Everything You Always Wanted to Know About the Nativity, But They Were Afraid to Tell You

Every year, the two billion Christians around the world mark the birth of their savior, Jesus Christ, on December 25th.  Their manner of celebrating the Christmas holiday, not to mention many of the central tenets of the religion that guides their daily conduct, is based on two, c.1,700 year-old accounts that the vast majority of believers have failed to scrutinize or corroborate.

The nativity story is derived entirely from about a thousand words each in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. (Three apocryphal gospels add some freaky details, but little of substance.)  In contrast, Mark and John are silent on the subject, beginning their accounts with an adult Jesus.  Further, Matthew and Luke contradict each other on several key points.


O Wisdom, Which Camest Forth

It’s generally believed that the author of Matthew (hereafter personalized as “Matthew”, though none of the gospel writers’ identities are known) was an hellenized Jew living in Asia Minor, seeking to convert other Jews to Christianity.  Throughout, Matthew attempts to link Jesus to prophesies in the Old Testament.  Unfortunately, Matthew drew not from the original Hebrew texts, rather the Septuagint, the Greek language translation of Jewish scripture.  He makes several key transcription errors, whether intentional or accidental.  Also vital for the Jews’ acceptance of Jesus as Messiah is descent from the royal house of David, which Matthew provides.  Matthew also peppers his gospel with outlandish & supernatural events not found in the rest of the canon.

In his preamble, the author of Luke (who almost certainly also wrote Acts), promises a digest or “orderly account” of the many stories “handed down” by “eyewitnesses and servants of the word.”   Throughout, Luke attempts to fix Jesus’ life in an historical framework, adding numerous details, dates, contemporary figures, and descriptions not found elsewhere.  We can positively identify the source of Luke’s historical nuggets: the works of Flavius Josephus.

Josephus, a romanized Jew, wrote an autobiography, a general history of the Jews, and an history of the Great Revolt of AD 66-70, in which Josephus himself first fought on the side of the rebels, then the Romans.  Josephus is esteemed as one of the most accurate & meticulous, and thus most reliable, of ancient historians.  From Josephus, Luke lifts at least seventeen passages, some nearly verbatim, plugging them rather awkwardly into his Jesus narrative.

Biblical scholars concur that both Matthew and Luke draw heavily on Mark, which in turn derives from a putative Urmark, as well as other theorized proto-gospels, either written or oral.  Various tentative dates are assigned to these, depending on the biases and assumptions of the scholar doing the dating.  The earliest extant written copies of the canonical gospels, however, date to the 4th century AD.  The origin of any particular gospel detail prior to c. AD 350 is thus entirely speculative.  As late as the end of the 2nd century AD, a version of Matthew was in wide use that lacked the nativity passages entirely.


O Wondrous Mystery

The Matthew-Luke nativity narrative makes several distinct assertions:

1. Jesus is descended from King David via either 29 or 43 generations;

2. Mary is a virgin, but has become pregnant by God. An angel convinces Joseph to marry her anyway;

3a. To partake in a Roman census, Mary & Joseph must travel from their hometown of Nazareth, to Joseph’s ancestral clan seat of Bethlehem, where Mary gives birth in a stable; — OR —

3b. They’ve always lived in Bethlehem;

4a. Jesus is born c. 2 – 4 BC, during the Reign of Herod the Great; — OR —

4b. Jesus is born in  AD 6, a decade after Herod’s death, when Quirinius, Roman governor of Syria, assumes rule of neighboring Judea;

5a. Some shepherds hear an angel singing at midnight, and go check out the baby in the manger; — AND/OR —

5b. A dazzling, peripatetic star leads some wise men to a house, where they recognize the baby as a king and give him presents;

6. When Jesus is taken to the temple to be circumcised, a devout man recognizes him as the Messiah.  An octogenarian prophetess also proclaims him the Messiah;

7a. Herod learns of the Messiah’s birth from the magi.  Fearing a rival to the throne, he has every male infant and toddler in Bethlehem put to death; — OR —

7b. Herod does nothing, because he’s dead;

8a. Census completed and foreskin removed, the holy family returns to their hometown of Nazareth;  — OR  —

8b. Warned by an angel of Herod’s pending massacre, they leave their hometown of Bethlehem and flee to Egypt;

9a. They live in Nazareth, returning to Jerusalem once a year for the first twelve years of Jesus’ life; — OR —

9b. They remain in Egypt for 10-12 years.  When the coast is clear, the holy family returns to Israel, settling in Nazareth;

10. When Jesus is twelve, he enters the temple in Jerusalem and astounds the priests with his erudition.

Let’s search for the origins of these claims, plus a few other Christmas story elements.


Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem

It’s long been common practice to establish noble heritage by concocting lengthy genealogies tracing back to real and fictional notables: William the Conqueror to King Arthur to Adam.  Matthew’s list of 29 names, and Luke’s 43, linking David to Jesus, have only three in common.  Both are clearly made-up.

Likewise with Bethlehem.  This seat of the Davidian clan, where the new king just had to be born, was worked into the story one way or the other.  Matthew points to one of his many ‘fulfilled prophesies’:

And thou Bethlehem, land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah:
For out of you shall come forth a ruler,
Who will be shepherd of my people Israel.

But Matthew mangles Micah 5:2

but you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
one who will be ruler over Israel
whose origins are from of old
from ancient times

That is: a ruler not from a town, but rather belonging to the clan of a man named Bethlehem.  Micah prophesies that this ruler will defeat the Assyrians in battle.

The link to King David is only important if: 1) you’re Matthew, attempting to convert Jews; 2) you’re Luke, stuck with shoe-horning the Bethlehem factoid into all the other material you’ve compiled.


Once in Royal David’s City

There was no census conducted by the Romans or anybody else during Herod the Great’s reign.

Roman records confirm that a census of Judea under Quirinius most definitely took place in AD 6. This occurred after the Romans deposed the disastrous Herod Archelaus (Herod the Great’s successor), and annexed the former client kingdom to Quirinius’ Roman province of Syria.

