Birth of Jesus
by Mrs Ulfat Aziz-us-Samad
The Islamic Guardian (UK), January to March 1981 Issue (Vol. 2, No. 1, pp. 6–10)
Christmas is celebrated all over the Christian world with rejoicing and festivity. A number of colourful and picturesque customs and ceremonies are associated with Christmas celebrations in different parts of the world. It is believed that Jesus Christ was born on the 25th of December in a stable at Bethlehem. Two of the four Gospels declare that he was born of a virgin, without the agency of a male parent. Each one of these so-called facts, which form the basis of Christmas celebrations, has been shown to be unfounded by modern scholars.
When in 1863 Ernest Renan in The Life of Jesus came out with the simple yet devastating statement,
“Jesus was born at Nazareth, a small town of Galilee. … He proceeded from the ranks of the people. His father, Joseph, and his mother Mary, were people in humble circumstances,”
the world simply gasped in astonishment and horror. In two sentences there disappeared the lovely Bethlehem story, the dogma of the Virgin Birth, the whole theology of the Incarnation and the Atonement. It brought down upon Renan’s devoted head such a whirlwind of rage and calumny as few men have ever endured, and fewer still survived. It was, however, not long before many other scholars, including several Church dignitaries, were saying the same thing.
Cecil John Cadoux, who was Mackennal Professor of Church History at Mansfield College, Oxford, wrote in his Life of Jesus:
“Jesus was the first-born son of a Jewish girl named Mary and her husband Joseph, a descendant of David, who worked as a carpenter at the small town of Nazareth in the region of Palestine known as Galilee. The date of his birth was about 5–7 B.C., and the place in all probability Nazareth itself. Towards the end of the first century A.D., it came to be widely believed that at the time of his birth his mother was still a virgin, who bore him by the miraculous intervention of God. This view, however, though dear to many modern Christians for its doctrinal value, is unlikely to be true in point of fact” (p. 27).
Or Harry Emerson Fosdick, who was probably America’s best-known and beloved pulpit figure, wrote in his well-known book The Man from Nazareth:
“There is no evidence in the Gospels, apart from the birth stories themselves, that any member of Jesus’ family or any of his first disciples ever thought of him as virgin-born. Mark, who gathered from Peter the facts of Jesus’ life, does not mention it. In Matthew and Luke, where the birth stories appear, are two genealogies, so inconsistent that they cannot possibly be reconciled, both of which in tracing Jesus’ lineage come down to Joseph, not to Mary. These genealogies are inconceivable except on the supposition that when they were prepared Joseph was thought to be Jesus’ father” (Pocket Book, p. 118).
And this is what Edgar J. Goodspeed, America’s greatest New Testament scholar, writes in A Life of Jesus:
“In Matthew’s story of the virgin birth of Jesus the idea of his sonship is translated into narrative form. The Jewish mind instinctively cast its doctrines in the form of narrative. But while the manner of the story is clearly Jewish — the casting of dogma into narrative — the subject matter of it is just as definitely Greek; Greek legend was full of demi-gods’ sons begotten by Zeus, with human mothers. It was a way of stating Jesus’ divine sonship in terms intelligible and acceptable to the Greek mind. And to this day many people cannot think of his sonship in any other way. But while Luke takes a very similar view of his birth, our earliest sources, Mark and Paul, show no knowledge of it, and Matthew and Luke are not consistent about it, as both of them trace Jesus’ ancestry through Joseph to David” (Harper Torchbooks, p. 29).
A little later (on page 32) the same author clearly mentions that Joseph was the father of Jesus and that he had four brothers and many sisters:
“Jesus’ father Joseph was a carpenter, and Jesus when he grew up seems to have followed the same trade. He has brothers and sisters — four brothers, Joseph, Judah, James and Simon and a number of sisters, who were living in Nazareth when he once preached there in the course of his ministry.”
This is supported by a large number of Gospel texts. To quote just a few:
“And they said, Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we knew?” (St John, 6:42).
“Philip findeth Nathanael, and saith unto him, We have found him, of whom Moses in the Law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (St John, 1:45).
“Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? and his brethren James, and Joseph, and Simon, and Judas? and his sisters, are they not all with us?” (St Matthew, 3:55–56).
