25 Strange facts you didnt know about Christmas

1. The earliest Gospel says nothing of the Nativity Story or the virgin birth.

The first Gospel to be written, Marks Gospel, which is dated 10-25 years earlier than Matthew/Luke is utterly and completely silent about the miraculous birth of Jesus; not even a one word reference. This means the earliest reference to the Nativity related miracles are from at least 70 years after the fact purportedly happened. (70 is the conservative estimate, most scholars date for Matthew and Luke from 80-90). This means that the Nativity Story could not have been written down by an eyewitness. 

 

2. The earliest Christian writings are likewise missing any mention of the virgin birth.

The earliest book of the New Testament, 1st Corinthians, which was written in 54AD, contains absolutely no mention of the nativity story or the miracle/virgin birth of Jesus. Neither does the rest of the New Testament. So mysterious is this century long absence of information that some conservative Christian theologians,  James Hastings and Thomas Neufeld, have postulated that perhaps the virgin birth was known and kept secret by a few generations of Christians until being revealed some 80 years later. (Why thisneeded to be kept a secret is beyond me.)

 

3. It was common to write of world leaders as “savior of the world” or claim a virgin/miraculous birth.

World renowned New Testament scholar, J. D. Crossan, tells us “there was a human being in the first century who was called ‘Divine,’ ‘Son of God,’ ‘God,’ and ‘God from God,’ whose titles were ‘Lord,’ ‘Redeemer,’ ‘Liberator,’ and ‘Saviour of the World’… Most Christians probably think that those titles were originally created and uniquely applied to Christ. But before Jesus ever existed, all those terms belonged to Caesar Augustus.” In addition it was common to describe notable leaders as having a virgin birth, according to historian Charles H. Talbert, it was widely taught that Ceasar Augustus was conceived after the God Apollo impregnated Atia, and ten months later Augustus, now called the son of Apollo was born. It’s put best by the honest theologians of Homebrewed Christianity, of course Jesus was born of a virgin – it happened a lot back then.”

 

4. If we believe Luke and Matthew, then Joseph had two dads.

Yep that’s right, there are two very different fathers listed in the genealogy of Joseph. Luke says that Jesus was “the son of Joseph, the son of Heli” (Luke 3:23-24). Mathew on the other hand says “Jacob was the father of Joseph”  (Matthew 1:15-16). These are two different names, and if you bother to read the geneology, the whole list is different, there are only a few of the same names on there. The amount of apologetic gymnastics that happens over this issue is actually pretty hilarious. There are some four or five different “answers” out there that basically claim “even though the text clearly says X, it really means something else.” 

 

5. Matthew mentions 4 women in his genealogy, all four have an unusual sexual history.

It was rather unusual to list a woman in a genealogy among a patristic people like the Jews. What is even more unusual is that all four recorded have an equally unusual sexual history.

a)Tamar – disguised herself as a harlot to seduce Judah, her father-in-law (Genesis 38:12-19).

b) Rahab – was a harlot who lived in the city of Jericho in Canaan (Joshua 2:1).

c) Ruth – at her mother-in-law Naomi’s request, she came secretly to where Boaz was sleeping and spent the night with him. Later Ruth and Boaz were married (Ruth 3:1-14).

d) Bathsheba – became pregnant by King David while she was still married to Uriah (2 Samuel 11:2-5).

 

6. There has never been a recorded Roman census that required people to travel to their birthplace.

Leading Biblical scholars like E. P. Sanders have pointed out that it’s the practice of the census-takers, not those being taxed, to travel to different locations.

Even James Dunn, a leading conservative Christian scholar admits that “the idea of a census requiring individuals to move to the native town of long dead ancestors is hard to credit.” As it stands, there is literally nothing in the recorded history that ever mentions a Roman census forcing people to travel to their birthplace. (In addition, Geza Vermes and Emil Shurer in “The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ” have argued that taking into account everything we know about history has never been a global census ordered by Augustus, as dictated by Luke.)  The point of a census is taxation, not chaos and a nightmare. Imagine if half the country is traveling for a census, who is taking care of the home, the flocks, or the stable? In addition, there would be no need for a 9 month pregnant Mary to travel anywhere. Joseph could have traveled and registered, even if there was travel required.

