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