The Nativity

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We all know the story of the Nativity which is summed up for us in the crèche scenes we see every Christmas.  The Holy Child is in the manger, his mother sitting beside him; Joseph is standing nearby; the three wise men are kneeling, offering their gifts; the shepherds are adoring him, as are the kneeling cows.  Somewhere over them we can see the star, and perhaps a choir of angels.  The only problem with this scene is that it isn’t described anywhere in the Bible.


There are only two accounts of Jesus’ birth, Matthew’s and Luke’s.  In Matthew 2:9-11 an undetermined number of Wise Men from the East have followed the star which has stopped over a house.  Entering, they find the Child with his mother.  They bow down, give him gifts of gold, incense, and myrrh, and leave.  End of story:  no stable, no manger, no shepherds, no cattle.

Luke’s version in verse 2:7-20 is very different.  There is no room for Joseph and Mary at an inn, so the Child is placed in a manger (presumably in a stable).  An angel appears to some shepherds and tells them that the Messiah has been born:  “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.”  More angels appear and sing.  The shepherds hurry off to see the Child, and then return, glorifying God.  End of the story:  no house, no star, no wise men, no gifts, no cattle.  (To sum this up, the house, the stable, the manger, the shepherds, the star, the wise men, and the gifts, all occur in only one of the two stories!)

One could try to rationalize all of this by saying that the two versions have just been put together in the crèche scenes—and that would be fine if they really described the same picture, just giving us different details, but that isn’t the case at all.  We have two different and incompatible stories (the house vs. the stable, for example)—to which the crèche scenes we’ve all seen add another detail that doesn’t occur in either, the cattle.  Moreover, if you were to ask your friends about the Christmas Story, some would even be able to tell you the wise men’s names, their ages, and what part of the world they each came from.

How do such details originate?  The cattle are a nice touch, and the fact that cattle appear to kneel when they lie down, was probably too good to pass up—after all, one version of the story takes place in a stable—but if this stable is associated with an inn it probably has horses and donkeys in it, not sheep and cattle.  Then we have the Wise Men, as the term “magi” is translated.  (Magi were actually astrologers, fortune tellers, and sorcerers, not men of wisdom, as we think of them—we get the term, “magicians,” from the same root.)  The notion that there were three probably came from the fact that there were three gifts, and the number “three” became a part of the story by the third century CE.  By the sixth century it was widely held that they were kings—apparently it wasn’t impressive enough for them to just be Wise Men—one was said to be young, one middle-aged, and one old.  By the eighth century, they had been given names—Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar—and a little later their biographies were completed:  they didn’t just come from the East, but different places—one from Europe, one from Asia, and one from Africa.

The love of symbolism which underlies the creation of these details is readily apparent.  The Wise Men are given different ages to represent the ages of human kind.  They come from Europe, Asia, and Africa because these are the three parts of the known world.  Their names mean “king of light,” “the white one,” and “the lord of treasures.”  Now the story resonates with meaning, representing everyone in the world (as it was known at that time), and it is charged with mystery and grandeur.  It has grown from the rather spare account of Matthew, taking on substance through the urge to make it more meaningful, rich, and compelling—not through a desire to lie.  Nonetheless, it isn’t true—and this is not a matter of opinion for these details have no Biblical support whatsoever.  All of this might lead you to ask, “How much of the rest is true?  How much of it was simply added to deepen and enrich the message of the story that was being told?

Let’s begin by trying to find out how Joseph and Mary came to be in Bethlehem and Nazareth in the first place.  Nazareth seems to have been an insignificant city at the time and was unknown to history before the Roman period.  Nonetheless, Jesus was apparently called “Jesus of Nazareth.”  In contrast, Bethlehem is a city of great significance in the Bible for it is the city of David, and the birthplace-to-be of the Messiah, the Jewish Savior.  Handling these details ought to be simple for Matthew, for he places Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem at the beginning.  The house in his account is probably Joseph’s for he is said to have taken Mary to his home (1:24).  But the visit of the Wise Men doesn’t actually take place immediately after Jesus’ birth but much later.  To understand this and to know why Matthew tells the story the way he does, we must note that he has a preoccupation with the Old Testament prophecies, and this causes him to make Jesus’ biography a repetition in a small scale of the history of the Jewish people.  This is what he tells us.