Skeptics question whether the über-pragmatic Romans would have the entire population traipse to the seats of their ancestral Jewish tribes.  Persuasive arguments have been made that relying on pre-existing, local census methods, as was done in Egypt and Sicily, might actually have been most efficient.  Also noted is that the population of the city of Rome itself was tallied along traditional tribal affiliations.  In any case, either Matthew or Luke must be flat wrong.  Given the weakness of both, there’s no reason to assume either is true.

The only correlation between Jesus’ birth and a Roman census appears in Luke.  As there’s no doctrinal or allegorical motivation for this, we may assume that Luke heard or read this tidbit.  In his systematic plagiarizing of Josephus, Luke would have come across mention of the Quirinius census in Antiquities , and employed it as the ‘nativity’ census.

Luke incorrectly describes that local, ad hoc head-count as one “taken of the entire Roman world.”  The first empire-wide census wasn’t conducted until AD 74.  In Acts, Luke — again cribbing from Josephus — mentions a revolt precipitated by a census, but conflates the AD 6. census revolt with the AD 46 census revolt.  (The Jews back then revolted at the drop of a hat.)  Luke’s thorough confusion seriously undermines the credibility of his account.


We Three Kings of Orient Are

Your traditional crèche tableau depicts two shepherds and three wise men/kings — Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, bridled camels in hand — venerating the holy infant inside a stable.  The iconic impression is so forceful as to have been absorbed by many of us as ‘facts.’

Luke mentions plural shepherds, who afterwards spread the word of the marvelous birth far and wide, but no magi.

Matthew contains no shepherds, instead plural magi, commonly translated as “wise men.”  Magi were zoroastrian priests who convened in groups of twelve.  The Babylonians & Persians were astute sky-watchers, so prima facie it seems plausible that a prominent astronomical event, rising in the eastern sky and setting in the west over the vicinity of Israel, might be interpreted as a portent.

Per Matthew, the magi are convinced the star heralds the birth of a new Jewish king.  The star leads the magi first to Jerusalem, where they must ask the sitting king, Herod, for directions to the likely site of a royal birth.  He points them to Bethlehem.  The star now gets much more precise, proceeding on a south-southwest heading to Bethlehem, (presumably, it had flown a holding pattern over Jerusalem while the magi parleyed with Herod,) before settling smack dab over the very house where Mary and her “young child” reside.  The magi enter, kneel, and present Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Note that we are in a house, not a stable.  Matthew later implies that the arrival of the Magi may have occurred as much as two years after Jesus’ birth.

The traditional number of magi has been fixed at three based on the number of gifts.  Yet early on, the gifts were recognized as allegories for Christ’s attributes: gold, a gift fit for a king; myrrh, an embalming oil, to symbolize mortality; incense, an offering to a deity.  The magi’s names and countries of origin are 4th – 9th century embellishments that vary among regional traditions.  Only much later were the magi converted to “kings” to assert church dominance over secular rulers.


A Glorious Star From Heav’n Appeared

Great efforts have been made to provide a non-miraculous, astronomical explanation for the “Star of Bethlehem”  — supernovae, comets, conjunctions of planets have been proposed.  Suitable candidates have the annoying habit of either not occurring during Herod’s reign (or Quirinius’ governorship, for that matter), or receiving no mention in the meticulous Western & Chinese records of notable heavenly events.

All this assumes that, somewhere under Matthew’s implausible, supernatural layers, lies a kernel of truth. Reason dictates that one reject the entirety of the magi tale, and the shepherds, too, as midrash, or fictional exegesis, common in theological writings of the era.  Had a real-life man existed who inspired the biblical accounts of the adult Jesus in & around Galilee, it’s safe to assume that this person was born and raised in Galilee; the son of a tradesman, or at best, a priest, but no Judaean king.


Herod That Was Both Wylde and Wode

Following Jesus’ miraculous birth, Luke has the holy family return to a quiet life in their hometown of Nazareth.  Matthew, which takes place ten years earlier, adds a gory detail.  After hearing of a potential rival to the throne, Herod orders the murder of every boy, two years and younger, in Bethlehem and vicinity.  God, keen on protecting his own son, sends an angel to warn the holy family.  They flee to Egypt, where they live for ten years or so.  On their return to Israel, they settle in the backwater province of Galilee, to avoid drawing attention.

Herod’s slaughter, which would have included hundreds of children, defies credulity.  Herod was an unpopular king, craven, cruel, a carpet-bagger, yet in all the screeds against him, this mass infanticide is absent.  Such a decree would have led Herod’s soldiers to mutiny, the volatile Jewish populace to riot.  Where did Matthew come up with this story?

An historical germ may lie in Herod’s murder of family and court members following a dispute, which Josephus records.  As myth-enhancement, escape from murder by a malevolent hand is a common theme for heroes & demi-gods — Moses, Horus, Dionysus, Perseus, Oedipus, to name but a few.

Whatever his inspiration, Matthew engages in more bogus prophesy fulfillment.  He claims the Massacre of the Innocents is foretold in Jeremiah 31:15, which he quotes as:

A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more

But Jeremiah is talking about the 6th century BC  Babylonian Captivity, as  31:16 makes clear:

Restrain your voice from weeping … for your work will be rewarded
They will returned from the land of the enemy…. Your children will return to their own land.

The flight to Egypt is foretold in Hosea 11:1, claims Matthew:

“And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’ “

 Here’s that passage in context:

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.
But the more I called Israel, the further they went from me.

Perhaps Matthew felt obliged to cover biographical details of messianic claimants conflated over the years with the ‘real’ Jesus.  There was Jesus ben Perahiah, who fled to Egypt to avoid execution by an evil king;  Jesus ben Stada, who brought magical spells out of Egypt, and was put to death by the high priests for practicing sorcery;  Jesus the Egyptian, who around  AD 52  preached from the Mount of Olives that he would enter Jerusalem as a king, compelling the Romans to raid his camp and arrest his followers; Benjamin the Egyptian, crucified by the Romans in AD 60.