 

7. There are two very different Nativity stories told by Matthew and Luke, we mix them into one.

While it’s theoretically possible that 20 things happened, and each author just happened to pick the 10 that the other author avoided, the curious thing is that most of these don’t overlap. There is a significantly large amount of novel content in each different nativity story. Matthew says X happened, Luke says it was Y, and today, we say it was XY. For example, in Luke the angel spoke to Mary but not Joseph, while in Matthew, the angel spoke to Joseph, but not Mary (Matthew 1:20 vs Luke 1:28).

 

8. There are many purported harmonizations that disagree with each other

Like for many other Gospel differences, the most zealous of believers try to harmonize the stories and put them into one. Usually it involves taking 10 elements from one, 10 from the other, and bringing them together, like a zipper. Part of the problem with this is that it creates a totally different story, it’s like taking two superman comics and gluing the pages together – mixing pages from each of the two comics – you get a third story. Whats also interesting is that among the varying harmonizations found throughout history, in academic literature, and on the internet, many of the details disagree with one another. For example, Dan Wallace, a leading Christian scholars says one explanation is “nearly impossible” and yet, that is exactly the explanation proposed by N. T. Wright, another Christian, and so forth. All the fundamentalists agree there must be a way to fix this, but can’t agree on how.

 

9. Mary told her friends about the visit from an angel… but not her husband?

In Luke’s version of the story an angel tells Mary she will have a child, she runs and tells her friend Elizabeth, together they rejoice and make a ruckus, next scene Mary and Joe are happily married, no mention of any tension. In Matthews version of the story, this whole event is absent, and instead, we start with a somber Joseph who is ready to leave his bride because she’s pregnant. There is no reference of her telling him about the angelic visit, or his disbelief of that story, instead an angel appears and tells him, as though he is hearing it for the first time.

 

10. The shepherds visited a cave/barn while the Magi visited a house

While it’s common to see Christmas plays with Magi and Shepherds in the same place, each Gospel author only showcases one group, and not the other, in two different locations. Luke’s story shows the shepherds, who were startled by a whole choir of angels, visiting Jesus in a manger in a cave/barn. Matthew’s story leaps from Josephs dream to the Magi following a star to the family’s house in Bethlehem.

 

11. There are zero singing angels in the story, Luke only shows them talking.

Every single time I’ve heard the Christmas story there are singing angels, it’s been recreated a thousand times in film and drama, and there is always a large group of angel-children singing. However, in the original text, the angels don’t sing the words, they speak the words. Imagine the Christmas story with a hundred tall men chanting in their masculine voices. Now remove the background music. That’s more like it.

 

12. Magi refers to a group of Zoroastrian (pagan) astrologers not “kings.”

I’ve always wondered why the shepherds got a whole angelic choir while the magi a rather monotonous little star. Turns out its because they were wicked pagans who, were probably members of the Zoroastrian religion, and to make matters worse, they were astrologers. The reasons we often hear of “kings” is because an ancient church father, Tertullian, believed some Old Testament prophecies mandated that kings would visit Jesus (Psalm 68:29, 72:10-11) so he did what any good theologian would, and simply taught it as fact.

 

13. There were probably no camels in the picture.

The reason church tradition has included camels as part of the story is because of an Old Testament passage that some believed was meant to be a prophecy about the Nativity. (Isaiah 60:3-6) mentions camels, and so people assumed it must refer to Jesus, and therefore, there must have been camels. However, the New Testament is completely silent on this tradition, and it’s more likely that Persian royalty would be riding horses, but we can’t really know.

