The Nativity: A Critical Examination

Whilst some of you may think Christmas has come early, the reality is that I have a new book out which deals with the historicity of the nativity accounts found in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. As if all the other arguments that we and you produce here at DC aren’t enough, there’s nothing like topping it all off with a healthy dose of critical historical analysis.

So the book is called The Nativity: A Critical Examination and the more involved in writing and researching it I became, the more amazed I was that anyone actually buys a historical ideal of those accounts! In this post, I will look to just one niche aspect of the two Gospels that report the birth of the Godmanspirit on earth.

So, a little background first. Most of the readers here will be painfully aware of the contexts of dating, authorship, audience and theological overlay involved with the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Suffice to say that, of the four canonical Gospels, the birth of Jesus turns up in only two of them. Either the other two thought it wasn’t important enough, or they simply didn’t know (or refused to admit the reliability) of the birth narratives.

Most people know of the basic issues:


Genealogy: 77 names (41 between David and Jesus)
Jesus’ family lives in Nazareth.
They need a census to get to Bethlehem to fulfil prophecies in Jesus’ birth there.
The shepherds seem to be the first to worship Jesus.
Herod is absent.
The magi are absent.
After the birth, the family returns, straight after a visit to the Temple, to “their own city” of Nazareth.


Genealogy: 42 names (26 between David and Jesus).
Jesus’ family lives in Bethlehem already.
No census mentioned as already live in Bethlehem.
The shepherds are absent.
Massive star leads magi to Bethlehem and their house. No one else in the astronomical world seems to see this amazing star and report it.
After the birth, the family see the magi and realise they have to hot-foot it to Egypt to escape Herod who is murdering local babies.
They return from Egypt after several years to Nazareth, where they have not lived before.

Obviously, there are more issues than the few mentioned here. I talk through about 20 major problems. The one I want to concentrate on today revolves around poor old Herod. Well, he was a nasty piece of work for sure. But the Bible seems to add insanely stupid and naïve to his list of characteristics. I will explain:

13 – An unlikely Herod acts particularly naïvely

One has to wonder why, if travelling from the East, the star does not lead the magi directly to Bethlehem but to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem. What becomes even more implausible is that Herod decided not to follow the star himself, but to task the itinerant wise men with going themselves and returning to him with the knowledge of Jesus’ whereabouts. As Ray Brown says (1977, p.190):

Herod’s failure to find the child at Bethlehem would be perfectly intelligible in a story in which there were no magi who came from the East and where he had only general scriptural knowledge about Bethlehem to guide him. It becomes ludicrous when the way to the house has been pointed out by a star which came to rest over it, and when the path to the door of the house in a small village has been blazed by exotic foreigners.

Given this, then, let us look at whether it is likely that the magi and the star were historical realities or whether they were agents used by the author for particular ends.

As we have seen from the previous section, Herod calls the magi to his palace in Jerusalem after hearing of them asking about the new king. This arouses his suspicions and he calls together his chief priests to tell him of the birth of the Messiah and where it should take place. If this really was an important Messianic prophecy, rather than a verse dug out of the Old Testament retrospectively, one would imagine that Herod and the general public would have been well aware that a Messiah was due to be born in the vicinity of Bethlehem at some point. The real estate prices in Bethlehem would be consistently extravagant. What is even more implausible is verse 3 in Matthew 2 which states that “When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” So the whole of Jerusalem knew of the birth of the Messiah. If this really was the case, the whole of the history of Judaism would have shifted from that point on; there would have been Jewish historical references to this great event. Jesus would have been properly heralded as the Messiah if all of Jerusalem knew of the birth of Jesus as a fulfilment of the prophecy from Micah. There is much that is strange and unbelievable about this whole episode. As Callahan (2002, p. 379) says:

That king also acts strangely. Rather than counting on the wise men to tell him where the new king is to be found, why wouldn't he give them an escort or have them followed, or even have his own soldiers follow the star that is so visible to the wise men? In fact, there are two reasons for stopping at Herod's court, both having to do with establishing Jesus as the successor to the Davidic kings. The first of these is so the chief priests and scribes can announce that the scriptures say that the divine child will be born in Bethlehem. The second is so that Herod can know that the child is there, but not know exactly where in Bethlehem he is.

