Did the story of the virgin birth of Jesus have its origin in older religious beliefs, like Buddhism?
A while ago I started chipping away at a blog entry on the claim that the virgin birth of Jesus is just a copy cat tale used by the early Christian church, borrowing this fictional element of the life of Christ from countless other myths. The view, although not well attested in scholarly literature, gained some popularity with online sceptics with the release of the sensationalist but error-ridden documentary Zeitgeist. You will not find this claim in serious scholarly critiques of religious belief, but the sad fact is, sceptics with an online platform and lots of anger to spend often gain influence among a credulous audience that simply doesn’t know any better. I’ve decided not to put it all into one blog entry. Every now and then I’ll blog on one of the figures that the virgin birth Jesus was supposedly copied from.
(For that reason, please do not waste your time replying by saying “sure, THAT connection might not be correct, but what about this OTHER myth that Jesus was copied from?” Like I said, I’ll do them one at a time.)
Candidate #1: Gotama (Gautama) Buddha
Siddhartha Gautama was his name. His mother was Queen Maha Maya, and his father was, surprise surprise, Queen Maha Maya’s husband, King Suddhodana. Here’s a link to a forum where a confused person had heard that Buddha was said to be born of a virgin, so wanted to ask some people who might know.
No evidence was provided. The closest that anyone got was saying: “Yes, there are myths of a virgin birth.” Where are these myths and how old are they? We’ll have to hunt for ourselves, it seems. In the Wikipedia page on Maya (mother of Buddha), here’s what we find:
Some interpretations of the life story of the Buddha attribute his birth to a virgin birth. This is likely due to a specific interpretation of the prophetic dream Queen Maya is said to have had prior to conception and is not a widely held view amongst Buddhists.
This refers to a dream that Queen Maya had after trying for many years to have a baby with her husband. In the dream, an elephant passed into the side of her body, and then shortly after, she was pregnant with Siddhartha Gautama.
If the writer or writers of the life of Buddha had really wanted to say that he was born of a virgin, it would not have been difficult. The reality is, they wrote that he was born to a woman who had been married for twenty years, without so much as a hint that she and her husband were abstaining from sex.
Head over to the sacred texts website and read about the birth of Gautama Buddha. Do you see any reference to a virgin birth?
If there is any parallel between the birth of Gautama and anything in the Bible, the closest thing would probably be the story of Abraham and Sarah and their son Isaac, which is not a virgin birth story at all. Abraham and Sarah, like Maya and Suddhodana, had been trying for years to have a child, and then due to a miracle, they succeed. We can’t use this example as a transference from Buddhism to Judaism or Christianity, however, simply because of the great age of the account of Abraham and Sarah. It is older than the story of Buddha, and geographically very far removed.
As an intellectually honest sceptic, the next time you see the claim repeated that the virgin birth of Jesus is a fictional element borrowed from mythological stories including the birth of Gautama, please stop the claimant in his/her tracks and ask for documentation of the claim about Buddha. If the source is a book or website that makes the claim, then follow up with the question, “and what is their evidence?”
One by one let’s wipe this meme out.
(If you found this blog post interesting, you will probably enjoy this podcast episode on the supposed connection between Jesus and Osiris.)
- Merry Mithras!
- Have Yourself a Very Pagan Christmas! (not)
- Jesus, Son of Joseph, Son of David
- James, the brother of Jesus and son of Joseph
- Dawkins gets science and religion wrong. In other news, man bites dog.