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Birth Stories of Gods and Heroes

Stories of divine birth were told in Greco-Roman culture to glorify the hero in question, to legitimate his or her power, and to control the exercise of that power.


To be born from a god was certainly a wonderful privilege in antiquity, but it was hardly unique. Why were stories of divine birth told, and did the ancients consider them historical?

By and large, the ancients believed in the historicity of their myths (that is, their authoritative cultural lore). They recognized that in the distant past (the heroic age before the Trojan War), gods were closer to humans (Pausanias, Descr. 8.2.4), and this proximity went some way toward explaining why humans and gods had (sexual) intercourse, producing demigods or heroes.

Stories of divine births were told for many reasons. First of all, such stories glorified local (Greek and Roman) ancestors and thus added symbolic capital to Greek and Roman culture. Rulers and sages traced their ancestry back to gods, and this discourse naturalized their exercise of power and wisdom. For instance, Alexander the Great, who shocked the world by conquering lands between Bulgaria and Pakistan, claimed to be the son of Zeus (Plutarch, Mor. 219e), even though his actual father (Philip II of Macedon) was well known. During the Roman Empire, many people continued to believe that their rulers (the emperors) were gods because of their extraordinary powers—they could found or destroy cities, move whole populations, and perform miracles of healing (Tacitus, Histories 4.81).

Divine birth stories did not simply justify the power of rulers, however; they also directed the exercise of political power. The heroes of old were recognized as divine not because of their raw exercise of power but due to their virtue. Thus orators and politicians who wanted to admonish their rulers highlighted heroes with particular virtues like Heracles who battled monsters, Asclepius who healed the sick, and Augustus who put an end to the Roman civil wars.

A detailed example is how the Athenians treated the Greek king Demetrius the Besieger (one of the heirs of Alexander the Great). In 291 BCE, the Athenians organized a chorus to sing a hymn to Demetrius. They named him the child of Poseidon (due to the strength of his navy) and of Aphrodite (for his reputation as a playboy). But their honor was not for free. The Athenians were angling for Demetrius to attack their enemies (the Aetolians) in order to protect Athenian honor at the oracle of Delphi (Athenaeus, Deipn. 6.253b-f).

To make stories of divine birth seem more historical, the sexual element was sometimes eliminated. Speusippus, Plato’s nephew and successor, said that his uncle was son of the god Apollo and the human Perictione (Diogenes Laertius, Vit. Phil. 3.2). Plutarch, a biographer contemporary with the evangelists, denied that Apollo had sex with Perictione. For Plutarch (Numa 4.4; Quaest. conv. 718a), Plato was born by Apollo’s “breath” (pneuma) and “power” (dynamis)—exactly the terms that appear in Luke to explain the mechanics of Jesus’s divine conception (Luke 1:35).

These cases raise key questions: what was the social interest of the evangelists when they told the divine birth stories of Jesus? By eliminating the sexual element, they desired their accounts to seem historical and thus believable to educated readers. At the same time, they wanted to glorify the reputation of their hero as a king whose power transcended that displayed by procurators and emperors. Finally, they aimed to encourage their own leaders (ecclesial and political) to imitate the self-sacrificial virtue of their crucified god.

  • Litwa-M-David

    M. David Litwa, PhD, is a scholar of ancient Mediterranean religions with a focus on early Christianity. He has taught courses at the University of Virginia (Religion and Classics), the College of William & Mary (Classics), and Virginia Tech (Religion and Culture). His current appointment is at the Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry (ACU Melbourne). He is a member of the steering committee of the Bible, Myth, and Myth Theory Group at the Society of Biblical Literature. His recent publications include How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myth (Yale University Press, 2019), Desiring Divinity (Oxford University Press, 2016), and Iesus Deus: The Early Christian Depiction of Jesus as a Mediterranean God (Fortress, 2014).