Another Christmas has come and gone, and it is a time of year when one Bible story stands out above all else—the nativity of Jesus. Despite the deep reverence Christians have for this story, many (perhaps most) are aware at some level that the ubiquitous scene with the shepherds, the three magi, the star and the stable full of animals is an idealized fairytale version. As a mythologized tradition, it exists in numerous cultural variations—those from Naples may include taverns and merchants, for example, while Catalan nativity scenes always include a character who is defecating (!), called the “Caganer”. The Bible itself tells two separate tales of Jesus’ birth (one in Matthew and one in Luke), and neither of them presents an account that resembles the modern nativity portrayal. Nor, for that matter, can the two accounts be merged into a single, consistent narrative without altering or omitting numerous critical details. Then again, few people care really look that closely at the biblical texts and their background. The crèche, though not faithful to any biblical story or historical reality, is a powerful vignette full of symbolic elements that combine to create a sense of mystery and awe. In many ways, it has superseded the Gospels as the canonical representation of Jesus’ birth in the minds of believers.
But I want to look behind the textual curtain and see how the nativity stories came about. Matthew’s version provides an interesting example of how biblical authors worked, combining and reinterpreting Jewish scriptures and other literary sources to craft a deliberate portrait of Jesus. I will be relying on many of the observations of the 19th-century theologian David Friedrich Strauss (as my title implies) as well as the standard modern-day work on the subject—Raymond E. Brown’s The Birth of the Messiah—and other recent research where relevant.
Matthew: A Layered Document
Matthew’s nativity story follows his introduction and genealogy, which I have written about in great detail. It establishes his Gospel as a new Torah with Jesus as its central figure.
One challenge of analyzing Matthew is that various compositional layers can be recognized. The majority of the book was based directly on the Gospel of Mark—our earliest extant Gospel—which the Matthean author copied almost verbatim, making changes to its storyline and theological views where the anonymous author (whom it is convenient to call “Matthew”) saw fit. A second major source, most scholars believe, was the lost Q document.
Mark, of course, begins with Jesus’ baptism, providing no birth or childhood material for later Gospel writers to work with. It doesn’t even supply a name for Jesus’ father. Matthew’s birth story is therefore unique (and quite different from Luke’s), but even there, scholars have detected indications of a pre-Matthean story that Matthew has borrowed and added to. I will mention such details where relevant; but for the most part, I’ll be dealing with the final composition.
A Miraculous (Mis)conception
Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from a holy spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. (Matt. 1:18–19)
Matthew’s story begins with an unexpected pregnancy, and immediately the narrator hastens to explain that it is Providential. The mention of a divine spirit, when read through the lens of Luke’s Gospel and later Christian tradition, suggests that God has directly impregnated the virgin Mary. Matthew himself, however, does not make this explicit.
Assuming that Matthew does intend the conception itself to be understood as divine, there is no shortage of Greco-Roman exemplars who were allegedly born of a human woman and divine father. In addition to purely mythical figures like Hercules, Dionysus, Perseus, and Romulus, stories of divine conception were told of Pythagoras, Plato, Apollonius of Tyana, Alexander the Great, and Augustus Caesar.
Outside the Hellenistic world, we should note that the Zoroastrian messiah (the Saoshyant) was to be born of a virgin. Even more striking is the similarity to Dusares, an Arab deity who was worshipped in nearby Petra (Edom) as the only son of God and born of a virgin, according to the 4th-century Christian writer Epiphanius.
Surprisingly, however, divine conception was also afforded to other biblical characters in contemporary Jewish thought. Andrew T. Lincoln has recently observed that Philo of Alexandria, the first-century Jewish philosopher, described Sarah, Leah, Rebecca, and Zipporah as being impregnated as virgins by God without the assistance of their husbands in De Cherubim. For Matthew, writing from an intellectual Jewish milieu, there might have been nothing unusual at all about God making a woman pregnant.
Furthermore, Matthew’s text does not actually say Mary was a virgin. The 4th-century Sinaitic Syriac translation of Matthew, which some believe reflects the original Greek, says that Joseph begat Jesus in v. 16, and in vv. 21, 24 and 25 that Mary bore to Joseph a son. As Charles C. Torrey (1912, p. 303) noted long ago, the understanding of Jesus’ conception as a natural one ordained by God would be “incomparably better suited to the Jewish doctrine of the Messiah.” The Matthean genealogy also loses much of its relevance if Jesus is not the biological son of Joseph (which he seems to be in the Sinaitic Syriac version).