Dearest Jesus, Holy Child

To locate the origin of the incident of young Jesus lecturing in the temple, one need only to compare Luke:

And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the [Passover] festival…. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.

to Josephus:

I made mighty proficiency in the improvements of my learning, and appeared to have both a great memory and understanding. Moreover, when I was a child, and about fourteen years of age, I was commended by all for the love I had to learning; on which account the high priests and principal men of the city came then frequently to me together, in order to know my opinion about the accurate understanding of points of the law.


Through Judah’s Land the Savior Walks

The New Testament refers numerous times to the city of Nazareth, a place large enough to have a temple and to arouse a mob.  In their nativity accounts, Matthew and Luke must explain how “Jesus of Nazareth” was born 125 miles away in Bethlehem.

The Talmud lists 63 Galilean locales, but no Nazareth.  Josephus, who campaigned four long years across Galilee, names 45 cities, towns, hamlets and fortresses, but no Nazareth.  Not a single contemporary historian, geographer, or Roman bureaucrat mentions it. The first historical mention of Nazareth comes from a 4th century inscription, noting it was settled by rabbinical families displaced following Hadrian’s crushing of the Bar Kochba revolt in AD 135.  Archeological digs reveal that the site was used only as a graveyard until the late 1st century, when a single family farm was established.  What’s the deal?

What we have is another mistranslation.  “Jesus of Nazareth” is derived from “Jesus the Nazarene” which was assumed to refer to a locale.  The Hebrew word for Nazareth is “Natzrat“.  Jesus, though, is the “Notzri“, or “nazarite“, a person taking a religious vow involving abstinence from alcohol and refraining from cutting their hair.  Samson, Samuel and Absalom were nazarites.  John the Baptist was a member of the Essenes, closely related to the Nazarite sect. Both were based in Galilee.  Acts even mentions a “Nazarene” sect — whether the 1st century Jewish or 4th century Christian one, is unclear. Some scholars interpret Jesus’ Last Supper pledge to “not drink again from the fruit of the vine” as a nazarite vow.

Matthew peddles another prophesy, noting: “[a]nd he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene.”  Is Matthew smoking tea?  The word “nazarene” does not appear in the Old Testament.  But “nazarite”  shows up many times, as in Judges 13:5 reference to Samson:

Because you will conceive and give birth to a son. No razor may be on his head, because the boy is to be a Nazirite, set apart to God from birth, and he will begin the deliverance of Israel from the Philistines.

The apocryphal Gospel of Philip tells us that “nazarene” comes from “nazara”, or “truth”.  Some scholars believe it refers to “netzer”, or “branch”.  The many misspellings and interpretations are to be expected, as all derive from the Hebrew root, “NZR.”

Both Matthew and Luke appear aware of the nazarite/nazarene sect, but not its religious or historical significance. They also err by placing Jesus in a non-existent city.  This indicates just how far removed, temporally and culturally, the gospel authors were from the events they attempted to chronicle.


When Christ Was Born of Mary Free

Jesus’ supernatural birth to a virgin, Mary, is the central and most extraordinary detail of the nativity story.  Many modern Christians remain agnostic about, or fully reject, the virgin birth, so we’ll table the many chromosomal questions raised.  Mary’s virginity still merits examination, as how this detail became incorporated speaks to the reliability of the entire nativity gospel.

Ancient mythologies are replete with unions between deities and mortal women.  A virgin or otherwise exceptional birth is a common attribute shared by numerous immortal or heroic figures — Romulus & Remus, Zoroaster, Mithra, Tammuz/Adonis, even Julius Caesar.  Philo of Alexandria disparagingly noted the widespread superstition that copulating with a god returned a woman to a state of virginity, something Mary attains post-birth in the apocrypha.  To the hellenized and Roman Christians, as well as the first pagan converts of northern Israel, who’d previously worshipped Tammuz, a virgin birth for Jesus would have been de rigueur.

Matthew, of course, finds it prophesied, in Isaiah 7:14:

Behold, a virgin will be with child, and will bring forth a son, and they will call his name Emmanuel.

Accurately translated, Isaiah reads:

Behold, the young woman has conceived, and bears a son and calls his name Immanuel.

— a sign to assure the 8th century BC King Ahaz that his royal lineage will survive a siege by the Syrians, which it happily does a few verses later after the child is born.

Matthew can perhaps be excused for reporting a virgin birth, as the Septuagint from which he was working had mistranslated the Hebrew “almah” (“young woman”) as “parthenos” (“virgin”).  Hebrew has a designated term for ‘virgin’: “bethulah.” That “Immanuel” is not anywhere near “Jesus” is simply ignored, but it does show up in a pretty christmas carol.


Sweet Was the Song That The Virgin Sung

Not only is the wording in Luke of Mary’s annunciation nearly identical to Elizabeth’s, John’s mother, that just precedes it, it also mirrors miraculous conceptions in the old Testament.  In 1 Samuel, Hannah, whose womb has been closed by the Lord, prays for a son, and promises to raise him a nazarite.  A priest announces to her that God has granted her wish and she will conceive. Hannah’s joyful song is the template for Mary’s & Elizabeth’s.  In Judges, the nameless wife of Manoah, mother of the original nazarite hero, Samson, is told by an angel that she will conceive.  Joseph’s testy exchange with the angel is patterned closely on Manoah’s own dialog with his angel.

One possible extra-biblical source for Mary’s annunciation has been uncovered. A tale dating from early 1st century Egypt, and popular among the early Copts, tells of an Egyptian princess, a virgin secluded in a temple, who falls in love with a Jew named Joseph.  An angel appears, makes Joseph’s case, and confers immortality to the maiden.  The connection is highly speculative, but the Copt story predates the nativity narrative by two centuries.


