I’d rather be watching Christmas movies obsessively this time of year, but my kiddo, Auggie, knows his mind. And his mind loves Moana. So we watch about 15 minutes of it a day, since he is two, and his attention span doesn’t usually want his medically condoned two hours or less of screen time a day.
Regardless, there’s a song in Moana, sung by Tamatoa the crab, called Shiny. And in this song, there’s a line where he addresses Maui as a “semi-, demi-, mini-God!”. Which connected with my background knowledge of demi-gods in general, like Hercules, or even Percy Jackson of Rick Riordan fame. Which made me think of Jesus.
Jesus could be categorized into a demigod group without much complaint from many, after all. Human mama, Divine papa. And actually, when he was born, Roman leaders often gave themselves this distinction. Caesers were “sons of God.” And as a new favorite author, despite our differing motivations for studying what we do, has put it, deifying leaders was common practice, the “governing paradigm” in the “contexts whence earliest Christianity arose” in Rome.
So, if demigods were common knowledge in the time when Jesus was born, that raises some questions for me.
Why didn’t the writers of the Bible make this connection more clear?
If you’ve read Rob Bell’s book, What is the Bible?, this question is kind of easy to answer. The writers didn’t make it more clear because they didn’t have to for their contemporary audience. Just like I didn’t give you a long explanation of Moana, because you are alive right now, and presumably aware of at least some things Disney.
Also, did God choose a human birth to bring this legend to life in a new way?
I’d like to answer with a healthy measure of faith after my research with a simple “YEP!”, but again, reading Bell’s book would make that short answer easier for you to accept.
The more I researched, though, the more nuanced the answer to that question became. I think it is both as simple as and more than just turning a cultural norm on its head or rewriting a narrative. Jesus’ conception and birth came when they did and how they did in a way that honored women as it brought out this radical idea of consent as well as showing how a divine god-person wasn’t going to live life as portrayed in myth or in title.
A History of Divine Assault
(Trigger warning: nothing graphic here, but references will be made, so click links with caution.)
English Majors get the long straw when it comes to having wide and general smatterings of knowledge, plus the skills to dig in to gain more expertise. I used this BA B.A. superpower to follow my hunches to actual stories of how demigods came in to being. Here are some of the origin stories of some of the more well-known demigods of the ancient world:
- Hercules: His mother was Alcmene. He was born after Zeus took on the form of Alcmene’s husband to trick and impregnate her. That’s not consent, in case you weren’t sure.
- Perseus: His mother was Danae. Danae’s father was a king who had heard his grandson would overthrow him, so his solution was to lock his daughter in a tower to prevent this kid from even being conceived. Zeus, however, had his eye on Danae, and became golden rain and impregnated her during her captivity. There is a lot to unpack there, but consent isn’t part of it.
- Helen of Troy: Her mother was Leda, whose encounter with Zeus in the form of a swan sometimes is referred to as a seduction, which has the whisper of consent, but often goes into a relentless pursuit culminating in a violent rape. There’s a poem about this one, which is probably where my seedling of knowledge was started, unfortunately.
I have a few takeaways:
- Greeks seem to have more accounts available online, so even though the Roman connection to Christ is more clear, I felt it worth including both Greek and Roman mythology here.
- There were stories I recalled of gods forcing themselves on mortal women, but some websites said “seduction” instead. Then I found this article, which framed it in a way that I find tragic yet useful to know if you find similar terminology in your own mythological studies: “a few classicists have argued that misogyny and rape are modern constructs and such ideas can’t be used effectively when evaluating the past. For example, Mary Lefkowitz argues for terms like “seduction” and “kidnapping” over ‘rape.’” The article (and myself) disagree with Ms. Lefkowitz.
- Overall, it was too easy to call up the name of a demigod, and even too easy to recall how deviously they were conceived. Doing the research would have been too dark for me to handle, had I not also done research on Mary’s story.
“Let it be”
All of that research was born of a hunch followed, this idea that Mary gave consent. As these ideas have floated around in my mind these past few weeks, that one idea of the element of consent kept pressing forward. And so I looked to the Bible, to see the account we are given to see if there is a distinction from the then-familiar stories of god and woman encounters.
Luke 1:26-38 tells this story. It’s not long, it’s worth your reading, and please note those three words “let it be.” They are pivotal! Also of note is the verb tense used. The angel tells Mary God’s plan, not what God has already done. That’s a huge distinction. In Danae’s story, that golden rain probably didn’t make her think she would be pregnant. And some say that Mary similarly got knocked up by the Lord and then told about it afterward. But guys, I’m an English teacher. Those are future tense verbs the angel is using. This thing hasn’t happened yet.
