By Vexen Crabtree 2014
The stories about Jesus's birth in the Bible are contained in the Books of Matthew and Luke. These two accounts contradict each other in many places. Many elements are certainly untrue. There are no Roman records attesting to the birth (or life) of Jesus1. Events such as King Herod's killing of every male child simply did not occur2,3 - none of Herod's enemies mention it, for example, despite their routine documenting of his many misdeeds of a much lesser nature. Also unhistorical is the curious Roman census that required (for what reason?) everyone to go to cities associated with their ancestors4. But similar stories are found about previous pagan god-man saviours. Likewise with the Virgin Birth, which has now been shown to simply be a mistranslation deriving from the Septuagint. And what of the 3 wise men who follow the bright star to Jesus's birthplace, bearing gifts? Other star gazers of the time, who meticulously recorded many stellar events, did not notice it2,5. It is a Zoroastrian story, even down to the details of the 3 gifts, copied by Christians and made to be about Jesus. The stories of Jesus's birth are rewrites, modernisations, of previous stories from older pagan myths. These facts have led some scholars to cast doubt on Jesus's entire existence.
It seems highly likely that Luke, when writing of the events that surrounded Jesus' birth, was thinking of the famous Roman myth (that was around well before the Jesus' myth) of Romulus and Remus - who also were born by a virgin, and also had a king ordering the slaughter of all the other children in the same area. If the saviour was Jesus, surely he was also born of a virgin, etc? Myth is rewritten as history.
Many authors have already written about the Roman Census, Bethlehem and other aspects of the "Christmas Story" of Jesus' birth. Some elements derive completely from folklore and aren't even mentioned in the bible, other important bits are only mentioned by one gospel writer but not by others, and all of them include historical errors. Prof. Richard Dawkins provides one the best summaries as to why the authors of the gospels would want to believe there was a reason for Jesus to be born in Bethlehem:
“When the gospels were written, many years after Jesus' death, nobody knew where he was born. But an Old Testament prophecy (Micah 5:2) had led Jews to expect that the long-awaited Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. In the light of this prophecy, John's gospel specifically remarks that his followers were surprised that he was not born in Bethlehem: 'Others say, This is the Christ. But some said, Shall Christ come out of Galilee? Hath not the scripture said, That Christ shall cometh of the seed of David, and out of the town of Bethlehem, where David was?'
Matthew and Luke handle the problem differently, by deciding that Jesus must have been born in Bethlehem after all. But they get him there by different routes. Matthew has Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem all along, moving to Nazareth only long after the birth of Jesus [...]. Luke, by contrast, acknowledges that Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth before Jesus was born. So how to get them to Bethlehem at the crucial moment, in order to fulfil the prophecy? Luke says that, in the time when Cyrenius (Quirinius) was governor of Syria, Caesar Augustus decreed a census for taxation purposes, and everybody had to go 'to his own city'. [...]
Except that it is historical nonsense, as A.N. Wilson in Jesus and Robin Lane Fox in The Unauthorized Version (among others) have pointed out. David, if he existed, lived nearly a thousand years before Mary and Joseph. Why on earth would the Romans have required Joseph to go to the city where a remote ancestor had lived a millennium earlier? [...] Moreover, Luke screws up his dating by tactlessly mentioning events that historians are capable of independently checking. There was indeed a census under Governor Quirinius - a local census, not one decreed by Caesar Augustus for the Empire as a whole - but it happened too late: in AD 6, long after Herod's death.”
The historical evidence is examined further by Prof. Victor Stenger, who comes to the same conclusion as previous historians:
“History does not support Luke's Christmas story about a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the Roman world was required to go to their place of origin to be "taxed" (King James Version) or "enrolled" (Revised Standard Version). Surely such a vast undertaking would have been recorded. History does record a census affecting only Judea and not Galilee, but this took place in 6-7 CE, which conflicts with the fact that Jesus was supposedly born in the days of Herod, who died in 4 BCE.”
"God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist"
Prof. Victor J. Stenger (2007)5
A. N. Wilson's analysis of the New Testament and other historical material leads him to conclude that the birth in Bethlehem is more mythology than truth, contrasting the 'real' Jesus of Nazareth to the mythology of him as recorded in folklore and in the Bible:
“The story of the baby being born in a stable at Bethlehem because there was no room for him at the inn is one of the most powerful myths ever given to the human race. A myth, however, is what it is. Even if we insist on taking every word of the Bible as literally true, we shall still not be able to find there the myth of Jesus being born in a stable. None of the Gospels state that he was born in a stable, and nearly all the details of the nativity scenes which have inspired great artists, and delighted generations of churchgoers on Christmas Eve, stem neither from history nor from Scripture, but from folk-lore. [...] Which is the more powerful figure of our imaginations - the 'real', historical Jesus of Nazareth, or the divine being, who in his great humility came down to be born as a poverty-stricken outcast?”
