Neither Mark nor Paul, nor any of the other writers of the New Testament letters, know of Jesus's birth to a virgin; in fact, they show no awareness of his nativity at all. Though collectively all are earlier writers than Matthew and Luke, they evidently know least about his birth. Perhaps even more surprising, the authors of John, though certainly aware of the birth tales presented by Matthew and Luke, have passed over those stories as unworthy of a mention in their own gospel.
But for all that, the pretty tale of miraculous birth and fulfillment of ancient prophecy has delighted and enthused generations of Christians who, with simple faith, are able to weather the harsh storm of rationality and objectivity with a halfwit's beaming smile. Hey, it's Christmas.
No nativity yarn in Epistles, Mark or John
In the letter to the Galatians, the writer of this particular Pauline epistle stresses one point about the birth of the Christ – and it is not the extravagant claim that he was born to a virgin. It is the rather prosaic claim that the birth conformed with Jewish Law (in other words, that Christ was born a Jew):
"But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law."
– Galatians 4.4.
In the verse that follows the writer explains that the son was born as a Jew in order that he might "redeem" others who were also Jews. Nowhere in this, or any other epistle for that matter, is there any reference to a virgin, called Mary or by any other name, bringing forth a child. In the one passage where Paul does discuss virgins (1 Corinthians 7) the writer says virgins serve the Lord better than wives because they are not distracted by the needs of their husbands!
The only other occasion where the Pauline writers are at all concerned with the birthing of Jesus is Romans 1.1-3. and here the reference is to "human seed", not the agency of divine spirit:
"I Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle and separated onto the gospel of God ...concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh."
The Pauline position is unequivocal. The authors know nothing of a supernatural conception and in fact say the very opposite – the birth was normal and Jewish, albeit of "kingly seed".
The author of Mark is another who has no story of a holy virgin or divine impregnation. Mark's Jesus makes his first appearance as an adult, not a child, and there is no later referral to any supernatural, or even natural, birth. Mark sketches in the barest detail regarding his hero's origin. His Jesus came "out of Galilee", emerging from the city of Nazareth for his baptism by John. But that is all Mark has to say on the matter.
Perhaps more telling is the treatment of Jesus' origin in the gospel of John. Here, the author, though he almost certainly knew the earlier fables dreamed up Matthew and Luke, like Mark, has no interest in any human genesis of his "Word of God made flesh". John states very clearly that Jesus was "the son of Joseph" (John 1.45; 6.42.) – which could hardly have left Mary a virgin. Again, like Mark, he prefaces his story of Jesus with a preamble about John the Baptist and when the "Light" and the "lamb" first appears it is as an adult. Later in his gospel, John's Pharisees discuss the Christ and they are clearly under the impression that Jesus had no connection with Bethlehem (John 7), a belief shared earlier in his tale by the soon-to-be disciple Nathanael. Not even the evangelist John is sold on the fantastical "virgin birth" yarn!
Fulfilled Prophecy? No, just cut and paste
All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
"Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Emmanuel. " – Matthew 1.22-23.
No one in the New Testament actually calls Jesus "Emmanuel". The prophet who supposedly made this prophecy was Isaiah, although "Isaiah" is at least three writers, composing material over a period of two hundred years. First or "proto" Isaiah, sometime in the 8th-7th century BC, wrote:
"Therefore the Lord Himself giveth to you a sign, Lo, the Virgin is conceiving, And is bringing forth a son, And hath called his name Immanuel." – Isaiah 7.14. (Young's Literal Translation)
Such a "literal" translation of Isaiah's words still retains a Christian spin. Note, however, that the present tense is used.
The context for this supposed "messianic prophecy" is a a world away from Herodian or Roman Judea. "The Lord" (through Isaiah) is speaking to King Ahaz, the ruler in Judah around 734-728 BC. The young woman in question is probably a wife or concubine of Ahaz himself, present among the courtiers addressed by the prophet. She is pregnant (clearly so, hence the "Behold!"), and, despite the insistence of Ahaz that he won't "test the Lord", Isaiah is determined to present the woman's imminent birthing as a "sign" from Yahweh. The "sign" is not the miracle of a virgin pregnancy – or even a miracle at all. The "sign" is that the soon-to-be-born son will quickly learn righteousness, will enjoy the favour of the Lord, and that the House of David will prevail.
A more accurate rendering of the text would be:
"Therefore Yahweh himself gives you a sign. Look! The young woman who is pregnant will give birth to a son and she should call his name Immanu'El (Yahweh is with us)."
But the "sign" that Isaiah has identified in the pregnant maiden is incomplete without the verses that follow:
"Butter and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good. For before the child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land that thou abhorrest shall be forsaken of both her kings." – Isaiah 7.15-16.
