For centuries, through prose, poetry, pageant, painting, sculpture, and song, people have retold the birth story of Jesus. They blended the only two Gospel accounts and added details that at first glance seem embellishments but that metaphysical interpretation shows are spiritually significant.
The process began early, before the Gospels of Matthew and Luke were written. It may have begun when Gentile converts tried to understand how such a remarkable man as Jesus could be. There was an explanation handy in the pagan birth-myths of heroes and demigods—the union of a god and a mortal female produced a remarkable person …
A long time passed between the birth of Jesus and the writing of the Gospel of Matthew, which has the first account of the birth. It was written in about 85 CE, more than 50 years after the crucifixion. Matthew mentions Mary's pregnancy by the Holy Spirit but implies that Jesus was born in a house (apparently Joseph's house) in Bethlehem. This account has the visit of wise men from the East, who followed a mysterious star that was seen by no one else.
Only Matthew tells of Herod's killing of infants, the flight of the holy family to Egypt and, because according to the writer, Mary and Joseph originally lived in Bethlehem, the move to Nazareth.
The Gospel of Luke, written approximately 85 to 95 CE, is quite different. Luke has a prologue that tells about the miraculous conception of John the Baptist as well as that of Jesus, then he tells about the census, the trip to Bethlehem, the birth in the stable, the visit of the shepherds, and, after all required ceremonies surrounding births have been performed in Jerusalem, the return to Nazareth.
Who Knows Where or When
The stories are not simply different, they are contradictory. Could it be that Jesus was born under ordinary circumstances either in Nazareth (as a few scholars believe) or Bethlehem (as both Matthew and Luke claim and tradition insists)? No one knows. At the time, births of common folk were not recorded, and apparently Jesus never said.
We are not even certain of the year when Jesus was born. At present, the most educated guess is sometime in 7 or 6 BCE on the assumption that, if the "slaughter of the innocents" (baby boys 2 years old and younger) did occur, Jesus had to have been born before Herod died in 4 BCE, if indeed that was the year of Herod's death. Historians are not certain of the date, some suggesting that it may have been as late as 2 or 1 BCE.
But the Gospels of Matthew and Luke agree that Jesus was born toward the close of Herod's reign. Luke fixes the date by mentioning a world census. Unfortunately, that does not help because, according to the Jewish historian, Josephus, the census Luke mentions took place in 6 or 7 CE after the death of Herod.
Some astronomers believe that the 7 BCE conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn that occurred in the constellation of Pisces, which astrologers of the time considered the "house of the Hebrew," may have been the origin of the legend of the star …
To the ancients, stars were considered celestial entities, angel-like beings, and many passages in the Bible indicate the Jews shared that belief … So the Magi's star was an angel-like being that served as a guide who moved ahead of them … waited for them when they rested, and descended to earth to point out the exact place where the child was to be found.
Each Gospel account by itself is incomplete; it points to only part of the Truth. But blended together, and with the additions that have been incorporated, the two form the traditional Christmas story that points to the Truth.
Setting a Date for Christmas
As to the season or month, there is no way of knowing. Matthew gives no hint of the time of year. Luke's inclusion of the shepherds in the field with the flock by night suggests any season except winter …
Early Christians did not celebrate the birth of Jesus until about the third century, and then they celebrated three events—the visit of the wise men, John's baptism of Jesus, and the birth of Jesus—all on January 6. Nativity celebrations were not widespread until the fourth century when the church leaders chose December 25.
It was a wise and symbolic choice. From antiquity, on that date there was a winter solstice festival to celebrate the increase of light, the triumph of the sun over darkness. Former pagans could retain their festival but change the reason for it …
About the same time, the ass, ox, and camels were included in a bas-relief of the nativity of a Christian sarcophagus. Leading the camels are three wise men wearing caps like the one on a statue of Mithra, a Persian savior who was worshipped as the incarnation of eternal light and whose birthday was December 25 at midnight …
The confusion about dates indicates that though the stories are about a historical person, the actual or historical facts were not known. Furthermore, the writers were concerned with the meaning of Jesus' birth rather than with historical accuracy.
How It Should Have Happened
Through the centuries … people have responded by retelling the nativity story as they felt it should have happened or to convey symbolically what the birth of Jesus meant to them. Though, like the caps on the wise men, some additions symbolized purposes of early theologians, metaphysical interpretation uncovers more meaning in the symbols than the theologians, artists, or storytellers consciously intended.
Writings of early church leaders clearly indicate their recognition that the birth stories in Matthew and Luke could be disputed and so, like laypeople, they felt free to rework the Gospel material to convey the truth as they saw it. Indeed, that probably was the reason, though it may not have been conscious, that the canon included the two contradictory accounts.
Each Gospel account by itself is incomplete; it points to only part of the Truth. But blended together, and with the additions that have been incorporated, the two form the traditional Christmas story that points to the Truth and so becomes a guide to transformation, a map for a transformative trip to a spiritual Bethlehem.
Excerpted from The Trip to Bethlehem by Hypatia Hasbrouck (Unity Books, 2021).