'Overtures to the Gospel' Nativity: The familiar story of Jesus' birth comforts Christians, but many biblical scholars doubt the historical accuracy of the details.

December 22, 1996|By John Rivera and Ann Lolordo | John Rivera and Ann Lolordo,SUN STAFF

A little star in Bethlehem marks the place where Christian tradition holds that Jesus Christ was born.

Worshipers by the millions travel to the Church of the Nativity, a 4th-century Greek Orthodox church in the center of town in Israel's West Bank, descend a few steps behind the sacristy and enter a cave. There they ponder, pray and pose for photographs beside a 14-pointed silver star inlaid under a stone altar.

In Christian churches around the world this holiday season, the story of Jesus' birth will be told as it has been for hundreds of years.

For many believers, the Nativity tale -- the journey of a carpenter named Joseph and his pregnant wife, Mary, to Bethlehem, Jesus lying in a manger, the star, the visits by Magi and shepherds, the flight to Egypt -- is familiar and comforting, a story that inspires faith.

To mainline scholars of Christian Scripture, however, the events as told in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke cannot be regarded as historical.

"The Gospels are not history. These guys weren't historians; they were theologians," said the Rev. Dr. Donald L. Jones, a Methodist minister and professor of religious studies at the University of South Carolina.

"There's not a biblical theologian in the world today that is regarded as competent that would treat those stories, the birth stories of Jesus, as if they were history," said Bishop John Shelby Spong, Episcopal bishop of Newark, N.J., and author of several books on the New Testament.

Historians agree that there is evidence in Roman and Jewish documents that Jesus lived and many of the events recorded in the Bible occurred. But the circumstances of his birth are virtually unknown.

Scripture scholars say the biblical accounts of Jesus' birth are theological descriptions intended to convey a spiritual message.

"I think of them as portraits being painted rather than objective stories being told," Spong said. "What they're trying to say is the whole world received a blessing when Jesus was born."

It's true, according to archaeological studies, that underground caves -- believed to be part of an ancient dwelling -- existed on the site of the Church of the Nativity. The Nativity story, however, originates with two authors of the Gospels, Matthew and Luke, ** who wrote their separate accounts 85 to 90 years after Jesus' birth.

"They're as different as night and day," said Jones, who is an expert on the Gospel of Luke.

Among the issues that caused scholars to cast doubt on the historicity of the infancy narratives:

Jesus probably was not born in Bethlehem, but in Nazareth. Bethlehem, the city of King David, is where Jews would expect a Messiah to come from. But the other Gospels make no mention of what would have been an auspicious beginning for Jesus. In fact, some people Jesus encounters in the Gospels of Mark and John are astonished that a religious figure could come from Galilee, north of Jerusalem where Jesus was raised, and not Bethlehem.

Luke says Jesus was born during the census of the world while Quirinius was governor of Syria. Both Gospels agree that Jesus was born during the reign of King Herod the Great, who died in 4 B.C. Most scholars put the date of the census at A.D. 6 and add that according to the practice of the Roman empire, Joseph would not have gone to Bethlehem, his ancestral town, to be counted, but would have remained in Nazareth, where he lived.

Many elements of Matthew, such as the star marking a significant birth, the slaughter of the children younger than 2 in Bethlehem and the flight to Egypt, are adapted from the Old Testament to explain Jesus' life.

Scholars point out that the birth stories appear in only two Gospels out of the 27 books of the New Testament. They are not mentioned in the epistles of St. Paul, the earliest books in the New Testament, written between 20 and 30 years after Jesus' death. The earliest Gospel, Mark, written about 40 years after Jesus' death, makes no mention of his birth.

The birth stories contradict each other on a number of key points, and each has events or details not mentioned in the other. The genealogies in the two Gospels differ on many points.

Matthew writes about Bethlehem as Joseph's permanent home, where he lives in a house with Mary. It is there that the Magi, astrologers from the East, visit Jesus. It is only in Matthew that Herod orders the death of first-born sons 2 years old and younger, forcing Joseph and Mary to flee to Egypt to protect Jesus.

In Luke's version, Joseph and Mary live in Nazareth, a small, agricultural town in the Galilee region in northern Palestine. They travel to Bethlehem, about five miles south of Jerusalem and Joseph's ancestral home, for the census. Mary gives birth to Jesus, wraps him in swaddling clothes and lays him in a manger, because there is no room at the inn, and Jesus is visited by shepherds.

The Christmas story most people are familiar with is a combination of the two accounts.

Harmonized in tradition

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