In other words, before the child eats "butter and honey" and learns to choose good over evil (surely a choice quite unnecessary for Jesus to learn?) Judah's current enemies will be rendered low. The timeframe is not centuries but very short. The political/military crisis caused by the then occurring assault on Judah from
Ephraim (the northern kingdom, Israel) and Damascus (Syria) will – says Isaiah – result in their mutual defeat.
The "prophet" Isaiah is offering reassurance to King Ahaz, given in return for his fidelity to Yahweh.
Clearly, we are not dealing with any Roman province or a messiah to be born some seven hundred years into the future (and of scant consolation to a king facing imminent defeat!). In fact, the "prophecy" pointed towards Ahaz's own son Hezekiah (728-698 BC) and that is the surest guide that the "sign" was actually concocted during the reign of Hezekiah himself.
And as it happens, "Hezekiah" is theophoric name, meaning "Strengthened by Yahweh". For some later rabbis Hezekiah fulfilled the messianic hope; for others that hope would be fulfilled by Hezekiah's return.*
In reality, Ahaz did not solely "trust in Yahweh" – he appealed to Assyria and its ruler Tiglath-Pileser, who in 732 BC reduced Judah's enemies, Damascus and Israel. As a result of this "alliance" with a superpower, and to the chagrin of Yahweh's "prophets" like Isaiah, Assyrian gods were introduced into Jerusalem and Judah effectively became a vassal to Assyria.
When Hezekiah inherited the throne a few years later it was at the height of Assyrian expansionism. The early years of his reign witnessed a rebellion by the northern kingdom under Hoshea, which provoked the wrath first of Shalmaneser V and then of his successor Sargon II. As a result, the northern kingdom, based on Samaria, was destroyed in 721 BC and much of its population ("the lost ten tribes") deported.
Though in vassalage to Assyria, Judah gained emigre priests from the north, whose presence at the royal court strengthened the hand of the Yahwehists and prompted religious "reform" and notions of resistance. And indeed, following Sargon's early death, and in collusion with Egypt, Hezekiah found the courage to rebel, and launched attacks against neighbouring Assyrian allies. At this juncture, propaganda highlighting the king's "favour in the eyes of the Lord" became apposite to Judah's very survival and "Isaiah" got to work.
Like all "prophecy" Isaiah's words were written for a contemporary purpose but were dressed in the clothes of a similar, earlier conflict, in this case one thirty years earlier involving Hezekiah's own father. It assuredly had nothing at all to do with the birth of a godman far into the future, in the time of Herod. Also, like all "prophecy" it was worthless. Four years into Hezekiah's rebellion, the Assyrian war machine rolled over Judah, destroying Ashkelon, Joppa, Lachish and trapping the Jewish king "like a bird in a cage". To survive at all, Hezekiah had to forfeit his entire treasury and "strip the gold from the doors of the temple" (2 Kings 18.16). The humiliated king died within three years and both his son Manasseh and grandson Amon ruled as Assyrian vassals.
"With the acknowledgement of Assyrian overlordship, and the attendant recognition of Assyria's gods, the theological foundations of the monarchy – Yahweh's eternal choice of Zion and David – were thrown into question."
– J. Bright, Peakes Commentary, p489.
Quite simply, the "prophecy of a virgin birth fulfilled in Jesus", although repeated a million-fold in every nation that ever succumbed to the psychosis of Christianity, is pious rubbish from beginning to end.
A Census? Straight from the pages of Josephus
"And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while Cyrenius was governing Syria. So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city." – Luke 2.1-3.
"Now Cyrenius ... came at this time into Syria ... being sent by Caesar to he a judge of that nation ... Cyrenius came himself into Judea, which was now added to the province of Syria, to take an account of their substance, and to dispose of Archelaus's money;" – Josephus, Antiquity of the Jews" – 18.1.1-3.
Luke combines the idea of Jesus as a Galilean from Nazareth with the somewhat conflicting idea that Jesus also fulfilled the prophetic promise that the Messiah would arise from the "city of David", that is, Bethlehem, some seventy miles further south in Judah.
Whereas Matthew's yarn moves the holy family from a hometown of Bethlehem to a new residence in Nazareth on the pretext of escaping the nasty Archelaus, a son of Herod (and they thus come to settle in Galilee, where another son of Herod, Antipas, happens to rule!), Luke moves the trio in the opposite direction, from Nazareth to Bethlehem. The move is purely temporary and is accompanied by no anxieties about nasty Herodian princes.
