Science, History, and the Birth of Jesus
Copyright © Robert J. P. Lyon, 2015
Paper edition cover by Greg R. Elliot
Paper edition: ISBN 978-0-9880494-3-7
Quotations from the Bible are from the New Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition, copyright © 1993 and 1989 by the Division of Christian Education, National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Paper copies of this book may be ordered from firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Bah, Humbug!
2. Who Wrote This Stuff, Anyway?
3. Somebody Messed With the Calendar
4. Dating the Birth of Jesus
5. Starry, Starry Night
6. What the Magi Saw
7. You Stole My Miracle!
8. Was Luke Mistaken About the Census?
9. Visions and Voices
10. Lost for Words
11. No Room in the Inn
12. …and Achim begat Eliud…
13. Happy Saturnalia!
14. Parthenogenesis — the Virgin Birth
15. When All is Said and Done
A NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR
There is little here that is original. Almost everything here can be found in standard texts or on the internet, from whose authors I have borrowed freely and with much thanks. Even though some of this information has been around for many years, it is not widely recognized what a wealth of evidence exists for understanding the Christmas story as real events.
I offer this overview of that evidence with the conviction that a valid faith must be based on verifiable facts, and on inferences reasonably drawn from those facts, and that any faith not so based will be productive of great mischief. That mischief can be seen today in the decline of so many churches, where the preaching has failed to provide thinking people with credible evidence for the truth of the gospel. Today’s pulpit cries out for a renewed emphasis on biblical scholarship and apologetics.
Robert Lyon +
The Feast of All Saints and Reformation Sunday, 2015
1. Bah, Humbug!
“Christmas comes but once a year,” says the old song. For some folks, even once a year is too often. What with decorating the tree, buying presents, humoring cranky relatives, and pre- paring the ritual feast, Christmas can be really stressful. Add in the office parties, the mall scene, and the anticipation of January’s Visa bill, and it’s a wonder we go through it at all.
Of course, it’s a great time for family and friends to reconnect and enjoy each other’s company. But for those who are hurting, whether from loss of family or friends, or from illness or financial distress, Christmas can be the hardest time of all. We have let our merchants and manufacturers take a holy season and turn it into a commercial circus. We avoid midnight mass but we throng the malls for midnight madness. It’s hard to fault old Scrooge for his “Bah, humbug!”
But what about that first Christmas, the one with Mary and Joseph; with shepherds and wise men; with bad King Herod and a star over a manger in Bethlehem? What about the Virgin Birth? Must we write them off as humbug, too?
Or what if that first Christmas wasn’t humbug, after all? What if the apostle Peter was right when he wrote, “We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ”? (2 Peter 1:16)
There are, of course, some ideas surrounding the Christmas story that we might want to get rid of, because they come from a misunderstanding of the Biblical text. There are also traditions like the Christmas tree, Santa Claus, and flying reindeer, that never had anything to do with the real Christmas. But if you’ll bear with me, you may be surprised to see that the Christmas story is not quite the humbug that many people think.
Given what the Bible tells us about historical characters and events, we can date the birth of Jesus with some accuracy. And as we do so, we discover that other parts of the Christmas story are also trustworthy. Even the story of the Virgin Birth deserves to be taken seriously. Let me show you a Christmas that you can actually believe in.
2. Who Wrote This Stuff, Anyway?
As you know, the Bible contains four accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry, which we call gospels. They were assembled thirty to forty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, while some of the folks who knew him were still alive. But of the four gospels, only Matthew and Luke contain stories about Jesus’ birth. Most scholars think Matthew and Luke were the second and third gos- pels in order of writing. The earliest gospel to be published was Mark’s, which opens with Jesus at age thirty, starting his min- istry by being baptized by his cousin John the Baptist. Matthew and Luke both took Mark’s narrative and added other stories that they knew about Jesus, including stories about his birth, as well as collections of his teachings that his students had record- ed or committed to memory. John, the last of the four gospels, begins with an affirmation of Jesus’ pre-existence as God; his physical birth is implied but not described. So in thinking about the Christmas story, what concerns us mainly is the provenance of Matthew and Luke.
Papias, a church leader of the early 2nd Century, says that Mark was Peter’s “interpreter” and he wrote the story of Jesus as he got it from Peter. Papias’ statement recalls Peter’s promise to ensure that his churches would have reliable access to his teaching after his death (2 Peter 1:14,15).
