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The Christmas Story:

An overview of views by conservative Christians,
CalamitiesOfNature.com and liberal Christians.

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The Christmas Story, as interpreted by conservative Christians:

Essentially all conservative theologians believe in the inspiration of the Bible authors and the inerrancy of the Bible itself. This leads them to regard the birth stories in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke to be absolutely accurate in every detail. The Gospels of Mark and John, and the various epistles by Paul and other authors do not refer to Jesus' birth as being unusual in any way. But it is not necessary that most writers of the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) mention the virgin birth and other special events at Jesus birth. The fact that Matthew and Luke did so is sufficient proof. One need only read the early chapters of these two gospels to obtain an accurate account of the events surrounding Jesus' birth. We won't provide a further analysis here, because the story in Matthew 1:1 to 2:12 and Luke 1:5 to 2:20 are easily accessible and easy to understand.  More details.

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"What Christmas is all about" as interpreted by CalamitiesOfNature.com:

Linus and Charlie Brown comic strip 1

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The Christmas Story, as interpreted by liberal Christians

Among many liberal theologians, many (if not most) components of the stories should be regarded as myth. There are many elements in the Gospels relating to Jesus' birth which they believe did not happen. Common beliefs among religious liberals are:

bullet Gospel of Q: This gospel was written circa 50 CE, probably before any of the books that became the Christian Scirptures (New Testament). Although it has been lost, theologians have been able to reconstruct its text. It does not mention Jesus' birth as being in any way special. One can assume that the Christians at the time had not yet developed a birth myth.

bullet Writings of Paul: These were probably written a few years after the Gospel of Q, and pre-dated the remaining gospels by up to 5 decades. He makes reference to Jesus' birth in two passages. In both cases, the virgin birth and the miracles associated with the birth were not mentioned. Jesus was presented as having a normal birth:

bullet Galatians 4:4: "But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law."

bullet Romans 1:3: "...Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh."

bullet Mark: This gospel was written by an unknown author circa 70 CE. He apparently knew nothing about miraculous events associated with Jesus' birth, and thus did not record any in his writings. If he were aware of them, he certainly would have mentioned them.

bullet Matthew: This was written by another unknown author, probably a Jew who lived remote from Palestine. He wrote the Gospel circa 80 CE, presumably after some of the early Christian movements had invented miraculous traditions associated with Jesus' birth. Most of the elements associated with this myth appear to have never happened:

bullet Matthew 1:1: The author traces Jesus' genealogy from Abraham. He lists Jacob as being Jesus' grandfather. This conflicts with Luke, who lists Eli. Jesus' line is traced through Solomon, son of David. Luke traces the Messianic line through Nathan, son of David. The author lists 28 generations between David and Jesus; Luke says it was 41.

bullet Matthew 1:18: The virgin conception of Jesus by Mary is an obvious myth. The Gospel of Q does not mention it. St. Paul not only does not mention it, but implies that Jesus' birth was normal. The author of the Gospel probably invented the virgin birth so that the story of Jesus' could compete with the magical conception of many heroes and gods in surrounding Pagan religions: e.g. Horus (circa 1550 BCE), Zoroaster (1000 - 1500 BCE?), Krishna (circa 1200 BCE), Indra (circa 750 BCE), Buddha (circa 600 BCE), Mithra (circa 500 BCE), Quirrnus (circa 550 BCE), Attis (circa 200 BCE), Adonis (born in Bethlehem many centuries before Jesus).

bullet Matthew 1:22: The author cites a passage in an ancient Greek translation of Isaiah. The translation from the original Hebrew was an error: it substituted "virgin" for "young woman." Matthew and Luke probably felt compelled to go along with the expectation that Jesus' mother was a virgin.

bullet Matthew 2:1: The story of the Magi coming to Palestine to give homage to the King of the Jews appears to have been freely adapted from the story of Mithra's birth. He was mythical Persian savior, also allegedly born of a virgin in a cave on DEC-25, who was worshiped many centuries before Jesus' birth.

bullet Matthew 2:7: Herod inquired as to the exact time that the star appeared. According to Matthew 2:16, this was to learn exactly when Jesus was born, so that he could have all of the male children close to that age in the Bethlehem area murdered. Since he later ordered all of the children under 2 years of age slaughtered, Jesus must have been living with his parents in Bethlehem for many months by the time that the Magi arrived - perhaps at least a year. If Jesus had been just born, then Herod would have ordered only newborn infants killed. This conflicts with Luke 2:39 which states that when Mary was ritually purified 40 days after the birth, that the family returned to Nazareth immediately afterwards. It also conflicts with the archeologial record which conclusively shows that Bethlehem was deserted during the 1st century BCE and 1st century CE.

bullet Matthew 2:9: The story element which has the Magi following a star is obvious mythical. Any star or super-nova or comet or alignment of planets would obviously be tens or hundreds of millions of miles away from earth. In order to serve as a marker for the house in Bethlehem where Jesus was, it would have to be only a few hundred feet above the town.

bullet Matthew 2:11: The author presents Joseph and Mary as being residents of Bethlehem, living in a house. This conflicts with Luke's account which describes Jesus' parents as residents of Nazareth and only temporary visitors to Bethlehem.

