Brunner’s Gottkoenigs & the Nativity of Jesus: A Brief Communication
by Richard C. Carrier (2004)
I was asked by someone unconnected with IN THE WORD to check up on a claim made by some authors on the internet that the nativity of Jesus derives in part from a very ancient Egyptian inscription at Luxor. Since I know the subject interests Mark McFall and his readers, and he has already published an excellent cautionary article on such comparisons by eminent scholar Bruce Metzger, what follows is a (relatively) brief communication to the public regarding what I found. Since I am an atheist, and thus have no particular axe to grind against hypotheses like this, and since I have formal expertise in ancient history (B.A., M.A., and M.Phil.), the following should hold some authority with skeptics.
First, the inscription in question does exist, and is thoroughly discussed in Hellmut Brunner’s Die Geburt des Gottkoenigs: Studien zer Ueberlieferung eines Altaegyptischen Mythos (2nd ed., 1986). The inscription relates the royal myth of the Birth of the God King, which represents a cycle repeated with every new Pharaoh. So far no surprise. But in her book, Acharya S claims:
Inscribed about 3,500 years ago on the walls of the Templeat Luxorwere images of the Annunciation, Immaculate Conception, Birth and Adoration of Horus, with Thoth announcing to the Virgin Isis that she will conceive Horus; with Kneph, the “Holy Ghost,” impregnating the virgin; and with the infant being attended by three kings, or magi, bearing gifts. In addition, in the catacombs at Romeare pictures of the baby Horus being held by the virgin mother Isis – the original “Madonna and Child.” (from Hidden Mysteries–The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold; similar claims are made by Ken Humphreys: cf. Holy Family)
I know from previous research in my field that there is some truth here. For example, many Isis-with-baby-Horus statues were converted to use as Mary-with-baby-Jesus statues. But there is also some egregious error here. For example, the phrase “immaculate conception” refers to the birth of Mary, not Jesus, so Acharya is using the wrong terminology for what I think she means, which is the spiritual (asexual) conception of a Son of God. An “immaculate conception” could not have appeared in any Egyptian myth anyway, since that phrase refers to the fact that Mary was, unlike all other human beings, and hence by divine miracle, born without sin and kept clean of all sin, at least until she gave birth to Jesus, and this is a bizarre idea that entails a view of sin, history, and human nature utterly alien to Egyptian religion. The Luxor inscription also does not depict impregnation by a spirit, but involves very real sex (indeed, the narrative borders on soft-core porn), and the woman involved is the mythical Queen of Egypt in an archetypal sense, not Isis per se. Acharya also gets the story fairly garbled, as I shall make clear shortly.
The individual who asked for my investigation was kind enough to mail me a copy of Brunner’s book, for which I felt an obligation to check the claim that concerned him. I skimmed the relevant sections, since I did not have time to make a translation (that’s always tricky, and very time consuming), but I can certainly report the gist of what Brunner says. The relevant sections are the Introduction, of course, as well as Chapter V: The Complete Cycle (pp. 188ff.), especially Section 2 (pp. 190ff.) and 3 (pp. 194ff.), and then the Conclusion (subtitled “Afterlife,” meaning future work on the issue; pp. 213ff.); and on Panels 4 and 8: Chapter II, Panel IV, “The Inscription” (pp. 42ff.), “Commentary” (pp. 50ff.), and “Tradition” (pp. 57ff.), and Chapter II, Panel VIII, “The Inscription” (pp. 85ff.), “Commentary” (pp. 88ff.), and “Tradition” (pp. 89ff.). Note that Brunner repeatedly remarks on the fact that the inscriptions say a lot more than the pictures depict, and that the pictures just represent the most important snapshots from the narrative (much as a picture book today, like an illustrated bible). Thus the inscriptions are more important than the pictures–and there is a lot more going on than the pictures tell you.
The inscription in Panel 4 (which is often cited on the web as the key frame) describes the god Amun jumping into bed with the human Queen on her wedding night (or at any rate before she consummates her marriage with the human King) disguised as her husband. But she recognizes the smell of a god, so he reveals himself, then “enters her” (sic). The narrative then gets a bit risque–the god burning with lust, queen begging to be embraced, there’s kissing going on, Amun’s buddy Thoth stands by the bed to watch, and after Amun “does everything he wished with her” she and Amun engage in some divine pillow talk, and so on. At one point the queen exclaims amazement at “how large” Amun’s “organ of love” is, and she is “jubilant” when he thrusts it into her. Ah, I lament the death of pagan religion. It’s stories are so much more fun! At any rate, the couple relax after ‘getting it on’, and the god tells her in bed that she is impregnated and will bear his son, Amenophis. To be more exact, the Queen inadvertently chooses the name by telling Amun she loves him, which is what “Amenophis” means.
