This post is the first of several leading up to this Christmas dealing with the mythology lurking behind our Christmas stories, rituals, and holiday celebrations, starting with the stories of Jesus’s birth and leading up to our modern day. It will be something of a sleigh ride, and I hope you come along and enjoy it. (Head’s up: The other posts will be much shorter than this one! Also, my first Christmas mythology post was on December 23 last year and fits in here, so you’ll want to check that too.
In respect of the stories of Jesus’s birth, we are concerned with their “mythology” in two main respects. The first is to separate out how much of the Christmas story is historical and how much is myth (in the sense of not being true), so that we can be as clear as possible about the extent to which we are dealing with mythological material. The second is to consider the mythological motifs in the story, focusing on why they are there and what is their meaning. In this second aspect, we are dealing with myth in its more proper definition as a narrated story designed to convey profound, sacred truths. This post concentrates on the first and just begins on the second.
Is Christmas Based on a Myth?
Did the Christmas event that we celebrate ever happen? Virtually all biblical scholars agree that Jesus was born and lived, but what about the spectacular elements of the story that enhance its sacredness and have made it more special and memorable?
The stories of Jesus’s birth abound with extraordinary or miraculous elements having the ring of myth: A royal genealogy. Intervention by God (through the Holy Spirit) causing a virgin to conceive. Revelatory angelic appearances, including in dreams. The presence and actions of the Holy Spirit. A new star moving westward across the sky to Jerusalem, then south to Bethlehem, and stopping over the house of Jesus’s birth (Mt 2:2-10). Adorations of the wonder child by magi (in Matthew) and shepherds (in Luke). Prophecies about his nature and wondrous future. A chorus of angels singing in celebration of his birth, and then rising up into heaven (Lk 2:13-15). An evil king (Herod) out to kill the wonder child who could oust him. And much more.
Infancy stories appear only in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. There is no mention of Jesus’s birth in Mark or John, nor in the writings of St. Paul, the rest of the New Testament, or the Q source that most biblical scholars believe served as a principal source of material for Matthew and Luke. In fact, the circumstances of the nativity, once told, are not referred to in the remainder of either Matthew or Luke. They are self-contained literary units composed and dropped into the rest of Matthew and Luke, probably at a late stage of composition according to biblical scholars. These Gospels might have done well enough without them, as in the case of Mark and John, but Matthew and Luke included them in order to make theological points. I’ll consider in the next post why Matthew and Luke wanted to drop them in, but in this post I’ll focus on whether and to what extent these accounts have historical value.
The Christmas story as portrayed in our modern culture in stories, Christmas carols, Christmas cards, and art, is usually a combination and conflation of elements from Matthew and Luke. In fact, virtually all of these elements belong exclusively to either Matthew or Luke, and are absent from or contradicted by the other. We can count on our fingers the elements that Matthew and Luke have in common: virginal conception through the Holy Spirit, rather than Joseph being Jesus’s biological father; Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem, late in the reign of Herod, after his parents have started living together; Joseph’s Davidic descent; angels predict his birth, say to name the child Jesus, and predict that he will be the Savior; and Jesus is then brought up in Nazareth (Brown 34-35; Miller 13).
Otherwise Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts vary, either in focus or in outright contradiction with each other. (Brown 36). In fact, the two stories don’t have a single scene in common (Miller 11). A Hebrew Bible prophecy (Micah 5:2) had predicted that the Messiah will be from Bethlehem, but everyone knew that Jesus had grown up in Nazareth. According to Matthew, Joseph and Mary’s home was in Bethlehem, Jesus was born there, and they moved to Nazareth after returning from Egypt. But in Luke Joseph and Mary always live in Nazareth, and they visit Bethlehem only once to register for tax purposes, when Jesus was born. Matthew features the star, Luke does not. In Matthew Jesus is born in the family house, in Luke in a stranger’s outbuilding where there is a manger. In Matthew magi visit Jesus, probably several months after his birth, but in Luke it is humble shepherds from near Bethlehem, on the night of his birth. In Matthew, the family flees Bethlehem for Egypt to escape Herod’s massacre of the innocents. Luke reports no such thing. Rather, soon after Jesus’s birth, the family travels to the Temple in Jerusalem (not far from Herod’s palace) to present Jesus there, after which they return home to Nazareth. Matthew and Luke also each give genealogies of Jesus, but they are inconsistent with each other. These contradictions are irreconcilable (Miller 12-13), meaning that in each case one of them can’t be true, most likely neither. As the eminent biblical scholar Geza Vermes put it, “To attempt a full reconciliation of the two Infancy Gospels is a patently lost cause: squaring the circle would be easier than reducing the two into a single coherent unity” (12).