Instead of following the star which will lead them directly to Joseph’s house—as it does later—the Magi inexplicably go to Jerusalem and pose a question to Herod, who has been made King of Judea by the Romans:  “Where is the one who has been born the King of the Jews (2:2)?”  (That might actually be regarded as Herod’s title—would Wise Men do something so lacking in political sense!?)  Herod calls together the priests and lawyers and asks them where the Messiah is supposed to be born.  Bethlehem, they tell him, citing a prophecy from Micah, so he asks the Wise Men when the star announcing the Child’s birth had appeared.  Then he sends the Magi to Bethlehem with instructions to return to him and tell him where the Child is.  They follow the star, “which went ahead of them,” until it stops over a house.

(How high could a star be and still identify a particular house below it?”  Which star is ever directly over your house, so much so that it singles it out from the houses of your neighbors, and even from those some miles away?  What could cause the star to move, and how can a moving star stop?  And why are there no accounts anywhere in the rest of the world of this amazing star?  Mathew is our only source.)

Entering the house, the Magi give their gifts to the Holy Child and leave, but they are warned by a dream not to return to Herod so they take a different route home.  Joseph also has a dream:  an angel tells him to take his family to Egypt where the Child will be safe, and not to return home until the angel tells him that it is safe to do so.  Matthew creates this to parallel Genesis 46:3 where God speaks to Jacob (called Israel):  “I am God, the God of your father,” he says.  “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there.”  Matthew tells us that the infant Jesus’ return to Judea will fulfill another prophecy:  “Out of Egypt I called my Son (Matthew 2:15).”  The full text of this prophecy (Hosea 11:1) is:  “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.”  The “son” is actually the Jewish people just as the “son” of the Genesis quote is, and the “son” of Exodus 4:22 is.

Herod is enraged when the Magi don’t return, probably within a few weeks, and he gives orders that all the boy babies in Bethlehem and vicinity who are two years old and younger are to be killed.  Matthew creates this detail to parallel the Old Testament account in Exodus 1:22 in which the Pharaoh gives orders that every Hebrew boy-child is to be thrown into the Nile.  (And to prepare for this is why the Magi are made to go to Jerusalem, in the first place.)  In actual fact, Herod could not have given any such order.  As a king of a client-state of the Roman Empire he was obliged to uphold Roman concepts of justice, and a massacre like this—which isn’t reported in any other source—would have become common knowledge and had repercussions in Rome.  Besides, he was very busy with intrigues and murders within his own family, for he was old and ill, and concerned with the succession to his throne, a serious problem since he had ten wives.  (Beyond this, the age of the victims, two years old and younger, was apparently inferred from information the Magi had given him about the time they first saw the star; thus, in Matthew’s account Jesus was probably going on two years of age when the Wise Men arrived.)

Matthew tells us that this massacre fulfills a prophecy from Jeremiah 31:15.  He only quotes one verse, but I am going to give you the next one as well.  First verse:  “This is what the Lord says:  ‘A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more.’”  And now the second verse:  “This is what the Lord says:  ‘Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for your work will be rewarded,’ declares the Lord.  ‘They will return from the land of the enemy.’”  Thus, Rachel’s sons haven’t been killed at all.  They have been captured and God promises that they will be returned to her.  There is no way that the massacre of the children can be a fulfillment of such verses.

After the death of Herod, an angel comes to tell Joseph that it is safe to return home.  (Herod died in 4 CE, and this will become important for us in a moment.)  But when Joseph hears that Archelaus is reigning as Herod’s successor, he goes to Nazareth instead.  The reason that Matthew shapes the story this way is to enrich it with another prophecy:  “He will be called a Nazarene.”  The problem is that there is no such prophecy.  The closest thing is Isaiah 11:1:  “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.”  Jesse is the father of David, and consequently an ancestor of the awaited Messiah, the Jewish savior.  The Hebrew word used by Isaiah to mean “shoot” is nazir, so Matthew may have thought that the passage means the Messiah will be known as a Nazarene.  And that, of course, means that he has to put Jesus in Nazareth.

The story that Luke tells is not nearly so complicated, but it also presents us with problems.  He chooses to make Joseph a resident of Nazareth from the beginning, but this means that he must find a pretext for getting him and Mary to Bethlehem.  He accomplishes this by referring to a census that actually took place in 6 BCE when Quirinius was the governor of the Roman Province of Syria.  Archelaus had been deposed and control of Judea was transferred to Syria.  But Matthew (who mentions no such census), has already told us that Jesus was born during the rule of Herod and we know that Herod died in 4 BCE.  It is impossible to tell just when Jesus was actually born.  Each writer is constructing a story that accomplishes his rhetorical goals, bringing about the effect he is trying to create.  The stories are not consistent with each other, and neither one is carefully based on fact.

