Christmas isn’t adapted from pagan festivals, but that doesn’t mean the traditional stories of Jesus’ birth are a straightforward historical matter. The traditional Nativity story isn’t a replica of any ancient source. It’s a mash-up.
|In this cinematic Nativity scene (The Nativity story, 2006) the traditional elements come from five separate sources — only two of them in the New Testament. The magi and the star are from Matthew 2.9–12, the shepherds from Luke 2.8–20, the cave from Protevangelium of James 18–21, the oxen from the Septuagint version of Habakkuk 3.2, and Mary’s blue robe from 5th century Byzantine art. (Also, Joseph and Mary are both played by Star wars actors ... but I guess that doesn’t count.)|
- Polemic: ‘Some party-poopers like to claim that Christmas is pagan, but they’re talking nonsense.’
- Apologetic: ‘The reason the party-poopers are wrong is because the Bible is 100% literally true.’
Polemics can be fun, but I don’t want to act the part of an apologist. So this year, I’ll redress the balance.
First, I’d better repeat the main point of my earlier pieces. Modern Christmas customs aren’t pagan. What they are is: modern. Secular Christmas customs in the English-speaking world are mostly Lutheran in origin (trees, presents, Santa, Advent wreaths and calendars) and were adopted in England and America in the 19th century. The only ancient bits are the bits that happen in church.
So let’s look at a genuinely ancient bit: the stories of Jesus’ birth.
Yes, stories. We have two primary sources on the Nativity, Matthew 1.18–2.23 and Luke 1.26–2.52, and they’re totally different. They actively contradict each another in certain respects. Two methodological principles:
- We don’t take Christian traditions for granted. We don’t assume that Matthew and Luke are telling a single story which is 100% true, and that our job is to explain away the inconsistencies.
- Conversely, we don’t adopt the New Atheist strategy of dismissing everything biblical out of hand. Good data or bad data, Matthew and Luke are still data.
I’d better add before we carry on that the overall thrust of my argument here is totally uncontroversial among biblical scholars. Here’s Raymond Brown, in his classic study of the Nativity stories (1993: 35–36):
Commentators of times past have harmonized these different details into a consecutive narrative ... But if originally there was one narrative, how did it ever become fragmented into the two different accounts we have now? ... This leads us to the observation that the two narratives are not only different — they are contrary to each other in a number of details. ... Indeed, close analysis of the infancy narratives makes it unlikely that either account is completely historical.
(Brown was a scholar who was also a Christian, for what that’s worth. The book even has an official imprimatur.)
Now, let’s put the stories side by side. Notice how disconnected they are:
|Reign of Herod or Archelaus: Angel visits Mary (the Annunciation).||1.26–38|
|Mary visits Elizabeth; birth of John the Baptist.||1.39–80|
|Reign of Herod: Engagement of Joseph and Mary; Joseph plans to end engagement because of pregnancy.||1.18–19|
|Angel visits Joseph in dream, tells him to go ahead with marriage.||1.20–25|
|(Fulfilment of prophecy: Isaiah 7.14.)||1.22–23|
|Governorship of Quirinius: Quirinius conducts a census.||2.1–2|
|Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem.||2.3–5|
|Birth of Jesus; no room at the inn.||2.6–7|
|The shepherds hear the news and visit family in Bethlehem.||2.8–20|
|Circumcision of Jesus.||2.21|
|Family stops off in Jerusalem to present Jesus at temple; episode of Simeon and Anna.||2.22–38|
|Reign of Herod: Magi visit Herod in Jerusalem.||2.1–7|
|(Fulfilment of prophecy: LXX Micah 5.1, LXX II Kings 5.2.)||2.5–6|
|Magoi go to Bethlehem, offer gifts, then return home without visiting Herod.||2.8–12|
|Angel visits Joseph in dream to warn him of Herod’s rage; family flees to Egypt.||2.13–15|
|(Fulfilment of prophecy: Hosea 11.1.)||2.15|
|Herod’s rage: massacre of the innocents.||2.16–18|
|(Fulfilment of prophecy: LXX Jeremiah 38.15.)||2.17–18|
|Reign of Archelaus: family returns from Egypt after Herod’s death.||2.19–21|
|Family doesn’t return home to Judaea, for fear of Archelaus, but instead goes to Nazareth in Galilee (since Galilee was no longer under Jerusalem’s control).||2.22–23|
|Governorship of Quirinius: Family carries on home to Nazareth.||2.39–40|
The other two canonical gospels, Mark and John, add some information about Jesus’ home life, but nothing about his birth. They corroborate Luke’s story that Jesus’ hometown was Nazareth, in Galilee. (Or maybe Capernaum. But definitely not Bethlehem, as it is in Matthew.) Jesus has a mother, brothers, and sisters in Mark 3.31–32; Mark 6.3 gives him four named brothers, multiple sisters, and a mother named Mary; and depending on the textual variant you choose, either Jesus’ father is a builder, or Jesus himself is. John 7.3–5 refers to Jesus’ brothers, 7.41–42 addresses the inconsistency between Jesus’ home in Galilee and the fact that the Messiah is supposed to come from Bethlehem, and 19.25–26 refers to his mother and maternal aunt. A few other snippets in Paul’s epistles and in Josephus give some further independent testimony about Jesus’ siblings.
