Last week, my daughter was looking at a copy of The Christmas Story: The Brick Bible for Kids, author Brendan Powell Smith’s LEGO depiction of the Christian nativity (which I’ll be giving away as part of a promotion next Monday).
The book is fun and funny, and I figured she’d love it. But, when she got to page 11, she slammed it shut.
“I don’t like this book,” she announced.
“You don’t like the story?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “I like the story.”
“You don’t like LEGOs?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “I like LEGOs.”
“Then why don’t you like the book?”
“Because,” she said. “It’s not right. Mary came to Bethlehem ON A DONKEY.”
I opened up the book. Sure enough, there was Mary and Joseph walking to Bethlehem.
“Actually,” I explained, “the Bible never says anything about a donkey. That part was added in later by other people.”
“No!” she said, all pissed off. “MARY RODE A DONKEY!”
Then she slammed the book shut again.
Wow, kid, I thought. You’re going to have a hard time when I tell you the rest of it.
Historically speaking, it’s highly — and when I say highly, I mean HIGHLY — unlikely that Jesus was born in a stable, or placed in a manger, or visited by three magi. Because it is highly unlikely that Joseph and Mary made that trek to Bethlehem in the first place — on a donkey or otherwise. According to scholarly research on the subject, Jesus was probably born near his hometown of Nazareth, and it was probably not in December, and the birth was probably pretty unceremonious. After all, historically speaking, Jesus didn’t rise to prominence until he grew up and started his traveling ministry.
In fact, there is surprisingly little we know for certain about Jesus. Some would say that nothing is certain, but exhaustive scholarly research suggests otherwise. Most scholars agree on these three facts:
1. Jesus lived.
2. Jesus was baptized by John (the, um, Baptist).
3. Jesus was crucified by the Romans near Jerusalem.
But, dude, that’s it. That’s all we know. Even taking the supernatural stuff out of the equation (that he was the son of God, that he performed miracles, that he rose from the dead, that he ascended to heaven), there is still so much open to interpretation, speculation and guesswork.
The most fascinating part to me is that, according to many scholars, numerous details from Jesus’ life were invented after his death in order to match him up with the Old Testament version of the Jewish Messiah. Written 500 to 700 years before Jesus’ birth, the books of the Old Testament mention a coming Messiah something like 300 times. And let me tell you: They got really specific. So all the New Testament stories about Jesus weren’t creative storytelling so much as they were a recounting of these old messianic stories. For example, the Old Testament said the Jewish Messiah would:
• Be born of a virgin: ”Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” Isaiah 7:14.
• Preach the ‘good news’: “The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.” Isaiah 61:1-2
• Enter Jerusalem on a donkey: “Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Zechariah 9:9
• Be betrayed by a friend: “Even my close friend, whom I trusted, he who shared my bread, has lifted up his heel against me.” Psalm 41:9
• Be crucified: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads… He trusts in the LORD; let the LORD rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.” Psalm 22:1,7-8
Now, most Christians would say that the scholars have it all wrong. Jesus’ story “matches up” to the Old Testament because Jesus was the Messiah. But some of it is just too convenient. In a historical context, it doesn’t fly.
Let’s go back to the nativity, for example.
In the Old Testament, the Messiah is described as being from Bethlehem — the birthplace of Jerusalem, the place where King David established his kingdom, and the city in which the “People of Israel” got their start. It was said that the Messiah would be a descendent of David himself and therefore have a rightful claim to the throne. Consider Micah 5:2, written in 750 BCE: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”
In other words, it was vital that Jesus have a connection to Bethlehem if he were ever going to be passed off as the true Messiah.
The thing is, it makes no sense whatsoever that Joseph and Mary would leave Nazareth and head to Bethlehem to register for a Census when Mary was 9 months pregnant. Not just in the dead of winter — but ever. Jesus’ family hadn’t lived in Bethlehem in hundreds and hundreds of years; to trace his family back to the city of David, Joseph and Mary would have had to go back 42 generations. (If you’ve ever tried to map out your own family tree, you know how unlikely that is.) Furthermore, as researchers have pointed out, even if they could trace their family heritage back that far, no emperor would force all his people to return to their ancestral cities to register for the Census. It’s not rational. And the emperor at the time, Emperor Augustus, apparently was known as a rational man.
So who was Jesus? A charismatic leader? A philosopher? An activist? A prophet? A man with a mental illness? Anything is possible, I suppose. But one thing is all but certain: The Christmas nativity, as we know it, didn’t happen.
Maxine is going to be crushed.