This essay was contributed by R.C. Symes. It analyzes the Bible as a historical document written by fallible authors. The analysis differs from that of conservative Christians, who start with the belief that the Bible is inerrant (free of errors), and inspired by God.
During the celebration of Christmas, familiar images are recalled in hymns and scripture about the birth of Jesus. In the popular mind, the appearance of herald angels, shepherds abiding in the fields, the star of Bethlehem, the virgin Mary giving birth in a stable, and the adoration of the Magi, have all been melded into one Christmas story. In reality, there are in the gospels, two distinct and at times contradictory stories of Jesus’ birth. A careful reading of the Bible itself reveals that so much about this celebrated birth is myth.
Dating December 25 as the birthday of Jesus, is known to have gained popularity only by the mid-fourth century in order that Christians could have an alternative to a popular pagan festival at this time of year. December 25 was the winter solstice according to the old Julian calendar, and it was on that day that Mithraism, a chief rival to Christianity, celebrated the birth of the god, Mithra. It is unlikely that we shall ever know exactly when Jesus was born (scholars estimate sometime between 12 and 4 B.C.) or the real circumstances surrounding his nativity. We can, however, attempt to separate historical fact from literary fiction.
The doctrine of the virgin birth of Jesus, so central to the traditional Christmas story, was not part of the teaching of the first Christians, whom it should be remembered, also remained within the Jewish faith (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 of the four gospels. Although Paul never met Jesus (who died about 30 A.D.), he personally did know James, the brother of Jesus. Yet despite this eye-witness link to Jesus, Paul apparently knows nothing 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), thereby implying a normal birth.
The earliest written gospel was Mark, which was likely composed in the early 70’s A.D. in southern Syria. Mark does not consider the birth of Jesus worth mentioning. The silence of the earliest Jewish-Christian authors about the miraculous birth of Jesus seems strange, given that they were trying to convince their readers that Jesus was divine. This silence raises doubts about the authenticity of the later nativity stories with which we are so familiar.
The gospel of John, likely written in northern Syria sometime in the first decade of the second century, asserts that Jesus existed from the beginning of creation. John states that the pre-existent Jesus is the eternal Word, and that he was begotten of the Father and made human at a particular point in time (John 1:1-14). This gospel also claims that Jesus was the son of Joseph (John 1:45) and chooses to ignore or reject the birth stories in the earlier writings of Matthew and Luke.
Only the gospels of Matthew and Luke refer to the biological miracle of a virgin woman being made pregnant by an act of God, and giving birth to a baby boy. Matthew was likely written in the Galilee — now called northern Palestine — sometime in the late 80’s or early 90’s, and Luke in Asia Minor sometime during the late 90’s, both about a century after his birth.
Just how reliable are the Matthew and Luke birth narratives?
For many Christians, to question the description of Jesus’ birth as related in the Bible is unthinkable. They believe that the Bible is the “word of God“, an infallible record of the Almighty’s influence on his creation, and therefore to be taken at face value. However, a careful study of the nativity narratives of Matthew and Luke indicate that the supposedly unerring “word of God” is full of contradictions and inventions. The most plausible conclusion is that the familiar Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke are religious myths, awkwardly grafted onto an earlier non-miraculous tradition about Jesus’ birth.
They appear to be legends recorded by later Jewish-Christian apologists who were attempting to explain the origins of a man whom they considered divine. In this sense, the authors employed the familiar Jewish practice of the time known as “midrash” to illustrate and prove their points; that is to say, they liberally interpreted and expanded on texts and prophesies in the Jewish scriptures. The miraculous birth stories also served other purposes, namely, to rebut the contemporary inferences about the illegitimate birth of Jesus (Matt. 1:18-19, Mark 6:3, John 8:41) and to counter charges that he was possessed by the devil, rather than the spirit.
One of the first examples of things not ringing true can be found in the attempts by the authors of Matthew and Luke to trace the ancestry of Jesus back to the Jewish king David. It was from the royal house of David that the messiah was expected. However, upon close examination, the tables of descent in these gospels become transparently artificial, with many errors and downright contradictions. For example, the two gospels cannot agree on the lineage of Joseph, the father of Jesus. Matthew has 28 generations between David and Jesus, while Luke has 41 for the same period of about 1,000 years. In Matthew’s gospel, Joseph’s father (i.e. Jesus’ grandfather) is said to be Jacob, while in Luke it is claimed that he is Heli. They cannot both be right.