(Some apologists reject all of the references to siblings, wanting Mary to remain perpetually a virgin. They do this either by interpreting the word ‘sibling’ metaphorically every time it appears, or by making up a story that Joseph had a previous marriage, so that Jesus had some half-siblings. If you don’t start out taking perpetual virginity for granted in advance, the mental acrobatics look pretty silly.)
Anyway, while Jesus’ family life has some interest in its own right, these passages don’t have anything much to do with the Nativity stories. For the Nativity, it’s all about Matthew and Luke. And that isn’t encouraging: no element of either story shows up in the earliest Christian texts, that is, in Paul’s letters or in the earliest gospel, Mark. Right from the word go we’ve got every reason to think of the Nativity stories as two relatively late impositions on earlier traditions and beliefs.
Matthew vs. Luke
To summarise: Joseph’s dreams, the magi, the star, the massacre of the innocents, and the flight to Egypt appear in Matthew, and only in Matthew. John the Baptist’s birth, the census, the shepherds, and the presentation at the temple are in Luke, and only in Luke. These are not stories designed to reflect a single underlying series of events.
There are only four significant points of agreement:
- the names of Jesus’ (mortal) parents are Joseph and Mary;
- Joseph is descended from king David;
- the birth takes place in Bethlehem;
- by the end of the story the family is living in Nazareth.
But they differ wildly on the circumstances of these points.
|Note. Brown 1993: 34–35 adds a few more points of agreement, but some are just incidental (e.g. that Jesus is born after Joseph and Mary begin living together), while others are tendentious: see below on the angels’ announcements.|
- Date. The timeline of who was in control of Judaea and Galilee at any given time is quite straightforward:
- Herod the Great: king until his death, in either 4 BCE or 1 BCE.
- Herod Archelaus: tetrarch of Judaea, but not Galilee, from Herod the Great’s death until being ousted by the Romans in 6 CE.
- Quirinius: Roman governor from 6 CE onwards, when the entire region became part of the province of Syria.
- Ancestry. Both gospels give patrilineal genealogies that make Joseph a descendant of king David (Matthew 1.1–17; Luke 3.23–38). But the genealogies are totally different. If they’re both true, then Joseph had two fathers.
- Hometown. In Luke, the family lives at Nazareth in Galilee, and their trip to Bethlehem in Judaea is a there-and-back affair. In Matthew they live in Bethlehem, and only move to Galilee to evade Archelaus’ clutches.
- What happens after the birth. In Matthew, after the birth, the family flees to Egypt to escape the anger of the king in Jerusalem. In Luke, the family goes straight home to Galilee, popping in to Jerusalem on their way.
- The visit to Jerusalem. When the family presents their baby at the temple in Luke, the idea is clearly that they’re visiting Jerusalem on their way home. In Matthew’s timeline, this means the family is making a leisurely visit to Jerusalem under the nose of Herod the Great, exactly the place that the angel tells Joseph to run away from. The only way to harmonise these would be to have the family go to the temple in Jerusalem, then go back to Bethlehem for no reason, and only then get visited by the magi and flee to Egypt.
- The angel(s). Matthew’s angel visits Joseph twice, in dreams, and visits Mary zero times; Luke’s angels visit Mary and the shepherds once each, in person, and Joseph zero times.
