A mythicist asks how two very different Christmas stories could both be true.
I am sure you have all seen the traditional Nativity Scene. Mary and Joseph shelter in a stable, flanked by an ox and an ass and with Baby Jesus lying between them in a manger. Three kings kneel on one side of the manger offering gold and jewel encrusted gifts to the infant, their camels in the background. On the other side humble shepherds bow their heads, offering fluffy lambs, and perhaps a little shepherd boy plays on a drum. The sky above is filled with floating angels, sometimes holding up a scroll that reads ‘Gloria in Excelsis Deo’ and above them is a dazzling star.
However, you will not find this scene in your Bible, not all in one place, at least, as it is actually a conflation of the two gospel birth narratives, augmented with some medieval accretions and images from Christmas carols. On further examination, not only is this scene fanciful, despite what it attempts to convey, the two birth narratives are not that easy to reconcile to each other, or to history.
The gospels of Mark and John start with Jesus as a grown man about to begin his ministry. Only the gospels of Matthew and Luke contain birth narratives. We have no other sources that tell of the birth of Jesus, and there is no reference to the events of Jesus’ birth in any of the epistles. To add to the mystery, the two narratives we do have are completely different to the point of being mutually exclusive. The best way to illustrate that fact is to give you a summary of each Nativity story.
The Nativity according to Matthew
Matthew’s gospel begins with a genealogy which starts with Abraham and ends with ‘Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called the Christ.’ [1:2–16]
The genealogy is followed by a vignette in which Joseph discovers that Mary, his betrothed, is pregnant. Joseph considers quietly divorcing her, but an angel appears to him in a dream saying, ‘[D]o not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit,’ thus fulfilling the prophecy, ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son.’ Joseph does as he is asked. He marries Mary and names her son Jesus, but he does not consummate their marriage until Mary gives birth. [1:18–25]
Chapter 2 begins:
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Wise Men from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’ [2:1–2]
When Herod hears this, he is disturbed, but he assists the Wise Men by consulting with his chief priests who tell him that, according to scripture, the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem. Herod sends the Wise Men off to Bethlehem, but asks them to come back and tell him where the Messiah is so he can go and worship him. [2:3–8]
As they head off, the Wise Men see the star which leads them to Bethlehem and stops over a house where they find Jesus with his mother. They worship him and offer him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. However, being warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they return to their country by another route. [2:9–12]
Joseph is also warned in a dream that Herod means to kill Jesus, so he takes his family and escapes to Egypt where they stay until Herod’s death, thus fulfilling the prophecy, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’ Meanwhile, Herod sends his men to kill all the male children in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were born since the star appeared to the Wise Men two years earlier, thus fulfilling the prophecy in which ‘Rachel [is] weeping for her children…because they are no more.’ [2:13–18]
After Herod’s death, Joseph is instructed in his dreams to return to Israel, but since Herod’s son Archelaus is now ruling in Judea, they should go to Galilee and live in a town called Nazareth, thus fulfilling the prophecy, ‘He will be called a Nazarene.’ [2:19–23]
The Nativity according to Luke
Luke’s birth narrative is much longer than Matthew’s and is prefaced by the story of the conception and birth of John the Baptist.
