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Christmas

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

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This topic is continued from the previous essay

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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 writes, "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 was using the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures. It 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.

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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, but 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 eyewitness memories.

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, "no, blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it" (Luke 11:28). At other 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 virgin birth.

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)?

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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 from 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 (Mk. 1:9-11).

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 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, we do know that about two thousand years ago, there was born in what is now called Palestine an extraordinary Jew who was to change profoundly the course of human history.

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References used:

The following information sources give additional information on topics in the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Book of Noah," "Dark Mirrors of Heaven" web site, 2013-DEC-14, at: http://www.darkmirrors.org/
  2. John Winston, "The Book Of Enoch And UFOs parts 1-7," Confederation of Light list, at: http://galactic2.net/
  3. Danielle Sainte-Marie, "She Muses" Page 169. Online at: https://books.google.ca/ This book appears to be out of print.
  4. Art Koroma, "Holy Axion: Truth Exposed ... The Bible is a Myth," Page 130. AuthorHouseUK, (2014) Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store This appears to duplicate text in Reference 3. Online at: https://books.google.ca/
  5. "The Dead Sea Scrolls Book of Lamach gives an astonishing description on Noah as a Half breed alien, read more?," Yahoo! Answers, 2009, at: https://answers.yahoo.com/
  6. John M. Robertson, "Pagan Christs," Appendix C, "Replies to Criticism" (1911). Online at http://www.sacred-texts.com/
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