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Newsweek Article on Christmas: Part 2

Yesterday I gave Part 1 of my Newsweek article on Christmas, published in 2012.  Here is Part 2!


Most modern readers who are not already familiar with these stories [in the apocryphal Gospels such as the Proto-Gospel of James] tend to find them far-fetched.   That’s almost always the case with miraculous accounts that we have never heard before – they sound implausible and “obviously” made up, as legends and fabrications.   Rarely do we have the same reaction to familiar stories known from childhood that are also spectacularly miraculous, and that probably sound just as bizarre to outsiders who hear them for the first time.  Are the stories about Jesus’ birth that are in the New Testament any less far-fetched?

It depends whom you ask.   This past November, Pope Benedict XVI published his third book on the life of Jesus, this one focusing on the New Testament accounts of his birth, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives.  Before his ascent to the head of the Catholic Church, Joseph Ratzinger was best known as a leading German theologian, and he does bring his training to bear on the narratives of Jesus’ birth.   But this is not a scholarly book written by a scholar to advance the purposes of scholarship.  Instead, as one would expect, it is chiefly a pious reflection highly suitable to the faithful members of the Pope’s very large flock.   As such it will be widely welcomed – not only among Catholics but also, one might suspect, among conservative Christians of whatever stripe, for its affirmation of the Gospel accounts not only as theologically valuable but also as historically accurate.

The book will not be as well cherished, however, among those who…

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Newsweek Article on Christmas: Part 1



  1. Avatar
    twiskus  November 29, 2016

    Very well written. Is there somewhere that you have written a side by side chart comparison (and a general time line—flight/length of stay in Egypt V. Mary’s ceremonial uncleanliness) of Matthew and Luke? I could do it myself of course, but just curious.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2016

      No, I’m afraid not, but it sounds like an interesting exercise.

  2. Avatar
    crucker  November 29, 2016

    1.) I can’t for the life of me remember where I read it, but I once heard somebody say there may have been a small scale census taken somewhere in and/or around Palestine at that time. If (and that’s a big if) that’s true, is it possible the author of Luke was trying to connect this to a real historical event, even though it may have been grossly exaggerated and details distorted?

    2.) I’ve heard attempts of (partially) reconciling Matthew and Luke by having the Luke story placed during the actual birth, and the bulk of the Matthew story happening on another journey to Bethlehem a year or two later (hence Herod wanting all infants under age two killed, not only newborns). First time they wind up at the manger, with the second trip at somebody’s house (or their own if they moved???). It sounds like a stretch to me, but was curious about the plausibility of that particular attempt at reconciliation.

    3.) Any possibility of doing a post addressing commonly used arguments to reconcile discrepancies between the two nativity stories and addressing their plausibility or lack thereof?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2016

      1. Yes, under Quirinius who ruled in Syria starting in 6 CE; so it’s possible that Luke had that in mind. 2. Yeah, that’s a stretch! 3. Most proposals I’ve heard are on the rather vague side!

    • talmoore
      talmoore  December 1, 2016

      Just to offer some historical context. Upon the death of Herod the Great in 4 BCE, his kingdom was divided up between his sons, the Emperor Augustus giving Herod Archelaus, Herod Antipas and Herod Philip, respectively, Judea, Galilee and Gaulanitis (Herod’s sister Salome received Gaza). In 6CE Herod Archelaus ran afoul of the Jewish aristocracy in Judea, and the Jews demanded that Archelaus be replaced with a Roman governor. So Augustus deposed Archelaus (and, if I remember correctly, sent him into exile in Gaul) and placed a Roman governor in charge, the first being Coponius. The Roman controlled province of Judea was made up of the three traditional regions of Judea proper, Samaria and Idumea (Biblical Edom). Now, since Judea was part of the greater Roman province of Syria, the new governor of Judea answered to the Roman governor of Syria, who at the time was Quirinius. Normally, governors would delegate tax collection duties to individual ethnarchs, but since Judea no longer had its ethnarch, it was now up to the Roman governor to collect taxes. So it was at that point in time that, for the sake of tax collection purposes, Quirinius ordered the census in Judea (which, again, was made up of Judea proper, Samaria and Idumea — notice Galilee is NOT included, much less the entire empire or entire world). And it is this census, ordered by the governor of Syria Quirinius that Luke is alluding to. Unfortunately, Luke’s account is so error-ridden as to make it highly suspect.

      • Avatar
        godspell  December 3, 2016

        The problem Matthew and Luke face is that they want to convince skeptical Jews that Jesus is Messiah, and Jesus was known to come from Galilee. The Messiah was supposed to be from Judea.