During the reign of Herod in Judea, the angel Gabriel visits a law-abiding priest called Zechariah. Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth is barren, so they are childless despite being ‘well on in years.’ Gabriel tells Zechariah that Elizabeth will bear him a son who will ‘make a ready people prepared for the Lord.’ However, when Zechariah expresses his doubts, the angel decrees that he will not speak until the child is born. Elizabeth on the other hand is grateful to the Lord for taking away her ‘disgrace among the people.’ [1:5–25]
Six months later, God sends Gabriel to Nazareth to a virgin called Mary who is betrothed to Joseph, a descendent of King David. Gabriel tells her that she will bear a child conceived by the Holy Spirit whom she will call Jesus. He will be called ‘the Son of the Most High’ and God will give him the ‘throne of his father David.’ [1:32–33]
To convince Mary of God’s power, Gabriel tells her that her cousin Elizabeth is pregnant. Mary accepts God’s will, saying ‘I am the Lord’s servant…May it be as you have said.’ [1:26–38]
Mary then rushes off to visit Elizabeth who greets her joyfully, while Mary sings God’s praises. Elizabeth is delivered of her child, but at his circumcision she insists he must be called John and not after his father. When Zechariah agrees to this, his ‘tongue [is] loosened’, he is filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesises that his son will be a prophet of the Lord. We are told that John will grow up and live in the desert until he makes his first public appearance. [1:39–80]
Chapter 2 begins:
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. [2:1–7]
In a nearby field, angels appear to a group of shepherds. ‘The glory of the Lord’ shines around them, and they are told that ‘a Saviour has been born’ in Bethlehem. They hurry off to find him, and when they do, they spread the word of his birth. [2:8–20]
On his eighth day, the baby is circumcised and named Jesus. When their purification has been completed ‘according to the Law of Moses’, Joseph and Mary take Jesus to Jerusalem to be presented at the Temple. There, two elderly mystics, Simeon and Anna, rejoice in the child and prophesise that he will do great things. Having done what is required by the Law, Mary and Joseph return to Nazareth where ‘the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.’ [2:21–40]
Luke also includes a genealogy, but places it after Jesus’ baptism. This genealogy begins with Joseph and goes back to Adam, who is called the son of God. [3:23–38]
Similarities and Differences
Even at first reading, the differences between the two birth narratives are clearly apparent, while the similarities are few.
In both versions:
- An angel announces Mary’s impregnation by the Holy Spirit of a child to be called Jesus.
- Mary is betrothed to a man called Joseph of the House of David.
- Jesus is identified as both King of the Jews and the Messiah.
- Jesus is born in Bethlehem and grows up in Nazareth.
- A genealogy is given for Jesus showing his descent from David through Joseph.
And even the similarities are different, in fact, almost opposing:
- In Matthew, the angel makes the announcement to Joseph, while in Luke, he announces it to Mary.
- In Matthew, Joseph marries Mary before Jesus is born, but in Luke, they are betrothed but not married when they arrive in Bethlehem.
- In Matthew Jesus is identified as King of the Jews by the Wise Men and as Messiah by Herod’s religious advisers. In Luke, he is identified as King and Messiah by angels.
- In Matthew, Mary and Joseph are living in Bethlehem and then move to Nazareth, while in Luke, they come from Nazareth, go to Bethlehem for the birth and then return to Nazareth.
- While both genealogies trace Joseph’s ancestry, they go in opposite directions and are different is several details. Furthermore, unlike Matthew’s, Luke’s genealogy is not part of the birth narrative.
And then we have the differences. There is, of course, the story of the conception and birth of John the Baptist, so elaborated in Luke, but which is missing altogether from Matthew. However, there are other, more concerning, differences which are, to all intents and purposes, irreconcilable.
- In Matthew, Mary and Joseph are living in a house in Bethlehem when Jesus is born. In Luke, he is born in a stable while his parents are visiting Bethlehem.
- In Matthew, Jesus is worshipped by Wise Men from the distant east. In Luke, he is worshipped by shepherds from nearby. Neither party is mentioned in the other account.
- In Matthew, Herod orders the slaughter of a cohort of babies. In Luke, Caesar orders an empire-wide census. Neither event is mentioned in the other gospel.
- In Matthew, Joseph and his family flee to Egypt after being visited by the Wise Men and then go to live in Nazareth on their return. In Luke, Joseph and Mary stay in Bethlehem for the time required by the law and then return directly to Nazareth.
I remember the nuns suggesting that while Jesus was born in a stable where he was visited by the shepherds on the night he was born, by the time the Wise Men arrived, Mary and Joseph had moved into a house. However, Mary and Joseph could not have both gone to Nazareth directly from Bethlehem as well as via Egypt. And while both the empire-wide census and the Slaughter of the Innocents could have occurred at different times, both were major events which had such significant consequences on Jesus’ early life that, if they had actually happened, the evangelists could not give a full and true account without including them both.
