Many aspects of Jesus’ life portrayed in the Bible had antecedents in Grecko-Roman culture. Indeed, the early Christians seemed to have borrowed doctrine from the Romans or the Grecko-Roman tradition. In myth, gods often impregnated peasant girls. Also, there are examples of gods dying and resurrecting. In propaganda, Roman emperors declared themselves gods or were anointed as such upon death. Particularly, the early Christians seem to have borrowed from Augustus Caesar the ideas of a virginal birth and the mantle of son of god. They may have also borrowed from the Apollo, Hercules, and Dionysus myths. In the end, much of the Jesus story appears to be reworked Grecko-Roman propaganda and religion.
According to the Bible, the Holy Spirit visited Mary who begot Jesus in a virgin birth. As the son of God, Jesus ministry posed a threat to Jewish leadership and caught the attention of the Romans. Jesus’ violent actions in overturning the money changers tables brought swift retribution. The Romans crucified Jesus ending his life and ministry. However, the early Christians created a second act following Christ’s death. In this tradition, Jesus died, went to hell, and returned resurrected.
Per Christian doctrine, Jesus’ life ended with crucifixion, but began with immaculate conception. The Virgin Mary was one of many women that claimed a visit from a god led to an unexpected pregnancy. Grecko-Roman religion is filled with stories of women falling to the gods. Zeus in particular was responsible for an inordinate number of pregnancies resulting in the births of demigods. In one account, he visited a woman as a golden ray of light. This sounds similar to the Biblical story of the Holy Spirit’s visitation upon Mary. Both Matthew and Luke claim Mary conceived Jesus while a virgin after a visit from the Holy Spirit. It was not uncommon for unwanted pregnancies to be explained as godly visits. This protected women from retribution. If they were telling the truth, then punishing a fallen woman risked angering a god.
Peasants were not the only people to claim divine visitations. Elites sometimes claimed to be semi-divine through paternity. Alexander the Great’s mother, Olympias, claimed Zeus, and not Philip of Macedon, was the father of the great conqueror. Augustus portrayed his mother, Atia, as a virtuous Roman and perfect mother. Additionally, Augustus later claimed divinity through the god Apollo. According to his propaganda, Apollo visited Atia as a snake in the middle of the night. The next morning, Atia awoke to find herself with child. The early Christians might have borrowed their portrayal of Mary from Augustus’ official propaganda or Mary might have claimed divine paternity to avoid retribution.
Apollo was not the only god Augustus claimed descent. The first emperor inherited his position from his adopted father, Julius Caesar. Augustus claimed a comet that appeared during games honoring the deceased dictator represented Caesar’s spirit ascending to the heavens. In short order, the Roman Senate declared Julius Caesar a god. Later. Augustus declared himself the son of a god. Once again, it appears the Gospels borrowed from the Romans. They had to justify Jesus’ life and portray him as greater than the Caesars. As a result, Jesus had to be the son of a god as well. In this way, they could argue the greatness of Jesus and their god over the Romans.
Despite claiming a stronger god, the Romans executed Jesus. In response, the early Christians developed a response using Grecko-Roman tradition to justify their religion, faith in Christ,and prove his victory over death and the Romans. Ephesians 4:8-10, 1 Peter 3:18-20, and the Apostles Creed all indicate Jesus went to hell. Like Jesus, Hercules had a human mother and divine father. Also like Jesus, the ancient world’s greatest hero, Hercules, went to the underworld. So the early Christians apparently borrowed from the the ancient’s own Superman myth and sent their own demigod to hell. While Hercules captured Cerberus the three-headed dog, Jesus freed the honored dead born before his birth and ministry and escorted them to heaven.
Like Jesus and Hercules, Dionysus had a mortal mother and divine father. Additionally, his mother was a virgin, transformed water into wine, died, and resurrected. According to one myth, he disappeared for three days in the underworld. The similarity in stories cannot be an accident and Dionysus predates Jesus. As a result, confusion forced early Christians to respond to comparisons between Dionysus and Jesus.
Very few scholars question whether Jesus existed. Indeed most agree the evidence and logic supports this position. However, the theology surrounding Jesus as a god or demigod remains open to interpretation. Much of the Jesus story resembles Grecko-Roman religion. Virgin births, divine fathers, miracles, resurrections all appear in the Grecko-Roman pantheon. In the end, it appears the early Christians co-opted the Grecko-Romans to justify their religion and prove the superiority of their god.