"The elaborate stories and songs woven around Christmas are all part of a complex set of myths and traditions that has little to do with the Biblical account of Jesus' birth. The English word "Christmas" literally means "Christ's Mass", the festival of the Christ's birth. The earliest mention of Dec. 25th as the feast day of the "Nativity"- the proper name for the birthday of Jesus- dates to 354 AD. In ancient times, Dec. 25th was the date of the winter solstice, a pagan holiday celebrating the sun god. IN ROME, THE WEEK PRECEDING THE SOLSTICE WAS THE "SATURNALIA", AN ORGIASTIC FESTIVAL THAT CONCLUDED WITH GIFT-GIVING AND CANDLE-LIGHTING. Hmmm...doesn't that sound like a familiar "holiday"?
Early Roman Christians appropriated the date and then used it to win converts from paganism, a term for the Roman empire's state religion, complete with its set of god and goddesses who had
been expropriated from Greek mythology. The word "pagan" was coined by early Christians, loosely meaning "civilian". In other words, anyone who hadn't enlisted in "Jesus' army" was a pagan. Early Christians did not think Jews were "pagan", however, because they still worshiped the same God.
Chirstians then as now agreed on few things. Following the division of the Roman empire into eastern and western halves in 340 AD, Christianity was also largely split between East and West. Eastern Christians used a calendar in which the solstice fell on January 6th, when the birthday of O***s was still celebrated at Alexandria, Egypt. By about 300 AD, Jan. 6th had become the date of the "Epiphany" (Greek for "manifestation"), a feast closely related to Christmas in the Roman Catholic calendar as the day on which the "wise men" or Magi visited Jesus. In the Eastern Orthodox church, Epiphany is even more popular than Christmas and commemorates the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River.
Okay, so Jesus wasnt' born on Christmas. At least the New Testament tells us what year Jesus was born, right?
Sorry again. The New Testament actually offers several possible birth years. Pick the one you like. First we have to contend with the "Shifting Calendar" glitch. Since they were in Rome and did as the Romans do, early Christian writers calculated historical dates from the legendary foundation of Rome in 753 BC. This Roman-based calendar was then replaced by one based on the calculations of a Greek monk who was comminsssioned to coordinate teh festivals of the church. Around 532 AD, the monk, Dionysus Exiguus, dated the birht of Christ to March 25 of the Roman year 754- this translated into the Christian Year 1, starting January 1. This is where "anno Domini", "in the year of the Lord" comes from. But Dioysus slipped a bit. Since Matthew dates the birth of Jesus to the days of King Herod, and he died in 4 BC, the "Year One" fixed by Dionysus Exiguus couldn't have been the Year One.
Like many ancient dating systems, early Christian calendars also referred to the number of years during which a contemporary ruler had been governing. In a modern sense, 1998= the sixth year in the "reign" of Bill Clinton. Luke says John the Baptist, a close relative of Jesus, was born six months before Jesus and started preaching in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, which corresponds to between 27 and 29 AD. At that time, Luke says, Jesus was "about thirty years old". Counting back thirty years provides an approximate date for Jesus' birth falling between 4 and 1 BC. That's a little vague and becomes even vaguer if "about thirty was Luke's way of saying "thirtysomething". Was Jesus exactly thirty when he started preaching? Thirty-five? Thirty-eith? Or maybe only twenty-eight- that's about thirty too. And we're not done yet. This slippery chronology gets even slicker.
Surely Herod's life must offer some clues about Jesus' birth date. The Bible says when Herod was king a big census was taken by the Romans. Somebody must know when that happened. Wrong again. Matthew explicitly connects the birth of Jesus with the government of King Herod. And a reference to Herod's successor, his son Archelaus, proves that the author meant Herod the Great, not one of his several sons who also took the royal name of Herod. The years during which Herod the Great was king of the Jews are precisely known: Herod was made king of Judea by the Roman Senate in 40 BC. So according to Matthew, Jesus was born sometime before the year 4 BC.
In Matthew (but no other Gospel), when Herod was told of rumors of the birth of a "messiah" who might threaten his rule, he issued a royal order to kill all the Jewish male infants in Bethlehem. The famed "slaughter of the innocents" depicted in art over the centuries and in films such as "The Greatest Story Ever Told", was meant to remind Jews of the Pharaoh who had ordered Jewish babies killed in the time of Moses. When did Herod issue this terrible order? Sorry. Herod did some terrible things in his day and his track record for eliminating opponents was on par with that of King David, his predecessor as king of the Jews. In 7 BC, Herod executed two of his sons. Before they died, Herod had a group of religious leaders and their students burned to death for desecrtating a Roman symbol that had been placed in the Jerusalem Temple. But there are no records of Herod issuing that gruesome order to slaughter children, and even if there were, the command was to kill the babeis under two, implying that Jesus might have been born two years earlier, pushing the date back to 7 or 6 BC. But outside the Bible there is no historical mention of a massacre of infants that surely would have attracted someone's notice, even though Herod's other brutal acts are well documented. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but there is no way to confirm Matthew's story of this massacre.
