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!
43 thoughts on “Peter Nothnagle’s take on the Nativity”
Thank you, Peter. And Merry Christmas!
We three kings of Orient are, now are smoking loaded cigars’ BANG! Merry Christmas and Happy Solstice,
What I find very strange is that Paul, after God Himself talked to him, didn’t rush to meet Jesus’ mother and acquaintances to learn directly from them everything about Jesus. Nothing can explain that if Jesus was a real person and Paul’s conversion was sincere.
He met Jesus’ brother, James and Peter.
About fourteen years later? Paul said that God talked to him directly, what kind of person wouldn’t go immediately to talk to the persons that knew Jesus intimately? It doesn’t make sense.
A person that thought God talked directly to him wouldn’t go go immediately to the people that knew Jesus.
Furthermore, we don’t know that Paul didn’t go to Jerusalem as soon as he could after his conversion. We only have about seven letters that he wrote and they weren’t primarily concerned about his history.
Well, he tells us that he didn’t. Galatians 1 (emphasis added):
“I want you to know, brothers and sisters [Note: same Greek word for “brother” later used for James, here meaning “fellow Christian”], that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.
For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me [presumably the Road to Damascus incident] so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being. I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus.” [Note, no mention or awareness of “disciples” who had met Jesus as being distinct from “apostles”.]
“Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas [Peter?] and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother. I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie.”
Are you assuming that Paul wrote an accurate & full description of events he participated in?
No, I explicitly said that if his conversion was sincere, his actions don’t make sense —unless there was no real Jesus.
“He met Jesus’ brother …”
The wording for James is “Brother of the Lord”, and it comes a few sentences after Paul uses the same word for “brothers” where everyone agrees that it means “fellow Christians”. Given the use of brother/father language in Christian communities, it is unclear what the intended meaning was.
Note that Paul never shows any recognition that such people (James, Peter, others) might have met and lived with Jesus. He never makes any distinction between “disciples” (who had met Jesus) and “apostles” (who hadn’t). He explicitly tells us that he did not get his teachings from any person, but says they came in divine revelation. And he openly disputes the authority and teachings of James and Peter, showing no recognition that they could reply “look mate, unlike you, I actually met Jesus, and he told me …”.
And for writings from a time that was supposedly swimming in the orally-recorded sayings of Jesus, he never quotes any of this, and never says anything about a living-as-a-human Jesus, nothing that is proto-gospel (with the one exception of a last-supper ritual, a ritual that was likely already part of mystery-cult religions).
What he does reference — over 100 times — is the Old Testament writings.
And, as above, after the Road to Damascus incident, did he embed himself in Christian communities, learning at the feet of those who had lived with Jesus?
No, he goes off and wanders around Arabia for three years. It’s almost as though the Arabian desert contained everything (Old Testament and divine revelation) that there was to know about.
Yeah, all that stuff about micro-interpreting what Paul wrote is a lot less straightforward than just conceding that Jesus probably did exist. After all, somebody founded Christianity. Why not Jesus?
Yes, Jesus might have existed. But most of Paul’s letters, which are among the earliest Christian writings, and the only early ones where we have any idea who wrote them, make more sense if Jesus did not exist, but was (to early Christians) a spiritual god (like most gods are) who appeared in visions. That spiritual Jesus was later turned into a human in the extended allegory we call the gospel of “Mark”, then embellished by the other (equally anonymous) gospel writers.
Paul’s letters are the only early Christian writings and there are just seven of them. They cannot possibly provide a complete overview of all that is Christianity.
However, they do provide evidence that the Christian church before Paul converted and there were Christian communities throughout the Roman Empire, certainly by the time he was writing. This church probably had a founder and there’s no reason not to assume that this is who Paul and later writers are referring to, even if most of what they write is legendary.
I do not find the mythicist concept of a god being turned into a human as convincing because it usually happens the other way around and the concept of “Messiah” (“Christ” is the Greek version of that word) in the Jewish community from which Christianity arose is very much a human being.
“… This church probably had a founder and there’s no reason not to assume that this is who Paul and later writers are referring to, …”
This argument is weak to the point of being a non-argument. Religions tend to have both human and mythological beings. The ones who write the writings tend to be human (Mohammed, L. Ron Hubbard, Joseph Smith etc) whereas beings such as the Archangel Gabriel dictating the writings tend to be fictional. There’s no reason to “assume” either way which group Jesus was in.
“I do not find the mythicist concept of a god being turned into a human as convincing because it usually happens the other way around …”
Greek/Roman gods tended to be mythical beings who then had Earthly doings.
“and the concept of “Messiah” (“Christ” is the Greek version of that word) in the Jewish community from which Christianity arose is very much a human being.”
