Sunday, December 11, 2005

The Christmas Story

Religious Tolerance.org has an interesting summary of the Gospel accounts of Jesus' birth here. I have excerpted parts of it below:
  • Gospel of Q: This gospel was written circa 50 CE, probably before any of the books that became the Christian Scirptures (New Testament). Although it has been lost, theologians have been able to reconstruct its text. It does not mention Jesus' birth as being in any way special. One can assume that the Christians at the time had not yet developed a birth myth.
  • Writings of Paul: These were probably written a few years after the Gospel of Q, and pre-dated the remaining gospels by up to 5 decades. He makes reference to Jesus' birth in two passages. In both cases, the virgin birth and the miracles associated with the birth were not mentioned. Jesus was presented as having a normal birth:
    • Galatians 4:4: "But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law."
    • Romans 1:3: "...Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh."
  • Mark: This gospel was written by an unknown author circa 70 CE. He apparently knew nothing about miraculous events associated with Jesus' birth, and thus did not record any in his writings. If he were aware of them, he certainly would have mentioned them.
  • Matthew: This was written by another unknown author, probably a Jew who lived remote from Palestine. He wrote the Gospel circa 80 CE, presumably after some of the early Christian movements had invented miraculous traditions associated with Jesus' birth. Most of the elements associated with this myth appear to have never happened:
    • Matthew 1:1: The author traces Jesus' genealogy from Abraham. He lists Jacob as being Jesus' grandfather. This conflicts with Luke, who lists Eli. Jesus' line is traced through Solomon, son of David. Luke traces the Messianic line through Nathan, son of David. The author lists 28 generations between David and Jesus; Luke says it was 41.
    • Matthew 1:18: The virgin conception of Jesus by Mary is an obvious myth. The Gospel of Q does not mention it. St. Paul not only does not mention it, but implies that Jesus' birth was normal. The author of the Gospel probably invented the virgin birth so that the story of Jesus' could compete with the magical conception of many heroes and gods in surrounding Pagan religions: e.g. Horus (circa 1550 BCE), Zoroaster (1000 - 1500 BCE?), Krishna (circa 1200 BCE), Indra (circa 750 BCE), Buddha (circa 600 BCE), Mithra (circa 500 BCE), Quirrnus (circa 550 BCE), Attis (circa 200 BCE), Adonis (born in Bethlehem many centuries before Jesus).
    • Matthew 1:22: The author cites a passage in an ancient Greek translation of Isaiah. The translation was an error: it substituted "virgin" for "young woman." Matthew and Luke probably felt compelled to go along with the expectation that Jesus' mother was a virgin.
    • Matthew 2:1: The story of the Magi coming to Palestine to give homage to the King of the Jews appears to have been freely adapted from the story of Mithra's birth. He was mythical Persian savior, also allegedly born of a virgin on DEC-25, who was worshiped many centuries before Jesus' birth
    • Matthew 2:7: Herod inquired as to the exact time that the star appeared. According to Matthew 2:16, this was to learn exactly when Jesus was born, so that he could have all of the male children of a suitable age in the Bethlehem area murdered. Since he later ordered all of the children under 2 years of age slaughtered, Jesus must have been living with his parents in Bethlehem for many months by the time that the Magi arrived - perhaps at least a year. If Jesus had been just born, then Herod would have ordered only newborn infants killed. This conflicts with Luke 2:39 which states that when Mary was ritually purified 40 days after the birth, that the family returned to Nazareth immediately afterwards.
    • Matthew 2:9: The story element which has the Magi following a star is obvious mythical. Any star or super-nova or comet or alignment of planets would obviously be tens or hundreds of millions of miles away from earth. In order to serve as a marker for the house in Bethlehem where Jesus was, it would have to be only a few hundred feet above the town.
    • Matthew 2:11: The author presents Joseph and Mary as being residents of Bethlehem, living in a house. This conflicts with Luke's account which describes Jesus' parents as residents of Nazareth and only temporary visitors to Bethlehem
    • Matthew 2:13: The author describes the family fleeing to Egypt. No record of this is seen in Luke. It was apparently added to the gospel in order to match the prophecy in Hosea 11:1 that the Messiah must come out of Egypt.
    • Matthew 2:16: Herod's extermination order is certainly a myth, as described above.
    • Matthew 2:23: Joseph and Mary bypassed Judea and settled in Nazareth. The prophecy that "He will be called a Nazarene" does not exist in the Hebrew Scriptures.
  • Luke: This gospel was written by an unknown author circa 90 CE. He was probably the only writer in the Christian Scriptures who was not born a Jew. Originally, it was believed that the author of Luke and Acts was a physician. But recent analysis of the text indicates that his medical knowledge was typical of any educated person of his era. The Christmas story that we see portrayed in plays and pageants is most often taken from this gospel. Matthew's mention of the Magi is then tacked onto the end. Some suspicious elements from Luke's birth story are:
    • Luke 3:38: As noted above, Luke's genealogy cannot be reconciled with Matthew's.
    • Luke 1:26: The description of the virgin conception is, as described above, an attempt to make a mistranslated prophecy from the Hebrew Scriptures come true. Alternately the author might have incorporated a birth tradition invented by his religious group in order to make Jesus appear to be a great hero or god, like those of the surrounding religions in the Mediterranean.
    • Luke 2:1: The census never happened.
    • Luke 2:2: Even if a census did occur at the time of Jesus' birth, the people would not have been required to return to their ancestral home. That would be a totally impractical arrangement. If it happened this way, all work throughout the Roman Empire would stop. Some people would have had to travel for months to return to their ancestral home. The transportation infrastructure could not possibly have handled the flood of travelers.
    • Luke 2:5: Joseph would not have taken Mary with him, even if he had to go to Bethlehem to register. Only men were enumerated or taxed, so there was no necessity for her to accompany Joseph. Mary's pregnancy was in its 9th month at the time. She would not have been in a condition to travel.
    • Luke 2:8: The author seems to have invented the shepherds; the latter do not appear in Matthew.
    • Luke 2:39: The author describes Joseph and Mary as being residents of Nazareth. This is probably true, but conflicts with Matthew's story which has them living in Bethlehem, and only deciding to go to Nazareth because it would be too dangerous to remain in Judea.
    • Luke 2:39: Luke describes them as going directly from Bethlehem to Nazareth. This conflicts with Matthew's account which has them fleeing to Egypt and only returning after Herod died. At least one of these accounts must be wrong.
  • John: This gospel was written by one or more authors circa 100 CE. The writers would have certainly been aware of the birth stories of Matthew and Luke. But they seem to have rejected the stories as myths, and not worthy of being incorporated into their gospel.
What is the point of highlighting all of these discrepancies? Once again, it is to point out the folly of literal interpretation of the Bible and and of insistence on biblical inerrancy. Any enterprise that involves humans can never be inerrant, so why do so many on the right persist in such a fruitless cause?

But, that does not mean that we should reject all of the events associated with the Christmas season, just because the Gospels are seemingly contradictory or just plain wrong. They were intended to tell us the story of Christ's humble birth, which has inspired Christians for centuries. The Son of man was no friend of the rich and haughty. He was the Prince of Peace -- a poor commoner and the son of a carpenter and his young wife.

That is the real Christmas story.

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