Papias also says that Matthew made a record of Jesus’ sayings “in the Hebrew dialect” (which may mean Aramaic). This collection of Jesus-sayings no doubt circulated among the early Christians and, when combined with Mark’s narrative, formed the bulk of the gospel that we attribute to Matthew. Papias’ information should be considered reliable because, as he says, he got it by deliberately consulting people who knew Jesus and the Apostles. Irenaeus, another 2nd Century church leader, confirms (though some think him wrong) that Papias had met the Apostle John.
Just as Peter and Papias give us clues about the authorship of Mark’s and Matthew’s gospels, so Paul gives us clues about the authorship of Luke’s gospel and its companion volume, the Acts of the Apostles. While under house arrest in Rome, awaiting trial and expecting martyrdom, Paul sent an intriguing request to his protégé Timothy: “Do your best to come to me soon. Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful in my ministry. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments” (2 Timothy 4:9,11,13).
What makes this request so intriguing is that Paul is deliberately bringing together Mark and Luke, along with some important books and parchments. The words “the books and theparchments” imply that Timothy knew which books and parchments Paul wanted. But what might they have been? The gospel that Mark had previously written? Matthew’s collection of Jesus’ sayings? Notes on Old Testament passages that foreshadowed Jesus? A diary? An early catechism?
If you take Mark, who recorded Peter’s teaching, and Luke, the physician who accompanied Paul in his travels and had first-hand conversations in Jerusalem with people who knew Jesus, including “James, the Lord’s brother” (Galatians 1:19), and if you set them up with certain important manuscripts at Paul’s direction, it is hard not to see this meeting as the publishing conference that produced Luke’s gospel and the Acts of the Apostles.
It has been objected that because Mark’s gospel has no Christmas story, the Christmas story must have been a later invention. The answer is simple: Mark has no Christmas story because Mark records what Peter preached. And Peter emphasizes that the apostolic preaching was based on events that they could affirm as eye-witnesses (2 Peter 1:16-18). That doesn’t mean there were no witnesses to Jesus’ birth, but certainly Peter and the other apostles were not among them.
So the gospel writers would have had to learn the Christ- mas story from other sources: from Mary (Joseph had already died), and from Jesus’ family. We know that Luke met “James, the Lord’s brother”, who was bishop of the church at Jerusalem (Acts 21:18, Galatians 1:18,19). It’s a fair guess that James might even have been using adaptations of Mary’s composition, theMagnificat (Luke 1:46-55), uncle Zacharias’ Benedictus (Luke 1:68- 79), and Simeon’s Nunc dimittis (Luke 2:29-32), in his church’s worship services, and that Luke made a copy of those while he was at Jerusalem.
John does not record the Christmas story in his gospel, either, but that does not mean he did not know it. In fact, he records an insinuation by Jesus’ enemies that Jesus was a bastard – “we were not born of fornication” (John 8:41,48) – which shows that John not only knew of Mary’s unusual pregnancy but was also aware of the scandal that attended it. John must certainly have heard lots of stories from Mary, because Jesus had asked him to look after Mary after his death (John 19:26,27).
The same argument from silence has been used to suggest that Paul did not know the Christmas story. But two of his letters show that he actually did know of such a tradition. In his letter to the churches in Galatia, Paul says, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his son, born of a woman” (Galatians 4:4) – as if Paul thought there were something remarkable in Jesus’ having being born of a woman. Apparently, that’s what he did think.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul says that Jesus, whom he calls “the Messiah” (Greek: “the Christ”), is descended from the Jewish race “according to the flesh” (Romans 9:5). That’s a curi- ous statement, because it implies that Jesus also has some other ancestry that is not only not Jewish, but also not “according to the flesh”. There is no doubt what Paul thinks this other origin is, for in the same sentence he calls Jesus “the Messiah, who is over all, God, blessed forever.” It is clear that Paul believes in Jesus’ divine origin and knows a tradition about his unusual birth.
There was indeed something unusual about Jesus’ birth. That’s the view of the first-century Christian writers. We have reason to believe that those writers had access to early and informed sources. So let’s see what other evidence there is to support the details of the Christmas story.