So Callahan points out the rather bizarre behaviour of the king in relying on some magi, whom he does not know from Adam, to return to him and act as seasoned spies, betraying the very person whom they have travelled no doubt for many hundreds of miles and many weeks to see! This is the hope of a very naïve man. Any betting person would tell you that he has slim to no chance of seeing those wise men again. You don’t travel half of the known world to find and praise a new Messiah only to betray him immediately! Any decent king worth their salt would not exhibit such behaviour. Moreover, with a track record as vicious as Herod’s, you would expect him to send a detachment with the wise men or to put them under some kind of arrest so that they could “help him with his inquiries”. In addition, the time it would take the magi to go to Bethlehem and come back to Jerusalem there would be no guarantee, when the magi returned to Jerusalem and let Herod know of Jesus’ exact whereabouts, that Joseph and family would still be in Bethlehem to be found by a returning Herod and entourage. As Strauss (1860, p. 160) agrees:

On all these grounds, Herod’s only prudent measure would have been either to detain the magi in Jerusalem, in the meantime by means of secret emissaries to dispatch the child to whom such peculiar hopes were attached, and who must have been easy of discovery in the little village of Bethlehem ; or to have given the magi companions who, so soon as the child was found, might at once have put an end to his existence.

What Callahan, in the previous quote, also illustrates is that the magi had to stop off in Jerusalem in order to give Matthew a mechanism to bring Herod into the story as well as a mechanism to allow Herod to have heard of this birth. Without the magi turning up and shouting around Jerusalem “Has anyone seen the new Messiah?” (itself an unlikely thing) and alerting Herod, we would have had no Herod, no massacring of the babies and no reason for Joseph and family to flee to Egypt. This fleeing to Egypt is a crucial event, thematically speaking, for Matthew’s account as we shall learn later and seems rather dependent on a highly implausible contrivance dictated by Matthew himself.

There is another fundamental problem with the behaviour of Herod as is so well set out by Strauss (1860, p. 159). In Matthew 2: 7-8, we have the following announcement: “Then Herod secretly called the magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem…” So before sending the magi to Bethlehem he is finding out the position of the star for an as yet unknown reason. But verse 16 indicates a reason as Herod “sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and all its vicinity, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the magi.” Yet how can this have happened with this chronology? As Strauss (1860, p.159) says:

But this plan of murdering all the children of Bethlehem up to a certain age… was not conceived by Herod until after the magi had disappointed his expectation that they would return to Jerusalem : a deception which, if we may judge from his violent anger on account of it Herod had by no means anticipated. Prior to this … it had been his intention to obtain from the magi, on their return, so great a description of the child, his dwelling and circumstances, that it would be easy for him to remove his infantine rival without sacrificing any other life.

So it wasn’t until after he had discovered that the magi had not returned to him that he had to change his actions and seek to put to death all infants under the age of two. He was pretty damned lucky, then, to have ‘ascertained this time before he had decided on the plan’. Asking the magi about the star was only relevant if and only if they were not to return to him, if they deceived him. As Strauss points out, his anger shows he was not expecting this and gets away with being able to calculate such a morbid ruling because he had somehow asked them for the relevant information before he needed it! Matthew’s chronology is woeful here and this makes the account even more contrived.
Herod is a particularly interesting addition to the Gospel of Matthew. This is because, rarely for any Gospel claim throughout the NT, we have a great deal of verifiable sources with which to cross-reference any historical claim. If Herod had ordered a kingdom-wide census; had he killed all the male babies in the Bethlehem area; had magi come to his Jerusalem claiming to know of a Messiah; had a magical star wondered across the sky for months in his reign; had he consulted scribes and elders to discuss important Messiah-related issues and so on, we would have known about at least some of these claims from other sources. Sadly for the Christian, no such corroborating evidence or claim exists. All we hear is an appeal to Herod’s nastiness. Even this is overplayed and nonsensical as I set out later:
Firstly, it has been claimed that Herod, being in his 70s at the supposed time of Jesus’ birth, would not have been too bothered about chasing after a ‘usurper to the throne’. By the time Jesus would have been old enough to trouble Herod’s rule, Herod would have known that he himself would be long dead. One might counter this point to say that he still did ruthless things late in his rule and that he may have been thinking of his family who would take over the rule from him. However, on closer inspection, there are problems with such a defence. Indeed, Herod only seemed to do harsh and infamous things late in his rule that would have immediate effect. When he was 70, he installed two golden eagles (Roman symbols) at the temple gates. Two Pharisees, Judas and Mattathias, incited the crowd to a near riot and tore down the eagles, perhaps thinking that Herod was too old to care at this time. Herod burned them alive (see Anthony Tomasino in Judaism Before Jesus: The Events & Ideas That Shaped the New Testament World, p.273). This example shows a vitriolic and intolerant side to Herod but it is clear that this was an action to quell an immediate problem.

