A Critical Examination of the Unsubstantiated Elements of the Christmas Story
The general Christmas story that people have in mind includes the following points:
- The Messiah is born from the virgin Mary.
- He is born on December 25 in a stable in Bethlehem.
- He is named Jesus.
- Three wise men from the East come to bring him gifts.
- King Herod wants to kill him, so his parents flee to Egypt.
Let’s briefly discuss each of these points:
The Messiah is born from the virgin Mary
We have previously addressed this topic on our website, emphasizing how Christian interpretations of texts from the Hebrew Bible have been used to support this claim. We delve into the ways in which the Christian world has misused Tanakh texts to articulate this standpoint.
The New Testament does not provide a specific date for Jesus’ birth. Calculations are often derived from the Book of Luke. According to Luke, Elizabeth, Jesus’ aunt, became pregnant while her husband Zachariah was serving in the Temple. Zachariah belonged to the order of Abijah. In 1 Chronicles 24, we learn that Abijah was the eighth to serve in the Temple. Each order served for two weeks, meaning the order of Abijah, starting from 14 Nisan, served in the last two weeks of the month of Tammuz. This corresponds to the beginning of July. Elizabeth conceives in July, and six months later, the angel Gabriel appears to Mary, indicating the time when Mary would have become pregnant. Counting nine months from that moment (around December), we arrive at September.
However, the early church did not consider Jesus’ birthday as a significant feast. It was only in the year 221 that Julius Africanus, a prominent Roman military officer (160 – 240), suggested the idea of commemorating Jesus’ birth on December 25. The formal establishment of December 25 as the celebration of Jesus’ birth, through a decree, took place in the year 354 under Pope Liberius.
About the Name Jesus
In the Tanakh, a specific name for the Messiah is not mentioned. The rabbis have, of course, contemplated this, and we find the following in Sanhederin 98b:14:
The Gemara asks: What is his name (of the Messiah)? The school of Rabbi Sheila says: Shiloh is his name, as it is stated: “Until when Shiloh shall come” (Genesis 49:10). The school of Rabbi Yannai says: Yinnon is his name, as it is stated: “May his name endure forever; may his name continue [yinnon] as long as the sun; and may men bless themselves by him” (Psalms 72:17). The school of Rabbi Hanina says: Hanina is his name, as it is stated: “For I will show you no favor [ḥanina]” (Jeremiah 16:13). And some say that Menaḥem ben Ḥizkiyya is his name, as it is stated: “Because the comforter [menaḥem] that should relieve my soul is far from me”
It’s noteworthy that the first four letters of these names form the acronym for the word “Messiah.”
You might wonder if the Tanakh does not mention Immanuel and whether Jesus was also referred to by that name. For more on this, I refer you to the following blog.
JEREMIAH 7:14 – THE YOUNG WOMAN WILL CALL HIM IMMANUEL
Three kings-Wise Men
There is no Jewish source or tradition connecting the Messiah with three wise men or kings. It’s notable that only Matthew extensively narrates this, while the other three Gospels do not.
The Massacre of the Innocents by Herod
From the historical accounts of Flavius Josephus, we know that Herod was exceptionally cruel. See the examples below: Jewish Antiquities: In “Jewish Antiquities,” Josephus describes the character and deeds of Herod the Great. He talks about Herod’s paranoia, his cruelty towards rivals, and even his command to kill some prominent Jews. However, the specific massacre of children in Bethlehem is not mentioned. The Jewish War: In his work “The Jewish War,” Josephus depicts the violent nature of Herod’s rule and his suppression of revolts. He mentions, for instance, the bloody suppression of a revolt in Jerusalem, but even here, the massacre of children is not explicitly stated. However, in his writings, he does not specifically mention an order from King Herod to kill all male infants in Bethlehem and its vicinity. It appears more likely that the Christian Bible drew parallels with the story of the Pharaoh from Egypt who cast Jewish male infants into the Nile.
We have critically examined the historical aspects surrounding Christmas, such as Jesus’ birth date, non-biblical elements like the Three Wise Men, and the alleged massacre by Herod. We’ve highlighted the importance of scrutinizing inconsistencies in the New Testament and emphasized the need to turn to Jewish sources for a more accurate understanding of the texts manipulated by the New Testament.
By Angelique Sijbolts
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