Monday, 21 December 2015

The #ChristmasMyths, #4: The Birthplace and Surroundings of the Little Baby Jesus

Part of a continuing series* looking at the pagan origins of the Christmas Myths, one day at a time. Today, the cunning tale and the pagan origins of where Jesus was said to be born…


Jesus was born in a manger (a trough or a box) and visited by shepherds, say the authors of Luke.** No, say the authors of Matthew, he was born in a house in which he and Mary were visited by an unconfirmed number of wandering vagrants from the East (three being a later gloss).

There were no little drummer boys. (Although Grace Jones almost manages to make you wish there were!)

But note that the authors of Mark and John (whoever they might be, since they assuredly weren’t either Mark or John) don’t bother with any of this old carry on. To them, it clearly didn’t matter a hoot who visited where or when or how, or in what manner of receptacle he was born--they simply didn’t consider the events important enough to either document or dream up.

Others followed them. Others just made up their own stories.

Justin Martyr in 150AD or so, reckons “the actual place of Jesus’ birth was a cave.” Yes, Jesus was born in a cave, agreed Eusebius., the first true ecclesiastical historian, writing at the council of Nice in 327AD and clearly wholly unaware of the stories yet to be grafted to the narrations that appear later in Luke and Matthew: 

Tertullian, Jerome and other early Christian Fathers agreed (as much they could every agree on anything). That Christian ceremonies have been celebrated for centuries in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, in a cave, support this idea.

So, where was he born? Well, who knows, frankly. Who knows, frankly, if He was even born at all, since all we’re really celebrating is the myth made up by Matthew and Luke. So let’s check out  the pagan and eastern myths associated with the birth of gods—since it was these myths our authors were responding to, borrowing from, and hoping their man to receive credit thereby.

And the story they actually hatched was riven with weasel-like cunning.

You see, the idea of there being “no room at the inn” or being born as an outsider is virtually a cliché—the idea in myth that the Hero’s journey begins with him being an outsider, who eventually takes over. Who could resist that drama.
And the stable is mentioned nowhere at all (other than by implication as being where you might find a trough or be if you're not in an inn); and neither are the animals mentioned who are supposedly milling around. So from where do schoolrooms around the world get that part of their nativity pastorale? Astonishingly, the humble origins associated with birth in either a cave or stable or other humble circumstances is first associated with all those other great virgin-born gods in the great myths, from Zeus to Chrishna to Abraham to Mithra toApollo to Hermes to Dionysus --and it is from them that the tales of stables truly derive.

So once again, there’s nothing new here in the use of the myth and the association with earlier great gods, though with this tale the earlier myths show through even beyond the tales told in the Christian book.

There's one god of particular interest however, and he was the Roman god Mithra, Christianity’s great competitor in the marketplace at the time the Christian myythology was being written, who was also, coincidentally, born on December 25--and the symbol, associated especially with Mithra were the cave, being a scene of initiation; and an association with the winter solstice. (Just one of the reasons you're singing songs and giving presents this week.

The cave is an interesting one. Perhaps the greatest symbolic association with the cave is as a place in which the emergence of light happens, a powerful theme with which to associate this new sect’s great man, and a theme that still appears in virtually every Christmas card depiction of the Nativity.

Early second century carvings and reliefs, indicating how early Christians were already reworking their stories to fit the market, show a child in a crib with an ass, an ox and the Magi – which, by their headdress, are clearly priests of the Lord Mithra. In marketing terms, that’s like showing Pepsi bending the knee to Coke.

A similar message is given by the use of the ox and ass, who appear everywhere in carols and nativity scenes, but nowhere in the Christian account. Where they do come from is actually Egypt: the ass is associated with the god Set, and the ox with the god Osiris (for whom Mozart wrote some pretty damned gorgeous music).

The appearance of Set and Osiris in these carefully-crafted tales was no accident, and once again would have been obvious to every man and his acolyte back in the day. As everyone in the Middle East knew back then, the gods Set (the ass) and Osiris (the ox) were always at war with each other. Always. So to see them reconciled at the birth of this infant, both of them bending their knees to boot, was a powerful mythological hint that these Gods (representing a union of light and dark) were handing over their powers to him too --and their supporters should think of following suit

So in that little Christmas scene concocted by our two sets of early Christian authors, Osiris and his brother Set, as well as Mithra, are all recognising Christ.

Cunning, huh.

Not a bad way to use the symbolism of myth to introduce your own man as the new power.  (Set, by the way, was eventually crucified in the Egyptian myths. Just thought you’d like to know.)

All very cunningly and carefully done, because as Joseph Campbell points out,
In that very earliest depiction, we already find the Catholic idea that the older myth are prefigurements of the new. That particular arrangement [of ox and ass and Magi huddled around the Christ figure] could not in the second and third centuries have been mistaken by anybody as meaning anything else.
Thus does myth become propaganda. But the original metaphors behind the myths still remain.

Tomorrow: “The Divine Child Recognised & Presented With Gifts.”

* This and later posts in the series rely heavily on Thomas William Doane’s Bible Myths and Their Parallels in Other Religions, and Joseph Campbell’s Occidental Mythology and  Thou Art That.
** Note that Luke has the shepherds visit, but only mentions a manger — not a stable or animals. The entire setting for the manger, which as ‘everyone’ knows, is simply a trough or open box, is inserted into the story not because of anything in the gospels but because of a loaded passage from Isaiah (1:3), and the marketing gimmick alluded to above. The trough itself could have been anywhere, of course, from a stable to a house to an inn or even (as Justin Martyr and the the so-called Infancy Gospel ascribed to Jesus’ brother James assert) to a cave outside Bethlehem. Take your pick. The original authors of the mythology certainly did.


