Christian Deceptions: Case Study: The Nativity Story


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    I count religion but a childish toy,
    And hold there is no sin but ignorance.

    Christopher Marlowe (1564-93), The Jew of Malta, Prologue


    Biblical inconsistencies are smoothed out and covered up so well by theologians that many Christians believe that the Bible tells a reliable and consistent story. Take for example the nativity story that is told each Christmas with the aid of selected gospel passages. Many Christians believe that the four canonical gospels contain consistent versions of the story of Jesus" birth, as re-enacted by millions of school children each year. A summary of it is as follows:

    The angel Gabriel appears to Mary and Joseph with the news that Mary, a virgin, is pregnant and will give birth to Jesus. Before the birth Joseph and Mary travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem, Joseph's home town, for a census and to be taxed. When they get to Bethlehem they can find no room at the inn and are obliged to stay in a stable. There, on 25 th December in AD 0, accompanied by an ox and an ass, Mary gives birth to Jesus. Lacking suitable facilities the new parents use the animals" manger (feeding trough) as a crib for their new-born child. A host of angels appears to shepherds watching over their flocks in fields nearby and directs them to the site of the birth. Meanwhile, a star appears in the sky. This star leads three kings, Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar to the site. Mounted on camels they follow the star, taking with them three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. On the way the three kings let Herod the Great, King of Judea, know the purpose of their journey. Now aware that a King of Israel has been born, Herod orders the murder of all male children under the age of two. Having been warned of this by the angel Gabriel, Joseph and Mary escape to Egypt with their baby, until it is safe to return to Nazareth.

    Familiar though this story is, it appears nowhere in the Bible. It is a conflation. Only two of the four canonical gospels give an account of the nativity at all. The two narratives give different and often contradictory accounts of the circumstances of Jesus" birth. Many of the subsidiary details are not mentioned in the gospels at all, nor anywhere else in the New Testament. Taking a few details one by one illustrates these points:

    Gabriel According to Matthew the news of Mary's pregnancy was conveyed to Joseph in a dream (Matthew 1:20). According to Luke the angel Gabriel appeared not to Joseph but to Mary and not in a dream, but in person (Luke 1:26-38).

    Mary's Virginity Both the Matthew and Luke gospels agree about this but, as we have seen (How Mary keeps her Virginity), the Virgin Birth seems to have been introduced as the result of an unsuccessful attempt to match the nativity story with an Old Testament prophecy.

    Bethlehem Both authors place the birth in Bethlehem. However, according to Luke, the family originally lived in Nazareth and went to Bethlehem for a census (Luke 2:4-7), whereas according to Matthew the family settled in Nazareth only after their return from Egypt (this is evident from Matthew 2:23).

    The Census As we have seen (pages 44 ff), the story of the census is not credible. Apart from contradicting known facts it gives a date for the birth of Jesus that is incompatible with the dates of the reign of Herod the Great.

    The Time of Year The date is not mentioned in the Bible. There is no reason to suppose that the birth took place in December. Indeed the fact that sheep were in the fields at the time makes it unlikely. As most Christian scholars now acknowledge the date was selected simply to coincide with the popular festivities that marked the winter solstice. The year of birth is not known either. The year was calculated in the sixth century by a monk, Dionysius Exiguus, who fixed AD 1 as 754 AUC (Anno Urbis Conditae = years after the founding of the city of Rome). It was subsequently realised that Herod the Great had died four years earlier than this, so a recalculation was made and the purported year of birth moved back to 750 AUC, or 4 BC. (There is no year AD 0 or 0 BC: the year preceding AD 1 was 1 BC.)

    Kings Neither Matthew nor Luke mentions kings visiting the new-born child. No one does. Matthew mentions an unspecified number of wise men or magi, by which he probably meant Zoroastrian priests. Luke mentions neither kings nor magi. Tertullian was the first to suggest that these magi were kings. The idea seems to have come from unrelated passages in the Old Testament:

    Because of thy temple at Jerusalem shall kings bring presents unto thee. Psalm 68:29

    The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents: the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts. Yea all kings shall fall down before him: all nations shall serve him Psalm 72:10-11

    The numbers of wise men, or kings, purported to have visited Jesus has varied over time. In early Christian art there were two, four or six. According to Eastern traditions there were 12. Other sources say "many". The number three seems to have chosen because the Matthew author mentions three gifts. The names Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar occur nowhere in the Bible , and different Churches give the magi/kings different names: for example according to the Syrian Church they were called Larvandad, Hormisdas and Gushnasaph.

    Camels The camels come from another unrelated Old Testament passage (Isaiah 60:3-6):

    And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.....The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; all they from Sheba shall come: they shall bring gold and incense; and they shall shew forth the praises of the L ord.

    Shepherds Luke has an unspecified number of shepherds coming to see the baby. Matthew does not mention them at all.

    The Star According to Matthew the magi, having seen a star in the East, went to Jerusalem, which was the wrong place to go. Only after Herod had directed them to Bethlehem did the star reappear to lead them to the right place (Matthew 2:1-9). Stars were common portents in the ancient world, and the births and deaths of kings were frequently marked by such celestial events. Nevertheless, the author of Luke does not mention the star at all.

    It is clear that the star story was continuously being exaggerated and embellished over time. For example, the star was soon being described as being miraculously brilliant*, and according to Ignatius of Antioch., all the rest of the stars along with the Sun and Moon gathered around this new star, which nevertheless outshone them all*.

    The Inn In the original Greek none of the gospels mentions an inn. The Matthew author refers to mother and child in a house (Matthew 2:11). The Luke author uses the word katalemna meaning a temporary shelter and this was badly translated into English as inn (Luke 2:7). Elsewhere in the Bible katalemna was translated by the word tabernacle (as in 2 Samuel 7:6 for example).

