The Birth of the Messiah Legend: A Post-Epiphany Reality Check

In Honour of America’s Annual Nativity Feeding Frenzy

(First published as First Century Pulp Fiction: CBS at the Manger
A review of the recent CBS 48 Hours special “Birth of Jesus”

Once again the American media and a few scholarly mercenaries have tried to focus attention on New Testament mythology as though startling historical facts are waiting to be discovered beneath the layers of legend.

It happens every year, at Christmas and Easter: new revelations, startling discoveries (often described as “archaeological” to give a scientific ring), the latest scholarly finds, expert opinion. Given the lineup on CBS’s recent 48 Hours special on the birth of Jesus—John Crossan, Elaine Pagels, Michael White, and Ben Witherington (appropriately the gamut from skeptical to credulous in their approaches)—the ready supply of expertise (read: informed opinion) is no more in doubt than a burned out bulb in a marquee display.

But the opinions are. Quote Witherington, for instance: “[Mary] was very young at the time of the annunciation, barely a teenager. We’re talking about a small town girl here.” But the basis for this is nowhere to be found in the gospels; it’s based on guesses about marriageable age in Jewish tradition, spliced together with a prophecy from Isaiah 7 about a “young woman bringing forth a child,” spliced further with an event which defies historical explanation: an “announcement” of a virgin birth by one of God’s favorite messengers.

As with so much network (and general) docu-drivel, the scholarly shovels are out digging holes in air as though solid ground were beneath them. Other Class One errors: Elaine Pagels playing the Gnostic card, saying that the Gospel of Philip questions the entire concept of the virginity of Mary. Actually, the GP says that Mary is the “virgin whom no power defiled” and denies the historical Jesus (including his physical birth) completely.

Relevance to this discussion: nil. Witherington on the slaughter of the children by Herod described in Matthew’s gospel “From what we can tell about the ruins of first century Bethlehem, a few hundred people lived there. I think we’re talking about six to ten children [slaughtered] max.”

Queried as to why the event isn’t recorded outside the gospel account Witherington says “it was a minor event” by the standards of the time. So minor, in fact, that no other gospel writer mentions it, and New Testament critics have known for ages that while Herod may have been a no-gooder, the “massacre of the innocents” is just another case of Matthew milking prophecy to exploit his notion that Jesus was the “true” king of the Jews, Herod an evil imposter.

Slaughter of the Innocents, Giotto

In another instance, CBS took its crew to Egypt (receipts, please: no poolside drinks) to ask the visually tantalizing question, “Did the holy family actually live there for a while?” Matthew says they did. He says so because he is “reenacting” the Exodus scenario and gives his hand away by linking the sojourn to Hosea 11.1. Great story. Terrible history.

The problem with all such television exercises is that most of what is claimed is simply not true, or new, or revolutionary. The vast majority of biblical scholars know this; shame on them. It is the seasonal game to boost ratings, with Jesus Christ Superstar heading the pack—this year in tandem with ABC’s provocative query, Where is Heaven, How do I get There? Since archaeology is especially useless in answering that question we can leave heaven to one side, or up there as the case may be, and focus on the Christmas story, rightly beloved by children because it was a children’s story from the beginning.

Here is what we really know:

1. The Nativity Story is late—very late: The original gospel was communicated orally, chiefly by illiterate peasants. It possessed no story of the birth of Jesus because no one was interested in that part of the story until later. Paul has never heard of Jesus “of Nazareth,” or Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, or kings from eastern provinces, or a distant guiding star, or a virgin named Mary. He knows a story about a semi-divine messianic “man from heaven” (Philippians 2.5-11) whom he names Jesus Christ, “born of a woman [unnamed, unhusbanded], under [Jewish] law” (Galatians 4.4).

2. The earliest gospel and its copies possessed no birth story: When the basics of the story of Jesus were written down, the earliest literature still contained no story of the birth of Jesus. The earliest and (we think) the latest gospels–Mark (ca. 70, at earliest) and John (ca. 95, at earliest)–also know nothing of the birth of Jesus. Well, that’s almost right: the Fourth Gospel, John, knows a story similar to the one Paul knows, fancified a bit using ideas borrowed from popular Stoic philosophy, so that the semi-divine man becomes the “divine Word” of God, “who became flesh.” But still, no manger, no virgin birth–a mother he addresses, in fact, as “Woman” (John 2.4) , no angels singing Gloria, and instead of Bethlehem, active embarrassment that he hails from Galilee (John 7.40-2).