3. Somebody Messed With the Calendar
One of the things you discover in trying to date the birth of Jesus is that he was actually born several years “Before Christ”. In 525 AD, a monk by the name of Dionysius Exiguus was tasked by Pope John 1 to prepare a table showing the dates of Easter for future years. Deciding to start from the birth of Jesus, Dionysius divided the calendar into what we now call “BC” (“before Christ”) and “AD” (anno Domini, “in the year of our Lord”). This method of calculating the years did not come into common use until the Venerable Bede adopted it in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, published in 731 AD. Scholars agree that Dionysius’ calculations were several years out. For example, Je- sus was born during the reign of Herod the Great (Matthew 2:1), but according to our present calendar Herod died in 4 BC. The discrepancy does not discredit the Christmas story; it just means that the dates will be a few years off what you might have expected.
4. Dating the Birth of Jesus
The death of Herod the Great is the first critical marker for determining the date of Jesus’ birth. If Herod died in 4 BC, then Jesus must have been born before 4 BC. But how long before? Matthew tells us that “when Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.” (Matthew 2:16). (There is no record outside Luke’s gospel for the killing of these “Holy Innocents”, but Matthew’s report is consistent with other atrocities that Herod committed.) The “time” that Matthew refers to at 2:16 was “the exact time when the star had appeared” (Matthew 2:7). Whatever the “star” event was that announced Jesus’ birth to the wise men, it must have preceded Herod’s death by about two years. This is the second critical marker for determining when Jesus was born. Depending on when the wise men visited Herod, that would put Jesus’ birth back to around 6 BC. We’re getting warm in dating Jesus’ birth, but we still need to examine two other intriguing questions: What was that Christmas star? And, was Luke mistaken about the census under Quirinius (Luke 2:1,2)?
5. Starry, Starry Night
The story of a star leading the wise men from Mesopotamia to Bethlehem does not fit anything that we know about stars. Nor do we know of any other heavenly body that is able to travel (as if it were some low-flying satellite) at a speed that could oversee a 500-mile journey by men on camels. But if we allow that the word “star” could refer to some “stellar event”, such as astrologers might take notice of, then we may be on our way to understanding the Christmas Star in a way that is compatible with both Scripture and legitimate science.
The Greek word that the Bible translates as “wise men” is magoi — Latin magi (singular magos in Greek, magus in Latin, whence the English word “magic”). The magi were astrologers from Babylon, likely Zoroastrians, or maybe descendants of Jews who remained in Babylon after the Captivity.
But what “stellar event” could have got the attention of astrologers with an interest in Judaism? In May, October, and December of 7 BC, a triple conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn was seen against the background of the constellation Pisces. Among ancient astrologers, Jupiter was considered a royal star, and Saturn was considered the protector of Israel. Tacitus, the Roman historian, equated Saturn with the God of the Jews. The magi would have said that these conjunctions occurred “in” the constellation Pisces, the Fishes, which to them signified Israel.
Matthew actually quotes the magi’s astrological language. The magi came “from the East” (Greek apo anatolon, Matthew 2:1), i.e., from Babylon. But contrary to the traditional English translation, they did not see the star “in the East”. Rather, they said that they saw “his star at its rising” (Greek autou ton astera en tei anatolei, Matthew 2:2). The Greek words for “East” and “rising” in Matthew 2:1 and 2:2 are slightly different, the plural form being used for “East”. (We make a similar distinction between our words “Orient” and “orient”, using a capital letter where the Greek uses the plural.) The expressions “his star” and “at its rising” are clear indications that what we have here is the report of astrologers, but early translators either didn’t notice this astrological jargon, or they deliberately omitted it, doubting that God might actually have made use of the magi’s astrology.
But it takes no great stretch of imagination to see how these Jewish astrologers might have felt “led” to look for a new-born king. Led, of course, by the intersection of a powerful Jewish Messianic hope and their own pseudo-science of astrology! Led by what they referred to in typical astrological terms as “his star”.
6. What the Magi Saw
When the magi looked up into the pre-dawn sky, they saw Saturn and Jupiter rising against the “V” of stars that make up the constellation Pisces. As the planets moved across the sky from East to West – from right to left as you look at the sky – Jupiter approached Saturn a little closer each day until on 29 May 7 BC they were very close, making a “conjunction”. Jupiter, orbiting faster, continued Westward, passed Saturn, then seemed to reverse direction and, in a visual illusion called “retrograde motion”, appeared to approach Saturn again from the West, mak- ing a second conjunction on 4 October 7 BC. Jupiter continued Eastward past Saturn, then changed direction again, and they came close a third time on 4 December 7 BC.
