Who Was Jesus?

By Bart D. Ehrman
Newsweek, December 10, 2012

Edited by Andy Ross

Much of the common story about the infant in Bethlehem is either a modern myth or based on Gospel accounts from outside Christian scripture. Nowhere does the Bible give the year or the date of the birth. It does not place an ox and an ass at the scene or say how many wise men visited him.

For many centuries, many Christians learned about the birth of Jesus from the Proto-Gospel of James, which was composed probably a century after the canonical Gospels, and so unlikely to contain much fact. But Christians in the Middle Ages were less interested in historical accuracy than in a good story.

The proto-gospel offers details about Jesus' mother Mary. We learn about her own miraculous birth, and that when she nears puberty, the elderly widower Joseph is persuaded to take care of her. Joseph was an old man and Mary a young girl, and the brothers of Jesus were the sons of Joseph from a previous marriage.

During a trip to Bethlehem, Jesus is born miraculously. Joseph arrives with a midwife to assist Mary, but too late. The cave is filled with a blinding light and the child has already appeared. Jesus even walks over to his mother and takes her breast. The midwife goes off and announces that a virgin has given birth.

The Gospel birth stories are no less unbelievable. Yet Pope Benedict XVI has published Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, which affirms the Gospel accounts not only as theologically valuable but also as historically accurate.

There are problems with the traditional stories in Matthew and Luke, the only two Gospels that contain infancy narratives. The first two chapters of Matthew and the first two chapters of Luke appear irreconcilable. For a start, they give different genealogies of Jesus' father Joseph. They both want to relate Jesus to the ancestral line of the Jewish patriarchs. The discrepancies go all the way through.

Both contradict known facts of history. In Luke, Joseph and Mary make a trip from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem in order to register for a census. Joseph and Mary need to register in Bethlehem because Joseph is descended from King David, who came from Bethlehem. This is a narrative designed to show how Jesus could have been born in Bethlehem when everyone knew he came from Nazareth.

The Gospel stories are not historically reliable descriptions of what really happened. The accounts are meant to declare religious truths, not historical facts. For those with a broad vision, a generous appreciation of literature, and a sense of theological meaning, the truth of the stories can be founded on what happens in the lives of those who believe them.


AR This all seems too obvious to be worth restating.