By Eric Jayne
Every year around Christmas, the church I belonged to as child held a Nativity play for the congregation. The performers consisted of about 20 kids from the elementary and middle school aged youth groups. It’s possible that I played different parts, but I can’t remember being anything other than a shepherd year after year. Strangely though, shepherds are not even mentioned in the birth narrative written in the book of Matthew. In fact Mark and John don’t even mention the miracle birth at all! Only in Luke is there a mention of shepherds. While this may appear to be a somewhat minor discrepancy between the two accounts there are many more significant discrepancies that have been merged together and supplemented with elements not even mentioned in either narrative to form the Nativity (and crèche) commonly celebrated by Christians everywhere.
Many reading this are aware of Herod the Great and his alleged infanticidal campaign to slaughter every boy two years old and younger in and near Bethlehem. This story is written only in Matthew and it’s the only place where the wise men come into play..
According to Matthew, Herod was not about to have another king born in the land he rules—whether or not he’s ordained by God—so he tricked an unknown number of wise men (nowhere in the Bible is it mentioned that there were three of them, but there were three gifts given by the wise men: frankincense, gold, and myrrh) to follow the star of the east and report back to him the exact whereabouts of the “King of the Jews.” This event calls into question the wisdom of the wise men if they were so gullible to disclose the exact location of Jesus to a jealous state ruler with a history of lethal violence. Thankfully for Jesus, and lucrative televangelists everywhere, an angel told the wise men to take a long detour back to Herod while also telling Mary and Joseph to hide in Egypt until further notice.
Apparently the author of Luke’s gospel wasn’t privy to any of the extraordinary information found in Matthew because in Luke’s account there were no wise men, no Herod-led slaughter, no dramatic escape to Egypt, no star of the East, no frankincense, no gold, and no myrrh. Another significant difference between Matthew and Luke is that in the former, Jesus was taken to Nazareth after Mary and Joseph returned from Egypt, while in the latter, Joseph and Mary left Nazareth to return to Joseph’s hometown of Bethlehem for a mandatory census. Let me repeat that. Luke indicates that Mary and Joseph came from Nazareth before the birth of Jesus but Matthew indicates that Mary and Joseph went to Nazareth after the birth of Jesus. To be sure, we’re not talking about subtle differences between the only two birth accounts written in the Gospels. We’re talking about completely different accounts.
If you’re looking for shepherds and a manger, you won’t find them in Matthew but you will in Luke. Matthew puts Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus were in a house (2:11), but neither gospel mentions an innkeeper or stable.
There are different accounts of whose dreams are invaded by angels too. Matthew only points to an angel appearing in Joseph’s dream while Luke mentions an angel in Mary’s dream. Matthew says that Jesus’ paternal grandfather is Jacob while Luke says it’s Heli. Adding to the confusion is that Jesus is supposed to have been miraculously conceived without the help of Joseph’s baby batter so it shouldn’t matter who any of Joseph’s ancestors are in the first place!
Expanding on this point, and at the risk of sounding crass, Luke 1:34-35 (NIV) provides the following exchange between the angel Gabriel and Mary about the confusion of how she can conceive a child without having sex: “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you…” Clearly, abstinence-only is not as foolproof as many would have us believe.
Most readers are undoubtedly aware that the birth story of Jesus is purely fictional and is preceded by many other virginal births (Plato, Buddha, Vishnu, Zoroaster, Horus, Ra, Mithras…). Most readers are also aware that Christmas is the result of many co-opted pagan celebrations in the early 4th century after it became the religion of choice of the Roman emperor Constantine. These facts, however, are not nearly as compelling as a simple reading of the Bible. As is often the case, a critical reading of the Bible is the quickest path toward rejecting the accuracy of Bible stories and Christian beliefs.
Merry Christ-Myth and Happy New Year!