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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.”