Forget for a moment that the European midwinter festival which originally (and still does) celebrated the mid-winter solstice when the sun at midday is at its lowest and the day is the shortest; when the sun begins to return and holds out the promise of summer and the promise of the green shoots of spring and fresh food rather than the frugality of winter and the fear that the stores or food and fuel were not enough to see us through. A festival celebrating the great continuing natural cycle of birth, growth, maturity and death.
Forget all that and pretend, as Christians do, that the festival they plagiarised and claim for themselves is really about the birth of Jesus and celebrates a real birthday on 25th December. Which of the two different versions in the 'inerrant Bible' is the one being celebrated?
Two different versions? How can this be?
Surely everyone knows the traditional Christian Nativity. We see our children acting it out in practically every school in the country and it is depicted on myriads of Christmas cards, sheets of wrapping paper, adverts, displays in churches and shopping centres throughout the land.
The problem is, neither of the Bible accounts contain all those elements.
The Official StoryMary and Jesus have to travel to Bethlehem for a census but find no room in the inn, so they're put up in a stable. There Mary gives birth to Jesus and the family are visited by wise men from the east led by a star and bearing gold, frankincense and myrrh, and some shepherds who have been told about it by an angel. Then they have to travel to Egypt to escape being killed by evil King Herod who has ordered every child below the age of two to be killed. They stay in Egypt until Herod dies then they go home to Nazareth, where Jesus grows up.
Let's do what Bart D. Ehrman recommends when reading the Bible. Instead of reading the 'gospels' of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and the writings of Paul and others in sequence as narratives, read them in parallel so you get a horizontal view of the 'history', rather than separate vertical ones.
Fortunately, only two of the 'Gospels' mention the origins of Jesus. Neither the author of Mark nor that of John saw fit to mention the virgin birth or Bethlehem and open with Jesus as an adult. Paul also ignores Jesus's birth as do the other New Testament writers, which is interesting in itself, but from our point of view it means we only have two accounts to compare.
First I'll go through the narratives then line up the summaries:
|Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. |
When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.
Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.
|This all happens when Herod was King of Judea which Roman records show must have been before 4 BCE, when Herod is known to have died.|
Who these 'wise men' are we are never told. The hint is that they were astrologers.
Note: they were not led to Herod by the star only saying that they had seen 'his' star in the east. It's not until they leave Herod that the star guides them to Bethlehem and stands over the house where Joseph and Mary seem to live with the child Jesus (as though a star can stand over a particular house!)
The 'prophesy' which 'Matthew' alludes to is "But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting." (Micah 5:2) which, in the context in which it appears in Micah, takes a stretch to make it fit but Matthew is keen make sure everyone knows that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah and so tries to make his story look like the fulfilment of ancient Jewish prophesies.
|When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. |
When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh.
And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.
|Here then is where the 'wise men' find Jesus as a 'young child' (not a baby!) and he is in a house. Nowhere does 'Matthew' say this happened soon after the birth of Jesus! There is nothing to suggest this is a 'nativity' story. We get another clue about this in a moment.|
Strangely, the 'wise men' are warned not to return to Herod, though they appear not to have told Joseph and Mary the reason for this.
|And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him. |
When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt: And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son.
|So Matthew gets Jesus into Egypt so another prophesy can be fulfiled. This time he delves into Hosea to find the one he wants: "When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt." (Hosea 11:1). An even bigger stretch than the Micah 'prophesy'. Talk about taking random Bible quotes out of context!|
But the device Matthew uses to get Jesus into Egypt is even more far-fetched...
|Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men. Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying, In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not. |
But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeareth in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, Saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel: for they are dead which sought the young child's life.
|So, Herod orders the destruction of all the children under two years old according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men. The wise men told Herod that the child had been born up to two years earlier! Clearly, Matthew is not describing the birth of Jesus but something he wants us to believe happened when Jesus was a young child, so that the ancient Jewish prophesies would be fulfilled. The reason he never mentions a baby is because his tale isn't about one; it's about fitting the hero of his tale into the pre-conceived mould of a prophesied Jewish Messiah.|
Oh! And there's another 'prophesy' handily fulfilled, this time by Jeremiah: Thus saith the Lord; A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping; Rahel weeping for her children refused to be comforted for her children, because they were not. (Jeremiah 31:15)
Curiously though, none of the other apostles mention this mass slaughter and Luke claims John the Baptist was six months older than Jesus but sees no reason to explain how he escaped the slaughter. No other historian mentions it either, not even Christians' favourite Jewish historian, Josephus. It's almost as though it never happened so far as anyone except Matthew is concerned.
Let's not be too concerned about the likelihood of Herod believing the ancient prophesies given by Yahweh to the Jewish prophets, but deciding to give up the chance of eternal life and salvation and just try to get the earthly manifestation of Yahweh killed. Like so often with Matthew, you need to suspend rational thinking to believe him.
That just leaves the problem of getting Jesus into Nazareth, which is where he is supposed to have come from, when his birth was 'prophesied' to be in Bethlehem...
|And he arose, and took the young child and his mother, and came into the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus did reign in Judaea in the room of his father Herod, he was afraid to go thither: notwithstanding, being warned of God in a dream, he turned aside into the parts of Galilee: And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene. ||It's a shame the same message which told him Herod was dead didn't tell him about Archelaus but it all turned out well in the end. |
The interesting thing here is that Joseph, Mary and Jesus are apparently going back to Bethlehem where they lived until fleeing to Egypt. They only decide to go to Nazareth, where Jesus is to grow up, when Judea turns out to be too dangerous.