Luke's reason given for the journey (undertaken with a wife heavily pregnant) is decidedly dubious: a census of all the world, requiring every one to return to his "own city" – not, that is, the place of normal domicile but the ancestral seat of the family.
"And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; because he was of the house and lineage of David: To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child." – Luke 2.4-5.
Joseph, says Luke, goes to Bethlehem not because he was born there but because King David had been a thousand years earlier!
The nonsense of such a proposition is palpable. The tale also illustrates how the author of Luke was heavily dependent on the work of Josephus for his "historical accuracy". Josephus provided Luke with all the tidbits he needed about the registration in Judea of 6 AD for him to construct the brief preamble to the nativity tale. But even Josephus does not vouch for a "worldwide" registration and neither does anyone else.
The Romans certainly conducted censuses (the word itself originated in ancient Rome) and during the Republican era, the office of censor was a respected "sacred magistracy". Its duties involved both the registration of citizens and their property and the maintenance of public morals. "The Censors are to determine the generations, origins, families, and properties of the people ..." – Cicero, De legibus iii.3.) On the lists at Rome (Tabulae censoriae), citizens were registered by tribe and class. Slaves, like cattle, appeared under property. Augustus is known to have taken a census of Roman citizens at least three times, in 28 BC, 8 BC, and 14 AD. Claudius ordered a census in Egypt in 45 AD. But Luke is not even clear when his Jesus was born.
If the birthing of Jesus had occurred during the reign of Herod the Great (Luke 1.5) then there would not have been any "Roman" census in the kingdom of this client king, who conducted his own tax regimen (and in any event, censuses were forbidden under Jewish law). One of the reasons why client kingdoms were subsequently absorbed into the empire was precisely to increase the efficiency of tax collection.
If, on the other hand, Luke's birthing occurred during the registration that was conducted in Judea in 6 AD (Luke 2.2) – and he certainly was referring to that event – then the bounds of the ancient tribal settlements, never stable and long since abandoned by the Jews, were of no interest to Roman tax officials. Shortly before that census the territory of Judea, together with Samaria and Idumea, had been added to Syria and placed under a Roman prefect. But the tetrarchy of Galilee remained under the rule of Archelaus's brother Antipas until the latter's own banishment many years later by Caligula. Joseph, as a resident of this tiny, client principality – not part of the newly created Iudaea Province – would not have needed to travel to Bethlehem in Judea, and his betrothal Mary would not have needed to travel at all!
Though one of the world's most familiar stories, and much cherished by Christians, Luke's nativity tale has absolutely no creditability as an event in history.
An earlier census? – Not according to Luke!
Never able to concede gracefully, Christian apologists devote a lot of energy to rescuing Luke from his chronological errors by manipulation of both the text and historical evidence. Thus the verse "And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria" (Luke 2.2) is now made to read: “And this was the registration before Cyrenius was governor of Syria”. By this simple substitution the census is cut free from the year 6 AD – and this opens up the possibility (... probability ...certainty!) that there was an earlier census. If this seems to cast a shadow on why, in that case, Luke bothers to mention Cyrenius at all, then the apologist now moves the second piece of sticking plaster into place: Cyrenius was governor of Syria twice!
This would all appear laughable – and it surely is – but "biblical archaeologists" have endeavoured to provide the evidence.
Back in the 18th century, near Tivoli (Rome) an inscription was discovered (Lapis Tiburtinus) which refers to someone who held a legateship for the second time in the province of Syria. But the name is lost and whilst the second legateship may have been in Syria that by no means establishes that the first was too. And just who was the inscription referring to? The "evidence" is still argued over but the "two census" thesis is dismissed from an unexpected quarter: Luke himself.
Luke refers to the census (τῆς ἀπογραφῆς) a second time – in Acts 5.36-8:
"Men of Israel, be cautious in deciding what to do with these men.
Some time ago, Theudas came forward, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him. But he was killed and his whole following was broken up and disappeared.
After him came Judas the Galilean at the time of the census; he induced some people to revolt under his leadership, but he too perished and his whole following was scattered."
In this notorious passage Luke makes clear he has only one census in focus, that which precipitated the tax revolt of Judas of Galilee, in other words, in the year 6 AD. Ironically, Judas of Galilee
helped Luke colour in his Jesus character (thus, from Josephus, "Judas ... was a teacher of a peculiar sect of his own, and was not at all like the rest of those their leaders." – Wars, 2.8.1.). Judas of Galilee appears in the historical record at precisely the time and place that Jesus of Galilee appears in Luke's religious masterpiece. But whereas Judas is a militant, Luke's "Jesus" is a pacifist. And we now know why Joseph and Mary make that unnecessary journey south to Bethlehem. They are demonstrably not tax rebels. They are good "citizens" who observe Roman law and obey the emperor's demand to register for taxation.
