Reliability of the Gospels:
Because Christmas has traditionally been a Christian celebration of Jesus’ birth, it’s common during the Christmas season to see and hear depictions of wise men, shepherds, a star, a manger, and so forth. A closer investigation, however, reveals that the nativity story occurs in just two of the four gospels, Matthew and Luke, and that they hardly agree on any of the details. It’s almost as if they are describing two entirely different people being born.
Annunciation: What Did Mary Know and When Did She Know It?:
Matthew says that news of Mary’s pregnancy was announced only to Joseph, by an angel in a dream, and only after Jesus had been conceived. Luke, on the other hand, says that Gabriel appeared to Mary while she was awake and explained everything to her before Jesus was conceived. Neither angel cautions silence, so it’s unlikely that one wouldn’t have told the other — and so they can’t both be true.
Virgin Birth: Was Mary Really a Virigin?:
Being born of a virgin was common for heroes and god-men of the ancient world. Jesus’ virgin birth, aside from having to fit a common pattern, seems to have been based upon Matthew’s misreading of Isaiah 7:14 (Luke doesn’t even mention it). The Greek Septuagint which Matthew used translates it as “a virgin shall conceive and bear a son,” but the Hebrew word “almah” means “young woman of marriageable age,” not a virigin.
Bethlehem vs. Nazareth & the Roman Poll:
Jesus had to be born in Bethlehem in Judea
because it was David’s city where Micah (5:2) said the messiah
would come from. Matthew has Jesus’ parents living in Bethlehem; Luke has them living in Nazareth
. To get them to Bethlehem, Luke has them travel there during the last stages of Mary’s pregnancy for the sake of a Roman poll for which there is no historical record. Contrary to Luke, Quirinius did not govern Syria and Judea during Herod’s rule.
Son of God vs. Son of David:
Jews expected their messiah to be descended from the Jewish king David. Both Matthew and Luke make David one of Jesus’ ancestors, but each uses a different genealogy. Both can’t be right. Both also trace the connection through Joseph, but was Joseph really Jesus’ father? Not according to the tradition that Mary, his mother, was a virgin. In Mark 12:35-37, Jesus seems to reject the royal requirement and shows no signs of having royal heritage in any of the gospels.
A Star in the East:
Only Matthew mentions the presence of a star in the east — understandable, as he’s the only one to mention the wise men who would follow a star. Of course, why they needed a star to get from Jerusalem
to Bethlehem, a mere 8 miles, is a mystery. The existence of such a star is an astronomical impossibility because no star, comet, asteroid, or other phenomenon can shine over a single building in a single town on earth. Stories about such events are, however, common in ancient mythological tales.
Hark, the Herald Angels Sing:
Because only Luke has the shepherds, he is the also the only one who mentions the heavenly host of angels singing and announcing the birth of Jesus. Matthew’s wise men were off following a star somewhere else. When the shepherds visit Jesus, both Mary and Joseph are surprised at their story despite the fact that (according to Luke) Mary already knew that Jesus was special (according to Matthew, Joseph knew).
Shepherds at a Manger, Wise Men at a House:
Popular depictions of Jesus’ birth have it occurring in a stable with animals, wise men, and shepherds watching over the infant. Only Matthew describes the wise men, but he has them visit a house where Jesus is born and he doesn't mention how many — it could have been 2 or 20. Luke has the shepherds visit, but only mentions a manger — not a stable or animals. The entire manger setting is inserted into the story because of a passage from Isaiah (1:3), not because of anything in the gospels.
Herod’s Slaughter of the Innocents:
Only Matthew mentions Herod’s slaughter of the innocents — not only does it not appear in any other gospel, it doesn’t appear in any historical record at all. Supposedly, every male infant in Judea was murdered without Luke or anyone else thinking it worthy of mention. Even Flavius Josephus
, who hated Herod and attributed all manner of crimes to him, didn’t mention it. Luke simply has the family return home after the birth, without incident, but Matthew has them flee to Egypt.
Weaving One Nativity Story out of Multiple Gospel Stories:
When we look back at the standard nativity story and its myriad of sources, we should begin to realize that what people take for granted as “the” nativity story today isn’t presented in neat, straightforward terms in the Bible. It is, instead, a cultural creation that has been carefully woven together over the centuries from the bits and pieces found not just in the gospels, but in other parts of the Bible as well.
It would be simple to say that the nativity story people find so engrossing today couldn’t possibly have happened as they experience it. Indeed, it’s not even possible for believers today to claim the Bible as an authoritative source for their story because it just doesn’t appear as they tell it. This does not do justice to the phenomenon, however, because what is most significant is that the story people tell today is as much a creation of their own community as were the elements created by the early Bible authors.
Most people probably don’t even realize what is going on. The blending of elements from different books written by different authors working at different places and times likely occurs on an unconscious level. It’s all a part of the Bible, so it all fits together anyway, right? Unfortunately, glossing over these differences causes believers to fail to do justice to the individual stories themselves. Because people focus on a single, unified nativity story of their own creation, both Matthew’s and Luke’s individual stories are ignored completely.
The present nativity story which is so popular in people’s imaginations is a modern myth that has been woven together from elements of ancient myths. It’s no less fictional than the ancient myths, but also no less powerful and meaningful to those who venerate it at this time of year. The contradictions and errors simply don’t matter — all that matters is how the story connects them to other believers, past and present, as well as to their religious tradition.