- Prophecies. Matthew links the Nativity to five passages from the Hebrew Bible, and treats them as prophecies that are fulfilled by Jesus’ birth. Luke’s Nativity doesn’t feature any prophecies.
|The routes taken by Jesus’ parents in Matthew (red) and Luke (blue).|
In some of these points the two stories actively contradict each other: the date, and the family’s movements. In other respects there isn’t an explicit contradiction, but equally, there’s no reason to imagine they’re telling a single story without any overlap. Both stories have an angel or angels declare that the Holy Spirit will cause Mary to become pregnant, and that the child’s name will be Jesus. But they say it to different people, in different situations, and they say different things about the child’s future. If you don’t start with the assumption that every incident is true, the obvious conclusion is that Matthew and Luke both wanted to have an angel element, but they baked it into their stories in very different ways.
Internal problems in Luke
The census (1). Quirinius’ census (Luke 2.1–2) was real, but it wasn’t a census ‘of the whole world’. It was confined to Judaea. Judaea became part of the Roman province of Syria in 6 CE, so the new governor, Quirinius, conducted the census to establish taxation information. The census is described by Josephus (Jewish antiquities 18.1) and attested in an inscription from Beirut (CIL iii.6687, line 9). There’s no evidence of any historical census ‘of the whole world’, and such a thing would be totally pointless.
The census (2). Luke’s premise is that the census required Joseph to go to the hometown of one of his ancestors. Again, this is intrinsically implausible, and there’s no evidence of the Romans ever requiring such a crazy thing. Even if they did, which ancestor’s hometown are you meant to visit? Joseph’s supposed descent from David goes back forty generations, according to Luke 3.23–31! Was he to visit the hometown of every one of them?
The presentation at the temple. Yeah, this wasn’t a thing. The sacrifice of two turtle-doves or pigeons was real, associated with ritual purification no less than forty days after childbirth (Leviticus 12.2–8). But the sacrifice of firstborn animals, and redemption of the firstborn human child, was unrelated (Exodus 13.11–14). The combo in Luke must be designed to echo yet another incident in the Hebrew Bible, Hannah dedicating Samuel as a baby (1 Samuel 1.22–28) — except that Samuel was left to stay at the temple permanently. In other words this isn’t a standard procedure, it’s a mash-up of multiple unrelated bits of the Hebrew Bible.
The date. As I mentioned above, Luke 2.1–2 puts Jesus’ birth during Quirinius’ governorship, in 6 or 7 CE. But just one chapter later we get a totally different timeline. Luke 3.1–3 sets the baptism of Jesus in the 15th year of the reign of emperor Tiberius, and 3.23 tells us that he was 30 at the time. Now, Tiberius became emperor in September 14 CE: the 15th year of his reign was 28–29 CE. This means that as far as Luke 3 is concerned, Jesus was born in 3–2 BCE — at least seven years earlier than in Luke 2. This is a decent match for the timeline in Matthew, as it happens. But not for Luke’s own Nativity story. (Some scholars suspect that Luke’s Nativity story is a relatively late addition to the gospel, which would explain the inconsistency: more about this below.)
The historical birth of Jesus
So, is there anything historical in either Nativity story?
One strategy could be to argue that, because they’re independent sources, the elements where they do agree ought to be the bits where they’re most likely to be historical. There are major problems, though.
For one thing, no trace of either Nativity story shows up in Paul or in Mark, as I mentioned earlier. There’s no reason to think any of it represents early traditions or beliefs about Jesus’ birth.
In addition, there are questions over the text of Luke. It has sometimes been suspected that Luke’s Nativity story is an interpolation, written decades after the rest of the gospel. That theory would explain why Luke’s Nativity has almost nothing in common with Matthew’s. It would explain why Luke 3 feels very introduction-ish: it opens with an elaborate introduction pinpointing in time the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and the genealogy of Jesus doesn’t appear until chapter 3.
Well, maybe. Actually I’m not convinced. There are some striking thematic links between Mary’s and Simeon’s songs in Luke 1–2 and the rest of the gospel, which suggests that they’re integral. Also, I’ve tried several basic stylometric tests (without being an expert in stylometric analysis, mind), and the tests consistently group the three synoptic gospels together, and John separately. When it comes to the Nativity stories, though, the tests don’t see much difference. In terms of authorial style, the Nativities consistently come out pretty close to the rest of their respective gospels. By contrast, the same tests easily detect a passage which is known to be an interpolation: the episode of the woman caught in adultery in John 7.53–8.11.
