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This essay was contributed by R.C. Symes. It analyzes the Bible as a historical
document written by fallible authors. The analysis differs from that
of conservative Christians, who start with the belief that the Bible is inerrant
(free of errors), and inspired by God.
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 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
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 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. 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 Jesusí 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
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
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.
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 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 portend the births of great men. In first century
Palestine 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
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.
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 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. 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.
It is likely that as the Christian movement spread beyond Palestine and 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."
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.
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 7:9).
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, "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
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
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
It is as difficult to harmonize the Bibles 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 rural Palestine an extraordinary
Jew who was to change profoundly the course of human history.