To add to the confusion, Matthew knows nothing of Jesus being from Nazareth; the family resides in Bethlehem and end up in Nazareth because it’s part of an escape route (Matt. 2.23). Luke on the other hand has the family living in Nazareth and ending up in Bethlehem because of an otherwise unknown Roman tax census (Luke 2.4f.). There is no historical memory here, and not even the Nazareth tradition is secure since despite all the very energetic attempts to find references to it no such “village”—not even an outpost of Empire–existed in the first century. (Yes, I know the contravening evidence; it is not compelling).

Discussions of the inscription from Caesarea Maritima have not alleviated our ignorance of this location and thus discussions of the implications of its proximity to the Hellenistic mini-city of Sepphoris are completely conjectural. The solution espoused by some scholars, of making this man of mystery Jesus of Bethlehem from Nazareth near Sepphoris makes him less a mystery than a cipher.

In fact, the birth in Bethlehem is legendary and the “hometown” (or refuge) of Nazareth was, if anything, a large farm.

3. The Stories are legends based on other legends: The birth stories are pious tales appended to the gospel of Mark by later writers whom tradition names “Matthew” and “Luke,” – but probably not by the authors known by those names.

Scholars know that the original gospel of Luke did not have its familiar nativity story because our earliest version of it, used by the famous second century heretic, Marcion, did not have it.

And as Marcion was writing and quoting away from his version of “Luke” in 120 AD or so in complete ignorance of the tale (just like Paul), we can assume that the nativity story came later. It arose at around the same time many other legendary accounts of the birth and infancy of Jesus were being written: The Pre-Gospel of James, for example, or the (in)famous Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which are full of entertaining stories about the birth of Jesus. In Infancy Thomas Jesus makes sparrows out of clay, then brings them to life, and smites his playmates—dead—for being rude to him. In some of the apocryphal tales he performs cures in the manger as a newborn. The tendency in the early church was to make Jesus “miraculous” from the get-go. The sources of these stories are tales told about emperors like Alexander the Great (whose mother was thought to be a virgin), Augustus (emperor, allegedly, when Jesus was born), Vespasian, heroes such as Herakles/Hercules (another virgin birth), Apollonius of Tyana, and Jewish folktales, like those associated with Chanina ben Dosa.

The story of the star is taken from Virgil’s praise-hymn (Eclogue IV) in honor of the “Peace” of Augustus. Nothing in the story is original, but its popularity was ensured by having its roots in a hundred other famous myths and legends. The point was to show Jesus the equal of the cultural heroes of the time.

4. What about the Genealogies? Another reason for knowing that the nativity tales are legendary is that, like all legends, they are uneven, flamboyant (even by the standards of miracle tales, which were the favorite form of first century pulp fiction) and contradictory. The two tales, Matthew’s and Luke’s, were not written very far apart in terms of chronology–perhaps Matthew’s coming first. But they were written to satisfy different audiences, different tastes, and for different religious reasons.

There are too many of these discrepancies to list here but there’s no need to dig very deep: Both Matthew and Luke provide “genealogies” of Jesus designed to defend their saviour from the Jewish calumny that he had been the illegitimate child of a Roman soldier (another proof of the lateness of the tales). But the genealogies themselves are out of synch: Among many discrepancies, Matthew (1.16) knows Jesus’ grandfather as Jacob, Luke (3.23) as Heli, and neither writer seems aware that the whole genealogy is negated by the doctrine of the virgin birth, which makes Joseph’s paternity irrelevant in any case. This shows to biblical critics that the genealogies originally served a different purpose from the virgin birth story—the first to prove the Jewish/Davidic pedigree of Jesus, the second to prove his divinity, mainly to gentile converts. Even the earliest Jewish Christians, the Ebionites, rejected the genealogies as forgeries, and the gospels of Mark and John know nothing about them.

5. Virgin Birth, Manger, and the Rest of It: As Christianity forged ahead, the church became less interested in the Davidic/Jewish pedigree of Jesus than in arguing his divine status–as son of God (filius dei, the designation used by Roman emperors from the time of Augustus, and conditioned by their belief that Jesus was their true lord and king). The miraculous birth was the culmination of this belief, the stage at which the virginity of Mary is introduced into the picture (Matthew 1.13-25 and Luke 1.5-8).

Matthew tells a Jewish story, more or less, and links the birth to prophecy by misusing, or misunderstanding, a verse from Isaiah (7:14, which in Hebrew simply reads, “A young woman [not a virgin] shall conceive and bear a child.”) Luke tells a Greek story, with awe-struck shepherds and harp-playing angels singing in the provincial skies. The Christians who adhered to the earliest tradition long enough to be regarded as heretics in the second century, the Ebionites, regarded the virgin birth story as heresy.

