During the celebration of Christmas, familiar images are recalled in hymns and scripture about the birth of Jesus. In the minds of the credulous, choirs of angels, shepherds watching over their flocks, the appearance of a star above Bethlehem, the virgin Mary giving birth in a stable, and the visit of three “wise men”, have all been melded into “the Christmas story”. In reality there are in the gospels two distinct and often contradictory stories of Jesus’ birth, and anything other than a perfunctory reading of the Bible makes it obvious that so much about the accepted birth story of Jesus is no more than myth.
We might as well begin with the date of Christmas itself. Observing December 25th as the birthday of Jesus began only during the mid-fourth century, to provide Christians with an alternative to a popular pagan festival at this time of year. December 25th was recognized as the winter solstice under the Julian calendar, and it was then that Mithraism, a chief rival to Christianity, celebrated the birth of its god/savior, Mithra. (Who, by the way, predated Jesus by hundreds of years, had a “miraculous birth”, gathered disciples, performed miracles, was executed, and “rose from the dead”.)
It is unlikely that we shall ever know exactly when Jesus was born (or even if he was born, as there is no corroborating evidence for him or his ministry outside of the New Testament itself) or the real circumstances surrounding his birth. It is possible however by going straight to the source to separate potential truth from obvious fiction.
One thing we know is that the doctrine of the virgin birth, so essential to traditional Christian belief, was not a part of earliest Christianity (which at the time was simply a sect within Judaism). (See Luke 24:52-53)
The apostle Paul makes no reference to the virginal conception by the mother of Jesus when speaking of Jesus’ origins and divinity. (His epistles were written during the 50’s A.D. and predate all four of the gospels.) Although Paul never met Jesus (who reportedly died about 30 A.D.), he supposedly did know James, a brother of Jesus. Yet in spite of such an eye-witness link to Jesus, Paul’s letters indicate no knowledge of the virgin birth, for he states only that Jesus was “born of a woman” (Galatians 4:4) and was “descended from David, according to the flesh” (Romans 1:3), implying a normal birth.
Nor does the Didache, the oldest surviving document of the early “Jesus Movement”, mention either a special birth, death, or resurrection for their lord.
The first gospel written was Mark’s, which most likely dates from the early 70’s A.D. Apparently for Mark the birth of Jesus was so ordinary it was not worth mentioning. The silence of the earliest Jewish-Christian writers and documents about a miraculous birth is bewildering in light of their claim of divinity for Jesus. Such silence therefore casts doubt on any claim of historicity for the nativity stories with which we are so familiar.
The gospel of John, likely penned in the first decade of the second century, asserts that Jesus existed from the beginning of creation (a fact the authors of Genesis apparently overlooked). John states that this Jesus is the eternal Word, and that he was begotten of God and made human at a specific point in time (John 1:1-14). John also tells us that Jesus was the son of Joseph (John 1:45) and thus either ignores or rejects the miraculous birth stories found in the earlier writings of Matthew and Luke; for only in those two gospels do we hear of the miracle of a virgin woman becoming pregnant by an act of God and giving birth to a son.
Matthew was likely written in northern Palestine sometime in the late 70’s or early 80’s; Luke in Asia Minor sometime during the 90’s…both close to a century after Jesus’ birth. So how reliable then are the gospels of Matthew and Luke? For most Christians the description of Jesus’ birth as described in Matthew and Luke is not to be questioned. They believe that the Bible is the inerrant “word of God” and as such is an infallible history to be taken at face value. In spite of such claims however a careful analysis of the nativity stories in Matthew and Luke show that this “word of God” is rife with contradictions and inventions. The only logical conclusion to be reached therefore is that the extraordinary birth stories in Matthew and Luke are religious myths, intentional and clumsy additions to the earlier non-miraculous tradition about Jesus. Most likely they were borrowed from other “hero legends” (Mithras, Osiris, Hercules, etc.) common in the first century and added on to the original gospels by later apologists who were attempting to bolster the credibility of a man whom they considered divine. In doing so they also employed the familiar Jewish practice known as “midrash” to illustrate and lend credence to their claims; liberally interpreting and expanding on texts and prophesies in older Jewish scriptures.