Then how did the belief that Jesus was born of Mary when she was still a virgin originate? The sacred records of several nations show that many teachers of religion were ridiculed and violently opposed as long as they were alive but were raised to the Divine pedestal soon after they passed away. Death and distance lend a halo to every great man. Like many other great prophets and founders of religions, Jesus was also deified soon after his death. Once the dogma of the divinity and Divine-sonship of Jesus had gained currency, the belief that he was born of a virgin was the next and, perhaps, necessary step. It would have seemed incongruous for God to be born in this world as a result of the normal and natural coming together of a man and a woman. Karl Barth states the case frankly. Christ being the saviour of mankind, he writes, his existence on earth must depend on Divine agency alone, and cannot have been due to an act of human will, as it would have been if a human father had begotten him. One impossibility leads to another. Setting aside all historical evidence the Church Fathers declared that Jesus was the Son of God and that he was conceived by Mary of the Holy Ghost before her marriage to Joseph the carpenter. Such a belief did not seem impossible or extraordinary in those days. All around the land of Jesus there lived people who had been for centuries believing in virgin-born sons of God.
Mithra, the Persian god of light and wisdom, was believed by his devotees to have been born of a virgin. The Greeks regarded their sun-god Apollo and their hero Perseus to be sons of God born of virgins Leto and Danae, respectively. Tammuz was the virgin-born son of God of the Babylonians. The Nordic hero Balder was believed to be the son of the All-Father Odin and the virgin Frigga. Even in far off Mexico, the god Quetzalcoatl was regarded as the son of the virgin Xochiquetzal and the god Mixcoatl.
Was Jesus born on the 25th of December? The Gospels lend no support to this view. If what Luke says is correct, we shall have strong reasons for thinking that Jesus was not born in December. The third Gospel states that when the angels appeared to the shepherds to give them the good news of the birth of Jesus, they were in the fields keeping watch over their flock by night. This could not have taken place in December, for that month is the height of rainy season in Palestine, when neither flock nor shepherds could have been by night in the fields of Nazareth or Bethlehem.
The twenty-fifth of December was fixed as the date of the nativity of Jesus more than five centuries after the event by a Scythian monk, Dionysius Exiguus. Ernest Renan writes in his famous Life of Jesus:
“It is known that the calculation which serves as basis of the Common Era was made in the sixth century by Dionysius the Less. The calculation implies certain purely hypothetical data” (Modern Library, p. 82).
Like the belief that Jesus was a virgin-born son of God, the date of his birth also was borrowed from the pagan mythologies and religions. To quote from Wallace K. Ferguson’s Survey of European Civilisation:
“Christian celebrations were created to replace pagan feasts and holidays. For example, the date of Christmas was set on the birthday of Mithras (the unconquered Sun), which had long been a day of joyous celebrations in the pagan world” (p. 112).
Coming now to the place where Jesus was born, modern scholars have shown that the belief that Jesus was born in a stable at Bethlehem is also not correct. Bethlehem was chosen by the evangelists as the birthplace of Jesus to show that his birth was a fulfilment of an Old Testament prophecy and a far-fetched and incredible explanation was invented to show why Joseph and Mary, who lived in Nazareth, went to Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth. His birth in a stable and the four astrologers, who had seen the sign of his birth on the sky and followed a star which moved before them and came to a stop over the stable where Jesus was born are again legends taken over from the pagan sources. Dr Morton Scott Enslin, one of the leading scholars of Christian history and theology, writes the following in his famous book, Christian Beginnings:
“Jesus was born and brought up in the hills of Galilee, in the quiet town of Nazareth, the very name of which is unknown to us in that period outside the Gospels and Acts. The Bethlehem stories, regardless of their homiletic beauty, apparently rest upon no historical foundation, but must be regarded as pure legend. A critical examination of the two accounts — the one assuming the fixed residence of the parents in Bethlehem, the homage of Magi guided from the East by a miraculous star, the edict of a cruel king (strangely akin to that told of the infant Moses), the flight into Egypt, and subsequent return to Palestine, but to Nazareth, not Bethlehem, undertaken by the expectant mother in compliance with the requirement of a supposed census, the inability to find lodging, the resultant birth in a stable, the vision of angels granted to shepherds, and their visit to the manger — reveals that they are mutually exclusive, contradicting each other at every point” (p. 154–155).
The correct historical facts about the birth of Jesus, therefore, are that he was the first-born son of a Jewish girl Mary and her husband Joseph, and that he was born at Nazareth (not Bethlehem) some time between 7 and 5 B.C. on a date which it is now not possible to determine.