What makes this passage particularly notable is that Luke makes another chronological error. He is following Josephus closely, and Josephus discusses the rebel magician Theudas before mentioning Judas of Galilee. But Josephus's text makes clear (Antiquities 20.5.1-2.) – because he's talking about the sons of Judas – the correct chronological sequence. Luke, however, has his character Gamaliel name the rebels in the wrong order, and in fact, names Theudas who is "too late" to be known to Gamaliel at all!
Far from being a "remarkably accurate historian" Luke is an alarmingly inaccurate plagiarist from Josephus!
No room – in a town full of Joseph's relatives?
"And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn." – Luke 2.6-7.
If Joseph returned to his "ancestral" home in order to register for the census, presumably so too did other relatives, both close and distant. One would also anticipate that some, and probably many, members of the tribe continued to live "in the city of David". Which makes it all the more surprising that there was "no room" in a village made up of Joseph's own kinsmen. Were the villagers all so heartless that they would not even accommodate a heavily pregnant young woman, one to whom they were distantly related and who was supposedly of the Davidic line? It is preposterous to suppose that the occupants of any lodging house would not have given priority to a woman about to give birth. Here, of course, is a streak of Luke's anti-semitism.
In reality, the story of baby Jesus was enhanced by a "humble birth" in which the infant was placed into an animal feeding trough. Despite the tradition, no "stable" is mentioned in the gospels. In the Greek, the word used is kataluma (καταλυματι), meaning a place “to break a journey”, which can be translated variously as "guest room", "lodging place" or even "cave". Certainly, early Christians developed a cherished "tradition" that the birthing of Jesus had taken place in a cave and such a cave is so honoured in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem to this day.
The venue is significant because from the very first Christians made a bid to sequester the sites of ancient pagan veneration. Already by the time of Justin (circa 150) the cave tradition had been established:
"But when the Child was born in Bethlehem, since Joseph could not find a lodging in that village, he took up his quarters in a certain cave near the village." – Dialogue with Trypho, 78.
Fourth century churchman Jerome, a long-term resident of Bethlehem, gives the game away in a letter to the Gallic bishop Paulinus of Nola. In a passing comment Jerome reports that the cave shrine in "Christian" Bethlehem was formerly consecrated to the god Adonis-Tammuz!
"Even my own Bethlehem, as it now is, that most venerable spot in the whole world of which the psalmist sings: the truth has sprung out of the earth, was overshadowed by a grove of Tammuz , that is of Adonis ; and in the very cave where the infant Christ had uttered His earliest cry lamentation was made for the paramour of Venus."
– Jerome to Paulinus Letter 58.3.
Besides the Babylonian god Tammuz, Hermes and Mithras were among the many pagan deities born in caves centuries before Jesus put in his subterranean appearance. No wonder Justin (Dialogue with Trypho, 70) accused the "deceiving serpent "of preemptive imitation!.
Unlike Matthew, Luke makes no appeal to the Jewish prophet Micah or any other prophet in his nativity story; for Luke, announcements from angels suffice. The whole thrust of his gospel is to present a saviour acceptable to the non-Jewish world ("A light to bring revelation to the Gentiles ..." says the ancient but "living" prophet Simeon** in the temple, at last able to die happily – Luke 2.32). Thus, for example, Luke extends the fantastical genealogy of Matthew way beyond the ancestor of the Jews (Abraham) to the progenitor of the entire human race (Adam). In his nativity yarn, Luke intrudes not eastern mystics, but humble shepherds. These rustics represent humanity, receiving from yet another angel the "good tidings" that a "Saviour" is born (Luke 2.10-11). While Mary herself keeps silent on the momentous events (Luke 2.19) – and Matthew's magi make a fast exit –, the shepherds "made known abroad ... all the things they had heard and seen". In other words, "the common man" is the prime witness to the wondrous message received from on high and the most important event in human "history".
Curiously, we don't hear of these uniquely privileged shepherds again!
"Parthenogenesis" – Virgin birth, a popular motif
In the ancient world, virginity had a cachet now lost, simply because it was rare among women of marriageable age. Young girls were typically given in marriage in their early teens if not younger. In a age ignorant of medical science, in which even the simplest maladies could prove fatal, procreation was a social duty. For a woman to be "barren" was a public stigma, as the Bible frequently reminds us (Isaiah 54.1; Luke 1.25. etc.). Both in the world of Rome and in societies beyond the frontier, motherhood (or death in birthing) came early in life. Thus a virgin acquired a certain specialness that was readily finessed into an aura of sanctity. Her latent fertility could be given to a god on behalf of the community. In Rome, the Vestals, only six in number, sworn to the protector goddess for thirty years, maintained the eternal fire and safeguarded the security of the whole city. No doubt the cult grew from a simple, and very ancient, fire ritual.