        Matthew’s solution is to say “Jesus was born in Judea, where his parents lived. To avoid Herod’s fear of a prophecy regarding a newborn child (that did not come true, Herod did not lose his throne to Jesus or anyone else, unless you want to say he was symbolically dethroned by Jesus merely existing), the family fled to Egypt, then resettled in Nazareth after Herod’s death, and the Messiah is supposed to be a ‘Nazarene’, which has nothing to do with some obscure hamlet in Galilee, but I’m not going to tell you that. Oh, and of course Herod was able to slaughter hundreds if not thousands of his subjects’ children on the basis of a prophecy without the people rising up against him, or anybody else mentioning it.”

        It’s hard to see this account convincing anyone who wasn’t already convinced. People would be saying “Herod didn’t slaughter a lot of babies over a prophecy, and Jesus’ family was clearly in Galilee before he was born. And Nazarene, in that context has nothing to do with Nazareth.”

        So Luke’s solution is to take something that probably did happen–the census in Judea–and use that as an excuse for Joseph to pack up his heavily pregnant wife and travel all the way from Nazareth to Bethlehem of Judea (there was, apparently, a Bethlehem of Galilee, which I suppose could have led to some confusion). This establishes that Jesus came from Judean stock (except he didn’t, since Joseph isn’t his natural father, why do they keep harping on the genealogy of a man who provided none of the genes, not that they knew what that was back then) and that he was born in Judea (since Luke is painfully aware that he’s undercutting his claim that Jesus is descended from David by saying Joseph was not Jesus’s true father). Problem solved! And again, nobody he’s trying to convince is the least bit convinced.

        But at this point, it’s probably more about giving converts, many of whom are not Jewish, arguments to throw back at traditional Jews who say the Messiah had to come from Judea. He did! Kind of. I’ve seen much weaker arguments work on a whole lot of people, very recently. So we needn’t feel so superior.

  3. Avatar
    rburos  November 29, 2016

    “But for those with a broader vision, a more generous appreciation of literature, and a fuller sense of theological meaning, the story of the Christ-child and his appearance in the world can be founded not on what really DID happen, but on what really DOES happen, in the lives of those who believe that stories such as these can convey a greater truth.”

    Excellent–you are a poet and I’m stealing it.

  4. Avatar
    rivercrowman  November 29, 2016

    Great article for any Christmas season! … In Part 1, Bart mentions The Proto-Gospel of James, the full text of which is provided in his trade book Lost Scriptures (2003). … On e-bay, I just snagged the sole available copy of the Newsweek issue (Dec. 17, 2012) that contains this feature article for $4.44 (plus shipping). … Bart probably has a stack of them in his closet!

  5. Avatar
    Stephen  November 29, 2016

    “Are the stories about Jesus’ birth that are in the New Testament any less far-fetched?”

    What a terrific question to ask in a national news magazine!

    I noticed that you have a fairly extensive lecture schedule for the first third of next year but no debates scheduled. Just wondering after the big mythicist event, what are your thoughts these days about them? Do you not get asked? Do you get asked and turn them down? Are there some debate subjects you prefer? Some you avoid? As a scholar do debates serve any real purpose? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a post or two.


    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2016

      I accept *most* debate invitations, but it depends on a number of factors. But you’re right — nothing scheduled for the foreseeable.

  6. Avatar
    Stephen  November 29, 2016

    Whoops sorry for the double posting but does your BAS lecture exist in any format? A transcript perhaps? Love to read it.

    and finally FYI your lecture in Denmark at SDU is available online –


    One of the students must have recorded it – it contains several close-ups of someone’s elbow! But very interesting.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2016

      BAS: they did record it; I’m not sure what they’re doing with the recording. Denmark: thanks.

  7. Avatar
    Wilusa  November 29, 2016

    I guess I’m among the *non*-believers who think “truth must, necessarily, be based on history”!

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2016

      Well, that certainly puts a burden on your research abilities!

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  December 2, 2016

        Um, I’m not trying to “research” anything! But I can’t see how the beliefs about “truth” of anyone who *is* engaged in “research” in these areas should affect his or her findings.

        “[The Gospels] are books that meant to declare religious truths, not historical facts. For believers who think that truth must, necessarily, be based on history, that probably will not be good news at all. But for those with a broader vision, a more generous appreciation of literature, and a fuller sense of theological meaning, the story of the Christ-child and his appearance in the world can be founded not on what really did happen, but on what really does happen, in the lives of those who believe that stories such as these can convey a greater truth.”