At the time of each conjunction, Saturn and Jupiter are more or less in line with Earth. But Jupiter orbits faster than Saturn, and Earth orbits faster than both, so the alignment shifts in such a way that Jupiter and Saturn seem to fall behind, giving the illusion of retrograde motion. But all three planets are still actu- ally moving forward, each at its own speed, and the alignment continues to shift until their Westward motion again becomes apparent. This phenomenon occurs every 18 to 20 years. The astronomer Johannes Kepler wrote about it in the year 1603.
7. You Stole My Miracle!
You might object that this explanation of the Christmas Star cheats everyone – because it takes away the miracle that Christians love to believe, and that skeptics, with equal relish, love to doubt. In fact, it does no such thing. The Christmas Star is no less marvelous after having been so explained, but the marvel is different from what we had thought it was. The marvel is in the timing, and in God’s condescension to human frailty – and maybe also in his sense of humor – in using even astrologers’ unscientific understanding of a perfectly natural event to announce to them the birth of their and our Messiah.
That suggests that we need to rethink our idea of what a miracle is. Don’t think of a miracle as God violating the laws of nature to do the impossible. Instead, think of a miracle as his using the laws of nature – which, after all, God invented – in ways that we never thought possible, to achieve ends that we never dared to imagine.
8. Was Luke Mistaken About the Census?
Herod’s death in 4 BC, along with the triple conjunction of 7 BC, and the two-year window that Herod determined from the magi, all fit neatly together to locate Jesus’ birth in 7 or 6 BC. But there’s a problem: Luke says Joseph took his family to Bethlehem for an Empire-wide tax-census in the reign of Augustus, and that “this was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria” (Luke 2:2). The problem is that Quirinius (=Cyrenius) was governor of Syria from 6 AD to 12 AD, which is well outside our time-frame of 7 BC to 4 BC. Augustus did, in fact, order such a census in 8 BC, which would have been carried out in 7 or 6 BC, but the governor of Syria from 9 to 7 BC was Sentius Saturninus, followed in 7 to 4 BC by Quinctilius Varus.
However, in 6 AD, Judea was annexed to Syria after the exile of Archelaus, and Quirinius was appointed governor, with instructions, as Josephus tells us, “to take an account of their substance, and to dispose of Archelaus’ money” – which suggests a tax-census. Did Luke confuse the Empire-wide census of 8 BC with the provincial census conducted 14 years later in 6 AD? That seems unlikely, because Luke says explicitly that this was the “first” census conducted under Quirinius (Luke 2:1). What we need, then, is evidence that Quirinius had authority in Syria sometime during the period 8 BC to 6 BC.
There are two archaeological discoveries that could locate Quirinius in Syria during the census ordered in 8 BC. In 1764, a marble fragment known as the Tivoli Stone (Lapis Tiburtinus) was found in Tivoli, Italy, recording two separate “supplications” (officially decreed days of thanksgiving to the pagan gods) and a “triumph” (a victory parade) for an official who had governed Asia as proconsul and had governed Syria twice as Legate of the divine Augustus. Though the official’s name is missing from the broken fragment, the details suggest Quirinius. The Roman historian Tacitus notes that Quirinius conquered the fortresses of the Homonadenses, who lived in the mountain district of Cilicia (today, South-Eastern Turkey) near Syria. This occurred sometime during the last decade BC, and is thought to be the reason for the “supplications”. Towards the end of the last decade BC, Quirinius was also appointed governor of the province of Asia (Turkey). The appointment might reasonably have followed that victory. The nearest legions available to fight against the Homonadenses would have been those under Quirinius’ command in Syria.
The second piece of evidence is a memorial stone known as the Venice Stone (Lapis Venutus), discovered in Venice in the late 1600s. It commemorates Aemilius Secundus, who, it says, under command of Quirinius, Legate of Syria, conducted a census of 117,000 citizens in the Syrian city of Apamea and captured fortresses in the mountains of Lebanon. Apamea, being in Syria, was outside Archelaus’ Palestinian territory, so Quirinius could have ordered a census there in 8 BC without encroaching on Archelaus’ authority.
If the Tiburtine fragment does in fact refer to Quirinius, and if the census held at Apamea is that of 8 BC, then we have located Quirinius where Luke says he was.
