National Gallery Of Art  /  AP
Image provided by the National Gallery of Art of Venetian artist Lorenzo Lotto's work, The Nativity.
NBC Universal Anchors and Correspondents
By Keith Morrison Correspondent
NBC News
updated 11/11/2005 9:28:32 PM ET 2005-11-12T02:28:32

The birth of Jesus changed the world. But over the past two centuries, the telling of the story has also changed. To understand how it has changed, and why it has changed so many lives, we turned to experts of history, theology and religious studies. The aim is not to challenge anyone's beliefs, but to shed a new, fuller light on the birth of a child believers call the "Light of the world."

It is quite possibly the favorite of all the stories ever told— a story steeped in joy, radiating an annual surge of good will: The birth of Jesus. 

It’s the foundation not just for Christian holiday traditions, but in many ways, for the whole of Western history, celebrated by some 2 billion people in countries and cultures all over the world. So pure and full of wonder, children act out the magical tale of a young woman who gives birth not just to a baby boy, but the Son of God.

It’s a story many Christians all over the world believe word for word — but how much is history? Wars have started over the question of whether the Nativity story was to be taken literally or as an allegory, a myth.

So to help us through it, we’ve assembled a group of Bible scholars and authors, from those who see it as based on history, to those who don’t.

Keith Morrison, Dateline correspondent: A lot of modern believers will say, “All you want to do is tear down this wonderful story we have.  And try to tell us there’s some sort of Santa Claus myth.”

Craig Evans, professor of New Testament studies, Acadia Divinity College: We’re not really trying to tear anything down. We’re trying to understand it. The Bible contains a very important message, and critical study has not overthrown that. Because God hasn’t disappeared in all the criticism.

As the story has been told time and time again, the birth of Jesus begins with a girl who would change the world, a girl called Maryam or Mary. She’s often depicted as a young, doe-eyed brunette.

Lesley Hazleton, author of “A Flesh-And-Blood biography of the Virgin Mother”: We forget that she was not a classic Italian beauty. In fact it’s hard to imagine why we insist that she would be beautiful.

The Bible reveals very little about Mary, but scholars believe she came from a humble background, was probably poor.

Hazleton: She was tough. You had to be tough in that time. You’re living off the land.  It’s a hard, hard life.  She would’ve been out in the hills.  She would’ve been a shepherd girl out in the hills with the goats and the sheep.  And this is a tough way, with very thin sandals, you know, she would—every rock you can feel, every thorn you can feel.

Morrison: This is a little prepubescent girl out on the hills?

Hazleton: Right.

Morrison: Sort of 10 or 11 years old?

Hazleton:  Right.  Because at [that time], at puberty, you got married.  That’s it.

Amy Jill Levine, Jewish scholar of the New Testament: Legally, she could get married some time around the age of 12.  She could be betrothed even earlier than that, but there wouldn’t be consummation of the relationship.

Of Mary’s future husband, Joseph, scholars say we know virtually nothing about, other than that he may have been a carpenter or artisan. Tradition has imagined him as an older man. But was he?

Ben Witherington, professor Asbury Theological Seminary: We have no firm historical evidence that he was other than an older teenage boy engaged to a slightly younger teenage girl.

In fact, you may be surprised to learn the Nativity story is based on just two brief, quite different, and sometimes apparently conflicting New Testament accounts—the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. Over the years, the two versions have blurred into one—the Christmas story most people celebrate.

Most scholars believe both stories were written some 70 to 80 years  after the birth of Jesus. Secular history contains no mention, anywhere, of events in the story.

Evans: Our records are admittedly sparse, sometimes just nothing is there. And so there’s always a certain amount of guesswork, a certain amount of just, well, probability, and we have to learn to live with that.

But we do know though quite a bit about life in this little corner of the world during those strange and difficult times. In modern Nazareth, evidence of those days is completely obliterated. It’s a modern, bustling, noisy tourist-city now, nothing like the impoverished little village it once was. It was perched on its hillside almost unnoticed a few miles from the provincial capital.

Levine: It’s a little town.  And in most little towns people know each other, they know each other’s families.  For the most part, they watch out for each other.