        I admit that this strikes me as someone who knows his readers understand that he’s an agnostic/atheist “going out of his way” to come up with a conclusion the Christians among them won’t find offensive.

        But I’ve always differed from you on the subject of “truth.” Like when you say that a novel you consider a classic is “literarily true.” For me, there’s no such thing! I’d say that what’s “true” in that case is that the author has succeeded in writing a novel many (*undoubtedly not all*) readers perceive as giving a realistic portrayal of human nature.

        As I see it, saying Bible stories “can convey a greater truth” implies that this “truth” – a real *thing* – is actually within them, whether or not someone recognizes it.

        Whereas I’d say a given individual might meditate on the Gospel of “Luke,” focus on the one point of its emphasizing Jesus’s humble origins, and have warm religious feelings about that. Another might meditate on “Matthew,” focus on the concept of a bright light in the sky, seen only by the magi, leading them to Jesus, and have warm religious feelings about the thought of everyone who’s destined to find Jesus being led to him. But there are no great “truths” here!

        And I’m not convinced that the Gospel authors themselves didn’t believe the things they were writing were literally, *historically* true.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  December 3, 2016

        By the way, I myself find great meaning in this holiday season! But I think of it as a celebration of the winter solstice.

        I know most Christians aren’t thinking about that. But it *was* the original reason for a holiday at this time of year. In the Northern Hemisphere, the coming lengthening of days can be seen as a symbolic “victory of light over darkness.” And what I find especially interesting is that humans *could* have paid equal attention to the *summer* solstice – felt depressed about a coming (equally temporary) “victory of darkness over light.” But it seems we’ve always chosen to focus on the positive. And I think that’s a very encouraging aspect of human nature.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  December 4, 2016

        And haven’t you yourself said recently that you aren’t sure whether the Gospel authors meant everything they wrote to be taken literally? Have you changed your opinion about that (become less certain) since you wrote the Newsweek article?

        I also have to express an opinion about concepts being “theologically true.” I think that if the Christian God doesn’t exist, it would be impossible for teachings about Him to be true. In any sense! Believers in the God may believe the teachings are true; and no one can prove them wrong. But all I’d consider true is that the doctrine of a certain faith actually is (whatever they’re claiming).

        • Bart
          Bart  December 4, 2016

          I”m not sure what you’re referring to, or what you mean by the term “literally”!

          • Avatar
            Wilusa  December 4, 2016

            “Literally” would mean that the Gospel authors wanted readers to take everything they’d written as fact (however unlikely some of the stories might seem), not as merely “symbolic.”

            And I *think* you’ve said in a few places recently that you’re *not sure* what their intent was – whereas in the Newsweek article, you seemed to be saying with certainty that the stories *weren’t* meant to be understood as fact. So I’m wondering whether I’m correct in thinking you’ve changed your mind since writing the article.

          • Bart
            Bart  December 5, 2016

            No, I very rarely say anything about what an author “intended,” since I don’t think we have any easy access to intentions.

  8. talmoore
    talmoore  November 29, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, although I was raised Jewish, and, therefore, never participated or watched a Nativity play, or set up a nativity scene or any of the stuff Christians do to relive and refresh the “Christmas miracle” (indeed, my first exposure to such beliefs was probably A Charlie Brown Christmas), I can somewhat relate to the disconnect between faith in historical events and the facts that support (or fail to support) said event.

    Namely, this is what every Jew has to go through every Passover. Our version of the Nativity play is the reading of the Exodus story at the Seder. Our version of the conflicting histories in Matthew and Luke is the complete lack of historical or archaeological evidence of the Exodus itself. In other words, we Jews have to work through some similar cognitive dissonance and mental gymnastics in order to keep up the charade as well. So in that sense I can relate. As it stands now, however, I’m an atheist Jew, so none of this much matters to me anyway. I attend Seders simply out of tradition and habit. And I’ll read the same old story from the Haggadah every year. But I’m well aware that none of it is factual.

    Would it be safe to assume that there are plenty of nominal Christians who feel the same way about the Christmas story? What in your professional estimation could be the percentage of nominal Christians who treat the Christmas story on Christmas the same way I treat the Exodus story on Passover?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2016

      Nominal Christians? Yes, probably so. Percentages? No idea!

    • Avatar
      godspell  December 3, 2016

      You can be a very sincerely believing Jew or Christian, without believing literally in every story in the Old and/or New Testament.

      Bart has done a very good job here, showing that some of the most gullible gerties on earth are diehard atheists. Not you, I’m sure. But honestly, some of the most ignorant bigoted people I have met online have been proud atheists, who will believe any pseudo-scholarship that tells them what they want to hear. And one of them just recently sent me a message on a discussion board we both frequent, gloating over Trump’s victory. It ended with his usual pleasant tagline–“Jesus never existed! He is Judaeo-Christian Myth!’

