Is Jesus’s nativity an Egyptian myth?

In my first published book, The Christ Conspiracy (1999), I provided an image from the birth cycle of the Egyptian pharaoh Amenhotep III (1386/1388-1349-51 BCE), found in the temple of the god Amun at Luxor, Egypt. Like many others before me, including professional Egyptologists, I contended for a possible influence of such imagery on Christianity, as concerns the birth or nativity stories about Jesus Christ, specifically in the canonical gospels of Luke and Matthew. Here is the image in question:

Nativity of Amenhotep III (click to enlarge)

The description reads: ‘The Annunciation, Conception, Birth and Adoration of the Child’

In Christ Con, I included a summary derived from the following commentary by Egyptologist Dr. Samuel C. Sharpe (Egyptian Mythology and Egyptian Christianity, 19), in whose book the image first appears:

In this picture we have the Annunciation, the Conception, the Birth and the Adoration, as described in the First and Second Chapters of Luke’s Gospel; and as we have historical assurance that the chapters in Matthew’s Gospel which contain the Miraculous Birth of Jesus are an after addition not in the earliest manuscripts, it seems probable that these two poetical chapters in Luke may also be unhistorical, and be borrowed from the Egyptian accounts of the miraculous birth of their kings.

In my book Christ in Egypt, published in 2009, I followed up this discussion with a lengthy 20-page analysis of this Luxor artifact, examining not just the imagery but also the inscription that appears on a panel which precedes the above scenes. This birth cycle as well as its precedent, that of the female pharaoh Hatshepsut (d. 1458 BCE), are discussed in detail in German Egyptologist Dr. Hellmut Brunner’s book Die Geburt des Gottkönigs: Studien zur Überlieferung eines altägyptischen Mythos, considered the definitive authority on the “birth of the god-king” vis-à-vis Egyptian mythology. Included in Brunner’s study are the subsequent “birth houses” or mammisis, a term coined by famous French linguist Jean François Champollion (1790-1832), major decipherer of the Rosetta Stone.

The Luxor birth cycle

I excerpted this section from Christ in Egypt (“CIE”) in an online article titled, “The Nativity Scene of Amenhotep III at Luxor,” in which I included a scan from the Amenhotep III birth cycle, from Brunner’s book, along with a detailed discussion of his German description and translation of the pertinent hieroglyphs. Following is the relevant image from Luxor, panel or scene 4, the inscription of which Brunner labels “IV L a”.

Image

In CIE, I discussed the hieroglyphic inscription in detail, providing Brunner’s German, as well as direct English translations of the Egyptian by Egyptologists such as Dr. William Murnane, a director of the Great Hypostyle Hall Project at the Karnak Temple in Luxor.

The gospel source?

In my writings, I concur with the suggestion by prior Egyptologists, as well as other scholars and lay persons, that the Luxor birth cycle may have been utilized in some fashion as an influence on Jesus’s nativity stories, as found mainly in the first and second chapters of the Gospel of Luke, as well as Matthew’s gospel.

“It is probable that the myth [of the divine birth] was recorded of every Egyptian king…. Marginal reference may be made to points of contact with the birth narratives in the gospel of Luke.”

Egyptologists themselves are obviously aware of this connection between the Egyptian birth cycles and Luke’s gospel in particular. In CIE, I also relate the comments of theologian and Bible scholar Dr. Walter Beyerlin, in a collaborative work with Egyptologist Brunner called Near Eastern Religious Texts Relating to the Old Testament (30), regarding the Egyptian birth narratives: “It is probable that the myth was recorded of every Egyptian king.” Beyerlin refers to corresponding biblical citations, mostly from the Old Testament, noting, “Marginal reference may be made to points of contact with the birth narratives in the gospel of Luke,” a correlation contended by earlier Egyptologist Sharpe. Here Beyerlin, with Brunner, clearly know that there is a correspondence between the Egyptian birth myths and both Old and New Testament scriptures (although Brunner curtly dismisses the subject in his own book).

In reality, there have been many such studies, especially in German and other languages besides English, including an article by E. Brunner-Traut entitled, “Pharao und Jesus als Söhne Gottes” or “Pharoah and Jesus as Sons of God,” published in 1961. Referring to these studies, Near Eastern and biblical scholar Dr. Othmar Keel  remarks:

E. Brunner-Traut (“Pharao und Jesus als Söhne Gottes”) substantially covers the parallels between the pharaonic birth narratives and the infancy narratives of the gospels. The OT genealogy of the NT birth narratives is nicely presented by H. Gese (“Natus ex Virgine”). Gese seems, however, to underemphasize somewhat the indirect influence which Egyptian royal ideology exerted upon the birth narratives via the royal psalms. (Keel,The Symbolism of the Biblical World, 367)

The underemphasis of Egyptian influence on the Christian effort is unfortunately common. As we can see, it is not only my previous sources and I who have been interested in the parallels between the Egyptian birth narratives and the gospel nativity. Indeed, these studies by credentialed professional scholars date back over a century, a number of them designed, of course, by Christian scholars to shore up the faith and nitpick the correspondences to deny any real correlation. Nevertheless, the parallel was obvious enough to warrant all these studies in the first place.