They tend not to like it when one individual goes off on his own or her own, over against what the village tends to stand for.  They tend to be united in this sense.

The world around Mary’s Nazareth was frightening and oppressive: Jewish Palestine, Galilee in the north, Judea in the south, were a far flung and relatively insignificant corner of the world’s greatest empire: Rome in all its glory.  And the greatest of all emperors was on the throne, the emperor Caesar Augustus. He was known across the vast stretches of his empire as the “prince of peace.”

John Dominic Crossan, professor of Religious Studies DePaul University: If you think of it as a bumper sticker on a Roman chariot, “First victory, then peace.”  And he was sincere. And if you looked around the Roman Empire you could say, “Yeah, I see the peace.”  Of course, it’s guaranteed by victory.

During Mary’s lifetime, Caesar Augustus maintained victory over Palestine by installing a puppet regime headed by King Herod The Great, a regime at times so brutal, Augustus himself was said to be repelled.

Evans: Herod’s final days are so appalling that Emperor Augustus remarked, “I would rather be Herod’s pig than his son.”  And of course, the Jewish people don’t eat pigs. So what he is implying is a pig would have a longer life span in Herod in his kingdom then one of his own sons.

Hazleton: No occupation is ever gentle.  But this one was particularly brutal.  Crucifixions took place by the hundreds, sometimes even by the thousands.  It was ruthless.

And ruthlessness bred seething resentments among peasants struggling just to survive.  

The powerless had ways of expressing discontent. Naming a girl child Mary would be one way, in honor of an earlier Mary, a Jewish princess executed by Herod.

Levine: To be sure, probably half of the Jewish women at the time, in the Galilee were named Mary.

Does that say something about their political proclivities? Perhaps.

For generations, the people of Roman-occupied Galilee and Judea had been quite literally crying out for a savior.

Hazleton: Things were so bad that there was an expectation that was these were messianic times and the Messiah was coming. “Messiah” means literally one who saves. And they thought, having a strong king who would stand up to the Romans, get them out of the country, oust Herod who was the puppet king of the Romans. So, they could be independent and free again, their own people. 

Rebellions erupted, rebellions that the Romans crushed without mercy.  Based on his research, Crossan believes Mary witnessed the violence:

Morrison: She and her whole village would have been terrified by the idea that they could be attacked at any moment?

Crossan: Yeah. The legions came from their Syrian bases down south with blood and sword to teach everyone a lesson, and that meant that a village like Nazareth, unless everyone fled, unless every child was hidden, unless every woman was hidden, unless every man was hidden, they would have been enslaved, raped, slaughtered.

But that difficult and dangerous pre-modern world is ignored by the Nativity plays developed over the centuries.

The setting, as plays begins, is otherworldly. An Angel Gabriel descends from heaven and appears to a  frightened girl called Mary, telling her she would give birth to the savior of mankind, and name him Jesus.

Scott Hahn, traditional Catholic scholar and teacher, Franciscan University: Mary of Nazareth, this young Jewish lady, has been chosen by the Almighty to do what really any other Jewish lady would have longed to do, to bear the long awaited Messiah, who was going to be more than just a successful politician, king, a ruler, conqueror.

And Mary is said to respond to the angel with a question still at the heart of 2,000 years of faith: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”

Witherington: What I would say is if we’re talking about the story of the birth of Jesus – it’s too improbable not to be true.

The story plays out in Christian communities throughout the world: Mary was told by an angel that she would conceive and give birth to the son of God.

The Cestello Annunciation, Sandro Botticelli, 1489
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'The Cestello Annunciation,' Sandro Botticelli, 1489

But how would the world know that this child was the one?

Old testament writers had foretold the birth of the Messiah. Their prophesy included three signs: (1) The Son of God would be a direct descendant of the greatest Jewish ruler King David;( 2) He would be born in Bethlehem, David’s city, (3) and would be born to a young woman.

The Gospel writers, both Matthew and Luke, interpreted that to mean that Mary was a virgin.

