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Part 1 of 2: Myths surrounding Jesus' birth,
as interpreted by progressive Christians.

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This essay was donated by R.C. Symes. He analyzes the Bible as a historical document written by fallible authors.

This analysis differs from that of conservative Christians, who often start with the belief that the Bible is inerrant (free of errors), whose authors were inspired by God.

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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 the year and month 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.

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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.

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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 or animal 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 generally 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.

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This topic continues in the next essay

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