The narratives in many respects also run counter to known historical facts. For example, Luke’s account of the empire-wide Roman census during Herod’s reign which brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem cannot be true. There would be a record of such an ecumenical census, and there is none; there is no instance of this being done at any time, because it would have been impractical. In fact, Judea was not subject to direct Roman taxation during the reign of Herod (and his son Archelaus). Rome set up its own taxation system in Judea only in 6 CE when it came under direct Roman rule through a prefect who reported to the governor of Syria. This governor, Quirinus, did initiate a census as part of setting up that new system, but this was in 6 CE. So if Jesus was born during this census it could not have been during Herod’s rule, which had ended some 10 years earlier. But this census did not cover Galilee, so Joseph and Mary would not have been subject to it anyway (Meier 213). And even if they were, by law the registration would have been in the district where Joseph was resident rather than where his ancestor David was born, meaning in this case in the nearby Roman center of Sepphoris; nor would Mary have been required to go and appear with her husband to register (Meier 213; Vermes 86).
Another example of historical inaccuracy is Matthew’s story of the massacre of the innocents, which (at least as portrayed) would have been such a prominent and infamous event that, in the view of historians, there would have been some historical record of it (Brown 36). (Likewise for the account of the star (Brown 36).) Rather, Matthew invented the story in order to get Jesus to Egypt so he could be a new Moses to the people with a new Law, for Hosea 11:1 said, “out of Egypt I have called my son.” Matthew equated this episode with Pharaoh’s massacre of the Hebrews’ sons (Exod 1:15-22). Jesus’s family, however, did not return to Bethlehem, because Herod’s son was now ruling Judea, but inexplicably they then went to Nazareth in Galilee where Herod’s other son (Herod Antipas, who later beheaded John the Baptist) was ruling. From the frying pan into the fire!
A third example is Luke’s account of Jesus’s presentation at the Temple (2:21-40). Whereas in Matthew Jesus must be rushed out of Judea once Herod finds out about him, in Luke his parents take him to Jerusalem 40 days after his birth, where Temple prophets proclaim him the future savior of Israel and tell about it to all who will listen, this occurring a short walk from Herod’s palace! This episode as reported also contains significant mistakes in Jewish Law and ritual: Luke says that both Mary and Joseph went for purification, whereas only the mother had to do this. Also, purification of the mother and the presentation (and redemption) of the firstborn child were two separate rituals, but are combined and conflated by Luke here. Finally, presentation and redemption of the child did not require bringing the child to the Temple and “presenting” him there; rather, the parents would go and just pay five shekels (Meier 210; Freed 145-46).
Matthew and Luke could not have based their accounts upon taking testimony by eyewitnesses, because almost certainly they would have been dead by the time they wrote, and both authors are thought to have lived and wrote far from Jerusalem and Bethlehem. If a uniform and possibly reliable tradition of Jesus’s infancy had developed, then their accounts would not have been so vastly inconsistent. No two parallel narratives in the Gospels have a higher rate of contradiction, and the various attempts to reconcile them have proved to be hopeless contrivances (Miller 12-13). The vast majority of modern critical biblical scholars outside the fundamentalist/evangelical orbit regard these infancy narratives as unhistorical. Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts were written based on a combination of differing local traditions and the authors’ own creative imaginations for the purpose of creating a suitable myth to make their own theological points, as I will discuss in the next few posts.