Hahn: And so there’s nothing merely metaphorical going on here. It’s religious. There’s literary artistry. It is deep stuff indeed. The virginity of Mary is important because you have here an act of God. The virgin birth showcases the divine fatherhood of this child, this infant Jesus.  And it’s the clearest revelation of the divine paternity of Jesus.

Back then, in a world dominated by Rome, stories of divine intervention were not so unusual. In Mary’s time, some of the most important people were supposedly fathered by gods:

Hazleton: And this was not understood literally to mean intercourse between a god and a human. But that the spirit, everything that enlivened the flesh, that made this body human in the very best sense, that came from the divine.

During that very, time the Roman senate declared their emperor Augustus, son of god, the Greek god Apollo. 

Crossan: Augustus' titles were divine, son of god, god, even god from god.  He was the lord.  He was the liberator.  He was the redeemer.  He was the savior of the world.  Those are titles of Caesar Augustus.

But for a Gospel writer to claim divine origin for the child to be born to the peasant named Mary, in a country occupied by Augustus?

Crossan: As soon as anyone else in early Christianity starts talking about “This is the Kingdom of God,”  they’re saying “and you ain’t.”  Which is, “In your face, Rome.” This is a kind of a joke.  But the Romans weren’t laughing. 

Morrison: Treasonous.

Crossan: It is high treason.

Remember, the Gospels were written decades after Jesus birth, when Christianity was spreading and non-believers were doing everything possible to stop it. Christians were often attacked, even killed by those who felt threatened. Those attacks included stories defaming Mary.

Crossan: The claim of virgin birth, that comes first. Then the immediate counter response by anyone who’s not sympathetic to it is “If Joseph is not the father, you want us to believe that God is the father?”  Of course not.  She was either raped or she committed adultery or whatever.  So in the beginning is the virgin birth story for me.  And in the second stage is the counter story of adultery or rape.

But as Christianity blossomed, those vicious stories about Mary faded and in the intervening centuries Mary’s virginity became a primary article of faith for millions.

Witherington: Both Gospels in different ways, Matthew and Luke, present the story as the result of a miracle.

Hahn: It unveils mystery a that, from all eternity, God is interpersonal. That is eternally fathering a son.  And the bond of love is the Holy Spirit. And that this family reality is eternal and divine.

But how did Joseph react when he got the news that Mary was pregnant… and not by him? The Gospel of Luke says Mary and Joseph were only engaged; Matthew says they were married, but hadn’t consummated their relationship. Up in the Galilean hills where they lived, in the hardscrabble hamlets and the market towns, people lived by a code whose remnants have come down to us even now: shame and honor. Shame was one of the worst things that could befall a family.

Matthew’s Gospel tells the story just a little differently than Luke does.  Matthew takes Joseph’s perspective says Joseph was ashamed about Mary’s pregnancy and intended to quietly divorce her, until the angel came in a dream to him— not her— and told him that the pregnancy was an act of God... and the baby would save the people their sins.

And by then in the story, Matthew had already provided a clincher to prove to his audience that the ancient prophecy about the messiah was about to be fulfilled. Joseph’s family tree, said Matthew, actually led all the way back to Israel’s greatest ruler, King David.

Witherington: If you look at the Hebrew scriptures as all part of the promises and prophecies of God for and about his people, then you’re always looking for the fulfillment even of small bits of it.

Hazleton: So you read again and again in the Gospels “as the prophets wrote.” So they were trying to establish that Jesus was in the lineage of the house of King David through the father, through the human father.

The father Joseph, whose family, according to the Gospels, just happened to be from the little town of Bethlehem. Coincidence or a wink at the third requirement of the prophesy - that the Messiah would be born there?

Evans: You don’t literally have to be born at Bethlehem to fulfill that prophecy.  However if you are born at Bethlehem, great, that’s like icing on the cake.

Crossan: Like "born in a log cabin," for us, means Lincoln. Born in Bethlehem? Messiah. It is sort of the graphic, geographic way of saying Messiah.

And that’s why, scholars say, the story would see Mary and Joseph would end up in Bethlehem.