But this solution raises another problem: Could Quirinius and Saturninus both have been Legates (governors) in Syria at the same time? Two examples suggest that dual governorship was indeed possible. In the 1st Century AD, Vespasian conducted a war in Palestine, which was by then a part of Syria, while Mucianus was governor of Syria. Vespasian and Mucianus both held the rank and title of Legate. Also in the 1st Century, during the governorships of Quadratus and Gallus, the Legate Corbulo similarly commanded the armies of Syria in the war against Parthia and Armenia
So Quirinius could certainly have been sent to Syria as a Legate on a special mission that lay outside the duties of the Legate who was currently serving as Governor. Note also that Luke does not say that Quirinius actually carried out the census in Judea, but only that it was carried out while Quirinius had authority in Syria. In fact, Tertullian (about 200 AD) says the census in Judea was carried out by Saturninus, which is perfectly reasonable, considering that Quirinius’ authority in 8 BC did not include Judea.
So we find it likely that Luke has not made an error with respect to the census, and that the “star”, the death of Herod, and the two-year window all fit together to date the birth of Jesus in 7 or 6 BC. (Note Luke’s claim to accuracy at Luke 1:3.) But the census and the Christmas star do not exhaust our problems with the Christmas story; there are still more questions that need to be addressed.
9. Visions and Voices
Some of the details in the Christmas story seem like the stuff of fantasy. An angel appears to Zacharias announcing Elizabeth’s pregnancy (Luke 1:11); another angel appears to Mary announcing her pregnancy (Luke 1:26,27); and a whole lot of angels announce Jesus’ birth to the shepherds (Luke 2:9,13). An angel appears to Joseph in a dream telling him it’s OK to marry Mary (Matthew 2:20); the wise men are warned in a dream to avoid Herod (Matthew 2:12); and an angel warns Joseph in a dream to take his family to Egypt (Matthew 2:13), and again when it’s safe to return to Israel (Matthew 2:19,20), and yet again to avoid Archelaus (Matthew 2:22).
We have to admit that for for some folks these angelic revelations are problematic. But they may be less problematic than you may think. If you believe that God exists, or are willing to entertain that possibility, it is not unreasonable to suppose that he may sometimes have occasion to reach out and communicate with us. Certainly, some divine “stage management” would have been in order during those troubled years when Jesus was born. But how might God do that?
The Greek word aggelos (whence Latin angelus) means simply “a messenger”, from the verb aggelein, “to announce”. (Likewise in the Old Testament, the Hebrew words maläk and lä’ak.) But the images in which such “message bearers” are described will vary with the culture and the imagination of the recipients. (Note that angels did not grow wings or become female until the Middle Ages.) Zacharias, Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the magi all believed in angels, as did most of their neighbors, and they described the revelatory Presence that they experienced, in terms that they themselves understood (Compare John 12:27-29).
Just as triple conjunctions can be explained by astronomers, so in a similar way visionary, auditory, and dream experiences can be explained (more or less) by neurologists. So if the Creator of the stars could reveal Messiah’s birth to the magi through the humbug of their astrology, why might the Designer of the brain not also use our neurology, fed by our own knowledge and our common sense, to provide messages of caution or comfort? If this explanation is correct, it does not involve God in a deception; rather it credits him with culturally appropriate communication. It shows how the Spirit of God might deliver the word of God in, to use a quaint Anglican expression, “a language understanded of the people”.
10. Lost for Words
Picture Zacharias alone in the Temple, robed for priestly duties. He had been offering incense with his division of priests as they did morning and night during their assigned month every year. But this time was different: as he was burning the incense, he saw what appeared to be a divine Presence. Of course, he expected to feel close to God when serving in the temple, but this was too close for comfort. Understandably, he was afraid. When the vision announced that he and Elizabeth, despite their advanced years, were going to have a son, he voiced his skepticism – and those were the last words he spoke for the next nine months.
Zacharias took his enforced silence as a punishment for his skepticism. Elizabeth, I suspect, took it as a blessing in disguise. And God used it as a sign that their child, John the Baptist, would have the special ministry of introducing the Messiah. But loss of speech such as Zacharias experienced – technically known asaphonia – is well known in medical science. It can last for short or long periods of time, and may have physical or psychological causes. The fear that Zacharias felt that day could have been enough to bring it on and, understandably, it did not occur at once but only after he had comprehended the significance of the son that he was about to father.
