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Nativity - The origins of the Birth of Jesus
by Frank R. Zindler
The Probing Mind, December 1986
The Probing Mind, December 1986
The Solstice/Christmas season is a time of more than usual merriment for callers of my Dial-An-Atheist service in Columbus, Ohio. At that time, my messages (which usually change daily) deal mostly with the nativity legends and other absurdities associated with the holiday of Christmas. Some of the messages are serious in tone, but many of them are satirical. For this special December article, I have adapted a number of these messages - both serious and satirical.
The Births Of The Messiah
The oldest of the gospels, the Gospel of Mark, knows almost nothing of the ancestry, birth, or childhood of Jesus. It knows nothing of any Joseph, the carpenter father of the would-be Messiah, and only once mentions that Jesus' mother was reported to be named Mary [Mark 6:3]. Neither does the latest of the gospels, John's,  in which Jesus practically falls out of the sky fully formed, seem to know much about his human origins. Although Jesus is said to have had a father named Joseph and an un-named mother, as well as brothers, John is more concerned with proving the divine and eternal existence of Jesus than to give him a human biography. Only the gospels of Matthew and Luke (among the \canonical\ gospels) have given Jesus ancestries and childhoods. Why is this?
At the time Mark was written, it was still supposed that the end of the world was near, and that any day Jesus would return trailing clouds of glory. There was no need for biography, only a need to heed the warning, \Be alert, be wakeful. You do not know when the moment comes... you do not know when the master of the house is coming... Keep awake.\ [Mark 13:33-37]
By the time the authors of Matthew and Luke got around to writing their own gospels -- even though they plagiarized most of the gospel of Mark, including the passages indicating the world would soon end -- it had become embarrassingly clear that the world had NOT ended, and that Christians might be in for a long wait. Now evidence was needed to show that this prophet so tardy in returning really had been the Messiah, the Christ - \the anointed one\ - for whom everybody had been waiting. More urgently, evidence was needed to encourage people to continue to wait. \Evidence\ had to be added to flesh out the gospel skeleton provided by Mark. For this purpose, both the genealogies and the birth stories were created -- partly out of thin air, and partly out of the pagan and Jewish mythologies which so permeated the Greco-Roman empire of which Matthew and Luke were a part.
The most critical need was for a genealogy proving that Jesus was of the lineage of David, since it was widely believed that the Messiah would be a descendent of the lascivious king. So the genealogies were the first additions to be forged and added to the Markan account. Although both Matthew and Luke had copies of Mark's gospel, they did not know of each other's efforts. Fortunately for those of us who value truth, they were unable to conspire with each other to invent a consistent genealogy, and the genealogies they forged contradict each other almost totally -- making it now obvious that both authors were liars. [See the accompanying \No Contradictions Here?\]
Despite the contradictions, the two Davidic genealogies did their job for a while. But rather soon it was not enough to prove that Jesus had been the Messiah -- especially since his career had been such a fizzle. It became necessary to prove that Jesus had been a god. This required the addition of extra miracles, fulfilled prophecies, and legends to the basic story told by Mark and the first editions of Matthew and Luke. Some problems had to be solved, however.
In the ancient world, anybody who was anybody -- even mortals -- supposedly had been born of a virgin. Not only the Egyptian Horus, the Greek Dionysus, Buddha, and the Persian sun-god Mithra -- so popular in the Roman Empire at the time of the evangelists -- had been born of virgins; even Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar were believed to have lacked human paternity! So a virgin-birth story was made up for Jesus. The only problem, however, was the fact that a virginal birth of Jesus vitiated the genealogies which had previously been concocted. For the genealogies to have force, Jesus had to be the biological son of Joseph, the biological son of Jacob (or Heli, take your pick!), and so on back to David. But if Jesus had been born of a virgin, since both of the genealogies in the New Testament (NT) are genealogies of Joseph, it follows that the genealogies could no longer prove the Davidic descent of Jesus, if Jesus were not the son of Joseph. What to do?
The smartest thing to have done would have been to remove the genealogies. But there were too many copies floating around to be able to get away with that. In fact, the oldest Greek and Syriac manuscripts we have of Matthew say plainly that Joseph begat Jesus. So the mythologists had to content themselves with rewording the genealogies at the critical points to imply a virginal origin of Jesus, and hope that no one would notice that the remainders of the genealogies were now \inoperative\ - to borrow a term from Richard Nixon.
