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'Overtures to the Gospel' Nativity: The familiar story of Jesus' birth comforts Christians, but many biblical scholars doubt the historical accuracy of the details.


A little star in Bethlehem marks the place where Christian tradition holds that Jesus Christ was born.

Worshipers by the millions travel to the Church of the Nativity, a 4th-century Greek Orthodox church in the center of town in Israel's West Bank, descend a few steps behind the sacristy and enter a cave. There they ponder, pray and pose for photographs beside a 14-pointed silver star inlaid under a stone altar.

In Christian churches around the world this holiday season, the story of Jesus' birth will be told as it has been for hundreds of years.

For many believers, the Nativity tale -- the journey of a carpenter named Joseph and his pregnant wife, Mary, to Bethlehem, Jesus lying in a manger, the star, the visits by Magi and shepherds, the flight to Egypt -- is familiar and comforting, a story that inspires faith.

To mainline scholars of Christian Scripture, however, the events as told in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke cannot be regarded as historical.

"The Gospels are not history. These guys weren't historians; they were theologians," said the Rev. Dr. Donald L. Jones, a Methodist minister and professor of religious studies at the University of South Carolina.

"There's not a biblical theologian in the world today that is regarded as competent that would treat those stories, the birth stories of Jesus, as if they were history," said Bishop John Shelby Spong, Episcopal bishop of Newark, N.J., and author of several books on the New Testament.

Historians agree that there is evidence in Roman and Jewish documents that Jesus lived and many of the events recorded in the Bible occurred. But the circumstances of his birth are virtually unknown.

Scripture scholars say the biblical accounts of Jesus' birth are theological descriptions intended to convey a spiritual message.

"I think of them as portraits being painted rather than objective stories being told," Spong said. "What they're trying to say is the whole world received a blessing when Jesus was born."

It's true, according to archaeological studies, that underground caves -- believed to be part of an ancient dwelling -- existed on the site of the Church of the Nativity. The Nativity story, however, originates with two authors of the Gospels, Matthew and Luke, ** who wrote their separate accounts 85 to 90 years after Jesus' birth.

"They're as different as night and day," said Jones, who is an expert on the Gospel of Luke.

Among the issues that caused scholars to cast doubt on the historicity of the infancy narratives:

Jesus probably was not born in Bethlehem, but in Nazareth. Bethlehem, the city of King David, is where Jews would expect a Messiah to come from. But the other Gospels make no mention of what would have been an auspicious beginning for Jesus. In fact, some people Jesus encounters in the Gospels of Mark and John are astonished that a religious figure could come from Galilee, north of Jerusalem where Jesus was raised, and not Bethlehem.

Luke says Jesus was born during the census of the world while Quirinius was governor of Syria. Both Gospels agree that Jesus was born during the reign of King Herod the Great, who died in 4 B.C. Most scholars put the date of the census at A.D. 6 and add that according to the practice of the Roman empire, Joseph would not have gone to Bethlehem, his ancestral town, to be counted, but would have remained in Nazareth, where he lived.

Many elements of Matthew, such as the star marking a significant birth, the slaughter of the children younger than 2 in Bethlehem and the flight to Egypt, are adapted from the Old Testament to explain Jesus' life.

Scholars point out that the birth stories appear in only two Gospels out of the 27 books of the New Testament. They are not mentioned in the epistles of St. Paul, the earliest books in the New Testament, written between 20 and 30 years after Jesus' death. The earliest Gospel, Mark, written about 40 years after Jesus' death, makes no mention of his birth.

The birth stories contradict each other on a number of key points, and each has events or details not mentioned in the other. The genealogies in the two Gospels differ on many points.

Matthew writes about Bethlehem as Joseph's permanent home, where he lives in a house with Mary. It is there that the Magi, astrologers from the East, visit Jesus. It is only in Matthew that Herod orders the death of first-born sons 2 years old and younger, forcing Joseph and Mary to flee to Egypt to protect Jesus.

In Luke's version, Joseph and Mary live in Nazareth, a small, agricultural town in the Galilee region in northern Palestine. They travel to Bethlehem, about five miles south of Jerusalem and Joseph's ancestral home, for the census. Mary gives birth to Jesus, wraps him in swaddling clothes and lays him in a manger, because there is no room at the inn, and Jesus is visited by shepherds.

The Christmas story most people are familiar with is a combination of the two accounts.

Harmonized in tradition

"In the tradition they have been harmonized, so in a church pageant you see all this stuff together. You see the shepherds from Luke and the wise men from Matthew," said Jeffrey Trumbower, a scholar of early Christianity at St. Michael's College in Colchester, Vt.

Most scholars say that only basic information about Jesus' birth can be verified. Even the date of his birth is not precisely known, although most scholars put it at 6 B.C. The odd fact that Jesus was born in the era "Before Christ" resulted from an error in calculating the year of his birth made in 533 by Dionysius Exiguus, who had proposed a calendar that would reckon years from Christ's birth instead of the founding of the Roman Empire, according to a noted Scripture scholar, the Rev. Raymond E. Brown.

The Rev. Patrick Madden, an assistant professor of Scripture at St. Mary's University and Seminary in Baltimore, notes that Matthew and Luke agree in many areas, which would indicate that they drew upon a common source or tradition for their stories that pre-dated the Gospels. "They were not just created out of whole cloth by either Matthew or by Luke," Madden said.

Still, he said, "I think there's a general consensus among Catholic biblical scholars that we don't have history in the modern understanding of the term."