      So the problem is not the beliefs you adhere to, but the attitude with which you practice and understand them.

      You can hardly call Origen a ‘nominal Christian’ and he made it very clear that he did not believe every story in the gospels happened precisely as told.

      T’aint what you do, it’s the way that you do it.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  December 4, 2016

        Being an atheist, alas, isn’t a panacea for credulity. I know plenty of atheists who believe ridiculous nonsense. Being an atheist simply means you don’t believe in God. It doesn’t mean you’re wiser than most, or more savvy than most, or more educated than most. It just means you have taken a position on only one of countless possible ontological positions. (A position I just so happen to agree with)

  9. webo112
    webo112  November 29, 2016

    In the authentic letters of Paul, he never mentions Jesus birth story or virgin birth correct? Do you think the attempts by the gospel writers to show (even by creating stories) that Jesus fulfills the Messiah prophecies were aimed at Jewish audience or gentiles? Or both?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2016

      No he doesn’t. I think they were aimed at Christians, whether Jew or Gentile.

      • Avatar
        dankoh  December 1, 2016

        Would you agree with, or consider, the idea that Paul had in mind an audience composed of Hellenized Jews who were minimally familiar with Scripture, but not well-versed in it? (This would include the godfearers and also some gentiles). Are the synoptics then speaking mainly to the gentiles, or are they still trying to persuade knowledgeable Jews, while John is aimed purely at the gentiles (and Samaritans), for which reason he uses far fewer Scriptural references than the others did?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 2, 2016

          No, Paul’s audience — he indicates pretty clearly in places — is made up of pagans who formerly worshiped idols (e.g., see 1 Thess. 1:9-10)

  10. Avatar
    doug  November 29, 2016

    Regarding the claim by some that one of the genealogies in Matthew or Luke is of Mary’s line: since women were often regarded as inferior to men by first century Jews, would first century Jews have been likely to know what a woman’s genealogy was, particularly a lengthy one like those found in Matthew and Luke? Would a likely illiterate woman such as Mary have even known her lengthy genealogy?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2016

      Probably not. But I don’t think men had genealogies either.

      • Avatar
        HawksJ  December 4, 2016

        That’s an interesting point. Is there any evidence that poor, illiterate Jews of that era kept a record of their distant genealogies?

  11. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  November 29, 2016

    Excellent Christmas story summary. Thanks

  12. Avatar
    godspell  November 29, 2016

    I can’t say that I’ve ever encountered a Christian who got enraged over anyone saying the nativity story didn’t happen exactly the way it was portrayed in Matthew and Luke (which as you rightly point out, would be logically impossible, since those two accounts are so different from each other). I am familiar with Christians–including some not-very-devout and honestly rather nominal ones–who get enraged over people saying “Happy Holidays,” instead of “Merry Christmas.”

    The virginity of Mary is a sore point for many, to be sure. But technically, that’s pre-nativity. I know that for fundamentalists, every word in The Bible must be justified somehow. But for most Christians, it’s just a beautiful story to be enjoyed, and not taken too seriously. Which is why we can do animated cartoons and comedy skits about it, and nobody gets offended.

    I will say, the one about the Little Drummer Boy always tears me up. I’m getting misty just thinking about the final scene, where Baby Jesus heals his lamb BaaBaa, after he does the drum solo. And the one about what happened when all the animals in the stable were given the gift of speech for one night was good too. And at no time did I ever believe any of those things really happened, even when I was very very little. But I knew they were telling very important truths, all the same.

    We are the animal that tells stories, that combines fact with fiction, and nothing can ever change that. Unless God decides to take away our gift of speech. I can’t say I’d blame Him these days.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2016

      Yeah, I have to say, I’m a sucker for Little Drummer Boy too….

      • Avatar
        godspell  December 1, 2016

        It’s the only one I can think of that actually tries to convey the Christian message–that all hate is wrong, always. Even when you have cause, even when terrible things have happened to you.

        Another great story stemming from the Nativity myths is this–that was adapted several times, not sure I’ve seen any of them. I first encountered it as a film strip with recorded narration and music.


        And of course the Grinch, but what religion ARE those Whos down in Whoville? Well, who says they have to be religious at all to love Christmas? Christmas Day is in our grasp, as long as we have hands to clasp.

    • Avatar
      webattorney  December 1, 2016

      I met many non-Christians who get mad when I say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays”. Even though I am an agnostic, I think “Merry Christmas” sounds nicer and evokes a sort of comfy traditional snowy holidays feeling.

