Much like Spider-man, we must all endure a retelling of Jesus’ origin story every year. Storytellers like to place their own spin on the tale, offering clever twists and differing details. In the same way that Peter Parker gets younger and younger and Aunt May gets progressively hotter (I’m looking at you Marissa Tomei), even the Bible offers different versions of the birth of Jesus. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll be using parts of both versions all mashed together into one big Christmas lump.
An Angelic Warning
After a few thousand years alone in heaven, God looked down upon the earth and saw Mary. He thinks to himself, Mary is a total hottie and I’d like myself a piece of that. He sends an angelic minion down to warn Mary. Mary is scared shitless when the angel appears out of thin air and says, “Mary! God thinks your hot and has decided you’re going to have his baby.” Mary, thinking practically, tells the angel this is impossible because she’s a virgin. The angel replies (and allow me to quote directly from the Bible here), “The Holy Spirit will come on you.” Ew. “And the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” Ominous. (Luke 1:35)
The Line of David
Mary may be having God’s son, but she’s still engaged to Joseph. That’s right, God made a move on another man’s fiance. Not cool, God. The Bible points out that Joseph is a descendant of King David. Despite the fact that Joseph does not share a shred of DNA with his step-son, Jesus, the angel considers Joseph’s lineage as proof of Jesus also being a descendant of David – thus fulfilling an old testament prophecy (Jeremiah 33: 14-15).
Ok, so maybe first-century authors didn’t understand genetics very well. However, if Joseph is not Jesus’ biological father, then Jesus is not an actual descendant of King David. Maybe if Mary had been a part of that royal family tree, but the religious tradition of thinking women are worthless killed that plot point. First fulfilled prophecy: BUSTED.
Census of Quirinius
Luke shows his ignorance of the details surrounding Jesus’ birth. He places the nativity during the reign of King Herod, who died in 4 BCE, and the census of Quirinius, which took place in 6 CE.
At any rate, another old testament prophecy stated that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). Mary and Joseph were from Galilee and, later, Jesus is known to be from Nazareth. This presented a problem for the author, who really needed Jesus to fulfill this prophecy. The solution? Use the census to move the various characters into proper position.
Luke claims that everyone had to return to the town of their birth to register for the census. This doesn’t really make logistical sense. Wouldn’t it be easier, and make for a more accurate census, if people registered in the place where they lived and owned property? Yes, it would. That’s exactly how the Romans actually conducted a census. It’s the taxation officials who would do the traveling. Historians agree that Luke’s full of shit. Second fulfilled prophecy: BUSTED.
First Birthday Party
I won’t spend much time here. Joseph botched the reservations and he and his pregnant wife ended up sleeping in a barn. Jesus is born, shepherds visit, wise men from China, or wherever, pop by to deliver terrible baby gifts. What’s a baby supposed to do with oil and incense anyway?
The wise men say they followed a star to the stable, which is a weird thing to do. I feel the need to mention that stars don’t really hover over towns. If they did, every person on earth would die a horrific, fiery death. Maybe it was a super bright angel that was hanging out in Bethlehem, acting like a supernatural lighthouse. The Bible doesn’t say.
Slaughter of the Innocents
Despite the ‘star’ in the sky, the wise men somehow get lost and ask Zombie King Herod (remember, he died in 4 BCE) for directions. Zombie King Herod gets pissed off, thinking baby Jesus might possibly replace him as king one day. After all, the angel promised Mary that Jesus would inherit David’s throne and rule over his people forever. Obviously, that didn’t happen.
Zombie King Herod went full Game of Thrones and ordered all young boys in Bethlehem to be slaughtered. God’s minion showed up in the nick of time and warned Mary and Joseph. They grabbed Jesus and ran off to Egypt. Once Zombie King Herod cooled off or died again, they returned to their home in Nazareth. This particular plot point, as made up by Matthew, made sure that Jesus fulfilled the prophecy found in Hosea 11:1, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” Nevermind the fact that the passage in Hosea referred to Jacob and wasn’t a prophecy at all. Luke doesn’t mention the slaughter of the innocents or a family vacation to Egypt at all. Historical records of this event simply don’t exist. Third fulfilled prophecy: BUSTED.
Here’s the main problem with the Christmas story – it didn’t exist until nearly a century after Jesus’ supposed birth. The earliest written Christian documents were those written by Paul, somewhere around 50-60 AD. Paul didn’t mention the virgin birth, Bethlehem, Egypt, shepherds, wise men, the census of Quirinius, or the mass murder of babies. Not even once.
The earliest Gospel is Mark, which was written around 70 AD. Interestingly, he doesn’t mention the birth narrative at all. Mark begins when Jesus is already an adult. The two Gospels that tell the nativity story are Matthew and Luke, written between 70 AD and 90 AD. Both books borrow heavily from Mark when telling the story of Jesus’ adult life and ministry. They both differ from Mark by adding an origin story. The late date alone raises suspicions and suggests to me that the Jesus story was becoming more and more mythologized as time went on.
Matthew and Luke failed to check with each other, however, because they each wrote contradicting stories. The only two similarities being the virgin birth (which is common among mythologies) and the town of Bethlehem. Every other detail is conflicting.
Here’s a quick rundown:
- Matthew: The angel appeared to Joseph.
- Luke: The angel appeared to Mary.
- Matthew: The genealogy names Joseph’s father as Jacob.
- Luke: The genealogy names Joseph’s father as Heli.
- In fact, the geneolgies are so completely different that they only share two names – Shealtiel and Zerubbabel (Matthew 1:12 and Luke 3:27)
- Matthew: No census.
- Luke: Census.
- Matthew: Mary and Joseph lived in Bethlehem.
- Luke: Mary and Joseph lived in Galilee.
- Matthew: Jesus was born in a house.
- Luke: Jesus was born in a manger.
- Matthew: Wise men visited.
- Luke: Shepherds visited.
- Matthew: Slaughter of innocents.
- Luke: No mention of slaughter.
- Matthew: Mary, Joseph, and Jesus flee to Egypt.
- Luke: No flight to Egypt.
You can find a more thorough breakdown here if you’re interested.
This Christmas, when your religious grandma pulls out the Bible and starts to recite the nativity story, keep these things in mind. Maybe ask a few leading questions. Maybe point out the contradictions. Maybe just drink your egg nog and open some presents. Whatever you do, have a Merry Freakin’ Christmas!