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On the night that Jesus was born...

Carolyn Hyppolite ~

Think about any nativity you have passed by around Christmas, what are the components? Mary adoringly staring at her son, Joseph standing behind her oozing with paternal confidence, farm animals surrounding the humble Jesus, Shepherds on bended knee, and wise men bearing gifts.

English: The Church of the Nativity in Bethleh...
The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, supposedly the place of Jesus' birth (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
As a Christian, you assume that is one part of one coherent Biblical account. As you read the Gospels, you forget the details from Matthew that are not found in the Gospel of Luke and vice versa. The Christmas Crèche is a compilation of stories that reflects none of stories reflected in the Bible and that’s just the beginning of the problems found in the Nativity narrative.

Neither Mark nor John’s Gospel report a nativity story. This is odd given the important events that allegedly surrounds Jesus’s birth. First, he was born of a virgin—that doesn’t happen everyday; it’s news. Secondly, Jesus’s birth is accompanied by a massacre of newborn males; that’s if it bleeds, it leads news. Why would Mark and John leave out such important details? The most obvious explanation is that they simply were not aware of it.

Matthew’s infancy narrative begins with Jesus born in the time of Herod in Bethlehem (Matt 2:1). There are wise men from the East who want to pay him homage having seen his star rising (Matt 2:2). When Herod hears about this, he is frightened and tries to get the wise men to return with information about the child’s whereabouts (Matt 2:8). God tips them off in a dream not to reveal anything to the king and so they take another way home. (Matt 2:12). An angel of the Lord also tips off Joseph who flees to Egypt (Matt 2:13-15).

As he does throughout the Gospel, Matthew informs his reader that this fulfills a Hebrew Bible prophecy. As with the previous instances, he misunderstands the text. In this instance he quotes Hosea 11:1 “out of Egypt I called my son.” Read in context, it is abundantly clear that the text has nothing to do with Messianic prophecy. Hosea is referring to Israel and the Exodus. God is lamenting the fact that despite his goodness to Israel—having freed them from bondage—they remain faithless.

Herod is infuriated by the wise men’s deceit and he orders the slaughter of every male child under the age of two. Again, Matthew misidentifies a prophetic connection, citing Jeremiah 31:15:

A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more.

This reference is arguably to the destruction of the Northern kingdom and the exile. It has nothing to do with Messianic prophecy.

I must make a preemptive strike against the claim that Matthew is applying typology—the notion that it is Christ who is prefigured in those texts. There’s no indication from the text that that is how Matthew intended to interpret the Hebrew Bible. He cites them as prophecy and a literal reading of what he wrote is the most intellectually honest way to interpret him.

In addition, typology is a way that Christians appropriate the Jewish Bible by reading Jesus into passages where he clearly is not to justify their claims that Christ fulfills the Old Testament. Typology, like Matthew’s Gospel, reads the Hebrew Bible out of context.

There are still greater concerns. This story is strikingly similar to that of another Biblical story, Pharaoh’s order that the Hebrew males be killed (Exod 1:22). In Matthew’s account, just one child is spared—Jesus—by the intervention of God while the others are slaughtered. How likely is it that we live in a universe in which an all-loving, all powerful deity who is capable of sparing the lives of many children only acts to save one child who happens to be his son? Do we even want to live in such a universe?

Of course, there no historical evidence for this massacre. It occurs no where else in the New Testament. There’s also no record of it outside the Bible. The historian Josephus records about the cruelty of King Herod but makes no mention of this notable event.

Which is more probable that no one else thought a King ordering a massacre of children is news? That there is a God who can intervene to save children to be massacred but saves only his son? Or that Matthew, who wants to pattern the life of Jesus on the prophet Moses, and who does not understand the Hebrew prophets, concocts this story?

When we turn to the Gospel of Luke, we discover other problems. Luke also places Jesus’s birth during the reign of Herod but he has other concerns. Luke starts out with the couple being in Nazareth but he needs to get them to Bethlehem. He records that there was a census called for by the governor Quirinius, which required that all everyone in the Empire return to their ancestral homeland (Luke 2:1-4).

Luke says,” Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David” (2:4). This, the link between Bethlehem and the house of David, not history, is what the Gospel writer is really interested in. The census is simply a tool to get Jesus, the Nazarene, born in Bethlehem.

Thus, Joseph takes Mary to Bethlehem where she gives birth to Jesus. In Luke’s account, there are no wise men, no Herod ordering mass murder. This is where we get the shepherds adoring (Luke 2:6-20).

An historian can make mistakes. [...] However, a historian who is being inspired by a divine being ...However, Matthew and Luke’s nativity story conflict in a more critical way. Indeed, there was a census which occurred during Quirinius’s legateship (6-7 C.E.). This is well after the reign of Herod who died in 4 BCE. If Jesus was born under legateship of Quirinius, as Luke claims, he was not born during the time of Herod, as Matthew claims. There might have been other censuses, perhaps, one under the kingship of Herod but not the one that Luke refers to.

An historian can make mistakes. He can neglect to mention important events. He can get dates wrong. However, a historian who is being inspired by a divine being should be immune to these frailties. Of course, it’s never okay to just make stuff up.