We’re so used to the Christmas narrative that it’s hard to believe that basic points in the Nativity story were fought over by early Christians down to the time of the Templars.
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- Jesus was the result of a virgin birth. Well, that flummoxed many early Christians. Some thought Jesus as the son of God couldn’t have been “born” to a human woman. Others thought he had to undergo birth to become part human and part divine.
- And what role did Joseph play? Firstly, Jesus is said to have had brothers and sisters but these conveniently come from a previous marriage. And this is why Joseph is portrayed as a much older man. Saint Paul and the earliest gospel writer, Mark, don’t even mention him.
- Three kings or magicians or dignitaries? Matthew describes wise men from “the east” and not kings as such. The fact they are following a star – possibly a comet – suggests astrologers. The term “Magi” appears to originate in Persia and refers to learned scholars, not monarchs.
- Was Jesus born in Bethlehem or Jerusalem? Or even Nazareth? The gospels, Matthew and Luke, seem pretty firm on Bethlehem. But then why is Jesus referred to as a Nazarene? Some Christians have asserted he was born in Jerusalem. One Israeli archaeologist has even asserted that there were two Bethlehems – one in Judaea and one in Galilee – and we have been focussing on the wrong one for two thousand years!
- Why do only two gospels mention the birth of Jesus? If the virgin birth was such a defining moment, why is it only mentioned in Matthew and Luke. Mark goes straight in with Jesus as an adult preaching. While John has a kind of trippy, gnostic account of Jesus being “the Word” and descending in human form to join us.
- Who did the angel Gabriel speak to? In the gospel of Matthew, Gabriel tells Joseph in a dream that Mary will conceive the son of God. In the gospel of Luke, Gabriel has the decency to talk to Mary in person.
- The Roman census. Plenty has been written about this. Suffice it to say, there was no census in 0CE, which is why the date is often moved to 4CE. But that doesn’t help much either. Experts question the notion that the Romans forced entire populations to decamp to their home town to fill in a census. More likely, this is a device to ensure that in the story, Jesus is born in Bethlehem – as foretold in scripture.
- Manger, inn or under a palm tree? Take your pick for the birth place of Jesus according to different gospels, the Qur’an and later accounts.
- Herod’s massacre of the Innocents. We’re led to believe that Herod, a client king of the Romans, murdered every first born child in his jurisdiction in the hope of killing Jesus in the process. That doesn’t explain how John the Baptist survived. His mother Elizabeth was pregnant at the same time as Mary. And also, why none of the Roman chroniclers bothered to record such an appalling event.
- Shepherd grazing their flocks at night in the middle of winter. Not likely. In Bronze Age Palestine under the Romans, any sensible shepherd had their flocks under cover and in the warmth at that time of the year.
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