On Yoolis Night

Neither Matthew nor Luke specify a date, or even time of the year, for the nativity.  The presence of shepherds laying in the field would presumably rule out mid-winter.  So why do we celebrate Jesus’ birthday on December 25th?  Early church fathers calculated six months from the Annunciation, tenuously dated as occurring on March 25th.  That was a mere excuse to co-opt the winter solstice festivals, like Saturnalia, widely celebrated among the pagan world as the (re)birth of the sun. For a quite a while, Jesus’ birthday was marked on January 6th — now assigned the Epiphany — also the birthday of Janus and other deities.

A December 25th Natalis Invicti festival with horse races appears on an imperial Roman calendar from AD 354.  Christianity would not become the official religion of the empire until 380, so these games would have honored deus sol invictus, the “invincible Sun-god”, who under Emperor Aurelian had become a popular addition to the Roman pantheon.  Emperor Constantine, who granted benefices to the Christian sect (his mother was a zealous convert), was an active member of the cult of Sol Invictus — until his death-bed conversion to Christianity.  The contemporary cults of Christ, Sol Invictus, and Mithra shared many common features. One, the “helios” or “halo”, depicted above the head of Sol Invictus, was adopted by Mithra, Jesus & the Christian saints.  A four-pointed cross*, first associated with the advent of the Mithras cult c. AD 100, was seen by Constantine in the sunlight before his seminal victory at Milvian Bridge. (You can see one too, if you squint.)  Constantine then took up either Christianity, Sol Invictus-ness, or Mithraism, or all three, depending on who you ask.  For what it’s worth, his coins are all stamped with the words sol invictus.  Whatever his personal preferences, Constantine promoted a state religion that combined these nascent cults, a merger likely already achieved by the religious syncretism of the Romans.

* (The Romans, for the record, crucified their victims on a “T” or an “X”.  While we’re on crosses, the early 2nd century worshippers of the sacrificed & resurrected Antinous portrayed their god holding a four-pointed cross derived from the Ankh.  The Christian church did not adopt the cross as its symbol until the 6th century.)


What Tidings Bringest Thou?

The influential historian, Hans Delbrück, warned against treating sketchy sources from antiquity as “acceptably trustworthy” simply because no reliable alternatives exist.  He advocated a methodology that “distinguishes clearly and definitely what can be regarded as accurately passed down, and what is not.”

Delbrück was especially interested in ancient army strengths.  Herodotus gives the Persians at Marathon exactly 4,200,000 men.  Delbrück calculated that the march column would have stretched from the beach at Marathon to the banks of the Tigris, 2,000 miles away.  A Greek army of 110,000 is assertively reported at the battle of Plataea. Delbrück wryly observed that “the historians who copied this number did not reflect sufficiently on … what it means to feed 110,000 men in one spot for a rather long time.” 

Such precise details, however authoritative they sound, “merit no credence whatsoever — not even the slightest.”  We must accept that we know nothing on the subject, and rely on our common sense alone.  And so it is with the nativity narrative.  Through their multiple errors and implausible details, Matthew and Luke prove themselves wholly untrustworthy.  We must accept that not a single fact about Jesus’ birth has been accurately passed down.


Winter Wonderland

We owe our nativity tradition to the triumph of the Roman trinitarian cult over its rival Alexandrian, Gnostic, Ebionite, and Arian sects.  These heresies, which viewed Jesus as an ordinary man temporarily imbued with a heaven-sent spirit, had no need for a miraculous or portentous birth.  The 4th century Nicene purge and rewrite of the gospels left us unaware of these conflicting christian traditions until revealed by recent archaeological finds.

The hellenized canonical gospel writers and their Roman converts, seeped in a mélange of Mediterranean and eastern mythologies, appended common elements of that tradition to their new cult.  That these details might require verification before being accepted, simply did not occur to the ancient mindset.

Today, our own syncretic tendencies happily meld contradictory nativity gospels, and lard them with elements from the apocrypha (a cave, a cherry tree, etc.) plus later embellishments.  We somehow manage to incorporate into one big festival the santa claus narrative, pagan tree worship, the druidic use of mistletoe, and even the Grinch.  A firmly-established part of the season’s tradition, the nativity is, like the other elements, for entertainment purposes only.

So, Merry Mithras to all, and to all a good Solstice!

(c) 2013 by Matt Cavanaugh.  All rights reserved.

Note: This article originally appeared December 22-23, 2012 at Johnwsmart.net as “Christmas Carols.”


Obstacles to Creating an Historical Timeline for The Passion of Christ (Part 3 of 3)

III. The Reversed Timeline

(View Part I; view  Part II.)

The vast majority of believers and free thinkers alike accept the existence of an “historical Jesus”, a real person whose actions and words were the seed of the Christian religion. They see the discrepancies, confusion and gaps in the story as the result of a centuries-long game of ‘telephone’; nevertheless, an unbroken flow of information exists from the man’s original followers and contemporary witnesses, into a fluid oral tradition, then a written proto-gospel(s), the canonical gospels and — passing through generations of copyists and suffering countless transcription errors — to the present day.

Rather, entertain for a moment another explanation, an alternate timeline where, instead of the man becoming more like a god with each telling of the story, the god becomes more like a man over time.

Traffic Management
The earliest writings on The Christ seem to be Paul’s so-called “undisputed” epistles, yet they contain none of Jesus’ sayings, no details his life. In I Corinthians, Paul (or whoever wrote Corinthians) provides what has to be the first description of the Last Supper. What was his source? A vision. “For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you.” Paul never met Jesus, nor was he converted by Jesus’ followers — he heard a voice in his head while on the road to Damascus. However detailed Paul’s vision may be, it holds the same historical merit as Sister Emmerich’s fantasies. Is Corinthians the true origin of the Last Supper?