The earliest Christians seem to have followed Mark’s opinion that Jesus was promoted by God to lieutenant godship at the moment of his baptism (Mk 1.11), but the idea of a divine child sent by God for the salvation of his people was a part of the mythological picture of the late first and second century, Christianity’s formative decades. It was too tempting to leave aside: Wondrous manifestations of light, cave-births, hidden divinity made manifest to trembling onlookers. They were all part of the story of the birth of the gods and heroes before Christianity came onto the scene to share them.

Virgin birth of the Buddha

In Buddhist tradition, at Gautama’s birth, in equivalently odd circumstances, a great light shines over the world. Persians marked the birth of the Sun, symbol of the god, in the cave of Mithras at the winter solstice, and the Roman co-option of the cult of the sun god, Helios (combined with Mithras in the pre-Christian pantheon) made the solstice the date the birth of Jesus, “the light of the world.” In Greek tradition, Zeus as the Sun divinely illuminates the birth chamber of Herakles in the stable of Angras. And the poet Ovid presents Hercules as the child Horus, who shares a midwinter birthday with Zeus, Apollo, and other calendar gods. The Greek god Hermes was born in a cave in swaddling clothes. The story of the annunciation in Luke 1.30-33 is itself a borrowing of the Egyptian idea that impregnation can be effected through a ray of light falling from heaven, or a word (logos) spoken in the ear, a legend associated with the birth of Apis. The list goes on.

In summary: The stories of the birth of Jesus are late, legendary, and totally without historical merit. They are the additions of devotional writers who are at cross-purposes over whether to understand Jesus in messianic or heroic context and end up doing both. The failure to iron out contradictions is not their problem, because they were doubtless unaware that such contradictions existed. That the contradictions do exist, however, gives us important insight into the mythological foundations of the nativity tale.

Real scholars need to pay closer attention to the origins of religious myth and story and in communicating their opinions to have fuller regard for their role as reporters of reasoned conclusions. Looking for the manger, like looking for Noah’s ark, will probably continue to transfix believers once a year, but historians and biblical scholars should have no part in that quest.

25 thoughts on “The Birth of the Messiah Legend: A Post-Epiphany Reality Check

  1. Bewildering, bewithering, embarrassing and appalling. And what a shambles of a gamut – from Crossan, through Pagels, White to BW3??!! In fact this latter academic had some rather appallingly serious, false accusations against the department of biblical studies at Sheffield, attributed to him in Christianity Today. C.T. last year, reported faculty [at Sheffield] were “bent on the deconstruction of the Bible, and indeed of their students’ faith,” according to Ben Witherington, a New Testament scholar at Asbury Theological Seminary. Asbury Theological Seminary, is where Ben teaches. They have a “statement of faith”. Asbury Theological Seminary, Ben’s employer, is a very conservative institution which is “called to prepare theologically educated, sanctified, Spirit-filled men and women to evangelize and to spread scriptural holiness throughout the world through the love of Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit and to the glory of God the Father”. It also endorses the inerrancy of Scripture, whatever that is. Everybody knows the birth narratives are myth!! For goodness sake, tell the truth!!!! I even made a scholar at a conference blush – from a similar institution at Cambridge, confessing a similar statement of faith. I said to his face, you know the virgin birth is a myth. An awkward ‘ahh well, no…’ I insisted and persisted and he blushed!! But he couldn’t look me in the eye and say they were true.

    I wrote Ben’s story up in a blog:

    Oh and remember the James Ossuary? But then it did sell alot of books. Tell the truth!!!! It would solve alot of problems in society and may even benefit learning and knowledge.

  2. Joe – Odd, isn’t it, that the beginning and end bits of Matthew and Luke are the least believable. (And that’s not saying anything about the believability of some of the bits in the middle.) That seems to often be the way that those Jewish books grew over time, from Deuteronomy and Jeremiah to Mark/Matthew. All the while getting more and more imaginative, adding the odd Giant, Angel, or Zombie (Deut. 1-3; Luke 1; Matt 27).

    Steph – Whoever would’ve thought that money and evangelicalism would come together in a US theological seminary?

    • haha yes there are seminaries and ossuaries and not ‘disappointing’ readers, but it doesn’t stop there does it … and I know (and so do you) where and who the Zombies are now. Giants… so much more appealing than Q (another place where money gets in the way).

      (Check out the links Roland gave me ISAA independents)

  3. Steph :”It would solve a lot of problems in society and may even benefit learning and knowledge.”
    Dangerous ground, remember Plato’s Critias and his speculation as to the foundation of God and punishment stories.