The miraculous birth stories may also have served another purpose; to rebut inferences regarding the illegitimate birth of Jesus (Matt. 1:18-19, Mark 6:3, John 8:41). The most obvious example of suspicious interpolation is found in the divergent genealogies in Matthew and Luke supposedly tracing the ancestry of Jesus back to King David. Centuries old prophesies held that the messiah would arise from David’s line, and both Luke and Matthew attempted to make that connection. Upon further review (as they say in the NFL) however, the genealogies in the two gospels fall apart, riddled with errors and contradictions. For example, they disagree on the lineage of Joseph, the father of Jesus. Matthew traces twenty-eight generations between David and Jesus, Luke has forty-one. They also disagree on the name of Joseph’s father: in Matthew it’s Jacob, in Luke, Heli. You can claim all the faith you want…but they cannot both be right.
Likewise the claims in Matthew and Luke that Jesus was of royal lineage are found neither in Paul nor the other gospels. Certainly Jesus gave no such indication, rather appearing as a man of humble background from an obscure rural village in Galilee. (Note: Many biblical historians and archaeologists have expressed doubt that Nazareth itself even existed in the first century.)
Casting even more doubt on such claims, in Mark we read that Jesus himself seems to reject the belief that messianic legitimacy was dependent on descent from David (Mark 12:35-37). Matthew dates the birth of Jesus to the reign of Herod the Great of Judea, a puppet king of the Romans, who died in 4 B.C. Luke confirms Matthew’s dating, but then goes into even greater detail. He writes that Jesus was born during a census or registration ordered by Roman emperor Augustus at the time Quirinius (Cyrenius) was governor of Syria (Luke 2:1-3). This must be a fabrication however because Quirinius was not governor of Syria and Judea during Herod’s kingship. Direct Roman rule over the province of Judea, where Bethlehem was located, was not established until 6 A.D….ten years after the death of Herod! If a census did take place, it must have been in 6 CE or later, long after the end of Herod’s reign. Therefore, Matthew’s stories of the Wise Men’s visit to Herod and then Jesus, and his fanciful tale of Herod’s massacre of the innocents that caused the holy family to flee to Egypt, are all historically impossible. (It should also be noted that Luke got his facts wrong about Roman censuses in general. Such an imperial census would only apply to Roman citizens of the empire, not to Joseph, a Galilean who was not under direct Roman rule.)
The gospels also disagree as to the hometown of Jesus’ parents. Matthew records them as living in Bethlehem in Judea, but Luke claims they lived in Nazareth in Galilee (See earlier note re: Nazareth). But wait, it gets worse…Luke describes Joseph taking Mary (nine months pregnant, mind you) on a difficult and dangerous four day journey by foot to Bethlehem because of the aforementioned non-existent census. Again, this is contrary to Roman census (registration) methodology. To believe Luke we must accept that Rome expected illiterate peasants to somehow trace their tribal and family heritage back to their ancestral birthplace, and then to report there for registration. The confusion and mass movement of population this would entail was, in fact, contrary to the actual Roman practice of registering men (women had no political or property rights) for a tax in either their current hometown or the chief town of the local tax district. What we have in effect is a clumsy attempt to “move” Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem because the gospel writers believed it was important that Jesus be born there, for it was the “city of David” from where the prophesy said Israel’s ruler would come (Micah 5:2). In spite of that, John’s gospel, directly opposed to Matthew and Luke, relates the common knowledge that Jesus was not born in Bethlehem, and that he was not a descendant of David (John 7:41-42).
The star of Bethlehem is also a fabrication, consistent with legends of the ancient world that heavenly events announced the births of great men. In first century Palestine, indeed in all the Roman Empire, there was no understanding of astronomy and natural law as we know it. You only need to look up in the night sky to verify that no star high in the heavens can “shine” on a particular town, much less on a specific house as Matthew claims (Matt. 2:9-11). The ascribed motion of the Christmas star — rising in the east, moving west toward Jerusalem, and then making a left turn to the south so as to come to rest over Bethlehem defies all the laws of celestial motion. Not so surprising by now, Luke knows nothing about the star, nor the magi, nor the birth taking place in a house. He has the baby being laid in a manger. (Note: there is no reference to a stable or animals. That scene is a product of later Christian creativity based on a text from Isaiah, “the ox knows its owner and the donkey its master’s crib (manger), but Israel, does not know, my people do not understand” (Isaiah 1:3)). Luke’s reference to the baby being wrapped in swaddling clothes is copied from the birth of Israel’s famous King Solomon, son of David (Wisdom 7:4-5). This sign sends an important message to Luke’s Jewish-Christian readers that Jesus was to be even greater than Israel’s wisest king. Luke’s gospel describes the visitors to the baby Jesus as shepherds, not wise men, who had heard of the birth from an angel.
