Here We Go Again with the Fake News Christmas Story

It’s not hard to find the goofs and gaffs

Churches all over the world will once again get away with the traditional Christmas story, for one simple reason: the folks in the pews can’t be bothered to carefully read the Jesus birth stories in Matthew and Luke. It’s just a fact these stories don’t make sense and cannot be reconciled: Fake News! A few of the more charming verses from these stories have been set to music and are recited during Christmas pageants; these deflect attention from the utter failure of these stories to quality as history.



Sam Harris, in The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, tells it like it is:


“Surely there must come a time when we will acknowledge the obvious: theology is now little more than a branch of human ignorance. Indeed, it is ignorance with wings.”
(p. 173)


The Jesus birth stories are prime examples of theological ignorance in full flight. John Loftus demonstrates this abundantly in chapter 10, “Was Jesus Born of a Virgin?” in the recently published book, Debating Christianity: Opening Salvos in the Battle with Believers. Loftus analyzes the birth stories—far beyond the issue of Mary’s virginity, but he does cover that. Do the devout ever wonder where the Jesus-virgin-birth claim came from? Are they even remotely aware of the religious context that gave rise to Christianity? When this is understood, the virgin birth of Jesus takes a serious hit. Loftus refers to the research of Robert Miller, as summarized in his book, Born Divine:


“People in the ancient world believed that heroes were the sons of gods because of the extraordinary qualities of their adult lives, not because there was public information about the intimate details of how their mothers became pregnant. In fact, in some biographies, the god takes on the physical form of the woman’s husband in order to have sex with her.” (p. 134) Loftus offers examples:


“There was Theagenes, the Olympic champion, who was regarded as divine for being one of the greatest athletes in the ancient world. Hercules was the most widely revered hero of the ancient world. He was promoted to divine status after his death, and it was said he was fathered by Zeus. Alexander the Great was believed to be conceived of a virgin and fathered in turn by Heracles. Augustus Caesar was believed to be conceived of a virgin and fathered by Apollo, as was Plato, the philosopher. Apollonius of Tyana was believed to be a holy man born of a virgin and fathered by Zeus. Pythagoras the philosopher was believed to be a son of Apollo. There were also savior-gods, like Krishna, Osiris, Dionysus, and Tammuz, who were born of virgins…” (page 127, Kindle)


So it’s no big surprise that some early Christian writers felt that Jesus had to be assigned the same high honor. But a couple of the earliest Christian authors hadn’t absorbed this idea. There is no mention of virgin birth in the letters of Paul, and Mark’s gospel gets along quite well without it. The author of John's gospel had no use for it either. These writers had no way of knowing that science would one day agree, as Loftus notes: cannot even have a human being without the genetic contributions of both a male seed and a female egg. (p. 121, Kindle)

But in the wake of the virgin birth tales in Matthew and Luke, “theological ignorance with wings” got a big boost. The Catholic Church decided that Mary remained a virgin her whole life. The idea of Mary—the mother of the God—having sex was too distasteful. But they had to deal with Mark 6:3: “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” The church has claimed that these were children of Joseph from an earlier marriage—based on no evidence whatever. But that didn’t stop even more ignorance with wings. 


It dawned on theologians that virgin birth explained how original sin had not been passed on to Jesus: he didn’t have a human father. Problem solved! Well, not quite. Could not Jesus have been tainted with original sin through his mother? This issue was debated by medieval theologians, and in 1854—wasn’t this a little late in the game? —the Vatican announced the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, i.e., when Mary herself was conceived, miraculously that conception was clean of original sin. Based on no evidence whatever. And it gets even more ridiculous: in 1950, the Vatican announced this: “We proclaim and define it to be a dogma revealed by God that the immaculate Mother of God, Mary ever virgin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into the glory of heaven.It didn’t provide any evidence that this was revealed by God. Faithful Catholics assume that the Vatican is perfectly tuned into God, so why bother?


There are other examples of theological ignorance with wings that are easy to spot in the Jesus birth stories:


Ignorance with Wings, #1:


For some early Christians, it was especially important that Jesus was descended from king David: that was one of the qualifications for being the messiah. Hence genealogies were proposed to prove exactly that. Both Matthew and Luke deemed it appropriate to include genealogies (but this is awkward: they’re different genealogies), but how does this make any sense at all if Jesus didn’t have a human father? One of the sections of the Loftus essay is titled, “The Genealogies are inaccurate and irrelevant.” Both the authors of Matthew and Luke—we have no idea who they really were—must have had some level of savvy to write lengthy gospels in Greek, but they didn’t notice this contradiction? —or didn’t care. It would seem critical thinking skills were not their strong suits; virgin birth is inconsistent with genealogies intended to prove Jesus' pedigree. Nor was their readership likely to pay much heed to this blunder.  

