The Nativity Story

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The most fanciful Jesus story? Or in fact one of the most reliable?

Homily for Epiphany Sunday 2013
by Paul Miles

Pieter Paul Rubens, The Adoration of the Magi (Prado)

About 18 months ago this church had as guest speaker Dr Greg Jenks, a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar, an international workgroup of some of the most distinguished biblical scholars of our time. The Jesus Seminar tries to identify which of the Gospel stories can be accepted as probably genuine, which are propaganda or myth, or which are somewhere in between. There are relatively few Bible scholars today who accept that the two Nativity stories of Matthew and Luke are based on fact. For most, these two stories are amongst the most suspect in the new Testament.

Since the great age of Bible Scholarship began in the early 19th Century, scholars have suggested that the writers of the Nativity Story borrowed from the myths of many of the cultures existing around the Holy Land at the time, one aim being to establish Jesus’ divinity. Other interesting parallels of the Jesus story can be found in the Egyptian myths of Osiris and Horus, the Romanised version of the Persian god Mithras, the Hindu Krishna, the Greek god Dionysus, even Buddha. And the parallels can be uncanny, with similarities in virgin births, disciples, raising people from the dead, feeding multitudes with bread and fish, curing leprosy and blindness, even godly trinities and walking on water.

For many very serious scholars even the question of whether Jesus ever really lived is on the table. Could he have been completely and solely a mythical figure? There are few real contemporary sources independent from the Bible at that time that mention him. Authenticity is a calculation based on available external evidence, of which there is basically little, with that situation unlikely to change. Short of someone coming upon Mary’s long-lost baby photo album, we are never likely to know the absolute true story of Jesus’ birth. Notice I’m talking about Jesus here and not Christ. We’re concerned here with the birth of the man, not the god. The latter idea only really got traction with the conversion of Constantine the Great in the 4th century AD.

But on balance, I’m personally reasonably convinced, based on the direct and indirect historical evidence, that the man Jesus really did live and a fair bit of what has come down to us in the form of his teachings is reasonably authentic. However, despite still being charmed by the Christmas and Nativity story, for many years I too have considered the nativity story one of the least reliable stories about Jesus.

But what if it isn’t? What if it could, in fact, be one of the most provable stories in Jesus’ life?

Only two of the Gospels mention the Nativity: Matthew and Luke, and they have rather different and largely contradictory stories. (I don’t think either of them thought the scene quite so busy, and with so many witnesses, as did Rubens at the top.)


Matthew’s account includes the appearance of an angel in a dream to Joseph; a visit from wise men from the east; the massacre of the innocents; and the flight to Egypt, which do not appear in Luke. Luke instead describes the appearance of an angel to Mary; the worldwide census of Augustus Caesar; the birth in a manger, and the choir of angels. Both Matthew and Luke place the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.

The Gospel of Luke is traditionally said to have been written by Luke the Evangelist; not one of the 12 Apostles, but a travelling companion of St Paul. He was also the author of Acts, and fairly probably a Gentile, rather than a Jew. His language reveals him as an educated man, and Paul confirms that he was a physician. A prime purpose of Luke is to try to give the Jesus story historical authenticity. Most likely the Luke Gospel was written about the mid 70s AD but original, now lost versions may have been around as early as 59 AD. Luke was certainly not an eye witness to the events of Jesus’ life.

Scholars have found some major credibility difficulties with his Nativity Story. With a lot of supernatural occurrences, such as angel visitations and choirs of angels, this is great for Christmas cards and carols, but perhaps not so plausible for cynical 21st Century humans, who demand ‘scientific proof ’ that one soap is better than another soap before they buy it. Many have argued that the story of the shepherds gives it authenticity, but the fact they were still in the fields at the time of the birth makes a December birth well nigh impossible – too cold, with snow on the ground. (Then again, just as with Jesus’ deification, the December birth date comes much later in this history, and is co-opted from the Roman Saturnalia festival – sneaky church fathers!)