We are told that this was a general census of the Roman Empire ordered by Caesar Augustus, and there were general censuses, but they did not, could not, require every man to return to the place of his birth to register.  The empire was huge and there was a great deal of mobility (consider Paul’s travels).  According to the Jewish historian Josephus, Quirinius’ census was not an empire-wide registration.  Instead, Quirinius had been ordered by Augustus to liquidate Archelaus’ estate and make an assessment of the property in Judea.  Like most such censuses, this would require a landowner to register his assets at the place where his property was held, not at the place of his birth.

At this time, there was no unified Christian church, so different writers in different places were likely to express different views.  Both Matthew and Luke are believed to have written in the 80’s and neither writer had any first-hand knowledge of the events they described, a fact that Luke acknowledges frankly in verses 1:1-3, although he claims to have a perfect understanding of what took place.  In actuality, only Joseph and Mary would have been eye-witnesses to the events in the Christmas story, and it is unlikely that whatever they had told to anyone would have been preserved unchanged.  Instead, telling and retelling (and even some invention) would have altered any story enormously in the 80-odd years since the events.


But all of this assumes that Jesus’ birth was regarded as important—and it wasn’t for Paul, Mark, or John, who do not mention it!  As a matter of fact, it is clear that no one was interested in writing a history of these events at the time they occurred, for the earliest followers of Jesus believed that the coming of the Kingdom of God was imminent.  Only when the years had passed and the coming hadn’t occurred did it seem necessary to create a history—and also a theology to explain why things were not happening as promised.

So what we have here are two writers, each trying to tell a story that is vitally important to him in the most effective way, each having different goals, and each choosing a different strategy.  Most of the details we have looked at are inventions created to explain events and make connections.  They may be the sorts of things that the authors believed must have happened, but they cannot be facts because they contradict what we know to be true and they do not agree with each other.  Matthew makes Joseph a resident of Bethlehem and invents the trip to Egypt to create a parallel with the Old Testament and to get Jesus to Nazareth.  Luke, on the other hand, makes Joseph a resident of Nazareth in the first place and uses the census to get him to Bethlehem.  As a result of all of this, their dates for the Nativity differ by five years or more.

Matthew invents the slaughter of the innocents to create another parallel with the Old Testament, and this is not surprising for he was probably a Jewish follower of Jesus.  Because of this, he is intent on showing that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Jewish Savior, and this means that Old Testament parallels are enormously important for him.  (A great many more examples could be given, including Jesus’ fasting in the wild for 40 days and 40 nights, a sort of parallel with the 40 years the Jews spent wandering in the wilderness—but here we are focusing only on the Christmas Story.)  Luke, who champions Paul in Acts, may have been a Gentile, so the Old Testament parallels are of little importance to him, but since he is writing for both Jews and Gentiles he includes a version of Joseph’s genealogy, which he begins with Adam whom he calls the “Son of God.”  This choice makes his gospel more inclusive than Matthew’s since we are all descended from Adam in the Biblical account.

What do we know, then, about Jesus’ birth?  Nothing for certain, but it is reasonable to accept that a man named Joseph may have been his father, that a woman named Mary may have been his mother, and that he was probably born in Nazareth.  We know little more.


All Biblical quotations are from the NIV (New International Version) unless otherwise noted.  I have used it because evangelicals and fundamentalists have a strong prejudice in its favor, although other translations such as the RSV (Revised Standard Version) and the NEB (New English Bible) are actually more accurate in many places.  The NEB is my favorite, but the New Oxford Annotated Bible, an edition of the RSV, may have the most useful notes of the inexpensive Bibles that are readily available, and it also includes the Apocrypha.

Uta Ranke-Heinemann, Putting Away Childish Things.  San Francisco:  Harper Collins, 1994.  Ranke-Heinemann is a Catholic theologian and historian of religion at the University of Essen.  She lost a Chair of Catholic Theology because she questioned the virgin birth in 1987.  A devout and erudite Christian, she does not suffer fools gladly.  Anyone who reads her book (and I wish everyone would) will see that I owe a special debt to her.

John Shelby Spong, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism.  San Francisco:  HarperSanFrancisco, 1992.  Spong is a retired Episcopal bishop who writes widely on religious matters.  He is rather too versatile for my taste, taking up ever new themes in book after book while exploring his own spiritual growth.  Nonetheless, this book contains much useful information.