Within his nativity story Luke also tells us that Caesar, the famous Roman Emperor, called for a census and Joseph and Mary had to return to their town of origin, Bethlehem, until the census was complete. The Roman Empire is well documented - especially their taxation laws and systems which were based on property and wealth. At no point did the Romans require people to return to their place of birth for a census. Luke was clearly wrong about the census, the reasons for Joseph and Mary being in Bethlehem, and wrong on his opinion that Jesus' birth was of a virgin. Matthew, the only other gospel to include text on Jesus's birth, does not include any of these aspects of Jesus' birth, and merely states that he was born in Bethlehem while Herod was king. All of Luke's insertions about singing angels, barns, mangers and virgin birth are not mentioned in Matthew's version of the story.
Despite the long-winded and desperate attempts to get Jesus from Nazareth into Bethlehem, it may be that they did not read Micah 5:2 correctly in the first place, and all their efforts have been misguided.
“Since the early Christians believed that Jesus was the Messiah, they automatically believed that he was born in Bethlehem. But why did the Christians believe that he lived in Nazareth? The answer is quite simple. The early Greek speaking Christians did not know what the word "Nazarene" meant. The earliest Greek form of this word is "Nazoraios," which is derived from "Natzoriya," the Aramaic equivalent of the Hebrew "Notzri." (Recall that "Yeishu ha-Notzri" is the original Hebrew for "Jesus the Nazarene.") The early Christians conjectured that "Nazarene" meant a person from Nazareth and so it was assumed that Jesus lived in Nazareth. Even today, Christians blithely confuse the Hebrew words "Notzri" (_Nazarene_, _Christian_), "Natzrati" _Nazarethite_) and "nazir" (_nazarite_), all of which have completely different meanings.”
How can it be that even early Christians did not know where Jesus' parents lived? Some conclude that it is because the entire story is merely a re-write of earlier, pagan god-man myths and that a historical Jesus never existed.
The Prophecy of the Virgin Birth appears in Matthew 1:22-23. Matthew wrote this seventy years after Jesus Christ was born (35-40 years after he died). Up until that point no other text mentions Jesus' virgin birth. He quotes Isaiah 7:14 which was written 700 years before Jesus was born - thus claiming it was a sign, a prediction of the messiah's virgin birth.
But there is a serious problem. Matthew states that, due to prophecy, it is true that Jesus was a male line descendant of King David, and presents a genealogy at the beginning of his gospel tracing Jesus' lineage through Joseph. Matthew, apparently, like Luke and Paul and the rest of the early Christians, did not believe in a virgin birth. There are two theories that explain how this contradiction occurred. (1) A Septuagint mistranslation of the word "virgin" instead of "young woman" caused the discrepancy. The original prophecy is not that someone called Immanuel will be born of a virgin, but merely that someone called Immanuel will be born. In the original context of the story, this makes a lot of sense. (2) Matthew, writing for a Roman gentile audience in Greek, included popular myths surrounding sons of gods, who in Roman mythology were frequently said to be born of virgins. In either case, it is clear that Matthew's prophecy of a virgin birth was a mistake, and modern Bible's actually include a footnote in Matthew pointing out that the virgin birth is a Septuagint mistranslation.”
“What year was Jesus born? There is a cultural assumption that Jesus was born in 1CE because it has been largely forgotten that our dating system was invented hundreds of years later. The Gospel of Luke says that Jesus was born when Quirinius was governor, which happened during or shortly after 6CE. But the Gospel of Matthew contradicts this and says Jesus was born whilst Herod the Great reigned over Judea, and Herod died in 5 or 4 BCE. There are strong indications that neither author really knew when Jesus was born, and, no-one could find Jesus' family in order to ask them either. Early Christians debated this frequently and theologians came to the conclusion that as scripture is itself unclear, it was not proper to try to work it out8. Historians as Breuilly, O'Brien & Palmer say "Jesus was probably born in 4 BCE, not 1 CE"9. In reality, this is one of things that we know we don't know.
