A Pop-Quiz for Christians, Number 9

Tis the season to carefully study the Jesus birth stories

A few years ago I attended the special Christmas show at Radio City Music Hall. It ended with the famous tableau depicting the night Jesus was born: the baby resting on straw in a stable, shepherds and Wise Men adoring the infant, surrounded by farm animals—and a star hovering above the humble shelter. Radio City did it splendidly, of course, but the scene is reenacted at countless churches during the Christmas season. The devout are in awe—well, those who haven’t carefully read the birth stories in Matthew and Luke. This adored tableau is actually a daft attempt to reconcile the two gospel accounts—which cannot, in fact, be done.



If churchgoers actually studied these accounts, they would legitimately ask: How has the church been able to get away with this?   


So here are essential questions in this Pop-Quiz:


1.     What is the evidence that Jesus was born on December 25? 


Read Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2: is the evidence there?  


2.     Where did Mary and Joseph live when they found out she was pregnant? 


Matthew and Luke didn’t agree on this.


3.     Is it a good idea to add astrology—the ancient superstition of imagining omens in the sky—to Christian theology?


The Wise Men (magi/astrologers) saw the “Jesus star” and set out on a journey to find him. This is mentioned only in Matthew: is there any way at all to make this story credible? 


4.     What are the problems with that star? 


Its behavior changes as the story unfolds. 


5.     Name two Old Testament verses that Matthew applies to Jesus, but which had nothing whatever to do with Jesus. 


Matthew’s use of scripture is eccentric—to put it mildly.


Answers and Comments


Question One: What is the evidence that Jesus was born on December 25? 


Events relating to the birth of Jesus are described in only two places in the New Testament: Matthew 1 & 2, and Luke 1 & 2. Mark begins his story with the baptism of Jesus, and John positions Jesus as having been a factor in the creation of the world; he seems not to have cared how Jesus was born as a human. But it was important to Matthew and Luke, yet neither of them bothers to mention the date when Jesus was born. December 25th was chosen later. This article, Why Is Christmas in December? offers details:


“In the 3rd century, the Roman Empire, which at the time had not adopted Christianity, celebrated the rebirth of the Unconquered Sun (Sol Invictus) on December 25th. This holiday not only marked the return of longer days after the winter solstice but also followed the popular Roman festival called the Saturnalia (during which people feasted and exchanged gifts). It was also the birthday of the Indo-European deity Mithra, a god of light and loyalty whose cult was at the time growing popular among Roman soldiers.


Thus it seems that the Jesus-birthdate is a borrowing, i.e., the church capitalized on the popularity of December 25. But this is a red flag, a warning that there was too much borrowing. It doesn’t take much study of ancient religions to see that virgin birth for gods and heroes was a welcome credential. Matthew and Luke—alone among New Testament authors—attached this credential to Jesus. And while we’re studying ancient religions, we can wonder if December 25 was fiction on a whole different level: was Jesus born at all?


Richard Carrier makes this point:


“Right from the start Jesus simply looks a lot more like a mythical man than a historical one. And were he not the figure of a major world religion—if we were studying the Attis or Zalmoxis or Romulus cult instead—we would have treated Jesus that way from the start, knowing full well we need more than normal evidence to take him back out of the class of mythical persons and back into that of historical ones.” (On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt, p. 602)


Hysteria may be the response of some folks to any suggestion that Jesus was a fictional character. My suggestion: calm down and read Carrier’s book. Find out why, after 600 pages of evidence and reasoning, this is his conclusion. Make the effort to study the gospels carefully, critically: find out why historians don’t trust them to deliver authentic accounts of Jesus. And realize that devout New Testament scholars have been agonizing over this problem for decades. 


Question 2: Where did Mary and Joseph live when they found out she was pregnant? 


In Matthew’s story, there is no mention whatever of a census that brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. This was simply where they lived, and they fled from there to Egypt—here again, this tall tale is found only in Matthew—to protect Jesus. When they decided to return to their home, it was deemed too dangerous. “And after being warned in a dream, [Joseph] went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth…” (Matthew 2:22-23) There is not the slightest hint that Mary and Joseph had lived there originally. 


Moreover, Luke knew nothing about the escape to Egypt mentioned in Matthew’s account. He offered an extended description of Jesus being taken to the Temple in Jerusalem for circumcision, and the words of adoration spoken about Jesus by two holy people, Simon and Anna. Then it was time to head for home: “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) 


It's puzzling that two gospel authors did not agree on something so basic: where the parents of Jesus lived. And it’s even more puzzling that those who assembled the New Testament would include gospels that didn’t agree. Actually, scholars have been alarmed that the gospel authors fail to agree on so much.


Question Three: Is it a good idea to add astrology—the ancient superstition of imagining omens in the sky—to Christian theology? 