It’s an abiding image of the Christmas story: the long exhausting journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  Mary, heavy with child, rides a donkey. Joseph is at her side. At least that’s the popular image.

In Matthew’s Gospel there’s no such journey— they’re already living in Bethlehem. Luke has the journey but no donkey, no mention of how they made the trip.

And why, according to Luke, were they heading to Bethlehem?  A decree that everyone in the empire would travel to his or her ancestral home to register in a census so they could be taxed. 

Or so Luke tells us, but there’s a problem in the story: a problem that has occupied many generations of scholars.

Crossan: Luke tells us the story that at the time Jesus was born Augustus had to create a census of the whole earth. Now every scholar can tell you there was no such census ever.

Witherington: Well, I wouldn’t say so.  I mean, it’s an absence of evidence.  Which is not the same as evidence of absence. Augustus wanted the provinces  enrolled. “We want taxes.  We want money.  We want every part of the empire doing their duty.” We have plenty of records of Augustus taking census all over the empire.

Was the taxation census an invented story-telling device to move the Nativity plot along? Possibly. But given how the Roman regime behaved, some taxation scheme or other could be expected.

Hazleton: At least 50 percent of their income went in taxation, either to the Roman occupiers or to Herod and his vast temple building projects or to the temple in Jerusalem.

Together, Herod and Rome were sucking people like Mary and Joseph dry. It was taxation that amounted to extortion. It was so crushing, so widespread, it later became part of Jesus' most famous prayer:

Hazleton: The Lord’s Prayer, which many of us now know as “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  But the first time you come across that in the Gospels, it reads, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive those who are in debt to us.”  And it meant this literally.

Only Luke tells the story of the census and the trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem. So scholars speculate about what Mary and Joseph might have faced, there in the city of David.

Hahn: It isn’t just simply, showing up at the census booth and, giving your name and address. You probably ended up having to swear some kind of oath of allegiance to the empire vis-à-vis the procurator, or whatever imperial machinery was there in place—throughout Palestinian. And so I would say, on historical grounds, you have reasons to think that this is a serious attempt by Luke to describe what actually happened.

Morrison: So the story of going to Bethlehem you would find historically probably true—

Hahn: I would.

The Old Testament prophecy about the Messiah would soon be fulfilled— a virgin was about to give birth, the baby’s lineage would go back to King David, and the baby would be born in Bethlehem. But you might be interested in knowing more about how the time, date, and place were determined.

The incredible and sacred place, the Church of the Nativity, was built right over the grotto said to be the very place Mary and Joseph arrived that night—the spot Jesus was born. And the mother of Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor, made the official location determination more than 300 years later.

As to the day we celebrate, December 25th, that had been the birthday Sol Invictus—the sun God, Constantine’s favorite god before he became a Christian.

The time of year, there’s no agreement on that, perhaps April, sometime before 4 BC and 6 AD. But almost certainly not the beginning of the year one.

Whenever it all happened, the Gospel of Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph came to an inn, and soon, the sweetest part of the Nativity play.

Hahn: What God is about to bring about is so unbelievable, it exceeds our wildest dreams, that the means by which God is going to bring it to pass will also exceed our natural experiences.

But it wouldn’t be easy. It never was then.

After their long journey to Bethlehem, so the popular Nativity story says, Mary and Joseph look for a place to stay, but are turned away from an inn. So Mary has her baby in a stable, wraps him in swaddling clothes and lays him in a manger, surrounded by farm animals.

But, moving as the story is, much of it comes not from the New Testament, but from later traditions. Nowhere do the Gospels claim there was a stable with animals present: no sheep, no cow, no camel.

Witherington: There probably wasn’t even an inn in Bethlehem in such a small town anyway.  I think actually what Luke is saying is because there was no room in the guestroom in ancestral home, they were put in the back of the house which is where early Jews would keep their especially precious beasts of burden or other animals.

Wherever Mary and Joseph ended up for the climax of the story, conditions certainly would have been meager.

Imagine no electricity, no running water, no anesthesia, no doctor. Two thousand years ago the process of giving birth was frightening, painful, dangerous and frequently fatal.

Morrison: What was the mortality of the mother in childbirth?

