'Tis the Season

We are a day or so out from Christmas, and as I pass yet another shopping mall nativity scene, I reckon it's a good time to revisit the gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus, in Matthew and Luke, and remind ourselves, that, as it was for the writers of the gospels, Christmas is pretty much what we decide it is.

Matthew and Luke are the only two extant "records" of Jesus' birth. Neither Mark's gospel, nor, apparently, the source "Q", which together provided the primary sources for Matthew and Luke, contained any information about Jesus' birth. There is no reference made to it in John's gospel nor in any of Paul's letters. For Paul, in any case, Jesus'  birth, life and ministry were pretty much  irrelevant: it was Jesus death and resurrection that mattered.

Now, my guess is that the only accurate information available to the authors of Matthew and Luke about Jesus early years was that Jesus hailed from Nazareth in Galilee. But they did know that, if he was the Messiah, then according to Jewish prophecies, he was supposed to be born in Bethlehem, in Judea.

Both of them (but Matthew, in particular, addressing a primarily Jewish audience) were concerned to link Jesus with Jewish prophecy, to establish that he was the Messiah.

Now the Messiah was to be of the house of David.

Matthew traces Jesus genealogy, via David, back to Abraham, the father of the Jews. (Luke goes back even further, again via David, right back to Adam, emphasising Jesus' link with all humanity.)

The two lines of descent, though, are both through Joseph, which seems a trifle odd, when you think about it, and they differ quite markedly. They do not even agree on the name of Joseph's father. Matthew's genealogy has 41 generations back to David, Luke's has 57.

Matthew tells of the wise men, the Magi, who come to visit Joseph and Mary in their house in Bethlehem, over which the star has finally come to rest. (Incidentally, what would have to happen to a star before you could walk outside at night and know which of your neighbours' houses it was directly over.)

There is no mention of any shepherds, of any stable, of any manger, of any swaddling clothes, nor of any herald angels, singing or otherwise. Joseph and Mary are apparently residents of Bethlehem. (Jesus is described as a "young child", so the timing of their visit may be a little after the actual birth, though he is also referred to as a "child" in Luke, at just over a month old.)

The wise men leave, and shortly afterward, Herod, tired of waiting for them to return, sends out his soldiers to Bethlehem to massacre every infant under the age of two. An angel appears to Joseph in a dream, warning him of the danger, and he and Mary set out for Egypt with Jesus, and they stay there until the danger is past. (There is no historical record anywhere, by the way, that bears out this story of the massacre, in Bethlehem or anywhere else at the time, and given it's scale, and the quality of contemporary records, we might reasonably expect to find at least one.)

When they are ready to return, Joseph and Mary decide that Bethlehem is perhaps still a risky place to stay, given that Herod's son is still in power in Judea. So they set out for Galilee to the north and make their home there in Nazareth.

Luke's story features the shepherds, watching their flocks by night, and the herald angels. Mid-winter, incidentally, is not a time that shepherds in the area would normally have been out on the hillsides with their flocks. (The timing of Christmas Day has more to do with the emperor Constantine, the Winter Solstice and the festival of the Sun God than it does with the birth of Jesus.) They find the baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes, in a manger in a stable because there is no room at the inn for Joseph and Mary. There is no mention of the wise men or of the star.

Joseph and Mary have travelled from Nazareth, where they live, to Bethlehem, the home of Joseph's ancestors, to be counted in a census ordered by Caesar Augustus, of which census also, there is no historical record. Where we do have historical information about Roman census practice, there is no mention of the kind of accompanying social disruption occasioned by a requirement to return to the area one's paternal ancestors lived in a thousand years previously.

In Luke's account, Jesus was circumcised after eight days, in accordance with custom, and Jewish law prescribed that after 33 days,  a sacrifice be made in the Temple. According to Luke, Joseph and Mary wait out the 33 days, make the sacrifice, then return to Nazareth. There is no mention of any slaughter of the innocents such as Matthew describes. There is no flight to Egypt.

Now just because something is left out of an account does not mean it never happened, granted, but  such a massacre ought to be significant enough to make it into any account of his birth, and one would also expect to find some corroboration in contemporary Roman records, and from historians such as Flavius Josephus. One would expect also that a census of "the whole world" would attract some notice, somewhere, apart from it's single mention in Luke. No such evidence exists, anywhere outside of Luke. Traditionally, "nativity" scenes have galumphed all the details together, soft-pedalling over details such as the flight to Egypt v the return to Nazareth which were inconvenient.

In at least one respect however, the two accounts are in direct conflict: Luke tells us that Jesus' birth occurred when Quirinius (Cyrenius) was governor of Syria. Matthew tells us that the birth occurred when Herod was king. We have accurate historical records that tell us that Herod had been dead for ten years (he died in 4 BCE) when Quirinius became governor of Syria in 6 CE.

As inspired and inerrant accounts of a single event, the best that can be said is that there does not seem to have been any collusion between the parties.

(My acknowledgements to Bart Ehrman, a prominent New Testament textual scholar, whose work is an excellent source of information on the early Church.)

A merry Christmas to all.  May all your troubles be trifles.




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