On what date was Jesus born? Luke 2:8 states that shepherds were out watching their flocks by night. Due to the temperature, no flocks were kept out over winter. But it was done in spring, therefore early Christians celebrated Jesus' birth in the spring10. The modern belief that Jesus was born on the 25th is due to Emperor Constantine combining pagan winter solstice celebrations (especially those of Mithras) with Christianity, in order to try to harmonize the two belief systems11,10 although many Christians condemned the pagan influence (including many of the most eminent theologians and Church Fathers)10, it was gradually accepted by most churches (although some today still reject the 25th).”
The gospel of Matthew doesn't contain the prophecy of the virgin birth as discussed above, and indeed, this accords with much of the rest of early Christian writing.
The Jewish Scriptures prophesize that the Messiah will be born of the male line of King David. Multiple New Testament authors go out of their way to point out that this was indeed the case.
The Genealogies: The Jewish authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke both list genealogies in order to prove that Jesus was descended from David via Joseph (Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38). Matthew's is introduced with the words 'Jesus Christ, a descendant of David, a descendant of Abraham'. This only makes sense if Joseph really is the father of Jesus.
Jesus as the Son of Joseph: In the Gospel of Luke a Jew called Simeon praises the child of Joseph and Mary; Luke 2:33 and Luke 2:48 both call Jesus the ordinary, flesh-and-blood son of Joseph and Mary (or rather, they did so in the original versions, but later edited versions did not say so!).
Jesus was 'of the seed of David' as prophesized: Acts 2:30 says "God hath sworn with an oath to [David] that of the fruit of his loins, according to the flesh, he would raise up Christ to sit on his throne". Romans 1:3 says with much clarity: "Jesus Christ our Lord which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh". Jesus is called the son and the seed of David in Matthew 1:1, Matthew 9:27, Luke 1:32, John 7:41-3, Acts 13:23, 2 Timothy 2:8, Revelations 5:5 and Revelations 22:16.
To say that Jesus was born of a virgin as Christians did in later centuries is to say that some significant Old Testament prophecies were wrong, and that Jesus's father was God, and therefore that Jesus had no male bloodline at all.
Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38 both list long family genealogies in order to prove that Jesus was descended from David via Joseph, however, the authors appear to have actually made the details up. Luke's genealogy is completely different to Matthew's, giving 43 generations of sons from David to Joseph (in contrast to Matthew's 28) and using an entirely different set of names. It was tradition only to list family members that are thought important... but surely they would have at least picked one in common? The lists are a very tedious read and are dubious historically, which makes me wonder if 1 Timothy 1:4 was a warning against them! 1 Timothy 1:4 says: "nor to give heed to fables and endless genealogies, that cause questions rather than the building up of God that is in faith" (Young's Literal Translation).
In the gospels of the Christian New Testament, one of Matthew's plotlines is the three visitors from the East who visit the newborn Jesus (Matthew 1:1-23). They say that a star came up in the East and that they followed it to Jesus' birthplace. The story is not contained in any of the other gospels. There were a number of early astronomers of that era who meticulously recorded star movements, especially any unusual ones. Although they record many other events, none of them record the one described by Matthew5,2; and the other elements in the story were not noticed by anyone else either - despite the fact that a gift of gold would have been a momentous community-changing event. It is clear that the events described did not actually happen - so where does the story come from?
The language used in the Bible gives us information about the source of the story. The Three Wise Men are "magi" and are called 'Star Readers' in Matthew 2:1, both indicating a Zoroastrian origin. The magi are given Zoroastrian titles and bear the same gifts as stated in Zoroastrian myths; Mithraism is a related religion that is an alternate version of Christianity from the 2nd century BCE to the 4th century CE. The Magi, in particular, were the followers of Mithras (a solar god-man who dies and is reborn, with a birthdate of the 25th of December) - "Mithras' birth was even said to have been witnessed by three shepherds"12. The particular gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh were also taken from pagan tradition:
Like other stories surrounding Jesus's birth, the stories are actually copies of older stories, merely with Jesus's name being used instead of the original.
“The Magi bring Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The Pagan sage Empedocles speaks of worshipping God with 'offerings of unmixed myrrh and frankincense, casting down also on the ground libations of golden honey'. Myrrh was used as the sacred incense during the festival of Adonis. In some myths he was said to have been born from a myrrh tree. In others his mother is named Myrrh.”
“Surely there would have been a record of Herod's slaughter of innocent children - had that really happened. The Jewish scholars Philo (c.50) and Josephus (c. 93) described Herod as murderous and killing some family members to keep them from challenging his throne. Yet neither mentions the slaughter of the innocents.”
