Growing up Catholic has given me the gift of imagining how the birth of Jesus looked. Mostly we have a mash up of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke and until I began to study Scripture in college I didn’t give much thought to it. But in the years since it’s become clear that the birth narrative can’t have happened as it is read. Here are some thoughts:
The Census: Luke 2:1 places Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem instead of Nazareth where Mary and Joseph lived. This was necessary as the Old Testament prophet Micah stated (Chapter 5) that the Messiah will come from Bethlehem. According to Luke, Mary and Joseph needed to travel to Bethlehem because the Roman ruler (Caesar Augustus) demanded that everyone return to their ancestral home and since Joseph descended from King David he needed to be there. Matthew (Chapter 2) places Jesus’ birth during the reign of King Herod who died between the year 5 BCE and 1 CE (formally 5 BC and 1 AD) but Luke places this when Quirinius governed Syria who didn’t begin his reign until 6 CE. Now we can put that down to a simple mistake, but there’s more. Say what you will about the Romans, they kept good records. And there’s no record of a census “of the whole world” as Luke states. Furthermore, a census lists where you live, not your ancestors; that means there would have been no need for them to go to Bethlehem. As an aside I was born in Washington D.C. My father was born in Gardner, Massachusetts and his father was born in Notre Dame, New Brunswick (Canada). If you go back far enough my 8th Great Grandfather was born in France. Where do I go for a census?
Virgin Birth: Most Christians believe that Jesus was born of Mary but not of Joseph as she was a virgin (Matthew 1:18). Matthew wrote that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:20); this was important because it fulfilled the prophecy from Isaiah 7:14 that they could recognize the Messiah when “the virgin shall be with child, and hear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.” But there is a translation problem. Most of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew but by the time of Jesus most people read its translation to Greek. The word Isaiah used in Hebrew is “almah” which was translated into the Greek word “parthenos.” But almah doesn’t necessarily mean virgin as much as “young woman.” So why is this important? Throughout history there has been a persistent rumor that Jesus was conceived by Mary and a Roman soldier. It’s not hard to see how the followers of Jesus could look back to Isaiah and see the word parthenos and couple Matthew with Isaiah.
Does this mean Jesus wasn’t the Messiah? No. As I was once told a story can be true even if it didn’t happen the way we think. I’m not a fundamentalist (who believes the Bible is without error in fact as well as faith) because of passages like this. My belief in Jesus does not depend on the accuracy of facts.
If Jesus had a human father that doesn’t negate my belief that he was the Messiah. But I have to admit that the concept of the virgin birth has led to a long held and persistent belief that virginity is good and sex is bad. And that’s bad. There’s nothing I see in Scripture that tells me that sex is bad, or evil, or sinful. And while we rightly revere Mary because of her willingness to give birth to Jesus in some pretty awful circumstances, her marital status should not matter.
So let’s celebrate Christmas this year for what’s good. Jesus brought us redemption, eternal life, and the ability to love in hard circumstances. Let’s not care so much about Bethlehem or virginity.