Given these contradictions, both stories cannot be true, though one of them might be. In order to establish if this is possible, we can see which one of them coincides with the historical record. Afterall, those two major events would have been so large, impactful and public, that it is inconceivable that, if they occurred, they would not have been included in the historical records. So, were they?
The Slaughter of the Innocents?
The figure of King Herod the Great looms large in Matthew’s birth narrative. When Herod is told of the birth of the Messiah who would be a rival claimant to his throne, he orders all the male infants in Bethlehem to be slaughtered, perhaps the most infamous deed in all the gospels.
Matthew could portray Herod as the villain of his gospel as he was indeed infamous. Having won the territory of Judea with the backing of Rome, Herod held the title of King as a vassal of the Roman Senate. Most of what we know about King Herod comes from the histories of Flavius Josephus, but even he is ambivalent about Herod’s legacy. In The Jewish Wars, Josephus portrays Herod favourably, while in Jewish Antiquities, he emphasises his tyrannical rule.
Herod undertook vast construction projects which included a significant expansion of the Second Temple and the building a new harbour, new cities and several forts – notably Masada – a program which brought prosperity to the country. Furthermore, when Israel was afflicted with a massive famine, Herod imported grain and waived taxes.
Nonetheless, the Jewish religious leadership did not trust Herod’s commitment to Judaism. His ancestors were Idumeans who were forcibly converted to Judaism only a hundred years earlier, and while he presented himself as a practising Jew, he supported other religions in his kingdom, while living a decadent lifestyle in his new palaces.
However, what most strongly qualified Herod to be the villain of the piece was his violent suppression of any opposition to his rule, and the execution of several members of his family, including a wife and three sons. Yet despite his pernicious reputation, there is no record that Herod ever sent his soldiers to Bethlehem to massacre all the baby boys.
Not that this has fazed Christian apologists (theologians who defend the validity of Christianity and historicity of Christ). While Christian tradition has put the number of babies killed as high as 144,000, modern apologists, with an eye on the historical accounts, now concede that, Bethlehem being a very small town, perhaps only a handful of babies were killed, barely enough to leave a blip on the public record. (This accords with one line of apologetics that argues that although the coming of Jesus was the most important event in human history, no one at the time even noticed it.)
An Empire-wide Census under Quirinius?
According to Luke’s birth narrative, Augustus Caesar was conducting an empire-wide census at the time of Jesus’ birth. Augustus Caesar did conduct censuses of all Roman citizens in the years 28 BCE, 8 BCE and 14 CE, but none of them, as can be seen, fell at around the time of Jesus’ purported birth. However, Luke may be referring to a census that did actually happen in 6 CE during the term of Quirinius as governor of Syria, though it was only a provincial-level census.
After the death of King Herod the Great, his kingdom was divided into three, each section being ruled by one of his sons. However, in 6 CE, Augustus Caesar deposed Herod Archelaus and converted his territory into the Roman province of Judaea which was annexed to Syria together with Samaria and Idumea. Galilee remained as an independent client state under Herod Antipas until he was banished by Caligula many years later.
The census was held to assess the resources needed to govern the newly acquired territories and calculate the taxes that could be extracted from them. The census of 6 CE was indeed a memorable one as it triggered a revolt by the Jewish Zealots who believed it went counter to Jewish law which banned censuses as well as the handling of the ‘heathen coins’ that would be used to pay the Roman taxes. However, none of this is referred to in Luke’s nativity.
As Luke tells us, each man was required to return to his own town to register, but this would not have affected Joseph and Mary as Luke recounts. First, the census only required that men returned to the town of their own birth, not that of an ancestor from a thousand years earlier, which would be a logistical nightmare, to say the least, and provide the Romans with no useful information. More importantly, as Joseph and Mary lived in Nazareth in Galilee, the census did not apply to them at all. Joseph would only have had to go to Bethlehem if he had property there, which would be unlikely for an ordinary working man like Joseph, and he certainly would not have needed to bring his heavily pregnant fiancée.
