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Newsweek Article on Christmas: Part 1



In my last post I made an off-the-cuff comment about an article about Christmas that I wrote for Newsweek four years ago (2012).   Someone asked for more information, and I see now that I never posted the article on the blog.  So I’ll post it here in two parts.  Here is the first half:


This past September, Harvard University professor Karen King unveiled a newly discovered Gospel fragment that she entitled “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.”  This wisp of a papyrus has stirred up a hornet’s nest and raised anew questions about what we can know about the historical Jesus of Nazareth, and about whether there are other Gospels outside the New Testament that can contribute valuable information. Few questions could be more timely, here in the season that celebrates Jesus’ birth.

The fragment is just a scrap – the size of a credit card – written in Coptic, the language of ancient Egypt. It contains only eight broken lines of writing, but in one of these Jesus speaks of “my wife.” Conspiracy theorists immediately leaped on the news as if it were a revelation from on high and claimed that it vindicates the views of Jesus’ matrimonial state set forth by that inestimable authority, Dan Brown, in his blockbuster novel, The Da Vinci Code.  Conservative Christians cried “foul” and insisted that such an insignificant piece of papyrus proves nothing.  King and her colleagues have taken the middle ground and argued that since the fragment is to be dated to the fourth Christian century, some three hundred years after Jesus and any of his relatives passed from the scene, it can tell us what later Christians believed about Jesus, but not what actually happened during his life.

As it turns out, most experts of early Christianity have come to think the fragment is a hoax, a forgery produced in recent years by an amateur who, unlike King and scholars of her stature, was not well-versed in the niceties of Coptic grammar and so was unable to cover up the traces of his own deceit.  The final verdict is not yet in: we are still to learn the results from the scientific analysis of the ink, to see if it is in fact ancient or modern.  But even if, as appears likely, the text is a fake, it does once again alert us to the fact that there are Gospels about Jesus that have come down to us from the ancient world, which present information at odds with widely held views.

As Christians around the world now remember Jesus’ birth, it is worth considering that …

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Newsweek Article on Christmas: Part 2
Looking Ahead to Christmas: A Blast from the Past



  1. talmoore
    talmoore  November 28, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, do you express to your conservative colleagues who want to “put the Christ back in Christmas” that Christ was probably not originally in Christmas to begin with?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 29, 2016

      Ha! I’ve never put it that way before!

    • Avatar
      teoc  December 5, 2016

      as if to say 150 years of tradition has no merit?

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  December 7, 2016

        Less and less as the society becomes more religiously pluralistic.

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    Kazibwe Edris  November 28, 2016

    Mark 13:9,13
    9 ‘As for yourselves, beware; for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them…13and you will be hated by all because of my name.

    why then has mark have them all forsake jesus? jesus allegedly said this BEFORE the crucifixion , so what is going on here? did he change his mind when he said :

    “You will all become deserters; for it is written,“I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.” 28

    i honestly don’t get it. in Mark 13:9,13 he seem to be very confident in them that they would stick with him.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 29, 2016

      Mark 13:9, 13 is predicting what will happen after Jesus has died, that the disciples will promote their faith in him and be persecuted.

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      searchingfortruthineverything  May 18, 2017

      Isn’t it true the apostle Peter was one of the people who deserted or denied Jesus? Isn’t it true that a lot of his professed disciples “deserted” Jesus around the time of his execution and shortly after? Isn’t it also true that after some “deserted” Jesus some more started following him and witnessing about the things Jesus said and did?

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    Caiaphas  November 28, 2016

    For the impatient among us!

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    Tempo1936  November 28, 2016

    Jesus seems to discourage marriage in Matthew 19:12 when he talks about men becoming eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom. Now that’s a commitment.

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    clipper9422@yahoo.com  November 28, 2016

    Do you think “Da Vinci Code” was “legitimate” (for lack of a better word) as fiction and a good story? Due in large part to your efforts I never considered it historically accurate. Apparently Dan Brown did, at least for a time, and probably intended his readers to so consider it. Besides being a good story I also liked that it tweaked Christianity’s (especially the Catholic version’s) nose by portraying Jesus as sexually active. I think that was valuable in expressing a more positive view of sex.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 29, 2016

      Well, it’s a matter of taste. I myself rather liked it as a page-turner. Virtually all my scholarly friends hated it.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  November 29, 2016

        I never did read Brown’s book or look at the movie version. Not interested in such things. But I did read – and enjoy – your book *about* his book!

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    godspell  November 29, 2016

    I tend to believe the story about the manger, because why would you make that up? I don’t believe the manger was in Bethlehem of Judea, because I don’t believe the Romans were ordering people to travel long distances to participate in a census, or that Joseph would be taking his very pregnant wife on such a long trip.

    But perhaps a much shorter trip was required (a day’s journey, perhaps), in which case it would make sense for Mary to come, the baby came a bit sooner than expected, and some unusual accomodations were made, and the story got embroidered a bit–as birth stories so often are, because there is no more important kind of story in any family. The story of my own birth involves a huge blizzard and my parents hitching a ride on a snow plow, and my mom’s water breaking on the subway. Give that a few generations, and who knows how many details might get added.

    So Jesus probably did have an interesting birth, and his family members who had heard the story might have added a few details, Matthew & Luke added some more, and it went from there. I’ve seen some very fanciful stories of Lincoln’s birth–of which we know basically nothing from actual history.