What about that worldwide census that the Emperor Augustus ordered, as reported in Luke? Like Matthew, the authoer of Luke agrees that Jesus was born under Herod. In his narrative, however, Luke also connected the bith of Jesus with an enrollment for taxation ordered by the Emperpor Augustus and carried out under Quirinius the Roman governor of Syria. Sorry again. According to historical records, no such census of the entire Roman world ever took place at that time. The only enrollment arranged by Quirinius took place in 6 AD, ten years AFTER Herod died. This census, made to gather taxes from Roman citizens, caused a revold in Judea but did not involve the population of Galilee, where Joseph and Mary lived and where one of Herod the Great's other sons, Herod Antipas, was in charge. Did Luke, writing his Gospel some seventy-five years later, simply get his Herod's confused?
So Matthew has Jesus born between 7 and 4 BC. Luke has him born before 4 BC, while Herod the Great is alive, and then in 6 AD, ten years after Herod the Great died. These two Gospels diagree by about ten to twelve years. The date is wrong and the year is a mystery. In other words, the birthday of the Son of God is a movable feast. If this is divinely inspired, couldn't God get that year right?
Okay. The day and the year were fudged a bit. But surely we know Jesus was born in Bethlehem? The place of Jesus' birth also raises some problems. If we had only Mark and John to go on, we would assume it was Nazareth because they call Nazareth his hometown, as Jesus himself does. But Luke and Matthew both set the story of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem (note: HIM also refers to Bethlehem as the birthplace of Jesus). Matthew simply states that Mary and Joseph are in this sleepy little town that is six miles south of Jerusalem, and a long way from Nazareth, which is north of Jerusalem. In Luke, Josheph and Mary live in Nazareth but travel to Bethlehem for the big census. Even if there had been a worldwide census, Joseph wouldn't need to go to Bethlehem to report to the Roman version of the IRS. Even less likely is a demand that he would have to drag a pregnatn woman there.
The exact place of the birth of Jesus within Bethelehm is also unknown. Luke's "manger" may have been a stall with almost no covering, or even a feeding trough in the open; the "inn" was most likely a yard with partial shelter on three sides. Based on current archaeological and other clues, Bethlehem lacked such places two thousand years ago. Another early Christian tradition held that a cave was the birthplace of Jesus; this was accordin gto Origen, a Greek theologian and scholar (185-254) who became an early Christian teacher and said he had been shown the cave. Best remembered for his early attempts to coordinate the HEbrew and Greek versions of the Bible, Origen also castrated himself because Matthew said that some would become "eunuchs for the Kingdom of HEaven". By about 338, the Emperor Constantine (the Emporer who finally embraced Christianity) built a church over the cave, and it was here that Jerome settled in 386 to translate the Bible from Greek into more commonly used Latin (the "Vulgate").
So why put Jesus in Bethlehem, a small, obscure village? Because to the Jewish people , Bethlehem was not obscure at all. First mentioned in Judges, it took added significance from Ruth, whose heroine went to Bethlehem , married there, and became the ancestor of the future King David. As the birthplace of Israel's greatest king, Bethlehem became an even more significant national landmark. Then the prophet Micah prophesied that a shepherd king, a Messiah to lead Israel, would come from Bethlehem.
There are only two possibilities here. Jesus WAS born in Bthlehem- even though Jesus later says he is from Nazareth and there is no valid historical reason for his parents to be in Bethlehem. Or he wasn't and the writers of MATTHEW and LUKE (but not JOHN and MARK) placed his birth there ot converniently fulfill the well-known prophecy of a Messiah born in Bethlehem out of the House of David. In other words, did the Gospel writers, working about a half century after Jesus "died", "cut the foot to fit the shoe"?
The traditional Christmas story readings familiar to Christians around the world typically merge the conflicting Matthew and Luke versions, toss in a handful of Hebrew scriptural prophecies, and blend it all into a neat, orderly narrative. The problem is that the "neat" Gospel versions don't agree, as already seen in the questions raised by the date and place of Jesus' birth.