Lastly, so desperate is Matthew to show that everything was prophesied that he appears to have found a prophesy here that none of the 'prophets' he alludes to saw fit to record anywhere. No where in the Old Testament is it recorded that any prophet ever said He shall be called a Nazarene. Maybe Matthew just assumed it must have been prophesied so thought he must have overlooked it, or, like so many modern Christian apologists, he relied on his readers taking his word for it and not actually checking.
|And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. |
And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.
|Here we need to believe the the entire Roman Empire was to do something totally unprecedented: every male was to take his family to the town or village one of his ancestors from 1000 years earlier had lived in. Imagine the disruption!|
And how on earth could everyone do that? Do you know which town or village any of your ancestors lived in in 1012? Which ancestor of the trillion or so would you pick and how would the authorities know you had the right one? (For more on this see The Ancestor's Likely Tale).
But more to the point perhaps is why on earth would Caesar order such a thing? Why would the Romans want to know how many people were currently not in their home towns but in the home town of a remote ancestor from 1000 years earlier?
But of course, Luke needs to emphasise that Jesus, a Nazarene, was 'of the house of David' and was born in Bethlehem, because that's what the prophesies say. What else would compel a husband to take his heavily pregnant wife on such a journey if it wasn't the direct orders of the Emperor himself, and why else would the Emperor give such an order?
Well, there was a census of sorts in 6 CE, if the Judeo-Roman historian Josephus is to be believed, so what better device than a real event, even if it needed to be stretched beyond breaking point. 'Luke' was probably writing this stuff when no one would remember the actual census but might have heard of it.
At least 'Luke' gives us a clue to the date: Cyrenius was governor of Syria between 6 CE and 12 CE, so he is firmly setting the birth of Jesus between 6 and 12 CE.
|And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. |
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.
And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.
|Here then we have the full Inn, and the manger (no lowing cattle though and not explicitly in a stable for that matter!) about which Matthew is totally silent. |
But, how to show that this was indeed the Messiah and how to explain how Luke knew about it? Cue angels, and shepherds who alone are selected to be given the great news and told that the sign would be a swaddled babe in a manger, which of course they duly find, so the world gets to know about it (or rather the author of Luke gets to know about it) because Mary, not being one to boast, is keeping mum.
|And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called Jesus, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb. |
And when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord; (As it is written in the law of the Lord, Every male that openeth the womb shall be called holy to the Lord;) And to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.
And, behold, there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon; and the same man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Ghost was upon him. And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord's Christ.
And he came by the Spirit into the temple: and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him after the custom of the law, Then took he him up in his arms, and blessed God, and said, Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.
And Joseph and his mother marvelled at those things which were spoken of him. And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; (Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.
And there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser: she was of a great age, and had lived with an husband seven years from her virginity; And she was a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day. And she coming in that instant gave thanks likewise unto the Lord, and spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem.
And when they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city Nazareth.
|So Mary and Joseph remain in Bethlehem where Jesus is circumcised and named after eight days and until Mary has waited long enough after the birth of a male child to be purified according to Jewish tradition (40 days).|
Even though she was allegedly free from sin and had given birth to a parthenogenically conceived child who was also free from sin, she still needed a ritual period of purification, apparently.
Having gone to the Temple in Jerusalem to sacrifice obligatory doves (why would the birth of God need a sacrifice to er... God?) and there being told yet again by a couple of holy relics that Jesus was a special child, as though angels, shepherds and a virgin birth weren't enough, they went back home to Nazareth.
To summarise these and put them side by side then:
So how can these two accounts be reconciled and woven into one single narrative of the birth of Jesus? In fact, are they both intended to be accounts of the birth of Jesus? That latter question is not at all answered by the Bible and never does Matthew claim he is writing about the birth of Jesus. All Matthew is bending over backwards to do is to show how Jesus's life fulfilled some ancient Jewish prophesies.
|The Rest on the Flight into Egypt; Orazio Gentileschi|
So, the story of birth in a stable followed by flight into exile in Egypt cannot both have the reasons ascribed to them by Matthew and Luke.
Secondly, there is no way to reconcile the account of the family remaining in Bethlehem for 40 days until Mary's purification, then travelling to the temple in Jerusalem, and from there directly home to Nazareth, with Matthew's account of exile in Egypt and then only going to Nazareth when returning home to Bethlehem was still too dangerous, if Matthew's story is an account of the birth of Jesus.
One way round this would be to assume that Luke's account is of the birth of Jesus while Matthew was relating events when Jesus was about two years old, after the family had moved from Nazareth and were now living in Bethlehem. We are given the distinct impression by Matthew that the 'child' was about two years old and that the wise men were visiting a child they had been told about after his birth.
Unfortunately, this places the events Matthew is describing in about 8 CE, some twelve years after the death of Herod. It also flatly contradicts the story about Jesus spending his childhood in Nazareth - the basis for the title 'Jesus of Nazareth'.
But, if we accept Matthew's account of Herod's genocide and ignore the fact that historians failed to notice it, the whole of Luke is rendered implausible since it places the birth of Jesus at some time before 6 BCE, some twelve years or more before the earliest possible date of the census under Cyrenius.
Quite clearly then, save inventing a different King Herod who lived at about 12 CE, there is no way to reconcile these two accounts and so synthesise the traditional Nativity celebrated throughout Western Christendom. There are really only three ways to explain this flagrant conflict in the Bible:
|Have a great Yule!|
- They are both made up by the Gospel authors.
- One or the other was made up by someone who didn't know the truth but was pretending he did.
- They represent different traditional versions of a Messiah myth, artificially attached to the Jesus myth by the Gospels' authors.
Sorry Christians, but your plagiarisation of Yule just isn't supported even by your 'inerrant' contradictory book of gospel truths. Like the rest of your holy book, it is the errant work of men. In this case, not very imaginative ones and ones who were less concerned with truth and honesty than in pushing their own agenda - a tradition carried on by the priesthood and apologists for Christianity to this day.