“If historical debunking is waging a ‘War on Christmas,’ then we must fire our artillery because, indeed, the story of Christmas has no historical basis whatsoever.”
he third century Christian author Tertullian tells the story of some Christian townspeople, who went to the Roman proconsul of Asia and demanded to be martyred. The proconsul wisely told them that if they wanted to die, they should go and jump from a cliff, but he was not going to be the one to gratuitously kill people. Ever since, many Christians have preserved this martyrdom complex, perceiving themselves to be persecuted at all times, even though that may not necessarily be the case.
The so-called “War on Christmas” in the United States is a case in point. Only deluded conservatives, such as Bill O’Reilly, can obsessively put forward this trope year after year—thinking that there is some secret plan to persecute Christians who celebrate the birth of Jesus. Perhaps at some point, there were a handful of political correctness-obsessed people on the Left who felt that any references to Christmas would be insulting to non-Christians. But, nobody really listened to them, and if anything, Christmas celebrations get larger by the year. It should not come as a surprise, because—whether or not ones cares much for Jesus himself—Christmas is fun.
Now, someone with a martyrdom complex, such as O’Reilly, might think that the historical debunking of Christmas is a form of assault. His book Killing Jesus almost tells verbatim the official gospel story, with a complete lack of critical perspective. If historical debunking is waging a “War on Christmas,” then we must fire our artillery because, indeed, the story of Christmas has no historical basis whatsoever.
Jesus is not a mythological figure. He definitely existed, and those who claim otherwise simply cannot explain why a new religion would invent a god whose life was a complete failure (dying on a cross as a criminal is not precisely the epitome of glory). But, he was not born on December 25th; he was never in Bethlehem or Egypt, and his mother was not a virgin.
My guess is that even Bill O’Reilly will accept that Jesus was not born on December 25th. It is never mentioned in the gospels what time of the year Jesus was born; if anything, the gospel of Luke suggests it was not during the winter months—because the shepherds were sleeping outside. It is for the most part uncontroversial that this particular date was chosen in order to make it fit with the Roman festivity of Sol Invictus. As Christianity was spreading throughout the Roman Empire, some concessions had to be made to the preexisting religions. This has happened all too frequently in the history of the Church, and, as much as O’Reilly and others may hate it, Christianity is not entirely cleansed of pagan elements.
Jesus was consistently referred to as being from Nazareth, and except for the birth narratives in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, there is no mention whatsoever of his connection to Bethlehem. It seems those two particular gospel writers wanted Jesus to be born in that town because that is where the Messiah was supposed to come from. Jesus may or may not have thought of himself as the Messiah, but it is clear that—for those who thought that he was indeed the Messiah—his origins in Nazareth were embarrassing. So, both Matthew and Luke had to come up with some story in order to make Bethlehem his birthplace.
The problem is that these authors’ tellings only coincide when it comes to Bethlehem being the birthplace of Jesus; their accounts do not converge in describing how it all happened. Matthew tells a wild story about Herod the Great ordering the massacre of all infants in Bethlehem so as to prevent being dethroned, and Jesus only narrowly escaped because his parents fled to Egypt. Prior to this, Mary and Joseph were living in Bethlehem, but, then, after fleeing to Egypt, they returned and settled in Nazareth. It makes for great dramatic effect, and O’Reilly’s nemeses on the Left frequently evoke this story to arouse sympathy for migrants and refugees, but it is historical fantasy. The author of Matthew seemed to be obsessed with narrating the story of Jesus through the lens of Old Testament tales, and, in this case, the story of Moses has clear overtones.