Hazleton: We don’t know the exact numbers.  But we know from looking at other peasant societies that the maternal mortality rate was extremely high.

Levine: To have two children survive to adulthood, one would have had to give birth to five. For a firstborn child in particular there, would have been an enormous concern for allowing that child to thrive.

Hazleton: An immense number died in birth — and mothers too.

Morrison: Describe for me how you see the Nativity scene.

Hazleton:  She would’ve been surrounded by all of Joseph’s female relatives.  There would’ve been a midwife there.  There would’ve been a birthing stone on which the midwife would’ve sat. And Mary would’ve been held up by three relatives, one arm around in back, the other holding up either thigh.

Historians says it would have been normal for female relatives hovering nearby to administer herbal infusions mixed together with hope and prayer to make Mary’s labor pains come faster.

Hazleton: They would’ve encouraged her.  They would’ve sang with her, chanted with her.  There would’ve been a rope hanging from the ceiling for her to pull on as she pushed, pull and push.

And there it was, the miracle at the heart of Christmas: a child is born.  Would anyone in that humble room have known the meaning of the event?

Hazleton: And the moment the child was born, they were all broken out in this wonderful ululations, very high-pitched,  that Middle Eastern women still do in times of joy and so on.  The moment everybody in the household, everybody in the village heard that, they would know a child had been born alive, another member of a Hamullah, of our family, of our village, of our nation.

As Christians know the story, a heavenly choir of angels appeared above the stable and lit up the sky with song. And an angel approached some shepherds, told them about the birth of Jesus, so they hurry off to find him. 

Hahn: It isn’t the rich, the famous, the powerful, it’s the lowly. The shepherds kind of share a sort of equally low-status in first century Jewish Palestine.

Morrison: I kinda get that.  Because that’s the whole nature of the message, that it’s the lowly and the underprivileged that—

Hahn:  The least likely, you know, in terms of politics or economics.

Then Luke has the shepherds go out to the world and spread the word. Or is the storyteller forecasting what will happen years later?

Hazleton: The Gospels, you have to remember, were not written as history.  They were written as theology they were written in Greek outside of Palestine.

And it’s this theology written some 80 years after Jesus’ birth that grew into the biggest religion in the world — two billion people — and became the foundation of Western civilization.

That happened even if the Nativity story didn’t unfold exactly as it’s told by the Gospel writers.

Hahn: Give them the benefit of the doubt.  These narrators are innocent until proven guilty.  I also have the belief that this is inspired scripture.

Crossan: I would plead if you take it literally, get the meaning.  If you take it metaphorically, get the meaning. The debate on taking it literally or metaphorically is a valid debate.  It’s an honest, valid debate.  But it is not the most important debate.  The most important debate is this: Whether you take it literally or whether you take it metaphorically, what meaning are you taking from it?  And could it be that even if I take it metaphorically and you take it literally we might come out with the same meaning.

Here’s why some scholars say Luke deserves the benefit of the doubt about the accuracy of the story.  

Evans: The author of Luke says that he consulted with eyewitnesses.  I don’t think we should assume that he’s just making that up.  And if he has met with eyewitnesses, who were they? 

Perhaps he spoke with shepherds. Or, is it just possible the author of Luke got his story from a first-hand source? From Mary herself?

Hahn: There are so many features in Luke’s story that have led scholars to say, you know, this seems to reflect a feminine perspective.  It seems to draw from the kind of experience that Mary herself could have shared with people.

Evans: It cannot be proven.  But it does open up the door, in a plausible way, to the possibility that the author of Luke in fact met either Mary or relatives, and so actually did know what he was talking about.

Whatever his inspiration, Luke’s story is light, usually the joyful end of nativity plays.

So unlike the other tale the pageants leave out, the story told in the Gospel of Matthew— the one that bristles with danger, and mystery, and death.

It’s part of every Nativity play—after Jesus is born, three kings bearing gifts follow a star to Bethlehem to find the infant, the new Messiah.

But that’s not exactly what it says in the Gospel of Matthew. And Luke doesn’t tell the story at all.