Thus, verse 16 in Chapter 1 of Matthew reads, in one of the oldest surviving manuscripts (the Codex Sinaiticus Syriacus), \Jacob [was the father] of Joseph, and Joseph, to whom Mary, a virgin, was betrothed, was the father of Jesus.\ This was later changed in a number of different ways, but the most commonly used Greek manuscript reads, \Jacob [was the father] of Joseph, the husband of Mary, who gave birth to Jesus called Messiah.\
So it was that Jesus came to possess the distinction needed in order to receive the Good Universe-Keeping Seal of Approval: a virgin birth. That the Josephan genealogies are wholly irrelevant if Jesus is not the biological son of Joseph seems to be noticed only by heretics.
Prophecies Of Jesus?
In the nativity fictions as elsewhere in the gospel stories, the evangelists sought to bolster their defense of the messiahship and divinity of their client by showing that he was the fulfillment of various Old Testament (OT) prophecies. Since space allows us only to touch upon this interesting facet of our story, we wish to remind readers of the fact that a very detailed and devastating analysis of these \prophecies\ was done two centuries ago, by Thomas Paine, one of the non-Christian Fathers of our Republic. Paine's analysis was published as Part III of The Age of Reason and was titled, appropriately, Examination of the Prophecies. Just try to find it in your neighborhood library! 
The first alleged OT prophecy of Jesus that I wish to consider is in Matt. 2:23. After claiming that Jesus and his family returned from Egypt to Nazareth instead of Bethlehem, Matthew comments, \this was to fulfill the words spoken through the prophet: 'He shall be called a Nazarene.'\
Unfortunately for our evangelist, there is no such prophecy to be found in the entire OT. In fact, the village of Nazareth is completely unknown before the writing of the NT. Now you might think that this would be very embarrassing to theologians and the makers of bibles. But in fact, such inconveniences don't seem to faze them at all. In the margin of my King James bible, right beside Matthew's Nazarene pseudoquotation, is a reference to Judges 13:5 -- allegedly the source of the quote.
Turning to Judges Chapter 13, what do we find? Do we find anything about Nazareth? Do we find anything about a Messiah? Do we find anything at all referring to the time of Jesus? You guessed it! The answer is \no\! We do, however, find a prophecy addressed to the barren wife of a guy named Manoah, telling her that despite her sterility, she is going to become the mother of Samson. The passage reads, \You will conceive and give birth to a son, and no razor shall touch his head, for the boy is to be a nazirite consecrated to God from the day of his birth.\
Our evangelist either did not know that the Hebrew word nazir was unrelated to the Aramaic-Greek place-name Nazara or Nazareth, or he was dishonestly trying to fool his readers. A nazirite is merely a hippy-type ascetic -- devoted to god and the avoidance of alcohol and personal hygiene. A nazirite is not the same thing as a Nazarene.
Perhaps the best known but most misunderstood OT proof-text claimed to be a prediction of Jesus and his virgin birth is the passage in Isaiah, Chapter 7, verse 14. According to Matt. 1:23, Isaiah is supposed to have said, \Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel.\ But when we turn to the Hebrew text of Isaiah 7:14, we find a somewhat different reading:
Behold, the young girl [no specification of virginity] is with child, and will give birth to a son, and she will call his name Emmanuel. [my translation]
The differences are striking. Whereas Matthew has the term \virgin,\ meaning a woman who has never had sexual intercourse, the Hebrew has the word alma -- a word which simply means a young woman. Hebrew has a word for virgin -- bethulah -- and Isaiah would certainly have used it if \virgin\ is what he meant. But far more important than the difference in the type of woman involved is the verb in the sentence. Matthew reads Isaiah with a future verb, as though Isaiah is predicting the distant future. But Isaiah tells us the young girl is already pregnant. If Jesus is the babe in question, this is the longest pregnancy in history, and the really miraculous part of the nativity story has been overlooked for nearly two millennia!
We may note a disagreement also as to just who it is that will do the Emmanuel-calling: In Matthew we read \they will call his name Emmanuel,\ as though it is something that undefined people in the future will do. But in Isaiah the Hebrew reads \she will call\ -- meaning the mother of the child. Since Mary did not name her baby Emmanuel, we see how irrelevant this prophecy is to the case of Jesus. Moreover, no one in the NT ever refers to Jesus as \Emmanuel.\ The only occurrence of the word in the entire NT is right here, in this misquotation from Isaiah. Finally, we may note that Isaiah's prophecy is aimed at King Ahaz, who is told that before the child Emmanuel grows up, \desolation will come upon the land before whose two kings you cower now.\ [New English Bible (NEB)] There is no hint whatsoever that events hundreds of years in the future are being predicted. The whole Geschmutz deals with Ahaz, King of Judah, and the mess he was in. No Jesus or Messiah is to be found either in the vocabulary or the context.
Follow That Star!
Adapted from a Christmas Dial-an-Atheist message.
We are come, once again, unto the silliest season of the ecclesiatical year -- the season when preachers begin to read aloud the birth legends in the gospels of Matthew and Luke which purport to tell of the miraculous birth of Jesus.
