In Quest of the Historical Baby Jesus


by James A. Bacon

The Christmas story has been retold so many times in sermons and hymns, in school plays and storybooks, that it has become a part of the national psyche. Every schoolchild knows that Mary and Joseph traveled to the little town of Bethlehem where there was no room at the inn. They sought shelter in a stable where Mary gave birth, and she laid the baby Jesus in a manger surrounded by oxen and donkeys. Shepherds came to adore him, and three wise men paid him homage, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Soon after, the wicked king Herod sought to kill the new-born child, and Mary and Joseph fled with Jesus to Egypt to escape his wrath.

It is a heartwarming tale, and one that few Christians are inclined to question. Yet this story appears in none of the Gospels. It is a composite, a pastiche of clippings from Matthew and snippets from Luke. Anyone who troubles himself to read the nativity narratives of the two evangelists can plainly see that they are incompatible on fundamental points.

Matthew places the birth of Jesus during the reign of Herod the Great, a tributary to Rome who died in 4 B.C. Luke states that Jesus was born when Cyrenius was governor of Syria, and Palestine was under direct Roman rule — after Herod’s death, around 6 AD.

Saying nothing of a census, Matthew states simply that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and that the wise men came to “the house” where he was. The story of the stable and manger comes from Luke.

Matthew speaks of wise men following a star in the east but knows nothing of shepherds; Luke tells of shepherds, saying nothing of wise men.

Where Matthew describes the holy family fleeing from Herod soon after Jesus’ birth, Luke states that his parents took Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem eight days later for his circumcision.

The discrepancies in Jesus’ birth date alone have confounded generations of scholars. Historians have diligently searched the archives for Roman census data and have scoured the records for mention of astrological portents — comets, supernovas, the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn — that might resemble the mysterious star of the east.

The task of dating Jesus’ birth need not detain us here, yet it is vital in our quest to uncover the historical Jesus to understand the family conditions that molded his personality and shaped his world view. If Jesus truly were conceived by God and a virgin mother, as Luke and Matthew maintain, we would have little choice but to accept the Christian version of his life as written in the Gospels: The overriding influence in his development was his divine status. Were Jesus the natural son of Joseph, as many scholars have suggested, we could argue that he absorbed the same aspirations as most other Jews. But if he were the illegitimate son of Mary, as his detractors charged, we might conclude that Jesus was raised as a social outcast — putting his mission and his life in an entirely new light.

The logical place to commence our study is to review what Jesus said about himself. Unfortunately, there isn’t much to go on. In none of the sayings recorded by the Gospels and Apocryphal writings did Jesus discuss his birth directly. Although he may have referred to himself as the “Son of God” — a term that suggested a spiritual, not a biological kinship — he never mentioned his paternity.

The legitimacy of his birth apparently was not an issue during Jesus’ lifetime. The hostile Pharisees, whose stronghold was Jerusalem and the southern province of Judaea, apparently knew little about his personal background. “We don’t know where he comes from,” John quotes them as saying. Understandably so. Their contacts did not extend to the tiny provincial town of Nazareth in the northern province of Galilee. If there had been any tongue wagging in Nazareth about Jesus’ birth, the Pharisees would not have been privy to it. But it was general knowledge that Jesus hailed from Galilee — and it was precisely this point that the Pharisees seized upon. They argued that the Messiah would not come from Galilee: “Hath not the scriptures said that Christ cometh out of the seed of David, and out of the town of Bethlehem where David was born?”

Rebutting the popular opinion expressed by the Pharisees, Jesus asserted that the Messiah need not be descended from King David. In the Psalms, he noted, David referred to God as “Lord.” If David paid obeisance to God as his superior, Jesus asked, how could God (or his agent, the Messiah) be David’s son?

Logical, perhaps. But why did the scribes raise the question and why did Jesus bother to counter it? Because Jesus could not trace his lineage back to David. Had he been able to document a Davidic ancestry, his opponents would not have attacked his humble Galilean origins. Had he been descended from David, he would not have taken issue with the popular belief.

Extrapolating from this exchange – the one instance in which Jesus was recorded commenting upon his ancestry — we can safely say that he was not descended from David. As a corollary, we can assert that Jesus was not the biological son of Joseph who, according to both Luke and Matthew, was of David’s lineage. Both evangelists attempted to trace Jesus’ Davidic descent through Joseph, and then undercut their own tortuous arguments by denying Joseph’s paternity. Matthew put it this way: Joseph was “the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus.” Luke was equally awkward, referring to Jesus, who was “as was supposed” the son of Joseph. Read more.

