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The Christmas Story: Some Basic Background

Now that I have posted a couple of my earlier published reflections on Christmas, I can make some comments in a series of posts, going into a bit more detail. This first post more or less states some of the basic information that most readers know, but that it’s worth while stressing as a kind of ground clearing exercise.

To begin with, we are extremely limited in our sources when it comes to knowing anything at all about the birth of Jesus. In fact, at the end of the day, I think we can’t really know much at all. Just to cut to the chase, I think that it is most probable that he was born in Nazareth in the northern part of what we today think of as Israel (back then, in Galilee), where he was certainly raised from the time he was a child. His parents were Jewish by birth, religion, culture. I’d assume their names were really Joseph and Mary. We don’t know anything about them other than the fact that Joseph may have been a TEKTON, which means that he worked with his hands, maybe with wood, or with stone, or with metal. Jesus also had brothers (four are named in one of our sources) and sisters, so it would have been a relatively large family and presumably living at or near the poverty line. Nazareth was an impoverished little hamlet.

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Luke’s Version of Jesus’ Birth
The Myth of the First Christmas



  1. Avatar
    James Dowden  December 6, 2012

    Doesn’t John 7:41-43 after a rather negative sort of fashion say something about birth traditions?

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    maxhirez  December 7, 2012

    What do you make of the Pantera/Pandera traditions in the Talmud?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 8, 2012

      I don’t have an particular wisdom; the conventional scholarly view is that these are based on Jewish polemic derived from a confusion of the Christian claim that Jesus was born of a Parthenos, which got change to he was born of Pantera.

  3. Avatar
    glucab86  December 7, 2012

    Hi Bart,

    I’ve just seen that the book “Forged” has been translated in Italian with the title “Sotto falso nome”. I would love to see more of your books translated (specifically Jesus millenarian Prophet and Jesus Interrupted). There are any plans to translate them? We need more Bart in the Vatican courtyard 🙂

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 8, 2012

      yes, that would be nice. Publishers try to get all the translations they can, of course, but it depends on the foreign publishing houses.

  4. Avatar
    CarolinaKahuna  December 7, 2012

    Is the date of Herod’s death in dispute? I have heard and read many items stating that the 4BCE date is probably wrong. I understand that Josephus was cited as the major evidence, due to his mention of a lunar eclipse. What other evidence do we have in dating Herod’s death?

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    hwl  December 7, 2012

    Should we take Luke’s claim about having access to eyewitnesses in 1:2 with a pinch of salt?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 8, 2012

      He doesn’t actually claim to have access to eyewitnesses himself; he says that hte traditions started with eyewitnesses. and I think that’s certainbly true.

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    RonaldTaska  December 7, 2012

    1. Very interesting series of posts. I look forward to the others.

    2. I once delivered a baby in an emergency room with the mother incredibly stating that she did not know that she was pregnant. She was, the best that I could tell, not delusional nor psychotic. She came to the emergency room because of abdominal pain and when I examined her, I felt a baby’s head. The mother was very overweight making her abdominal size appear less obviously to be that of a pregnant woman..

    3. I still wonder a lot about the writing genres of the first and second centuries. Did the Gospel writers know that they were making stuff up (maybe to fulfill certain Old Testament prophecies) or did they really think that they were writing history that had, unfortunately, changed a lot through oral transmission? This is closely related to the “fraud” issue about which you have written. Obviously, we can not know this for sure, but did writers of those times usually make stuff up or were there any real historians out there anywhere? Was there no real history just like there was no real science? Again, I do not think the history can be clearly separated from belief and theology. In my opinion, the history is the theology. Truth is truth. Facts are facts.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 8, 2012

      I don’t think they knew or thought they were making things up — but there’s really no way of knowing what they thought or knew, to our great regret! But my sense is that they, like others after them, thought that these stories they heard really happened.

      • Avatar
        RonaldTaska  December 8, 2012

        Thanks. Your reply about the Gospel authors is quite helpful.

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    SteveLig  December 7, 2012

    I had heard at one time that the idea of a virgin birth came from a mistranslation of the Hebrew word “alma” in Isaiah when the Old Testament was translated into Greek. This was then carried over when New Testament writers started looking for prophetic ties back to the Old Testament.

    The word “alma” itself refers more to youth than sexual purity and should have been translated “young girl.” If sexual purity was the intended meaning, the Hebrew word would have been “betulah.”

    I heard this from a rabbi and was wondering if his explanation had some truth to it.

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    ecbrown88  December 7, 2012

    I attended an evangelical baptist church growing up. The teachers of the high school sunday school contended that the Bible was literally true — EXCEPT that when it says Jesus made/drank wine, it actually means unfermented grape juice.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 8, 2012

      Yup, I used to hear that too!

    • Avatar
      hschick  December 9, 2012

      I heard much the same growing up but with an interesting twist that translated into personal behavior. Growing up in a German Baptist church there was a difference depending on if a person came from northern Germany or southern. Those from the north did not approve of drinking but it was ok to smoke! The south Germans thought that drinking alcoholic beverages was ok but smoking was not. I can’t say if this was just a peculiarity of that particular congregation or not.
      More seriously, could the grape juice tradition be derived from the Roman tradition of adding water to wine? I can’t remember where I heard that Romans thought that drinking wine without adding water was crude and a kind of conspicuous consumption.

      • Bart Ehrman
        Bart Ehrman  December 11, 2012

        Interesting idea. But I think the grape juice idea came strictly from those who think drinking is a sin. I had a woman in an evangelical church once assure me that the word for “wine” in John 4 meant “new wine” — i.e. unfermented. In fact that’s not true, but at least it was an argument!

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    FrancisDunn  December 7, 2012

    A friend of mine who raises sheep for wool for his living says that shepherds don’t tend sheep in the winter. Sheep need tending in the spring when the ewes give birth to the lambs. Sometimes the ewes are distressed and need help giving birth. I think this may be metaphoric for Jesus who is referred to as the lamb of god. Sheep are a great metaphor for people..They appear to be very gullible and will follow you all around the field (even if your not a Shepard). Just a thought I had.

    • Avatar
      toddfrederick  December 8, 2012

      Francis…I also was under the impression that Jesus was born in the late Spring or Summer due to the cold nights in winter and shepherds would probably not have been watching over their flocks out of doors in such cold conditions, but you may be very correct that the sheep are a metaphor for the followers of Jesus. I honestly think (and I don’t know based on any evidence) that both of the two birth stories are contrivances to point to specific theological and prophetic concepts as well as the date of Christmas (Christ-Mass) in the later Church calendar replacing a pagan celebration. I am simply not convinced by anyone that there is any solid historical truth to either of the birth stories, but they do contain much symbolism. Mythology can be a very powerful tool to convey a concept.

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