The claims in the early chapters of Matthew and Luke that Jesus was of royal lineage are further weakened by the fact that elsewhere in all four gospels, there is no indication during the ministry of Jesus that he and his father were of noble descent. Rather, he appears as a man of humble background from an obscure rural village in Galilee. Furthermore, according to Mark, Jesus himself appears to reject the belief that messiahship was dependent on Davidic descent (Mark 12:35-37).
Matthew claims that the birth of Jesus occurred during the reign of Herod the Great of Judea, a puppet king of the Romans, whom we know died in 4 B.C. Luke also tells us that Jesus’ birth happened during Herod’s reign. Luke even adds what appears to be detailed and historical evidence of the period. He writes that Jesus was born during a census or registration of the populace ordered by emperor Augustus at the time that Quirinius (Cyrenius) was Roman governor of Syria (Luke 2:1-3). In reality, this has to be a fabrication 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. In other words, ten years separated the rule of Quirinius from Herod.
If the census did take place, it was in the year 6 CE, long after Herod’s death. Therefore, Matthew’s stories of the Wise Men’s visit to Herod and the Christchild, and Herod’s massacre of the innocents which caused the holy family to flee to Egypt, are all historically impossible. Moreover, it should be noted that Luke also got his facts wrong about the census of Augustus. 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.
As for the hometown of Jesus’ parents, neither gospel can agree where it was. Matthew has them residing in Bethlehem in Judea, while Luke says they lived in Nazareth in Galilee. Incredibly, Luke has Joseph take his wife Mary, in the last stages of her pregnancy, on an arduous four day journey by foot to Bethlehem because of the census. This assumes that the “census” (i.e. a registration which was to assist in levying a poll or a property tax) was conducted in a most peculiar way. According to Luke, illiterate peasants had 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 sensible Roman practice of registering men (women had no political or property rights) for the head tax at their current dwelling place or the chief town of the local taxation district.
It was important, however, for the authors of both these gospels, that Jesus be born in Bethlehem because it was the city of David from where, it was prophesied, Israel’s ruler would come (Micah 5:2). Even so, John’s gospel, contrary 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 most likely a fabrication, consistent with legends of the ancient world that had heavenly events portend the births of great men. In first century Judea there was no concept of astronomy and natural law as we know it. In reality, as anyone who looks up in the nighttime sky can verify, no star high in the heavens can shine only on a particular town, let alone on a specific house as the Bible claims (Matt. 2:9-11). The Christmas star, rising in the east, moving west to Jerusalem, and then taking a jog south to Bethlehem and finally remaining stationary, would have defied the laws of celestial motion.
It is also hard to believe that the star was needed as a guide to direct the astrologers from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, a mere eight kilometers away. For his motif of the star and the visit of the wise men from the east, Matthew appears to have been inspired by Isaiah who wrote, “nations shall march toward your light and their kings to your sunrise … they shall come from Sheba; they shall bring gold and frankincense ….” (Isaiah 60:1-9). This passage also refers to camels, giving rise in later years to further embellishment and the familiar Christmas scene of the magi arriving on camels. However, camels are nowhere mentioned in the New Testament’s birth stories.
Surprisingly, 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, but note that there is no reference to a stable and animals surrounding the Christchild. This scene is a product of later Christian imagination 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 of identification 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 the wise men. They hear of the birth from an extraterrestrial, whom the Bible calls an angel.
There are other differences in the nativity story which serve to lessen its credibility. For example, 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 attested to by any secular source from the period, nor even referred to by Luke. Indeed, Luke has the family return peacefully to Nazareth after Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem (Luke 2:22,39). If the massacre did take place, it does not make sense 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 author claims that people had not heard of his miraculous origin and still questioned his miracles and his teachings (Matt. 13:54-56)?
It is also impossible to reconcile Luke’s account of the family of the newborn Jesus soon returning to Nazareth in Galilee, with Matthew’s assertion that the family of Jesus immediately fled to Egypt for several years to escape Herod’s wrath (Matt. 2:13-14). Luke has Joseph and Mary present Jesus in the temple in Jerusalem when he was forty days old, and then return straightaway to Nazareth (Luke 2:22,39). Also, Luke records that each year the family went to Jerusalem for the Feast of Passover (Luke 2:41) – this does not tally with Matthew’s claim that they were hiding out in Egypt. Matthew, with his predilection that Old Testament prophecies be fulfilled in the life of Jesus, appears to have invented the massacre of the innocents to fulfil a prophecy of Jeremiah (31:15), and the consequential flight to Egypt to fulfil Hosea’s prediction that “out of Egypt I have called my son” (Hosea 11:1).
