Did the Christmas story really happen?
1 Who was the first person to be told the news about the coming of the child Jesus? And where were they?
Was it Joseph? Or Mary? And were they in Nazareth? Or in Bethlehem? According to Luke, it was in Nazareth, in the northern region of Galilee, that an angel named Gabriel appeared to Mary, to inform her that she would bear a child (Luke 1:26). That is different from the story told in Matthew’s Gospel, where an unnamed angel delivers the same message, not to Mary, but to Joseph, to whom she was engaged (Matt 1:18). The location of the announcement in Matthew’s account is not specified, but it is reasonable to assume from the flow of the narrative that this took place in the southern region of Judah, in Bethlehem (Matt 2:1, 6). So two versions, with significant differences.
2 Were Joseph and Mary travelling while she was heavily pregnant?
There are historical problems with the story about the census that Luke recounts (Luke 2:1). Identifying the census as an actual historical event, and locating it accurately in time, both present challenges. There is no other record of such a Roman census at that time. King Herod, noted as ruling at Luke 1:5, and also at Matt 2:1, died in 4BCE, but Quirinius, who ordered the census noted in Luke’s account, began as Governor in 6 CE.
Even though the combined story has entered the popular mindset as a real event and provides a clear and compelling picture of the holy family as travelling far when Mary was at term, because of decisions made by political authorities, whether Herod or Quirinius, we can’t say that it actually took place. So the answer is, Maybe.
3 Was it actually a “silent night”?
Not, it is not the case that “all was calm, all was bright”, that it was a “silent night”, that the cattle were gently lowing and “the little Lord Jesus … no crying did make”. Lots of travellers and inns that were full would surely mean the town was abuzz? This was no irenic scene, such as we see on Christmas cards and sing of in Christmas carols. The arrival of the child was surely signalled by that first hearty cry of a newborn, piercing all the other sounds of the noisy night, coming from the multitude of travellers that were allegedly in town for the census.
4 Was Jesus born in Bethlehem?
Matthew and Luke claim that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in Judaea. No other biblical reference agrees with this, however. In fact, in his adult life, Jesus was known as “Jesus of Nazareth”, a town in Galilee. He is identified as a Galilean (Matt 26:69; Luke 23:5–7). There is no mention of his birth in Bethlehem outside the accounts of Matthew and Luke. His home is in Nazareth, and he spends almost all of his life in Galilee. These two writers claim that he is a Judean in order to secure the notion that he is descended from David.
5 Was Mary riding on a donkey?
In the traditional Christmas story it is a dutiful donkey, a faithful beast of burden, which provides the means of transport for the pregnant Mary on its back. However, nowhere in any Gospel does it say that Mary rode a donkey on that journey. One of the main reasons why a donkey is associated with the Christmas story is because of the way the story is told in The Protoevangelium of James, an ancient account of Mary’s life that probably originated in the 2nd century, but was not included in the Bible. That text claims that Joseph “saddled the ass, and set her upon it; and his son led it, and Joseph followed”.
So although this story is an early part of Catholic and Orthodox Church tradition, it does not have the same authority for Protestant believers because it is not in the Bible. Nevertheless, it is quite plausible that Joseph may have obtained a donkey to carry Mary. Donkeys were a common form of transportation (see Matt 21:1–8; John 12:14–15); there are many references to travelling by donkey in Hebrew Scriptures. Perhaps the strongest influence might have been the story of Moses, travelling from Midian back to Egypt, with his wife and sons on a donkey (Exod 4:20). So, did Mary travel on a donkey? Quite possibly.
