Well Saturnalia is over–and I didn’t even get to see Saturn.
So I guess I will have to focus on Christmas instead.
The overwhelming majority of well educated Christians realize that there’s no evidence, not even from the bible, that this day is in any way the birthdate of Jesus. I’ve heard that the context given in the nativity tales (and I said tales in the plural, more on that in a moment) implies it was autumn. I’ve heard others say it was obviously spring. Regardless, people want to celebrate the event, and this is as good a day as any (and this particular choice helps bury the competition by hijacking their holiday). I guess they think that those who think the nativity happened on December 25th are well-intentioned but naive.
[An aside I cannot resist: The Roman Saturnalia ran from the 17th through the 23rd, apparently, and is not the holiday hijacked by Christmas, but rather the Dies Natalis of Sol Invictus, the "birthday of the unconquerable sun", which was celebrated in the later Empire on the 25th, about when it first became apparent the sun was coming back from its trip south. However, a lot of Saturnalia customs such as gift giving were indeed hijacked for what today are regarded as the more secular aspects of Christmas.]
But what does the bible actually say about the birth of Jesus? What’s the story? A very important question: So important in fact, that apparently it deserves two answers.
If you grew up anywhere where Christianity is a major cultural force, then no doubt you were exposed to numerous TV specials about the nativity. Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem, having to sleep at the manger because there’s no room at the inn, Mary giving birth, the three wise men showing up and giving gold, frankincense and myrrh, etc. Then later on King Herod‘s decree that all children under the age of 2 be killed, forcing them to flee to Egypt, then eventually returning home to Nazareth.
The problem is there are two accounts of the nativity in the bible, and neither of them actually runs like this. This TV gospel is in fact a pastiche of two very different tales, those of Matthew and Luke.
Matthew claims to give a 42 name genealogy from Abraham through David to Jesus, but actually only gives 41–oops. (Count them yourself, Matthew chapter 1.) Luke gives a chronology clear back to Adam (starting at 3:23) but it’s a very different genealogy even in the times both have in common.
Matthew tells the following story: Mary was discovered to be pregnant, even though her marriage to Joseph was not yet consummated. Joseph is about to “dismiss her quietly” but then an angel of the lord appeared to him in a dream and told him what was up. The birth went forward, and Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Sometime after this, the wise men (number not actually specified!) showed up in Jerusalem, wanting to know of the king of the Jews their omens had told them had just been born. Various scribes said, well if the Messiah has been born, it surely has to have been in Bethlehem, since scripture says that’s where it will happen. Herod then called for the wise men, found out exactly when they had first seen the star, then urged them not only to go see the child, but to come back and tell him so he could also pay his respects. So the wise men followed the star, gave their gifts and then did not return to Herod–a dream had warned them not to. Prudent because Herod didn’t want any competition for his throne, and rather than paying respects to the child, would have had him killed.
Joseph and Mary were warned too (another divine messenger), and fled to Egypt. Herod eventually realized the wise men weren’t coming back to his court, and ordered all children in Bethlehem under the age of two to be killed, figuring that would assure getting the right one.
Eventually Herod died, and it was safe to return, at least according to yet another divine messenger, but finding that Israel/Judea was under the rule of Herod’s son Archalaeus, Joseph was afraid, and another messenger confirmed this by warning him off… so they went to Nazareth (which was not part of Judea).
Note what is not in this tale. No census. No tax collectors. No trip to Bethlehem before the birth. No manger. Not even three wise men (apparently that detail got added during the Medieval period.) Not only does Matthew not bother to mention the trip to Bethlehem and the manger, he strongly implies there was no such trip at all; the wise men enter the house (2:11). To hear Matthew (and only Matthew) tell it, you’d think that Mary and Joseph lived in Bethlehem in the first place, tried to return there (!) and only ended up in Nazareth because the political situation dictated it.
OK so here is Luke, a less complicated tale: Caesar Augustus decreed that everyone in the Roman Empire should be registered, sometime while Quirinius was governor of Syria. “All went to their own towns to be registered.(2:3)” Apparently that meant your ancestral hometown. For Joseph, living in Nazareth, this was Bethlehem. While there Mary gave birth in a manger, for there was no room at the inn. Angels of the lord appeared to some nearby shepherds, told them the scoop, and those shepherds in turn went to the manger and told Mary and Joseph.
They then had Jesus circumcised. (And yes there are churches today claiming to possess the foreskin! I joked about it once, then found out it was true. I simply can’t make this stuff up.) Then they presented him at the temple. Which Oh By The Way was in Jerusalem. Then they went home to Nazareth.
No wise men. No slaughter of Bethlehem toddlers. No dash to Egypt–far from it, they went the opposite direction, to the seat of the government that (clearly hadn’t!) threatened to kill the baby. To hear Luke (and only Luke) tell it, Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth to begin with, Augustus laid down a ridiculous decree that everyone had to go back to their ancestral hometowns to be counted, and while on this journey the baby was born. The Judean puppet-state government had no idea what was going on (though the priests at the temple did) and the family was able to safely return to Nazareth almost immediately.