Although Paul is shoe-horned into the timeline just following Jesus’ crucifixion (based solely the mention of a ‘Saul’ present at the stoning of the mythical Stephen), the Pauline Epistles are undated. They first appear around AD 145, in the canon of Marcion, which also contained the first gospel, Marcion’s own. Around this same time we find the first indirect references to the existence of the canonical gospels, as well as a slew of Gnostic and other apocryphal gospels. (The earliest surviving manuscripts of the canonical gospels date to the mid 4th Century; the earliest fragments of Gnostic gospels to the mid 3rd Century.) All attempts at an earlier dating of the gospel pericopes are self-referential.

A gaping, 110 year-long hole now opens in the timeline, from the assumed date of Jesus’ Passion until the first written accounts of it. Eleven decades during which the new church has established itself not only in Jerusalem and the Levant, but in Alexandria, “great numbers spreading” across Asia Minor, in Greece, and in Rome where “vast multitudes” of Chrestians supposedly existed as early as the 60’s. Did none of these innumerable converts know how to write?

Word War One

It’s no coincidence that gospels larded with pseudo-factual details about an earthly Jesus first started appearing in the middle of the 2nd Century. A vicious turf war was raging among the several sects of the new religion, and the trinitarian sect in Rome was losing the war to the Gnostics. An highly plastic, almost casual worship of a timeless, ephemeral deity was open to infinite permutation and synthesis with other cults. It was eminently typical of that era, but also uncontrollable. By fixing a concrete, mortal entity into a definite point in time, a succession of authority could be established: the risen Jesus designates Peter who founds the church in Rome and designates Clement … all the way down to … me! (Note that Mark, the earliest of the canonical gospels, omits Jesus’ post-resurrection tour.)

The bare-bones of a biography had likely already been assimilated into a long-standing cult of the dying-and-rising god: rebel leader and messianic claimant named “Jesus” (every messianic claimant acquired the honorific ‘Yahweh Saves’) who gave his life for the cause, or fled but promised to return. The list of candidates is impressive, but one need not choose; they were all stitched together. Frankenjesus is born.

The story-line was barren, but Mark remedied that by riffing on Isaiah, Joshua, and Daniel. Luke contributed a veneer of historicity by plagiarizing Josephus like there was no tomorrow. Matthew tidied up the many Egyptian connections of the merged messiahs by shipping baby Frankenjesus off to the Land of the Pharaohs. Gods don’t issue proverbs; men do. Frankenjesus was provided not only with OT sayings and prayers (both the Lord’s Prayer and Jesus’ Gethsemane lament come straight out of Psalms), but also paraphrases of Seneca and other popular stoic philosophers.

By ingratiating itself with the Imperial powers, the sect in Rome acquired the strength to obliterate its more popular (and egalitarian) opponents. Under the aegis of the emperor Constantine, in AD 325 the Roman church convened the council of Nicaea, where it declared heretical all competing interpretations of the Christ. It trimmed the multiverse of scriptures down to a manageable — and hierarchy-friendly — canon.

Why retain four, barely-compatible versions of the same story? Why not combine the various elements into one, amalgamated gospel, as several communities had done (and as Luke claims to do)? The gospels were now set to a new task. What had formerly been free exegesis’s on eternal themes were now conscripted as corroborating (sic) eyewitness accounts.

Or So The Story Goes

The Nicene Council then appointed Eusebius to compile all material and write an ‘history of the victors.’ What Eusebius couldn’t remedy via interpolation or forgery, he burned — the entirety of the Gnostic corpus within his reach, the pagan criticisms, plus numerous works of antiquity that undermined the official story. And then Eusebius set the scribes to tydying up sanitized versions of the gospels, the very same works we today delve in search of traces of the historical Jesus.

We search there in vain. The ‘evidence’ seems to match the story only because, like Kaiser Söje’s tale, the story was created around the ‘evidence.’ However seemingly authentic their details, the gospels are fictional, and do not portray the “historical Jesus”, whoever that may have been. That person almost certainly wasn’t crucified c. AD 33, is probably a composite, and possibly never even existed. Our real story begins a century later.

© 2013 by Matt Cavanaugh. All rights reserved.

Obstacles to Creating an Historical Timeline for The Passion of Christ (Part 2 of 3)

II. Delineating an Historical Window for the Passion

In response to the question, ‘when was Jesus born?’ most apologists answer ‘between 4 BC and AD 6 ’   That phrasing is specious, and should read ‘either/or’.  Matthew’s answer (when referring to the gospels, I will personalize the author, though we haven’t the slightest idea who actually wrote them) is ‘6, 5 or 4 BC.’  Luke is certain the year was AD 6.  Mark and John reply,  ‘who cares?’

The Jesus-Hunters are content to accept these contradictory dates as a ‘ballpark figure’ and set about triangulating from other specified dates in the gospels to home in on the precise years of Jesus’ ministry and death.

John the Baptist

Luke says John the Baptist’s ministry began fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius, or AD 28/29.  Jesus begins his ministry either the day after his baptism (Luke, John), or sometime after the Baptist has been imprisoned (Mark, Matt). The historian Flavius Josephus tells us (assuming the relevant passage is not an interpolation) that John drew the ire of Herod for criticizing the king’s remarriage to his brother’s widow in late 34 or 35, and was executed in 36.  Christian apologists regularly push this back to 30-31, without basis.

This gives a time frame of between AD 28 and 36 at its widest for the advent of Jesus’ ministry.  Mark & Matthew narrow that window to between 34 and 36.

The Temple

John has Jesus questioned, “Forty and six years was this temple in building, and you want to raise it up in three days?”  In the 18th year of his reign (20-19 BC),  Herod the Great began a magnificent rebuilding of the temple, which continued right up to its razing by the Romans.  This yields a AD 26 – 27  date for Jesus’ visit to the temple.  John has Jesus cleanse the temple at the beginning of this ministry, the synoptics place it just before the Passion.

The Peshitta 

The Peshitta, or Syriac vulgate version of the bible, mentions that Jesus died during his 6th septennial, that is, between the ages of 35 and 42.

