18 votes, average: 4.83 out of 518 votes, average: 4.83 out of 518 votes, average: 4.83 out of 518 votes, average: 4.83 out of 518 votes, average: 4.83 out of 5 (18 votes, average: 4.83 out of 5)
You need to be a registered member to rate this post.

Is the Christmas Story a Myth?

Is the whole Christian story a myth?   It probably depends on what you mean by myth.

For a very long time now, scholars of religion have had hard and protracted debates on what the term “myth” means, or should mean.  I won’t be going into any of that here.  Instead I’ll begin by talking about two teaching experiences, one negative and one positive.

Negative experience: my first teaching job was at Rutgers University, where I was asked to fill in for a professor of New Testament who had to take an emergency leave of absence in the middle of the spring term in 1984.  Her husband had been diagnosed with cancer, he was dying, and she could not continue teaching after giving the midterm exam.  Would I be willing to take over her class for the second half of the semester?

Absolutely I was willing.  And I did so.  It was really hard.  I had to pick up wherever she left off.  Among other things, she was using a textbook that I did not like at *all* (written by the great New Testament scholar at the University of Chicago, Norman Perrin).  Among other things I did not like how he used the term “myth.”  I don’t remember now (I’m abroad and don’t have access to any of my books) if he actually defined the term for his undergraduate readers: I suppose he did.  But he used the term to mean something like “a narrative that conveys a fundamental religious truth, independently of whether it happened or not.”

OK, fair enough.  But he used the term to talk about things like “the myth of Jesus crucifixion and resurrection.”  My students were not as a rule devout conservative Christians (this was New Jersey! We’re not talkin’ Bible Belt here…).  But still it was jarring to them.  And to me.  I knew what he meant: the accounts of Jesus’ death are principally concerned to convey the deep theological significance of the event.  Still, calling them “myths” was off-putting, given the typical connotations associated with the word.

With that definition, though, certainly the Christmas story would also qualify as a “myth.”

Positive experience: these days, at UNC (where most of my students *are* conservative evangelicals!), I teach about how scholars have studied the Gospels over the centuries, and I make a particular point of talking to them about David Friedrich Strauss, whose 1835 book Das Leben Jesus (“The Life of Jesus”) turned New Testament research on its ear.  Strauss argued that the Gospels are not historical accounts interested in showing what actually happened in Jesus’ life.   Many of the stories of the Gospels are not historical in any sense.  They actually didn’t happen.  But they aren’t intending to convey what happened.  They are intended to teach truths about Jesus.  That kind of story – an account that is intending to convey a true idea, but that itself never happened, is for Strauss a “myth.”

In other words, for him, a “myth” is a true story that didn’t happen.   My students have a very hard time understanding how something could be true if it didn’t happen, but in no small measure that’s because even though many/most of them are committed evangelicals, and know it, they are also even more, and more deeply, children of the Enlightenment, and do not know it.  For them something can’t be true unless it happened.   Until I explain to them and show them that in fact they really don’t think that, since there are all sorts of things all of us agree are “true” that are not events that happened in history.

I don’t agree with almost any of the details of Strauss’s very long book on Jesus, but on this basic point, I agree.  The Gospels are full of stories that did not happen but that are attempting to convey truths about who, in the authors’ views, Jesus really was.

Still, I have always hesitated to use the term “myth” for this kind of story, simply because it conveys precisely the wrong connotation.

Oddly enough, coming into this Christmas season I have found myself more open and accepting of the term.   I think maybe it’s because as I get older and as I do more and more research into the views, beliefs, and narratives of ancient peoples (Romans, Greeks, Jews, Christians) I see more and more and more stories that people told that encapsulated for them religious/theological “truths,” even though no one today would give a moment’s credence to such stories.  We have no trouble calling such wild accounts myths.  Should we be reluctant to call them myths if they are in the Bible?

