With more or less regular intervals we get reports in the press about “sensational revelations” and “radical new knowledge.” I am very fond of acquiring new knowledge, and who can be against revealing the truth behind myths? The problem is often the quality of this new insight. Examples of this are many as the book “Holy Blood Holy Grail”, the presentation of the Gospel of Judas by National Geographic, the film Zeitgeist, some tabloids annual “do you know what the Gospel of Thomas really says” and the Norwegian Illustrated History of Science 17/2008.
The popular science magazine had rougly the same headline as this article, but not in form of a question. It is both a great example of some usual populist pitfalls and at the same time it touches upon the Christmas story and thus offers an opportunity to shed more light on this part of history now in advent.
Romans and Jews would read about Jesus’ birth The first point of the article is that the Gospel of Luke and Matthew are different and intended for different readers. Here the article is good, and not more simplifying than we must accept in a popularized short text. They date authorship somewhat later than most Bible historians do without giving explanations for it, but otherwise ok. It’s interesting for the Readers to keep in mind the author of the Gospel of Matthew is directed against a jewish assembly, while Luke probably is directed at a Roman audience.
Did Mary give birth as a virgin?
Here we have a huge drop of quality in the essay. First it presented the classical non-christian explanations for Marys pregnancy; that she was unfaithful with a Roman soldier, was raped by Romans or that she was a prostitute. Especially the first and last point was something Christianity’s opponents used very early – though there are no historical evidence for any of this ideas. The article itself point out that “all theories are however pure speculation”. Then they get on thin ice declaring “according to historians the idea of Virgin birth was probably accidental.” This is an interpretation by some, but far from an (almost) consensus interpretation. This point of wiev has a very questionable premise: They think the Gospels in their eagerness to fit historical facts to the Old Testament, misinterpreted Isaiah 7.14 so ‘ almáh’ undstood as Virgin should have been understood as “young woman.”
Firstly, we see they build a theory based on what you think was in the heads of those who wrote the gospels. Secondly built on the theory that they think they emphasized a verse in Isaiah so strongly that they wrote in the virgin birth of the one word. Thirdly it’s assumed they did not understand the nuances of the Hebrew word, or that they did not understand the nuances of the Greek translation of Isaiah. Regarding scientific honesty one could have written something like “some historians believe the idea of virgin birth began because the writers of the gospel tried to adapt the gospel to the Old Testament and in this they had a mistranslation of a passage in Isaiah.» The Hebrew text ‘almáh can be used as a very young woman (on the border of being a big girl) and as a Virgin. The Hebrew bethulah is exclusively used on virgin in our everyday understanding of the word. The cited Isaiah text uses ‘almáh and therefore we have the linguistic vagueness.
Septuagint, the first Greek translation of the Old Testament used the Greek parthenos virgin. Most Bible translations have followed this interpretation of ‘almáh. What is interesting is that the Bible has several stories of extraordinary births which is miraculous – as Sarah who was over 90 years when she gave birth – but it’s just the story of Jesus’ birth where the miraculous also mean that the actual conception takes place without a women having sex.
Was Jesus born in a stable?
As known to many there is nothing in the Gospels about Jesus being was born in a wooden stable. The Greek word for “inn” – kataluma – hold more than just meaning hostel or hotel. It can also be used for sleeping space in private homes. It was common in Jewish homes to have houses with two floors where the livestock were on the ground floor. It’s right as the magazine said that in Jewish tradition one does not take payment from overnight guests. Then they present a theory where it is assumed that they lived with Joseph Family. This isn’t unlikely in itself. But then they speculate Joseph and Mary had to move down on the ground Level when she would give birth not to disturb the others. This is to put it mildly a very controversial interpretation, not from the biblical texts, but from historians who know well the Jewish society at the time. The controversy with this interpretation is that one should send a travailing woman into another (cooler) floor when it had been more likely if they were staying With relatives, that she had been groomed with and cared for by these relatives.
Were the wise men kings?
Here I guess they were just a bit sloppy in the preamble for what it said is: “According to the Gospel of Matthew it came some wise and holy kings bearing gifts…” What’s actually in the Gospel of Matthew is: “Behold, wise men from the east to Jerusalem” In other words, the have added both “holy” and “kings”. Then they stumble on saying the Magi “was originaly sent by King Herod.” The gospel say they traveled by their own initiative to pay tribute to the “King of the Jews”, but when they came to Jerusalem and asked where he was, they were sent to Bethlehem with the message from Herod to tell him where they found the jewish king.
The article then go back to a more factual ground stating we know there wasn’t necessarily the 3 wise men, and that the word of sages can also mean magician or mystic. Linguistically speaking, sage is the best word to cover the Greek “magos” because it accommodates all meanings; philosopher, mystic, magician. It was only in the Middle Ages one identified them with the names Baltasar, Melchior and Kaspar. So again: The gospel don’t talk about three wise men.
Was Jesus born in year zero?
The article is good here. That Jesus wasn’t born in the “year zero” is well known. We have evidence in relation to the census and Herod and Quirinius when annual figures should be found. He was probably born in years 7-2 b.c. and became 34 years old. Jesus was probably not born on Christmas Eve and not even in December. Why many belive this is because the shepherds were in the fields with the sheep, and in December the sheep were normally fenced in and it was too cold to lie on the ground.
Was the Christmas star a real star?
Again a factual article with the various non-miraculous explanations for the phenomenon: That it was Haley’s comet (which was at it’s closest in year 12 f. Kr,), that Jupiter and Saturn in year 7. b.c. were so close together that they might have appeared to be a star (a phenomenon that occurs every 854 years), or that it was Venus and Mars that were so close to each other. A Third astronomical explanation is they witnessed supernova.
What does all this mean?
Why did I spend time to write this? Firstly because I want honesty in all sorts of debate. I am irritated when a popular scientific paper were so careless with facts and the bad habit of presenting smaller theories like a consensus when it is far from the truth. Secondly, I wanted to take the opportunity to briefly touch on some historical facts that led to the largest world religion we have.
As I have shown, most of the article’s “errors” is not associated with the Gospels at all, but with many people’s understanding of the birth of Jesus. There were still two points where the article calls into question the actual biblical tradition; where were Jesus born and did Herod order infanticide. To question parts of the biblical story can clearly be intimidating for some, depending on the view of the Bible one has, while others they will say that the question of Christian faith is a question on faith in Jesus and not the letters of the Bible as such.
Anyway, I would say that compared to the essence of the Christmas story that there is a God who became man for our sake and thus came “intimate” into the creation to help it, this two questions doesn’t mean anything. The question in Christmas is whether one chooses to believe in a God who allowed himself to be born as a child, that he loved us so much that he would bring new hope into the world.