The Adoration of the Magi, Pieter Aertsen, 1560
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'The Adoration of the Magi,' Pieter Aertsen, 1560

Matthew’s Greek word is usually translated “wise men,” or “maji,” and he never says how many. But he certainly didn’t imply they were kings.

Hahn: There was a rabbinical saying that “If anybody learns anything from the maji, let him be accursed.”  You know, so we’re talking about outcasts in the extreme.

Or.. some kind of comic magician, or court jester?

Levine: Maji, magicians, at least in the Jewish tradition, would have been people like “Balamm the magician” whose talking donkey is more clued in than he is. They’re what we might consider to be, say, "Fools for Christ."

Whether wise men or jesters, many scholars say their inclusion in Matthew’s story, the fact that he has them visiting a child of such humble origins and not Herod or the emperor, is direct challenge to the leadership of the Roman empire  — a charged political statement by the Gospel writer Matthew.

Evans: He is saying, “No no no, Caesar isn’t the son of god, and the good news doesn’t begin with him, it begins with Jesus Christ.  He’s the real son of God.”

A message perhaps reinforced by that star the wise men were following.

Evans: The star really has to do with the descendant of David who is the Messiah.  So I’m not surprised at all that Matthew works that into his narrative.

Morrison: So a star is a way of God announcing the birth of the Messiah?

Evans: That’s right, but you see, in the pagan world it is, too.  You know, when Julius Caesar was murdered someone came forward afterwards and said “I saw his spirit ascending as a comet into heaven.”

And that provided impetus and rational for the senate to divinize, deify, Julius Cesar.

Morrison: It's a common way of looking at the world by everybody who lived there.

Evans: Some kind of omen, some kind of a sign in the heavens that this individual was no mere mortal, whether history, or parable.

This is where Matthew’s story takes a dark turn, as the wise men followed the star to Bethlehem, King Herod calls them in for a meeting. This part of the story isn’t usually seen in Nativity plays, it portrays the depth of Herod’s brutality, and the fact that— like many tyrants— he knew how unpopular he was.

Crossan: I’m quite certain that Herod  didn’t say to the wise men, ‘Now about this star, was that literal or metaphorical? Of course, he didn’t ask that. He got the message. They’re coming from the east to find a newborn king of the Jews. Which makes him the ex-king of the Jews. He’s going to say ‘Got the point. Let’s kill this child.’

But first, Herod would have to find the newborn Jesus. So the story has Herod turning the wise men into spies to find the baby and report back.

Matthew tells about the strange guiding star, how it stopped over the house— not stable—where Jesus lay with his mother.

The maji offered exotic gifts to the newborn, gold and aromatic frankincense and myrrh.

And what was the meaning of those first birthday presents, the first ever Christmas presents?

Levine: The gifts have been symbolized and re-symbolized as we go through history.  I mean my favorite one suggests that gold is there because anybody who’s just had a child needs additional money.  The myrrh is there for medicinal purposes.  And the frankincense is there for the diapers.

But then Matthew’s classic story builds to its climax: Joseph gets a warning from, in a dream, to flee with his family to Egypt. The wise men are warned by God too— to avoid Herod.

And  Herod, furious that he’s been duped, responds with the so called slaughter of the innocents, killing all male children two years and under in the Bethlehem area.

Did it happen?

Witherington: We know about Herod’s character.  Here’s the issue: Is Herod capable of this?  Yes.  He offed some of his own children.  He offed various of his wives.  We know that he was absolutely paranoid about maintaining control of his throne and anything and anybody that walked that got in the way of that, he was prepared to deal with.   Even harshly, if necessary.

But there is a larger significance to the story that laced its way through the Matthew’s Gospel, a story the ancients would have picked up right away.

Crossan: He’s got his message. And his main message is that Jesus is the new sort of improved Moses.

The story of Jesus birth is a re-telling of another birth story: the story of Moses, the Old Testament figure who led the Israelites out of their captivity in Egypt.

Hahn: Matthew is deliberately showing the parallels between Jesus birth and deliverance and Moses birth and deliverance.