It follows from this fact that Panel 8 (when the ankh is touched to the Queen’s nose) does not depict an impregnation. The queen is already long pregnant in that scene. In fact, she is already “showing.” Instead, it is the birth that is announced then, not the conception, and Kneph then proceeds to impart the god’s soul into the divine fetus, using the ankh (perhaps this indicates quickening, but at any rate the fetus was already there when this happens). The birth itself occurs in Panel 9. Well before Panel 8, at the end of or after Panel 4 (according to the written narrative), Kneph is commanded by Amun to enter the queen’s womb and form the fetus out of clay, to be the divine body on earth, and at the same time to form the ka, the divine soul of the god-king (these two are represented by what we might call two angels, but these are not two different gods, but two aspects of the same god, Amenophis, united together in the fetus at quickening, or at any rate before birth).
The “ka” is akin to the soul in modern conception. The many “parts” of the soul in Egyptian lore are probably not separate entities, but pieces, attributes, or states of the same one soul, e.g. the ba is a disembodied ka, etc. There is thus nothing remarkable here. A fetus must have a ka to be alive (much like our view today regarding the soul or, if you will, “life force”), and in the Egyptian view every living thing has both a body of clay and a ka at the same time (even mice, for example). So there is no “two gods” theology here, just a body-soul theology, same as in most other civilizations. The relationship between Amun and Amenophis is literally one of father and son, one king on earth and another king in heaven. Pretty straightforward.
Several things are very clear from the written narrative: Amun, not Thoth, announces the conception (and it can hardly have come as any surprise to the Queen, since they just “did it”; I should note that in an earlier panel, Thoth announced to Amun the identity of the future mother, so this might have been mistaken as an annunciation to the mother by some careless interpreter); Kneph only forms the fetus and the soul and unites them, he does not impregnate the Queen (Amun does that, the old fashioned way); and the adoration scene only involves important state officials (or perhaps lesser divinities–the narrative is unclear), not kings or magi (neither of which, technically speaking, existed in Egypt anyway–except the Pharaoh, whom we could call a king, but he is not one of the three figures Acharya refers to; and there were sorcerers in Egypt, but no such identification is made at Luxor).
Brunner mentions Christianity only twice in the entire book (apart from incidental idioms like the phrase “pre-christian times”). Once in the middle, he remarks on how the Christian cycle differs from the Egyptian cycle in that there is no sex in the former and Mary remains a virgin, whereas in the Egyptian cycle, as the inscription makes unmistakably clear, the Queen definitely loses her virginity–and in the old-fashioned way. The only parallel is that the Queen is in fact a virgin when she conceives the god-child, despite being married to the human king, since that marriage has not yet been consummated. Brunner explains this as something we should expect, since otherwise the divine paternity of the child could be suspect. Then, in the very last paragraph of the very last section (the Conclusion) Brunner simply says that comparisons with New Testament theology will require further study, and he cites two articles on the subject by E. Brunner-Traut: “Die Geburtsgeschichte der Evangelien im Lichte aegyptologischer Forschungen,” Zeitschr. f. Relig.- und Geistesgesch., 12 (1960), pp. 97ff. and “Pharao und Jesus als Soehne Gottes,” Antaios 2, pp. 266 ff.; while in the notes to his discussion of Panel 4 he cites: A. H. Sayce, “The Twofold Divinity,” Religions, S. 249, Anm. 2.
The cycle depicted at Luxordoes not match up in the same sequence with the Christian narrative. The annunciation follows the conception in the Egyptian cycle (but they do happen in the same panel), though Brunner explains that, for technical reasons in Egyptian morality and law, the girl could not know she was having sex with a god, rather than her real husband, until it was too late, and so it was necessary to have the annunciation follow the conception in order to maintain propriety, i.e. the Queen did nothing immoral. Thus, the difference here reflects the difference in culture (for the Jews, even a mistake would be no excuse for Mary, and the early Christians were rather anti-sexual anyway, so the impregnation had to be asexual, whereas no such problems arose for the Egyptians).
The actual Luxor sequence is conception and annunciation in panel 4, gestation and quickening in panel 8 (there is also a second annunciation here, what you might call a speech of assurance, but the queen already knew she was bearing a god the day she conceived), birth in panel 9, and then in panels 9 onward an adoration, and a confirmation. The latter parallels in social function the adoption sequence in Christianity, with which Mark begins his Gospel: i.e. Amun examines the baby and declares to the public that he verifies the son is his. This (and the adoration) were standard royal, even ordinary familial, practices throughout the Ancient Near East, even inRome, Judaea, andGreece.