    Nobody will ever convince me there were not friendly patient animals present for Jesus’ birth. That’s the very best part of the story, and why wouldn’t there be, in such a rural setting? A church near where I grew up had a living creche scene, with sheep and goats and donkeys (no oxen, they eat too much). It wasn’t a Catholic church, but we went anyway, and were most grateful.

    The traditions of the nativity are beautiful. And to my knowledge, have never been used as an excuse to persecute anyone. Not all the later additions to Jesus’ story have been harmful. We can see them for what they are, and still love and revere them for what they convey. Now the Passion stories are a bit different….

    • Bart
      Bart  November 29, 2016

      Luke would have made up the manger in order to stress one of his key themes (also stressed by it being poor shepherds coming to worship him): that Jesus came to the poor and downtrodden and himself was humble, not of royal or wealthy stock.

      • Avatar
        godspell  November 29, 2016

        Luke didn’t make up everything in his version–he was doing some kind of research, if you want to call it that. He was digging up old stories, many of which were clearly wildly embellished, or just made up out of whole cloth.

        A manger could make a natural crib, when nothing built specifically for that purpose was available. It has a ring of authenticity to it. Was Luke that much of a genius? Personally, I think he overdoes it as a storyteller, much of the time. Lays it on too thick. I’m not sure I believe he could have come up with the manger himself. But to be sure, he didn’t have to use it if he didn’t like it, wherever it came from. You have to assume Jesus’ family had some input into the birth narrative, since they were influential in the early church for some years after the crucifixion.

        And Luke repeats the dubious statement that Joseph was descended from King David (of course, since Joseph isn’t the biological father in Luke’s narrative, one wonders why he bothers). He goes out of his way to try and establish that Jesus was born in noble Judea, not lowly Galilee (though at least he, unlike Matthew, accepts that this is where Jesus’ earthly family hails from originally–progress!).

        As I said, there are many fanciful legends dating from (relatively) modern times about the birth of figures like Abraham Lincoln. But Abraham Lincoln, America’s greatest President, really was born in a log cabin. And compared to Jesus’s family, Lincoln’s were bloody Rockefellers. I believe the manger story, sue me.

      • Avatar
        Tempo1936  November 29, 2016

        But Luke also portrays Jesus as royalty since Kings traveled great distances to worship him and bring gifts.

        You got to admit Luke had a great imagination. He could have been successful as a current day writer for the Star War movies.

        • Avatar
          Tempo1936  November 29, 2016

          Just noticed The wise men story was in Matthew’s gospel not Luke’s. So it wasn’t even Kings who came but the smartest men in the world came to worship the new king.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  December 4, 2016

      You say both “I tend to believe the story about the manger, because why would you make that up?” and, of your own birth story, you say, “Give that a few generations, and who knows how many details might get added.” The first is a rhetorical question asking why someone would make that up and the second is a free admission that people add all sorts of things to stories. Personally, I feel no need to believe any birth story about Jesus.

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    Hficher  November 29, 2016

    Dan Brown took (ripped of, rather) all of the Jesus’ wife conspiracy theories from another book, “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail”. The only thing he added was the Da Vinci connection and identifying Mary Magdalene in the Last Supper. What is your view of the earlier book? (it was published in 1982, after a BBC documentary)

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2016

      It’s a conspiracy theorist’s dream, and thoroughly bogus.

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    DaveAyres  December 1, 2016

    I read that the three men (whether kings or wise, doesn’t matter a lot) were symbolic of the idea of Jesus being a king of sorts. The three gifts were presented to Jesus to determine over what realm he was king. If Jesus chose frankincense then this meant he was kind of the heavenly realm. If he chose myrhh then he was king of the underworld of the dead. If he chose gold then he was king of the earthly realm. Each item represented one of these worlds.

    I doubt if there three men who traveled afar. It is nevertheless a beautiful element to the story, adds to the sentimental and warm feeling, and whether this intrepretation was the original meaning or not, by itself the interpretation conveys a religious truth that fits the context of the story.

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      Wilusa  December 2, 2016

      As I understand it (without taking time to check the Bible), it’s not said anywhere that there were *three* magi; the number isn’t gven. The legend that there were three derived from the three types of “gifts” being given.

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    Pattycake1974  December 3, 2016

    “Salome is understandably incredulous, and indicates that she will not believe it unless she exams Mary for herself. She comes to the cave and gives Mary a postpartum internal examination, only to find to her amazement that Mary is indeed physically intact. ”

    I recently read an article written by Katia Aryeh who used to be an Orthodox Jew. It was very disturbing to learn what Jewish women must go through in order to prove their “purity.” It revolves around the color of her discharge. If that isn’t bad enough, the rabbi’s involvement is absolutely horrifying. I’d explain why, but I can’t think of a tactful way to put it at the moment.

    Aryeh’s article made me realize that there’s more to the virgin birth story than just the mythical elements attached to it. I think it has more to do with the Jewish concept of purity more than anything else.

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    searchingfortruthineverything  May 18, 2017

    Isn’t it true that some may have had the interpretation that Jesus “wife” may have been in reference to a misunderstanding about Jesus’ figurative “bride” after the “marriage of the lamb” occurred or some may have misinterpreted some scripture or then existing records or some other references or maybe a misunderstanding of several scriptures that mention God’s symbolic “wife”?

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