bullet Matthew 2:13: The author describes the family fleeing to Egypt. No record of this is seen in Luke. It was apparently added to the gospel in order to match the prophecy in Hosea 11:1 that the Messiah must come out of Egypt.

bullet Matthew 2:16: Herod's extermination order is certainly a myth, as described above.

bullet Matthew 2:23: Joseph and Mary bypassed Judea and settled in Nazareth. The prophecy that "He will be called a Nazarene" does not exist in the Hebrew Scriptures.

bullet Luke: This gospel was written by an unknown author circa 90 CE. He was probably the only writer in the Christian Scriptures who was not born a Jew. Originally, it was believed that the author of Luke and Acts was a physician. But recent analysis of the text indicates that his medical knowledge was typical of any educated person of his era. Most of the Christmas story that we see portrayed in plays and pageants is most often taken from this gospel. Matthew's mention of the Magi is then tacked onto the end. Some suspicious elements from Luke's birth story are:

bullet Luke 3:38: As noted above, Luke's genealogy cannot be reconciled with Matthew's.

bullet Luke 1:26: The description of the virgin conception is, as described above, an attempt to make a mistranslated prophecy from the Hebrew Scriptures come true. Alternatively the author might have incorporated a birth tradition invented by his religious group in order to make Jesus appear to be a great hero or god, like those of the surrounding religions in the Mediterranean.

bullet Luke 2:1: The census never happened.

bullet Luke 2:2: Even if a census did occur at the time of Jesus' birth, the people would not have been required to return to their ancestral home. That would be a totally impractical arrangement. If it happened this way, all work throughout the Roman Empire would stop. Some people would have had to travel for months to return to their ancestral home. The transportation infrastructure could not possibly have handled the flood of travelers.

bullet Luke 2:5: Joseph would not have taken Mary with him, even if he had to go to Bethlehem to register. Only men were enumerated or taxed, so there was no necessity for her to accompany Joseph. Mary's pregnancy was in its 9th month at the time. She would not have been in a condition to travel.

bullet Luke 2:8: The author seems to have invented the shepherds; the latter do not appear in Matthew.

bullet Luke 2:39: The author describes Joseph and Mary as being residents of Nazareth. This is probably true, but conflicts with Matthew's story which has them living in Bethlehem, and only deciding to go to Nazareth because it would be too dangerous to remain in Judea.

bullet Luke 2:39: Luke describes them as going directly from Bethlehem to Nazareth. This conflicts with Matthew's account which has them fleeing to Egypt and only returning after Herod died. At least one of these accounts must be wrong.

bullet John: This gospel was written by one or more authors circa 100 CE. The writers would have certainly been aware of the virgin birth stories of Matthew and Luke. But they seem to have rejected the stories as myths, and not worthy of being incorporated into their gospel.

After removing all of the fantasy and myth from the birth stories, we are left with the following probable facts: "Jeshua was born to Mary and Joseph, in Nazareth in the fall circa 4 BCE." But it would be a mistake to reject all of the other events associated with the Christmas season, just because they never happened. We can still enjoy the stories as beautiful myths and legends, which have inspired Christians for centuries.

Another liberal analysis.

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References:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Tony Piro, "What Christmas is all about," Calamities of Nature, 2010-DEC-22, atL http://www.calamitiesofnature.com/  Used by permission. The positive comments of readers are well worth reading. So are the rest of his comic strips.
  2. A.N. Wilson, "Jesus", Sinclair-Stevenson, London, UK (1992), Pages 73-83. You can read reviews of this book or order it safely from Amazon.com
  3. J.S. Spong, "Resurrection: Myth or Reality?", Harper Collins, San Francisco CA (1994), Page 8-9. Review/order the book
  4. J.S. Spong, "Born of a Woman: A Bishop Rethinks the Birth of Jesus", Harper San Francisco, CA, (1992), P. 74-79. Review/order the book
  5. Kenneth E. Nahigian, "A Virgin-Birth Prophecy?" at: http://www.mantis.co.uk/sceptical/2virgi93.html
  6. B.G. Walker, "The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets," Harper & Row, (1983) Review/order the book
  7. Hilke Dokter, "The Messiah's True birth date" at: http://www.members.shaw.ca/hdokters
  8. A countdown of the months, days, hours, minutes and seconds remaining until Christmas is at: http://christmas.com/html/countdown.html
  9. Kenneth E. Nahigian, "A Virgin-Birth Prophecy?" at: http://www.mantis.co.uk/sceptical/2virgi93.html
  10. Robin L. Fox, "The Unauthorized Version: Truth and fiction in the Bible," Knopf, New York, NY (1992) Review/order the book
  11. W. Keller, "The Bible as History," Morrow, New York NY (1981) Review/order the book
  12. Anon, "Does the Bible Indicated that Christ was Born on December 25?," The World Ahead, 1997- OCT/NOV
  13. M. J. Borg, Ed., "Jesus at 2000," Westview Press, (1997), Page 2. Review/order the book

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Article, less cartoon, opyright © 1997 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Last updated 2011-NOV-29
Author: B.A. Robinson
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