With a Lukan birth, this means Jesus would have died between the years AD 41 and 48.  Following Matthew, the range would be AD 29 to 38.

The reference is worthless as corroborating evidence, as the author could simply have derived this age by tacking Luke’s “in his thirties” onto Matthew’s birth year.

The Passover Calendar

The synoptic gospels clearly indicate that Jesus celebrated Passover one (Hebrew) day before the sabbath.  John contradicts himself, first describing the Last Supper as a Seder, then saying the crucifixion happened on “the preparation day of the Passover“.  The mental gymnastics required to correlate the Jewish weekday with ours has led to widespread confusion, truckloads of special pleading, and accusations by biblical literalists that the Jews have misread their own calendar of six millennia.  Even Pope Benno (or his ghost writer) makes a complete arse of himself trying to sort it out.

The first day of Passover, or Pesach I, always coincides with the 15th day of the Jewish lunar month of Nisan.  The lamb is prepared for slaughter during the day of Nisan 14, and the Seder meal is held after sunset, that is, at the start of the next day.  Let’s dispense with modern day names to construct an abbreviated Passion timeline:

* Sunset — Nisan 15 / Pesach I / Day before Shabbat begins

— Passover meal (“Last Supper”)

— Gethsemane

— Jesus arrested

— Sanhedrin trial


— Jesus before Pilate

— Jesus crucified

— Jesus buried

* Sunset — Nisan 16 / Pesach II / Shabbat begins

— No activity


— No activity

* Sunset — Nisan 17 / Pesach III / “First Day”, day after Shabbat

— No activity


— Spices purchased

— Empty tomb discovered

We need only consult lunar charts, then correlate between the Hebrew and Gregorian calendars to produce a list of years when Shabbat fell on Nisan 16.  That’s easier said than done, but it has been attempted in the past, with results posted on the internet.  Unfortunately, the researchers confuse themselves by talking about Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.  The entire endeavor is made nearly hopeless by the Hebrew practices of calculating the new year by the sprouting of barley in Israel, moving the start of a month up a day if the sky was too cloudy to observe the crescent moon, and inserting entire ‘leap months’ whenever their calendar got too out-of-whack with the seasons. If any doubt remained, a feast was observed two days in a row.  These adjustments were made on an ad hoc basis depending on local conditions.

For what it’s worth, proposed matches for the synoptic gospels include AD 27, 30, 34, and 36, the last widely disputed.  John’s timeline matches the years AD 30 and 33.  Investigation has been limited to the span of Pilate’s rule.

The Essene Calendar

Some apologists believe they’ve discovered a way to reconcile John’s Passover with the synoptics.  The Essenes, who followed a separate calendar, squabbled with the other sects over the marking of holy days.  The  two often varied by several weeks, but in 30, the Essene Passover fell a day before that of the Pharisee/Sadducee feast.

Assuming Jesus was an Essene (and many do), he could have celebrated the Seder with his brethren, then the next day offered himself to the Sadducees and Pharisees as the sacrificial lamb of their Passover.

Pontius Pilate

Pilate ruled Judea from 26 until 36, when he was recalled for trampling local sensibilities and dispensing justice too harsh even for the standards of the age.

Both Josephus and Philo depict Pilate as “inflexible, stubborn and cruel”, whose preferred method of crowd control was to intersperse among the people soldiers in civilian garb, armed with cudgels, who, at a given signal, would begin pummeling at random and spark a stampede.  Hardly the type to bend over backwards to appease the throng gathered for Passover.

The release of prisoners on Passover is unequivocally not part of the Hebrew tradition.  The Barabbas tale does bear striking resemblance to the real Hebrew ritual of the scapegoat, as well as the Greek Pharmakos.  As such, the pericope serves double duty as exoneration of Rome for Jesus’ death, and allegory of sacrifice to remove sins and tribulations.

Barabbas (whose full name in early manuscripts is “Jesus Son of the Father [bar abba]”) is described as “a man in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the uprising.”  What uprising?  The last recorded uprising was Judas the Galilean’s tax revolt in AD 6.  Had Barabbas been languishing in prison for thirty years?   Luke amends Barabbas’ crime to “for insurrection in the city.”  There had been a recent insurrection in the city — Jesus’ occupation of the Temple the week before!  Was Barabbas a follower of Jesus gone bad?  Moving past the orthodox time frame, we encounter several revolts  — in AD 46, 59, 66, 114 and 132 — each with a messianic leader with résumés similar to our man Jesus.  If this sounds absurd, note that all of these predate the first written gospels.

Pilate reportedly crucified 3,000 people during his tenure, including 500 in one day.  As Jesus was a common name, Pilate assuredly crucified several.  If our man was among them, we’ll never know for certain, as nothing outside of the NT links Pilate to him.  We must also entertain the possibility that  the original protagonist of the story has been bifurcated into Jesus and Barabbas.

Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin

Caiaphas’ tenure as high priest, running from AD 18 to 36/37 (per Josephus), imposes no constraints on the orthodox time frame.

Considerable disagreement exists between Jewish historians and biblical scholars as the role of the Sanhedrin during the Second Temple Era.  Christian apologists are quick to point out an obscure reference in the Jerusalem version of the Talmud, implying that the Sanhedrin voluntarily gave up trying capital cases beginning in AD 30.  This, they reason, explains the mystery of why the priests, although “they condemned him as worthy of death“, had to turn Jesus over to the Romans for execution.  (John elaborates, “we have no right to execute anyone.“) Jewish scholars note a conflicting mishnah that states capital cases were not abandoned until after the destruction of the Temple in AD 70.

Josephus mentions the high priest running afoul of the Romans in AD 15 for conducting executions that had been proscribed.  It’s unclear whether all executions or just certain types had been banned,  whether the edict was temporary or permanent, or if just this high priest was affected.  Far from being confirmation, the reference in Josephus may well be the source material for a 2nd Century embellishment.

The Talmud records thousands of trials that took place over centuries, but not a single mention of our man Jesus’ trial.