"God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist" by Prof. Victor J. Stenger (2007)5
Matthew tells us of King Herod's anger at the three wise men and then of the killing of every child. Surely, the slaughter of every male child (Matthew 2:16-17) in Bethlehem, Ramah, and the surrounding area would have got mentioned in many places, such as Josephus' detailed accounts of the times? In fact it would likely cause the downfall of such an immoral, monstrous leader. The historical evidence makes it certain that this did not occur2 and it doesn't make internal sense: it doesn't take account for figures such as John the Baptist, who was just six months younger than Jesus and who lived in the same area, but survived3. No-one except Matthew mentions the incident in the Bible even though the stories centre on a generation of people who would have been severely traumatized by it.
So where did this story come from? There are historical and theological precedents for it. It has been told many times before in religious history13. The other 'great' leader in the Bible to issue such orders was Moses, Numbers 31:17-18, Joshua 6:21-24, in both cases killing all the women/young/old in a city in two separate occasions, on God's orders. Other ancient Roman myths had an event where all the male children were killed - for example, the Romulus and Remus contains such as event (and they were also born of a virgin).
“This writer tells us, that Jesus escaped this slaughter because Joseph and Mary were warned by an angel to flee with him unto Egypt; but he forgot to make any provision for John, who was then under two years of age. John, however, who stayed behind, fared as well as Jesus, who fled; and, therefore, the story circumstantially belies itself.”
“Christmas is a multicultural, multi-religious festival. It combines sun worship, polytheism, pagan nature religions who have venerated the natural cycle for many thousands of years, Christianity and other myths and traditions. When Christians complain it is too pagan, or when lay folk complain it is too religious, or when both groups complain it is too commercial, then they are all in need of realizing that Christmas is a commercial fusion of diverse nature-based festivals. The date of the 25th accords with Sun Worship thousands of years old, the Christmas tree and some of the decorations are pagan, even the Nativity stories are originally pagan, Mithraistic, Roman and Christian.
The main outstanding issue in the West is the Christian assertion that Christmas has something to do with the Christian figure of Christ or his birthday. These elements should be disclaimed. Firstly, the paganism inherent in Christmas, such as decorating trees, is warned against in the Bible (Jeremiah 10:2-4). Second, there are no Christian birthday celebrations in the Bible. Thirdly, early Christians celebrated Christ's birthday in April or May - it was only changed to match with 25th of December, a major pagan holiday, by Emperor Constantine, in order to harmonize Christianity with paganism. It is certain that Christians should not attempt to celebrate Jesus' birthday, and they certainly shouldn't do so at Christmas.
In addition to its rich history, Christmas has now become largely a secular holiday, a social festival based on the family, and a commercial enterprise. Critics largely concentrate of the portions of Christmas they don't like, and claim that those portions ruin the rest of it. As long as no-one tries to "capture the flag" and exclude others, then there need be no modern conflict over the nature of Christmas. The non-religious can celebrate the commercial and social event, Christians can pretend Christmas has something to do with Christ, pagans can celebrate nature, and all can be happy. There are even alternative and well-known names for Christmas, such as Yuletide, which can be used according to taste. Whether or not one choses to celebrate Christmas is mostly a matter of mood!”
Current edition: 2014 Mar 07
Last Modified: 2019 Jun 25
Originally published 2000 Oct 22
Parent page: Christianity
All #tags used on this page - click for more:
The Bible (NIV). The NIV is the best translation for accuracy whilst maintaining readability. Multiple authors, a compendium of multiple previously published books. I prefer to take quotes from the NIV but where I quote the Bible en masse I must quote from the KJV because it is not copyrighted, whilst the NIV is. Book Review.
Breuilly, O'Brien & Palmer
(1997) Religions of the World. Subtitled: "The Illustrated Guide to Origins, Beliefs, Traditions, & Festivals". Published by Lionheart Books. By Elizabeth Breuilly, Joanne O'Brien & Martin Palmer. Published for Transedition Limited and Fernleigh Books. A hardback book.
(1996) The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. 2001 re-issue. Published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. A paperback book.
(1807) The Age of Reason. Published by Musiaicum Books. Part 1 published 1794, part 2 in 1795 and part 3 in 1807. An e-book.
Stenger, Prof. Victor J.
(2007) God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist. Published by Prometheus Books, NY, USA. Stenger is a Nobel-prize winning physicist, and a skeptical philosopher whose research is strictly rational and evidence-based.