It should be emphasized that it is the Egyptian birth-cycle imagery and not the accompanying “sexy” New Kingdom inscriptions that interest us in this comparative-religion study, imagery not confined to Luxor but passed along as a myth “recorded of every Egyptian king.”

Egyptian birth houses or mammisis

The Luxor temple precinct was visited as a pilgrim destination and tourist attraction from antiquity into the common era, and many thousands of people would have seen the Amenhotep narrative scene there. This discussion is extremely germane to the subject of the Christian nativity narrative, particularly since the style, if not the actual scene, was widely copied for centuries afterwards. This construction of nativity scenes became fairly common, in “birth houses” or mammisi, which were popular in the Late Period in Egypt (c. 712/664-323 BCE) into the Greco-Roman Period (323 BCE-395 AD/CE): “The most important surviving examples are from the Ptolemaic and Roman periods in Egypt.” There were many of these “birth houses” or smaller chapels attached to Egyptian temples during the Ptolemaic period (323-30 BCE), the very time leading up to the Christian era.

The mammisis or birth houses were “not a place where human women went to give birth but a place for sacred rituals aimed at manifesting and ascertaining the divine descendancy of Pharaoh.” In other words, the birth houses or mammisis were basically an extension of the earlier birth-cycle imagery of Hatshepsut and Amenhotep III, designed to exalt the pharaoh as a divine figure. As stated at GlobalEgyptianMuseum.org:

According to the texts and illustrations in these birth houses, this was where the divine child was born and brought up. Another series shows the child being conceived, then being shaped by Khnum on his potter’s wheel, and then being presented to his father. These motifs are virtually identical to the scenes in the so-called birth rooms in the temple of Luxor (with scenes showing the birth of Amenhotep III) and Deir el-Bahari (showing the birth of Hatshepsut). Gods commonly connected with the protection of mother and child, such as Bes and Taweret, are also often depicted in the birth houses. (Emph. added)

In this regard, Egyptologist Dr. Claus J. Bleeker comments:

…the presentation of the divine parentage of Hatshepsut was in no way an exclusively political and constitutional fiction. In the temple at Luxor, for example, is preserved a duplicate of it pertaining to Amenhotep III… Later kings similarly claimed to be the offspring of Re. In the Ptolemaic temples are several reproductions of this divine birth. And when Alexander the Great had himself recognized as the son of the gods by the oracle of Amon of the Siwa oasis, he acted in perfect accordance with an aged Egyptian tradition which went back to at least the fifth dynasty. (Bleeker, Historia Religionum, 78) (Emph. added)

Here we see Bleeker suggest that Alexander the Great’s divine birth story descended from the “aged” Egyptian birth cycles. Since Alexander spent some time at Luxor and even built a “bark shrine” next to Amenhotep’s birth room, this suggestion is understandable and scientific.

We know that the Greeks – specifically the Ptolemies – emulated the Egyptians in creating birth houses/mammisis, as the Romans imitated the Egyptians in creating mummies and painted coffins. Since it is my contention – and that of many others – that much of Christianity was created at the city of Alexandria, where there was a large Egyptian, Greek and Jewish population, as well as some half a million manuscripts from around the known world of the time, this fact of nativity scene/mammisi popularity in Egypt is highly relevant to our studies of Christian origins.

Earlier Egyptian material ancestral to later birth-house scenes

By the time of these mammisis/birth houses, the earlier Egyptian birth-cycle inscriptions were evidently long forgotten for the most part, a fact that certainly held true by the time of the period in question, the centuries surrounding the turn of the common era. However, we can trace the progress of the birth scenes/imagery over the millennium and a half between their carving and the creation of the Christian nativity scene.