Mark displays a certain familiarity with Sanhedrin protocol (at least as they stood when first written down c. AD 200).  The priests do not “come to a decision” until daybreak.  Capital cases before the Sanhedrin could not be tried at night, and if deliberation went past sundown, a verdict could not be delivered until the morning.  The priests are vexed by contradicting testimony:  “many testify falsely, but their statements do not agree.”  If two witnesses contradicted each other, the Sanhedrin was required to throw out both testimonies.  The accused’s testimony in his own defense had to be weighed equally with that of others.  When Jesus admits to claiming divinity, the high priest says, “why do we need any more testimony?”

The most that can be said of these details is they are not inconsistent with the time frame.  Still, all were accessible from extant sources other than a putative, pre-Markan gospel tradition.  They no more confirm the existence of an historical Jesus than do authentic details consistent with the Battle of Chancellorsville found in The Red Badge of Courage confirm the existence of an historical Henry Fleming.

An Eclipse

Mark tells us, when Jesus was on the cross “darkness came over the whole land“, leading many bible enthusiasts to scour the astronomical charts for solar ellipses. Passover always begins at the full moon, when solar eclipses are impossible.

Extra-Canonical Documents

Four secular works of antiquity are cited as outside evidence for the existence of Jesus;  Josephus’ Antiquities (c. 100), Tacitus’ Annals (c. 110), Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars (c. 119), and Pliny the Younger’s letters (110-112).   Each of these works is known to us only through 4th to 15th Century manuscripts copied by Christian scribes from earlier, lost versions.  Each of the relevant passages bear the marks of heavy interpolation or outright forgery – anachronisms, stylistic inconsistencies, etc.  Even assuming the minimum of tampering, the most that can be ascertained is:

  1. Pilate executed someone named Jesus;
  2. In Judea, there was once a man named James who had a brother named Jesus;
  3. Sometime after when Jesus is assumed to have lived, there were people who worshipped him.

Or more precisely, there existed “followers of Chrestus”,  whose worship consisted of communal meals held underground, an utterly unremarkable practice for the era.   ‘Chrestus’,  meaning “the good” or “useful”, was a common name among slaves and plebeians, as well as an honorific bestowed on popular leaders and deities alike.

More striking is the silence of contempary observers: Aelius Aristides, Appian, Appolonius,  Arrian, Damis, Epictetus, Justis, Lucan, Numenius, Pausanias, Philo, Pliny the Elder, Plutarch, Seneca.

Add It Up

Our window for dating an historical yet gospel-compatible Passion is firmly delineated on the one end by the Baptist’s imprisonment — late 34 at the earliest, early 36 at the latest, 35 most probable — and on the other by Pilate’s recall, likely in late in 36. The gospels never specifically state how many years Jesus was active, though most people assume one year. John mentions three separate Passover feasts, requiring no less than 25 months, which just barely fits into the widest possible stretching of the time frame.

The synoptic Passover dating matches 34 and possibly 36. John’s Passover dating falls outside the window, as does the Essene calendar theory.  Again, dating the Passion via the Hebrew lunar calendar is crippled by such inexactitude as to be essentially pointless.

Per Matthew’s nativity, Jesus would have been 40 to 42 years old in AD 36.  Luke’s nativity makes Jesus “about thirty” — just as Luke says!  The apparent corroboration is worthless. Luke lifts over two dozen passages nearly verbatim from the works of Josephus, which also give the dates for Pilate’s governorship and the Quirinius census.  All Luke had to do was count on his fingers then write down the number derived from his assumptions.  In any case, the phrase can also be translated as “in his thirties.”  John is even more vague, describing Jesus as “not yet fifty years old.”

The 34-36 window does not accommodate a visit to the Temple in 26-27 per John, which also predates The Baptist’s ministry per Luke.

The Peshitta-Matthew link can coexist with a AD 36 crucifixion; Peshitta-Luke cannot.

Accepting the highly-dubious historical mentions, one can only infer sometime prior to:

36 (Josephus)

54 (Suetonius)

64 (Tacitus)

112 (Pliny)

The year 36 emerges as the only plausible fit, and only if one discards parts of each synoptic, and most of John, as false.   The popular date of 33 for the Passion is based on three assumptions: 1) that Jesus was born in AD 1;  2) that he was “about thirty” (Luke) when he began preaching; 3) his ministry lasted three years (John.)  The fatal flaws of this formula are apparent, yet it is amazing how often devout Christians, after reviewing the materials outlined above, still arrive at 33 as the year of the Passion!

The only real conclusion that can be drawn from all these convoluted calculations is one already apparent to the astute observer: the canon contains serious contradictions, not only among the four gospels but also within each gospel, and is effectively useless as a dating tool.

(Up next — The Reversed Timeline.  View Part I.)

(c) 2013 by Matt Cavanaugh.  All rights reserved. 

Obstacles to Creating an Historical Timeline for The Passion of Christ (Part 1 of 3)

 – by Matt Cavanaugh

“Jesus Christ, I Presume”

Ask someone to name the year Jesus died, and the likely answer will be ’33 a.d.’  The hunt for the historical Jesus almost always begins at that point in time indicated by what appear to be clues in the gospels, the third decade of the 1st Century AD.

The Jesus-Hunters next assemble any & all relevant, extra-canonical data to pin down the Jesus story in an historical timeline.  And what a compelling story it is, filled with themes of love, courage, hatred, conspiracy, betrayal, and sacrifice, culminating at an exhilarating pace to a stunning climax.  No wonder it’s provided the plot for numerous movies and two Broadway musicals.

But when we try to use that story as a map to locate Jesus the man, more often than not we find ourselves following false spurs, headed down cul-de-sacs, or traveling in a circle to where we started.  We encounter three daunting obstacles:  1) Determining a plausible sequence of events during the Passion week; 2) Defining a window of possible years during which Jesus could have been active; 3) Tracing the ‘chain-of-command’ of the passing of the various story elements (pericopes) from putative eyewitnesses down to written, canonical gospels.