If these blows to this comfortingly familiar Nativity story are disquieting, jsut wait. The plot thickens. In Matthew, the unnamed angel who tells of the birth of Jesus appears to Joseph. He warns Joseph to take Mary and get out of town because Herod is up to bad business. Joseph and Mary are not yet married, and her unexplained pregnancy is a problem. Joseph plans to quietly "dismiss her". But when propmted by the angel, Joseph wakes up, takes Mary as his wife, and after Jesus is born they leave Bethlehem for Egypt to await the death of Herod (which history tells us took place in 4 BC). in the so-called "Flight into Egypt". Without saying how much time the family spends in Egypt, an angel then gives Joseph the "all clear" sign; it is safe for them to leave Egypt and return to Judah. But iinstead of returning to Bethlehem, the family decides to go to Nazareth, in the district of Galilee. The "Flight into Egypt" of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus is unmentioned in Luke, but Matthew's intentions would have been clear to Jews. Citing a Hebrew prophecy in Numbers- "I called my son out of Egypt"- the author of Matthew wanted to show parallels between Jesus and Moses. Jesus went to Egypt, like Moses, and like Moses and the Israelites, Jesus would be safely brought out of Egypt in a recapitulation of the Exodus.
Unlike that of Matthew, the Gospel of Luke opens with the story of an earlier miraculous birth, that of John the Baptist. Carrying on the Biblical tradition of barren women who receive heavenly messengers with surprising maternal news, the angel Gabriel first tells a priest named Zechariah that hsi aged and previously childless wife, Elizabeth, will bear a son named John. (In Hebrew scripture, those barren women are Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, the mother of Samson, and Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel). Like the early Israelite Samson and Samuel, this
unborn child is also pledged to keep certain vows to God. His job will be to get the people ready for the coming of the Lord.
Six months later, the angel goes to Nazareth and appears to Elizabeth's relative Mary, who is engaged to Joseph but not yet pregnant. Gabriel tells this young woman- a "woman" of this time was commonly "espoused" around the agge of fourteen- that she will bear a child who will be called "Son of God". Remember, Joseph got the news in Matthew AFTER Mary was already in the "family way". In other words, Mary did not discuss the angelic visitation explaining her mysterious pregnancy with her husband-to-be.
...Unlike the other Biblical women whose children are predicted by angelic messengers, Mary is told her baby will result from the "Holy Spirit" coming upon her. While all of those older women, from Abraham's wife Sarah to Elizabeth, were miraculously foretold of their pregnancies, all conceived by the old-fashioned method. But the presumambly teenaged Mary does not conceive as they did; teh Holy Spirit comes over her. Mary sets off to visit her miracuolously pregnant relative Elizabeth. When Elizabeth sees Mary, Elizabeth's unborn child "leaps in the womb" and the older Elizabeth exclaims, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb".
Being the Mother of God is not a matter to be taken lightly, and Mary's position throughout Christian history has been intriguing. After the two Biblical accounts, very little is said about Mary in the Bible, and even less is said about Joseph, who becomes a missing person after Jesus is twelve years old. Jesus later speaks of his mother in several verses that seem to contradict the commandment to "honor thy mother". On one occasion, his family comes to a house where Jesus is meeting with his followers and asks for him, but Jesus says, "Who are my mother and brothers and sisters?" Continues Mark, "And looking around at those who sat beside him, he said, 'Here are my mother and my brothers and sisters. Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother'" (Mark 3:31-35) In Luke, Jesus says, "If anyone comes to me and cares about his father or his mother of his wife or his children or his brothers or his sisters or even his own soul, he can't be my student" (Luke 14:26) Jesus' words, which have struck some readers are rather coldhearted, were an unambiguous message that faith in Him, which brings a person into his heavenly "family", must be complete and unequivocal.
Although Matthew and Luke both go to great lenghts to make Mary's virginal status clear, the whole question of the Virgin Birth is one more POSSIBLE case of mistranslation. Way back in the prophecies of Isaiah, there were many references to a coming Savior. The author of Matthew would have used the Greek translation of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah in which the coming of the Messiah is prophesied. Once Isaiah talked about a son being born to a "young woman". But the Greek translation of "young woman" was a word that also could also mean either "virgin" or "young woman". In other words, Isaiah never prophesied a virgin birth, and he wasn't even talking about the Messiah when he prophesied the birth of King Ahaz of Judah. But to fulfill the mistranslated prophecy, the author of Matthew believed that Jesus must be born of a virgin. Since neither John, Mark, or even PAUL in his writings discuss the Virgin Birth, some theologians have suggested that this aspect of Jesus' birth was a later invention as with the relocation of the birth to Belthlehem, to fit the Nativity events into a prophetic scheme. Once again, the entire episode of Jesus' birth reminds readers that the Bible (at least the New Testament) is a work of faith, not history or biology. Recently, some Christian theologians have begun to cast doubt on the concept of a "Virgin Birth". Like all matters of the Bible, it is ultimately left to individual faith." -Kenneth C. Davis
P.S. I'm not taking the time to type this in order to sway people from believing in the Gospels, I just feel that it is information that should be known about contradictions between the four most used and quoted accounts of the life and teachings of Christ. Take it all with a grain of salt.
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