Jesus, or Yeshua bar Yosif, was born. Just when or where is still open for debate. In fact, the story of the Christmas holiday is a perfect example of the adaptation of the gospel to the various social cultures to which it was taken.
The traditional story of Christmas loosely combines two narratives in the canonical gospels of Matthew (1:18-2:23) and Luke (1:5-2:39). Mark has no nativity story; John offers a poem, believed to draw on an early Christian hymn, concerning the presence of Christ at creation and the enfleshment, or incarnation, into the person of Jesus, but not a birth story.
These two narratives contain some similarities and some contradictions.
Matthew and Luke both say Jesus was born in Judea, in the town of Bethlehem, the birthplace of King David. In both accounts, Jesus’ mother is Mary, a virgin who becomes pregnant by divine agency while betrothed to a man named Joseph, who married her despite her being pregnant after getting the green light from an angel in a dream.
Matthew opens with a patrilineal genealogy of Jesus, an odd choice since the story makes it clear that Joseph did not consummate the marriage until after Jesus was born. Then he presents the traveling astrologers or men of wisdom who are being guided to Judea to a “child born king of the Jews”; they go to King Herod for help locating the new king.
Herod learns from his court scholars that prophecies point to a birthplace in Bethlehem, and he asks the wise men to let him know when they find the new king so he may go pay homage. After the wise men find Jesus, an angel warns them against telling Herod and tells Joseph to flee; when the wise men fail to report back, Herod orders the slaughter of all children in Bethlehem two years and under, just as Joseph, Mary and Jesus are fleeing to Egypt. After Herod’s death they return, not to Judea but to Galilee, to the town of Nazareth.
Luke has a very different story, which begins in Nazareth with the parents of the future John the Baptist, whose mother, Elizabeth, is Mary’s cousin. He eases into the announcement of Jesus’ coming to Mary, who is perplexed and recites the well-known Magnificat hymn, which borrows heavily from the Hebrew Bible and bears a remarkable resemblance to Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2:1-10.
Joseph and Mary journey to Bethlehem as required by a census order of Emperor Augustus, while Quirinius was governor of Syria. Shepherds appear at the birth. Joseph and Mary take Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem on the eighth day, to be circumcised. Then they return to Nazareth.
Matthew does not mention a census. Luke has no wise men, no Herod, no slaughter, no Egypt. Both present problems to the dispassionate historian.
One of the principal independent contemporary sources, the Jewish historian Josephus (37–100 CE), makes no mention of Herod’s slaughter, an oddity for someone who is keen to record gruesome suffering of the Jews of that period. However, he does cite a census, around the year 6 CE. This would mesh with the governorship of Quirinius, which began that year; however, Herod died in 4 BCE, or 10 years earlier.
The Quirinius problem may be disposed of by some problematic claims that he had been governor for another term earlier, conceivably while Herod was alive. Even then, if Luke is correct, scholars propose that Jesus may have been born around the year 6 BCE.
These are just a few of many potential holes in the two narratives.
Matthew was probably written in Antioch by scribes working on the testimony of the apostle of the same name around the year 50 or 60. Luke, a disciple of Paul’s, was a physician and highly literate in Greek; he could write and research his own material, which he penned between 60 and 80, probably in Greece.
Neither was an eyewitness to the birth. Matthew met Jesus as an adult, and Luke never met Jesus, although he may have met Mary in Ephesus, where she reputedly lived under the care of John before he was exiled. More than likely, their narratives are a literary device, one very common in the Greco-Roman world, in which an important figure had to be born under portentous auspices.
The first writer to approach the early Christian story as a historian was Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, who was present at the Nicene Council and authored his well-known Ecclesiastical History. Eusebius attributed to early tradition the account that Jesus was born in the summer, possibly in June or July.
Christmas was not celebrated at all by the apostles or their early followers. Until Nicea, there is no evidence of any religious feast days other than Easter, from which came the Sunday Eucharist, Pentecost and the occasional commemorations of local martyrs’ birth to new life at the hands of the Romans.
Yet barely a few years after the Church became legal, suddenly there appeared in Rome the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus on December 25. Why that date?
The 25th of December was the pagan festival of the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (“the birthday of the Unconquered Sun”), a festival inaugurated by the Roman emperor Aurelian (270–75) to celebrate the sun god at the winter solstice. This was the occasion of riotous orgies and drunken revelry. It was also the reputed birthday of the Zoroastrian god Mithra, also revered by the Romans.
The date was a way of Christianizing or “baptizing” a pagan feast. This kind of supplantation is part of a pattern that would repeat itself in the history of the process known as the inculturation of the gospel, or adaptation by evangelizers of the gospel story and Christian ritual practice to suit the customs of various social cultures.
Indeed, the ceiling mosaic seen above, from a tomb in the necropolis under mid-3rd century Vatican grottoes beneath St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, depicts Christ as the Sun (Christus Sol Invictus), which supplants the pagan mythology.
The image is believed to represent the ideas of that period that St. Justin Martyr’s First Apology cites as a favorite of early Christians awaiting the return of the Lord: Psalm 19:5-6, which speaks of “a bridegroom coming out of his chamber who rejoices as a strong man to run a race. His going forth is from the end of the heaven, and his circuit unto the ends of it: and there is nothing hid from the heat thereof.”
Much as the church in Rome did with the solstice on Dec. 25, the eastern churches celebrated the “coming of light,” or in Greek Epiphania, on Jan. 6. As Christianity moved north, it took the solstice holly and ivy from the pagan Celtic religion in Britain and the pagan Norse yule log from Scandinavia and Germany (where it later became the Weihnachtsbaum, or Christmas tree).
Merry Christmas to all my readers!