For now, however, we can summarize the historical information that we can draw from these infancy stories, which is fairly limited: Jesus was born sometime late in King Herod’s reign, probably between 6 and 4 BCE. His parents were Mary and (less certain) Joseph, people of modest means. And as we shall see, the place of his birth was almost certainly Nazareth rather than Bethlehem. That’s about it.
Why Were the Infancy Myths Created?
Since no infancy stories or even references to the extraordinary events of Jesus’s birth appear in Mark, John, or elsewhere the New Testament, it is appropriate to ask why Matthew and Luke decided to include such stories. One reason was simple curiosity among early Christians (Brown 28). There was an insatiable appetite for more details about Jesus’s miraculous life, starting from its beginning, and such demand created the supply. In the resulting stories, the extraordinary, miraculous character of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection was projected backwards to his conception and birth. This curiosity continued, resulting in the later (2nd century) appearances of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which described Jesus’s childhood up through his appearance at the Temple at age 12, about which Luke had written, and the Protoevangelium of James, mainly providing details of Mary’s background.
But Matthew and Luke had more specific theological reasons for writing their infancy stories. First, Mark, who had no infancy narrative, wrote that Jesus was declared the son of god at the time of his baptism (1:11) (Ehrman 236-39). Matthew and Luke, however, wanted to make a Christological point: to show that Jesus’s divine nature existed even earlier, at the time of his conception, which accordingly occurred through divine means (Brown 29-32, 311-16; Meier 213; Ehrman 236-46). (Later, John pushed Jesus’s existence and divine nature back to before the creation (1:1-4)). Second, early Christians were competing with followers of John the Baptist, so the infancy stories (especially the virginal conception) were designed to make Jesus look superior to John (Kelly 2008, pp. 16-17). A third reason was to connect the very appearance of Jesus to the traditions of the Hebrew Bible (Brown 37). For a Jewish audience, it was useful to show how Jesus as the Messiah had been prophesized in the scriptures, while for a gentile audience it helped to show that the religious background and lead-up to the appearance of Jesus had an old, venerable, and documented history, because gentiles were skeptical of the newfangled Christian religion and its novel divine figure. Biblical scholars believe that a fourth reason for these infancy stories (and in particular the virginal conception) was to combat rumors, reflected in the Gospels, that Jesus was an illegitimate child (Brown 28-29, 534-42; Freed 32-37). A final reason was to explain that Jesus was really born in Bethlehem, given that everyone regarded him as being from Nazareth (Brown 28). This was necessary because, in order to be the Messiah, Jesus had to be born in Bethlehem in accordance with Micah’s prophecy.
Thus we see at work here what mythologists call the functionalist character of myths, according to which myths function to reinforce and further an existing belief system in a community, especially its religion. Beyond this, but along the same lines, the infancy stories were designed to attract converts from both the Jewish and Gentile communities and bring them into the Christian communities. This purpose was advanced by using a sacred narrative containing miraculous events, appealing to divine sanction. More broadly, as we shall see in subsequent posts, the mythical aspects of these stories echoed general mythological motifs from the Mediterranean world that the intended audiences would have recognized, thus giving the stories maximum persuasive power.
Note: The mythology underlying Christmas is covered in more detail in my new book, The Mythology of America’s Seasonal Holidays: The Dance of the Horae.
Sources and Bibliography
Brown, Raymond. The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke. Garden City/New York: Doubleday (1977).
Davies, W., and Allison, D. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, vol. 1, Matthew 1-7. New York: T&T Clark (1988).
Ehrman, Bart. How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. New York: HarperOne (2014).
Freed, Edwin. The Stories of Jesus’ Birth: A Critical Introduction. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press (2001).
Kelly, Joseph. The Birth of Jesus According to the Gospels. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press (2008).
Nolland, John. Luke 1-9:20. Dallas: Word Books (1989).
Meier, John. A Marginal Jew, Volume 1: The Roots of the Problem and the Person. New York: Doubleday (1991).
Miller, Robert. Born Divine: The Births of Jesus & Other Sons of God. Salem, Oregon: Polebridge Press (2003).
Vermes, Geza. The Nativity: History and Legend. New York: Doubleday (2006).