I’m not proposing that we do call them that.  I’m saying that I’m finding myself increasingly open to calling them that in my own head.  In this season, I’m thinking of the stories of Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke.  As a critical scholar of the Bible with very serious historical interests, I have no trouble at all saying with heart-felt assurance and emphasis that these stories did not happen.   I don’t believe Jesus was born of a woman who had never had sex, or that he was born in Bethlehem.  I don’t think there was a world-wide census for which Joseph had to return to Bethlehem to register under Caesar Augustus.    I don’t think any of it happened:  “No room in the inn,” the worship of the shepherds, the coming of the wisemen, the slaughter of the innocents.

But I can see how these stories seem “common sense” to Christians and provide meaning for them as they reflect on the season and its importance.  These stories provide a kind of framework for them, not just in the weeks and days and hours leading up to the morning of December 25, but for their entire way of looking at God and his relationship with humans.

That would be probably what most people would call “myths” if such stories occurred in some religion other than their own.  And it’s what people in non-Christians would call “myths” when looking at these stories in the Christian religion.  I guess I’m increasingly aligning with that view.

Even so, I have to say that I absolutely adore these stories.  They are simultaneously so simple and so deep, so matter-of-fact and so unbelievably full of meaning.  As is this season.  Even for me as one who personally stands outside the Christian tradition.  Or do I?  I suppose I’ll always be inside it.  It’s in my DNA.  I completely resonate with it.  I relate to it.  In my own secular way I embrace it.  I’ll say more about that in my next post.

If you belonged to the blog you could read posts like this nearly every day!  It won’t cost you much to join, and every dime goes to charity.  So WHY NOT???

Christmas Reflection 2017
The Ethical Teachings of the Didache



  1. Avatar
    Todd  December 23, 2017

    This is a very simplistic question and would need time and space to expand on it, but I’d like your thoughts about it: do you think the writers of these stories wrote them knowing they were not true or, for whatever reason, did they believe them to be fact not knowing that they were historically false?

  2. Avatar
    john76  December 23, 2017

    – Just curious as to the reasons you think Jesus wasn’t born in Bethlehem?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 26, 2017

      Only two of our sources say he was, and they are irreconcileably contradictory (in my opinion) in their accounts of how it happened. That suggests they had *reasons* to want him born there, and Micah 5:2 comes to mind. Since neither account is historically plausible, then they appear to be legendary.

  3. Avatar
    Tony  December 23, 2017

    “I suppose I’ll always be inside it. It’s in my DNA. I completely resonate with it. I relate to it. In my own secular way I embrace it.”
    You are a testimony to the power of the early childhood implantation of religious myths. It is not in your DNA, but close to it. You have an implanted meme – synaptic connections, neurons and neuron transmitters. Still, you are able to see the Gospels for what they are – myths. Yet, the logical conclusion of a mythical Jesus is a step too far.

    • Avatar
      Jim Cherry  December 27, 2017

      From philosophy 101, and critical thinking skills, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
      To proclaim a peasant from Galilee never existed is quite an extraordinary claim. The burden of proof is high to state someone never even existed.
      To say an itinerant apocalyptic preacher, one of many, did exist has a lower burden of proof.
      So the argument that Jesus, the man, never existed appears quite illogical.

      • Avatar
        Tony  December 27, 2017

        Nothing extraordinary about it. The peasant from Galilee notion comes only from the Gospels. The earlier writings by Paul are not based on that character.

        • Avatar
          Jim Cherry  December 29, 2017

          Very interesting thought. But now, are there 2 people who never existed?
          In effect, doubling down the improbability?

  4. Avatar
    godspell  December 23, 2017

    American history–and I mean regarding people we know were real–often seems to be to be mainly myth. We mythologize some people before they’re even dead. And so often the myths relate to violence. The myth of Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Al Capone, Biggie Smalls.

    It’s nice we have some myths that are at least partly about peace and love and family (and state-sponsored mass murder of innocent children that didn’t happen–that time–they usually leave that out of the Christmas specials, thankfully).

  5. Lev
    Lev  December 23, 2017

    Well, this is odd.

    Here I am, a faithful Christian, who not only believes the Christmas story to be fictional, but believes it has lead to great harm, taking umbrage with an ex-Christian agnostic who is clearly showing sympathy and appreciation of a fictional account that he believes is “full of meaning”!

    You are full of surprises, Bart!

