Occasionally reader Peter Nothnagle has contributed skeptical commentaries on Christianity to this site, for example here, here, and here. And, on the day that Jesus supposedly made his exeunt from Mary, Peter has written me once again. I’m delighted to present his take on the Nativity.
First, his email:
I was writing to one of my prison pen-pals this morning. He had somewhat sarcastically suggested that the gifts of the Three Wise Men were impractical — for a young family with a newborn and living in a stable, diapers and baby formula would have been more welcome than frankincense and myrrh. In my reply I explained that the gifts, and indeed the whole Nativity story, was symbolic — because that’s the sort of correspondence we carry on.
Then I was compelled by the laws of physics to write that up a bit more formally, and I pass it on to you because you have enjoyed some of my other essays.
Without further ado:
On the Nativity
Peter Nothnagle, December 24, 2021
Here’s what you need to know about the birth of Jesus, celebrated, for various reasons, on December 25 of the modern calendar.
The capital-N Nativity is described in two of the four canonical gospels – written down perhaps a century or more after the events they describe. All other documentation and commentary is based on these two accounts. It’s noteworthy that the earliest gospel, the one attributed to Mark, doesn’t suggest there was anything at all remarkable about Jesus’ birth; and the still earlier (i.e., closer to any historical events) letters of the apostle Paul don’t even say that Jesus was “born” in the first place – the verb he uses translates to “made” or “manufactured” – it’s the same one he used to describe the creation of Adam. I am convinced, as faithful WEIT readers may recall, that the first Christians had never even heard of a human Jesus on earth, but worshiped him as a celestial archangel.
But every children’s Christmas pageant, every “living nativity scene” staged on a church lawn, every Christmas card illustration of the birth of Jesus, mashes together the contradictory birth narratives in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. In Luke, Joseph and his heavily pregnant fiancée Mary have traveled to Joseph’s ancestral home of Bethlehem to participate in an empire-wide census (which history does not record), only to find no lodging, and took shelter in a cattle shed where Mary gave birth, and choirs of angels announced it to shepherds. No wise men. But the gospel of Matthew, which was probably written earlier than Luke, has a completely different account – Joseph and Mary are married and are residents of Bethlehem, and Jesus was apparently born without fanfare in the family home, and, much later, “wise men from the east” showed up to bestow gifts of gold, incense, and myrrh. No shepherds nor angels. Their gifts are symbolic, as is the whole story – put into the story to foreshadow the rest of the arc of Jesus’ life: gold is an appropriate gift for a king; incense is a gift for a god; and myrrh is a scented ointment applied to a dead body.
These birth narratives are not historical accounts, they’re prologues to a myth – and they were intended to be read that way (by any literate person in the early 2nd century) and not simply to be believed as literally true. They weren’t even part of the first draft of the gospels! Open your Bibles to Matthew, chapter 13, verses 53-55 and you’ll see that when Jesus went back in his home town and taught in the synagogue, the locals were astonished by his wisdom, basically saying, isn’t this the village carpenter’s son? How does he know all this stuff? But what they don’t say is, isn’t this is the kid who was visited by Magi bearing royal gifts, the one the soldiers were hunting for that time they killed all the male children? What this shows us is that whoever wrote chapter 13 hadn’t read chapters 1 and 2! I think that’s because the entire birth narrative was a later addition – note that chapter 3 reads like it was originally the beginning of the gospel.
The Nativity stories in the gospels aren’t straightforward historical accounts – they’re much more interesting than that! They make for a really funny scene in The Life of Brian, though.
I’m not trying to spoil anyone’s holiday fun – I’m really not. It’s just that I like to get to the bottom of historical puzzles, and I find that the truth of any historical event is actually more interesting, and indeed, more useful, than any (commercially-inspired) traditional notions about it. I hope and trust that all readers will enjoy the seasonal holiday to the fullest and celebrate in whatever manner they wish!