Quantcast
Connect with us

Here are six hints that baby Jesus stories were added much later to early Christian legends

Published

on

- Commentary
A nativity scene (AFP)

The wonder-filled birth story of the baby Jesus was centuries in the making.

Picture a creche with baby Jesus in a manger and shepherds and angels and three kings and a star over the stable roof. We think of this traditional scene as representing the Christmas story, but it actually mixes elements from two different nativity stories in the Bible, one in Matthew and one in Luke, with a few embellishments that got added in later centuries. What was the historical kernel? Most likely we will never know, because it appears that the Bible’s nativity stories are themselves highly-embellished late add-ons to the Gospels.

ADVERTISEMENT

Here are six hints that the story so familiar to us might have been unfamiliar to early Jesus worshipers.

1. Paul’s Silence – The earliest texts in the New Testament are letters written during the first half of the first century by Paul and other people who used his name. These letters, or Epistles as they are called, give no hint that Paul or the forgers who used his name had heard about any signs and wonders surrounding the birth of Jesus, nor that his mother was a virgin impregnated by God in spirit form. Paul simply says that he was a Jew, born to a woman.

2. Mark’s Silence – The Gospel of Mark—thought to be the earliest of the four gospels and, so, closest to actual events—doesn’t contain a nativity or “infancy” story, even though it otherwise looks to be the primary source document for Matthew and Luke. In Mark, the divinity of Jesus gets established by wonders at the beginning of his ministry, and some Christian sects have believed that he was adopted by God at this point.

Why is Mark thought to be where the authors of Matthew and Luke got material? For starters, some passages in Mark, Matthew, and Luke would likely get flagged by plagiarism software. But in the original Greek, Mark is the most primitive and least polished of the three. It also is missing powerful passages like the Sermon on the Mount and has endings that vary from copy to copy. These are some of the reasons that scholars believe it predates the other two. Unlike Paul, the author of Mark was writing a life history of Jesus, one that was full of miracles. It would have been odd for him to simply leave out the auspicious miracles surrounding the birth of Jesus—unless those stories didn’t yet exist.

3. A Tale of Two Tales – Beyond a few basics, the nativity stories in Matthew and Luke have remarkably little overlap. In both, Jesus is born in Bethlehem of a virgin Mary who is betrothed to a man named Joseph. That’s where the similarity ends.

ADVERTISEMENT

In Matthew’s story, an unnamed angel appears to Joseph, astrologers arrive bearing symbolic gifts, a special star appears in the east, Herod seeks to kill Jesus, warnings come during dreams, and the holy family flees to safety in Egypt just before boy infants are slaughtered across Judea.

In Luke’s story, the angel Gabriel appears to the future parents of John the Baptist. They miraculously conceive, but his father is made mute as a punishment for doubting. Gabriel then appears to Mary. During a visit between the two prospective mothers, who are cousins, John the Baptist in the womb recognizes Jesus in the womb and leaps. Later when John is named, his father miraculously regains the power of speech. A census forces Mary and Joseph to go to Bethlehem, where there is no room in the inn. Jesus is born and laid in a manger/cradle, and angels sing to shepherds who visit the baby. After his naming, his parents take him to the Jerusalem temple where he is recognized and blessed by a holy man and a resident prophetess, and then the family returns to their home in Nazareth instead of going to Egypt.

Some Christians try to harmonize these stories but a simpler explanation is that they represent two different branches in the tree of oral tradition. The study of European fairy tales shows that different versions of the stories tend to split off, with characters and magical elements diverging over time much like an evolutionary tree. The Matthew and Luke nativity stories likely underwent a similar process, meaning that oral traditions circulated and evolved for some time before the two authors inscribed their respective versions. Scholars debate how much the authors further revised the stories they received.

ADVERTISEMENT

It’s interesting to note that each author inserted a dubious historical event (an impossible census in one and an unlikely mass infanticide in the other) to make his plotline work. Dubious histories become credible only after potential eyewitnesses die off—so their presence is one more indicator that one or more generations lapsed before the stories took their present form.

