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Questions about the Nativity

OUR CALENDAR assumes that Jesus was born in the year 0 -- but was he? Scholars, noting a mistaken calculation by the 6th century sage who invented a scheme of time to honor a "Christian era," tell us that Jesus was born in the year 4 BC. But was he?


That date is derived from the fact that the Gospel of Matthew puts the birth "during the reign of King Herod," and he is known to have died that year. But the Gospel of Luke says that Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem from their home in Nazareth to comply with the empire-wide census order of the Caesar Augustus, and some such decree is thought to have been issued after Herod died, perhaps as late as AD 6.

Confusion in the matter of dates points to other questions as well. Luke has Joseph and Mary living in Nazareth and journeying to Bethlehem, where there was no room at the inn. Hence the stable and the manger. But Matthew knows nothing of a journey before the birth and seems to have the Holy Family already living in Bethlehem. In Matthew the journey comes after the birth, when a dream warning of danger from Herod prompts Joseph to flee with the mother and child to Egypt. Only after Herod's death do they return, and only then does Matthew have them in Nazareth.

On these simple details of time and place, the Gospels of Luke and Matthew do not agree. "If we chose to grant credibility to one," the scholar Paula Fredriksen writes, "it comes at a cost to the other: Both cannot be true." At Christmas, such differences in the original accounts of the beloved Nativity story can seem insignificant, but they raise a larger question. We assert the truth of a proposition by saying it is "gospel," but even a casual reading of the most sacred texts of Christianity shows that common notions of "truth" do not apply.

Christians are encouraged to think of the assertions made about and by Jesus in the New Testament as rigidly factual. The foundational texts of other religions may be marked by obvious inventions, mythic references, and fictions at the service of theology -- but not the Gospels. That Mary was biologically a virgin, that the three Wise Men traveled from the East (Oddly, they do so in Matthew, but the manger before which they are pictured kneeling is in Luke), that they followed a star (and every year some new historian of astronomy tells us what it might have been), that Herod "slaughtered the innocents," even that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, a town associated with King David, which marks him as a possible Messiah -- all of this has theological meaning. But is any of it factual?

Christian lay people are discouraged from such lines of inquiry, because thinking critically about small matters may lead to a difficult confrontation with ultimate ones. If the Wise Men are not to be taken literally, is the Resurrection? Christian authorities, in the worlds both of scholarship and the denominations, do almost nothing to help otherwise well educated believers to understand even the methods by which texts of the New Testament came to be composed.

Thus scholars across the liberal-conservative divide take for granted realities that would scandalize most members of congregations: that the Gospels do not record history as we think of it, that they were not written by eyewitnesses, that many of the Gospel details (Bethlehem and its stable, perhaps Mary's virginity) came not from "what happened" but from Jewish texts anticipating the Messiah, that few of the sayings of Jesus can be reliably attributed to him, that the very structure of the dramatic narrative that pits Jesus against the Jewish people ("His own knew him not") is an invention that, as read by non-Jewish Christians, does violence to Jesus himself; indeed, that these texts are a main source of religious anti-Judaism, which spawned racial anti-Semitism.

In the early 21st century, religious fundamentalism has shown itself to be a danger to peace. In the West, it is commonly assumed that Islam is the problem, with many Muslims at the mercy of an intolerant rigidity of belief. But most Christians are effectively fundamentalist in their beliefs, with little capacity for critical thought about sources, doctrines, and theology. Church leaders and scholars have kept it this way for the sake of their own power, but in a new era of inflamed religious conflict, childish passivity by a broad population in matters of faith is irresponsible.

When was Jesus born? What does it mean to think of him as God? Was he at war with "the Jews"? Or was he a fierce opponent -- as a Jew -- of empire? What empire would he oppose today? Christmas comes this year, in other words, with the gift of questions.

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.

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