    The Manger No manger is mentioned by the Matthew author. The word used in the original Greek by the Luke author is thaten, a word that has a range of meanings, including a baby's crib and an animal's feeding trough. Obviously the meaning here is baby's crib, not manger.

    The Stable Neither Matthew nor Luke mentions a stable. The idea that one is involved apparently stems from the erroneous translation of thaten as manger. Other sources, such as the non-canonical Gospel of James, locate the birth in a cave. So do many of the Church Fathers*. The Koran (19:17-22), possibly repeating another ancient tradition, locates the birth by a palm tree in a far off place.

    The Nativy of Jesus in a cave - before the animals were introduced



    The Ox and Ass Neither Mark nor Luke mentions these animals. Their inclusion in the story is apparently attributable to later Christian scholars who picked up the idea from an unrelated Old Testament passage.

    The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib Isaiah 1:3

    Significantly in the Septuagint the word corresponding to crib is thaten, the same word translated as manger in the Luke author's nativity story. The ox and ass in the Christmas story first make their appearance in an apocryphal gospel (pseudo-Matthew) probably dating from the eighth century. St Francis of Assisi apparently set up the first model Christmas crib, with accompanying ox and ass, in the thirteenth century.

    Herod's Massacre of the Innocents The author of Matthew mentions this, but the author of Luke does not. One might have supposed that such a draconian measure would have been recorded elsewhere, as were less significant historical events. The mass murder of the infants has no historical corroboration, and is probably no more than an imaginative way of bringing both Bethlehem and Nazareth into the story. Indeed this massacre cannot have taken place as described, otherwise Jesus" second cousin and contemporary, John the Baptist, would have been killed, yet John survived to reappear later in the story. Once again it looks as though a story has been retrospectively added to the gospel, without thinking through all the consequences.

    This sort of story was far from unknown in the ancient world. In the usual myth a king tries to kill a baby who, according to a prophecy, is destined to occupy his own throne. The king fails, though he does not know it, and years later he is supplanted by the child, now an adult, in accordance with prophecy. It is probably best known with some embellishments as the Greek story of Oedipus, but the same basic tale was also familiar in the Middle East. An earlier King of Media (where the magi came from) had ordered the murder of his own grandchild, because of a prophecy that the infant would grow up to overthrow him*. Like the infant Jesus, this child also escaped death to fulfil his destiny.

    Matthew could not quote a suitable prophecy about a baby surviving an attempt to kill him, later to become king, because none exists in the Old Testament. Instead, Matthew cited a passage that he must have thought could be stretched to cover a massacre of children:

    Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy 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.
    Matthew 2:17-18, referring to Jeremiah 31:15

    As is the case in most of the prophecies cited by Matthew, the connection is tenuous and unconvincing. Wrong people, wrong place, wrong tense, and not a single child death. Matthew neglects to mention that, in the next verse of Jeremiah, God says that these children will return from an enemy country.

    The Flight to Egypt Luke does not mention the flight into Egypt at all. Matthew does, apparently, as we have already seen (page 175), so that he can cite another prophecy.


    No independent historical records support either Matthew or Luke's story where they might be expected to: not the need to migrate for a census, nor the appearance of a new star, nor the massacre of the children. What seems to have happened is that both authors have improvised. Matthew has invented a story to fit Old Testament prophecies. Throughout the Matthew gospel references are made to current events fulfilling scriptural prophecies. These references are clearly intended to lend credibility to the stories and to impress readers. The prophecies, like those that we looked at earlier, are generally taken out of context, and in most cases they are not really prophecies at all in the sense that we now understand the term.

    Luke has tried to give his story historical background. He seems to have heard, possibly from reports of the Matthew gospel, that Mary was a virgin, that her husband was called Joseph, and that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, though it was widely known that he came from Nazareth. Apart from that there is no agreement at all. The two stories contradict each other on matters such as Joseph's ancestry, whether or not he came from Nazareth or went there only after Jesus" birth, and the appearances of Gabriel. They disagree about the year, the flight into Egypt, the appearance of the star, the shepherds and the magi.

    Neither of these authors mentions three kings (or kings at all, or three of anyone for that matter), nor camels, nor a stable, nor oxen or asses, nor the time of year. As a final indictment, it also seems that the stories were continuously being tampered with for generations. Surviving manuscripts show a range of alterations of varying subtlety and intention. No Father of the Church cites the birth stories exactly as we now know them in the gospels until Irenaeus of Lyons in the last quarter of the second century.

    According to an ancient tradition (acknowledged in the Jerusalem Bible ), the original version of the Matthew gospel was written "in the Hebrew tongue". This version is likely to have been the gospel used by the Ebionites. One of the interesting things known about this Ebionite gospel was that it was shorter than the Greek version. One reason for this was that the opening verses about Jesus" miraculous birth were absent. If this Ebionite gospel was indeed the original version of Matthew, then the nativity story must be a later Greek addition, which is exactly what many scholars independently suspect from other evidence. It is also significant that we know of early versions of the Luke gospel that also lacked the nativity story*.

    Even the most conservative Christian scholars now regard the stories of Jesus" miraculous birth as being historically unreliable*.



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    §. See for example Protevangelium of James 21:2 and Clement of Alexandria's Excerpta ex Theodoto, 74.

    §. Ignatius, Epistle to the Ephesians, 19.

    §. Among the early authorities who mention the birth in a cave are St Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, 78; Origen, Contra Celsum, 1:51; and St Jerome, Letter 58 to Paulinus.

    §. The king was Astyages, his grandson was Cyrus the Great. Herodotus (1:109-129).

    §. The Docetist Marcion for example used a version of the Luke gospel that lacked the nativity story.

    §. For the views of some leading Christian scholars see Wells, Religious Postures, Ch. 3.

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