Following the time of Hatshepsut and Amenhotep, during the 25th Dynasty (760-656 BCE) a series of birth scenes was carved in Temple A at South Karnak, next to Luxor. Concerning these reliefs, Egyptologist Dr. Richard A. Fazzini, a chairman of the Department of Egyptian Art at the Brooklyn Museum, remarks:

Temple A’s royal birth scenes are hardly an iconographic innovation of [the time]. On the contrary, they are closely related to New Kingdom reliefs, especially those of Hatshepsut and Amenhotep III proclaiming their rights to the throne as the offspring of Amun and their human mothers… These relief cycles, including Temple A’s, depicting the divine birth of a king, are ancestral to the cycles of birth of a child-god from two divine parents known from the specialized temples of D. XXX and later called mammisis (“birth houses”), the setting for rituals celebrating the birth and renewal of child-gods, with whom any king might be identified. (Fazzini, Richard A., Egypt Dynasty XXII-XXV, 12) (Emph. added)

Fazzini’s pronouncement is blunt: The royal birth scenes in Temple A are “closely related” to the Hatshepsut and Amenhotep cycles, and are ancestral to the reliefs in the later birth houses. He has therefore traced a lineage from Luxor to the Ptolemies or Greek leaders of Egypt from the death of Alexander the Great (323 BCE) until that of famed Greco-Egyptian queen Cleopatra (30 BCE).

Philae mammisi

The Greek ruler of Egypt Ptolemy III (246-222 BCE) had his birth house or mammisi on the famous sacred island of Philae, home to an Isis temple and the last great holdout of the priests of that goddess before their slaughter by Christian fanatics. In Ptolemy III’s mammisi appears the “conception of the Horus child as a result of the command given by Amun to Khnum.” (Vassilika, Eleni, Ptolemaic Philae, 39) The rest of the description sounds much like that of the imagery found at Luxor (and Deir el-Bahri).

Boston University religion scholar Dr. David Frankfurter (251) notes that the mammisi (at Philae) is the most sacred space open to visitors – and visitors certainly went there, as deeply devoted pilgrims who could not help be but impressed by this imagery of the divine birth of their ruler.

(For images of the birth house of Ptolemy III, we are directed to Das Geburtshaus des Tempels der Isis in Phila by H. Junker and E. Winter.)

Mammisis at Dendera and Edfu

Concerning the mammisis at the Upper Egyptian sites of Dendera and Edfu, Egyptologist Dr. Ian Shaw remarks that they were “used to celebrate the divine birth of the king, and the reliefs in these structures have enough in common with the birth scenes of Hatshepsut to suggest that the former might be a later version of the latter…” (Shaw, Ian, Exploring Ancient Egypt, 141). (Emphasis added.)

As we can see, representing one’s birth in this divine manner seems to have become de rigeur among pharaohs, kings and emperors – how, then, could the practice be ignored by the formulators of Christian traditions as concerns their “King of kings?”

Describing the mammisi at Edfu, Shaw (235-6) remarks again:

In the Ptolemaic mammisi, the rituals of the marriage of the goddess (Isis or Hathor) and the birth of the child-god were celebrated. The origins of the mammisi can perhaps be seen in the form of eighteenth-dynasty painted reliefs describing the divine birth of the king, found in the mortuary temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahari…and the temple of Amenhotep III at Luxor. (Emph. added)

Note that this scholar does not say the inscriptions at either Deir el-Bahri or Luxor were copied in the later Edfu birth house – only the scenes; otherwise, he would have been able easily to identify their source. It is not a big leap from the Edfu mammisi with its birth scenes to the Christian effort at Alexandria.

Roman birth houses

As examples of birth houses during the Roman period, the emperor Trajan (53-117) had his mammisi, as did Marcus Aurelius (121-180) – long into the common era. Roman emperors were putting their names on Egyptian monuments up to and including the time of Decius (c. 250 AD). The relationship among the Greeks, Romans and Egyptians was highly intertwined and had been for centuries by the time of Christianity’s creation.

Horus and Isis

As stated, the term “mammisi” was coined by French scholar Champollion, who described these birth houses thus:

…these Mammisi were always constructed by the side of the larger temples where a triad was worshipped, and they represented the celestial abode where the goddess had given birth to the third person of the triad.

The editor of this Champollion quote adds:

This “third person of the triad” was no other than the king who erected the building. (Auguste Mariette-Bey, The Monuments of Upper Egypt, 70)

Thus, the “divine triad” included the pharaoh, who was born of the goddess, generally Isis. Hence, we have the king as Horus, birthed by Isis, who is called in pre-Christian texts “the Great Virgin.” It is not a difficult equation to see, and this simple equation is what the common people of Egypt would be comprehending. Accompanying inscriptions or various details of the imagery may not matter at all, as this simple impression/equation is what the average person would likely perceive: To wit, a virgin mother giving birth to a divine child.

In my book The Christ Conspiracy (115), following earlier scholars such as Massey and Sharpe, I described the birth scene at Luxor as having to do with Horus and Isis. Obviously, the Luxor nativity revolves immediately around Amenhotep III, but in Egypt in general the pharaoh-king was considered to be the living Horus, and his mother was often equated with Isis, as we can see from these later mammisi scenes in which it is clearly the goddess (Hathor or Isis) who is giving birth to the divine child. (NB: This language will be annotated for accuracy in the revision of The Christ Conspiracy.)

