Dec. 15, 2006 -- When it comes to sheer storytelling power, few narratives in human history can rival the birth of Jesus.
Every year, in the churches and homes of the world's 2 billion Christians, hymns, carols and manger scenes depict the story of the Nativity: how the Baby Jesus was born to the Virgin Mary in a Bethlehem stable, after she and her husband, Joseph, were turned away at the inn. A miraculous star shining brightly over the humble scene announced the birth of the son of God to shepherds and three wise men who came bearing gifts.
But how much of the story is historically true? What do we really know about the birth of Jesus? Was Mary a virgin? Was Jesus born in Bethlehem, and who were the first witnesses to his birth?
Spreading the Good News
The only accounts of the birth of Jesus are found in two of the four synoptic Gospels of the New Testament -- the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. The word "gospel" means "good news," and the Gospels were written some 70 to 100 years after the event to spread the good news of Jesus to an audience waiting for the savior predicted in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament.
The two Gospel stories were written independently of each other and differ significantly in their accounts of the birth of Jesus. In Matthew's Gospel, an angel appears to Joseph in a dream, and in Luke's Gospel, the angel appears directly to Mary in the scene we know as the Annunciation.
In both Gospels, Jesus is born in Bethlehem, but they give different reasons for why and how the holy family arrives in the City of David. In Luke's account, Jesus is born in a manger and the witnesses to his birth are shepherds, but in Matthew's, Jesus is born in a house and three wise men from the east are led to the birth by a bright star heralding the arrival of the Messiah.
The Nativity story that we depict in manger scenes today actually combines the two Gospel stories. Despite the discrepancies between the Gospels, many Christians read the birth narratives as history. In a recent Newsweek poll, 67 percent of adult Christians surveyed said they believed the Christmas story, the blended version, to be historically accurate.
Reading the Gospels
Scholars debate the significance of the discrepancies between the two Gospels, and how the Gospel stories should be read.
"The Gospels are interpretive reflections. They are really more like sermons than historical accounts," said Marvin Meyer, the Griset professor of Bible and Christian Studies at Chapman University. "In the case of the birth of Jesus, they were less concerned with the historical facts of the birth and much more concerned about the meaning of Jesus."
Darrell Bock, professor of New Testament at the Dallas Theological Seminary, agreed that the Gospel stories were not meant to be read like a hard news story, stating just the facts, but he does believe they portray an accurate account of the events.
"I think the Gospels are somewhere between a photograph and the painted image," he said. "I don't think you always have word for word. I think sometimes you have summarizing of what Jesus taught, but this material is rooted in tradition from eyewitnesses."
Everyone agrees that the Gospels were written by members of the Jewish community in the first century who were keenly aware of the prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures that discussed the birth of a Messiah to a virgin mother.
"The audience was Jewish. … Jesus himself was a Jew, and these two Gospels are making sure that the reader or the hearer understands that Jesus is the fulfillment of prophecies and the fulfillment of the Old Testament. And the prophecy that is most telling: 'Behold a virgin shall conceive a son,'" said the Rev. David O'Connell, president of the Catholic University of America.
Fulfilling the prophecy of a virgin birth puts Mary at the center of the Nativity story, and at the center of an intense scholarly debate.
The Virgin Birth
Most scholars believe that Mary was a young woman -- possibly as young as 13 -- living in the Jewish community of Nazareth. As was the practice in the first century, marriage was an arrangement between two families, and so Mary was betrothed to a man named Joseph, a contractor by trade.
In both Gospels, an angel appears to bring the news of Mary's divine pregnancy. In Luke, the angel Gabriel appears to Mary, and in Matthew, Joseph is visited by an unnamed angel in a dream. Most important, both Gospels proclaim Mary's virginity.
As early as the second century, the circumstances surrounding Mary's pregnancy were in question. One theory was that Mary had either been raped or seduced by a Roman soldier named Pantera. Today most scholars do not give to much credit to this theory, but they do question the historicity of the virgin birth.
Some scholars think a likely scenario is that Joseph was, in fact, the father of Jesus, and that Mary and Joseph had a number of children including Jesus, noted in the Gospel of Mark (the earliest of the four Gospels). As the church doctrine developed over time, Mary's virginity gained theological importance.