    I contest that the virgin birth narrative has lead to two great harms within Christianity:

    1. The Catholic doctrine of Marital Chastity – built on the theological foundation that conflates sexual activity with sin. Augustine and others argued that original sin was transmitted through the act of sex, but as Jesus’ mother conceived as a virgin, this meant Jesus was sinless. If Mary conceived Jesus naturally, then this theology and subsequent doctrine would not be possible.

    2. The Catholic / Orthodox doctrine that holds Mary to be the Second Eve. This has lead to billions of Christians venerating icons and statues of Mary, with many Christians (myself included) believing this form of idolatry has defiled the church and worship of God for thousands of years,

    Bart – I welcome you being drawn back toward the faith, but please don’t surrender to certain stories you know not to be true and have caused so much harm. You will be welcome with open arms without conceding this point (at least in non-Catholic circles)!

    We need robust, expert scholars like yourself to push back on the fictional traditions that have been used and abused by the church to control people’s lives or liturgies in harmful ways – not only to Christian family life (marital chastity), but to the authentic worship of God (Second Eve).

    PS: I think you need to re-word this paragraph to make sense: “That would be probably what most people would call “myths” if such stories occurred in some religion other than their own. And it’s what people in non-Christians would call “myths” when looking at these stories in the Christian religion. I guess I’m increasingly aligning with that view.”

    • Bart
      Bart  December 26, 2017

      I certainly don’t think *everything* in these stories is helpful, useful, or salutary. Far from it!!

    • Avatar
      Wilusa  December 26, 2017

      I was raised Catholic, but I’m now an “agnostic and non-theist” – have been, for more than 50 years. I intensely dislike the Catholic…thinly disguised *worship* of the mother of Jesus. But I only remember their having called her the “Blessed Mother.”

      I’d *never* encountered the term “second Eve” until I saw it in your post. And I can’t understand why anyone would have called her that. I don’t recall Catholics having any particular interest in the *first* Eve – or Adam, for that matter. The average Catholic in my youth might have thought Adam and Eve really existed, but I’m not sure even of that. In my Catholic high school experience, evolution was taught as a fact.

      • Avatar
        RVBlake  December 27, 2017

        I joined the Church a few years ago, and was curious about the connection between Mary and Eve. The only thing I could find was a priest’s assertion about what Genesis says about the war between “the woman” and the serpent. Apparently the Church regards this passage as referring to Mary’s enmity with Satan.

  6. Avatar
    Tobit  December 23, 2017

    How did you approach the ahistoricity of the virgin birth stories when you were a fundamentalist, and then liberal Christian? I’ve seen some amazing mental gymnastics from believers trying to work them out!

    • Bart
      Bart  December 26, 2017

      As a fundamentalist I thought they were literally true. As a liberal Christian I thought they were figuratively/symbolically true in some sense(s), but not literally.

  7. cheito
    cheito  December 23, 2017

    Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    DR Ehrman:

    your Comment:

    I don’t agree with almost any of the details of Strauss’s very long book on Jesus, but on this basic point, I agree. The Gospels are full of stories that did not happen but that are attempting to convey truths about who, in the authors’ views, Jesus really was.

    My comment:

    No one really knows who the authors of the synoptic gospels were. According to the stories of the Gospel’s authors, we can ascertain somewhat, their theological persuasions. I don’t think the authors of the Gospels were trying to convey truths. How can one convey truths about a matter when one doesn’t know the truth?. They were not eyewitnesses. They didn’t know who Jesus really was. So what was their reason for writing their stories?

    Was their reason to deceive certain people? To get certain people to follow them? To promote a certain sect and their theological views about Jesus? Was was their reason for writing their stories about Jesus?

    According to the letter that Paul wrote to the Romans, Jesus was indeed born. Paul also met and had conversations with the people who really knew Jesus personally. I think we should focus on Paul’s writings. Paul’s writing are not myths!

    Romans 1:1-4

    1-Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God,

    2-which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures,

    3-concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh,

    4-who was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord,

    • Avatar
      turbopro  December 26, 2017

      >> Paul’s writing are not myths!

      If I may please, and I ask this neither as a challenge to, nor to gainsay, your understanding, but only to whet my curiousity: how do we know that Paul’s writings are not myths?