But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from a spirit that is holy. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matt. 1:20–21)
To prevent Joseph from divorcing Mary, an angel of the Lord appears to him in a dream. As Brown notes, Matthew seems to have used the Joseph in Genesis as a model for his own Joseph. They both have fathers named Jacob; they both go down to Egypt; and like the patriarch Joseph, who was an interpreter of dreams, Matthew’s Joseph consistently receives revelation in dreams. This is the first of four dreams that Joseph receives, the first of five overall in the birth narrative.
Midrashic Citations of Scripture
All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. (Matt. 1:22–25)
This is one of five citations of fulfilled scripture in Matthew’s birth narrative, and of many more throughout that Gospel. Matthew is remarkably fond of quoting snippets from the Jewish Scriptures as prophecies fulfilled by the events in his Gospel. The problem that vexes theologians is that these quotations are usually taken out of context.
Here, Matthew famously quotes Isaiah 7:14, which is addressed to king Ahaz of Judah, assuring him that by the time the soon-to-be-born baby Emmanuel is old enough to refuse food he doesn’t like, Judah’s enemies will have been eliminated. The name of the child (possibly Isaiah’s own) is chosen to serve as a reminder of this promise. In its proper context, this cannot be even remotely construed as a prophecy of the messiah’s birth many centuries later.
Matthew, however, practiced the habit of midrashic exegesis that we see among the Dead Sea Scrolls and in the writings of the rabbis. Since the original contexts of many scriptural passages were no longer relevant, it was reasoned that there had to be some additional esoteric meaning that was relevant to the interpreter’s own day.
Young Woman or Virgin?
The Isaianic citation is problematic for other reasons. Matthew quotes the Greek Septuagint (LXX), which says the mother-to-be is a virgin (Greek parthenos), whereas the original Hebrew only says that she is a young woman (Hebrew almah). There are at least two ways to interpret Matthew’s use of this passage.
- A widely held view is that the LXX has mistranslated the Hebrew text of Isaiah. (The correct translation of almah would have been neanis, as was used in other Greek translations.) Matthew, seizing upon “virgin” as a keyword, used it as a prooftext for Jesus’ virgin birth. In other words, he manufactured a prophecy from a mistranslation of a contextually irrelevant Scriptural passage. If Matthew intended to describe a virgin birth because of what he had read in LXX Isaiah 7:14, then it could even be argued that the entire notion of Jesus’ virgin birth was based on a mistranslation.
- Other scholars note that parthenos does not always mean “virgin”, even if that is its typical meaning. Matthew’s main interest in the verse may be the name “Emmanuel” rather than the mention of a virgin. Thompson, for example, argues that Matthew quotes this passage not because he has misread Isaiah, but because “the Immanuel cue name … signifies the role Jesus is given to play in Matthew’s story. It is the Utopian role of David and his kingdom of peace that he will play for his generation.” (Thomas L. Thompson, The Messiah Myth)
Second Star to the Right, and Straight on Till Morning
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, magi from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. (Matt. 2:1–4)
The basis for the star and the magi comes from Numbers 22–24, a story in which Balaam, a soothsayer from the east (and a magus in Jewish tradition) foretells the coming of a great ruler “out of Jacob”. Significantly, the Greek version of this passage has messianic overtones, as it replaces “sceptre” in 24:17 with “man.”
There shall come forth a star out of Jacob,
And a scepter [man] shall rise out of Israel. (Num. 24:17)
Another Jewish document, the Testament of Levi, associated high priest John Hyrcanus (2nd century BCE) with the rising of a new star. Even more significantly, the 2nd-century Jewish leader and messianic claimant Simeon bar Kosevah called himself “Bar Kokhba”, meaning “son of the star” in Aramaic, on the basis of Numbers 24:17.
Verse 1 also establishes a rough date for Matthew’s story: the reign of Herod the Great, who ruled Judea from about 39 to 4 BCE.
The Second Quotation
They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” (Matt. 2:5–6)
Here we have Matthew’s second fulfillment citation. Oddly, it is a combination (with some alterations) of two unconnected passages from Micah 5:2 and 2 Sam. 5:2.
But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to rule in Israel… (Micah 5:2a)
The Lord said to you: It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel. (2 Sam. 5:2b)
Contextually, the Micah passage isn’t a bad fit for Matthew’s purposes. However, the idea of the eschatological “messiah” had not developed yet when Micah was written, and the oracle refers more to the establishment of a royal dynasty rather than an individual (see Jensen, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah [LHB/OBS 496], p. 157). There is evidence, though, that others were interpreting the passage this way in the first century: Menahem ben Hezekiah, would-be messiah and leader of the revolt of 66 CE, was allegedly a descendant of David born in Bethlehem.
