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Sunday, August 10, 2008

Questions for Christians: The Nativity

First, the usual disclaimer: the purpose of these posts is to pose questions to Christians who come here (or go anywhere, for that matter) with the intent of converting us to Christianity, but also with an open mind about their own faith. You may post your answers here, or answer them privately, at your discretion. My ultimate goal in asking these questions is to have you deconvert from Christianity. If you are not open to at least the possibility of that happening, then I suggest you not respond to these questions, as that will be a waste of your time (and possibly our bandwidth). At the same time, I am open to the possibility of learning a thing or two about Christianity along the way -- but if you answer these questions publicly, with the intention of being a teacher instead of a learner, then please don't bother doing so here. These questions are for your educational benefit.

This is one in a series of "Questions..." posts that deal with the Bible, the scriptural compilation that constitutes the conceptual framework of the Christian faith. If you were ever a Christian, chances are you've read some of the Bible. If you are still a Christian today, chances are you haven't read all of it.

These questions concern the Nativity, the purported birth of Jesus. This is also where we'll start getting into the realm of Biblical contradictions. At this point, some Christians will no doubt crack their knuckles and chuckle, "Let me at 'em. I love reconciling contradictions." By all means, take your best shot. Then ask yourself two questions: First, does my explanation make sense, or am I grasping at straws here? Second, would it even be necessary if this book really were written or inspired by God himself?

1. Who was Joseph's father?

The author of Matthew says it was Jacob, the author of Luke says it was Heli. Which is correct?

This is one of the more commonly known contradictions, and there are several answers for it. One is that Jacob was Joseph's natural father, Heli was his adopted father. Another is that one book actually listed Mary's father instead of Joseph's, as that may have been a custom at the time. Still another is that Heli was Jacob's last name!

So yes, you can certainly think of possible explanations for these contradictions. But can you think of actual ones? Not all of these explanations can be correct. Which is correct, and how do you know?

For that matter, have you considered this explanation: that the Bible was written by mere humans, for their own purposes, and that God was not involved?

2. When was Jesus born?

This is a contradiction that cannot be reconciled. The author of Luke claims that Jesus was born during a census ordered by Caesar Augustus, which we know for a fact took place in 6 CE. The author of Matthew claims that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod, whom we know died in 4 BCE. Thus, Matthew and Luke disagree on the dates by at least ten years. Which of them is wrong? What does that say about the Bible?

3. Why did Mark not know of the virgin birth?

Mark, we know, was the earliest gospel written. The authors of Matthew and Luke used Mark as source material to a great extent. If something as miraculous as the virgin birth actually occurred, why did Mark not at least mention it? (The same can be asked for John.)

4. Did Mary and Joseph believe the angel?

In Matthew, the angel tells Joseph that Mary's child will save people from their sins. In Luke, the angel tells Mary that her son will be great, that he will be caled the Son of the Most High, and will rule on David's throne forever. Mary appears to have believed this, as later in the story, she tells Elizabeth that all generations will consider her blessed because of the child that will be born to her.

That being the case, why did Jesus complain (Mark 6:4-6) that he received no honor among his relatives and in his household? Perhaps more seriously, why did Mary and Joseph try to take custody of Jesus because they thought he had lost his mind (Mark 3:20-21)?

5. Why does the author of Matthew cite prophecies which do not refer to Jesus?

The virgin birth is the most popular prophecy Matthew cites, but in the original Hebrew, that verse (Isaiah 7:14) says that a "young woman" will give birth, not a virgin.

Another example: the author of Matthew quotes a prophecy saying that Jesus would be called out of Egypt, and states that his family fled from Egypt and then returned to fulfill this prophecy. But the verse (Hosea 11:1) clearly refers to the Israelites of the Exodus led by Moses, not the Messiah.

With the slaughter of the innocents it gets even worse -- not only does the original verse (Jeremiah 31:15) refer to the Israelites about to be taken into exile in Babylon, but we know to a historical certainty that the fulfillment event Matthew writes about, Herod's ordering the killing of all male children two years old and younger in the region of Bethlehem, never happened. Such a monstrous crime would have been reported by many historians, particularly Josephus, who took pleasure in listing Herod's many crimes in detail. Yet neither he nor any other historian makes any mention of it.

Couldn't it be that the author of Matthew, whom we know was an evangelical and trying to persuade people of Christianity's truth, simply made these things up? Don't today's evangelicals do that all the time?


  1. Silent Dave,

    Are you going to cover the virgin birth in another post? In light of current knowledge of human reproduction a virgin birth does not make sense and I would love to hear an explanation from Christians.


  2. Dave,

    I wish someone would have asked me these questions as a theist.

    Even if no theists choose to answer, which I wish they would, I still enjoy these questions and they are food for thought for me even as an atheist.

  3. As milo said, the whole virgin birth thing was done way before Jesus by a number of "saviors". Even Ghengus Khan claimed to be born of a virgin-do christians believe this? If not, why not? Even if the Bible is without contradiction in these parts, why should we believe it? The region was crawling with gurus and messiahs at the time. Christianity is only popular today because of Constantine's political decision. I agree with Thomas Paine and other thinkers who refuse to believe in "divine revelation" which was not revealed to them, but through centuries of hearsay in which none of the supernatural elements have a prayer (appropriate term) of a chance to be verified.

    My question is why is mere belief the measure of one's salvation? this is what I am told-believe in Christ, put your trust in Christ or burn for eternity. But what if I can't believe? Belief is not a matter of will. I cannot choose to genuinely believe the Bible if I don't. To me, this is great evidence that this is a man-made convention.


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