|Stylometric tests of the four canonical gospels conducted in RStudio with the package ‘stylo’. The text was prepared by stripping all accents, case, and punctuation; converting iota subscript to iota adscript; transliterating into the Roman alphabet using Beta Code; and dividing the text into chapters. Two passages known to be interpolations were separated from their chapters, John 7.53–8.11 and the long ending of Mark (shown here as Mk_16b). The tests shown here plot the 200 most frequent 3 word sequences (left) and 4 word sequences (right), and maximise the distance between each chapter using principal component analysis. Notice that the chapters of John (in red) are grouped separately from the three synoptic gospels, indicating differences in language, authorial style, or content.|
Now, I’m no expert in stylometry. So I’ll just say that it isn’t self-evident to me that Luke’s Nativity story is an interpolation. That doesn’t mean there’s a shred of truth in the story, mind.
Here’s my pick for the elements of the Nativity stories that accurately reflect historical reality:
- The names of Jesus’ parents were Joseph and Mary;
- Jesus grew up in Galilee (there’s actually some doubt about whether his home was in Nazareth, but it’s too much of a distraction: let’s just let that slide for now).
But the Bethlehem setting can’t stand. Both stories feel a pressing need to have the birth take place in Bethlehem, but the transparent falseness of Luke’s version — the census — indicates that Bethlehem’s role is an invention. Not a late invention: it does appear in two independent Nativity stories, after all, and it’s there in John 7.41–42 too:
But some asked, ‘Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee, does he? Has not the scripture said that the Messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?’
The reference to ‘scripture’ is to Micah 5.1, which Matthew quotes.
It looks like early Christians genuinely did wrestle with the fact that Jesus did not come from Bethlehem. Bethlehem was introduced into some of the stories very early on, as a way of addressing that fact. So three of the gospels solve the problem in three different ways. In Matthew Jesus’ family did indeed live in Bethlehem, but moved to Galilee (with Archelaus’ pursuit as a spurious excuse); in Luke they make a field-trip to Bethlehem (with Quirinius’ census as a spurious excuse); and in John Bethlehem isn’t involved at all, so we see people debating over the matter.
Of the three, John’s picture is probably the most true to reality.
The mash-up effect
The mash-ups that you see in Christmas cards, in Advent calendars, and in films like Ben Hur, The Nativity story, and The star, is not a new thing. It didn’t suddenly pick up speed with the advent of biblical literalism in the 19th century. The idea of combining Matthew and Luke into a single story, inconsistencies and all, goes back to the 2nd century, and a non-canonical text called the Protevangelium of James.
|Another mash-up (The star, 2017): Matthew’s star, magi, and rage of Herod; Luke’s census and shepherds; Septuagint Habakkuk’s cluster of animals.|
In James (see Elliott 1993: 46–67 for an accessible translation) the problem of the census taking place nearly a decade after Herod’s death is just ignored. But the author realised perfectly well that the presentation at the temple can’t possibly happen while Herod is raging. Instead, Herod murders the high priest Zacharias, John the Baptist’s father, and Simeon succeeds him, whereupon it is prophesied that Simeon will get to see the Messiah one day (James 23–24). Several elements are added, apparently out of thin air: a lengthy account of Mary’s conception, birth, and youth spent in the temple (James 1–8, 12); the birth takes place in a cave, and time stops at the moment of Jesus’ birth (18–19); there’s a midwife; and a woman named Salome tests Mary’s perpetual virginity by checking whether her hymen is intact after childbirth (19–20).
This may sound weird and quaint, but of such stuff are traditions formed. Jesus’ birth is still sometimes imagined as taking place in a cave, instead of a stable. The Protevangelium of James is where that trope comes from. James omits the prophecies that take up so much of Matthew’s story, and that does make me wonder whether the author had an earlier version of Matthew where the prophecies had not yet been inserted; but a respected biblical scholar has assured me that it’s unlikely that such a version of Matthew ever existed.
Anyway, the point is that the mash-up effect is key to how people approach the story of the Nativity. Story elements pile up around the key moment of Jesus’ birth, in much the same way that secular customs pile up around the Christmas festival. One thing leads to another. We can’t put much trust in the historicity of the Nativity stories, but it’s still very interesting to investigate the traces of how they grew and developed over time.
- Brown, R. E. 1993 . The birth of the Messiah. A commentary on the infancy narratives in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, updated edition. Doubleday.
- Elliott, J. K. 1993. The apocryphal New Testament. A collection of apocryphal Christian literature in an English translation. Clarendon Press. (Protevangelium of James at 46–67)