Neither version of the birth of Jesus is historically true

THE two stories of Jesus's birth (in the gospels of Matthew and Luke) were not news reports - that is, not historically true accounts, and were not meant to be. Many ordinary people do not know this yet theologians have been aware of it for at least 100 years and the bishops and priests of today have been trained by them. It makes you wonder what these clergy have been teaching to the laity.

Look at some of the contradictions between these two biblical accounts. In Matthew, Bethlehem was where Joseph and Mary lived and Jesus was born in their house. In Luke, Jesus's parents lived in Nazareth, and he was born in a manger in Bethlehem during their visit there.

In Matthew, Herod, on hearing that a baby boy who was king of the Jews had been born, planned to kill all boys under the age of two in and around Bethlehem, so his parents fled with Jesus to Egypt. In Luke, there was no reference to this infanticide, and his parents remained on for some weeks during which they brought him to the temple in Jerusalem.

In Matthew, Joseph was the person communicated to in dreams by angels in connection with the birth of Jesus, Mary was not mentioned in this regard. In Luke, Mary was visited by the angel and told about the birth of Jesus, but Joseph was not. Furthermore does taking the stories literally mean you have to believe in angels, in a guiding star and in a virgin birth?

Nobody knows the actual date of Jesus's birth. One theory is that, 300 years later, the church, whose religion had recently become the official religion of the Roman empire, came to take over the date of a non-Christian nature festival (of the winter solstice's unconquered sun) and used it for Christmas celebrations. So Jesus might have been born on June 1, not in the bleak mid-winter of the carols!

Modern theologians consider that the birth stories of Matthew and Luke were created by the authors themselves, using midrashic techniques whereby they drew on the Jewish scriptures (the Christian Old Testament) to construct stories which would express the main themes of their gospels. Neither Matthew nor Luke was a neutral observer, they both wrote from the viewpoint of their faith in the risen Christ. For example, Matthew and Luke had theological reasons for choosing Bethlehem as the place for Jesus's birth (when historically it is much more probable that he was born in Nazareth where he grew up). There was a strand of thinking in Judaism that suggested that a Messiah would be a descendent of David, the idealised king, who came from Bethlehem. Matthew found a text in the book of Micah that he considered supported this.

To my mind, Matthew drew on the Joseph of the book of Genesis who was described as having had a series of significant dreams in order to create his story of Joseph.

Matthew's birth story took up the theme of divine presence and he included a text which says "and his name shall be called Emmanuel" (which means "God with us"). It did not matter to him that Joseph and Mary never called the baby Emmanuel.

Luke's shepherds represented the poor in society, who are an important theme of his gospel's social justice concerns. They were privileged to visit the infant Saviour and would have a privileged place in the kingdom. Matthew's wise men represented the Gentile world, some of whom accepted Christ as Saviour after Easter.

So if a priest tells you that Joseph really took Mary and Jesus and fled with them to Egypt where they sought asylum as refugees, and that the family thus came to experience what such an uncertain life is like, you are not being told the truth.

Matthew and Luke believed that they were living in the end-times of Jewish apocalyptic myth. Jesus, to my mind, also shared the same outlook of believing he was living close to the time God would bring in a new and everlasting kingdom of peace and justice.

We know now that none of this happened, the world has continued on its way. It means, I think, that we cannot interpret Jesus's significance today through "the lenses of the Jewish apocalyptic myth" and thereby constructing his meaning in terms of his being the Messiah, Saviour and Son of God.

I attempted a modern re-interpretation of the significance of Jesus in my book, Tried for Heresy A 21st Century Journey of Faith.It has radical implications for a religion that seems to be dying, but which I hope will survive as a way of affirming our fundamental human worth and of making a faith claim about a God to whom we all matter. Such a faith continues to present a huge ethical and political challenge in a world of deep inequality, deprivation and suffering.

(Published in the Sunday Independent on 21st December 2003, http://www.unison.ie/irish_independent/stories.php3?ca=36&si=1097674&issue_id=10208)

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