Jesus’ Insanely Overbooked Calendar for Passion Week 

Our story opens with Jesus, after a triumphant entry into Jerusalem as self-proclaimed King of the Jews, spending a quiet week in the temple preaching.  Then, fearing reprisal by the high priests (it’s their temple, after all), Jesus and Occupy Jerusalem flee to Bethany, two miles down the road, to celebrate Passover.  It’s Thursday.

After supper, Jesus and his followers decide to hide for the night in the Garden of Gethsemane, an olive oil factory just outside the walls of Jerusalem.  Sometime in the night, Jesus is arrested.  Everyone else escapes.  Jesus is dragged to the high priest’s house.  “All the chief priests, elders and teachers of the law come together”  — all seventy-one members of “the whole Sanhedrin” are roused from their beds and hastily assemble in Jerusalem.  They put Jesus on trial for blasphemy.  Witness after witness is called in, but they contradict each other.   Finally, Jesus is called to the stand and pleads guilty.  Blasphemy  is a capital crime, but for some reason the priests no longer can conduct executions. They hand him over to the soldiers who beat him and mock him.  All this takes place between sundown on Thursday and sunrise on Friday.

“Very early in the morning”, the Sanhedrin reaches a verdict/decision.  They ship Jesus off to Pontius Pilate, governor of the Roman Province of Syria-Judea.  Pilate just happens to be in Jerusalem, instead of Caesarea, the capital of Judea, 55 miles away, or in Damascus, the capital of Syria, 135 miles away.  Pilate personally interrogates Jesus.  He asks Jesus if he really claims to be King of the Jews.  Jesus says ‘you got that right’.  This creates a bit of a friction as the last King of the Jews was deposed around 25 years ago, and Pilate is in charge now. Pilate figures this Jesus is a harmless nut, and tries to dump him onto the plate of Herod, King of Galilee, who just happens to be in Jerusalem, instead of in his capital of Sepphoris, 70 miles away. Herod convenes the Sanhedrin (again), who condemn him (again) and ship him back to Pilate.  All this takes place Friday morning.

Pilate comes up with another way to wash his hands of this crackpot Jesus. He offers Jesus as one of two possible prisoners to be released as part of an ancient Passover tradition nobody has ever heard of before. The crowd chooses a rebel leader named Barabbas and demands that Pilate crucify Jesus.  Wary of the mob, he consents.  Jesus is flogged, then the soldiers beat and mock him (again.)  It’s still Friday morning.

It’s around noon when Jesus is led outside the city and nailed to a cross.  From two to three women named Mary are in attendance.  Around 6 p.m., Jesus dies.  The sabbath will begin at sunset, so they have to hurry if they are to bury Jesus because Jews can’t touch dead things on the sabbath.  A friend asks Pilate if he can have the body.  Pilate agrees, maybe because he has issues with the standard Roman practice of leaving the corpses of crucifixion victims hanging for weeks to rot and be picked over by vultures.  The friend and the Marys perform an abbreviated version of the elaborate Jewish embalming ritual, toss Jesus’ body in a tomb, then hunker down for the Sabbath.

“Very early” on Sunday, “just after sunrise“, the Marys buy/prepare spices to complete Friday’s hasty embalming job.  They find the tomb open and Jesus’ body missing.  A boy/angel inside tells them Jesus has resurrected and gone to Heaven.  The End.  Or, Jesus spends a little more time visiting his disciples, names Rocky his successor, then goes to Heaven. The End.

Passion on Speed

The highly accelerated account  reads like a rush-order had been placed, with everyone pitching in to meet the Sunday morning deadline.

The presence of all seventy-one members of the Sanhedrin was required to try capital cases.  That they assembled in the middle of the first night of Passover to issue a drumhead verdict on the latest of a long line of messianic troublemakers, defies credulity.  They could have easily tossed Jesus into a dungeon and dealt with him at their leisure.  But Jesus had a pressing engagement.

Crucifixion victims normally lingered in agony for days, which was the whole point.  Any soldier foolish enough to deliver a coup-de-grace in the first few hours would find himself hanging from a cross of his own.  Yet Pilate is merely surprised.

Luke’s badminton game, with Jesus as shuttlecock batted from Pilate to Herod and back, is preposterous.  The very presence of the provincial governor in what was a small, backwater garrison town, much less his personal involvement in the case, is highly questionable.  To say that ‘Pilate crucified Jesus’ implies exactly the same as ‘Hitler murdered Anne Frank.’

One could also quibble (and many do) over whether sunset Friday — daybreak Sunday equals three days. The question is moot.  While actual events resembling the Passion Week might have taken place over a more extended period, the entire account must be rejected as completely unhistorical, a compressed, fictional allegory of salvation through the sacrifical lamb.

(Up next — Delineating an Historical Window for the Passion)

(c) 2013 by Matt Cavanaugh.  All rights reserved.

Dawkins: ‘Religion is redundant and irrelevant’

On January 31st, Prof. Richard Dawkins and former Archbishop of Canterbury,  Rowan Williams, squared off in another Cambridge debate.  The topic: Does religion have any role in the 21st Century?

Dawkins described religion as “redundant and irrelevant,” and a “cop-out.”

“It is a betrayal of the intellect, a betrayal of all that’s best about what makes us human.  It’s a phony substitute for an explanation, which seems to answer the question until you examine it and realise that it does no such thing.”

Dawkins further labeled religion a “pernicious charlatan:”

“It peddles false explanations where real explanations could have been offered, false explanations that get in the way of the enterprise of discovering real explanations.”


As I was walking along the beach with my Imaginary Jesus, we left two sets of footprints in the sand.  After a while, there was only one set of footprints.  ‘Imaginary Jesus,’ I cried, ‘why have you abandoned me?’  Imaginary Jesus replied, ‘that’s where high tide came in, dummy.’