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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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