  1. Mithras was not born on 25 December. A solar festival was celebrated on that day which has led scholars to speculate that a "Sun" god like Mithras (not at all the same thing as Son Of God BTW) may have been included in this. Quite apart from anything else, the Christian movement was established and spread well before 25 December became the date on which we celebrate Christmas (it's not even controversial in the church that Christ wasn't actually born on this date). So even if it was true that Mithraism directly influenced the church on this particular issue, it would still be irrelevant to the question of whether Christianity is true.

    John Smith

    1. Well, of course, none of these beings were actually born at all -- so let's not forget we're in the realm of myth here, not fact.

      Still, it was said that the Persian-Roman god Mithras was born in a cave on DEC-25 to, of course, a virgin.

      This was awfully conveneient, because it wasn't just the time of the winter solstice (time for many earlier pagan festivities) but also the end of the week-long Roman Saturnalia, "... marked by unrestrained revelry and often licentiousness; an orgy." (Give me an old-time Saturnalia any year!)

      But he wasn't even the only god saidd to have been born on DEC-25:

      * Attis was a son of the virgin Nana. His birth was celebrated on DEC-25. He was sacrificed as an adult in order to bring salvation to mankind. He died about MAR-25, after being crucified on a tree, and descended for three days into the underworld. On Sunday, he arose, as the solar deity for the new season. His followers tied an image of Attis to a tree on "Black Friday," and carried him in a procession to the temple. ["Black Friday" has a very different meaning today.] His body was symbolically eaten by his followers in the form of bread. Worship of Attis began in Rome circa 200 BCE.

      * Dionysus is another saviour-god whose birth was observed on DEC-25. He was worshipped throughout much of the Middle East as well as in Greece. He had a center of worship in Jerusalem in the 1st century BCE. Some ancient coins were found in Gaza with Dionysus on one side and JHWH (Jehovah) on the other. In later years, his flesh and blood were symbolically eaten in the form of bread and wine.

      * Osiris of course, was also 'born' DEC-25: A saviour-god who had been worshipped as far back as Neolithic times. "He was called Lord of Lords, King of Kings, God of Gods...the Resurrection and the Life, the Good shepherd...the god who 'made men and women be born again'" Three wise men announced his birth too, and his followers ate cakes of wheat symbolising his body. Many sayings associated with Osiris were copied into the Bible with minimal alteration, including the Lord's Prayer, the Psalm of the Good Shepherd, and many of Jesus' alleged parables.

      Many others have often been said to have shared the same famous day, including Hercules, Chrishna, HOrus, Beddou, Tammus and Quetzalcoatl.

      So on the one hand we can see that if you're going to give your mystery cult a leg-up in the marketing stakes, then you're obviously going to give your boy at least the same standing as his predecessors.

      And on the other hand, it gives all of us a pretty fine menu of gods from which to worship on DEC-25, if we so choose.

    2. PC: the whole 'virgin birth' thing is due to the incorrect translation of the Hebrew word for 'young woman'.

      If you're going to be smug about the ignorance of Christians it would help to be less ignorant yourself.

    3. You're missing my point PC. The New Testament gives no actual date for the birth of Christ and the selection of 25 December to celebrate it didn't come until much later. So "Christmas" is neither an original nor essential part of the Christian gospel. Given how much uncertainty and speculation mark the study of ancient mythology, i'm highly skeptical of your list, but even if all these figures were "born" on 25 December it's frankly neither here nor there.

      John Smith

    4. @John, you said, "So "Christmas" is neither an original nor essential part of the Christian gospel."


    5. @Ben: You seem to miss the point of that incorrect translation.

      The original Hebrew descriptions of all that the Messiah was supposed to do, according to the Prophets, all appeared in the Old Testament. So the New Testament writers created their stories to show their Messiah following the prophecies; but they they were writing in Greek ... and they also had all the other pagan stories from which to borrow, so ....

  2. Yeah but the 25th is ideal as the end of year holidays start earlier, better then than a day or two off in the middle of June huh? Suzuki

  3. The born in a cave stuff is probably rubbish as it would be culturally unacceptable to not take in Joseph and Mary so its likely they were sleeping in someone's house and overflowed into the stable which would commonly form a room on one end to keep the animals in a night. All perfectly normal at the time irrespective of whether some pagan did it earlier.

    The competitor for Christianity in the Roman world was Ceasar because the Jews in particular were looking for a political leader. Jesus was clear that he was talking about something on a higher plane than being an alternative to the political rulers of the time. Gentiles didn't get dragged into this argument because they were not involved in the Jewish squabbles.


    1. You forget that Paul and those who followed him were were desperately trying to sell this new 'mystery cult' to the Gentiles....

    2. I disagree about the desperation and believe you overlook Paul's past which contrasts hugely with his missionary work. Selling something that will get you off side with everyone and killed yet makes no money along the way seems foolish to persist with to an unpleasant end. It was not a new mystery cult as it fitted in with the Jewish theology which included plenty of references to gentiles. Gentiles would have been familiar with many Jewish customs because they were spread throughout the Roman world and were both regimented and exclusive. As is usual most people just followed the crowd for the free stuff. Nothing has changed.



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