It is interesting that the oldest of the gospels, Mark, knows nothing of these legends, and it was only later -- after the fish story had grown with the retelling -- that Matthew and Luke were written, with their contradictory versions of the genealogy and the birth of Jesus.
In chapter 1 of Matthew, we begin with an imaginary genealogy -- totally at odds with the one in the third chapter of Luke, and grouping the generations into what it claims are three groups of 14 generations between Abraham and Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, the author doesn't count very well, since only 41 generations are named between Abraham and Jesus, and there is no way to make 3 x 14 = 41! We then read the myth of the virgin birth and are told that a supposedly unfulfilled prophecy -- that a virgin shall conceive and have a son name Emmanuel -- is actually fulfilled in Jesus, a guy who never was called Emmanuel! We then proceed to the wonderful story of the Magi, or astrologers, who come from the East to Herod, seeking the \King of the Jews.\ Matthew 2:9 reads:
The star which they [the astrologers] had seen at its rising went ahead of them until it stopped above the place where the child lay.
This following-the-star story is the most delightfully mad fairy tale known to me. How does one follow a star, anyway? If you start to follow a star, such as described here, shortly after its rising you will begin to head east (after all, it is said to have risen in the east). Thus, the Magi would have begun to head back home to Iran. By midnight, however, the star would have been south of our wise guys and the Magi would have been heading toward Saudi Arabia. As the night wore on toward morning, they would head westward toward the Mediterranean Sea. With the beginning of a new night of travel, this mad hatter behavior would replay again, the path of our unwise men describing a series of curlicues on the earth's surface. Depending on how fast they walked, how regular their rate, the absolute sizes of these curlicues would differ greatly, and the final destinations would be incredibly different.
Even allowing for the miraculous stopping of the star over the nativity scene -- an impossibility of literally astronimical dimensions -- how would the wise men know which house was under it? Every time they came to a house apparently under the star, if they just walked around to the other side of the house, they would find the star apparently had moved to be over the next house, and so on! If there are any true believers reading this message, I have a challenge. Tonight go out and try to follow a star -- any star except the North Star. See where it gets you!
On second thought, don't exclude the North Star. Go for it! When you get to Santa Claus's house, give my regards to the elves.
Bethlehem And The Roman Census
Having seen how the genealogies of Jesus came to be invented and how the authors of Luke and Matthew twisted OT passages into prophecies of Jesus, we proceed to the question of why Jesus was made to have his debut in Bethlehem.
Because it was supposed that the Messiah would be a descendant of David, it was natural for the evangelists to search the scriptures to hunt for Davidic details which they could use in support of the case of Jesus. That they would have to grasp at straws should not surprise us, but what does surprise us is the fact that some incredibly shaky reeds have served the Christian apologists so well over the centuries.
Long before the time of the evangelists, the village of Bethlehem in Judaea had been known as \the City of David.\ So it was only to be expected that apologists should try to find a tie-in between Bethlehem and the Messiah to come. As Matthew searched the (bull)rushes of scripture, he found a weak reed in the Book of Micah:
But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, small as you are to be among Judah's clans, out of you shall come forth a governor for Israel... [Micah 5:21; NEB]
Unfortunately for Matthew, Micah was not referring to a city, but rather to a tribe or clan descended from a guy named Bethlehem. In I Chronicles 4:4 we learn that Bethlehem was the son of Hur by his wife Ephrathah. Although the context of Micah 5 gives no indication that a distant future is being predicted, Matthew took the passage, changed Bethlehem Ephrathah into Bethlehem in Judaea (thus making it a city instead of a person), added part of a passage from II Samuel 5:2, and came up with:
For thus it is written by the prophet: \And you, O Bethlehem in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you will come forth a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.\ [Matt. 2:5-6]
Thus biographies of Jesus came to be fabricated in which the would-be savior was born in Bethlehem. Matthew [2:11] takes care of this in straight-forward manner, having Jesus born in a house in Bethlehem, as though that is where his parents lived. Luke, however, seems to have heard a tradition that Joseph had been living in Nazareth in the northern kingdom of Galilee, and so he has to contrive an incredibly wacky story to have Jesus be born in Bethlehem in satisfaction of the pseudoprophecy in Micah. In order to move Joseph and Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem, Luke turns the entire Roman Empire upside-down. In Luke Chapter 2 we read:
In those days a decree was issued by the Emperor Augustus for a registration to be made throughout the Roman world. This was the first registration of its kind; it took place when Quirinius was governor of Syria. For this purpose everyone made his way to his own town; and so Joseph went up to Judaea from the town of Nazareth in Galilee, to register at the city of David, called Bethlehem, because he was of the house of David by descent; and with him went Mary who was betrothed to him. She was expecting a child… [Luke 2:1-5; NEB]
In contrast to the legend in Matthew, Luke has Jesus born in a stable and laid in a manger, and there is no hint that Joseph had a house of his own in Bethlehem. In fact, we are told that there was no room for the holy family in the inn -- a detail which would be quite irrelevant if Matthew's version were correct.