The Luke event could only have occurred in the warmer part of the year from around March to September. I don’t have problems with that. I do have problems with the census Luke mentions, which was intended by him, and taken by many, as a major sign of historical proof. In Chapter 2 Verses 1-4 Luke announces that: “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And everyone went to their own town to register.4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.”

Here’s the problem: in a monumental study with six Volumes released between 1886 and 1890, the German theologian Emil Schürer[i] raised five points which he believed meant that the Luke account could not be historically accurate:

  • There is no historical record of a general worldwide census by Augustus; we know of only 3 in Rome itself in his reign (in 28 BC, 8 BC and 14 AD), and regional censuses were not necessarily done at the same time.
  • In a Roman census Joseph would not have had to travel to Bethlehem, and Mary would not have had to travel at all, since she was a native of Nazareth and would have registered there anyway. And there would have been no expectation they would have had to leave where they then lived. (Imagine the social dislocation and potential for rebellion of having all of these Jews with a reputation for being incredibly fractious moving about the country and grumbling about these bloody Romans turning their lives upside down! The Romans would never have required this.)
  • During the reign of Herod, no Roman census would have been made in Judea, as he was the ruler at the time, not the Romans.
  • The Jewish historian Josephus, the principal source of knowledge about Jewish affairs from this time, records no such Judean census until about 8 AD when Herod’s son, Herod Archelaus, was deposed and Judea came under direct Roman rule. This was far too late for the birth of Jesus, if Jesus was born before Herod the Great died. Some have argued that a regional Herodian census may have been conducted around 8 BC, but there is no official record of it. As Judea was not under direct Roman rule at the time, it is possible it was a purely Judean affair deliberately designed not to offend the Jews, but whether it really did happen or not is pure speculation.
  • Lastly, Quirinius was not governor of Syria and Judea until 6 AD, quite some time after the reign of Herod the Great. He took over from Herod Archelaus and the census of 8 AD was one of his first public duties. This census (for which people did not have to move around the countryside) still caused considerable unrest and some open revolt, and has even been credited with the creation of the Zealots. An earlier such census should definitely have attracted the attention of Josephus in the same way as this one did.

So, there are serious problems believing at least this aspect of Luke’s account of the story, with the census report wrongly dated, attributed or described, or put in only to justify a birth in Bethlehem.  And both St Paul and Luke were trying to convert a Gentile market, so they were spinning their story to convert a wider and much more cosmopolitan audience.


What about Matthew? The author of Matthew was writing for a Jewish audience, and stressing the continuing relevance of Jewish law for the followers of Jesus. It is thought he was part of a Jewish-Christian community in Roman Syria.

Like Luke, Matthew was not an eye witness to the events of Jesus’ life. He relies extensively on the earlier Gospel of Mark for many of his details (as does Luke). His knowledge is at least second hand (probably further removed). The writer was not the Apostle Matthew the tax collector, a tradition of attribution that arose sometime in the 2nd Century, but an anonymous author – a highly educated Jew writing between 71 and 80 AD, who was intimately familiar with Jewish Law, but who stood on the boundary between traditional and Christian-modified Jewish belief.

Matthew drew on 3 main sources:

  1. the Gospel of Mark, which was the first Gospel written (66-70 AD?);
  2. an earlier collection of the sayings of Jesus known as the “Q” source, now lost – (a source shared also by Luke), and;
  3. now lost material unique to Matthew’s own community (which scholars call the “M” source).

Matthew’s account of the Nativity is quite different to that of Luke. In Matthew Chapter 1, Jesus’ ancestry is traced back to Abraham, father of the Jews, to emphasise his Jewishness. Then the story of the betrothal of Joseph and Mary is outlined. In Chapter 2, the Star of Bethlehem reveals the birth of Jesus to a number of Magi, who travel to Jerusalem from an unspecified country “in the east”. The Magi go to see Herod the Great and ask where they can find the one newly born “King of the Jews”. Understandably, this is news to Herod and his advisers, but they answer that the scriptures proclaim Bethlehem, the birthplace of King David, as the birthplace of the Messiah and Herod tells the Magi to go to Bethlehem and to report back to him when they have found the child. Of course, we’ve already seen the movie and we know that Herod had very ulterior motives for being so helpful.

As the Magi travel to Bethlehem, the star “goes before”  them and leads them to a house where they find the infant and bring him three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. In a dream, the Magi receive a divine warning of Herod’s intent to kill Jesus and they return to their own country, avoiding another meeting with Herod. An angel then tells Joseph to flee with his family to Egypt. Meanwhile, Herod orders that all male children of Bethlehem under the age of two be killed, in the “Massacre of the Innocents”.

Matthew’s Gospel has many elements that are quite believable. His depiction of the murderous character of Herod is spot on. In a 34 year reign, Herod had his wife killed, as well as a number of his family members (including three sons), numerous in-laws, and yes, his mother-in-law too (seriously, this is not a mother-in-law joke), as well as hundreds of political opponents. But the slaughter of the innocents is not mentioned in any other contemporary documents or traditions. That may be explained by the fact that Bethlehem was a small village and such an event may have passed relatively unnoticed officially. The murderous act, however, certainly fits with Herod’s known character.

Herod’s son Archelaus wasn’t much better. One of the three sons Herod didn’t have killed, he became Tetrarch of Judea in his father’s place and began his reign with the brutal slaughter of 3,000 Pharisees who opposed him. Matthew comments on him too: in Verses 22 & 23, when Joseph decides to return from Egypt to Israel following Herod’s death: “But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth.”

With Herod playing such a major part in the Matthew Gospel, and with Matthew (while not an eyewitness) undoubtedly closer to the action than Luke, the tradition that Jesus was born before Herod died can be taken seriously. The most widely accepted date for Herod’s death is in 4 BC, so that must put Jesus’ birth before this. However, there are scholars who say that the accepted date of Herod’s death is wrong, and that 1 BC is a more appropriate fit. That certainly expands the possible time period.

What could narrow it down? There could be a surprising answer.


Although most people regard the Star of Bethlehem as the least believable part of the “nativity myth”, it may in fact hold the key to the mystery.

The Magi say to Herod when they arrive: “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East.”  Herod then asks them what time the star appeared. The Magi go on their way; “and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was.” If we assume for a moment that the story of the star’s strange behaviour and Herod’s seemingly pointless question is not complete myth, what could cause a star to behave in such strange ways or draw such attention to it?

The answer to this question lies with the word magi. This is the exact word used in the oldest texts, but the word is not Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic. It’s Persian. And we do happen to know quite a bit about magi from sources other than the Bible.

The magi were Persian priests, followers of Zoroastrianism and the most advanced Eurasian astrologers / astronomers of their age. Our word “magic” comes from this name. And while they were definitely not kings, Herod clearly considered them important enough to receive them immediately upon their arrival. The Jews certainly did know all about magi, as the two religions had many things in common. They are mentioned in the writings of the Jewish Platonist philosopher Philo, living about the same time, as well as by the Greek historian Herodotus.

© José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro

The Three Magi, Sant’Apollinare Nuovo-Ravenna

The earliest known artistic depiction of our particular Magi is a mosaic on the wall of the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo near Ravenna, Italy (seen left). It dates from the 6th Century A.D.

Note the leggings, which are typical Persian dress intended for horse riding, and not in use elsewhere at this time.

Further to the astrological connection, in Ancient Greek the word for planet and star was the same, with one distinction: some stars were fixed in position; others – the planets – moved. And this was the magi’s bread and butter.

It just so happened that the magi also believed in a coming messianic figure, and they were the people who would be looking for signs of this in the heavens.


By Giotto di Bondone -, Public Domain

Giotto – Adoration of the Magi

So what could those signs have been?

The 3rd Century theologian Origen suggests the star was a comet, and early art of the Middle Ages often depicts this, in a trend begun by Giotto in 1301 after Halley’s Comet made its appearance (look for it above the roof in the painting).

Both the comet in the sky and Giotto’s influential painting led almost to the mandatory inclusion of a comet as the Star of Bethlehem in every Nativity painting for the next few centuries. Interestingly, in the spring of 5 BC Chinese astronomers recorded what they called a “broom star”, which remained visible for more than 70 days. Judea is on about the same latitude, so they would have seen it too. And it fits the window of about a year before Herod’s accepted death date.

However, there is one critical flaw in this theory about comets. Our Magi would have been almost certainly unlikely to have seen the coming of a comet as a positive portent. For them it would have been more likely a harbinger of doom, foreshadowing perhaps the particularly nasty death of Herod, but not the announcement of the birth of a messiah. It would not have been a reason for astrologers / priests to make a long and arduous journey to Judea to look for this messiah.

In more recent times, it has become trendy to think of the Star as a nova or supernova. Many Christmas cards now seem to depict this, but how realistic is this idea? In 1604 Johannes Kepler witnessed the phenomenon of a conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter that seemed to suddenly expand dramatically and turn into a very bright star. At the time he did not realise he had seen a sudden nova or supernova many light years beyond Jupiter and Saturn. Recently, European Space Agency Astronomer Mark Kidger has suggested that the Star of Bethlehem may have been a similar occurrence[ii]. But he has found no obvious remnants of supernovas in the right place in the cosmos for one back at the time of Jesus’ birth.

And there is one major flaw with both of these theories. That is that Herod and his advisers knew nothing about “this star”. If it had been as obvious as a nova or comet, no-one could have missed it.

The fact that only the magi knew about it points to another type of phenomenon.


The most semantically accurate modern translation of the New Testament (the earliest texts we now have were written in Greek) is the New International Version. When this version is read, the meaning is as close as possible to the original Greek – and as unambiguous. Because the language used in Matthew about the Magi following the Star of Bethlehem describes not an astronomical or casual skygazer’s view of what is happening in the heavens, but an astrological one.

For instance in Chapter 2 Verses 1 & 2: “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’ ” And Verse7: “Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared.”

Now why would those details have been important?

Because this is the language of, and these are the considerations of astrologers.

What our Magi were following was a planetary conjunction.  And such conjunctions were roadmaps of future events and the destiny of the players.

So what sorts of conjunctions would have got magi all excited? Well, as it happens, there were various interesting candidates during our time frame. Claims have been made for 17 June 2 BC, with a conjunction of Jupiter and Venus in Leo near the fixed star Regulus. Jupiter, Leo and Regulus all have regal astrological connotations. However, the date does fall out of the accepted timeframe before Herod’s death. And the conjunction, while interesting, is not as exciting or significant astrologically as some others.

Astronomer Michael Molnar[iii] has suggested April 17 6 BC on the basis of a coin from Antioch that he discovered. This coin seems to combine a bright star with a sign of Aries (the Ram). Molnar thinks a Jupiter conjunction with Saturn in Aries, combined with a lunar occultation, is the Bethlehem Star and he argues that Aries was the sign of the Jews established by Moses. Astrologically, this chart is interesting, but by 6 BC any symbolic association of Aries with the Jews had been superseded by Pisces, so the fit might not have been quite so exciting for our Persian magi.

A far more intriguing date that would tick off all the boxes for ancient astrologers is 15 September 7 BC. This date has been suggested by several astronomers and astrologers, including astronomer David Hughes[iv] of the Greenwich Observatory and Sheffield University. And Australian astrologer Rollan McCleary[v] has put a great amount of research and effort into all kinds of historical and astrological checks and balances regarding this date.

The key fact about this conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn is that it was the middle of three very close conjunctions of these two planets in that year, what is called a triple conjunction. And this could explain a lot.

The first conjunction of the three, in May, was in forward motion, and McCleary argues it astrologically foreshadowed the birth. (At this time the direction of the star – and Judea – from Iran/Persia was roughly WSW). Returning to Matthew Chapter 2 Verses 1 & 2: “Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’ ” The Magi would have seen this announcing sign for the first time (when they were still at home) “in the East”.

The star then started retrograding (appearing to move backwards)  and continued this way until the next conjunction (also in the WSW) about 100 days later in September. This conjunction saw the birth of Jesus and the Magi on their journey, literally following the direction of the star. In Verse 9: “… they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went before them”.

The last conjunction saw a switch back to forward motion in November, and this marked the Magi’s visit to the Holy Family. Interestingly, on this last part of the journey after leaving Herod in Jerusalem, the Magi had set off again following the star (now in the SSW). Bethlehem lies through hilly country about 8 kilometres SSW of the Old City of Jerusalem. The star would have been almost directly over the village. Continuing Verse 9: “… they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went before them until it stopped over the place where the child was.”  (Before a star leaves retrograde motion it ‘takes station’, or appears to stop motion.)

An ancient Babylonian tablet, now called the Star Almanac of Sippar and held in the British Museum, actually records this exact series of conjunctions – a Triple Conjunction taking place in Pisces. In the Babylonian system of astrology, Jupiter represented the supreme God of the Universe, but also the new. Saturn was “the old or steady one” and the constellation of Pisces was associated with wisdom, life and creation as well as (by this time) with Israel. When this star was seen in their Eastern Land it would have meant to the Magi the end of an old world order being superseded by the birth of a new heaven-appointed king. And this line-up of the planets in Pisces would have been taken as a message that this new king would be born in Israel.

Public domain

Funerary stele of Licinia Amias, Former Kircherian Collection

So not only is there proof that this conjunction did indeed attract the attention of Persian magi, but that it was considered important enough to write down by the astrological experts. If we take this conjunction series seriously, it also explains the adoption by early Christians of the ichthys (or fish) symbol to represent Christ, or being Christian. The ichthys was not so much based on the idea of Christians being  “fishers of men” (which actually applied to the disciples, not Jesus), but of Jesus being born under this unique conjunction in the sign of Pisces, the fish.

McCleary points out that the three main planets of this chart also put more significance on the gifts of the Magi. With the Sun in Virgo (the Virgin) opposite Saturn conjunct Jupiter in Pisces, Gold represented the Sun and Kingship or Divinity, Frankincense represented the religious mission ruled by Jupiter, and the Myrrh symbolised both Saturn’s sense of duty, but also the suffering and death which awaited. The birth date even lends some credibility to Luke and his story of the shepherds, who would still have been out in the fields for a birth in September.

So getting back to Matthew, is his account of events believable?

It certainly holds up to historical scrutiny much better than Luke. Given his origins in a Christian community of Jewish offshoot, he may very well have had access to some special knowledge (the “M” source) about Jesus’ birth known to people close to Jesus’ family, perhaps even direct descendants. Certainly the first Christians were members of Jesus’ own family, his brother James being the first Jewish Christian leader. When the Romans destroyed the Jerusalem Temple in 70 AD and dispersed the Jews from the Holy Land, members of the community around the Jesus family may well have ended up in nearby Syria, becoming part of a community that included Matthew. They, or perhaps other closer friends would have known the old birth stories, even if they may not have completely understood the more arcane references concerning the Magi.


So it’s possible that Matthew is telling us not a mythological story, but a real, factual story handed down through generations and maybe even by descendants of Jesus’ own family.

The final argument for this interpretation of the story is that Jews knew magi existed. But they certainly weren’t a feature of everyday conversation – or even rare conversation. So why include Persians – and especially astrologers – in such a made-up story concerning themselves and the future of their country? It’s the truth being stranger than fiction conundrum known to screenwriters and novelists. Something so way out that the studios will never touch it!

Unless it really happened?

Could it be that, rather than being considered one of the most fanciful and therefore unreliable stories in the New Testament, the Nativity Story could just be one story about Jesus that it may be pretty safe to believe in?


[i] Emil Schürer, Die Geschichte des jüdischen Volkes im Zeitalter Jesu Christi ( Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs’sche Buchhandlung, 1886-90)

[ii] Mark R Kidger, The Star of Bethlehem: An Astronomer’s View (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1999)

[iii] Michael Molnar, The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi (Piscataway, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 1999)

[iv] David Hughes, The Star of Bethlehem: An Astronomer’s Confirmation (New York: Walker & Co,1979)

[v] Rollan McCleary, Signs for a Messiah: The first and last evidence for Jesus (Broadbeach Waters: Solas Publications, 1994)