Sweet Baby Jesus in a Manger! What's Wrong with the Christmas Story? (The Internal Problems)
A Halmark Christmas Tale
A decree goes out from Caesar Augustus that a census is to be taken of the entire Roman Empire. Everyone is supposed to register in their hometown, so Joseph sets out from Nazareth with Mary - who is pregnant via Immaculate Conception - for the city of Bethlehem. They arrive only to discover that there is no room in the inn. They instead take up residence in the stable where Mary gives birth to baby Jesus, wraps him in swaddling clothes, and places him in a manger. Angels appear in the sky and inform some shepherds, who come to worship the babe. Magi follow a star in the east to present gifts to the newborn king. Shepherds, and angels, and Wisemen, and camels, and donkeys, and sheep are all milling about, singing Silent Night and looking positively ethereal. At least that's the version of the Christmas pageant we put on every year.
The actual Christmas stories - for there are two - are a bit more elaborate and detailed than what I've just described. This annual pageantry is simply an amalgamation and editing of two wildly divergent tales, which, upon side-by-side comparison, cannot be harmonized in any way. The first account we'll examine is Luke's, which has a key element left out of the pageant version. We'll soon see why.
The story starts out in Nazareth when an angel appears to Mary and informs her that she is going to bear a child, conceived of the Holy Spirit, who is to be named Jesus. (Luke 1:26-38) We skip ahead to Luke 2:1 where we are told that "In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census was to be taken of the entire Roman world, and that everyone was to register in their hometown. (We're also told that this was the first census that took place while Quirinius was Governor of Syria.) So, Joseph went up out of Nazareth with Mary, his betrothed, but on arriving in Bethlehem found no room in the inn. The innkeeper put them in the stable, where Jesus was born, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and placed in a manger. Luke 2:8-17 tells us the story of shepherds "watching their flocks by night," when suddenly a heavenly host of angels appear above them, informing them that the Christ has just been born. The shepherds then head off to find Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem. Luke 2:21-23 tells us that Jesus was circumcised on the 8th day, then presented in the Temple in Jerusalem, "when the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed." This is a reference to Leviticus 12:2:
"Say to the Israelites, A woman who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son will be ceremonially unclean for 7 days...on the 8th day the boy is to be circumcised. Then the woman must wait 33 days to be purified from her bleeding."
So, 8 + 33 = 41. I don't know if it was supposed to be on the 41st day, or after the 41st day, but on either the 41st or 42nd day after his birth, Jesus was presented in the Temple in Jerusalem. This Temple Dedication was conducted by an old man named Simeon - who was told he would not die before he beheld the Christ - and an old prophetess named Anna. Luke 2:39 finishes the story saying, "When Mary and Joseph had done everything required by the Law of the Lord they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth."
Matthew's story is quite a bit different. In Matthew 1:18-23 an angel comes to Joseph, and informs him of Mary's pregnancy. Joseph decides to divorce her quietly so as not to expose her to public disgrace, but the angel informs him that this child is actually from the Holy Spirit. It will be a boy and he is to be given the name Jesus. We are told that, "All this was done to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet 'The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son and call his name Immanuel - meaning "God with us.'" So Joseph does as he told, takes Mary as his wife, but has no union with her until after the birth of Jesus. (Sorry Catholics, she didn't remain a virgin) Matthew 2:1-12 says that "After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem asking, "Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews. We have seen his star in the east and have come to worship him." When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. He called together all the people's chief priest and teachers of the Law and asked them where the Christ was to be born. They reply, "Bethlehem, as it says in the prophet..." (and then Matthew misquotes the prophecy. I'll come back to it later in part 3.) Herod then calls the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem to seek out this new King saying, "I too wish to go worship him." So they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the holy family was staying. They worshiped the child, presenting him with gold, frankincense, and myrrh, then were warned in a dream to return home by a different route. Joseph is then warned in a dream to get up, take his family and flee to Egypt. When Herod realized the Magi had outwitted him he was furious, and issued the order to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and it's vicinities, 2 years old and under. Once again, Matthew inserts his favorite phrase, "All this took place to fulfill that which was spoken by the prophet..." (again, we'll come back to it in part 3) When Herod died, an angel told Joseph in a dream that it was safe to return home, thus fulfilling "that which was spoken by the prophets saying 'Out of Egypt have I called my son.'" But upon hearing that Herod's son Archelaus was ruling in his place, they were afraid to return to Judea, and instead withdrew to Galilee. So they came to dwell in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, "He shall be called a Nazarene."
Reconciling the Two
Before Fundamentalists can yell, "They're not contradictory, they're complimentary!" (1 of their 2 favorite phrases, the other being, "You took that out of context!"), let me just say that I realize these 2 stories could potentially be joined like a couple of puzzle pieces, and I'm going to attempt to do so now. Here's what happens when we try to reconcile the two tales; in chronological order:
1. Angel appears to Mary (Luke)
2. Angel later appears to Joseph (Matthew)
3. A degree goes out from Caesar for a census (Luke)
4. Mary and Joseph journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem... (Luke)
5. ...where Jesus is born (Matthew and Luke)
6. Angels tell some shepherds, who come worship the child (Luke)
7. 41 or 42 days later Jesus is presented in Jerusalem, after which the family returns to Nazareth (Luke)
8. Magi, following a star, stop by Herod's to inquire, then proceed to find Jesus in a house in Bethlehem (Matthew)
Oh, wait. That won't work. The Magi couldn't have found them in Bethlehem if the family had already returned to Nazareth. Let's back up 2 steps and try again.