6 Was there really no room left at the local motel?
What was this “inn” that was the birthplace, as Luke maintains, for the infant Jesus? The Greek word used here, kataluma, is relatively rare in the New Testament, but appears in many places in ancient Greek literature. It refers usually to a guest chamber or lodging place in a private home. The same term appears in Luke 22:11 with the meaning “guest room,” and the verb derived from this noun appears in Luke 9:12 and Luke 19:7, where it means something like “find lodging” or “be a guest.” Moreover, in the story of the Good Samaritan, when Jesus refers to the place where the injured traveller rests—clearly a commercial inn—a specific word meaning an inn frequented by travellers is used (pandokian; see Luke 10:34).
So Joseph and Mary were most likely hoping to find shelter with a family member in Bethlehem. That would make sense, given what we know of ancient life; in Jewish society (indeed, in all ancient Mediterranean societies), hospitality was very important. Travel to a town where members of the extended family lived would usually mean staying with them. Unfortunately for them, in the story, once they arrived, they found many other family members had arrived before them. So there was no room in the kataluma, the guest house in the family member’s home.
7 Was Jesus really placed in an animal’s feeding trough?
If we continue to follow the story that Luke tells, then the newborn Jesus is placed into a manger, a trough normally used for feeding household animals. Joel Green believes that Mary and Joseph would have been the guests of family or friends, but because their home was so overcrowded, the baby was placed in a feeding trough. (Green, Luke, NITCNT, 128-29). Other scholars follow suit. An early church tradition, that Jesus was born in a cave, would also locate his birth in a place where animals were housed. So, in Luke’s story, this is where he was placed.
8 Was Jesus born in the year zero?
Luke sets his story of the birth of Jesus “in the days of King Herod of Judea” (Luke 1:5). King Herod died soon after an eclipse of the moon soon before a Passover, according to the Jewish historian Josephus; that was most likely in March/April of 4BCE, by our reckoning. So Mary was pregnant, and gave birth, some years before the mythical “year zero”. (There was, of course, no “year zero”. The calendar flipped from 1BCE straight to 1 CE.)
9 Was Mary a pregnant virgin?
When Luke introduces Mary, he notes she was a virgin (Luke 1:27). Mary questions the announcement of her pregnancy and the promised birth of a son: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34). Luke never explains his claim that Mary is a virgin who gave birth; he simply assert this.
Matthew sees the birth as a miraculous divine intervention. However, Matthew provides an explanation of the birth of Jesus as taking place “to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet” (Matt 1:22). Unfortunately, this claim depends on an incorrect reading of a prophetic text (Isaiah 7:14). The original Hebrew reads “a young woman shall conceive”, but Matthew has chosen an inexact Greek translation which renders it “a virgin shall conceive” (Matt 1:23).
These two writers are the only two amongst all the New Testament writers who know anything of Mary’s alleged virginity. Other authors don’t refer to his birth from a virgin at all. So I don’t adhere to the “Virgin Mary” part of the story. I think she was pregnant to Joseph, pure and simple. The claim that Mary was a virgin was a later apologetic addition.
10 Why are the shepherds included in the story?
The story of the shepherds is not told in Matthew’s book of origins. It is told only in Luke’s orderly account. On the one hand, shepherds were really “essential services”. Sheep were common in Israel; they provided meat for food, milk for drink, wool for clothing, and the animal for the requisite daily sacrifice at the Temple. On the other hand, they were considered akin to outcasts, impure and unclean, placed outside the circle of holiness within which good Jews were expected to live.
Luke’s recounting of the visit of the outcast shepherds to the infant child and his family serves a theological purpose. The visit indicates that those on the edge were welcomed by Jesus, at the start of his life, as well as right throughout his ministry. He grounds the message of the Gospel in the heart of the needs of the people of his day. It’s a theological purpose that drivers the way he shapes his story about Jesus.
11 How many wise men came to visit the newborn Jesus?
None, according to Luke. The wise men appear only in Matthew’s account. The whole birth of Jesus is mentioned very quickly by Matthew (1:18, 25). By contrast, the dark story of the slaughter of boys aged two and under dominates Matthew’s narrative (Matt 2:1–12). It is in connection with that part of the story that the wise men appear. We are not told their names, nor how many they were. They are described as magi, probably meaning that they were astrologers. Only in later church tradition would they be identified as the three men, Caspar, Balthasar, and Melchior.