In this regard, in her mammisi at Hermonthis, Ptolemaic queen Cleopatra is depicted as Isis giving birth to the divine child, Horus as the sun, fulfilling the “prophecy” at the temple of Sais. (Fletcher, Cleopatra the Great, ebook) The inscription at Sais, in fact, provides evidence of the Egyptian virgin-birth motif, as recorded by the ancient Greek writer Proclus (21E):

τα οντα και τα εσομενα και τα γεγονοτα εγω ειμι. τον εμον χιτωνα ουδεις απεκαλυψεν. ον εγω καρπον ετεκον, ηλιος εγενετο.

My very literal translation of this inscription regarding the goddess Neith-Isis can be found in CIE (146):

The present and the future and the past, I am. My undergarment no one has uncovered. The fruit I brought forth, the sun came into being.

Thus, we have the divine solar son (Horus) born of the virgin mother (Isis-Cleopatra) mere decades before the common era, involving a very famous ruler of Egypt. It is quite likely many people were aware of this Egyptian divine-birth scenario both within and outside of Egypt.

From Hatshepsut to the gospels

The outline of the “Out of Egypt Theory” as concerns the gospel nativity cycle proceeds thus:

1. Hatshepsut (d. 1458 BCE) created a nativity scene, depicting her as the “daughter of God,” a product of the divine union between the god Amun and Hatshepsut’s mother.

2. Amenhotep III (fl. 1386/8 to 1351/49 BCE) copied the nativity scene and parts of the inscription, likewise depicting himself as the “son of God.”

3. Birth houses or mammisis were built for numerous pharaohs and Greco-Roman rulers right into the common era, including scenes of a similar nature as the earlier nativities, without their “sexy” inscriptions.

4. These mammisis – as well as the earlier Amenhotep birth cycle at the popular tourist spot of Luxor – could have served as inspirations for the gospel writers, whose efforts, the evidence indicates, occurred significantly at Alexandria, Egypt.

The bottom line is that we have in the Egyptian birth-cycle imagery up to and into the common era some very suggestive parallels to the gospel birth narrative, as noted by many authorities over the past couple of centuries.

Conclusion

To ignore in the analysis of the ultimate “King of Kings” these important Egyptian divine-birth scenes – which feature prominently in the human psyche of the time vis-à-vis important rulers – ranks as an egregious error. As are numerous other aspects of Egyptian religion and culture relevant to the study of Christian origins, the Egyptian birth scenes are highly germane to the study of the Christian nativity. The Egyptian religion remained a huge force to be reckoned with by the time of the Christian effort, and it simply would not have been ignored – indeed, it was not.

Prior to the creation of the gospels, the Egyptian religion had long spread far beyond the confines of Egypt, and there were Egyptian tutors at Rome, teaching the religion to emperors during the first century, along with shrines to Egyptian gods in as farflung places as Macedonia and Great Britain. Isis was hugely popular around the Roman Empire at the time, but long previously there had been in Israel Egyptian forces who left vestiges of their worship over the centuries. In a thorough analysis, we need to factor in all of this Egyptian influence and the proximity of this massively impressive culture to the area of the gospel tale.

The study of the possible influence of Egyptian nativity scenes on the Christian birth cycle remains a viable and valuable pursuit, but there is much more to the story, as I demonstrate in Christ in Egypt and elsewhere.

It should also be noted that I have not contended for an exclusive Egyptian influence: On the contrary, it appears that the Christian effort at Alexandria incorporated the stories of numerous cultures, religions, sects and cults from around the Mediterranean and beyond, into India, possibly contained in some of the hundreds of thousands of manuscripts in the Egyptian city’s library. In this regard, I also contend that the nativity stories of the Indian divine figures of Krishna and Buddha appear to have been utilized in the creation of Christianity as well. I further include in my thesis, of course, the Jewish influence via the Old Testament “messianic scriptures,” which were used as blueprints in the construction of the New Testament.

In the final analysis, Christianity constitutes a syncretism of Judaism and Paganism, including the highly important Egyptian religion.

Further Reading

The Nativity Scene of Amenhotep III at Luxor
Parallelophobia, personal attacks and professional jealousy: A response to Richard Carrier’s ‘That Luxor Thing’
Christ in Egypt: The Horus-Jesus Connection
Did Jesus Fulfill Prophecy? Old Testament Scriptures a Blueprint for the New
Isis is a Virgin Mother
Virgin Mothers of Antiquity
Neith the Virgin Mother
When Were the Gospels Written?

© 2014 Freethought Nation, Acharya S, D.M. Murdock & Stellar House Publishing
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