The Christmas that (almost certainly) Wasn't
The Bible contains many memorable stories. As the most widely read and disseminated text in the history of humankind, its influence and ubiquity are such that its principal narratives are familiar even to those who have not been raised in the Christian tradition. Among the most famous, and beloved, accounts of the Bible is that of the Nativity—the first Christmas. Conveyed in two parts between the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, the story of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem has been repeated so many countless times in the millennia since the time of Jesus that hardly anyone today—religious or otherwise—bats an eye at the many children’s plays, cinematic depictions, or Christmas time readings that accompany the onset of the celebration of the first Christmas…which probably never happened.
A quick refresher for those who may be rusty as to the general run of events as given in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew: after being visited by the angel Gabriel and being told that she is with child despite having never laid with a man, Mary and Joseph departed for Bethlehem—Caesar Augustus having ordered a census of the Roman world requiring every man to return with his family to the place of his family’s origin. Jesus was subsequently born in a manger (there having been no room for them in the inn), and was visited by shepherds and the three magi. The three magi, who had dropped in for a visit with King Herod on the road to Bethlehem, are thereafter warned in a dream not to return to King Herod as they had promised—for King Herod secretly wished to kill the child. The magi returned by another way—Herod realized he’d been duped—ordered the slaughter of the innocents—Joseph was warned about the coming danger in a dream—the three escaped to Egypt—the end.
A dramatic story, captivating, magical…and also, for nearly two hundred years now, confirmed by historical and linguistic analysis to be completely spurious.
Firstly, there are several ways in which the text conflicts with historical evidence.
1.) The census in question, called by Quirinius, governor of Syria, was a local census, not one of the whole Roman Empire.
2.) Quirinius became governor of Syria in 6 A.D. This is problematic, as King Herod died in 4 B.C.
3.) The Romans were legendary record keepers, and in no other census was a person required to leave the place they currently lived and worked and paid taxes to go to a place their distant ancestors lived and register there for a census.
As the Gospels of Luke and Matthew are the only ones to give an account of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem (and there is very little overlap between the two accounts: Luke omits the visit of the Magi, opting instead for a visit by local shepherds; Matthew declines to mention Mary being visited by an angel or the Roman census—et cetera) it can easily be seen in light of the above information that the authors were working from either shoddy sources or were fabricating their stories surrounding the birth of Jesus whole cloth. In either case, the fact remains that none of the information surrounding the circumstances of Jesus’ purported birth in Bethlehem fit with the available historical sources.
At this point I’d like to take just a moment to remind readers why it had later came to be seen as being of paramount importance that Jesus have been born in Bethlehem.
The prophecy of Micah 5:2 gives Bethlehem as the place where the Messiah would be born, while prophecies in 2 Samuel and Jeremiah give the coming savior a lineage descendant of King David, whose city was Bethlehem.
In order to make sure Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of Micah and 2 Samuel and Jeremiah it was therefore necessary to get Jesus to the city of Bethlehem for his birth.
The earlier Gospel of Mark (written in approximately 60 A.D. by the best estimates of scholars—both Matthew and Luke are thought to have been written around thirty years later, both drawing heavily from the account of Mark) contains no mention of a virgin birth in the city of David, nor any claims by Jesus that he was divine—in fact the only place Jesus is depicted claiming his personal divinity is in the Gospel of John (composed around 100 A.D.). In Matthew, Mark and Luke one can find plenty of places that give Jesus as saying he was the “Son of God,” but that is quite ambiguous, since he also says that all men and women are sons and daughters of God. That he would be seated at the right hand of God, his father? Many prophets have claimed similarly, and like Jesus none claimed divinity.
How Jesus came to be seen as God, while fascinating and related to the topic at hand, is not my concern with this short essay, but if the reader is interested I recommend the esteemed biblical scholar Bart Ehrman’s book How Jesus Became God: the Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee.
There is one last thing of interest to the Nativity story as given in the Gospel of Luke that I’d like to mention before concluding: confusion over the alleged virgin birth of Jesus.
The author of Luke, whoever it was, while trying to get Jesus to Bethlehem in fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies, was also trying to make sure he checked off one another seemingly key prophecy box: the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 “Behold the Lord Himself will give you a sign, a Virgin shall conceive and bear a son and she shall call his name Immanuel.”
Around the time of the writing of the Gospels, in the first century A.D., texts were being circulated and translated between Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. At some point, no one is quite sure when, the Hebrew word “Almah” in the passage of Isaiah in question was incorrectly translated as “Virgin” rather than “Young Woman.” The original Hebrew article is also mistranslated, from “the” to “a.” Whether these mistranslations were purposeful or accidental, it matters little: they are mistakes in either case (though in defense of the author(s?), in the event it was accidental, the mistranslation seems quite a simple thing to have mistakenly done, similar to the distinction in English between “Maiden” and “Maid”).
This ties in to a final point: If Jesus’ birth is taken to be virginal then Joseph is not the biological father of Jesus, and therefore Jesus is not a descendant of David.
It should at this point be clear that the story of the first Christmas, while shrouded in the fog of history, is not so obfuscated as to preclude reasonable judgment being passed in due consideration of the available evidence—evidence which has been widely available for some time. Unfortunately for those who cherish the story as given in the Bible, an overwhelming preponderance of the evidence—bordering the territory of “beyond a reasonable doubt,”—sits in staunch opposition.
The impetus of this short essay/blog post is a series of emails exchanged between a concerned reader and myself over a book I published this past year. In Conversations with my Children: Ethics, Free Will, the Origins of the Bible, as well as reflections on the Perennial Philosophy, and Angst and Expectation (Wow, I should have picked a shorter title) I make the point that though the Bible is internally consistent to the point that one can reasonably defend any potential instances of conflict with relative ease, I do not consider the Bible morally authoritative on account of it being the obvious work of fallible human hands operating sans any Divine Inspiration. While internally coherent (and filled with a great many moving stories, aphorisms of great wisdom, and metaphorical exemplars of considerable intellectual power) the Bible simply cannot stand up to historical analysis. It is NOT infallible. The above example is only one of many such well-documented failings, and I hope it incites in readers an eagerness to learn more. Despite the ease of doing research from home, and despite a great deal of excellent scholarship having been done and made widely available—scholarship which completely undermines the authority of the Bible—the Bible continues to occupy a preeminent place in American society, to the point that questioning it is seen as tantamount to sacrilege. In the opinion of the reader whose sensibilities I had offended, it was his opinion that when facts and reason conflicted with the Bible it was sinful to place facts and reason over scripture. Setting aside the fact that it is only through use of human reason that the Bible (or anything) even makes sense at all (so what sense does it make to then discount the thing which enables making sense of things in favor of a thing it has been employed in the making sense of?), this taboo mentality is backward, and contrary to the values of an open and free society where authority should be subject to scrutiny. I hope my children grow up in an America that has finally broken the spell of religion, and moved toward a more wholesome, complete understanding of the world. Spirituality and God needn’t die with Biblical infallibility, which is transparently not the case.