Moses, whose birth, the story has it, prompted a murderous campaign by pharaoh, a slaughter of innocent children.

Crossnan: So imagine Matthew thinking, ‘Hmmm, Jesus is the new Moses.  How will I write his story? Ah. The old Moses was almost killed because pharaoh had tried to kill all the young people when he was born. I will have a story in which Herod, the new pharaoh, tries to kill all the children of Bethlehem in order to kill Jesus. In plain language, it's a parable. Matthew knew what he was doing.”

Is that why he had Jesus spend time in Egypt, just as Moses had?

Hahn: They both end up in Egypt, being raised there, you know. And then they come out of Egypt at the appointed time, led by an angel, and so on. They pass through the water, onto the desert, for 40 days and 40 nights.

A story of portents, angels, wandering stars, a virgin birth. Most Americans, a vast majority, according to polls, believe to a much higher percentage than biblical scholars do that the whole story— its simple, humble details, its majesty, its supernatural characters— are pure and simple history.

It's proof that our 2,000-year-old mystery has lost none of its presence or power.

After the birth of Jesus and the family’s flight to Egypt to escape Herod’s slaughter, the Gospel of Matthew says Mary, Joseph, and young Jesus waited for Herod to die, before moving to Nazareth.

In Luke, after Jesus' birth, the family traveled to Jerusalem to present the newborn baby at the temple to hear great prophesies about his future, and then returned to their village.

For most of the past 2,000 years, Luke’s and Matthew’s stories have been combined. Their differences have been explained by theologians, ignored by most people, and treated as history.

But in recent generations, a heated debate has grown over the story, as historical criticism has taken a new look at the time of Jesus, and the emperor Augustus, and their opposing views of heaven and earth. Perhaps, argue these historians, the story of the birth of Jesus was a revolutionary political message.

Crossan: At the birth of Jesus, which is what we celebrate at Christmas, there is an alternative: If you give justice to the world, then you will have peace, otherwise you simply get a lull before the next victory and the next war. So Jesus opposes, in the name of God, imperial oppression of other people by an empire. And the empire, getting the message, executes him.

Hahn: The fact is, the infancy narratives, the birth of the Messiah, can’t be understood, apart from first century politics. But is it to be, therefore, reduced to nothing but a kind of photographic negative of what is going on in Caesar Augustus and others?  I don’t think so.  It shows that our Lord is fully engaged in the human situation of that time.

In the years since all this happened, an estimated 30,000 different variants of Christianity have competed — sometimes violently — for people’s hearts. From wars and insurrections to inquisitions and great campaigns for moral rearmament, it all sprang from a rocky place that surrounds the sea of Galilee, where a young woman gave birth to a little boy.

And from that one incontestable fact, sprang all manner of interpretations, opinions, beliefs, and faiths.

Crossan: If somebody actually wants to insist debating with me or discussing with me that everything happened in Matthew and Luke, in the infancy stories, exactly as they’re told, I would prefer today not to waste my time and the other person’s time debating it.  I would say, “Okay, could I conceive for the moment that everything happened literally? I don’t think so, but let me concede it.  Now, why do you think it’s important?”

Levine: This is a question of faith.  It’s not a question of history.  I think for those people who are able to have that faith and that faith sustains them, God forbid the historian would come in and say, ‘Your faith is nonsense.’ God forbid.

Witherington: I’m saying it’s a miracle.  Pure and simple.

Will scholars ever agree on whether the Bible’s Christmas story is literal history?  Probably not, nor even on exactly what the story means.

But the fact that it has incredible power? On that they are unanimous.

Evans: If you believe that the Bible is inspired, and if you believe that the Bible is ultimately the word of God.  And I do believe that. You have to understand what it is. There are many different types of literature in the Bible.  And a lot of it doesn’t ask to be interpreted historically or literally.  It’s parable, it’s metaphor. It’s poetry.  It’s exaggerated. 

Hahn:  Now for some people, it’s just too good to be true. For people like me, it’s almost too good to be true, except that it is true.

And this much we do know: Once upon a time in a small, poor place, a young woman gave birth to a baby boy.  And changed the world.

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