What You’ve Heard About The Birth of Jesus Isn’t True—But That’s OK
Stop me if you’ve heard this one: A poor virgin and her soon-to-be husband are visited by angels telling them she’s going to give birth to the “son of God.” Compelled by a census to return to Joseph’s ancestral hometown, Mary is forced to give birth in a manger because there was no room for them at the inn. The new family is visited by wise men who bring gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Sound familiar?
It’s the story of Jesus of Nazareth’s conception and birth—a story ubiquitous in the western world—as told by the first two chapters of the gospels of Matthew and Luke. It’s been memorialized in countless songs, paintings, and poorly performed yet unbearably cute Christmas pageants from your church’s youngest members. Only most of it is probably made up.
There are too many inaccuracies—both large and small—for us to take the account of Jesus’s birth as told in the Bible as historical fact.
Take for instance, the census that compels Mary and Joseph to put their lives on hold and schlep to the supposed town of Joseph’s ancestors Bethlehem. Luke puts it this way: “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered” (2:1). The Romans were great record keepers—specifically for tax purposes. But there was never an empire-wide census under Caesar Augustus.
There was, however, a census of Judea taken in 6 CE. But scholars now place the birth of Jesus at somewhere around 4 BCE, about 10 years before the Quirinius census (so called for the Roman governor of Syria who ordered it). Also, Luke tells us that Joseph was from Nazareth, which as the map shows below, was not a part of Judea, and thus not part of that census.
Luke conveniently explains they were part of the census because they had to register where their ancestors were from. That families would be forced to travel to where their ancestors were from to be registered is, in a word from one scholar, “preposterous” (Aslan, 2013, p. 30).
The whole point of a Roman census wasn’t to just count the number of people in an area, but to assess one’s property and determine how much money you owed the state in taxes. Further, forcing people to travel to their ancestral home would require a complete shutdown of the economy as people traveled home, waited to be counted, and then traveled back.
Matthew’s story avoids all this by seemingly beginning in Bethlehem. But beginning there poses a different challenge: How do we get Jesus to Nazareth? Outside of these four chapters, and one verse in John, Jesus is Jesus of Nazareth, or Jesus the Nazarene, or Jesus the Nazorean. In fact, the word “Bethlehem” doesn’t occur anywhere else in the New Testament (Meier, 1991).
To get Jesus up to Nazareth, Matthew sends the young family on a long detour through Egypt. Herod the Great, hearing from the magi on their way to visit Jesus that a great child had been born, feels immensely threatened. At the last minute he decides to slaughter “all the children in or around Bethlehem who were two years old or under” (Mt 2:16). Joseph is warned in a dream to flee to Egypt and remain there until Herod’s death. He’s warned in another dream not to return to Bethlehem because Herod the Great’s son Archelaus was now in charge. Old Joe decides then to settle in Nazareth in Galilee, out of reach of Archelaus.
But there are two problems with this version of events as well. The first is logical. After Herod the Great died in 4 BCE, Rome split his territory between three of his sons: Archelaus got Judea (which included Jerusalem and Bethlehem), Herod Antipas would rule Galilee (which included Nazareth), and a third son Philip got the rest (see the map above).Thus, whether Joseph went to Bethlehem or Nazareth, he was still going to a place ruled by Herod’s sons. Why would an angel warn him only of Archelaus, when Herod Antipas, the king who would order the execution of John the Baptist, seems just as dangerous? As a leading scholar points out, it seems like a bizarre sense of security measures, indeed, “out of the frying pan and into the fire” (Meier, 1991, p. 212).
There’s a much larger problem though. As another leading scholar points out, “There exists not a shred of corroborating evidence in any chronicle or history of the time, whether Jewish, Christian, or Roman” of Herod the Great massacring a whole generation of Bethlehem children in a fruitless search for the baby Jesus. It would seem very unlikely that such an event would go completely unremembered by the community that would suffer such an atrocity. And it should be pointed out that historians know a lot about Herod the Great, probably the most important Jewish leader since King David (Aslan, 2013, p. 31).
There are other, smaller, more technical details that are wrong, too. Luke 2:22 talks about a purification ritual at the Temple in Jerusalem for Mary and Joseph, yet only Mary, defiled under Jewish law by childbirth, would be required to undergo the ritual. Similarly Luke misplaces part of that ritual, the offering of “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons” as a sacrifice, as part of Jesus’s presentation as a first born son in the Temple. That sacrifice would have been part of Mary’s purification ritual, not Jesus’s presentation (read it for yourselves in Leviticus 12).
In fact, the entire narrative of Jesus’s birth, including the virgin birth, stands alone—isolated—from the rest of the New Testament. The other two gospels show no interest in Jesus’s birth, except as it plays into a broader theological argument about Jesus existing with God before the creation of the world (John 1: 1–18). Even Paul, who literally thought Jesus was God incarnate, doesn’t mention the virgin birth or any of this narrative.
All of these things, both big and small, can lead us to only one conclusion: There’s probably not much historical fact in the birth of Jesus narratives found in the Bible. The manger, the shepherds, the wise men, the massacre, the census—all likely historical falsehoods embellished for dramatic or theological effect.
And to a certain extent, that’s to be expected. We don’t know a whole lot about the birth or infancy of most of the towering figures of the ancient Mediterranean world, nor do we know much about about the childhoods of most Biblical heroes.
What we should think of when we hear these stories is the people who actually wrote them down. Both the gospels of Matthew and Luke are thought to have been written somewhere between 80 and 90 CE, nearly 60 years after the death of Jesus. (Mark is believed to be the earliest, written around 70 CE, with John the latest, perhaps as late as 120 CE.) The communities that produced these extraordinary documents were presumably rushing to write down what was told to them, building on what was already written or in circulation orally, as people who knew Jesus, or people who knew people who knew Jesus, were dying off. In one sense, the gospels tell us more about the people and the world that created these documents than they do about God or Jesus.
Try to imagine for a second being one of those people. These people, who did not know Jesus when he was alive, finding themselves struggling not only to define a man whom they did not know, but also struggling to validate their own movement in the face of immense criticism (and indeed, sometimes violent persecution) from the established religious and temporal authorities.
I, for one, take comfort in that. That this group of ancient Christians struggled to make sense of what they were part of, that they struggled to understand who and what Jesus was, even though they were much closer to him historically than we are today, is comforting. Were they not struggling with what modern Christians struggle with? Who was this man Jesus? What did he mean to the world? What does he mean for our own lives?
That Jesus probably wasn’t born in a manger makes no difference. The factuality of the Bible in any specific instance makes no difference. Two thousand years ago a poor man named Jesus went about preaching the coming of the kingdom of God and was executed for it. Wise men, manger, massacre or not, two thousand years later we’re still talking about it.
A Note About Sources: The two books I specifically source in this article are Reza Aslan’s 2013 “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” and the first volume of John Meier’s seminal work on the historicity of the Biblical account of Jesus’s life, “A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus.” Another volume immensely helpful but not directly cited here in Marcus Borg’s 2006 “Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary.”