|A different interpretation...
Christmas is coming, the decorations are going up, tinsel and lights adorn the high street in an attempt to make up for the darkness that just comes way too soon this time of year (unless you're in the Southern Hemisphere of course, in which case it's time to grab your togs and jandals, slip, slap, slop, and head down to the beach!)
As you walk down the streets of any Western country, it's highly likely that you'll bump into a church or even a shop, which will have a nativity scene on display in some form or other, with little baby Jesus in a manger, overlooked by his loving mother Mary, Joseph, a few animals, some shepherds, an angel or two for good measure, and of course, the three wise men.
It's such a part of the festivities in predominantly Christian countries that we most likely take it for granted, and in fact, my 9-year old daughter was asked to create a two-page project on the birth of Jesus for a school report.
My kid's pretty sharp: she's the one who came up with the term "The Fibble" in reference to the Bible, so she was very keen to write her report based on actual historical events wherever possible, not the myths that so many of us have been raised with. Her idea was to draw across those two pages a classic nativity scene (as shown above), but have the body of the text reflect what we had researched, not just the story we've all heard countless times.
There's nothing wrong with the story of the birth of Christ in and of itself, but how does the historical and archaeological data, and even the Fibble itself match that nativity scene?
Our research focused on three main points:
1. what was Herod's census all about;
2. when and where was Jesus born;
3. and what's the deal with those mysterious three wise men?
Romans, Herod and the Census
The Fibble gives a clear historical context to the events we're looking into. As Matthew 2:1 says,
"After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod"
|The Old Testament
In addition to this, Hebrew Scriptures prophesised that a Messiah, the son of god would be born in Bethlehem, Judea
"For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace."
“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
from ancient times.”
So in order for Jesus to be that Messiah, he would have to be born in that geographical region, and since Mary and Joseph lived in Galilee, there had to be a reason for Joseph to move his family to Judea in time for the birth.
Thankfully, such a reason occurred. According to Luke 2:1-4:
"1 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.
2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.)"
Except that historically, this doesn't fit with what Matthew just told us.
Syria wasn’t controlled by the Romans during Herod’s reign. The Romans let Herod administer it himself in return for a nice share of the taxes. Romans did like to take censuses, but not of provinces they didn’t have direct control over. Once Herod died in late March or early April 4BC his son succeeded him to the throne, but he proved to be quite useless, so the Romans took direct control of the province shortly afterwards, and Quirinius did order a census, but that was in 6AD, well after Jesus’ birth.
|Herod the Great
Even if Herod had ordered a census of his own (which there is no historical record of), censuses are meant to gather information about the current population - there is no need for anyone to move to anywhere else other than where they are currently living. To require people to move to the place of their birth just for a census would’ve been a headache of gargantuan proportions for any society and totally impractical for a mostly agrarian and illiterate one.
Judea or Galilee?
Census or no census, was Jesus born on the 25th of December 1AD? No, he wasn't. The Fibble states that he had to be born during Herod's reign so that means he must have been born at the latest in the spring of 4BC.
|John the Baptist
Why not the 25th of December 5BC then? Well interestingly enough, the answer's in the Fibble itself. According to detailed analysis, Jesus was born six months after John the Baptist. And since, based to this research, John came into this world in the Spring of 4BC, probably between the 18th and 31st of March, that puts Jesus' birthday somewhere between the 16th and 29th of September, missing Herod by half a year, and making him a Virgoan or Libran - if you believe in that sort of thing.
But even without Herod or a census, could Joseph have taken his heavily pregnant wife on a lovely late Summer/early Autumn jaunt to Bethlehem and hence fulfil the prophecy? Well, he could’ve, except that Bethlehem didn’t exist as a functioning town at that time.
As Aviram Oshri, senior archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) says, "the vast database of the IAA, describes Bethlehem as an "ancient site" with Iron Age material and the fourth-century Church of the Nativity and associated Byzantine and medieval buildings. But there is a complete absence of information for antiquities from the Herodian period--that is, from the time around the birth of Jesus."
|A - Nazareth
B - Bethlehem (157km away)
C - Bethlehem of Galilee (14km away)
So it's unlikely there would've been overfilled inns, let alone a barn to house them, had Joseph and Mary travelled over 157km to get there.
There are clues in the Fibble and geographically as to were Jesus might've been born: he is often referred to as "Jesus of Nazareth", and it so happens that there is a town just 14km away from Nazareth called Bethlehem of Galillee. So Jesus could’ve been born there - same name, much closer location - but this would’ve caused problems with that pesky Hebrew prophecy. In fact, this niggling issue is even mentioned in the Fibble: John 7:41- 43 sates:
"41 Others said, “He is the Messiah.” Still others asked, “How can the Messiah come from Galilee?
42 Does not Scripture say that the Messiah will come from David’s descendants and from Bethlehem, the town where David lived?”
43 Thus the people were divided because of Jesus.”
So in all probability, assuming that he existed at all and isn't actually an amalgam of various people, or just completely made up, Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Galilee around late Summer/early Autumn of 4BC, not on the 25th of December AD1 in Bethlehem of Judea.
Wise But Not on Time
|Three wise men...
But what about those three wise men, also known as the Magi? They are the hardest part of the story to prove historically, so it's a good thing we can once again turn to the Fibble to provide us with some answers, but surprisingly enough, it doesn't mention their visit at Jesus' birth. At all. No men, wise or otherwise, came to see Jesus when he was supposedly resting in a manger. According to Matthew 2:11:
"11 On coming to the house, [the Magi] saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.”
So here they were, visiting Jesus as a child, in a house, not a baby in a barn. There's also no mention of how many Magi came. Only the three gifts are described, so there could've been any number of wise men, from two to a hundred for all we know. Why assume three gifts meant three Magi?
So, no census, no Herod, no Quirinius, no Bethlehem, no late December birth and no wise men present at that birth.
The nativity, as we celebrate it, is merely a myth, a story which doesn’t even match what is recorded in the Bible, itself a collection of remembered events written decades after they took place, which, as we've seen, contradict one another.
We might as well celebrate Christmas by watching The Life of Brian. It's probably just as accurate, but it'll certainly be much more fun than what the Fibble has come up with. After all, what have the Romans ever done for us?