Nazareth to Bethlehem and Back Again
As we can see, neither story has any historical basis. All that these two very different, convoluted narratives have in common is that they are basically elaborate plot devices to ensure that Jesus is born in Bethlehem while being raised in Nazareth.
As we saw in an earlier post (INRI: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews – Part One), it was Matthew who introduced the idea that Jesus was raised in Nazareth, most likely to counter Mark’s characterisation of Jesus as a Nazarene, or a dissenter from Judaism, and depict him as a faithful Jew. However, this presented a problem as Matthew also needed Jesus to fulfill Jewish expectations that the Messiah be from the House of David and therefore born in Bethlehem where his distinguished ancestor was born.
The narrative Matthew constructed to get Jesus from Bethlehem to Nazareth is indeed dramatic, but it introduces a few historical anomalies. Nazareth did not yet exist in the first century CE. Furthermore, Joseph would be no safer in Galilee than he would have been in Judea, as it was ruled by another of Herod’s sons, Herod Antipas.
Once Matthew’s claim that Jesus was born in Bethlehem but raised in Nazareth became canon, Luke had to follow suit, but, for his own purposes, as we shall see, he chose to map an alternative route between Bethlehem and Nazareth, which, nonetheless, has just as little basis in fact.
When was Jesus Born?
As religious sceptics like to point out, one of the most glaring indicators that the two birth narratives cannot be reconciled is that they are set at least ten years apart. This disparity can be attributed to the fact that the gospels were written long after the events they purport to describe, by authors who lived outside Palestine, and, in Luke’s case, probably even outside the Jewish diaspora. Therefore, we cannot expect them to know the minutia of the history of Israel between 1 and 33 CE.
Historians tell us that King Herod the Great died in 4 BCE while Quirinius’ term as governor did not begin until 6 CE. However, there are those – admittedly mostly Christian apologists, but not entirely (Michael Lawrence being one) – who claim that the two birth years can be reconciled.
The dating of Herod’s death is based on the works of one ancient historian, Flavius Josephus. He does not actually give a definitive date, so it has been inferred from time markers culled from Josephus’ description of the surrounding events. However, these markers can also be interpreted to produce a date of 1 BCE for Herod’s death. Meanwhile, there is some archaeological and documentary evidence that Quirinius may have served an earlier term as governor of Syria between 4 BCE and 1 CE. Therefore, the two regimes could have overlapped.
Nonetheless, this possible reconciliation does not prove that the story is true, only that Matthew and Luke may have known their Jewish history better than we thought. However, what little credibility we can give to this construction has been undermined by modern Biblical translators in their very eagerness to present it as historical.
As Kenneth Humphreys points out, it seems that modern translators of the gospels have deliberately misconstrued Luke’s text to fit the narrative that not only did Quirinius serve two terms, but he also held two censuses. In the King James Version, Luke 2:2 reads:
And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius [Quirinius] was governor of Syria.
Which implies that the first such census took place under Quirinius, but that any further censuses would have taken place under, other, future governors.
Meanwhile, the New International Version reads:
This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.
Which implies that Quirinius undertook another census at a later time, i.e. there was another census before 6 CE.
This is one occasion when I can side with American Evangelicals who rely on the King James Version as the definitive translation, (although many of them believe the Bible was actually written in Jacobean English.)
So, as we can see, the birth narratives are virtually mutually exclusive, as well as being historically impossible. The only way to reconcile both stories to each other and to history, is to accept them both as total fictions written as allegories but for different didactic purposes. We’ll examine each narrative more closely in Part Two and Part Three of this essay.
© Pauline Montagna 2024
Bart Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible, HarperOne (2009)
Kenneth Humphreys The Birthing of a Godman on his website Jesus Never Existed
Michael Lawrence, The Seventy-Year Reverse Construction Thesis and Christianity Before Jesus, NOTORIUK (2020)