn’t support the theory. The idea that Jesus of Nazareth was God in the flesh is present in the earliest writings of the New Testament which were undoubtedly written by first century Jews.
The second problem with the theory that the early Christians simply imported pagan ideas is that nowhere within paganism did they suppose that the gods were real historical people. Just as paganism imported into Judaism would have been anathema, so the idea that the interaction of gods with men really happened in a village in Galilee would have been preposterous to the pagans themselves. The stories of Judaism incarnated the ancient myths in historical ways. They were hidden there within the facts of history. They were not imposed on history as an afterthought.
Finally, the early Christians themselves were in constant conflict with the pagan religions and died as martyrs in the conflict. If Christianity were simply the latest version of the pagan cults why did Christians find the pagan cults so objectionable? If the divine Jesus Christ was simply another divine hero like the pagan heroes, then why not accept the divine emperor or the divine Hercules or participate in Mithraism? If the development of their religion was the wholesale acceptance of paganism, then why did the first Christians object to paganism so strenuously—even to the death?
The problem with the anthropologist and comparative religionists’ solution is not that it is obvious, but that it is too obvious. They have made the mistake of assuming that similarities always imply influence, but certain strains within the human imagination and especially within the human religious sensibilities are simply universal aspects of being human. Because an aborigine in Australia tells a story about the beautiful moon goddess and an Inuit in Alaska does the same does not mean that they have gotten together to share notes. Perhaps the truth is far simpler. They both tell stories about the beautiful moon goddess because the moon is beautiful and reminds them of a powerful and lovely lady.
The story of the Blessed Virgin Mary accepting the Son of God is related to all the pagan myths of gods and girls. It is related to all the Cinderella stories of poor girls swept off their feet by powerful masters, but it is related to these stories as the birth of a child is related to a schoolgirl’s dreams of being a mother. The simple girl in Nazareth saying ‘yes’ to God and receiving his son within her own self is related to all the mystical and magical stories as the vague dreams and outlines of a story are within an author’s mind before he writes. The pagan stories were whisperings of what was to come. They were glimpses of a future glory and shadowy hints of a plan that would become as particular as a pregnancy, as concrete as a crying childbirth and as human as the humble history of the whole Hebrew race, and it was on this stupendous foundation that the rest of human history would be transformed.
This essay is an edited version of Chapter Fourteen of Dwight Longenecker’s The Romance of Religion (240 pages, Thomas Nelson, 2014).
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