Note to reader: A much longer and textually more detailed article will follow shortly for those seeking to “dig deeper” into the relevant biblical texts.
Some may think it’s too early for Christmas, but according to Luke, the birth of Jesus took place in the late spring or early summer when “… shepherds living out in the fields…[were] keeping watch over their flocks at night.”(Luke 2:8). Early Christian traditions saw Jesus birth and death occurring on the same day of the year —Passover.
So, Merry Springtime Christmas!
This article contains a lot of data. I realize for many it may require an investment of time and mental energy they are unwilling to make, at least at this time. For this reason, I will offer a bird’s eye view of the material and leave it to the reader to investigate further at their convenience.
The primary focus of this article is Isaiah 7:14, which is considered by most Christians to be the classic Christmas text prophesying Jesus’ virgin birth via the holy spirit.
14Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”(Isaiah 7:14)
22”All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”[Isaiah 7:14] (which means “God with us”).”(Matthew 1:22,23)
If this was Isaiah’s original intention, it carries immense theological weight. It establishes both Jesus’ divinity and humanity, thereby qualifying him as the perfect substitute for our sin. It also proves predictive prophecy and establishes Jesus messianic credentials.
This text, however, is deeply embedded in a specific historical context provided by the writer which cannot be ignored. Plucking a single text from its literary environment because it seems to fit a preconceived idea, is irresponsible and sets a dangerous precedent. It opens the door to flagrant misinterpretation and baseless claims. Therefore, we must examine its place in Isaiah’s work with utmost care and contextual precision.
Every Christian commentator no matter how conservative admits the Immanuel “sign” has a specific historical reference which is plainly delineated in chapters seven and eight. This is undeniable. The question is, “How does it fit into Matthew’s context almost eight hundred years later?”
Some conservative Christians postulate a “Dual” or “Double Fulfillment” theory which suggests Isaiah knowingly or unknowingly was providing two prophecies. The first was partially fulfilled by a human child during Isaiah’s time (imminent), while a second fuller fulfillment took place when the Savior of the world was born to a virgin via the holy spirit (distant). The problem with this theory is the two prophecies are vastly different.
It is impossible Isaiah was describing “another” child born miraculously via God’s spirit to a virgin without male participation. Furthermore, Immanuel signaled Assyria’s attack on Israel not her salvation, while Jesus was thought to restore Israel. In fact, Assyria would ultimately be responsible for Israel’s cessation as a nation (720BC). It would be Israel’s last Christmas.
The above statements are logically irrefutable. Nobody believes there was a divine child named Immanuel during Isaiah’s time. Nor did this child usher in a period of peace or serve as political messiah of Judah. And nothing in the text suggest a miraculous conception. Therefore, it original meaning is vastly different from its use by Matthew.
Initially is was spoken ca. 735BC as “a sign” heralding a countdown to when Assyria would attack the alliance of Damascus (Aram or Syria) and Samaria (Israel) whose combined forces were assailing Judah. In doing so, these nations would have to withdraw from Judah to contend with the foreign occupation of their own land. The birth of “Immanuel” was to signal the imminence of Assyria’s invasion.
With this interpretation in view, any idea of a virgin conceiving through divine intervention is nowhere to be found in the passage, implied or otherwise. If a virgin was intended, it was only as one who had not had sexual intercourse until she conceived the child by her husband. Thus the loss of her virginity was contemporaneous to the conception of the child. Any attempt to force more into this text stretches it well beyond its scope.
Also, there seems little justification for protecting Ahaz and Jerusalem given their wickedness (Isaiah 1:10, 21; 3:8,9, 2 Kings 16:1-4, 2 Chronicles 28:1-4). The land of Judah was not spared by Assyria’s participation as Israel and Syria’s incursion had left most of her cities vulnerable to subsequent attacks by the Philistines and Edomites (2 Chronicles 28:5-21).
Apart from this misinterpretation of Isaiah 7:14, the two gospel accounts are not compatible. Matthew locates Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem as residents whereas Luke has them as visitors. According to Matthew, they flee their hometown to escape Herod’s slaughter of the boys and go to Egypt. Later they return but because of Herod’s son Archelaus, are told by an angel to go to Nazareth instead. Luke tell a different tale. They are living in Nazareth and go to Bethlehem to register for a census although Mary is only days away from delivering. Jesus is born in obscurity in a manger marking his Messianic birth, and after they return to their hometown of Nazareth.