Really? There’s a lot about Messiah-like beings in the Old Testament, where they are heavenly beings.
Someone write a book claiming that the Jewish homeland was actually western Arabia. I cannot recall the author. Proper scholar but not many agreed.
“…don’t even say that Jesus was “born” in the first place – the verb he uses translates to “made” or “manufactured” …
Jesus was manufactured.
I thought so.
I have long been fascinated by the names of the gifts of the Magi. Did “frankincense”, I wondered, mean nonsense from France, like the emanations of Lyotard, which I used to think actually meant a one-piece garment for dancers? And how did “myrrh”, whatever it is, get spelled that way? Does it come from the Maori? Reference to Google reveals that myrrh comes from מור , and is thus related to the maror we use in the Passover Seder. Years ago, I occasionally presided over seders at a Jewish group home for developmentally disabled adults, and we replaced the maror by Greek skordalia—talk about cultural appropriation.
I fancy that I know a good deal more about both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament than a sizeable majority of Christians (which I was, formerly).
But I have to say I never considered the perfect literary symbolism and foreshadowing in the “gifts of the Magi,” as explained here by Peter. Makes perfect sense, and I am grateful to now think about it in this way.
The song “We Three Kings” has verses in which each king explains the significance of his gift:
“Born a king on Bethlehem’s plain/Gold I bring to crown Him again/King forever, ceasing never/Over us all to reign.”
“Frankincense to offer have I/Incense owns a deity nigh/Prayer and praising, all men raising/Worship him God on high.”
“Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume/Breathes a life of gathering gloom/Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying/Sealed in a stone-cold tomb.”
“Glorious now, behold Him arise!/King and God and Sacrifice . . .”
Seriously? They’re just stuff that had high value in ~0 AD. Frankincense and Myrrh were rare ingredients used in perfumes. Please don’t conspiracy this, it’s just a plain reference to kingly figures giving kingly gifts.
Now for my kid’s Xmas joke. My ex took him to a Caribbean resort for Xmas (true). There was a chess tournament being held at the same resort. Every time they went through the lobby, there would be all these chess masters trading stories about their wins. The resort’s Maitre’d finally got tired of them, came to the lobby, and told them to leave:
“We don’t like chess nuts boasting over an open parlor.”
Nicely written, thanks Peter! And seasonal greetings.
Accept the Lord into your heart Jeremy!
Paul wrote that on his brief and unpleasant visit to Jerusalem, he met James, “the brother of the lord”. What Paul means when he uses that expression elsewhere is, an adopted son of God, i.e., a baptized Christian. If he had meant that James was a biological brother of Jesus he could/should have specified that, but he didn’t. He also coldly said that he “took nothing” from the Jerusalem Christians, i.e., had learned nothing from them. Which pretty much confirms that at that point in the development of Christianity (perhaps the 40s AD) nobody thought of Jesus as someone whom anyone could have met face to face.
That was supposed to be a reply to “FB” under comment #3 above. Now let’s see if this comment gets nested under my comment at #8. I never will get the hang of this system!
That’s rubbish. Paul clearly didn’t think of Jesus as somebody he could have met face to face, but then he didn’t convert until after Jesus was already dead. You can’t say that about anybody in the Jerusalem church because none of their thoughts on the matter have survived.
Please be a bit more polite in your responses. “That’s rubbish” is a bit uncivil.
Please accept my apologies.
We’re not supposed to call someone’s reasoned conclusions “rubbish” around here, and I think your remark justifies me in showing my claws a little bit.
You say that “You can’t say that [nobody thought of Jesus as someone whom anyone could have met face to face] about anybody in the Jerusalem church because none of their thoughts on the matter have survived.” Exactly. We don’t know what they thought. We know what Paul said about his interaction with them — they had apparently had visions and revelations of Jesus just as Paul had (c.f. 1 Corinthians 15:5) but there’s not one word about any kind of corporeal Jesus. Note that he considered them “apostles” like himself — “missionaries”. He never called them, or anybody else, “disciples”. We also have the document known as 1 Clement, apparently written by the Bishop of Rome before the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, which conspicuously misses opportunities to cite Jesus’ in-person teachings or his life story — very much as if Clement was unaware of any. Only when we get that anonymous, undated, unprovenanced gospel of Mark, possibly from the mid-70s or later is Jesus described as a human being — and frankly, nothing in that weird book makes sense as history, but it all makes sense as allegory!
So I maintain that it is reasonable to conclude that the first Christians worshiped a remote, celestial, savior-deity Christ, and the concept of Jesus as a human being was a later development.
This is true and I apologise for the language.
However, the statement you made that I quoted was nothing more speculation, not a reasoned conclusion.