11 Responses to In Quest of the Historical Baby Jesus

  1. The early Greeks, looking back on the Homeric period and the tales of the Trojan War, recognized that there were different kinds of historic truth. They distinguished between “mythos” and “logos”. A myth can contain a great deal of truth, even if it is not something that can be confirmed by reference to incontrovertible historic fact. The Christmas “pastiche” you refer to is a structure or phenomenon that would have been very familiar to the Greeks of half a millennium before Jesus. They would have been nonetheless comfortable in acknowledging that it is a synthesized version of several accounts that may, nonetheless, convey important truths.

  2. “The Zealot rebels annihilated the aristocratic Sadducees, and then the Romans crushed the Zealots and their apocalyptic-minded brethren, the Essenes. ”

    Were the Zealots and Essenes like today’s Libertarians? Did the Essenes believe in Boomergeddon?

    Just kidding jim! Fascinating read!

    • Sad to say, there were few libertarians running around the ancient world. ;) In societies organized around patronage, the economic structure was indistinguishable from the power structure. That said, Herod the Great was (by the atrocious standards of the day) was relatively progressive. One of these days I’ll write an essay about Herod as the father of economic development. He was one of the few economic geniuses of the ancient world.

  3. Each gospel writer (and there were of course more than the four that passed muster with the later church councils) had his own audience and his own hidden (or open) agenda. Luke was writing for a Greek audience that needed heroic birth myths to establish the divinity of the hero or prophet in question. The idea of an obscure carpenter from a backwater village and commoner parents was not going to cut it if Christianity was going to be established among the goyim. He fit the message to the audience. Mark is the oldest gospel and there is no such fallderall in Mark. I can accept that Luke did a better job of describing the traditions (again, writing after the fact) in the Acts of the Apostles and there may be some historical truth in that.

    There is no historical evidence for the existence of Jesus at all, no contempary written documentation, no prisoner list from Herod’s police, one obscure reference in Josephus that could have been a later addition. If the historical truth matters, you will have thin gruel to work with until the first century.

    Which gospel has the Christmas Tree and Santa Clause? What would Christmas be without this huge infusion of paganism?

  4. Breckenridge – The historicity of Jesus is virtually undisputed in scholarly circles. There are two references in Josephus (which is roughly contemporaneous – i.e., within 50 years), one of which has a bit of a scent of later embroidery. The other seems authentic enough. The issue is not whether Jesus of Nazareth existed, but what the significance of that existence was. The answer to the latter question now transcends history, because for millions of Christians, living and dead, his significance has been established in their hearts and minds through faith.

    • Scout is correct: The historicity of Jesus is beyond dispute. Other than the fact of his existence, however, almost everything is up for dispute. As Albert Schweitzer wrote in “The Quest for the Historical Jesus” a century ago, every generation reinterprets Jesus through a new set of eyes. That was true when he wrote the book, and it is just as true today.

  5. Disputing the existence of Jesus is just as likely to get you killed today as it was 1500 years ago, so yes, the issue seldom comes up. That there was a rabbi who preached a messianic message that upset the existing power structure in Jerusalem, and got himself killed for his troubles, is easy to accept but impossible to prove. As I said, the references in Josephus could have been added by scribes hundreds of years later (both of them). One argument I recall from Old Testament class is that the proof that Jesus existed is similar to the proof that Socrates existed — somebody later wrote down accounts. Behind the four canonical gospels there are other documents, older source documents lost to time, and they might have been fairly contemporaneous.

    But to Jim’s topic, Luke’s birth story is a myth created to impress the late first, early second century Greco-Roman audience he was writing for. Myths are not false – perhaps just the opposite – but they are not history.

  6. Wonderfully interesting. Lot of work on your part. Lot to think about here, both in terms of historical analysis and beliefs.

    • I agree – this is a wonderful post – one I’ve read several times and will read several times more.

      I am reminded of all the possible deep background to the Jesus story. Such as the world wide mythology of the ancients concerning what they saw on cloudless turnings of night into day and day into night. The daily rising of the moon, the setting of the sun, followed by the dying of the moon and rise of the sun. And the monthly cycle too of the birth, growth, and death of the moon in counterpoint to the everlasting sun. How ancient people world wide joined the two (the sun and moon) into one by the Paraclete – the light of the sun giving life and death to the moon over and over and over again

      How this stories etched in stone the world over this may well have given rise to the belief in the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. And the Son’s resurrection too.

      Thanks for the Post, Jim. Hope to see more of them.

  7. Dear Mr. Bacon,

    I read your site for your expertise in land-use and politics, not to read your blasphemies. Stick to your strengths and avoid your weaknesses, please. Thank you.

    Sincerely,
    Andrew E. Roesell (Fairfax)

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