The most plausible natural explanation is these first Christians were so convinced of Jesus’ heavenly messiahship, they were driven to the Hebrew writings (actually written in Greek) to find textual treasures hidden by God to validate his life. Because they were mining the prophetic text, they took great liberties when it came to interpretation. Below the plain literal surface meaning lay gems of truth around which to construct their narratives.
Matthew, for instance, writing to a predominantly Jewish audience who would demand prophetic validation of Jesus Messianic credentials, uses five references around which he builds his story of Jesus. The two most critical details shared by both gospel writers are the miraculous virgin birth and Bethlehem as the birthplace.
If we accept both accounts as perfectly true in all details, and attempt to harmonize both, one glaring absurdity emerges which is hard to reconcile.
Either Mary and Joseph shared their glorious news with their family, friends and townspeople of Nazareth, or they did not. Both possibilities pose immense questions when examined against Jesus’ later public ministry as prophet/messiah.
Logic would suggest they had to tell everyone to avoid the stench of scandal. Mary was after all pregnant while engaged to Joseph with someone else’s baby. They couldn’t lie as righteous Israelites and say it was Joseph’s baby. Also, knowing it was the messiah, they could not risk the stigma of a child born out of wedlock. Jesus was the perfect messiah. Last, nothing in the text suggests this miraculous event was to be a secret. In Bethlehem, both accounts make no attempt to hide Jesus’ identity and quite the opposite. If we accept this premise, we would expect Nazareth to have been the focal point of messianic expectation for thirty years. Israelites would have come from far and near to see Israel’s future redeemer wondering when he would inaugurate the kingdom. The four gospels provide overwhelming evidence the people of Nazareth and Jesus’ own family (Jn. 7:5) had no idea who Jesus was. In fact, they displayed less faith than other towns (Mt. 13:57, Mk. 6:4, Lk. 4:24, Jn. 4:44).
We are forced to assume based on the narratives, Joseph and Mary (and Jesus) kept his true identity a secret. Why? What purpose could there possibly be to conceal Jesus’ messiahship? This means Mary was considered unrighteous throughout her life as one who got pregnant with “another man’s” child other than her fiancé. Jesus would go through his life as a bastard child whose reputation would be forever marred.
What about those who had witnessed John and Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem and the Temple? Surely, news of the birth of the prophet coming in the spirit of Elijah and preparing the way for “the Lord,” and the miraculous birth of the messiah would spread throughout the land. Simeon and Anna were witnesses of God’s “salvation.” The shepherds had also attended the spectacle.
The secrecy theory makes no sense but the proclamation theory has no biblical support. The logical conclusion is both are literary fictions created with a specific intention. It was critical when Jesus was declared heavenly or divine messiah, to validate his claims from the Hebrew writings. His ascension to heaven required the additional component of divinity which Isaiah’s Greek text seemed to accommodate. Jesus residence in Nazareth was well known so it was essential to establish his Bethlehem birth. Two separate traditions arose which we see in Matthew and Luke’s gospels.
We must remember these writings originated decades after Jesus death. Few who read them were even alive when Jesus was born. Nobody could authenticate these stories or refute them. They contain enough established facts to increase their believability such as Herod’s well known obsession with rule and a Roman census around the same time. Most importantly of all, many Christians claimed to have a prophetic gift which allowed God to vouchsafe divine revelation to them directly. As such, they were privy to past truths no one else was as they scoured the ancient writings in search of secret knowledge with which to construct their narratives.
Obviously, many evangelicals and conservative Christians will bristle at the mere suggestion the birth of Jesus is a myth. Their reason, however, will be little more than untested faith in the Bible which they inherited from their parents. Most begin with a childhood faith which is solidified through indoctrination and socialization within the evangelical culture until it becomes cemented in their psyche. It becomes part of who they are.
Facts, logic, reason and common sense have little place in the world of faith. Which is not to say, Christians can’t be reasonable, logical and sensible. However, when it comes to challenges to their faith, they often shut off their critical faculties and default to a blind acceptance of Christian dogma.
The presumption of truth pervades evangelicalism and finds its source in the hearts not heads of believers. Ultimately, when pressed, an evangelical invariably will resort to a personal faith experience as proof of their faith and the Bible’s authority as affirming it. A supernatural experience with God becomes the single most convincing argument in the divine inspiration of the Bible and therefore all it contains. The primacy of emotion is paramount and supersedes rationalism.
The possibility of arguing an evangelical Christian out of their faith is almost impossible. The door of doubt opens from within. It is my goal to plant seeds of uncertainty in hopes a believer might begin an honest and critical examination of the basis of belief, the Bible, to determine its credibility and reliability as the supreme source of truth.