The respect, even reverence for virginity, commonly supposed that such chaste individuals had special gifts (in the case of the Vestals, it was to prophesy, a talent apparently shared by Anna, an old virgin in the Jewish temple who greets the infant Jesus (Luke 2.36), and the four virgin daughters of Philip the evangelist! (Acts 21.9.) From such beliefs, it can be seen that "birth from a virgin" would be especially auspicious, a very powerful sign from the gods and conferring on the birthed child a semi-divine, if not a divine, status. Thus in the fables of Rome, Romulus and Remus, the founders of the city, were birthed of Rhea Silvia, a Vestal virgin (with the god Mars taking a hand – Silvia was thus impregnated by a spirit!).
Goddesses were not only served by virgins, they were often as not believed to be virgins. The virgin Vesta shared the epithet with, among others, Athena, Artemis and Hera. Then again, a god fathering a child by a human virgin was not uncommon. A classic example is that of Perseus, the preeminent Greek hero, purportedly fathered by Zeus from the virgin Danaë, daughter of the king of Argos. The divine semen on this occasion was a shower of gold.
Men of ambition were not slow to exploit popular credulity in manufacturing a fable of their own origins. Suetonius reports a story that Atia, the mother of Augustus, conceived the future world ruler while passing a night in the temple of Apollo. In her dream, the agent of pregnancy was a serpent (The Twelve Caesars, Augustus, 94.). Doubtless, the astute Augustus was more than happy to let such reverential nonsense circulate.
Posthumous invention also had a hand to play. Both Plato and the Buddha were ascribed virgin births by their devoted and deluded followers. And though Apollonius of Tyana, the famous neo-Pythagorean philosopher, said he had a father, according to Philostratus (The Life of Apollonius) popular belief was that "Proteus ... the god of Egypt" and Zeus himself had a hand in his conception.
The nativity: a trajectory of embellishment
"Luke’s Bethlehem story is not complementary to Matthew’s, filling in the gaps, as is often assumed. Rather, it is an irreconcilably different account from beginning to end: in story line, supporting characters, geographical and historical detail, and style. Where was Jesus born? Was it Bethlehem or Nazareth or even Sepphoris, Tiberias or Jerusalem? We cannot know for sure because the early Christians themselves apparently did not know."
– Steve Mason, Where Was Jesus Born? The First Christmas, Biblical Archaeology Society, 2009.
The birth of Jesus to a virgin was not so much hinted at in the gospel of Mark. On only two occasions does Mark bother to refer to JC's mother and both references also mention Jesus's several siblings (3.31; 6.3) – scarcely an endorsement of Mary's virginity or even of any particular value attached to her.
Matthew retains the second of these two verses (at 12.46.) but introduces the notion that Joseph did not have intercourse with his betrothed with two phrases: "before they came together" (1.18) and "did not know her" (1.25). The notion of Mary's virginity is only intruded into the story by the quotation wrenched from Isaiah. After all, Joseph may not have "known" Mary but someone else surely could have done. But of course, the angel of the Lord, in a dream, reassures the cuckolded old man that all is well, paternity is from the Holy Spirit. Prudently, Matthew immediately moves on to the postnatal tale of "Wise Men from the East".
Luke, however, is not happy with Matthew's implied virginity. He drops any reference to a "prophecy from Isaiah" and early on emphasizes "to a virgin betrothed ... The virgin’s name ..." (1.27). But Luke has another trick up his sleeve. John the Baptist has an important part to play in Mark's gospel, a tale copied quite closely into the gospel of Matthew. In both versions, quite reasonably, John is introduced as an adult.
But Luke decides to add a preamble to the Jesus birthing with a not dissimilar yarn on the birthing of John the Baptist. Zacharias and Elizabeth assume a role similar to that of Joseph and Mary, with certain inversions. Elizabeth is not a virgin but instead is barren. The angel Gabriel appears to Zacharias, as he does to Mary. Each is "troubled" by the vision. To each, the angel says, "Fear not", and in each case the angel declares what the future child is to be named. With each birthing a son arrives to rejoicing and promises of future greatness.
Almost certainly, for stylistic and other reasons, the nativity prologue is by a later hand than the writer who wrote most of Luke. Luke's preamble is drum roll for the main event, well and truly casting John as a subordinate and disposable figure. It's clever – but it is certainly not history.
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