      Full disclosure: I am a non-believer; I hold no beliefs in any gods/goddesses or the like.


      • cheito
        cheito  December 26, 2017



        How do we know that Paul’s writings are not myths?


        I meant, that I believe, Paul was not following cleverly devised, historically unreliable tales, when he spoke about Christ divine nature, and about Christ’s resurrection from the dead.

        Unlike the authors of the synoptic Gospels, Paul’s Gospel was based on his own personal experience with Christ. Paul, also, testifies that he personally met the eyewitnesses who knew Jesus.

        Paul indicates in 1 Corinthians 15, that he knew very well, firsthand, that Jesus had also appeared to Peter, John and James, IN THE SAME MANNER that Jesus had appeared to Him.

        Paul also met, or at least knew of many others, to whom Jesus appeared after He, Jesus, rose from the dead.

        This is what Paul states in his letters and I personally believe that Paul spoke the truth.

        So the way I know that Paul was not relating stories that weren’t true, or myths if you will, is by faith in the testimony and witness of Paul, and also because Paul literally knew those who were eyewitnesses.

        There are many things that I know by faith. I can’t prove these things to you, but in my innermost being, I know they are true.

        PS: I don’t believe that the author’s of the synoptic Gospels spoke the truth about Jesus, because they simply did not know the truth about who Jesus was and what He literally said.

        I understand that the authors of the synoptic Gospels had other reasons for writing their accounts. I don’t know exactly what all their reasons were for writing their stories about Jesus, but I do know their stories are historically unreliable and therefore useless for ascertaining any real truth about what Jesus really said and did.

        The fact that the authors of the synoptic Gospels change their stories according to their own theological whims is enough for me not to take them seriously.

        I rather listen to Paul, and attempt to understand his insight into Jesus and who Jesus was.

        Paul had everything to lose and really nothing to gain, by pursuing his endeavor of testifying and witnessing about the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

        Therefore to me, Paul is a more reliable witness and I personally believe, Paul is telling the truth, when he states, that Jesus literally appeared to Him alive, after his, i.e, Jesus’ death by crucifixion.

        • Avatar
          turbopro  December 27, 2017


          Your understanding of the synoptic authors and Paul is interesting.

          • cheito
            cheito  December 28, 2017

            Thank you turbopro!

            Happy New Year!

  8. Avatar
    Jana  December 23, 2017

    It’s December 23 in a devout Catholic pueblo established during the Spanish Inquisition. Reading both your books and blogs has radically altered my personal relationship to Catholicism and I am a baptized Catholic. I can relate to the charm and am moved by the sweet devotion displayed among native people (an outdoor rosary was held by one of my neighbors and the street was temporarily closed as people gathered to chant late into the night) and yet … I no longer view the events as historical. So yes I get “myth.” However, bereft of a historically accurate framework, do I think of Jesus as a great Teacher? Yes. I do. That about sums it up Dr. Ehrman. Reading and benefiting from your genius continues to bring enlightenment. Happy Holidays. And Happy New Year.

  9. Avatar
    leo.b@cox.net  December 23, 2017

    Aah – the importance of defining terms. Very excellent post. Something I may be missing is your statement:”…since there are all sorts of things all of us agree are ‘true’ that are not events that happened in history.” Could you expand on this? (examples). Thanks for your help. Happy Holidays.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 26, 2017

      I think there is a lot of truth in Dickens’ Christmas Carol (just picking an example out of a million). But it’s not historical. I also think that it’s true that the 5 is the square root of 25, but it’s not a historical fact. And that love is important — but again, not a historical fact….

  10. Avatar
    ardeare  December 23, 2017

    Occasionally I still listen to rebroadcasts of a wonderful pastor, since deceased, who truly believed that Jesus was conceived on Dec. 25th and born on Sept. 29th.