Stressing different aspects

Not everyone agrees. Fundamentalists reconcile the two accounts by explaining that one birth narrative is told from the perspective of Joseph, while the other is told by Mary.

"The only thing that is different about [the two infancy narratives] is that they are more directed to the experience of participants, so that from Matthew we have the experience from the perspective of a male and from Luke we have the experience from the perspective of the female," said Norman R. Ericson, professor of New Testament studies at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill.

In addition, Ericson said, the Gospel accounts are different because each evangelist chose to emphasize different aspects of the story of Jesus' birth.

Nor do all mainline Scripture scholars totally dismiss the historicity of the infancy narratives. The Rev. Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, a New Testament scholar at Ecole Biblique et Ecole Archeologique Francaise in Jerusalem, believes that Matthew's account has a historical basis, although he believes the visit of the Magi is myth. He discounts as "garbage" assertions that Bethlehem is not the birthplace of Jesus.

The Nativity story has such a powerful hold that efforts to prove its veracity come from some secular sources. Last year, Paul William Roberts wrote about his effort to retrace the steps of the Magi, who he believes were Zoroastrian priests who traveled from Persia (modern-day Iran) to Bethlehem. And astronomer Michael Molnar published an article last year in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society in which he theorized that the star of Bethlehem was actually an eclipse of Jupiter by the moon.

If most scholars believe the infancy stories are not history, then what are they? Many describe them as theological introductions to the Gospels. In his seminal work, "The Birth of the Messiah," Brown writes that "the infancy narrative is the place where the [Hebrew Scriptures] and the Gospel most directly meet."

"The best way to see them is like overtures to the Gospel," said John Dominic Crossan, a retired theology professor at DePaul University in Chicago. "If you understand what Matthew says in chapters one and two, then you get the whole story. If you understand what Luke says in chapters one and two, then you've got the whole story."

Jewish perspective

In Luke, the infancy narrative, with its genealogy starting with Adam, portrays Jesus as the savior, not just of Israel, but of the world. Jesus' violent death is foreshadowed when Simeon, the man who would not die until he saw the Messiah, told Mary in the Temple her infant was "destined to be a sign that is rejected -- and a sword will pierce your own soul too -- so that the secret thoughts of many may be laid bare."

In Matthew, the author is using the birth story to tell the reader that Jesus is the new Moses.

Steven Fine, assistant professor of Rabbinic literature and history at Baltimore Hebrew University, said Matthew's story looks familiar to a Jewish reader. "Matthew is a very carefully constructed narrative that fits within genre of literature called midrash," which is a series of homilies or sermons, he said.

None of these insights into the nature of the infancy stories is new. Protestant scholars have engaged in the so-called search for the historical Jesus for more than 150 years. Catholics began to study the Bible more critically after Pope Pius XII issued an encyclical in 1943 that said the Bible should be studied like any other ancient manuscript.

But scholars acknowledge that the fruits of their labor have not necessarily trickled down to the people in the pews. "This is not controversial. This is commonplace scholarship in the academy," Spong said. "It's only controversial when it gets down to the pews, where clergymen who have been trained in the academy never bother to talk about these issues because they are controversial."

Tom Willadsen, associate pastor at Towson Presbyterian Church, just finished teaching a two-week course on "The Myths of Christmas." He found that the people who attended the class were open to questioning the text, although it is hard for some to let go of the traditional images.

"People get very defensive about this when I said Jesus wasn't born in a barn," he said. "My point was just to say that a lot of what we've attributed to the story isn't present in the Bible."

Matthew McNaught, a minister at Towson Unitarian Universalist Church, said he ran into problems when he worked at an Episcopal church. "It's not very happy to go to church on Christmas and have a sermon preached on 'This is Jewish

midrash rather than history,' " he said.

The important point about the infancy narratives, said New Testament scholar Kathleen Weber of the Catholic University of America, is the idea that God arrived in the world -- "Not these facts and figures of Jesus as a baby."

And sacred places such as the Church of the Nativity, whether that was the actual birthplace of Jesus or not, help people connect with that God.

"The neat thing about [the Christmas story] is that God breaks into human pathos," said Randall Smith, director of a Christian travel study program in Jerusalem. "There is a personal God who is working the events of mankind. If that God is able to put on human skin, walk the face of the earth and die, that's a tremendous story. That's the difference between faith and nonfaith."

Two Gospels of contradications

According to Matthew:

1. Genealogy starts from Abraham. It lists Jacob as the father of Joseph.

2. An unnamed angel announces Jesus's coming birth to Joseph.

3. Mary and Joseph live in Bethlehem, in the province of Judea.

4. Jesus is borne in a housea.

5: Jesus is visited by the Magi, guided by the star of Bethlehem.

6. Herod, in a plot against Jesus, massacres all children 2 years old and younger in Bethlehem. Jesus' family flees to Egypt.

7. After Herod's death, Joseph is warned by an angel not to return to Judea, so the family settles in Nazareth.

According to Luke:

1. Genealogy starts from Adam. Eli is named as the father o Joseph.

2. The story of the conception and birth of John the Baptist t Elizabeth, mary' s counsin.

3. Mary and Joseph live in Nazareth

4. The angel Gabriel appears to Mary to tell of her conception.

5. The census of the world by Caesar Augustus that bring Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem

6. Mary wraps Jesus in swaddling clothes and lays him in manger because there was no room at the inn

7. Visit of the shepherds guided by an angel.

Pub Date: 12/22/96

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