Although Matthew’s gospel does not include the names or number of the magi, many believe that the number of the gifts he notes is what led to the tradition of the Three Wise Men—and, of course, they then needed to gain names (as do many anonymous biblical figures in the evolving church tradition over subsequent centuries).
For Matthew, who portrays Jesus as the new Moses throughout his Gospel, the visit of the magi from the East represents a Gentile acknowledgement of the high role that Jesus will play, bringing to fulfilment the intentions of God for the covenant people. So this element, told very early in the narrative, is simply a literary technique to introduce a key theme which will reach fulfilment in the time beyond the tale that the narrative offers.
12 Were the baby boys in Bethlehem really slaughtered by Herod’s troops?
The characters in the opening chapters of Luke’s Gospel are “types”, imitations of an earlier story—the story of Moses. Matthew is working hard to place Jesus alongside the great prophet of Israel, Moses. The early years of Jesus unfold in striking parallel to the early years of Moses. The parallel patterns are striking—deliberately shaped that way by the author of this Gospel, I would maintain.
Moses, for instance, was in danger of being killed as a small boy (Exod 1:16). The child Moses was rescued by midwives (Exod 1:17). Matthew’s account of “the Slaughter of the Innocents” is generated by his Moses typology. This grounds the story of Jesus in the historical, political, and cultural life of the day, when tyrants exercised immense power. But it raises our suspicions about whether this event actually took place. There is no other evidence for it in any ancient writing, apart from Matthew’s Gospel. Can we be sure that it took place? Not by any standard of historical assessment.
13 Did the family flee to Egypt with a newborn child?
There is no other evidence for this journey outside of Matthew’s book of origins, so the evidence is scant and biased. The Moses typology we have noted is also relevant here. Matthew emphasises the many ways in which events in the early years of Jesus fulfilled the prophecies found in Hebrew Scripture. So many parts of the early life of Jesus as Matthew recounts it are presented in a way that makes them consistent with these prophecies—although one of them (2:23) cannot actually be found in the Bible! It is most likely that Matthew has constructed his story so that it fits with these scriptural prophecies. They provide him with a familiar framework for telling the story.
14 If we can’t be sure about so many parts of the story, why do we still tell it each year?
The Christmas story is a myth. That is what gives it an incredible narrative power. Myths are the stories we tell that convey deep-seated and fundamental insights about life. Whether they “actually happened” is not the point. More fundamental is that they help us to make sense of our lives. They draw us out of our comfort and preoccupations, and challenge us to see a different reality, to live a different life. Bernard F. Batto (Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at DePauw University, Indiana), writes: “In everyday usage today, myth carries a meaning of something untrue, a fable, a fiction, or an illusion. Anthropologists and historians of religion, however, use the term ‘myth’ with a quite different meaning. For them myth refers to a traditional story, usually associated with the time of origins, that has paradigmatic significance for the society in which the story is operative.”
So, this Christmas, let’s rejoice that we have this foundational and paradigmatic story which is not history (ἱστορία), but which functions as myth (μῦθος). And as myth, this story stirs our imaginings and challenges our presuppositions, giving us a different perspective on the realities of life in this world, indicating to us how God engages with us and interacts with our world. As myth, the story points to important truths. It orients us to the claim that God is involved in human history. It sets the foundations for hearing the narratives about Jesus as accounts which resonate with God’s intentions for humanity. So it is worth telling, and hearing, and singing, and acting out, year after year: because it touches the deep places of our lives, because it resonates with our hopes and aspirations. We don’t have to work to ensure people see it as history. It is myth. That is enough. That is its power.
Rev. Dr John Squires is Presbytery Minister (Wellbeing) for Canberra Region Presbytery and the Editor of With Love to the World.