Luke's deception would have been more successful had his knowledge of Roman history been less defective. Although Augustus ruled from 44 or 42 BCE until 14 CE, there is no record of any empire-wide census ever having taken place. While Quirinius, as governor of Syria, did conduct a census, it was in the years 6-7 CE -- 10 or 11 years after the death of Herod. It will be recalled that Herod supposedly still was king of Judaea at the time of Jesus' birth, and he allegedly ordered a slaughter of all boys two years old or under. [See accompanying \Jesus The Twelve-Year-Old\] Apart from the minor difficulty that Herod never did any such thing -- his biographers would have just loved to have added one more sin to Herod's catalog -- there is the problem that Herod died in the year 4 BCE. So Jesus could hardly have been born both in the reign of Herod and at the time of the Census of Quirinius in 6-7 CE!
There is another minor problem. Although Quirinius did conduct a census, it was a census of Judaea, not Galilee, and there would have been no reason for Joseph to go from one jurisdiction to the other. He could have stayed in Nazareth -- assuming of course that there was a Nazareth at the time. Although we have archeological evidence of Stone-Age and Bronze-Age occupation at modern-day Nazareth, and of occupation from the second century on, no certain archeological evidence has yet been found to show that there was a city called Nazareth in the year 1 CE. No building of any kind datable to the first centuries BCE or CE has ever been found at \Nazareth.\
We conclude this critique of the nativity tale in Luke by noting that the Romans were not excessively stupid people, and would never have ordered anything so insane as a census which required everyone to return to his ancestral city. The Empire would have fallen apart if, in the primitive state of contemporary transport, Spaniards had to return from Egypt, people at the Indian frontier had to return to North Africa, etc. There is absolutely no extrabiblical scrap of evidence to support such a hare-brained practice.
It is sometimes claimed that an ancient papyrus (Lond. 904, 20f) describes such a census. What that papyrus actually describes, however, is a so-called kata oikian census conducted in Egypt in the year 104 CE. In that census, according to Raymond E. Brown [The Birth of the Messiah, Doubleday, 1977, p. 549], temporary dwellers in various towns had to return to the cities in which they had their regular domiciles in order to be registered. The census does not appear to have extended beyond the borders of Egypt. There is nothing in that papyrus or elsewhere to make one conclude that the author of Luke knew what he was writing about or that he wrote truly.
Careful study of the nativity tales in the gospels makes it evident beyond question by objective scholars that the stories of the birth of Jesus are on no firmer foundation than those told about Horus or Buddha. Persons wishing to understand the origins of the Christ Myth might do well to examine the way in which the myth of the \childhood\ of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer has developed in our own times.
Jesus The Twelve-year-old
Adapted from a Christmas Dial-an-Atheist message.
If Isaiah actually had Jesus in mind when he prophesied that people would \call his name Emmanuel,\ we are forced to conclude that Isaiah was wrong. Jesus was never called Emmanuel. But then he wasn't called Jesus either -- at least not after he was about three or four years old. Although none of the gospels record the fact, it is certain beyond question that Jesus almost always was referred to by the appellations as as \the twelve-year-old,\ or \the twenty-two-year-old.\
The curious fact derives from the circumstance that Herod, King of the Great State of Wickedness when Jesus was born, had all the kids of Jesus' age killed, for fear that one of them would become \King of the Jews,\ as had been falsely predicted by certain \wise men\ and prophets. Jesus happened to escape the massacre because he and his parents were on vacation in Egypt checking out some delta investment acreage. They didn't get back to Palestine until all the funerals were over and Herod himself had died.
When Mary tried to enroll Jesus in kindergarten at the Caesar Augustus Playtime Academy, the principal of the school was completely stymied. \A five-year-old!\ he exclaimed. \We don't have any other five-year-olds this year, and we can't waste a whole classroom on one kid. You'll have to put him in first grade with the six-year-olds.\
And so, all through first grade Jesus was known as \the five-year-old\ -- the only one in the whole country. The next year, when all his other classmates had turned seven, Jesus became known as \the six-year-old.\ And so it went. Year after year, his name changed to reflect his age and his uniqueness.
 For the sake of simplicity, we shall refer to \Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John\ as if they were real authors of the gospels which belatedly came to bear their names. In point of fact, there is no evidence to support the notion that any gospel was written by a man bearing the superscribed name. To the contrary, it is evident that all of the gospels are composite creations, the composition of each involving several authors and editors.