Karen Swallow Prior, a lady after my own heart (or is my heart after her’s?) drew the same conclusion in her piece for The Atlantic, “The literal words in the Bible (across various translations) make clear that the angel Gabriel’s words at the Annunciation convey to Mary what will happen, not what has happened, a future conception not a past one.” I’m not even mad that she wrote her article 6 years ago, effectively stealing my thunder. I’m thrilled to see confirmation of the significance of Mary’s consent giving. In fact, Prior takes it further to frame that speech of future tense verbs as a means of Mary not only giving consent but informed consent.
Another line worth pondering from Luke is the fact that Mary questioned this angel. Many times when angels appear in the Bible, they say “Do not fear” and the people they are talking to ignore that and fear greatly. And while Mary was “greatly troubled,” she was not afraid enough to hold back her questioning. As a woman who has been questioning authority my entire life, and during a time when it is socially acceptable for my gender to do so, I still have experienced being shut down and/or shamed many times. Yet Mary boldly questioned this being. That fact gives me confidence that she wasn’t saying “let it be” out of fear or even pressure. She considered this, however briefly, and made a choice. That’s incredibly empowering.
But wait, Mary didn’t write this down, Luke did. Is that an issue?
Again, there are about as many ways to trust or doubt and read the Bible as there are and have been individuals. But this last bit from Prior’s piece answers this question enough for me, “One of my colleagues, a professor of philosophy and religion, tells me that it is likely that Mary was one of Luke’s firsthand sources for his gospel, given both textual and historical evidence. In the absence of a record of Mary’s own account, there could not be a more trustworthy record than this, one hardly less reliable than, say, Plato’s recordings of the dialogues of Socrates.”
Jesus’ birth disrupted the old demigod conception stories before he was even conceived. But it didn’t end there. Demigod, as easily translated, means half god. But Jesus disrupted that half/half, either/or, cycle, too. He was both/and. Both fully God and fully human. That’s kind of his deal. It’s that “option C” answer to black and white thinking that Jesus, Father, Spirit, and scripture are constantly offering! (If you aren’t sure about that, please both read Bell’s book and check out Two Rivers).
When doing my research, I found a lot of resources about Jesus’ claims of being full and full rather than half and half, but the one I’m linking is from a Catholic site because Catholic theology and philosophy will always have a place in my heart. Basically, this site and others take instances in the Bible of Jesus saying both things like “I am the Son of God” and “I am the Son of Man.” That both/and just won’t quit!
On top of that, as referenced before, demigods and Caesers were heroes. And to be a hero in ancient Greece or Rome meant a leadership style that was violent and conquering and materialistic. I think this list hits it pretty neatly:
- He is of royal birth or even, like the Titan Prometheus, half mortal, half god.
- He must perform extraordinary feats.
- His is a noble character which is close to perfectly ideal but for a fatal flaw.
- The suffering of the character is physical.
- Death must occur in an unusual way.
- The hero fights for his own honor; his deeds belong to the community only after his death. Source
Interesting, right? (If you’ve read this far, I assume you’re into this stuff. Thanks, btw.)
Church lifers like me know that Jesus was expected to be a conquering king, but I was always taught it was because the Jews wished for this. Looks like Jews and Romans had some common heroic ideals.
That list isn’t completely off, though. It’s just…disrupted. Let’s modify it for Jesus:
- He was born to some poor people and is fully human, fully God.
- He did perform extraordinary feats, namely healing and multiplying food, etc.
- He didn’t have a fatal flaw. Or any flaws.
- He suffered physically, but also clearly experienced emotional anguish.
- He did not fight. He did not act out of his own honor. He was here to build community and a wider one than was precedented.
Cycles, expectations, etc. = disrupted. A God-Man born of informed consent whose deeds were meant to break societal and spiritual barriers rather than gain fame or notoriety.
Friends, I hope you have enjoyed reading this. I hope it inspires you to ask questions and see connections where things get just a little disrupted. It has brought me a deep joy to see the spiral of wholeness and healing that the story of Jesus’ birth brings to society both then and now. It has brought healing like the gold of kintsugi as a survivor, too.
Author’s Note: Credit where credit is due. I don’t think my mind would ever have put these thoughts together nor followed this trail of research if it weren’t for Rob Bell’s book, What is the Bible? His zoom in/zoom out approach of recurring truths (cycles being broken) embedded in the context of culture at the time is the philosophy behind this post. Also (and always) worth thanking is my family, also known as Two Rivers Church, for teaching and living in ways that empower and foster a hunger for truth and community unlike anything I’ve seen. Also, Disney, for creating Moana, and my son, Augustine, for watching parts of it every day for the past few months.