In ancient times it was often claimed that important people had miraculous births. 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. Also the writings of Philo of Alexandria, who was born about 20 B.C., contain evidence that some Jews of the period were speculating about miraculous births of religious heroes. Philo relates how Hebrew notables such as Isaac and Samuel were conceived by barren women by the intervention of the divine Spirit.
It is likely that as the Christian movement spread beyond Judea and the Gallilee into a Jewish-Hellenistic (Greek) environment, and thence to the Gentile world, the birth story of Jesus was influenced by this ancient tradition of magnifying the births of great men. Such accounts were readily accepted in an age of superstition and belief in miracles. Indeed, Justin Martyr, one of the early church fathers (c. 100-168 A.D.), countered charges that Christianity copied earlier pagan virgin birth myths by instead 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.”
In addition, the author of Matthew uses a mistranslation of an Old Testament prophecy to reinforce his belief in 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 uses the word “almah” which refers to a young woman of marriageable age, not the word “bethulah” which means virgin. However, the author of Matthew was using the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures. It inaccurately used the Greek word “parthenos” for “almah“, thereby strongly implying virginity. The actual text of Isaiah, however, makes no reference to a virgin becoming pregnant other than by normal means. Some modern translations of the Bible, which are based on the original Hebrew text, replace the word “virgin” with the more accurate translation, “young woman“.
Moreover, Isaiah’s prophecy, when read in context, clearly refers only to the time surrounding a political and military crisis which faced ancient Judah, and not 700 years later during the time of Jesus. Nor does the appellation “Immanuel” (God with us) imply that the child so named is divine, but rather in the context of the Old Testament passage, it acknowledges God’s presence in delivering Judah from its enemies (Is. 7:14-17). Nor was Jesus ever called Immanuel. It is evident, therefore, that Matthew takes liberties with the Isaiah text to justify his belief in Mary’s virginal conception.
At first glance, it would seem that the virgin birth story of Jesus makes the descriptions of his ancestral lineage to David in both Matthew and Luke, superfluous. This has led some to argue 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).
Moreover, according to the same Lucan narrative, 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). Yet in a later chapter of Luke, the adult John did not know who Jesus was (Luke 7:19-23).
It is also interesting to note that Luke uses Old Testament motifs 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 beautiful “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 gave birth through divine intervention. It is improbable that the illiterate peasant girl called Mary could have been so poetic. These accounts suggest more of a reliance on Old Testament parallels than eyewitness memories.
There are other indications that the virgin birth story was a later addition, given that it does not mesh well 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 also reinforced by the prophesies of Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:34,38). Surely, such predictions and the miracle of her virginal conception would have indicated to Mary that Jesus was someone special, if not divine. Yet Mary does not understand Jesus’ reference to the temple as his father’s house (Luke 2:48-50).
Also, Jesus does not venerate nor accord special status to his mother despite 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 when juxtaposed against the assertion of the miraculous virgin birth.
It is also hard to believe that despite the supposedly extraordinary events surrounding Jesus’ birth – from annunciations by herald angels and the 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 him out of his mind (Mk. 3:21). Nor did any of his brothers become disciples during his lifetime (John 7:5).
Moreover, if both Joseph and Mary knew that Jesus had no human father, why would they have not told him so? And 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 by his disciples so late in his career (Matt. 16:15-17)?
The answer is that these seemingly illogical situations during his adult life in relation to the nativity stories, are not illogical, if it is realized that the birth narratives were a later development in an evolving Christology. The Christmas story is an attempt through allegory, to explain Jesus’ divinity from the moment of his conception, not just from the time of his resurrection as claimed by Paul, the first Christian chronicler (Romans 1: 4), or from the moment of 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 these birth accounts themselves. Instead of taking the nativity stories in Matthew and Luke literally, and thereby doing a disservice to historicity and rational thought, we should accept them as religious myths. They are beautiful legends embodying faith in the supernatural and the efficacy of prophecy. They are attempts by these gospel authors to put into words their conception of a momentous, divine event. And they do so in a manner consistent with what credulous people in ancient times expected.
Although we shall never be sure about the exact circumstances of Jesus’ birth, we do know that about two thousand years ago, there was born in what is now called Palestine an extraordinary Jew who was to change profoundly the course of human history.
Originally published on Religion Tolerance.