Furthermore, Herod left his kingdom in complete turmoil. There seems to be very little evidence of him caring enough about his children and their ‘inheritance’ for one to conclude anything other than his vicious acts were entirely self-serving and designed for appeal to the present and not the future (of other people). After his death, his kingdom was divided up by Augustus into several parts. As Peter Richardson states in Herod: King of the Jews and Friend of the Romans, Herod was at this time “disintegrating and withdrawing from effective participation” in family affairs (p.289). Squabbles followed his death as to who would get what and when. Herod had not got his house in order for it seems it was not high on his list of priorities. So why would catching a newborn and murdering this newborn, forcing him to murder many other infants, be something that such an old king would bother to do? If he could not be bothered to sort out the factions within his own family while he was alive, then why on earth would he be bothered that a usurper, who would only come of age some twenty or so years later and would only eventually grow old enough to take the title of King of the Jews, long after his own death? After all, “Herod’s despair was so great over his health problems – he was in his seventieth year and acutely ill – that he tried to kill himself with a paring knife” (Richardson 1999, p.19).

Thus it seems clear that this behaviour from Herod, of reacting so officiously to a prophecy and the magi’s news that he murders all the boys under two in Bethlehem and vicinity, is completely out of sorts to what would, in reality, be the behaviour of such a man. Contextual historical evidence shows the purported actions claimed by Matthew to be highly improbable.
And this is the case across virtually all, if not entirely all, of the claims within the two infancy narratives. As mentioned, these narratives have the rare opportunity, compared to all of the other claims in the Gospels, of being verifiable by cross-referencing them with attested sources. We can look at these claims and say, “They do not make sense or are contradicted by the history we do know.” However, the sermon on the mount, the walking on water and all the other Jesus claims are not verifiable since they do not involve anyone important existing outside of the parochial Galilean context. We simply have no similar historical method of deciphering fabrications or embellishments and separating them from probable fact. Now, since we are confronted with massive evidence that the entire openings of the two Gospels here are fabricated, the it is highly probable that at least some of the rest of those Gospels involve fabrication. But how much? Which parts? Should we simply remain agnostic over all of the claims?

We can be fairly confident that Herod did do the things claimed of him; that indeed the infancy claims are a-historical. If this is the case, and the Gospel writers were aware (obviously) that they were fabricating things, then what purpose did such fabrications and embellishments serve? As I conclude later:
But does a Christian have to hold the belief that all of the claims are true? This is something which I have mentioned several times. The difficulty here for such a (liberal) Christian is how to arrive at any kind of a rational basis as to what they accept and what they reject. Given that it has been shown that every single claim can be soundly doubted under critical examination, it is difficult to build a case for any veracity within the combined, two-prong approach of the infancy narratives. There really is no solid rational foundation to an acceptance that, for example, the virgin birth claims are true, but the magi are probably false; or that the magi were real and factual, but the star was not; or that the shepherd encounter truly happened as reported, but that the census never took place. It would be fairly arbitrary at best. Many of the events are crucially interconnected.

