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Jesus Christ's nativity story is probably false, experts say

Historical data and religious myths do not agree with one another. What do the facts say? Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Tuesday, December 17, 2013 - The Conscience of a Realist by Joseph Cotto

OCALA, Fla., December 17, 2013 — In eight days, Christians will celebrate what is for them a high holy day second only to Easter. It is a time of hope, joy, togetherness, and renewal — not to mention lavish parties and expensive gifts.

Even for those who are not Christian, but live in Christian-dominated societies, this holiday is often celebrated from a secular perspective. One needn’t pray to believe in Santa Claus or decorate a faux pine tree.

The holiday in question is obviously Christmas. According to New Testament history, that is the day on which Jesus Christ was born. He is the Nazarene carpenter who billions of people the world over accept as not just God’s son, but their personal savior.

It has long been the goal of academics and historians to track the life of Jesus in a scientifically sound fashion. With our society’s recent technological advances, this has become more feasible, but no less controversial.

One man who has written much about the times and legacy of Jesus is Dr. Richard Carrier, a freethinker who authored, among other works, Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus. Dr. Carrier has unorthodox views about Jesus — specifically that the man did not exist and is a religiously-inspired myth.

Going back to the very beginning of Jesus’s story, it is said that he was born to a young woman, Mary, and her carpenter husband, Joseph, in a Bethlehem manger during present-day Israel’s winter census. How did this come about?


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“The earliest Gospel (Mark) shows no knowledge of any birth story,” Dr. Carrier explains to The Washington Times Communities. “Nor does the last of the canonical four (John). The second Gospel we have (Matthew), which copies from and expands on Mark, has Jesus born (and met by priests from Iran bearing gifts) in Joseph and Mary’s home, where they lived in Bethlehem, before the death of Herod in 4 B.C., having never yet resided in Nazareth (in that story they only move to Nazareth a few years later: Matthew 1:18-2:23).

“In the next Gospel we have (Luke), all of this is contradicted. Joseph and Mary don’t live in Bethlehem as Matthew says, but already live in Nazareth, and only travel to Bethlehem temporarily for a census in 6 A.D. (thus Luke has Jesus born at least ten years after Matthew says he was born), and because they don’t live in Bethlehem in this version of the story, they try to hire a room there but can find none and thus set up in a barn, and thus only in this story Jesus has to sleep in a manger, where he is not visited by Iranian priests but Jewish sheepherders (Luke 1:26-2:51).”

Dr. Carrier also says that “(n)either Luke nor Matthew say this was winter, and it almost certainly would not be. It would be too administratively difficult to conduct a census during winter months, and shepherds would not be sleeping outside in winter (Luke 2:6-8), so Luke certainly didn’t imagine this occurred in winter.

“Earliest Christian belief held that Jesus was born in Spring—Clement of Alexandria, for example, writing as late as the early third century, says his fellow Christians disagreed whether Jesus was born in April or May; none yet thought it was December. His birthday was only moved to winter centuries later as a political move by the Catholic Church to take over a pagan holiday.

“Since Matthew and Luke contradict each other on almost every detail, it is clear Christians were inventing elaborate birth stories for Jesus as early as the first century (since either one or the other is fiction; and probably both are). The letters of Paul, and the earliest Gospel of Mark, show no awareness of such stories, and the stories we find in Matthew and Luke are both riddled with legendary features typical of the invented birth narratives of other heroes and demigods.

“Most likely Matthew invented the nativity story he tells, and thus originated it, some fifty or more years after Jesus died, and I suspect Luke then invented his own version in order to argue against Matthew’s—for example, uncomfortable with Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus’s family as outlaws who fail to attend the annual Jerusalem festivals, and having rich pagan priests attend his birth, Luke changes the story to have humble Jewish workmen attend his birth and show Jesus’ family dutifully obeying both religious and secular law and regularly attending the Jerusalem festivals every year. The addition of placing all this at winter came much later.”

In recent months, a certain book has stirred much debate. Considering its title, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, this should be anything other than surprising. The book’s author, University of California, Riverside Associate Professor Reza Aslan, believes that Jesus walked the Earth. His emphasis on Jesus’s role as a sociopolitical revolutionary has contributed new ideas to our national dialogue.

“The facts of the nativity story are not historically accurate,” he tells TWTC. “For one thing, the census that Luke’s gospel speaks of in 6AD did not include Jesus’ province of Galilee so it would not have affected his family.

“Moreover, Roman censuses did not require subject peoples to travel from their place of residence (which in Mary and Joseph’s case was Nazareth) to the birthplace of their forefathers, as Luke claims. But it is important to understand that Luke never meant for his story about Jesus’s birth at Bethlehem to be read literally. Luke was not making a historical statement about where Jesus was born. He was making a theological argument about Jesus’ identity as the anointed messiah and heir to King David.

“That is why he placed Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem; not because it took place there, but because Bethlehem is the city of David. Luke’s point is that Jesus is the new David – the King of the Jews – placed on God’s throne to rule as messiah over the Promised Land.”

 

 


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Joseph Cotto

Joseph F. Cotto is a social journalist by trade and student of history by lifestyle choice. He hails from central Florida, writing about political, economic, and social issues of the day. In the past, he was a contributor to Blogcritics Magazine, among other publications. He is currently at work on a book about American society.

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