I stand atop a mountain of evidence which points to the Bible as a perfectly imperfect book. That is to say, every word of the Bible is exactly as one would expect from a book written entirely by imperfect men not a perfect God. Once you accept the fact of its finiteness, it makes perfect sense. When you look at the Bible as the inerrant and absolute word of God, it makes no sense. It is full of contradictions, inconsistencies, incongruences and implausibilities not to mention absurdities. It promotes tribalism and religious elitism. It ignores social and scientific advancements. It celebrates sexism, racism and bigotry. It reflects two religions which never should have made it out of the Middle Ages. The fact they did, is a testimony to our fear to let go of God and embrace reality regardless of how difficult and uninspiring it might be.
I offer this challenge and a word of caution. It is one thing to profess a reasonable faith but another thing to be able to back up that claim. Assuming the Bible is absolutely accurate without having examined the hundreds of textual, chronological, logical and plausibility issues, is a false confidence. Trusting in what your pastor or professors tell you about the Bible is blind allegiance. Those heavily invested in the faith like ministers, missionaries and teachers are unlikely to entertain even the possibility their faith may be irrational and baseless. Is it really worth scuttling your entire life for intellectual honesty? Other believers may be inclined to NOT want to know the truth because it means losing one’s hope and security. In short, there are many reasons why believers will not take an honest unbiased look at their faith but it mostly fear of losing what they desperately want to believe is true.
When given the option of challenging something without being forced to, most will not. I acknowledge this and accept it with one condition.
For those who believe in the divine inspiration of the Bible without having thoroughly investigated the basis of this belief by utilizing critical tools, keep your faith private. Don’t inflict (infect) your children or anyone else with fantastical thinking about ancient superstitions. Don’t make unfounded statements about the “evidence” behind Jesus’ resurrection or any other biblical statement that runs contrary to science and rationality.
I have devoted four decades to exhaustive research on Jesus, the Bible and Christianity. I have spent thousands of dollars on theological training in evangelical institutions. I have sacrificed the bulk of my time and energy on painstaking study and analysis of the Bible in an effort to learn the truth. I have endured countless hours of sleeplessness as I struggled to resolve the many issues I encountered along the way. All this has made it abundantly clear Jesus was simply a man, the Bible is simply a book and Christianity is simply a fabrication of well intentioned ancient men driven by spiritual experience.
The rest of this article explores some of these matters in greater detail and examines others not discussed in this overview. It falls to the reader to undertake the task of critiquing his or her faith to test its validity.
I believed for fifteen years the foundations of my faith were rationally solid because I filtered the world and all its influences through my biblical grid. I made it conform to my ideology which was easy since I was dealing in the realm of the supernatural which has no boundaries. Think about that for a moment. Anyone who believes in an intimate spiritual world as proffered in the Bible can reinterpret this world to fit their ideological mold, thereby seeming to reinforce it. Most religions do this to validate themselves. It is pure subjectivism.
Until and unless groups like evangelicals restore confidence in their own mental faculties to critique, evaluate and appraise what is reasonable and what is not, they are doomed to enslavement by the very thing that claims to emancipate them.
31”To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”(NIV, John 8:31,32, emphasis added)
6”Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”(John 14:6)
Most religions want their adherents to think, theirs is the one and only true path to truth. Exclusivity has been a hallmark of religious systems not because of elitism but because of survivalism. It was essential members of the same tribe or confederacy believe their god(s) were superior to that of their enemies when going to war. Much like a football team praying for their god to give them victory over their opposition. Soldiers and warriors went to into battle buoyed with confidence their god(s) would protect them and ultimately defeat their enemies. This sectarianism among religions continues to this day and has contributed to religion based conflicts for millennia.
The religiously minded of today must bravely break free of the tyranny of fear and embrace their minds is the only real and reliable source of discerning what is true and what is false.
A Christmas Quiz
(according to Matthew and Luke’s gospels)
True or False: 1. Jesus was born in 1 A.D. (“Anno Domini” or “the year of the Lord”), and his birth marks the start of the Gregorian calendar which we use today? 2. The Wisemen and Shepherds visited Jesus in the manger at his birth? 3. The little drummer boy had no gift for the baby Jesus so played a simple song to show his adoration? 4. The Shepherds followed the Star to Bethlehem to see the babe? 5. There were three wisemen who were told of Jesus’ birth by an angel? 6. A choir of angels sang to baby Jesus? 7. After Jesus birth, Mary and Joseph immediately returned home to Nazareth where thirty years later Jesus would begin his public ministry? 8. Jesus birth was a time of great celebration in Jerusalem for all Jews and Gentiles? 9. Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem and hid in the manger to escape King Herod’s edict to kill all the children in Nazareth? 10. After Jesus birth, the people of Jerusalem rejoiced in the birth of their newborn king? 11. Isaiah prophesied about Jesus divine virgin birth conceived by the holy spirit eight hundred years before it happened?