There are other differences in the nativity story which serve to lessen its credibility. For instance, in an attempt to parallel the importance of Jesus’ birth with that of Moses, Matthew describes the massacre of the children of Bethlehem by King Herod as he attempts to kill the infant messiah. This extraordinary event is not corroborated by any contemporary source from the period, nor even referred to by Luke. (Nor was it possible if Luke is correct dating the birth of Jesus to the governorship of Quirinius.) Indeed, Luke has the family return peacefully to Nazareth after Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem (Luke 2:22,39). If the massacre had taken place, how could it be that Herod’s son later recalls nothing about Jesus nor his importance (Matt. 14:1-2).
Moreover, if Herod and all the people of Jerusalem knew of the messiah’s birth (Matt. 2:3), why is it that later in Jesus’ career, the same gospel writer claims that people had not heard of his miraculous origin and still questioned his miracles and his teachings (Matt. 13:54-56)? Palestine just wasn’t so large that word of such incredible events would not have quickly spread from border to border and beyond. Luke’s story of the family of the newborn Jesus soon returning to Nazareth in Galilee, and Matthew’s claim that the family of Jesus immediately fled to Egypt for several years to escape Herod’s wrath (Matt. 2:13-14) are, again, irreconcilable. (Luke tells of Joseph and Mary presenting Jesus in the temple in Jerusalem when he was but forty days old, and then returning immediately to Nazareth (Luke 2:22,39). Additionally, Luke writes that each year the family went to Jerusalem for Passover (Luke 2:41), impossible if they were hiding out in Egypt as Matthew claims. Of course such a twist in Matthew was necessitated by his claim they were fulfilling still more Old Testament prophecies, both in Jeremiah’s (31:15), and Hosea’s prediction that “out of Egypt I have called my son” (Hosea 11:1).
In ancient times it was common to claim miraculous births for important persons. Plato was said to have been born by the union of the god Apollo with his mother. Likewise, Alexander the Great was said to have been conceived when a thunderbolt fell from heaven and made his mother Olympias pregnant before her marriage to Philip of Macedon. In the book of Genesis we read that sons of gods had intercourse with women to produce heroes (Gen. 6:4). Even the recently discovered Dead Sea Scrolls tell of the miraculous birth of Noah and how his father Lamech was suspicious that his wife had been made pregnant by an angel. Therefore we should not be surprised that once the Christian movement spread beyond Palestine and into a Jewish-Hellenistic environment, the birth story of Jesus was influenced by those same ancient traditions. Such accounts were readily accepted in an age of superstition and ignorance.
Justin Martyr, one of the early Christian bishops (c. 100 -168 A.D.), reacted to (the truthful) charges that Christianity had copied earlier pagan virgin birth myths by claiming that these births were the work of the devil who anticipated this future Christian mystery by copying it in the past. He writes, “when I hear that Perseus was begotten of a virgin, I understand that the deceiving serpent counterfeited also this.”
As if his other mistakes weren’t enough, Matthew also uses a mistranslation of an Old Testament prophecy to support his claim for the virgin birth. He quotes from Isaiah, “therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). The original Hebrew text of Isaiah, however, uses the word “almah”, which refers to a young woman of marriageable age, not the word “bethulah” which means virgin. Matthew seems to have relied on the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, which inaccurately used the Greek word “parthenos” for “almah”, thereby strongly implying virginity. The actual text of Isaiah, however, makes no such reference. Some modern translations of the Bible, which are based on the original Hebrew text, have replaced the word “virgin” with the more accurate translation, “young woman”. Reading Isaiah’s prophecy in context makes it obvious that it doesn’t refer to the time of Jesus at all, but rather to the time surrounding a political and military crisis which faced ancient Judah 700 years earlier. Once again the gospel story is clearly contrived; Matthew has taken liberties with the Isaiah text to justify his claim of Mary’s virginal conception.
Since the virgin birth story of Jesus makes the descriptions of his ancestral lineage to David in both Matthew and Luke superfluous, many biblical historians conclude that the virgin birth narratives were later additions and not part of the original texts (note especially in Luke, if the verses containing the birth story are omitted, how the prologue in chapter 1, verses 1-4, flows more consistently into the beginning of chapter 3). Even so, since descent was not traced through the female line in the Jewish law and custom of that time, readers would know that Joseph, as a descendant of David, secured Davidic succession for Jesus by formally acknowledging him as his son, even though these gospels claim that he was not his biological father.