So I think the parallels here are very weak. The sequence is a natural and inevitable one that exists in all cultures, even beyond royal rituals. The Greek cycle, for example, is: oracle, then conception (often by rape, but just as often by deception, and occasionally by consent), then birth, then confirmation (which parallels an adoration–since it is often the case that important persons or divinities attend the birth–but in all events, the father examines the child, proclaims satisfaction with it, confirms publicly that it is his, and by naming it, confirms its status as a member of the family). This sequence is found throughout Greek and Roman mythology, for example, so Christians needn’t have gotten the idea fromEgypt.
The birth cycle for Alexander the Great, already established in his own lifetime, has closer parallels with the Egyptian cycle, and yet is the more obvious basis for the Christian cycle–not only through Alexander’s fame in the East as the ultimate warrior god-king, but through the formalization of the same cycle by the Hellenistic successor kings–and not only the Ptolemies, either. Similar tales surround some of the Roman emperors. So if you want to research cultural and ideological origins of the Christian nativity story (not to be confused with history–Alexander the Great was really born, too, but we can be fairly confident his mother didn’t copulate with the God Amun as his story relates, and so likewise not everything said about Jesus need be true, either), I think the place to look is the development of the political theology of the Hellenistic kings, not the ancient carvings at Luxor. True, Egyptian culture influenced the Hellenistic world, as it had done since before the Greeks began to write (Herodotus attests to that–as does an abundance of archaeology, in the Egyptianization of Archaic Greek art for example).
But the important context is the Hellenistic world. This is most obvious in the Christological titles (Lord, God, Savior, Son of God, God Incarnate, etc.). There is hardly a single title assigned to Christ that hadn’t already been used by one or another Hellenistic king–and it is to the latter ideology that the Christians are responding, since it was that which affected their immediate past and was still echoing in their present. The Messianic Book of Daniel already mythologizes a clash with the “deifying” blasphemy of Greek monarchy, and the Emperors maintained the same symbolism and ritual in the East as they adopted from the Hellenistic rulers they conquered (while maintaining instead a more rationalist and democratic face in the West). To look toLuxoris to look too far back. It only partly informs the Hellenistic development, whereas the Hellenistic development almost completely informs the Christian one (after accounting for what is peculiarly Jewish about it, that is).
I don’t think any credible Christian scholar would dispute the fact that, for example, Alexander the Great was believed to have been fathered by the Supreme God, or that a ritual of conception and annunciation followed by birth and adoration (and confirmation or coronation) had long been in public use in the Greek East before Christ–such as by Alexander’s successors. But they would rightly argue this only explains the particular narrative form and vocabulary employed in the Gospels–it doesn’t necessarily tell us what did or didn’t happen in the case of Jesus (especially if you allow that much of what the Gospels say is not historical, but symbolic). There is a lot of work on the Hellenistic evidence, cf. Peter Green’s Alexander to Actium: The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age (1990), and sources referenced therein (also: E. R. Goodenough, “The Political Philosophy of Hellenistic Kingship,” Yale Classical Studies 1 (1928): 55-102). Alexander to Actium is an excellent book, by the way–ghastly long, but an entertaining and fascinating read, and a very thorough and (largely) accurate history of the Greek world (covering both cultural and political history) from Alexander the Great’s death to the Roman Conquest, which is absolutely vital to understanding the background behind the origin of Christianity.
In conclusion, theLuxornarrative has some parallels with the Christian narrative, but also with dozens of other narratives that would have been more familiar to the Christians (such as those surrounding Alexander the Great), though none present a complete or particularly startling parallel. Granted, the key narrative signposts are present atLuxor: there is a divine conception, a divine annunciation, a birth of a Son of God, then a divine adoration and confirmation (all leading eventually to a coronation). The inversion of conception and annunciation is necessary because of Egyptian moral standards–whereas the Jewish version could turn them around, because a Jewish audience would not countenance sex with God anyway, so there was (unlike in Egypt) no impropriety in the fact that Mary learned of it before it happened (and that fits more with the Jewish cultural tradition of prophecy, and, more importantly, the legend of Sarah). But, again, the parallels to Hellenistic kingship-theology are the same here, and yet chronologically and culturally closer to Christianity. And yet the Christian narratives are, like most myths, very much original creations (that’s why the two versions–in Matthew and Luke–are so radically different from each other). Understanding their background and cultural and historical context is certainly helpful, and necessary, but it doesn’t lead to any plagiaristic scandal of the sort Acharya S wants there to be. She may still be right that what we are told is actually a myth about Jesus, not historical fact, but that is a conclusion that requires a lot more evidence than what we find atLuxor.