That’s a concession that the statement I made was essentially correct. You claimed that nobody thought of Jesus as a human being. We don’t know what the earliest Christians thought because none of their thoughts survive to the present day. How can you therefore claim that nobody thought of Jesus as a human being?
And I maintain that it is reasonable to conclude that there was a founder of the Christian church (actually, I regard this bit as a virtual certainty) and this is the man referred to in early Christian writings. I think, on the balance of probabilities, it is more likely than your hypothesis.
This would indeed be reasonable if the earliest Christian writings did refer to a “man” who started the religion. But the writings that are generally regarded as the earliest (Paul’s letters, 1 Clement, Hebrews, parts of non-canonical writings such as the Ascension of Isaiah) don’t refer to a living-as-a-human Jesus, they refer to a heavenly, spiritual Jesus.
The talk of Jesus as a “man” came a bit later, in a gospel that is anonymous (we have no idea who “Mark” was), and large parts of it are allegorical (e.g., the central theme is linking the crucifixion of Jesus to the destruction of the Temple, which places the writing after AD71, and which suggests that the whole thing is an allegory).
And Mark’s gospel reads as a story for mythical purposes, rather than as history. There’s no introduction, who the writer is, where he got his information from, then there’s the whole “who am I?” theme, with the disciples failing to get it. There’s the 12 disciples (12 tribes of Israel), there’s the disciples “Judas” (= Jew) as the betrayer. And there are bits of the story, such as Jesus praying alone in Gethsemane, shortly before being arrested, that no-one else would know about. Who overheard what Jesus said while praying alone, and how did “Mark” come to know about it? Not a problem is it is a storified allegory.
One possibility is that two religions, not one, were created in the 1st century, and that they were as different as Mormonism and Catholicism, or Islam and Judaism. The first one was propagated by Paul, and I think that it’s unlikely that someone like him, a fanatical defensor of the orthodoxy 10 minutes before his conversion, would believe that a dude from Galilee was the Lord. The second one was created by Mark a few decades later, and took over the church created by Paul. If that is the case, Mark is a 1st-century Joseph Smith.
So are you saying the Nativity is all bullshit? How dare you! 🙂 Thanks for explaining the b.s. and happy, merry xmas.
All this reinforces my suspicion this Jesus figure is a fantasy figure that never existed.
Mr. Nothnagle writes: “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!”
More likely what this shows is that the locals in chapter 13 probably had no knowledge of the Magi or of Herod’s decree about killing all the male children in chapters 1 and 2. This isn’t surprising given that the locals in chapter 13 were in Jesus’ home town of Nazareth and the incidents referred to in chapters 1 and 2 took place in Bethlehem, a hundred miles away.
You may as well explain a contradiction in Jack and the Beanstalk or Winnie the Pooh.
Very much the Life of Brian thing. There was a Nativity on TV yesterday, a serious one, and I could not help commenting “Led by a bottle, more like”.
Seriously, though, I picked up a little electric incense burner years ago in the middle east somewhere. I really like burning Sandalwood, but I also sometimes use a mixture of Frankincense and Myrrh. It is a nice scent, and offerings of incense are fairly universal. Perhaps some scholar here can offer more context to the gifts, and their meanings.
Someone threw frankincense & myrrh at me. I was incensed!
“His exeunt”? Should that not be “his exit”, or are you tacitly admitting your adherence to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and suggesting that three persons, but one God, made an exit?
The early Christian community were apparently not sophisticated intellectuals but fishermen and similar. On balance, I think it more credible that they knew and venerated the memory of a charismatic teacher who really existed and was steeped in Jewish traditions. Roman occupation would be intolerable to pious Jews giving fertile ground to a radical teacher. I think it is less likely that the early followers of Jesus invented a totally new religion based on a newly-invented celestial being.
This idea does not conflict with the idea that Jesus was a ordinary human who was executed by the Romans as a disruptive element. Later myths such as the Nativity are clearly later imaginative additions.
Paul seems to have been a more intellectual type, possibly familiar with a variety of religious traditions in the Roman world. He wanted to be a leader of the early Christians so he would have every reason to downplay the recollections of those who had actually known Jesus.
It wasn’t a “totally new” religion (it was an offshot of Judaism) and the idea of a celestial-being Jesus was not “newly-invented”, indeed it is fully there in the Old Testament (for example the roughly100 places where Paul’s letters cite the Old Testament).
Yes, and King Arthur had a castle called Camelot and his twelve knights sat at a round table. Or at least, that’s what the story says, written in another country in a different language many years after the events it describes.
We can believe the story as written or we can explore how it was created and how it changed to adapt to new social conditions over time, and understand the literary culture from which it first emerged — which I think is quite an interesting and rewarding exercise.