"The Gospel of Mark gives us the name of Jesus' brothers. By the fourth century, Mary is a perpetual virgin," said Paula Fredriksen, the William Goodwin Aurelio professor of the appreciation of Scripture at Boston University.
"What are they [the church] going to do with this tradition of Jesus' brothers? Suddenly, this is a second marriage for Joseph, and they're his kids from his first marriage. So, where there's a will, there's a way to conform different stories," Fredriksen continued.
Many scholars believe that the inclusion of the virgin birth was one way for the Gospel writers to trumpet the importance of Jesus to their audience. There were many miraculous birth stories in Greco-Roman lore and the Hebrew Scriptures, and so the inclusion of Jesus' virgin birth would have signaled to the audience that Jesus was the son of God.
Some scholars acknowledge the symbolism of the virgin birth while also accepting the story as an accurate account.
"I mean I'm not saying … that the symbolism that is being portrayed is not there, but I think the point of the symbolism is to say … this time God really did it," said Bock.
The Shining Star
Another Hebrew prophecy that is incorporated into the birth narratives is the prediction that a great light would appear upon the birth of the Messiah.
Scientists have tried to chart the astronomical occurrences during the time when Jesus was born, but the evidence is far from conclusive. However, the symbolic importance of the star that we now incorporate into many of our Christmas hymns and carols is widely acknowledged.
In the Hebrew Scriptures there is "the prediction that a great light would appear, and so the star element plays a significant symbolic role," said O'Connell.
"If you're going to be great, you should have a star, and … he's born of a virgin as well, so [it's] an incredible pedigree that Jesus has in this account," Meyer explained.
Jesus of Bethlehem?
The next element of the birth narratives that fulfill the prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures is the birthplace of Jesus -- Bethlehem.
According to the Scriptures, Bethlehem is the home of the lineage of King David, and thus the prophesied birthplace of the Messiah. However, Jesus is known throughout the New Testament as Jesus of Nazareth, and by all accounts he spent his youth 70 miles south in a town by that name, leading some scholars to believe that Bethlehem is the theological -- not biological -- birthplace of Jesus.
"There is much more evidence to suggest that Jesus was born in Nazareth. That he came from Nazareth, and that's why he's called Jesus of Nazareth," said Meyer.
However, other scholars look to Luke's Gospel for explanation of the holy family's trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem.
"Luke tells us how we get from Nazareth to Bethlehem. They went down, and they happened to have the birth in Bethlehem while they were down there for the census," said Bock.
The census demanded by the Roman emperor, according to Luke's Gospel, forced Joseph to return to Bethlehem -- the city in which he was born -- to be counted and taxed.
There are historical records of a census being taken around Nazareth in the beginning of the first century, but scholars have not been able to confidently date the census to the time of Jesus' birth. The long journey to Bethlehem is also called into question, because demanding that a family travel more than 70 miles by foot was not an effective way of collecting taxes.
"The Romans would never have given an order like that because they were very good at collecting taxes, and you tax people where their property is, but the point of using the census is to get Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem. It's a plot device that's necessary," said Fredriksen.
The Slaughter of the Innocents
The scholarly debate over such basics as where Jesus was born continues into the part of the Nativity story immediately after the birth -- the part where King Herod comes in.
Everyone agrees that King Herod, who was appointed by the Roman emperor to rule the region, was a suspicious and oppressive ruler.
"Herod was oppressive and thirsty for power. He could be a pretty ruthless character if he thought there was a real threat," said Bock.
According to Matthew's Gospel, Herod ordered the slaughter of every boy in Bethlehem under the age of 2, when rumblings of the birth of a Messiah threatened his rule. Despite the fact that they all agree that Herod was capable of terrible things, many scholars doubt that the "slaughter of innocents" was an historical event.
"There is no record whatsoever, among all the records that we have of that period, of something like that except for the account that we have in the Gospel of Matthew," said Meyer.
The Meaning of Christmas
Although it is difficult, if not impossible, to confirm the events recounted in the birth narratives, outside the Gospel stories themselves, almost everyone agrees that applying today's factual standards may miss the whole point of the story.
"Modern people have a very reduced sense of what truth is. Modern people like things to be empirically 'just so,'" said Fredriksen. "And that's not the way ancient people looked at the truth. What was more important is this message of God loving the humble and the poor especially, and working for the redemption of humanity … those are the elements that truthfully are at the origins of Christianity."