4. Pagan Parallels Luke’s story appears to be slanted toward a Roman audience, and in fact the idea of gods impregnating human women was a common trope that many Jews and Christians have recognized as pagan. Progressive theologian Marcus Borg argued that the point of the story was to pivot fealty from Caesar Augustus to Jesus. According to Roman imperial theology, Augustus had been conceived when the god Apollo impregnated his human mother, Atia. Titles inscribed on coins and temples during his reign included “Son of God,” “Lord,” and “Savior.” They also included the phrase “peace on earth,” which Luke has his angels sing to shepherds.

ADVERTISEMENT

5. Say What?! – By the second chapter of Luke, the parents of Jesus behave as if they have forgotten the astounding signs and wonders that accompanied his birth. When the boy is twelve, Mary and Joseph take him to Jerusalem for a festival, where they lose him in the crowd and find him three days later among the teachers in the temple. When they scold him, he says Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them’ (Luke 2:49-50).

Wait. They didn’t know what he was talking about?! This otherwise bizarre narrative glitch, which directly follows the nativity story, suggests that the former was tacked on at a later time.

6. Divinity Rising – If we line up the four gospels in the estimated order they were written—Mark (60CE), Matthew (70-90CE), Luke (80-95CE), then John (90-100CE), an interesting pattern emerges. Jesus becomes divine earlier and earlier. In Mark, as mentioned, he is shown to be divine when he is baptized (and perhaps is uniquely adopted or entered by God at that point). In Matthew and Luke, he is fathered by the Holy Spirit and is sinless from birth. In John, he is the Logos, present at the creation of the world—though also born of a woman. This sequence suggests that theologies explaining the divinity of Jesus emerged gradually and evolved as Christianity crystalized and spread.

ADVERTISEMENT

After the Gospels of Matthew and Luke were bundled into the Catholic Bible, the two infancy stories merged. The three astrologers became Kings riding camels. Mary got her own “immaculate conception” and became, to some, a sinless perpetual virgin. The place of Jesus birth became a stable filled with adoring animals. And the holy birthday moved to winter solstice, weaving in delicious and delightful pagan traditions including feasting, tree decorating and festivals of light. The birth of a long-awaited messiah fused with the rebirth of the sun—and their joint birthday party became, in the dead of winter, a celebration of bounty and beauty and love and hope that captivated hearts even beyond the bounds of Christianity.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author ofTrusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org.  Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.  Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.


Report typos and corrections to: [email protected].
READ COMMENTS - JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Continue Reading

Breaking Banner

Here’s all the evidence you need that the tax code wasn’t written for you

Published

on

The New York Times reported that Trump only paid $750 in taxes in 2016 and again in 2017, and documented how much of his lavish lifestyle he could write off.  I have no proof that this travesty is actually true.  But there is plenty of evidence that his tax code is definitely not written for you, the average reader.  It’s designed to do exactly what The New York Times is reporting.

You’ve probably read stories about how Warren Buffett realized his secretary was paying more in taxes than he was.  Well, it’s hardly an isolated tale.

Continue Reading

Breaking Banner

Here are 5 grim truths about Trump’s nightmare Supreme Court

Published

on

The deed is done. President Donald John Trump has nominated 48-year-old 7th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Amy Coney Barrett to succeed the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the United States Supreme Court. Barring a miracle, Senate Republicans, now reduced to little more than a personality cult ever faithful to their führer, will confirm the nomination.

The consequences of Ginsburg’s passing and Barrett’s elevation will be horrendous, and felt for generations. Here are five grim observations to help explain the scope of the anticipated nightmare.

1. Barrett Will Drive the Court Sharply to the Right

Continue Reading
 

2020 Election

Here’s why you shouldn’t underestimate the power of the putdown in a presidential debate

Published

on

Before the first presidential debate, President Donald Trump demanded that his Democratic challenger Joe Biden submit to a drug test.

Trump was again suggesting – without evidence – that his opponent takes performance-enhancing drugs.

If Trump brings this up during the debate, no one should be surprised if Biden has a comeback prepared. Biden’s campaign has already issued a statement on the president’s unusual challenge – “If the president thinks his best case is made in urine he can have at it,” said Biden’s deputy campaign manager – but the Democratic presidential nominee has yet to answer himself.

Continue Reading
 
 
Democracy is in peril. Invest in progressive news. Join Raw Story Investigates for $1. Go ad-free. LEARN MORE