Are you familiar with the advice, “don’t believe everything you hear”? During the Christmas season, there will be stories – yes, that is part of the Christmas tradition. Think of some of those stories as fables, defined as “a legendary story of supernatural happenings” (Merriam-Webster dictionary).
A long time ago during the Christmas season, a friend invited me to lead a bible study on Jesus’ nativity as Luke narrates it. I suspected he wanted me to address some of the things we read in Luke 2 which are not supported by the historical narrative of the period. He was avoiding having to address some contradictions between what people believed and hard facts. During my parish ministry, I too had avoided disturbing anyone’s comfort.
I knew too, that even after a discussion of contradictions, on Christmas night, we would still have a cantor chant The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ: The Roman Martyrology.
- In the 5199th year of the creation of the world, from the time when God in the beginning made out of nothing the heavens and the earth; the 2957th year after the flood; the 2015th year from the birth of Abraham; the 1510th year from Moses and going-out of the people of Israel from Egypt; the 1032nd year after the anointing of David king; in the 65th week according to the prophecy of Daniel; in the 194th Olympiad; the 752nd year from the foundation of the city of Rome; the 42nd year of the rule of Octavian Augustus, all the earth being at peace, in the sixth age of the world; Jesus Christ, the eternal God and Son of the eternal Father, willing to consecrate the world by His most merciful coming, being conceived by the Holy Ghost, and nine months having passed since His conception, was born in Bethlehem of Juda of the Virgin Mary, being made man.
THE BIRTHDAY OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST ACCORDING TO THE FLESH.
This solemn proclamation, probably the most revered of the church’s proclamations goes back to the 16th century. Granted, that it is acknowledged that the dates cited are certainly not correct, we, nevertheless still chant it on Christmas night. Why? Keep an open mind, especially if you’re saying, ‘well, in my church we scoff at these medieval superstitions’.
2. Luke’s census: In chapter two of his gospel, Luke writes about Joseph and Mary leaving Nazareth to Bethlehem because an empire-wide census required everyone to go to their ancestral town for the census. Thus, Joseph being a descendant of David, went with his bride to Bethlehem, and there, Jesus was born.
There is no record, in Roman sources, or historians of the time, of such a census. Luke places it in the time when Quirinius was governor of Syria. This is useful information. Publius Sulpicius Quirinius was appointed legate governor of Syria in 6 A.D. Herod Archelaus, ethnarch of Judea was deposed by the Romans because he was unpopular with the Jews, and banished to exile in Gaul. Judea became part of the province of Syria under Quirinius. Because of this reorganization of the province, a local census was taken for purposes of taxation. It is the only census we know of at this time, and it was in 6 A.D
How do we know there was no empire-wide census? From what Luke tells us. Imagine for a moment everyone in the Roman empire relocating to their ancestral town. How far back would one have to go on their lineage? Luke says Joseph went as far back as David – 1000 years back Even today, with modern technology, how many people can trace their ancestors ten centuries back? Can you? Obviously, Luke has an interest in David.
Imagine also the empire-wide chaos such a census would cause, with massive civilian movement all over the empire. The Romans were known for orderliness. They distasted chaos. Why would they create such chaos throughout the empire? You may think, like some preachers do, that, ‘well, that is the nature of imperialism. Emperors can do whatever they want, regardless of how their subjects are impacted’.
That may be true, but the chaos such a census would have created, would not have gone unnoticed by historians. Yet, no historian of the period mentions any massive movement of populations. We ca conclude that there was no empire-wide census and that Luke had the local provincial census of the beginning of Quirinius’ governorship in mind. And that was in 6 A.D.
Raymond Brown, in his book, An Adult Christ at Christmas: Essays on the Three Biblical Christmas Stories, makes this observation: “There are formidable historical difficulties about every facet of Luke’s description and dating of the Quirinius census, and most critical scholars acknowledge a confusion and misdating on Luke’s part. Such confusion would offer no difficulty to Catholics (and I would add my note- and literalists) since Vatican II made it clear that what the Scriptures teach without error is the truth intended by God for the sake of our salvation, and that scarcely includes the exact date of a Roman census”.
In another nativity narrative (Luke 1: 5) Luke traces Jesus’ birth to “the time of Herod king of Juda”, Assuming that Luke is referring to Herod the Great, then the problem with history is compounded because Herod the Great died in 4 BCE, ten years before the beginning of Quirinius’ governorship and the census.
3. The Shepherds in Shepherds’ Field and Matthew’s Magi: Luke writes about shepherds in a field taking care of their flock when first, an angel, then a company of heavenly hosts appeared to them to announce Jesus’ birth (Luke 2: 1-13). Matthew’s nativity story (Matthew 1: 18-25) does not mention shepherds but magi instead, following a star to the house where Jesus was born.
So, who were the first witnesses of Jesus’ birth, shepherds, or magi?
Many churches and homes have nativity scenes during Christmas. Images depicted include the Holy Family, three wise men (magi) from the east, shepherds, sheep a donkey and a camel. Even though Luke mentions shepherds in the field, we don’t know if they took their flock with them to the manger. As for the three magi, Matthew does not give a number and tradition has named the Balthasar, Melchior and Caspar. We don’t know what animals they rode, camels or donkeys.
Then there is a star, in Matthew’s account, which led the wise men to Jesus. Even if the magi followed a supernova that night, can you tell above what house a star is standing? Try the sun, one day, and find out the house above which it is standing.
For Matthew too, Joseph and Mary did not need to travel to Bethlehem for Jesus to be born; they were there. But how does Jesus end up growing up in Nazareth?
4. Matthew tells the story of Herod the Great (reigned 37-4 BCE) and his panic at the news of the birth of a king. So, we get the horror inscribed in every Christian’s mind, the massacre of all male children in Bethlehem under the age of two.
Herod the Great is known for his paranoia and brutal reaction against any perceived threat to his reign. He had one of his favorite wives and three sons executed for suspicion of plotting against him. Even the emperor Augustus is said to have observed, “it is better to be Herod’s dog than one of his children” He was completely capable of the massacre of the innocents.
It is nevertheless, strange that no historian of the period mentions the atrocity. The sheer numbers of the victims would not have gone unnoticed. Yet, no record exists outside Matthew’s gospel.
5. Matthew then has the Holy Family flee to Egypt and only return after Herod the Great’s death in 4 BCE. At that time, Herod Archelaus was on the throne in Judea, which included Bethlehem. The family settled in Nazareth, in Galilee for fear of Archelaus, and “so was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene” (Matthew 2:23). Which prophet uttered the prophecy, we don’t know.
For Matthew, the massacre of the innocents and the fleeing to Egypt make sense in the context of settling in Nazareth. Even then there is a lot of confusion with history and the dating. Let’s remember Raymond Brown’s remarks above. Secondly, Matthew and Luke being the only two gospelers who try to give an account of Jesus’ nativity, they don’t tell the same story. It appears each one had their specific message they wanted to convey. The question is: What message are they relaying?