We celebrate the birth of Christ every year, which by convention happened over 2000 years ago on December 25th. It was predicted in the Jewish bible, the book of Isaiah 7:14, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” He was to be born in Bethlehem and “will be called a Nazarene”, according to Matthew 2:23. Matthew furthermore gives us the manger surrounded by sheep, donkeys and the like along with the Magi bringing the three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Luke had a different take. In his version there is a census that required the head of the household (that would be Joseph) to return to his origin (that would be Bethlehem in Judea) in order to be counted. In Luke’s story, Herod, the caretaker king appointed by Rome, got wind of Jesus’ birth. Jesus would be the new king of the Jews and Herod did not take a liking to that. Therefore, he had all male children age 2 and younger killed to prevent such a takeover of his authority. But an angel appeared to Joseph and Mary and spilled the news of Herod’s intentions, so they took baby Jesus to Egypt for safe keeping. Luke does not have the Magi or their gifts. Actually, the Magi may not have made it to Bethlehem anyway. If they followed the “eastern star” (Matthew 2:1-12) they would have had to come from the west of Judea to get to Bethlehem, that would be the Mediterranean, not a likely scenario as camels are poor swimmers. Bethlehem was in the west relative to Persia, from where they actually came. If they followed the eastern star, they went the wrong way!
Also, puzzling is that Nazareth may not have existed in Jesus’ life time. It was first mentioned when the Gospels came into existence, 40 to 100 years after the crucifixion. Makes one think Nazareth got added to the script to put it on the map for future commercial exploitative reasons. “He shall be called Immanuel” according to Gabriel. What ever happened to Immanuel? Mary, mother of God never called him by that name. Was there a twin? And did Jesus, like the greedy cuckoo, just quietly push him out of the manger to avoid unnecessary competition and confusion? Surprisingly Mark, accepted by most scholars to be the first Gospel written ca. 70 CE, misses the whole Christmas scene and does not mention Herod, the virgin birth, the sheep, the manger, the Magi, or the hike to Egypt at all.
With four gospels having different and contradictory versions of one event, what actually did happen? First, we have not seen any virgin births lately. That is just not a biologic likelihood except in aphids, nematodes, and in the plant world. It was however the vogue in that era to have virgins conceiving regularly. There are several dozens of virgin births including Buddha, the Egyptian god Horus, the Persian god Mithras, the Greek god Bacchus and too many others (even Plato) to list here who sprang from virgins miraculously, with 16 of them also sharing the cross as their mode of bloody sacrificial exodus from this earth. Sperm and egg each have half a complement of chromosomes of a human being and when they unite the full complement of 46 chromosomes is restored, could Jesus have survived passed the blastula phase with just half the chromosomes? I did figure out that problem, however. It turns out that whoever translated Isaiah got it wrong. Isaiah used the Hebrew word “almah” which means “young woman” then and now. “Betuhla” connotes a virgin but was not the word Isaiah chose. Problem solved, Jesus’ mother was just a mere “almah” and thus he had 46 chromosomes after all.
December 25th in the year 1 BCE is a bit more challenging of a discrepancy. The census was definitely a historic event that happened, but it was confined to Judea and would not have covered Galilee. It was also in fall, because in winter it was too cold to do much traveling. Besides Romans never required the populous to move. The census takers traveled, not the people. Joseph therefore took an awfully long hike for nothing. The other confusing thing is that Herod had already died by the time the census took place. There is no question as to Herod’s departure because it happened around a lunar eclipse that has been precisely placed in 4 BCE by astronomers, long before the census. Another date that gives me heart burn is that Jesus’s birth is linked to the time when Quirinius was governor of Syria (Luke 2:1-7). Many sources including dates stamped on coins and several historical references, including from Josephus, put that time at 6-7 CE, at least a decade apart from Herod’s death.
Rome had very good records of events, wars, civil unrest, trials, executions, major events. Flavius Josephus, the Jewish Roman historian, wrote detailed volumes of the Jewish plight of the 1st Century CE. He recounts details of major crimes, minor crimes, and uprisings. Somehow, he missed the murder of hundreds, if not thousands, of Jewish children by Herod the Great. Perhaps Josephus was just as confused as I am about the dates, as Herod was already dead when all the killing took place and just decided to leave that part out.
If the census was in the fall, which is the more likely time, that would rule out Dec 25th. Where then did that date come from? It turns out that was just a very convenient day to have a birthday. It is close to the winter equinox and numerous other deities were born that same day including Mithras, Zoroaster, Horus, Attis, Apollo, Jupiter, Nimrod, and Bacchus to name just a few. It was also the celebration of the longest night among the Druids. They burned down a tree to attract the sun back. What a coincidence, we also have a tree with lights on it. I wonder if that custom had its roots in that pagan custom and has nothing to do with Jesus. Furthermore, the whole gift giving thing is likely just a holdover from the Roman custom of giving gifts on, of all days, Dec 25th to celebrate the deity Saturn, god of agriculture, and the return of the unconquerable Sun (Sol Invictus). It was called Saturnalia.
So, with what are we left? Are virgins likely to conceive? The canonical gospels don’t agree among themselves when Jesus was born. Mark does not mention it at all, not even the virgin birth. Matthew mentions the Magi and the flight to Egypt. Luke has no gold, frankincense or myrrh, not even one wise guy, just mere shepherds attending the birth. While John, is more abstract with no specifics. Did he forget to include the wise men and the shepherds? Was a flight to Egypt really necessary? At last count 13 saviors claim the date of Dec 25th as their birthday; was Jesus born in September instead, as many scholars claim? And was December 25th just a marketing ploy that was added on by Emperor Constantine at the Council of Nicaea. He cleverly took the most popular holy day of the Roman Empire, which already incorporated the shortest day, the return of the sun (Sol Invictus), the birthday of a bunch of saviors, including Mithra, the most popular of all of them. Constantine also revived an ancient custom of gift giving from Saturnalia, and gave us Christmas. The tree thing needs to be re-thought though. It is purely and unashamedly pagan!