The Bible and other religious literature contain many stories of unusual births. The “other” can usually be dismissed as fiction; the former are typically “surprises” to parents who, like Elizabeth and Zacharias, were “barren” or “advanced in years”. We are not told how old Zacharias and Elizabeth actually were, and we do not know at what age Luke considered people to be “advanced in years”. But when I remember that my mother was 49 and my father 58 when I “surprised” them, the thing I see remarkable about the birth of John the Baptist is not that it happened, but its timing, six months before the birth of the Messiah, to be his “warm-up act”. Again, a miracle is not God’s violation of his own laws of nature to do the impossible, but his using the laws of nature in ways that we never thought possible, to achieve ends that we never dared to imagine.
11. No Room in the Inn
Luke says that Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem “because he was of the house and lineage of David” (Luke 2:4). That means that Bethlehem was Joseph’s hometown, or at least his clan’s seat. He would have had family there, so why would he want to incur the needless expense of renting a room at an inn?
The word that is translated “inn” in Luke 2:7 is kataluna. This is the same word that is used for the “upper room” where the Last Supper was held (Luke 22:11). It is unlikely that the Last Supper was held at an “inn”. A kataluna was, in fact, not rental lodgings but a guest room in a private home. An “inn”, such as the one where the Good Samaritan left his casualty in the inn-keeper’s care, is not a kataluna but a pandokheion (Luke 10:34).
So it appears that Joseph and Mary went to stay with Joseph’s relatives while they fulfilled the requirements of the census. But as the town must have been full of returning Bethlehemites, it is hardly surprising that the guest room, the kataluna, was already occupied. Add to this the fact that Mary’s pregnancy was suspect, and you can see that she was not likely to be offered the choicest accommodation, not even by Joseph’s family.
So what was that “manger” where Mary laid her child? It was indeed a feeding trough for livestock, but the Birth did not occur in a barn. A family’s domestic livestock, unlike a commercial herd, spent their nights in a main-floor room of the house, a room intended for that purpose. The manger, made of wood or stone, would have been lined with straw to serve as a cradle. The familiar image of a cowshed with a bright star shining overhead is quaint, but it is not correct.
12. …and Achim begat Eliud…
It is objected that the genealogies of Jesus in Matthew 1:1-16 and Luke 3:23-38 are not only boring but so different from each other that they must be contradictory. Matthew starts with Abraham and works forward through David to Jesus; Luke starts with Jesus and works backward through David to Abraham, and then all the way back to Adam. The names between Abraham and David are consistent, even though Matthew skips some names to create his symbolic pattern of 14 generations before David, and another 14 after David. But except for Shealtiel and Zerubbabel, there are no similarities in the generations between David and Jesus. What are we to make of that?
A common explanation is that Matthew’s genealogy traces Jesus’ line back through Joseph but Luke’s genealogy traces it through Mary. That is unlikely because inheritance was through the father. Luke’s genealogy recognizes Joseph as Jesus’ legal father, even though not his birth father (3:23), but makes no mention of Mary. So we must find a better solution.
We may find that better solution if we understand why Matthew invents a pattern of twice 14 generations, and if we remember that (a) royal lines die out, (b) Jewish men were expected to marry within their tribe, (c) a living brother was expected to marry his dead brother’s widow to perpetuate the dead brother’s lineage (“Levirate” marriage — Deuteronomy 25:5-10), and (d) people then as now could be known by more than one name, a problem that is exacerbated when switching languages from Hebrew to Aramaic to Greek. So, for example, the Matthat of Luke 3:24 is almost certainly the Matthan of Matthew 2:15. And where Luke calls Joseph’s father Heli (=Eli) (Luke 3: 23) and Matthew calls his father Jacob (Matthew 2:15), Heli (Eli) could be either another name for Jacob, or he could be Jacob’s brother and the second husband of Jacob’s widow, Heli’s sister-in-law.
