As we sit here and contemplate the season for the reason I thought it might be fun to shed some light on some of the things we think we know about the traditional Christmas story.
1. The virgin birth. The first author we have writing anything down about the life of Jesus is Paul the apostle, and his authentic letters date from about CE49 to CE59. Paul never mentions anything about Jesus’s mother having been a virgin. The second author we have writing anything down about the life of Jesus is the author of the Gospel of Mark. Mark’s gospel dates to around 70CE and doesn’t gives us a birth narrative at all, it begins when Jesus is older. We have to wait until Matthew, writing sometime in the 80’s, before we finally get a Christmas story. Matthew is the first person we know of who wrote that Jesus was born of a virgin. When we look at the evolution of the legends told about Jesus, Mary’s virginity looks like one example of the myth growing over time. Incidentally, the author of Luke/Acts also refers to the virgin birth, but the author of John makes no reference to it.
2. The classic nativity scene. Only two of the four gospels in the canon provide us a birth narrative. The story almost everyone knows about Christmas is the one where Jesus is born in a barn and sleeps in a manger because there was no room at the inn. This is the scene that’s set by many of the popular Christmas carols: Silent Night, Away in a Manger, We three Kings, etc…This is the account we find in Luke’s gospel, but its not the account we find in Matthew. Matthew’s account is a bit uglier, and not one that would inspire singing or celebrating. In Matthew’s account we have the holy family living in Bethlehem when the evil King Herod hears that the new king of the Jews is going to be born, and since Herod can’t allow that to happen he orders all the newborns killed. We call this the Slaughter of the Innocents. In order to escape from the danger the holy family flees for Egypt, and they don’t return until after Herod dies. The good news is that none of the historians who documented events during this timeframe took note of such an awful event as the killing of all newborns, so historians tend to discount that it happened at all.
So this Christmas, whether you choose to celebrate it purely as a humanist or as a believing Christian, now you have some insight about precisely what the Bible says about Christmas.
I wish all of you, believers or not, a safe and wonderful holiday. And be sure to decorate your Christmas trees so that we can keep the paganism in Christmas!