 

14. The “Star” of Bethlehem could not have been a star

Before the invention of the telescope the ancients believed stars were small luminaries hung above the globe, perhaps a few hundred miles away, today we know stars are millions of light years away, very large, and that it takes millions of years for their light to reach the earth.  Not to mention the fact that stars can’t possibly shine on one particular house. Some evangelicals have proposed that it was a comet, meteorite, or a new planet, but this too could never shine on one particular house. If this truly happened, it would have to have been a supernatural flying-light that was very low and could hover above houses.

 

15. Matthew dates the Nativity during the reign of Herod, Luke dates it ten years after Herods death.

Matthew says Jesus was born “in the days of Herod the king,” (Mat 1:28) in fact the Magi are shown talking to the King himself, clearly this happens when Herod the Great is alive. Yet Luke on the other hand, speaks of a census that occurs when “when Quirinius was governor of Syria” (Luke 2:2). Here is the problem, Herod the Great died in 4 B.C. and Quirinius only became governor of Syria in 6 A.D., that’s more than ten years later! There are currently six different ways apologists try to “explain” this (from the irate “well Josephus the historian was wrong” to “well there were actually two separate censuses or two reigns of Quirinius.” None of these reasons are particularly compelling or have any evidence behind them.

 

16. Luke takes the family back to Nazareth, Matthew shows them fleeing into Egypt

According to Luke, the family came to Bethlehem for a census, Jesus was circumcised on the 8th day in Jerusalem (Luke 2:21), and the family went right back to their hometown of Nazareth (Luke 2:39). There, as Luke tells us, Jesus grew up grew and became strong (Luke 2:22). No fleeing to Egypt is mentioned at all. On the other hand, Matthew starts off with the family living in a house in Bethlehem, and then afterwards they flee to Egypt.

 

17. Luke’s story shows Nazareth as the initial hometown of Jesus, Matthews shows it as Bethlehem.

Luke emphasizes that the family came to Bethlehem for a temporary census, and after the ceremonial purification went back to “to their own town of Nazareth” (Luke 2:39). Yet in the Matthews Gospel we see that the family already lives in Bethlehem, next they flee to Egypt. Later they return to Judea, but because of political circumstances, they venture away from their original destination to a place called Nazareth. (Matthew 2:21-23)

 

18. Matthews story of slaughtered babies is based on an out-of-context interpretation of prophecy.

While historians like Josephus liked recording Herod the Great’s atrocities, there is no historical mention of Herod killing all of the children in the town of Bethlehem. That said, it certainly could have happened. Robert Eisenman, a prominent biblical scholar argues that the story likely developed from the fact that Herod killed his own children. In any case, the more interesting thing is Matthew incorrectly claims a prophecy was fulfilled in the slaughter of the Bethlehem children. He quotes Jeremiah 31:15 and applies it to his Bethlehem infants, yet reading the context of Jeremiah 31, we can be absolutely certain that the context speaks of the “children of Israel” being exiled to Babylon. Why do I think that? Because the verse right after that which Matthew quotes (Jeremian 31:16-18) clearly states it.

 

19. Matthews cites the prophecy about Jesus leaving to Egypt… out of context.

In his 2nd chapter, verse 15, Matthew claims that Jesus fleeing to Egypt “fulfills” an ancient prophecy, and he cites a few words from Hosea 11:1 “out of Egypt I have called my son.” Yet when one reads the full verse recorded in Hosea, one clearly sees the “son” in question is the nation of Israel, and the Egypt is indubitably referring to the liberation of Israel from Egyptian slavery. The passage literally says so, the whole chapter talks about Israel being foolish and worshiping Baal after coming out from Egypt, so unless Jesus worshiped Baal, the passage cannot be about Jesus.

