There are other differences in the nativity story which serve to lessen its credibility.
For example -- in an attempt to parallel the importance of Jesus' birth with that of Moses --
Matthew describes the massacre of the children of Bethlehem by King Herod as he attempts
to kill the infant messiah. This extraordinary event is not attested to by any secular
source from the period, nor even referred to by Luke. Indeed, Luke has the family return
peacefully to Nazareth after Jesus' birth in Bethlehem (Luke 2:22,39). If the massacre
did take place, it does not make sense that Herod's son later recalls nothing about Jesus
nor his importance (Matt. 14:1-2). Moreover, if Herod and all the people of Jerusalem knew
of the messiah's birth (Matt. 2:3), why is it that later in Jesus' career, the same author
claims that people had not heard of his miraculous origin and still questioned his
miracles and his teachings (Matt. 13:54-56)?
It is also impossible to reconcile Luke's account of the family of the newborn Jesus soon
returning to Nazareth in Galilee, with Matthew's assertion that the family of Jesus
immediately fled to Egypt for several years to escape Herod's wrath (Matt. 2:13-14). Luke
has Joseph and Mary present Jesus in the temple in Jerusalem when he was forty days old,
and then return straightaway to Nazareth (Luke 2:22,39). Also, Luke records that each
year the family went to Jerusalem for the Feast of Passover (Luke 2:41). This does not
tally with Matthew's claim that they were hiding out in Egypt. Matthew, with his
predilection that Old Testament prophecies be fulfilled in the life of Jesus, appears to
have invented the massacre of the innocents to fulfil a prophecy of Jeremiah (31:15), and
the consequential flight to Egypt to fulfil Hosea's prediction that:
"... out of Egypt
I have called my son" (Hosea 11:1).
In ancient times it was often claimed that important people had miraculous births. Plato
was said to have been born by the union of the god Apollo with his mother. Likewise,
Alexander the Great was said to have been conceived when a thunderbolt fell from heaven
and made his mother Olympias pregnant before her marriage to Philip of Macedon. In the
book of Genesis we read that sons of gods had intercourse with women on Earth to produce heroes
(Gen. 6:4). Even the recently discovered Dead Sea Scrolls tell of the miraculous birth of
Noah and how his father Lamech was suspicious that his wife had been made pregnant by an
angel. 1 2 Also the writings of Philo of Alexandria, who was born about 20 B.C., contain
evidence that some Jews of the period were speculating about miraculous births of
religious heroes. Philo relates how Hebrew notables such as Isaac and Samuel were
conceived by barren women by the intervention of the divine Spirit. 3,4,5
It is likely that as the Christian movement spread beyond Judea and the Gallilee into a
Jewish-Hellenistic (Greek) environment, and thence to the Gentile world, the birth story
of Jesus was influenced by this ancient tradition of magnifying the births of great men.
Such accounts were readily accepted in an age of superstition and belief in miracles.
Indeed, Justin Martyr, one of the early church fathers (c. 100-168 A.D.), countered
charges that Christianity copied earlier pagan virgin birth myths by instead claiming that
these births were the work of the devil who anticipated this future Christian mystery by
copying it in the past. He wrote:
"... when I hear that Perseus was begotten of a
virgin, I understand that the deceiving serpent counterfeited also this." 6
In addition, the author of Matthew uses a mistranslation of an Old Testament prophecy to
reinforce his belief in the virgin birth. He quotes from Isaiah:
"... therefore the
Lord himself shall give you a sign; behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and
shall call his name Immanuel" (Isaiah 7:14).
The original Hebrew text of Isaiah
uses the word "almah" which refers to a young woman of marriageable
age, not the word "bethulah" which means virgin. However, the author of
Matthew used the Septuagint -- the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures -- and not the original Hebrew version as his source material. Matthew inaccurately used the Greek word "parthenos" for "almah",
thereby strongly implying virginity. The actual text of Isaiah, however, makes no
reference to a virgin becoming pregnant other than by normal means. Some modern
translations of the Bible, which are based on the original Hebrew text, replace the word
"virgin" with the more accurate translation, "young woman".
Moreover, Isaiah's prophecy, when read in context, clearly refers only to the time
surrounding a political and military crisis which faced ancient Judah, and not 700 years
later during the time of Jesus. Nor does the appellation "Immanuel"
(God with us) imply that the child so named is divine, but rather in the context of the
Old Testament passage, it acknowledges God's presence in delivering Judah from its enemies
(Is. 7:14-17). Nor was Jesus ever called Immanuel. It is evident, therefore, that Matthew
takes liberties with the Isaiah text to justify his belief in Mary's virginal conception.
At first glance, it would seem that the virgin birth story of Jesus makes the descriptions
of his ancestral lineage to David in both Matthew and Luke, superfluous. This has led some
to argue that the virgin birth narratives were later additions and not part of the
original texts. Note especially in Luke, if the verses containing the birth story are
omitted, how the prologue in chapter 1, verses 1-4, flows more consistently into the
beginning of chapter 3). Even so, since descent was not traced through the female line in
the Jewish law and custom of that time, readers would know that Joseph, as a descendant of
David, secured Davidic succession for Jesus by formally acknowledging him as his son, even
though these gospels claim that he was not his biological father.