Sorry, Another Digression
Why was Matthew’s tale so long? Why so much ancillary stuff in it? Well Matthew was trying to paint this story as having fulfilled as many old testament prophecies as he could shoehorn in, the virgin birth, the birth of the messiah being in Bethlehem, the savior coming out of Egypt, etc. Now the virgin birth one is most interesting; Matthew 1:23 points back to Isaiah 7:14, “Look the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” and indeed if you go look up Isaiah 7:14 it does say “Look the young women is with child and shall bear a son…” which is not what Matthew quoted. Of course I am using the New Revised Standard Version, which when translating Isaiah went to Hebrew texts. The King James Version (and Matthew, apparently) both used the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the old testament (back when it was the only testament) which mistranslated the Hebrew almah (young woman) to “parthenos” or “virgin.” What’s even more laughable about this is that if you keep reading Isaiah from that point forward, it becomes clear that he was “prophesying” that he was going to knock up some babe himself.
Can These Accounts Be Reconciled?
Some things are easy. One tale mentioning the wise men and the other not isn’t really a contradiction; it’s not as if Luke positively asserted there were no wise men. And vice versa with the shepherds. It’s possible that both wise men and shepherds showed up and each of the two authors forgot to mention part of the story. The manger versus the house, and where Mary and Joseph lived before the birth, can fall into the same category (if you are willing to not be literal about Matthew’s “house”).
Other things are more difficult. How do you reconcile the very different genealogies? How about journeying to Jerusalem instead of Egypt? Especially when it’s made clear that Joseph was afraid to go to Jerusalem even once Herod had kicked the bucket? The closest that I can torture those two into being consistent is to figure that Luke was right about the trip to Bethlehem, Jesus was born, after eight days he was circumcised (in Bethlehem), taken to the temple, returned to Bethelehem even though that’s not where they lived, and then (and only then) did Herod decide to commit mass infanticide and the family had to bug out to Egypt, then eventually go home to Nazareth. But even that doesn’t make sense. Matthew shows the family wanting to return to Bethlehem after Herod died, but being afraid to. That was clearly home to them. Luke claims no real interest in Bethlehem on their parts, shows them returning to Nazareth from Jerusalem as quickly as feasible, no side trip to Egypt. The only conclusion to draw is that Matthew and Luke do not agree on where Jesus’ family was from.
There is a much worse (but very subtle) inconsistency though. Matthew indicates that Jesus was born while Herod the Great was reigning. (There was another Herod afterwards, but he’s Herod Archalaeus, mentioned as a distinct person–clearly Matthew meant Herod the Great.) Herod the Great died in 4 BC, and given that he wanted to wipe out all Bethlehem toddlers under the age of 2, even if he decreed this in the last year of his life (which is not stated) Jesus could have been born in 6BC. Of course if this happened earlier in Herod’s life, Jesus could have been born as long ago as 37 BCE.
Luke, however, says that there was a census while Quirinius was governor of Syria. (By the way there is no other record of this, certainly not of a census requiring you to journey to your ancestral homeland!) But Quirinius did not become governor of Syria until 6 CE. At best there is a ten year inconsistency here, Jesus has to have been born before 4BCE and after 6CE. No possible time meets both conditions.
Modern scholars tend (for whatever reason) to believe Matthew over Luke and give dates of 7-4 BCE.
To think the bible tells one seamless nativity tale is what I’d call “nativity naivete.”
So What Is Going On Here?
Normally, Matthew and Luke track each other a lot better than this, and scholars think they both got much of their material from Mark and some other (now lost) “sayings gospel,” a source of quotations of Jesus now known as Q. If this is true (and a lot of Christians think Q is bullshit), clearly it did not happen when it comes to the nativity.
I suspect that tales of Jesus of Nazareth were extant in Judea at the time, and people were starting to say he was the Messiah. But this was awkward, for the Messiah was supposed to come out of Bethlehem, and Jesus was from some hick town in Galilee instead. So Matthew and Luke independently came up with a tale to explain the discrepancy. Jesus was born in Bethlehem (where the messiah had to be born) and ended up in Nazareth (where everyone remembered him being from), somehow.
Incidentally this is inferential evidence that there was indeed a “historical Jesus,” i.e., a perfectly ordinary man who went around Galilee preaching (more than likely “the end is near” apocalypticism; he is quoted in that vein a lot), went to Jerusalem, got into some trouble, then got executed. Later quite a legend built up around him, and it was necessary to add the bit about being born in Bethlehem. Some claim there never was even a historical Jesus at all; that he was completely made up out of whole cloth. But if so, why not simply have him be from Bethlehem in the first place? Why do the (allegedly) completely made up stories of his preaching all center around the Sea of Galilee? If you are going to go completely making shit up, you can at least put it in the right place! Far easier to believe some actual charismatic preacher got bumped off by the authorities, and his followers began to embellish the stories, without really changing much that was already there, just adding to it. Then embellish them some more… and more… and then, a god is born!
I know many atheists like to make the rather cynical assumption that Mary slept around, then made up the whole “it’s god’s son” story to get out of trouble. That’s the meme on display here:
(Pretty amusing huh? OK I suppose if you are Catholic you are probably hopping-up-and-down mad at the moment.)
But those atheists grant too much; they assume the nativity tale has some shred of truth to it, once shorn of the virgin birth and god impregnating Mary. But I don’t believe any of it; I don’t believe Jesus was born in Bethlehem, I don’t believe Jesus was necessarily born out of wedlock even, because I don’t believe any of the nativity tale happened even if there was a historical Jesus. It shows too many hallmarks of being made up after the fact, with the virgin birth thrown in because any self-respecting demigod back then was said to have been born of a virgin.
Having concluded the nativity tale was itself made up, though, it is ironic. The need to make up the tale, to patch it onto the story of an itinerant preacher from Galilee, is itself some of the strongest evidence that there was a historical Jesus and that he was from Galilee.
Just more nativity naivete, this time on the part of some atheists.