This means that Christianity lived and flourished for 50 to 60 years before the virgin birth became part of its theology. This fact serves to demonstrate that the virgin birth is neither original nor essential to Christianity. It is also a story filled with obvious inaccuracies.
Matthew tells us that Jesus was born when Herod was king in Judea (Matthew 2:1). From other historical records, we know that Herod died in 4 B.C.E. To complicate the dating process, Luke's gospel repeats the Herod tradition (Luke 1:5) but adds that Jesus was also born when Quirinius was governor of Syria (Luke 2:1). From other historical records, we know that Quirinius did not become governor of Syria until the winter of 6/7 C.E., by which time Jesus would have been at least 10 years old. The stories do not add up.
There are still other discrepancies in the two biblical birth stories of Jesus. Matthew appears to believes that Mary and Joseph live in Bethlehem in a house over which a star can stop to bathe it in light. So he has to develop a story that will enable Jesus to move from Bethlehem, into Nazareth in Galilee--since Matthew had to deal with the fact that Jesus was known both as a Nazarene and a Galilean. So Matthew tells us that when the holy family returned from Egypt, God in a dream directed them to flee to Galilee, since Herod's brother was now on the throne and was regarded as a threat to Jesus' life.
Luke, on the other hand, believes that Mary and Joseph live in Nazareth. But in view of the fact that tradition suggested that the messiah had to be born in the city of David--Bethlehem--he had to develop a story that enabled Mary and Joseph to be in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus' birth. The proposed census ordered by Quirinius served his purpose.
There is one other problem with Luke's narrative. Mary was said to have accompanied Joseph on this journey, even though women in that society were not allowed to participate in the civic activities for which the enrollment was said to be required. Luke describes Mary as being "great with child." I assume that means she was in the last month to six weeks of her pregnancy. Bethlehem was a 94-mile journey from Nazareth. Under normal circumstances, it would take seven to 10 days to navigate that distance. One could not walk except in the twilight hours or in the early hours of the morning. Both the heat of the day and the darkness of the night drove people to cover. There were no hotels, restaurants, or toilet facilities along the way. You slept on the side of the road. You carried water, perhaps some figs, olives, and a loaf of bread. It was a hard, dangerous, and grueling journey. You would hardly set off on such a trip with a woman that far along in her pregnancy. One female New Testament scholar suggested that this story, far from being history, could only have come out of the imagination of a man who had never had a baby!
From every angle, the facts suggest that these stories are not history. Virgin births, singing angels, and guiding stars occur only in mythology. The story of Jesus' virgin birth is no more literally true than is the story of Santa Claus.
Once we arrive at this conclusion, then we are free to search for the real meaning of these stories. They were written not to describe the details of his birth but to reveal who they believed the adult Jesus was. To Matthew, Jesus was "a God presence," a life through which the holy God could be experienced. That had been the conviction of Jewish people about other heroes, such as Moses, Samuel, Elijah, and Isaiah. But this Jesus was a more total "God presence" than any of those, Matthew asserts--and when he writes his gospel he wants to spell that out in a typical Jewish manner. He starts with a tale of his miraculous birth.
Matthew wants his readers to know that Jesus is a Jew, but one who breaks the boundaries that separate Jews from gentiles. A star, a heavenly sign, would do that, since it would be seen all over the world and not just in the land of the Jews. Hence, a star would draw everyone, even gentiles, to its meaning.
That is exactly what Matthew says happens--for under the symbol of the wise men, the whole world is portrayed as being drawn to this Christ. The fact that no star travels through the sky at a pace slow enough for magi to follow is one more hint that this is not a literal history.
And yet another text from Isaiah that gives Matthew the framework in which to build his magi story: Kings "shall come" to the brightness of God's rising, the prophet said (Isaiah 60). They shall come on camels. (It is in this Isaiah passage alone that camels are mentioned.)
He adds that they will come from Sheba, and they will bring gold and frankincense.
Does that sound just a bit familiar? But "where's the myrrh?" someone will always ask. The myrrh is there, but one has to know how to read the scriptures with Jewish eyes to find it. The Sheba reference in Isaiah triggered the Jewish Matthew to recall another story of another royal visitor who came to pay homage to another king of the Jews. So back into the sacred text he roamed until he arrived at the story of the Queen of Sheba coming to visit King Solomon. What were her gifts? Truckloads of spices, according to the text (I Kings 10:10). The only spice familiar to the Middle East was myrrh, a sweet smelling resin plentiful in the area and used by the Jews as a substance with which to wrap a deceased body prior to burial.
So from the Jewish tradition, Matthew has borrowed the star, the kings journeying to the brightness of God's rising, and the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Into this developing narrative, Matthew also introduces a Moses story. When God's promised deliverer, Moses, was born, a wicked king named Pharaoh sought to destroy this life by killing all the Jewish male children in Egypt. So Matthew says that at the birth of Jesus, a wicked king named Herod moved to destroy this life by killing all the Jewish male babies in Bethlehem. Every Jew reading Matthew would know that this deliberate comparison was not history.
Why Joseph? Because whenever the name Jesus (Joshua) is mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures, that Joshua (Jesus) has a connection with an ancestor named Joseph.
With the name of Joseph now chosen, Matthew had to develop his character. From where would that content come? When reading Matthew's story, we learn three things about Joseph. First, we learn that he had a father named Jacob. Second, we are told that God only spoke to Joseph in dreams. Third, Joseph's role in salvation history was to save the child of promise from death by taking him down to Egypt.
Does that sound familiar? It would if you read the story of Joseph, the Joseph of the coat of many colors found in the book of Genesis (37-50). There you learn three things about the patriarch Joseph. First, you learn that he has a father named Jacob. Second, he was constantly identified with dreams, even rising to power in Egypt on his ability to interpret the dreams of the Pharaoh. Third, his role in salvation history was to save the people of promise from death by taking them down to Egypt. That is where Matthew borrowed his material to create the story of Joseph.
The birth story of Jesus in Matthew was designed to introduce the adult Jesus of Nazareth as the one who fulfills the expectations of the Jews, the one whose birth was announced by a heavenly sign that drew all the world in the persons of the magi to worship him. These magi brought gold, the gift for a king, because he was seen to be the King of the Universe. They brought frankincense, the gift for a deity, because they perceived him to be one with God. They brought myrrh, the spice associated with death, because it was his destiny to suffer and to die.
He was portrayed in Matthew's gospel as a new and greater Moses, so his birth was attended by the signs that marked Moses' birth.
For people raised on biblical literalism, this is a new way to read the birth story of Matthew--but it is the way that Matthew intended his story to be read. In my next column, I will examine Luke's story of Jesus' birth where the literal problems are equally as acute.