The authors of the New Testament had a hard time separating fact from fiction, credible beliefs from superstition. But at least they were inventive. Matthew imagined that astrologers (in the East, presumably Babylon, 900 miles away) figured out that a star represented a new king of the Jews. Why would they care? Why would they embark on a long journey “to pay him homage”? This seems to be a reflection of Matthew’s arrogance that his breakaway Jesus sect was the one true religion. So bring on the “wise men” from other religions! 


But astrology was (and remains) an ancient superstition. How does this not drag Christian theology down? Alas, of course, quite a few ancient superstitions in the gospels damage Christianity, e.g., mental illness is caused by demons, people with god-like powers can raise the dead and heal people (Jesus cured a man’s blindness by smearing mud on his eyes), a resurrected human sacrifice guarantees salvation for those who believe. Using astrology to enhance theology is part of a much bigger credibility problem. 


Question Four: What are the problems with that star? 


Matthew is guilty of a major plot flaw. The astrologers headed to Jerusalem to get information on where to find this new king of the Jews. Their inquiry alarmed King Herod, who made inquiries of the religious experts. They told him that Bethlehem was the place to look, based on a text in Micah 5:2. So the astrologers headed for Bethlehem: “…they set out, and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen in the east, until it stopped over the place where the child was.” (Matthew 2:9) Scholar Robert Price has said that the star had suddenly turned into Tinkerbell! Why didn’t it do this earlier, bypassing Jerusalem altogether, thereby keeping King Herod in the dark, and avoiding the Massacre of the Innocents? (Matthew 2:16) 


The Tinkerbell Star stopped over the house where Jesus was living—no stable in this story—and Jesus is described as a child or little-boy. When Herod went on his furious rampage later, killing children in the Bethlehem area, the order was to execute those two years old and younger, “according to the time that he had learned from the astrologers.” (Matthew 2:16) After all, 900 miles was a long trek. It is abundantly clear that Matthew depicts an event that did not take place on the night Jesus was born. Placing the Wise Men in Luke’s stable is totally misleading. It makes for good theatre—that’s what appeals to the clergy and Sunday School teachers, I suppose—but it’s not what the Bible says  


Question Five: Name two Old Testament verses that Matthew applied to Jesus, but which had nothing whatever to do with Jesus. 


New Testament authors specialized in taking old bits of scripture out of context. They were on the hunt for verses that they could apply to Jesus, no matter the intent of the original authors. Since they were sure that the old documents were filled with secret codes that about their lord, the game was on. Here are two examples:


·      In Matthew’s birth story, he quotes Isaiah 7:14 as a prophecy about Jesus. Please read Isaiah 7: how can anything in this text be about a holy hero who would be born centuries later? It is about how Israel’s god will help resolve a crisis at the time.   


·      As mentioned earlier, it is only Matthew that tells the farfetched story of Mary and Joseph taking Jesus to Egypt to protect him. It would seem this was even too absurd for Luke to believe: he reports that Mary and Joseph—after the circumcision of Jesus—headed back to Nazareth. But Matthew had landed on Hosea 11:1, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” The reference is clearly to Israel as a people, and moreover, the chapter is a lament that this people had been too ungrateful and rebellious.   


Contemporary Bible readers should be able to figure out that Matthew’s use of old texts doesn’t help at all to make the case for Jesus. 


The five questions in this Pop-Quiz serve as an introduction to the problems presented by these two birth narratives. Historians don’t take them seriously at all, since they clearly belong to the genre we call religious fantasy literature. Joseph is told by an angel in a dream that Mary is pregnant by the hold spirit; an angel in a dream tells him when to head home from Egypt. These are bits of fantasy, unless we could be sure that Matthew had access to a diary that Joseph kept, in which he wrote down his dreams (that’s the kind of documentation historians rely on). But at most, the diary would show that Joseph was out of touch with reality, believing that his god spoke to him via angels in dreams. Luke also was stoked at the thought of angels playing speaking roles, e.g., to the father of John the Baptist, to Mary, and to the shepherds on the night Jesus was born.


The gospels of Mark and John are deeply flawed, but at least those two authors showed no interest in spinning tales about how Jesus was born. Fortunately—or unfortunately, depending on your perspective—the Matthew and Luke birth narratives are a good place to start in undermining the credibility of the gospels, and in the falsification of Christian theology. 


But that requires curiosity, critical thinking, and a willingness to engage in serious study—wherever that may lead. 



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, now being reissued in several volumes, the first of which is Guessing About God (2023) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). The Spanish translation of this book is also now available. 


His YouTube channel is here. At the invitation of John Loftus, he has written for the Debunking Christianity Blog since 2016.


The Cure-for-Christianity Library©, now with more than 500 titles, is here. A brief video explanation of the Library is here