    • Yes indeed Demonax … although it is a little anachronistic considering the contemporary phenomenon I am inferring here. (ie fundamentalism and it’s opposing reactionaries)

  4. It is sad that the History channel is one of my least favorites. Though i do get a kick out of one of my old professors on T.V. (talking about naval warfare, not religion). The History Channel at its’ worst was the two “Search for the Ark” programs. Both turned up odd nick-nacks that bore no resemblance and had no connection to the Ark. An African drum, really? They were the equivalent of E! promising a topless Kardashians Christmas special but instead having a John Goodman/Tom Arnold farting contest.

    RJH, where do you think Luke originally began? Was the census dates added to give a Lukan feel to the later material? An interesting idea, I had wondered if the boy Jesus in the Temple was actually borrowed from Infancy Gospel rather than vice versa.

  5. The problematic of traditional Christianity based on its sources the writings of the NT, the birth narratives being a part, can no longer be ignored given our pesent historical methods and knowledge. What is “bewildering, bewildering, embrassing and appaling” is the bias: there is no reliable Scriptual witness to the HJ, which all too readily develops from its recgnition, to make it all but impossible to recognize the evident historical alternative to NT writings – our closest original and originating apostolic witness, and hence the proper canon for judging the appropriateness of all Christian witness and theology. This Scriptural alternative is convincingly argued in the works of three of our longest standing top NT scholars. This argument “is a task to which specialized knowledge in the areas of philology, form and redaction criticism, literary criticism, history of religions, and New Testament theology necessarily applies” (Betz).

  6. Yes it is “bewildering. bewithering” – whether anyone reads this or not, I add: from my restricted perspective the real “reality check” is the posibility of recognizing the fact that we have a true historical Scriptural path to apostolic witness to the HJ – revealing an image of Jesus entirely different from that found in the writings of the NT. Such an argument has been made, at least by four of our most authentic NT scholars.

    • Having critiqued both Robinson and Betz heavily in my thesis, I cannot agree with your favourite scholars. They are the best in your opinion and in mine they are not as remotely as helpful as others from Schweitzer and Vermes through to Sanders. Even Dale Allison for all his conservative bias has produced more helpful historical research. Ogden was a theologian and not a historian, Betz for all his good intentions, inherited a mistaken assumption about a Greek speaking Jesus which he fails to demonstrate, and then sought to squeeze and stretch the ‘evidence’ to fit a simple and useful two source hypothesis and Robinson’s over confidence encouraged him to reconstruct the past right down to syllables on similarly false and simplistic assumptions.

      • Steph,
        I think I see where you are coming from.
        The problematic: None of the writings of the NT, the writings of Paul, the Gospels, as well as the later writings of the NT are apostolic, hence not reliable sources for rconstruction of a credible Jesus. To this point you and my named scholars may be in ageement. The stark difference lies in the “bewildering” claim that there is yet reliable Scriptural witness – a difference requiring some explanation.
        Ogden can be dismissed – he is only a theologian. In Betz’s case: “for all his good intentions” language much like what he used in explaining the effects of the problematic [“The reason for our lack of knowledge (of Jesus and his teachings) are of a hermenutical sort (authoral
        intent) and cannot be overcome by an excess of good will”] – “inherited a mistaken assumption” evidently to so slant his critical judgment that he misinterprets the evidence. “inherited a mistaken assumption” is one way to explain critical scholarly differences – even our own!
        Robinson sharing Betz’s mistaken assumptions may be likewise esplained.
        Interesting quotes by Joe: “This from Ed Jones concerning the recent post Religion. He cites Schubert Ogden, once one of my intellectual heroes” A 4/19/09 email: “I agree with you about the singular contribution of Schubert Ogden and Hans Dieter Betz, James Robinson actually is one of or members (senior consultant) – – That said, I very much like the idea that Betz should be aboard and will take this up with my colleagues”. Imagine Kurtz welcoming Betz! “

  7. In another instance, CBS took its crew to Egypt (receipts, please: no poolside drinks) to ask the visually tantalizing question, “Did the holy family actually live there for a while?” Matthew says they did. He says so because he is “reenacting” the Exodus scenario and gives his hand away by linking the sojourn to Hosea 11.1. Great story. Terrible history.

    “gives away his hand”? how does the literary parallel discount an historical parallel?

  8. I doubt it. And no – and that’s what theses are about: a great deal of explanations. Also Ed, I make many criticisms of Robinson and Betz. I’ve read them each, nine times over, upside down and backwards, and I find them holey (not holy) all the way through. Simplistic solutions are a big part of that.