7. Sometime after the shepherd episode, Magi arrive at Mary and Joseph's [house] in Bethlehem (Matthew)
8. Magi are warned in a dream to return home by a different route, and Joseph is warned to get up in the night and flee to Egypt. (Matthew)
Erghh! That doesn't work either. If the family is fleeing to Egypt, how could they have presented Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem 41/42 days after his birth, and then returned home to Nazareth? Let's try a suggestion a Fundamentalist once offered me. (You'll notice how this "solution" requires an inordinate amount of non-Biblical invention, as well as disregarding some obvious syntactical implications.) Here goes. (#1-6 still stand)
7. 41 or 42 days after his birth, Jesus is presented in Jerusalem, then they return to Nazareth. (Luke)
8. After arriving in Nazareth, they decide for some reason to head back to Bethlehem and buy a house even though Luke says that Jesus was raised in Nazareth upon their return. (Fundamentalist)
9. Magi find them in a house in Bethlehem (possibly up to 2 years after the birth, depending on when the star first appeared) (Matthew)
10. When the Magi depart, the family flees to Egypt. (Matthew)
11. When the family gets word that it's safe to return, they attempt to return to their home in Bethlehem in Judea (Matthew)
12. God warns Joseph in a dream that Judea is not safe, so they retreat to Galilee and hide themselves in a town called Nazareth. (Matthew)
13. .....which was actually their hometown all along (Luke)
14. All this "moving back to Bethlehem and then spending years in Egypt" is sufficiently encompassed by the phrase in Luke 2:39, "When Mary and Joseph had done everything required by the Law of the Lord they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. (Fundamentalist)
That's quite a stretch to assume that the word "everything" in vs. 29 means not only the directly stated Temple requirements of the Law - Mary's purification and requisite sacrifices, along with Jesus' circumcision and dedication - but also a completely inexplicable, unmentioned return to Bethlehem, a significant real estate purchase, and a side trek to a different continent for a few years, none of which have anything to do with "The Law!" The phrase, "Everything required by the Law of the Lord," is apparently so all-encompassing that you can just cram whatever scenarios you can whimsically dream up into it and it's all covered. On top of that, Luke tells us flat out that they were from Nazareth to begin with, while Matthew, on the other hand, says that Nazareth was selected as a hiding spot when their original home in Judea proved to be unsafe. As we'll examine in the following parts, both Matthew and Luke make some historical claims that cannot be verified historically, and even seem to contradict external documented historical records. Matthew also seems to have a strong proclivity not only to outright fabrication, but to "support" these inventions with out-of-context and mangled passages he deems prophetic. You'll never watch the Christian pageant the same way again!
(In addition to the obvious internal contradictions, there appears to be at least one implied contradiction: In Matthew, God tells Joseph not to venture into Judea, where Herod Archelaus is reigning in Jerusalem. According to Matthew, Joseph obliges and seeks out a hiding spot. But according to Luke; Joseph, Mary, and Jesus went to Jerusalem every year for Passover.)
A Few Last Questions and Musings
Then there's the elements of the story that come across like bad Hollywood plot devices with holes you could drive U-Haul through. Some of my favorites:
1. The Magi have been following a star for nigh on 2 years, and since they've still got track of it, it means they've gotten quite adept of following it. So why stop and ask Herod for directions? When Herod said he didn't know, the Magi went right back outside and continued using the star guide just as they'd been doing for the past 2 years, and voi-la! it takes them straight to their destination. They could've very easily skipped Herod all together. Ah, but Matthew needed an an excuse to introduce his Jealous-Ruler-Trying-To-Kill-An-Infant-King motif that permeated ancient literature. I will argue in a later part that the Slaughter of the Infants never happened. It is but a figment of Matthew's literary imagination, which is why he has the Magi go out of their way to ask directions to a place their ever-trusty "guide" knows the exact location of.
2. Speaking of their "guide," since the star is moving, it means that the star guided them to Herod. Since the star is obviously a miraculous occurrence from God, and since the only reason Herod is in the story is to kill a bunch of babies, it is a logical extrapolation that God led the Magi directly to Herod on purpose just so he could butcher hundreds of infants! That's kind of sick if you think about it, but it won't surprise anyone who's actually read the Old Testament.
3. When the star finally came to rest, how did the Magi know which house it was hovering over? Have you ever looked at a star and said, "Look! That star is directly above Jimmy's house!?" Go outside in your neighborhood tonight, look up at the night sky, and see if you can correlate a specific star with a particular building.
4. Why didn't God just tell Joseph in Egypt that he could return to Israel, just not to his home? God tells him in a dream that it's safe to return home. So Joseph heads on home. Then God warns him in another dream that it's not safe to return home, and that he needs to hide. Weren't they just busy hiding in Egypt? Why leave? If their home is just as dangerous for them under Herod's son as it was under Herod, why did God even tell them it was safe to leave Egypt in the first place? Or for that matter, if Nazareth is a good enough hiding spot from Archelaus, why couldn't they have just "hid" there from Herod to begin with, and avoided the long trek to Egypt?
5. Why should Mary and Joseph have to hide from Archelaus? Herod no doubt believed his infant executioners had done their job, and surely he would've passed on this information to his son. Besides, they would've been on the lookout for a king, not a carpenter. What about Jesus' life would've suggested to Herod or his son that he was a king in the sense that Herod understood it?