Luke’s story is different. In his version, Mary and Joseph are originally from Nazareth, but, then, following an imperial edict for a census, they had to move to Bethlehem because that was the home of Joseph’s ancestors. While there, Jesus is born. Whereas Matthew liked to color his stories with Old Testament points of reference, Luke (probably a Gentile) liked to complement his narratives with real historical events that happened in the Roman Empire at around the same time. The problem is that Luke was not good with chronology. So, he says that the census was ordered by Quirinus, but we know that Quirinus was appointed as governor of Syria at least nine years after Herod’s death—and Jesus was born while Herod was alive. These mistakes do make us wonder whether Luke was narrating things as they happened or if he added details of his own. It seems more likely that—being interested in presenting Bethlehem as Jesus’ birthplace—he came up with this fancy story.
As for Mary’s virginity, I will leave it to you to decide if such a thing is possible. You may say that it was a miracle, and that’s the end of the discussion. But doesn’t it seem a tad suspicious to you that many, many gods in the Mediterranean had virgin births? Critics of Christianity make much of these parallelisms, but, to be honest, I don’t think the story of Jesus’ virgin birth has much to do with copycatting Mediterranean gods. Perhaps it has more to do with the dubious reputation of Jesus’ origins.
Celsus, one prominent critic of Christianity in the 2nd Century, claimed that there were rumors that one Roman soldier by the name of Panthera had intercourse with Mary and was Jesus’ biological father. That may have been mere hearsay to discredit Christianity, but, if true, the story of Jesus’ virgin birth makes more sense. Jesus must have had to face accusations of being an illegitimate child, and what better way to quell doubts about Mary and Panthera than to claim that he actually had no biological father because he was born from a virgin?
More to the point, I think the illegitimacy issue helps clarify Jesus’ life even more. I don’t want to play the psychoanalytic game too much, so I don’t know if Jesus was looking for a father figure and thus became obsessed with God (whom he called abba, “daddy” in Aramaic)—or something to that effect. But, of all people, Bill O’Reilly does have a point when he claims that having children out of wedlock is not a great idea. In the 1960’s, Daniel Patrick Monyihan pointed this out as a major cause of problems in the African-American community, and as much as many on the Left may hate conservatives for saying this, Monyihan was onto something.
Children who do not get to know their fathers are more likely to have erratic behavior and fail in their endeavors, and Jesus was no exception. Illegitimacy breeds resentment. You feel abandoned; you think the world has been very unfair to you. Jesus was not the peace-loving hippie that some might imagine. He was a fiery apocalyptic preacher, who delighted in the fantasy that the world was about to come to an end in the mist of tremendous violence and punishment of evildoers. Then, he would rule as king in a new kingdom, appointed by God. Although his life and death were reinterpreted by his followers in a textbook case of cognoscitive dissonance, we must come to face a hard fact: in his lifetime, Jesus was a complete failure. The world did not come to an end, as he predicted, and he did not rule as king.
Needless to say, he was far from being the sole preacher of this kind. Wherever there is oppression (and particularly when a ruthless imperial power takes over), someone will come up with revenge fantasies that feed the hope of liberation—but usually to no avail. But, Jesus was especially zealous in this regard. Perhaps knowing that his Roman father abandoned (or maybe even raped, as imperial soldiers can do in occupied territories) his Jewish mother, he must have felt an additional animosity towards Roman power.
In the gospels, Jesus does not come across as especially anti-Roman. But, if you read in between the lines and focus on particular sayings, you do notice this animosity. Whoever wrote the gospels wanted to present Jesus as a peaceful and friendly character to the Romans because by that time (about forty years after Jesus’ death), the rest of the Jews had been crushed by Romans in war and their only hope for survival was in receiving some measure of Roman protection. But, do not think for a second that Jesus was mild in his approach to Romans. If he was executed as a criminal with a Roman punishment, it was because the Romans were well aware that he was a troublemaker. If he was indeed an illegitimate child, as biblical scholar James Tabor has argued, then that partly explains his behavior, and Christmas would be an attempt to dissimulate this uncomfortable fact.
Dr. Gabriel Andrade is a university professor. He has previously contributed to Areo Magazine and DePauw University’s The Prindle Post. His twitter is @gandrade80