  11. Avatar
    DavidBeaman  December 23, 2017

    Christmas? Bah humbug! :0))

  12. Avatar
    Rita Gomes  December 23, 2017

    I’m afraid to post something because of my ignorance of the subject.
    When I was studying and the nuns told us about the birth of Jesus, I always found the history of the conception of Jesus very similar to the ancient Greek gods.
    with the difference that in the case of Jesus it was not God who conceived him in human form, but an angel.
    As the new testament was first written from the Greek, is it that this whole myth is not derived from the ancient Greek gods among them: ZEUS?
    Sorry if I’m saying something wrong. But this doubt has always been with me.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 26, 2017

      Yes, there certainly are parallels/similarities! And it may be that LUke’s account in particular is based in part on the kinds of myths that we have of the births of *other* divine men, born to the union of a god and a mortal.

  13. Avatar
    ddorner  December 23, 2017

    This is why I love your work Dr. Ehrman. You present your knowledge objectively and logically, but with a genuine love of the material. After reading Jesus Interrupted I find myself studying the bible more now, than I ever did as a bible believing fundamentalist.

    Have a Merry Christmas!

  14. Avatar
    Stylites  December 23, 2017

    A most profound piece. Thank you.

  15. Telling
    Telling  December 23, 2017

    In my opinion you’ve nailed it here. But if the truthful Jesus message is that god-awful crucifixion and a horrible end times that never yet happened but certainly will in our lifetime, it’s all a big waste, a chocolate coating with a sour lemon innards and maybe a razor blade wedged in there..

    If so much of the Bible is really such magical story as you say, let’s dig some more and see if we can discover the truly elevated message that the great Master invariably delivers. I think you’ll find it more easily by studying other of the great Masters of antiquity, precisely Lord Krishna in Hinduism’s most sacred Baghavad-Gita, it’s not really that long, and Buddha’s four noble truths and eightfold path. There are others too that I’m not so familiar with.

    Marry Christmas Bart!

  16. Avatar
    dickenbock  December 24, 2017

    This is a question based on a previous comment of yours, from a post about the Didache. You mention it contains a description of the two paths found in “early Christian writings, including the Teaching of the Apostles (= Doctrina Apostolorum), the Apostolic Church Order, & the Life of Shenute.”

    What in the world is “the life of Shenute”? A google search did not find a lot of information. Thank you!

    • Bart
      Bart  December 26, 2017

      Ah! It’s a biography of a famous Egyptian (Coptic) church father named Shenute from the fourth century, who founded the famous White Monastery.

  17. talmoore
    talmoore  December 24, 2017

    How about we use a more clearly defined term, such as fabrication? Is the Christmas story fabricated?

    Yes, it’s absolutely fabricated. The Christmas story, as it has come down to us from Matthew and Luke (plus two millenia of accretion) is the direct result of the annoying human proclivity to ask for more details. It wasn’t good enough that apostles were saying that Jesus was descended from the line of David, that Jesus is the Son of God, that Jesus was born the Messiah. People asked questions, and apostles felt obligated to provide answers.

    So for the question of how apostles knew that Jesus was a descendent of David. Well, you create a genealogy linking Jesus to David (genealogies in both Matthew and Luke: check). For the question of how apostles knew that Jesus was the Son of God, you make Mary a virgin so that when she conceives it must be God (via the Holy Spirit) who impregnates her, making Jesus literally God’s son. And then you have an angel, such a Gabriel, tell Mary that it was God who knocked her up.

    In essence, the Christmas stories as told in Matthew and Luke were created to satisfy the annoyingly inquisitive.

  18. Avatar
    Judith  December 24, 2017

    Love this!

  19. Avatar
    DavidBeaman  December 24, 2017

    You wrote, “Even for me as one who personally stands outside the Christian tradition. Or do I? I suppose I’ll always be inside it. It’s in my DNA. I completely resonate with it. I relate to it. In my own secular way I embrace it. I’ll say more about that in my next post.”

    You remind me of Star Trek’s Mr. Spock. Part of him is human and part of him is Vulcan. Part of you is Christian and part of you is atheist or agnostic (depending on how you feel on any given day). Like Mr. Spock, it’s a matter of the DNA, even if you are being figurative in saying that. One could also speculate that God is somewhere in your DNA, though you use intellectualization to try to keep that possibility repressed.

  20. Avatar
    JoshuaJ  December 24, 2017

    From one atheist to another, Merry Christmas, Dr. Ehrman.

You must be logged in to post a comment.