The Myths of Christmas
Answers: ALL are False 1. Jesus was actually born during the reign of Herod the Great who died 4 B.C., therefore Jesus had to have been born near or before his death likely between 6BC to 4BC. 2. Only the shepherds visited the baby in the manager; the wise men came a few years later to visit the child Jesus at his home. 3. There was never a drummer boy in the gospel records. It is based on a twentieth century song and has become a Christmas tradition without biblical basis. 4. The shepherds were told of the birth by a chorus of angels, the wise men did not follow the star. The star appeared in the east to inaugurate the birth of Jesus. They came to Jerusalem about two years later without astral guidance, but once there were led to the house of Mary and Joseph by that same star. The question is, “How does a star guide one to a specific residence?” Furthermore, Bethlehem is south of Jerusalem and stars travel (the earth's rotation making them appear to travel) east to west. This would mean this star could actually move but how does a star of massive proportions position itself over a single home? 5. The number of wise men, actually magicians, is unknown but there were at least three who bore gifts of frankincense, gold and myrrh. 6. No angels at the manager but they play a significant role in both narratives appearing to multiple people (Joseph, Mary, Elizabeth, Zechariah, Shepherds). 7. The timing of their return to Nazareth is problematic when merging the two accounts. Only Luke describes the actually birth of Jesus in the manger. Matthew assumes it (“But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus,” Mt. 1:25). He picks up his narrative with, “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem…” (Mt. 2:1) which is followed by a flight to Egypt during the night to escape Herod’s decree to kill the innocents. 8. The accounts conflict with Matthew citing Herod’s murderous antipathy while Luke paints a picture of celebration and proclamation throughout Jerusalem and Bethlehem. 9. Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem to register for the census according to Luke, but lived in Bethlehem according to Matthew who does not mention a census or manger scene. 10. They fled during the night being warned by an angel of Herod’s evil plan to kill the babies; whereas, Luke not only has them residing comfortably in their home town of Bethlehem but they present Jesus in the Temple for his consecration according to the purification rites of the law a month later. This is incompatible with Matthew who has them fleeing to Egypt. 11. This is one of the most glaring fallacies about the nativity stories. Isaiah seems to be talking about an event (“a sign”) with immense significance specific to his day. It would have no bearing or importance to his hearers otherwise. Furthermore, no mention is made of a birth conceived by “the” holy spirit which would be necessary if no male participant was implied.
(Note: Perhaps there is not greater theological sin committed by Christians than, The Holy Trinity. It is a tradition not a biblical doctrine. Jesus was seen as divine but not co-equal to God and the holy spirit was an impersonal extension of God not a separate personal entity (more on this to follow).
The “Facts” of Christmas (according to the Bible)
1. Mary was a virgin until after Jesus was born (Mt. 1:25). 2. Jesus was about two years old described as a “child” by Matthew ( ‘paidion,’ Mt. 2:8,9,11) not a “baby” (‘brephos,’ Lk. 2:1) when the Wisemen visited him in his home not manger in Bethlehem. Also, Matthew begins his narrative with, “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem…” (Mt. 2:1). Furthermore, Herod asks the magi when the star appeared which signaled Jesus birth. Based on this, Herod calculated the approximate age of the messiah and issue his infamous edict, “To kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under.” (Mt. 2:16b) 3. Matthew describes Herod as “troubled, and all Jerusalem with him” (Matthew 2:3), whereas Luke records that after the shepherds saw the baby Jesus in the manger, “they made known the statement which had been told them about this child” (Luke 2:17). Then eight days after his birth, Jesus is brought to Jerusalem “to present him before the Lord” (Luke 2:22) in the Temple while Matthew has them fleeing during the night to Egypt to escape Herod’s order to kill the children (Matthew 2:13). 4. Matthew describes Bethlehem as their home with no mention of the manger (Matthew 2:10), whereas Luke calls Nazareth their home (Luke 2:39, comp. with Matthew 2:23) and has them visit Bethlehem to take part in an empire wide census decreed by Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:1). 5. John the Baptist and Jesus are cousins. Luke describes an angel telling Mary of her impending pregnancy via “a” holy spirit and that her “relative” (Luke 1:36) Elizabeth (John’s mother) of Aaronic lineage is also going to have a child in her old age.