Driver, Follow That Star!
Then Herod secretly called for the magi and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. (Matt. 2:7–10)
Consider the first half of the Magi story. Some priests from the east observe a new star in the sky. Their astrological arts tell them that it signifies a newborn king in Judea. Logically, they assume the baby has been born in Jerusalem, so they make their way there to pay homage; but the child is not there, so Herod’s priests and scribes consult the Scriptures to uncover the location. So far, the story makes logical sense despite its theological problems (e.g. the fact that it encourages people to believe in the “deceptive science of astrology”, as Strauss noted). The star is just that: a star.
Then everything changes. The star is transformed into an atmospheric light that guides the magi right from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, where it hovers over a single house—the one where the child is. We are no longer dealing with a distant celestial body, but something else entirely, like a pixie or will-o’-the-wisp. The many attempts over the centuries of astronomers to correlate the star with some historical comet, supernova or planetary conjunction have been futile, not least because they fail to account for the second part of the story. The coherence of the plot also breaks down, since we must wonder why the star didn’t just lead the magi to Bethlehem in the first place. The answer, as we shall see below, is because other plot elements of the story required them to visit Jerusalem.
It is also quite possible that the first half of the story, in which the magi are led to Jerusalem to honour the messiah, was borrowed from an earlier tradition, while Matthew added the ensuing trip to Bethlehem himself, accounting for the abrupt shift in narrative style.
With regard to Herod’s instructions to report back to him, Strauss notes that surely the magi would have seen through his plan at once. There were also less clumsy methods Herod might have used to find out where the child was; why did he not, for example, send companions along with the magi to Bethlehem?
The Adoration of the Magi
On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. (Matt. 2:11–12)
According to Brown, Goulder (2004), and others, the Old Testament provided the inspiration for the gifts of the magi. This passage is an implicit citation of Isaiah 60 and Psalm 72, which describe the bringing of gifts in homage to the king, God’s royal son:
Kings shall walk by your light, and nations by your brightness…All those from Saba [Sheba] shall come, bringing gold, and they shall bring frankincense and announce the good news of the salvation of the Lord. (LXX Isaiah 60:3, 6)
The kings of Arabia and Saba shall bring gifts. And all kings shall bow down to him…To him shall be given of the gold of Arabia. (Psalm 72:10, 15)
The mention of the king’s light and brightness in Isaiah might also have suggested a connection with the star in Matthew’s mind.
This is followed by the third dream-vision in our story—a warning to the magi. Here again, Strauss’s remarks must be noted. If the magi can receive divine guidance in dreams, why are they not told in a dream to avoid Jerusalem and go straight to Bethlehem in the first place? Many innocent lives would have been saved that way.
The Flight to Egypt
Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the magi.
…When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. (Matt. 2:13–16, 19–20)
It is widely accepted that the flight to Egypt and slaughter of the innocents are based upon the story of Moses, who serves as an archetype for Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. There are several notable parallels with the Moses story, not only in Exodus but particularly in the version told by Josephus (Antiquities 2.9.2-3):
- Pharaoh is miraculously warned of the birth of a Hebrew who threatens his kingdom. (Josephus)
Herod is miraculously told of the birth of a Jew who threatens his kingdom.
- This warning comes from one of Pharaoh’s “sacred scribes”. (Josephus)
Herod learns about the baby from the magi, scribes and priests.
- Pharaoh and the Egyptians are filled with fear. (Josephus)
Herod and “all Jerusalem” are frightened.
- Pharaoh commands that all Hebrew infants be killed. (Josephus, Exod. 1:22)
Herod commands that all Bethlehemite infants be killed.
- God appears in a dream to Amram (Moses’ father) to reassure him and thwart Pharaoh’s plans. (Josephus)
An angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream to thwart Herod’s plans.
- Pharaoh dies. (Exod. 2:23)
- Moses is told by the Lord to return to Egypt, since “those who were seeking your life are dead.” (Exod. 4:19)
Joseph is told in a dream to return to Israel since Herod is dead. Note the near-identical wording in Matt. 2:20: “those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.”
- Moses takes his wife and children and returns to Egypt. (Exod. 4:20)
Joseph takes his wife and child and returns to Israel.
We also have Matthew’s third fulfillment citation: “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” This is a quotation of Hosea 11:1. Of course, that passage is a reference to all of Israel, not to the messiah.
It should probably be pointed out that there is no historical evidence for the slaughter of Bethlehem’s infants, despite the large volume of historical writing we have on Herod from Josephus, the rabbis, and others. There is even some doubt as to whether Bethlehem was inhabited under Herod’s reign based on the lack of archaeological remains from that period.