    • Avatar
      iameyes137  December 10, 2016

      I have found it humorous how the saying of Happy Holidays was being inserted into our greetings during December as a sort of neutral expression, while the word holiday is a relaxation of the words holy day. What were the agnostics and atheists finding so Holy in the Christmas season to prompt them to say Happy Holy Days?

  13. Avatar
    wostraub  November 29, 2016

    I believe that broad-minded Christians who see the Gospels as non-historical messages of a truth greater than literal historical events are still kidding themselves. For example, in the Hebrew book of Numbers we learn that the Exodus was constituted from 603,550 men of military age and their families (totaling perhaps two million individuals). How can such an exact number be considered a metaphor or figure of speech describing some great truth? In Jesus’ time it was widely believed to be literal history, but today not a shred of physical or archaeological evidence exists showing that such an event ever took place. Yet Jesus undoubtedly spoke of the Exodus many times, and himself believed the Passover celebration was based entirely on historical fact.

    While I consider myself to be a dedicated follower of the teachings and philosophy of Jesus, I long ago abandoned the dogma, miracles and other nonsense that traditional Christianity promotes incessantly. But by continually excusing the Christmas nonsense and giving Christians a pass on their beliefs, we Americans tacitly promote silly, non-factual magical thinking. Today my country finds itself under a corrupt, greedy, narcissistic President-Elect whose election victory was enabled by these same Christians. Instead of love and compassion, Jesus’ message has been twisted into one of fear, willful ignorance, hate and greed.

    Let’s face it — by simply giving Christianity a free pass, we have enabled KKK types to take over the country. While I would not label all Christians as snake-handling, neo-Confederate southern hillbilly gun fetishists, it makes not a whit of difference regarding our country’s future, which looks bleak, indeed.

    • Avatar
      dankoh  December 1, 2016

      There are a number of references in passing to an exodus in the Hebrew writings, suggesting that their authors expected their audiences (other Jews) to be familiar with it. So my view is that there was something that happened in Egypt to some ancestors of the Jews that left a significant mark on the collective memory. It was certainly not the story of The Exodus as reported in the Bible, of course; whatever actually did take place has been mythologized to the point that we may never be able to come up with a good guess as to what really happened.

      As for what Jesus thought, he was not an archeologist nor a critical Biblical scholar (in my view, not a scholar at all), and he almost certainly accepted the story of the Exodus that was in general circulation. He certainly would not have had any credibility if he had not.

  14. Avatar
    ask21771  November 29, 2016

    Can you please explain the pre markan passion

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2016

      I’m not completely sure what you’re asking. Scholars have long suspected that the author of Mark had access to a written account of Jesus’ last days and hours and made use of it in constructing his own.

      • Avatar
        ask21771  December 1, 2016

        So you believe it existed, does that prove there was an empty tomb?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 2, 2016

          No, it just means that before Mark wrote his Gospel around 70 CE there were Christians saying there was an empty tomb. Big difference!

        • Avatar
          HawksJ  December 4, 2016

          How would the existence of a story, written or otherwise, ‘prove’ anything?

  15. Avatar
    jhague  November 29, 2016

    “These are books that meant to declare religious truths, not historical facts.”

    The problem is that conservative Christians believe that religious truths have to be believed to be historical facts.

  16. Avatar
    dragonfly  November 29, 2016

    Well said!

  17. Avatar
    Jason  November 29, 2016

    For those of us too lazy or daunted to read it ourselves, Did you ever give us your take on what WAS in the Pope’s book?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2016

      No, don’t think I did. And now it’s been so many years, I don’t remember much about it, except, well, it wasn’t very memorable (and was nothing unexpected from a pious pope)

  18. Avatar
    Tony  November 30, 2016

    Matthew 2:23
    “And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene.”

    Again, we see a major component of the Jesus of Nazareth story – the name of his home town – to be a result of a prophesy fulfillment. Clueless about the historical Jesus, somebody thought he was a Nazarene and placed him in a town with a similar sounding name.

  19. Avatar
    pstrst@pacbell.net  November 30, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, what was the reaction to your article in Newsweek?

  20. Avatar
    FrankLoomer  November 30, 2016

    Can we take the discrepencies between the two birth narratives as evidence the writers of each were unaware of the other? Have you come upon any early Christian writings that wondered about there being such different stories? Could the stories be interpolations?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2016

      Yes, that’s what I think — they didn’t know each other. My sense is that hte *original* version of Luke began without the birth narrative of chs. 1-2.

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