Epiphany: Unveiling the Truth about the Nativity Stories
Richard Mario Procida, Esq.
(v.1) In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, (v. 2) asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” (v. 3) When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; (v. 4) and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. (v. 5) They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: (v. 6) ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel’.” (v. 7) Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. (v. 8) Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” (v. 9) When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. (v. 10) When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. (v. 11) On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (v. 12) And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. [Matthew 2:1-12]
The Birth of Jesus is recorded only in Matthew and Luke. Both stories differ significantly. Two weeks ago we heard part of Luke’s version of events, specifically the angel Gabriel’s visits to Zechariah and to Mary, Mary’s trip to see Elizabeth, and the Magnificat.[Escape to Judea] This Epiphany we hear Matthew’s version of Jesus’ birth.
Epiphany means disclosure or unveiling. This year God calls upon us to disclose or unveil the truth about the nativity stories. They are not historical accounts. They are different and probably incompatible or at least unlikely to both be factually accurate. There are only a few things that are likely to be factual. The rest is literary fiction.
Being a Christian means telling the truth, especially about the Bible. It’s about being honest. What type of church misleads its congregants or allows them to believe falsely? Only Christians insecure in their faith need others to confirm their beliefs. Even if you believe the nativity stories can be harmonized, it’s inauthentic not to acknowledge the differences.
This is also about telling the story of Jesus’ birth as it is written in the Bible, rather than making up a third story that is told nowhere in the Bible. Luke tells one story. Matthew tells another. No story in the Bible has both Magi and Shepherds. No infancy account in the Bible has both the slaughter of the innocents and Jesus’ circumcision and presentation in the Temple. Any story that includes both is extra-biblical. It’s a fabrication made up by combining both stories.
Many Christians don’t know, and don’t want to know, what’s really in the Bible. To question the factual accuracy of the stories seems disloyal to them. They believe a theology that says the Bible is inerrant and factually accurate, but this claim is found nowhere in the Bible. The Bible doesn’t claim to be inerrant and historically accurate. Inerrancy is an unbiblical theological claim.
Many Christians do not believe the Bible, either. Instead, they believe in theological doctrines. When the facts about the Bible are presented to them, they overlook them in favor of their theological presuppositions. These doctrines and presuppositions cause them to misread the Bible and to falsify God’s word. They then use the Bible for their own purposes rather than to serve God.
The Bible is not a history textbook. It’s a story about a man who lived 2000 years ago who changed the world. It’s a story about how God intervenes in our world. It’s a mystical story that rings true morally and spiritually. It’s literature. It’s historical fiction.
Many Christians also have a superficial knowledge of the Bible. Even though they study it thoroughly, they approach it with false presuppositions and never study it scientifically. They never think to compare and contrast the gospel stories. They remain mostly unaware of the synoptic problem. They do not see the problems the text addresses. They don’t recognize the issues. Instead they focus on superficial things.
For example, was the star in Matthew a comet or a rare alignment of planets? The answer is neither, its fiction. The star disappears while the Magi are with King Herod. [Matt. 2:7-9]. A natural phenomenon doesn’t just disappear. At best, it’s a supernatural event. More likely it’s simply a story Matthew used to express the significance of Jesus’ birth. Luke has angels appear to shepherds instead. Both images signify the birth of the Messiah.
Matthew and Luke tell different stories. One story has Magi. The other has shepherds. [Luke 2:15-20] One story has the baby Jesus is in a house, in the other a Manger. [Luke 2:12-13] In Matthew a star appears over the house where the baby Jesus lies. Luke has angels appear to shepherds. [Luke 2:8-14] In Matthew, Mary and Joseph flee with Jesus to Egypt. [Matt. 2:13-15] In Luke they go to Jerusalem and then return to Nazareth. [Luke 2:21-49] These differences demonstrate that Matthew and Luke are Evangelicals with agendas. They want to tell a meaningful story, but they wrote separately and came up with different versions.
Matthew and Luke deal with the same problems but solve these problems differently. For example, both need to trace Jesus’ linage back to King David. Matthew did it through Joseph. [Matt. 1:1-17] Luke did it though Mary. [Luke 23-34] Both needed to place Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. Matthew simply placed the birth in Bethlehem, but Luke moves Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem by means of a census. Both needed to deal with the issue of Mary’s suspicious pregnancy so as to avoid divorce or execution by stoning for the crime of adultery. [Escape to Judea] Luke has Gabriel strike Zechariah mute while Mary obtains Elizabeth’s blessing. [Luke 1:5-25, 39-56] Matthew has the angel Gabriel appear to Joseph to convince him to take Mary as his wife. [Matt. 1:19-21] Luke, on the other hand, avoids implicating Joseph in any way.
There was no census. There was no massacre of the innocents. Neither of these have sufficient historical support. It’s unfathomable that Josephus, an ancient historian, would have neglected to record King Herod’s order to kill all boys aged two and under in Bethlehem and the surrounding region. Instead, Matthew uses this to identify Jesus as the new Moses who will set Israel free. Luke knew that Jesus was from Nazareth. So he used the alleged census to move Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem where prophesy said the Messiah would be born. These stories serve Matthew’s and Luke’s purposes, not to tell factually accurate stories but to convince people that Jesus was the Messiah and the Son of God. To fail to understand this is to fail to appreciate the liberty with which these authors wrote.
The Bible is meant to bring us closer to God. It’s not a history lesson. It’s the story of Jesus, the Son of God who gave his life for us. We are meant to learn from these stories. We are meant to grow in Christ, not to recite facts.
Faith is not about believing things. It’s about following God. Belief is about trust. If we consider the stories, understand them, and model our lives after them, we trust that our lives will serve God. We will do God’s will. We will do our part to transform ourselves and the world. That’s what being a Christian is. Rather than waiting around for Jesus to return, or until we die, whatever comes first, we follow God and seek transformation for ourselves and the world. The Bible serves these causes. It is not a recitation of historical fact. It’s a spiritual text that transforms us and the world.
So what is true about the Nativity stories? There are two things that are probably factual. First, it’s probably true that Jesus was born likely during the reign of Kink Herod between 4 and 6 CE. Most scholars agree that Jesus was an actual person who lived and died in the first century. The second fact likely to be true is that Jesus was from Nazareth. All of the gospels record this, because people knew this about Jesus. So this fact is likely to be true.
As for the rest of the Nativity stories in both Matthew and Luke, they are mostly fiction. To teach or allow people to believe that both stories are factually accurate in their entirety is to be dishonest both with them and about the Bible. Let this ignorance end, and let no such sin darken God’s house this season, because if you do Christians will continue to live in ignorance and their faith will be in vain.