  9. The bewildering which you insist on requoting, refers to the lying, Ed. Thou shalt tell the truth. I made that up but it should have been included.

  10. actually while I frequently err and am very often wrong and have changed my mind many times over the course of my research, I actually think Joe Hoffmann is the wisest and most broadly learned, incisive and brilliant contemporary biblical historian I know. Brilliant contribution to knowledge of Marcion too.

  11. …and therefore with reference to the focus of my research and to the cause of my critique, (ie the confidence to reconstruct source material of the synoptic gospels) he is far wiser than both Betz and Robinson who both advocate some form of “Q”. Both Betz and Robinson have contributed significantly however to other aspects of New Testament and early Christianity, and Robinson is especially significant to me for his contribution to research on Nag Hammadi material.

  12. At least I may have been redeemed from the lying reference. To explain dismay over just how the “b” word refers to lying, I have the urge to repeat it.
    The Jan 19th requote was to correct the bungled Jan. 16th requote before being called on it. At my age, 92 the 25th, I am misake prone.

  13. Joe, Steph may have hit upon something perhaps more than she intended with the phrase: “inherited a mistaken assumption” to explain critical scholars holding different understandings about the Jesus puzzle.
    Physicist Paul Davies wrote concerning the idea that there might be “a complete explanation of things”- specifically, the reason for existence: “All explanations are founded on the assumption of human rationality: that it is legitimate to seek “explanation” for things and that we truly understand something only when it is ‘explained’: Yet it has to be admitted that our concept of rational explanation probably derives from our observation of the world and our evolutionary inheritance. Is it clear that this provides adequate guidance when we are tangling with ultimate questions? Might it not be the case that the reason for existence has no explanation in the usual sence?
    Is there a route to knowledge – even ultimate knowledge – that lies outside the road of rational scientific inquiry and logical reasoning? Many people claim that there is. It is called mysticism.
    Most scientests [and NT theologians] have a deep mistrust of mysticism. This is not surprising, as mystical thought [knowledge by revelation] lies at the opposite extreme to rational thought, which is the basis of the scientific method. In fact, many of the world’s finest thinkers, including notable scientists have espoused mysticism. Mysticism is no substitute for scientific inquiry and logical reasoning [(with the Jesus puzzle) no substitute for the historical path to recognition of the source of the occason of the revelation] so long as this approach can be cosistently applied [(with the Jesus puzzel) the historical cannot interpret the occasion] It is only in dealing with ultimate questions that science and logic may fail us – they may be incapable of addressing the sort of ‘why’ (as opposed to ‘how’) questions we want to ask.
    We are barred from ultimate knowledge, from ultimate explanation, by the very rules of reasoning that prompt us to seek an explanation in the first place. If we wish to progress beyond, we have to embrace a different concept of “understanding” from rational explanation. Possibly the mystiical path is the way to such understanding.” (The Mind of God”)

    • Addition to the above comment.

      “Maybe such experiences provide the only route beyond the limits to which science and philosophy can take us, the only possible path to the Ultimate’.

      Might not Jesus with his idiom The Kingdom of God have been about Ultimate Concern – man-God relationship – Knowledge by revelation not by sense perceived explanation. Hence the ultimate reason behind Jesus as puzzle: our inherited problem bound to sense perceived reality.

  14. perhaps there is no answer since all ‘religions’ have interspersed their germinal thinking, now after thousands of years, too entwined, to unravel simply because Mankind’s layers have obfuscated much in the Name of Whichever Religion is the Mightiest at whichever time. Leave out this historic birth, and search for other ideas throughout history and the answers are just as hard to find when facts are lost, people die, and there are hardly, if any records left.
    Also one must remember that The Early Catholics in consolidating their Hold upon the dissenting groups, assimilated them, and wiped out much ‘evidence’ over time. That is simple destruction of evidence. And in years since, many are so clouded by much indoctrination, that when Indoctrination is mentioned, turn apoplectic, and go into Religious Warrior mode, once more striking out in such earnest, and fearsome, fashion that they wish to annihilate anyone who disagrees. Of course hiding behind scholarly, and intelligent, and right reasons doesn’t obviate the most obvious that Religions war with each other, and are as dictatorial as any Despot. No dissension is allowed.
    And in reading the above words, to which i’ve come from some other ‘readings’ i find an almost messianic noise floating around in so very many heads, which may be most rational in most ‘discussions’ but when religion is brought into the picture they would like to ground their ‘opponents’ into the dust.
    How Christian is that? And how many are really walking the talk, anyways?

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