 

20. Matthew was likely wrong to translate the word Almah, “young woman” into “virgin”

In Matthew 1:22-23 we see a quotation from Isaiah that claims a “virgin shall conceive.” Matthew translates this from the original Hebrew term almah, however, Jewish Rabbis say the term does not mean virgin, a better word for virgin is betulah. The argument from some conservatives is that the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek (the Septuagint) and in the Greek the word these earlier authors used was parthenos which does mean virgin. Since Matthew was quoting the Greek bible, he was right to use this. To that there are two responses, firstly: well which one is the true bible, the Hebrew text or the Greek translation? Second, the Greek word parthenos is used in Genesis 34:2-4 to refer to Dinah after she was raped, clearly she was not a virgin afterward, yet the same word is used to describe her. This issue has been hotly contested, but as it now stands the New Revised Standard Version, which is the most common academic biblical translation used in seminaries has replaced “virgin” with “young woman” in Isaiah 7:14.

 

21. Matthew’s prophecy about the virgin is completely out of context anyway.

To make matters worse, even if we assume that almah really does mean virgin, a careful reading of the 7th chapter of Isaiah states that the prophecy refers to a localized event that happened during Isaiah’s time. Two kings were planning to invade Judea, but Isaiah tells King Ahaz that God will protect Judea from this invasion, and kill the two kings (Isaiah 7:5-9). Next we have the famous “prophecy” quoted by Matthew about a “virgin.” And the very next verse says “For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted.” (Isaiah 7:9). Clearly the the two kings could not have lived from the age of Isaiah to the birth of Jesus, that would make them 500+ year old! To make matters worse, a few verses later Isaiah impregnates a young woman, she bears a child, and concurrently the two invading nations are destroyed. (Isaiah 8:3-5). Prophecy fulfilled, hundreds of years before the era of Jesus.

 

22. Matthew is really bad at quoting the Old Testament

As we’ve seen already Matthew breaks all rules about reading the Bible in context, but not only that, he frequently quotes the OT very loosely. Matthew 2:6 is supposed to be a direct quotation of Micah 5:2, yet there are half a dozen little differences, it’s as though he did it from memory or there were many different versions circulating.

a) The original: “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’” (ESV)

b) The quotation: “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.” (ESV)

 

23 The Birth of Jesus was likely not on December 25

We really have no idea what date, or even month Jesus was born. Some have theorized that winter would have been too cold for the Shepherds to be outside at night.  In any case “Lacking any scriptural pointers to Jesus’s birthday, early Christian teachers suggested dates all over the calendar. Clement… picked November 18. Hippolytus… figured Christ must have been born on a Wednesday. An anonymous document believed to have been written in North Africa around A.D. 243, placed Jesus’s birth on March 28” (Jeffery Sheler, U.S. News & World Report, “In Search of Christmas,” Dec. 23, 1996, p. 58). In fact, Biblical scholars have given possible birthdates for Jesus in virtually every single month.

 

24. Marks version of the family of Jesus acts like they did not get the angels message

We already noted that Mark is missing the miracle birth and visitations from angels. At the same time, Marks Gospel also shows a situation where the family of Jesus literally thought he was crazy and tried to institutionalize him. “And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, “He is out of his mind.” (Mark 3:21). How could his parents, think Jesus is crazy after being told by angels that this child is God in the flesh? This is yet another hint that the Nativity story was a later addition.

 

25. Many of the world’s leading Biblical scholars consider the Nativity stories as pious fiction.

Certainly there are stalwart defenders of the complete historicity of the two stories, but they tend to be found in mostly one group, very conservative evangelicals. On the other hand, mainline Christian, Jewish, and secular scholars argue that these things that were written down to cast a backdrop to the story of Jesus, even though the Gospel writers really didn’t know much about the early years of Jesus. Some of the scholars who have argued this way includes these three modern scholars of international repute, the Jew, Geza Vermes, the agnostic, E.P. Sanders, and the Christian, Marcus Borg.  In the 19th and 20th centuries it was very popular among “liberal theologians” of all stripes, but probably gained significant popularity due to the writings of Rudolf Bultmann, “one of the most influential theologians and biblical scholars of the twentieth century.”