Also, as Brown observes (p. 225):
There is no remembrance in the accounts of the ministry of Jesus of such an extraordinary event in his background, and a journey to Egypt is quite irreconcilable with Luke’s account of an orderly and uneventful return from Bethlehem to Nazareth shortly after the birth of the child.
Now, however, it is clear why the magi had to stop in Jerusalem and alert Herod to the birth of the messiah. It was a necessary step in order for the Matthew to portray Jesus as a new Moses — a survivor of an infant massacre by a wicked king. Matthew’s story is not a journalistic account of historical events; it is first and foremost a theological work.
The Fourth Citation
Matthew’s fourth fulfillment citation occurs after the slaughter of innocents.
Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
This comes from Jeremiah 31:15, which in context refers to the deportation of the Israelites to Babylon. The clear thematic link is that it mentions lost children and sorrow. Although Ramah is not actually located near Bethlehem, there was a late tradition that mistakenly confused it with Ephrathah, a name associated with Bethlehem in Micah 5:2 (see Brown p. 205). Matthew seems to have drawn upon this tradition.
Another Dream and the Move to Nazareth
But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.” (Matt. 2:22–23)
This is somewhat odd. Joseph, having just been told in a dream to return to Israel, is warned in another dream not to return home because Archelaus, Herod’s son, has assumed power. (Why couldn’t one dream have accomplished this? Strauss asks.) Instead, Joseph “goes away” to Galilee. Functionally, the purpose of the additional dream in the narrative is quite clear: to explain why Jesus was known as a Nazorean. (It should be noted that Mark in the Greek calls Jesus a Nazorean/Nazarene—a term that denoted an early Jewish-Christian sect—but does not specifically mention Nazareth as his hometown.) Another son of Herod’s, Antipas, was tetrarch of Galilee, so it’s not clear why that region would be preferable to Judea, aside from the needs of Matthew’s narrative.
The fifth fulfillment citation is something of a puzzle. It matches no passage in the Old Testament, leaving us with three main options:
- It is a quotation of a now-lost document that Matthew considered to be scripture.
- It is a vague allusion to the Hebrew text of Isaiah 11:1, “There will grow a sprout from the stump of Jesse; a branch (netzer) will grow from its roots.”
- It is meant as a quotation of Judges 13:5, “the boy shall be a Nazirite.”
I find the third option to be the most convincing. The context is the miraculous birth of Samson, whose surprise conception by a barren woman is confirmed to Samson’s father Manoah by the angel of the Lord—just as in Joseph’s case. Although the two terms seem to be different at first, Schweizer and others have argued that a stronger case can be made for term “Nazorean” being related to the nazir (a Jewish vow of consecration to God) than for any etymological connection to “Nazareth”. Matthew seems to be interpreting the term both ways, building a bridge between a biblical “prophecy” in Judges, the fact that Jesus was known as a Nazorean, and a Gospel narrative that has Jesus active in Galilee. Mountains more could be written on the topic, but I’ll leave it at that for now.
Matthew’s nativity story is a rich and sometimes confusing amalgamation of messianic symbolism and esoteric scriptural interpretation. There is no doubt that the author has succeeded in his aims; Matthew quickly became the favourite Gospel of the early church and continues to impact the imagination and beliefs of some two billion Christians today—as is most clearly evident around Christmas time.
Even though many will claim that the story is an inerrant, infallible account of something that took place two millennia ago, the lack of rigorous adherence to the narrative’s details in nativity scenes, church plays, and movie adaptations betrays the true way people understand and treat the narrative: as a powerful myth—not in the vernacular sense of a “false belief,” but as a sacred, symbolic tale through which Christianity and many of our Christmas traditions are understood.
Reading the text closely and critically lets us identify some of the traditions and sources that went into its creation. Like many biblical passages, the nativity story contains puzzles and questions that are difficult to answer with any certainty. Just as importantly for those with a conservative religious background, close study of the Bible reveals the pitfalls of forcing a literalistic interpretation on a text that is literary and theological in nature.
Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Updated Edition, Yale University Press, 1999.
David Friedrich Strauss, The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined, 1860.
M. D. Goulder, Midrash and Lection in Matthew, SPCK, 1974.
Thomas L. Thompson, The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David, New York: Basic Books, 2005.
Andrew T. Lincoln, “Contested Paternity and Contested Readings: Jesus’ Conception in Matthew 1.18-25”, JSNT 34(3) 211–231, 2012.
Charles C. Torrey, “The Translations Made from the Original Aramaic Gospels”, Studies in the History of Religions: Presented to Crawford Howell Toy, New York: MacMillan, 1912.