Ignorance with Wings, #2:


Detecting this one requires very careful reading and comparison of gospel texts. There is no mention of Bethlehem as the birthplace of Jesus in any of the letters of Paul, and Mark’s gospel states simply that Jesus “came from Nazareth of Galilee” to be baptized by John (1:9). The author of John’s gospel ignored the birth stories in Matthew and Luke; Loftus calls attention to verses John 7:42, 52, and points out: “Jesus was rejected as the Messiah precisely because the people of Nazareth knew he was born and raised in their town! That’s the whole reason they rejected him as the Messiah! They rhetorically asked, ‘How can the Messiah come from Galilee?’” (p. 122 Kindle) Matthew’s solution to this problem was to depict Mary and Joseph living in Bethlehem. That was their town. After the birth of Jesus, to protect him from king Herod, they fled to Egypt—which is a truly farfetched part of Matthew’s account—but once the danger had passed (an angel told him in a dream that Herod had died) Joseph was afraid to return to Bethlehem:


“But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth…” (2:22-23) 


So Matthew’s story was that Mary and Joseph had lived in Bethlehem, then relocated to Nazareth. Apparently, the author of Luke’s gospel believed that Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth: so how to get them to Bethlehem for Jesus’s birth? He reports that Caesar Augustus had ordered “all the world” to be registered, and since Joseph’s ancestors had come from Bethlehem, he had to travel there for the registration—and took the pregnant Mary with him. But historians have found no record of such a massive registration ordered by the emperor. Even if there had been one, chaos would have resulted if people had been required to go their ancestral homes. This was Luke’s clumsy device for getting Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. The distance from Nazareth to Bethlehem is some seventy miles. Are we to believe that Mary, about to have a baby, would have made that journey on foot—or on a donkey as commonly depicted in art? 


After the birth of Jesus, after his circumcision and presentation at the temple, “When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.  (Luke 2:39) Notice here the huge conflict here with Matthew’s account. Luke says nothing about a “flight to Egypt” and Mary and Joseph subsequently relocating to Nazareth


Both Matthew and Luke wrote their gospels many decades after the birth of Jesus. They were storytellers, not historians. There is no contemporaneous documentation whatever by which we could verify, fact-check the narratives they created. These are indeed fantasy literature, which include god talking to humans in dreams and angels with speaking roles.


Ignorance with Wings, #3:


Matthew also got away with the tall tale of the star-of-Bethlehem. Devout Christians should ask themselves if they really want to contaminate their theology with this bit of astrology. It was a common superstition in the ancient world that heavenly signs could indicate the birth of heroes. 


“In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, magi [= astrologers] from the east came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star in the east and have come to pay him homage.’” (Matthew 2:1-2)


Huge mistake, theologically. Why didn’t god whisper the news to them that Bethlehem was the place to go? Their stop in Jerusalem alerted Herod, which resulted in the Slaughter of the Innocents when he was hunting for Jesus. But this never happened either; see Loftus’ comments, “There Was No Slaughter of the Innocents.” (p. 124, Kindle) 

The ignorance with wings is on full display when Matthew reports that the star guided the magi (i.e., moved from north to south—Robert Price has said that it turned into Tinkerbell!) and came to rest over the house where Jesus was. There is no mention of a stable, and Luke knew nothing of the star of Bethlehem. These authors had no idea of what stars are. As Loftus observes, stars


“…certainly don’t appear to move in a southerly direction. They all appear to move from the east to west, like the sun, because of the spin of the earth. Then we’re told the Star stopped in the sky directly over a place in Bethlehem. But there’s no way to determine which specific house a star stopped over, if it did! This is only consistent with pre-scientific notions of the earth being the center of the universe with the stars being moved by a god who sits on a throne in the sky” (p. 125, Kindle).


Nor did the arrival of the magi—according to Matthew—happen on the night Jesus was born. They had seen his star after he was born (Matthew 2:1). How long would their journey have taken? How long did their stopover in Jerusalem take? It’s fair to say Jesus could have been several months old, and was living in a house with his parents, i.e., their home in Bethlehem.  


Whenever I see the Wise Men depicted adoring the new-born Jesus in a stable, surrounded by shepherds and livestock, my impulse is to say, “Get them out of there! Read your Bibles! Pay attention to the texts!” Matthew also specialized in taking Old Testament verses out of context to make them apply to Jesus. For this, see Loftus’ section, “The Prophecies Are Faked.” (p. 125, Kindle) 


Here's one of my fantasies: that someday laypeople will carefully—with all their critical faculties engaged—read the Jesus birth stories in Matthew and Luke. They will thus be equipped for an encounter with their priests and preachers. They show up for the typical Christmas Eve pageant, but take the clergy in charge aside: “Reverend, why are you continuing to present these fake news stories as if they actually happened? How is it a good idea to fool the children—and the adults, for that matter? Isn’t there a better way to promote the Christian faith?” 


Sad to say—or rather, glad to say—the birth stories are just the tip of the iceberg: the gospels as a whole are a minefield, providing abundant reasons for doubting and rejecting the Christian faith. No wonder the laity avoid reading them, and the clergy are just as happy that they don’t. 



David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He is the author of two books, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith (2016; 2018 Foreword by John Loftus) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). His YouTube channel is here. He has written for the Debunking Christianity Blog since 2016.


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