The ramifications for pulling the rug out from under the believers’ feet is that we are left with no proper account of Jesus’ life until, really, he starts his ministry. Furthermore, we have no real evidence for the claims that Jesus is the Messiah and is derived from Messianic and Davidic heritage. As a result, we have only the accounts of the miraculous events surrounding Jesus’ ministry and death. However, the same problems afflict these accounts: they are uncorroborated by extra-biblical, non pro-Jesus attestation and rely on unknown authors writing in unknown places. What is particularly damaging, as I have already set out, is that if the birth narratives can be shown to be patently false, and the narratives involve sizeable accounts from two Gospel writers, then how can we know what other purported facts are true? If these infancy miracle claims are false, then what of the myriad of other miracle claims – the walking on the water, the water to wine, the resurrection? It is a serious indictment of these writers (especially since Luke is declared as being a reliable historian by so many apologists ).

The undermining of these narratives does not disprove that Jesus was the Son of God, or that he had Davidic lineage, or whatever else these passages were trying to establish, per se. However, one has to recognise that some really damaging chinks are undoubtedly beaten into the apologetic armour of claims of Jesus’ divinity. So while I have not proved anything entirely (in a Cartesian manner, what can be entirely ‘proved’ other than I exist?), I believe that I have provided a cumulative case which is overwhelmingly decisive in showing that the infancy narratives are almost certainly non-historical. As a result, it then follows that the rational belief in the divinity of Jesus, if based on such historical evidence in any way, then becomes equally damaged. Because these claims involve events which can be investigated in some way using existing sources outside of the Bible, we are in a more historically verifiable position to analyse these narratives. Other passages in the biographical accounts of Jesus’ life are not afforded such verifiability, unfortunately. As such, the assertions of the rest of the Gospels are taken on their own merits rather than allowing historians to be able to see if they match up with extra-biblical evidence.

As apologist Jason Engwer on influential Christian internet site “triablogue” asserts after investigating many theological and historical analyses of the nativity:

It seems that the early Christian and non-Christian consensus that viewed the infancy narratives as historical accounts was correct. Whether those historical accounts about Jesus' infancy were accurate is another issue … but the accounts were meant to convey history.

So there are theists (indeed, many) who certainly do believe it is indeed an attempt at history, and not just theology dressed up as history. Catholic Tarcisio Beal in Foundations of Christianity: The Historical Jesus and His World (p. 123-4) in referring to the work of Richard A. Horsley, argues that the history of the narratives is rooted in the very real context in which they are set – one of “Roman and Herodian oppression”:

The heavy burden of taxation, not historical accuracy, is the main point of the census of Quirinius … Thus, the story of the “Massacre of the Innocent” is rooted in the historical reality of Palestine at the time of Jesus’ birth. No, it did not happen the way Matthew tells us or some other contemporary sources would have mentioned it.

This is pitted against Engwer’s approach, and both are Christians. I would agree with Beal, but would add crucially that while the context may well be true, this has absolutely no bearing on the claims to a historical Jesus.

New Zealand biblical scholar and philosopher Gregory Dawes in The Historical Jesus Question: the Challenge for History to Religious Authority (p.301) affirms:

It shows us that the early Christians were so keen to demonstrate that the kerygma had a historical grounding that, where necessary, they were prepared to invent an appropriate history… As Käsemann writes, “Matthew no longer has any doubt that he is recapitulating genuine history.” By handing on what we would judge to be a fictitious history, Matthew unwittingly bears witness to how much he valued historical facts.

Which brings us back round to the doubting of the other [Matthew’s] historical claims within the Gospels. Therefore, it appears that no matter which tack an apologist takes, whether to defend a historical reliability or a purely theological one, the nature of the evident deconstruction of the infancy narratives undermines any rational defence of the infancy narratives (and, to an extent, the Gospel accounts as a whole) embodying some sort of truth.

[apologies for formatting of quotes as they are not in italic in original - not sure i can blockquote in a blockqoute. Also there are many titles in italics in the original which are not italicised here. The book is linked above, and is also available in the UK here etc.]