by Don Cameron
[Editor’s Note: The National Rifle Association of America have a different authorized version. The AUK version does not involve killing children.]
Many well known characters in classical times had alleged miraculous births fathered by a god and an earthly mother. Perseus’ dad was Jupiter; Romulus’ was Mars; Hercules’ was Zeus. Helen of Troy was the daughter of Zeus and Augustus was the son of Apollo. (Apollo did quite a bit of this fathering with earthly women apparently.) There were many others including Alexander the Great.
Matthew and Luke
It is against this background that two unknown Greek writers wrote the story of Jesus’ birth around 50 years after he had died. It was said to be written by Saints Matthew and Luke although these names were only attached to the anonymous texts long after they were first in circulation. (There is no mention of the Nativity in Mark or John.) Our familiar Christmas story is a conflation of the two contradictory accounts. It is unlikely that the writers had any verifiable evidence from the event which was distant linguistically, geographically and by 80 years or so, from their place and time of writing. Perhaps they used oral traditions.
Birth Day of Jesus
Our years are measured from the birth of Jesus who we might suppose to have been born on 25th December of Year One CE. He had always existed, even before the creation according to the later writer, John, but he was born (again?) to a virgin during the reign of King Herod while Quirinius was governor of Syria. Historical records, from the Roman historian Tacitus or the Jewish historian Josephus, tell us that Quirinius was first appointed in the year 6 AD and that Herod had died more than ten years before that. The exact date of Jesus’ birth remains uncertain but perhaps 4 BCE.
Betrothal But No Sex
Mary and Joseph were betrothed, but not yet married, and Mary remained a virgin. But it turned out that she was pregnant. How could this be? A completely virgin birth would be a clone and hence female, so it would have been necessary to introduce genetic material to produce a male heterozygous embryo. Of course it is possible to think of less miraculous explanations. Matthew tells us that Joseph had grave doubts, until he had a dream in which an angel told him that it was OK.
The Census that Never Happened
Matthew’s account implies that Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem because that was probably where they lived, but Luke tells us that they lived in Nazareth and made the journey of 150 kilometres on foot to Bethlehem to be recorded in a census. Caesar Augustus had decreed that there must be a census of the whole Roman Empire. They had to make this journey because Joseph’s ancestor, King David, resided there 1000 years before. Can you imagine what such a census would have meant? Mass migrations would have been happening simultaneously all over the Empire as everyone travelled to their ancestral homes (if they even knew where these were). Curiously, no other mention of this remarkable census has been found in any ancient record nor is there any trace of its result, which would have been most interesting.
Lies and The Fulfilment of Prophecy
In any event, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, presumably at his parent’s home (according to Matthew) or in a stable because there was no room at the inn (Luke). Both gospel writers realized, even though everyone knew that Jesus came from Nazareth, that it had to be contrived as Bethlehem because Isaiah and Micah in the Old Testament predicted that was where the Messiah must be born.
The Wise Men
Only Matthew tells us that wise men had travelled from afar (he does not say how many). They followed a star. The idea that they were kings, or three in number, did not occur until the second century; they were given names in the sixth century and became venerated as saints. Cologne Cathedral preserves, even today, some bits of bone which are claimed to be true relics of their remains. They attract a constant stream of pilgrims.
Herod the Slaughterer?
It seems that the star guiding the wise men was not up to the standard of a modern GPS satnav. They lost track of it at Jerusalem, where, after they asked directions, it was leaked to King Herod that they were there to honour a new king. Herod wanted to stop that, so he ordered that all males under two years in Bethlehem should be slaughtered. This means that it must be some months afterwards, otherwise he would only have needed to take out the newborns. The wise men, after this indiscretion, resumed their journey and the star took them to the very spot.
Joseph and Mary (in Matthew) fled to Egypt to avoid Herod’s cull of the male infants. After Joseph had another dream indicating that it was safe, they returned to Bethlehem. It wasn’t safe because Herod’s son was just as bad, so they relocated to Nazareth. In Luke, they ended up in Nazareth too, but it was quite different. They just went back home as soon as the census was done. There was no trip to Egypt. There were no wise men, only shepherds, and no slaughter of the innocents.
The Genealogical Joke
Both Matthew and Luke have given us a genealogy of Jesus, tracing his male ancestors from Joseph all the way back to King David and then even further back to Abraham. In Luke’s case he keeps on going back until he reaches Adam. Since Adam was created directly by God, this (kind of) makes Jesus a son of God by another route (or at least a grandson with a lot of greats). But this sort of reasoning would mean that we all are – or daughters. Surprisingly, the two lists of ancestors are not the same – they give a completely different set of names. Of course, the fact that Joseph was not Jesus’ father anyway is a complication.
The Pagan Birth
There was no celebration of Jesus’ birthday for the first few centuries and no date for it is mentioned in the Bible, but after Christianity gained power in the fourth century, a problem arose. Every 25th December the Pagans held extravagant celebrations for the rebirth of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun. The Saturnalia celebrations involved exchanging gifts, eating and drinking too much and having a great time. Even Christian converts were joining in. Rather than try to prevent it, the Christian authorities relabelled it as Jesus’ birthday to make it a Christian festival.
So have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year