The two gospels reveal further discrepancies concerning the annunciation of Mary’s virginal conception. Matthew describes the annunciation of Mary’s pregnancy only to Joseph, by means of an angel in a dream, but only after she has conceived (Matt. 1:18-21); whereas in Luke, the angel Gabriel explains it all to Mary, but not Joseph, before she has conceived Jesus (Luke 1:26-34). Yet later on, both Mary and Joseph are strangely astonished by the shepherds’ tale about the heavenly host (Luke 2:18), and inexplicably puzzled by Simeon’s affirmation that Jesus is the Messiah (Luke 2:33).
Then again, in that very same narrative in Luke, John the Baptist was a relative of Jesus and even knew of Jesus’ divine nature when John was in his mother’s womb (Luke 1:41,44). But in a later chapter, the adult John did not know who Jesus was when he approached him at the river(Luke 7:19-23). Luke also apparently uses Old Testament stories about the births of Isaac and Samson as models for the angelic annunciations to Elizabeth and Mary (Genesis 17:15-21; Judges 13:2-24). The description of Mary’s divine vocation is in a format similar to Gideon’s mission which is also announced by an angel (Judges 6:11-16). Likewise, the “Magnificat” or song of Mary (Luke 1:46-55) in which Luke has Mary acknowledge her special role in history, is hardly original, but based on the prayer of Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1-10), who also allegedly gave birth through divine intervention. It is improbable that the illiterate peasant girl called Mary could have been so poetic.
These accounts all suggest more of a reliance on Old Testament parallels than eyewitness memories. (Indeed, none of the gospel writers were witnesses to any of the events about which they wrote, having penned their narratives from two to four generations after Jesus’ death.)
There are other indications that the virgin birth story was a late addition, given that it does not correspond with the original accounts of the life of Jesus. For example, in other gospel passages Mary shows little or no understanding of Jesus’ special role. According to Luke, the message of the angel Gabriel made it clear to Mary that Jesus was ordained to be the messiah, the king and savior of Israel. This message was supposedly reinforced by the prophesies of Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:34,38). How could it possibly be then, that following such predictions and the miracle of her virginal conception, Mary didn’t realize who Jesus was and could not understand his reference to the temple as his father’s house (Luke 2:48-50)?
Equally as puzzling, Jesus fails to venerate or accord any special status to his mother in spite of her supposedly divine role. When Mary is blessed by an admirer, he replies, “no, blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it” (Luke 11:28). At other times Jesus shows impatience with her, as at the wedding feast at Cana (John 2:1-4), and even disdain when he replies “who is my mother?” when told that she wanted to speak with him (Matt. 12:46-50). Neither Mary’s understanding of Jesus, nor his attitude towards her make sense in light of the assertion of a miraculous virgin birth.
It is also hard to believe that despite the supposedly extraordinary events surrounding Jesus’ birth – from annunciations by angels and a heavenly host, to shepherds and magi seeking out the messiah, to Herod’s wrath – that from the beginning, Jesus was not recognized by the rest of his family as God’s anointed one (Mk. 6:4). Instead, there are times when they think he is insane (Mk. 3:21). Stranger still, why weren’t any of his brothers numbered among his disciples during his lifetime (John 7:5)?
Can’t we suppose, if both Joseph and Mary knew that Jesus had no human father, they would have told him so? If they did, why did Jesus not claim from the beginning that his miraculous birth was proof that he was divine? Why, if this man was hailed by so many at his birth as the savior of Israel, did the people of his hometown place no credence in him (Matt. 13:53-58); and why was his true nature such a startling discovery to his disciples so late in his career (Matt. 16:15-17)? The answer is simply that these situations during his adult life (in relation to the nativity stories) are not illogical if we accept that the birth narratives were a later addition in an evolving mythology.
In this light, the “Christmas story” is simply an attempt through allegory to promote Jesus’ divinity from the moment of his conception rather than from his adult baptism as claimed by the earliest gospel (Mk. 1:9-11). It is as difficult to harmonize the Bible’s accounts of the birth of Jesus with the record of his adult ministry as it is to explain the inconsistencies in the birth accounts themselves. Instead of taking the nativity stories in Matthew and Luke literally we should accept them as the religious myths they are: beautiful legends embodying faith in the supernatural and the efficacy of prophecy, and completely consistent with what credulous people in ancient times commonly expected. Careful examination of the record however gives lie to any claim of divinity for Jesus. He becomes, at most, an itinerate rabbi who got himself crosswise with the Roman authorities. Maybe…for there are just as many inconsistencies surrounding Jesus’ death and supposed resurrection as there are with his birth, but that is a story for another time.