We also note that Matthew traces Jesus’ lineage back to David through David’s son Solomon, while Luke traces it back through Nathan, another son of David. Solomon’s line is the royal line, which God promised would sit on David’s throne forever. By listing the names in multiples of 7, Matthew says there is a divine pattern that has come to fulfillment in Jesus. Nathan’s line, on the other hand, has no claim to the throne. So we may say that Luke’s genealogy shows Jesus’ “natural” descent from David through Nathan to Joseph, while Matthew’s traces his being in the line of the royal succession, from David through Solomon, and also down through Joseph. However, Solomon’s natural line ended after Jeconiah at the time of the Exile (Jeremiah 22:30) and the succession would have passed, as royal lines do, to the next nearest lawful claimant. Because of that, plus the practice of marrying within the tribe, and the practice of Levirate marriage, it is not surprising that the royal line and the natural line would sometimes coincide, as they do at Shealtiel and Zerubbabel.
By tracing Jesus’ natural line back beyond Abraham to Adam, Luke, writing for a Gentile audience, wants us to understand that Jesus’ Messiahship extends to the entire human race, not just to the Jews. Matthew, writing for a Jewish audience, implies the same universality when he begins his genealogy by naming Abraham twice (Matthew 1:1,2) – because Matthew’s readers knew God’s promise to Abraham that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). So we see how the two genealogies might be reconciled, even though for lack of details we cannot show that reconciliation in any conclusive detail.
13. Happy Saturnalia!
It is generally agreed (though not by everyone) that 25 December is not Jesus’ birthday. The fact that “there were shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luke 2:8) suggests it may not have happened in winter, but that inference is not conclusive. Clement of Alexandria, writing around 200 AD, records dates in April and May that some of his contemporaries had proposed for Jesus’ birth. In 274 the Emperor Aurelian decreed 25 December – Winter Solstice in the Julian calendar – to be the birthday of Sol Invictus, the “unconquered sun”. The birthday of Mithras, another sun god, was also celebrated on that date. The week leading up to those Winter Solstice birthdays was also celebrated as the Saturnalia festival. The fact that the sun “came back” every year was very important to a pre-scientific people. The first record we have of Jesus’ birthday actually being celebrated at the Solstice comes from AD 354. The fact is, although we can pinpoint the Crucifixion and Resurrection by reference to Passover, and identify the probable year of Jesus’ birth, we just don’t know at what time of year he was born.
14. Parthenogenesis — the Virgin Birth
Why can’t we just be satisfied with a human Jesus? Why can’t we just revere him as a good and wise teacher who was cruelly persecuted? Well, yes, of course you can, but only if you don’t mind turning him into a fraud or a madman. For Jesus presumed to forgive sins in a way that is God’s prerogative; he performed healings (or did a good job of faking them); he claimed to be the only way to God; he said he was going to die for our sins; and he managed to get a whole lot of people convinced that he had risen from the dead and was going to return as master of the universe.
We have seen some evidence that the gospels may be more accurate than they have been given credit for. If that’s so, then we need to take their portrayal of Jesus seriously. In which case, if Jesus is not in some sense truly divine, then he is either a dangerous psychotic with delusions of grandeur or a damned clever humbug. If Jesus is not the God-man, then the label “good and wise teacher” does not fit the evidence.
So a Virgin Birth is indeed what we Christians celebrate at Christmas. Take that away, and all we have left is an improbable charlatan who can give, sadly, not salvation but only disappointment.
One of the scholarly quibbles about the Virgin Birth concerns the statement in Matthew 1:23 that says, “a virgin shall be with child.” Matthew is quoting the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 7:14), who wrote around 700 BC. The problem is that Isaiah wrote in Hebrew, but Matthew was quoting from a Greek translation. The Greek uses the word parthenos, a “virgin”, to translate the Hebrew word almah, which generally means a “young woman” but doesn’t specify her sleeping habits. What Isaiah wrote in Hebrew was, “the young woman is with child”, i.e., pregnant. In this verse (Isaiah 7:14), Isaiah is actually pointing at a pregnant young woman standing nearby, and predicting that certain political changes will occur while her soon-to-be-born child is still very young.
So what’s to be said about Matthew’s “virgin”? Did Matthew over-state the case? Was that verse in Isaiah really prophetic?
First: The Greek translation is unusual but not wrong, for presumably the young woman had been a virgin until her recent pregnancy. To call her a virgin would be like a teacher speaking of a graduate as “my student”, where the idea of “former” or “recent” is implied. But there are instances (e.g., Iliad 2:514) where the word refers to an unmarried woman who is not a virgin. The virginity of the parthenos may therefore have been more a cultural expectation than a part of that word’s definition or the then-current situation.