6 responses

  1. Hey friend,

    Are you aware that Peter Enns in his “Inspiration and Incarnation” does a great job of explaining why the writer of Matthew, for instance, takes so many verses out of their original Old Testament context? It’s not because he’s being dishonest, but because he’s following a rabbinic hermeneutical method common during 2nd Temple Judaism, which, in his day, was totally acceptable to use. In our post-enlightenment times however, not so much. With all due respect, to read our standards of historical accuracy back into Matthew’s time smacks of an anachronistic fallacy. Many theological moderates and liberals make this mistake in dealing with the texts of the Bible.

    See also Walton and Sandy’s “The Lost World of Scripture” for a detailed discussion on these issues.

    Blessings to you and yours!

    • Howdy, I’ve actually read both I&I as well as Waltons Lost world, likewise I follow Enns blog, but thanks for the recommendation however.

  2. Not only that the first Gospel knows nothing about miraculous birth, but even the last Gospel – according to “John” – has no word about the nativity. Neither other New Testament writings give a single hint about it. Only Matthew and Luke, no one else….

  3. Your article is so full of inaccuracies, false statements, irrelevant sneers, omissions of important facts, distortions, and polemic that one cannot deal with it all in detail here.

    You don’t mention that Matthew’s Gospel was originally written in Hebrew (in Greek as in English there is no connection between the word “Jesus” and “save” but in the equivalent words in Hebrew there is), nor that his quotes would have been from the original Hebrew but when the Gospel was translated into Greek the sometimes faulty Septuagint translations were inserted .

    You make the totally false claim that Luke placed the birth of Jesus after Herod’s death. In fact there WAS an empire-wide registration of significant families in the year before the 25th year of Emperor Augustus’ authorisation by the Roman Senate – so registration in 3BC, great celebrations across the empire in 2BC, Herod died in January 1BC.

    You give dates for the publication of the Gospels for which there is no internal or external evidence. The reason that “liberal theologians” claim dates after 70 AD is that Jesus predicted the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in some detail in the three synoptic Gospels and they refuse to accept prophecy and therefore insist that they were written later. But why then did they not say that this was a prophecy that had come true? In fact Mark probably wrote about AD 50 and Matthew soon after. Luke who mentions “many” previous accounts was in Judea and Syria from AD 57-59 whilst Paul was in prison in Caesarea, wrote his “orderly” account then and may have met with Mary who would then have been in her 70’s. This would account for his first two chapters having such an Old Testament nuance about them.

    There is much more detailed research provided in “The Star that Astonished the World” which can be read online at http://www.askelm.com/star/index.asp

    • Peter,

      First off, seasons greetings to you.

      That you start off with the discarded “Hebrew Gospel Hypothesis” tells me you are a fundamentalist (even the Catholic church rejects that hypothesis, as do virtually all modern biblical scholars, save one or two fundamentalists.)
      The fact that you accuse me of dishonesty, and then yourself proceed to make dishonest statements tells me you are somewhat angry or upset, for that I apologize, I did not want this post to produce anger.

      You make a claim about a registration and yet it is nothing more than a vacuous claim, literally not corroborated by anything more than “its true because I said so.”

      You state that Herod died in 1BC, when in fact all modern scholars state this was at 4CE (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herod_the_Great#Death)

      You claim I use liberal dates for the Gospels when in fact, I intentionally cited conservative Christians to make the most reasonable points, while only mentioning in parentheses that the dates from critical scholars are even later.

      Finally, Martins claim that the star was a real star, in the ebook you cited, is outlandish and ignorant. Simply claiming that it wasnt a star, does not, in any way overcome the impossibility of a star guiding people to a specific house. I can understand a star being used for navigation, only as far as determining what direction is north or south, but to guide one to a specific city, even more so, to a specific house, is *literally* impossible. (Its literally the equivalent of saying that a compass is the same thing as a GPS).

      All the best

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *