O Holy Night! How Matthew Screwed Up the Christmas Story

[First Published 12/21/18].          

Get those Wise Men out of the stable…  

We can imagine the literary agents for Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John meeting for drinks one Friday evening after work. They all get texts that the church’s Authorized Bible Committee has decided to publish the four gospels together, back-to-back. They all wince. Not a good idea! This will encourage the faithful to compare the four Jesus accounts. Matthew and Luke plagiarized (and altered) Mark extensively—without telling anyone—and the author of John’s gospel was pretty sure that the other three hadn’t told the story well at all, and made up stuff to ‘improve’ to tale. What a mess.

But, never fear, it would be many centuries before the faithful would have access to the Bible, and even when they could have their own copies, they would never develop the habit of critically comparing the four gospels. These were holy books, after all, and anything that seemed fishy or hard to swallow was just part of the mystery.
There came a time, however, when pious New Testament scholars decided to study the gospels using the methods of historians, and it became a challenge to explain the mess. Specifically, this was the beginning of the end for the familiar birth narratives in Matthew and Luke, which fail on all accounts as history. But let’s take a close look at Matthew’s version as if he thought he was telling the truth.

Familiar traditions have staying power, and Christians aren’t about to give up their Nativity Scenes, with shepherds and Wise Men worshipping the baby Jesus in a stable. The folks in the pews don’t seem to notice that this depiction is an impossible mash-up of Matthew and Luke. These two authors wrote different stories about the birth of Jesus—actually, Matthew doesn’t describe the birth of Jesus at all—and if Christians paid attention, they could figure it out.

I Bet You Never Noticed

It’s been so easy to give a pass to the Matthew’s goofs. Well, they’re goofs from our perspective, being able to compare the gospels, and having a much better idea of how the world works.

Matthew’s story doesn’t even take place at Christmas time; he says nothing whatever about the night Jesus was born. No stable, no shepherds, no angels. Matthew’s focus was the disastrous tale of the Wise Men, and he seems to have timed their visit well after Jesus’ birth. These astrologers apparently saw a star that appeared when Jesus was born and then set out to find him. How long did it take them to get there? A common guess is that the Magi were Zoroastrian priests from Persia, and that would have meant a trek of a thousand miles or more.

When they arrived in Bethlehem—after a detour to Jerusalem (more about that later)—they came to the house (not a stable) where Mary and the child were Matthew 2:11). Not a newborn, but a paidion—the Greek word for little child. In Matthew 19:14 Jesus himself uses the same word, “Permit the children to come unto me.” The newborn babe (Greek brephos), in swaddling clothes in a manger, is found in Luke’s account of the night Jesus was born, presumably weeks or months earlier. So the Nativity Scenes that include the Wise Men kneeling in front of a trough to present their gifts is part of the impossible mash-up. Note also Matthew 2:16, which reports Herod’s dragnet to eliminate Jesus: “…he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.”

The Jesus in Matthew’s story could have been a toddler. So please, Christians, get those Wise Men out of the stable!

Mixing Theology with Astrology

Even more inept, however, is Matthew’s invention of astrologers ‘from the East’ in the first place. Why would they even bother with the birth of a Jewish messiah? How in the world could they ‘see a star’ and infer that it had anything do to with a bit of Jewish theology? Well, astrologers talk even more nonsense than theologians do, so No, Matthew, this doesn’t make sense.

And how can Christians be comfortable with the embrace of astrology anyway, especially concerning the story of Jesus? That omens in the sky relate to famous humans was a common superstition of the time; do Christians really want to go there? It would be hard to figure how astrology—the notion that human destinies are determined by star and planetary alignments—can be spliced into Christian theology. Astrology thrives where there is no grasp of confirmation bias and the capacity for critical thought has collapsed; theology has weak epistemology, astrology has none at all.

Why the Nile?

Matthew’s goofs get even worse. He is well known for his outrageous out-of-context quotes from the Old Testament to ‘prove’ that Jesus was the messiah, and perhaps the most egregious example is his use (Matt 2:15) of Hosea 11:1: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” Yes, Hosea meant Israel. But Matthew wanted desperately to make this apply to Jesus. How was he to get Joseph, Mary, and Jesus to Egypt?

God told Joseph in a dream that Herod was about to go on a rampage, so they should flee to...where? Why would they go to Egypt of all places? It’s not as if the toddler Jesus had been branded somehow (the halo wasn’t added until artists worked on the story much later), so the Holy Family could have blended in among the peasantry almost anywhere away from Bethlehem. But for Matthew’s contrived plot, it had to be Egypt.

Eventually they had to go home again. But where was home? Joseph planned to return to Judea (Matt. 2:22)—back to Bethlehem, presumably—but that was still unsafe, so “…he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth…” Sounds like for the first time! Matthew’s assumption was that Joseph and Mary had lived in Bethlehem all along.

Luke thought they were originally based in Nazareth, and he had to contrive a way to get them to Bethlehem for the birth. Hence he told of a census that required people to go to their ancestral homes to be ‘registered.’ On several grounds historians have dismissed the story as nonsense. There obviously was a strong tradition that Jesus was from Nazareth; Luke had Mary and Joseph there from the beginning; Matthew got them there after abandoning their home in Bethlehem. More of the impossible mash-up.

The Star Screws Up

Earlier I called the story of the Wise Men ‘disastrous” because, the way Matthew spins it, a lot of babies ended up getting killed. He reports that the astrologers headed to Jerusalem to inquire where the holy child could be found. The top religious bureaucrats, consulted by an alarmed King Herod, agreed that Bethlehem was the place, based on Micah 5:2, “...for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.” So the Wise Men set out for Bethlehem, but now—wait for it—the star had turned into a GPS!

“…and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen …until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.” (Matthew 2:9-10)

Robert Price has justly heaped ridicule on this story: “…no star can pinpoint an individual hovel from high up in space. We are no longer talking about a star, as in the beginning of the story of the Magi. We are talking about Tinkerbell.”

In fact we are talking about a major plot flaw, and a bungling God who didn’t think things through; or was it just Matthew who didn’t notice God’s incompetence? Again, Robert Price, who says we have to ask

“…why the Tinkerbell star led them first to Jerusalem, the wrong town—and much worse—to Herod, who only became aware of the birth of a potential rival after the Magi inquired about the newborn King of the Jews. It was then and only then that Herod resolved to kill Jesus. Why didn’t God’s celestial homing device lead them directly to Bethlehem in the first place, as it eventually wound up doing anyway? Then Herod would have had no knowledge of the birth and no reason to dispatch a death squad to kill all the baby boys of Bethlehem.” (Robert Price, Blaming Jesus for Jehovah: Rethinking the Righteousness of Christianity, pp. 22-23, bold added). But, of course, Matthew needed the death squad as a pretext for getting Jesus to Egypt.
Matthew thought he could give a boost to the Jesus cult by claiming that a star in the sky had marked the arrival of their hero on earth—and even foreign priests had come to worship him. Religious fantasy literature doesn’t have to conform to logic.
That Other Famous Misquote

I might get pushback for my suggestion earlier that Matthew’s use of Hosea 11:1 was his most egregious misquote. His biggest blunder, no doubt, which was noticed long ago and has been discussed ad infinitum, is his use of a mistranslation of Isaiah 7:14 in the Greek version of the Old Testament: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son…” In the original Hebrew, the word isn’t virgin at all, but simply young woman and, in the context of Isaiah 7 concerned a political/military situation at the time. It had nothing whatever to do with the birth of a messiah centuries later. In pulling this text into his story, Matthew was sloppy or devious—maybe both.

But the even bigger question is why Matthew thought it was a good idea to graft virgin birth onto the Jesus story. This concept clearly derived from other religions of the ancient world (see Richard Carrier, Virgin Birth: It’s Pagan, Guys. Get Over It). Was it a matter of ‘anything your god can do, my god can do better’? Or did Matthew just want to make sure that Jesus’ divine pedigree was guaranteed? “…the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” (Matt 1:20).

This is a minority opinion in the New Testament, by the way. Luke ran with it enthusiastically, but Mark knew nothing about it; for him the status of Jesus was sealed at his baptism and his Transfiguration. For the apostle Paul, the resurrection was all that mattered, and he probably wouldn’t have mentioned virgin birth even if he had heard of it. The author of John’s gospel most certainly knew of Matthew’s story, but didn’t need it, didn’t want it: his Jesus had been present at creation! Maybe he thought virgin birth was, by his time, a cliché.

One of the unfortunate consequences has been the idealization of chastity, and the exaggeration of Mary’s virtue. Indeed, in Catholic piety, Mary had to remain a virgin to preserve her special holiness; this is a challenge to Catholic apologists since the gospels mention Jesus’ siblings!

Virgin Birth = another installment of magical thinking. This doesn’t help make the case for Christianity.

The New Testament’s Boring Start

Matthew accepted the strong tradition that the messiah would be a descendant of King David, hence he included a list of Jesus’ ancestors—the first 16 verses of his gospel—traced back to David and even Abraham. This has been a big yawn for many readers, and we do have to ask why Matthew would bother if Jesus didn’t have a human father! Did he not grasp that, by adding the tale of the virgin birth, he had eliminated the relevance of this back-to-David pedigree? Or was he hoping that his readers wouldn’t notice?

The scribes who copied the manuscripts did notice, however. In the New Revised Standard Version, verse 16 is rendered, “…and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born…” Unlike the formula in the preceding verses, Joseph is not listed as the father of Jesus. There are several variations of this verse in the Greek manuscripts—all copied by hand—because various scribes rewrote the verse several ways, puzzling how to reconcile “descended from David” with “didn’t have a human father.” Presenting the genealogy was obviously pointless.

In Dreamland

Matthew reports that Joseph heard from God in dreams, and even the Wise Men were “warned about Herod” in a dream. A novelist has the ‘omniscient perspective,’ i.e., he/she knows what’s going on inside the heads of the characters. Those who claim that Matthew’s story is history have to explain how the author knew the content of the dreams.

Of course, people have dreams, so that’s not the issue. However, for Matthew the historian to report the content of the dreams—what God said to Joseph, for example—he would have needed access to some kind of contemporary documentation: that’s how history is written. If Joseph had kept a diary in which he wrote down what God told him, well, that’s the kind of documentation Matthew could have used. It doesn’t mean that a god really did speak to Joseph, but it would be documentation of what Joseph thought his god told him.

Since there is no evidence whatever that there was a diary and since we know that Matthew fails as a careful historian, then it’s no surprise that we find his use of the omniscient perspective in creating this fantasy literature. Matthew disappoints us repeatedly throughout his gospel (see my article, Who the Hell Hired Matthew to Write a Gospel?).

Let’s get back to the embarrassment of having the four gospels bound together. We can see the cheating and deception:

“That Matthew is essentially a redaction of Mark is almost universally agreed. He borrows extensively from Mark (nearly the whole narrative), and frequently duplicated the material verbatim. Matthew then added a ridiculous Nativity Narrative, which no reasonable historian should regard as anything but fiction.” (Richard Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt, p. 456.)

It is a frustration that, every December, Christians haul out the Nativity Narratives—and so tiresome that they fiercely defend ‘the manger scenes’ on courthouse lawns—as if these stories prove something about Jesus. Take a look as well at the account in Luke 1-2; that author got even more carried away with naïve fantasy and fabrication. The only thing these stories prove is that theology and faith can thrive fully detached from reality.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, has recently been reissued by Tellectual Press with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

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