Second: Isaiah was in fact using the unborn child as a prophetic sign, not of a future Messiah but of political events that would soon occur. Throughout Isaiah chapters 6 to 9, the prophet uses children as prophetic signs on at least four occasions, including giving two of his own children really weird names.
Third: Although the word “virgin” may be the detail that attracted Matthew to the verse, what really excites him about Isaiah 7:14 is the name that Isaiah gives to the child: “Emmanuel”, which means “God with us”. The child in Isaiah 7:14 is a symbolic reminder that God is present and at work in the life of his people. But the child in Matthew 1:23 is himself God, present and at work in the life of his people.
Fourth: Matthew (or the scribe to whom he entrusted his collection of Jesus-sayings) quoted Isaiah 7:14 because Isaiah’s words say what Matthew and the early church understood to be true. Whether Isaiah would have seen that meaning 700 years earlier is both unlikely and irrelevant. Prophetic language is cryptic and takes us by surprise. God’s fulfillment always exceeds his promise.
But the above discussion does not answer the pressing question. The Virgin Birth, if it really happened, was a biological event. The question at issue is whether such an event is even possible. As a biological event, a virgin birth, technically called “parthenogenesis”, is not only possible but has actually been documented as occurring in about 70 species. These include Komodo dragons (the Chester Zoo and the London Zoo, 2006), and Hammerhead sharks (the Omaha Zoo, 2007). More recently, the journal Current Biology (1 June 2015) reports a study in which 7 of 190 smalltooth sawfish caught by researchers off the coast of Florida between 2004 and 2013 were shown by DNA testing to have been conceived parthenogenically. In the journal Cell Stem Cell, an article entitled “The Challenge of Regulating Rapidly Changing Science: Stem Cell Legislation in Canada” (Caulfield, Tim, et al., 2009) says that “In theory, a single individual could be both the mother and father to a child. The individual does not even have to be living if there is a stored sample of their cells.”
Though genetically the offspring of parthenogenesis are normally female because of the absence of the Y chromosome, Pijnacker and Harbutt (1979) observed “rare impaternate males” among parthenogenic stick insects. (To be “impaternate” means to be “born without a father”.) In support of the possibility of parthenogenic males, the Hutchinson Encyclopedia (1989) notes that the gene determining human maleness occurs on the X as well as on the Y chromosome, even though it is normally not activated in the female, i.e., from the X chromosome.
Certainly, there is a wide gap in complexity between a human mother, on the one hand, and stick insects, lizards, and fish, on the other. Nevertheless, though human parthenogenesis is highly improbable, the data caution us not to call it impossible. In the case of the Christmas story, the Virgin Birth was not a violation of the laws of nature; it was God’s using the laws of nature, which he invented, in ways we never thought possible, to achieve ends we never dared to imagine. In the Virgin Birth, the ends were two-fold: to make himself known to us by taking our nature, and to become our Savior.
15. When All is Said and Done
As you have seen, each aspect of the Christmas story can be shown to have plausibility. Taken all together, I find those plausibilities persuasive, and I hope you will, too. But the sort of evidence that’s available on these topics can give us, at best, only probabilities, not water-tight proofs. Nevertheless, if this were not about Jesus, a lot more people would find the weight of that evidence convincing, or at least sufficiently compelling to deserve further investigation. But the Christmas story attracts skeptics like a magnet – not so much because of problems in reading the evidence, but because if the story itself is true, it must compel us to believe in the God who brought such events to pass. Such a God would have a claim on us, and we should find ourselves inescapably committed to the child who for our sake went from the manger to the cross, rose on the third day, and promised to return bringing cataclysmic renewal.
The present blend of Christian, pagan, and crassly commercial interests will continue to shape our mid-winter holidays into the foreseeable future. And most of us will continue to enjoy the festivities with suitable moderation. But that’s not what it’s about. In the midst of it all, give yourself some time apart — at church, if possible, or in some quiet place — to reconnect with the God who came among us in the person of Jesus, who moves among us still in the person of the Holy Spirit, and who will enable us to see beyond the tinsel to things that matter and that last forever.
Holy God, who came among us in the person of Jesus, who died for our sins, and rose again to give us life everlasting: Forgive us, we pray, for all the ways in which we have displeased you; give us faith that we may understand, and understanding that we may believe; and be pleased to accept our desire to be followers of Jesus, in whose name we make this prayer. Amen