The Christmas Story

(Luke chapter 2 is green.)

(Matthew chapter 2 is red.)

1 And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Cæsar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.
2 (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)

Caesar Augustus appointed Cyrenius governor of Syria in AD 6, with instructions to “be a judge of that nation, and to take an account of their substance”. Hence, these verses establish this year as the earliest possible birth date of Jesus.

1 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judæa in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,
2 Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.

Unfortunately, King Herod the Great died in 4 BC (shortly after the lunar eclipse on March 13th).[1] This would have made it difficult for him to converse with the wise men after a decade of decay in his tomb.

Burial tomb of Herod the Great

These accounts, therefore, are mutually exclusive; i.e., we must choose one or the other (or neither), since both cannot be correct.

3 And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.
4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judæa, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)
5 To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.

No historical sources mention a Roman-world census of the entire population; those of Augustus covered Roman citizens only.[2] Furthermore, it was never Roman practice to require people to return to their ancestral homes for accounting or taxation.[3] The notion of everyone in the Roman Empire returning to his ancestral city to be taxed is extraordinarily infeasible.

3 When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
4 And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.
5 And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judæa: for thus it is written by the prophet,
6 And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.

Luke and Matthew each struggled with the problem as to how to get Jesus born in Bethlehem in order to fulfill Micah 5:2. They sought to overcome the Pharisees’ contention that Jesus was not the Christ (John 7:41-42,52), since he “came from Nazareth of Galilee” (Mark 1:9). Their respective solutions to this problem are completely different; whereas Luke uses the Census of Quirinius as justification to temporarily transport Joseph and Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem, Matthew simply begins in the requisite city.

6 And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered
7 And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

The King James translators rendered the Greek word kataluma (Gr: καταλυμα  or καταλυματι) as “inn”; however, in this context it means “guest room”. Luke uses this word again in 22:11 in referring to the large upper-story “guestchamber” in the private house where Jesus observed the Last Supper with his disciples. Luke uses pandocheion (Gr: πανδοχειον) (10:34) to denote the public “inn” where the Samaritan brought the wounded traveler.
It was common practice to bring animals into the lower level of rural homes at night for safety and warmth. It thus appears that when the upper level of the house became too crowded with relatives, Mary took the baby downstairs and laid him in a stone feeding trough, which made an excellent cradle.

A stone manger

7 Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.
8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.
9 When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.
10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.
11 ¶And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.

For “wise men” Matthew uses μάγους (magi), which, in this context, means “astrologers”. This word is found in LXX Daniel 2:2,10,27 referring to the attendants of the king.[4] Matthew wrote for a Jewish audience who expected their king to be adored by important people with kingly gifts.

8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

Luke, on the other hand, wrote for working-class gentiles; hence, peasant shepherds as opposed to noble magi.

12 And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.
13 And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.
14 When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt:
15 And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son.

Here Matthew sends the young family on a ~600 mile detour to prevent any rabbis from using Hosea 11:1 against Jesus.

10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

Luke emphasizes Jesus’ lowly birth and common cloth wrappings in order to persuade the shepherd class that the baby was one of them.

16 ¶Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently enquired of the wise men.
17 Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet, saying,
18 In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.

Such large-scale infanticide demands multiple attestation; however, Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents is not mentioned by Luke, Josephus, Tacitus or any other Jewish or Roman historian. In fact, Herod only executed three Jewish children, whom he perceived as threats to his throne: his sons Alexander and Aristobulus in 7 BC and his son Antipater in 4 BC.[5] Nevertheless, Matthew succeeds here with his Jewish audience in painting infant Jesus as a second Moses, who narrowly escapes the clutches of a murderous tyrant.

13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

The “multitude of the heavenly host” refers to the army of good angels who fought in the War in Heaven under the leadership of Archangel Michael and/or “Yahweh of hosts”. Luke is appealing to beliefs passed down from ancient Canaanite religion, deriving from Assyro-Babylonian mythology, regarding the motion of the sun, moon and stars (Deuteronomy 4:19; Judges 5:20).

19 ¶But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeareth in a dream to Joseph in Egypt,
20 Saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel: for they are dead which sought the young child’s life.
21 And he arose, and took the young child and his mother, and came into the land of Israel.
22 But when he heard that Archelaus did reign in Judæa in the room of his father Herod, he was afraid to go thither: notwithstanding, being warned of God in a dream, he turned aside into the parts of Galilee:
23 And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene.

Matthew continues his Moses motif in describing Jesus’ exile. By sending the family from Bethlehem to Egypt to Nazareth, he covers all possible origins for the King of the Jews.

So what do these two different stories teach us?

Just as there was no room in the “inn” for Joseph and Mary, neither is there historical room in The Nativity for Luke’s shepherds or Matthew’s Magi. These mythical figures have got to go.

The sheep however, are welcome to stay.


[1] Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 17.6.4 & 17.8.3.

[2] Emil Schürer, Fergus Millar (editor), Geza Vermes (editor), The history of the Jewish people in the age of Jesus Christ Vol I, (Continuum, 1973) 401.

[3] James Douglas Grant Dunn, Jesus Remembered, 344.

[4] In producing his gospel, Matthew relied on the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament. This is known from his misquotes of Hebrew Isaiah et al., based on LXX mistranslations, and from his use of the Septuagint’s parthenos or “virgin” (Matt. 1:23) for the Hebrew almah, meaning “young woman”, in Isaiah 7:14. Had Isaiah specifically meant “virgin”, he would have used bethulah: Tim Callahan, Bible Prophecy: Failure or Fulfillment? 115-16.

[5] Robert Eisenman, James The Brother of Jesus, 1997, I.3 “Romans, Herodians and Jewish sects,” p.49.

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