The two gospels reveal further discrepancies concerning the annunciation of Mary's
virginal conception. Matthew describes the annunciation of Mary's pregnancy only to
Joseph, by means of an angel in a dream, and only after she has conceived (Matt. 1:18-21);
whereas in Luke, the angel Gabriel explains it all to Mary, but not Joseph, before she has
conceived Jesus (Luke 1:26-34). Yet later on, both Mary and Joseph are strangely
astonished by the shepherds' tale about the heavenly host (Luke 2:18), and inexplicably
puzzled by Simeon's affirmation that Jesus is the Messiah (Luke 2:33).
Moreover, according to the same Lucan narrative, John the Baptist was a relative of Jesus
and even knew of Jesus' divine nature when John was in his mother's womb (Luke 1:41,44).
Yet in a later chapter of Luke, the adult John did not know who Jesus was (Luke 7:19-23).
It is also interesting to note that Luke uses Old Testament motifs about the births of
Isaac and Samson as models for the angelic annunciations to Elizabeth and Mary (Genesis
17:15-21; Judges 13:2-24). The description of Mary's divine vocation is in a format
similar to Gideon's mission which is also announced by an angel (Judges 6:11-16).
Likewise, the beautiful "Magnificat" or song of Mary (Luke 1:46-55) in
which Luke has Mary acknowledge her special role in history, is hardly original, but based
on the prayer of Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1-10), who also gave birth through divine
intervention. It is improbable that the illiterate peasant girl called Mary could have
been so poetic. These accounts suggest more of a reliance on Old Testament parallels than
There are other indications that the virgin birth story was a later addition, given that
it does not mesh well with the original accounts of the life of Jesus. For example, in
other gospel passages Mary shows little or no understanding of Jesus' special role.
According to Luke, the message of the angel Gabriel made it clear to Mary that Jesus was
ordained to be the messiah, the king and savior of Israel. This message was also
reinforced by the prophesies of Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:34,38). Surely, such predictions
and the miracle of her virginal conception would have indicated to Mary that Jesus was
someone special, if not divine. Yet Mary does not understand Jesus' reference to the
temple as his father's house (Luke 2:48-50).
Also, Jesus does not venerate nor accord special status to his mother despite her
supposedly divine role. When Mary is blessed by an admirer, he replies:
blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it" (Luke 11:28).
times Jesus shows impatience with her, as at the wedding feast at Cana (John 2:1-4), and
even disdain when he replies "who is my mother?" when told that she
wanted to speak with him (Matt. 12:46-50). Neither Mary's understanding of Jesus, nor his
attitude towards her make sense when juxtaposed against the assertion of the miraculous
It is also hard to believe that despite the supposedly extraordinary events surrounding
Jesus' birth -- from annunciations by herald angels and the heavenly host, to shepherds and
magi seeking out the messiah, to Herod's wrath -- that from the beginning, Jesus was not
recognized by the rest of his family as God's anointed one (Mk. 6:4). Instead, there are
times when they think him out of his mind (Mk. 3:21). Nor did any of his brothers become
disciples during his lifetime (John 7:5).
Moreover, if both Joseph and Mary knew that Jesus had no human father, why would they have
not told him so? And if they did, why did Jesus not claim from the beginning that his
miraculous birth was proof that he was divine? Why, if this man was hailed by so many at
his birth as the savior of Israel, did the people of his hometown place no credence in him
(Matt. 13:53-58); and why was his true nature such a startling discovery by his disciples
so late in his career (Matt. 16:15-17)?
The answer is that these seemingly illogical situations during his adult life in relation
to the nativity stories, are not illogical, if it is realized that the birth narratives
were a later development in an evolving Christology. The Christmas story is an attempt
through allegory, to explain Jesus' divinity from the moment of his conception, not just
The time of his resurrection as claimed by Paul, the first Christian chronicler
(Romans 1: 4), or
From the moment of his adult baptism as claimed by the earliest gospel
It is as difficult to harmonize the Bible’s accounts of the birth of Jesus with the
record of his adult ministry, as it is to explain the inconsistencies in these birth
accounts themselves. Instead of taking the nativity stories in Matthew and Luke literally,
and thereby doing a disservice to historicity and rational thought, we should perhaps accept them
as religious myths. They are beautiful legends embodying faith in the supernatural and the
efficacy of prophecy. They are attempts by these gospel authors to put into words their
conception of a momentous, divine event. And they do so in a manner consistent with what
credulous people in ancient times expected.
Although we shall never be sure about the exact circumstances of Jesus' birth, almost all theologians accept that about two thousand years ago, there was born in what is now called Palestine an extraordinary
Jew who was to profoundly change the course of human history.
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