This time of year, the trappings of Christmas permeate the landscape. Although many best-loved facets of the Christmas season are more secular, commercial, or pagan in origin than they are Christian, it can not be denied that all of this holly-jolliness is set upon the underlying fabric of a story that began 2000 years ago.
In this study, we are going back to the very beginning, when Mary is impregnated by the Holy Spirit, and the news of this holy child is announced by angels to Mary and Joseph. The verity of the virgin birth has been questioned by critics for as long as the story has existed. We'll examine some of the contextual evidence that suggests the fabric of this story is woven with man made yarn.
Annunciation of a Myth
It is dangerous to take words out of context when trying to discern their true meaning. Words can change meanings when considered against the nuances and inferences of the surrounding text. In the same way, multiple accounts encompassing the same story should not be read independently. Rather, each account should be compared and contrasted with the other accounts to arrive at the most complete vision of the truth.
With that in mind, we investigate the story of the impregnation of Mary, mother of Jesus, as relayed by the Gospels. Mark and John do not mention the birth of Jesus at all. So we'll look at Matthew 1:18-25 and Luke 1:26-35 plus 2:1-6.
In Matthew's account, Mary was pledged to Joseph to be married. Joseph found out that she was pregnant, and because he “was a righteous man”, he was going to marry her and then divorce her quietly. (This is interesting because Jesus will later condemn divorce. So how righteous was Joseph?) An angel appears to Joseph in a dream and tells him that Mary's baby comes from the Holy Spirit, that he should name the baby Jesus, and that He will save His people from their sins. This happened to fulfill the prophesy that a virgin will give birth, and the child will be called Immanuel, meaning “God with us”. Joseph takes Mary to be his wife, but does not have sex with her until Jesus is born.
In Luke's account, Mary was pledged to Joseph, a descendant of king David, to be married. An angel appears to Mary and tells her that she has found favor with God, that she will give birth to a boy that she is to name Jesus, that Jesus will take the throne of David forever, that it is the Holy Spirit that will impregnate her, so Jesus will be the Son of God, and that her old relative Elizabeth is with child too. Joseph took his pledged-wife-to-be, Mary, from Nazareth to Bethlehem for a census because he was related to king David. Jesus is born in a manger in Bethlehem. (Note that the references to the Davidic lineage are additional strikes against the thought that the lineage of Jesus given in Luke is actually that of Mary's, not of Joseph's.)
Individually, each account appears to be a plausible tale, if God exists. Superficially, when spliced together, there are no apparent contradictions between the stories, aside from the argument of semantics involving when Joseph actually married Mary. So far, so good. But let's dig deeper.
One minor issue that pops up upon closer inspection involves Joseph's reluctance to stay married to Mary. Why is Joseph initially reluctant? Are we to believe Mary didn't tell Joseph about her night with the Holy Spirit, or is it just that Joseph didn't believe her, or is it that, in Matthew's version, no angel ever told Mary why she was suddenly with child, and that is evidence that the story is fiction? We are left to eternally ponder.
Another minor issue is Jesus' name. According to the prophesy, Jesus shouldn't be called Jesus. He should be called Immanuel. In the entire New Testament, Jesus is never called Immanuel, nor is the phrase ever uttered in Jesus' presence, which would seem to break the prophesy. I guess we are supposed to go just by the name's meaning; “God with us”.
A much larger issue is revealed when you consider the source of this information recorded in the accounts. Most scholars believe Matthew not to be written by the Apostle Matthew, and the author Luke was definitely not an Apostle, and thought widely to be Paul's physician friend named Luke. In other words, not only are they not eye-witness accounts of the original events, but they may not have even been eye witnesses of Jesus.
If you are writing a record of history, who do you go to in order to get the story of Jesus' birth? Jesus' parents, obviously. At some point in time, I would think that Mary would have told Joseph about here angelic encounter, and visa versa. Think about it. How often do you get a direct message from God? Wouldn't you tell your spouse, especially if what was revealed involve both of you? Most probably, both parents knew of each other's angelic annunciation.
When Matthew and Luke, or whoever, asked for the details from Joseph and Mary, it is most logical to presume that either Joseph or Mary spoke of both annunciations at the same time, unless they were just a bit egocentric. So then, are we to believe that Matthew and Luke simply disregarded the other spousal-side of the stories as not being important enough to include? It's unlikely, especially when you consider the amount of detail that Luke adds in particular.
The omissions of Mary's annunciation in Matthew and Joseph's annunciation in Luke just don't make sense if the events actually took place as described. However, these omissions make perfect sense if the two stories are fictional and were developed independently.
The final condemnation of these tales as myth involves the prophesy of the virgin birth. (Although, explicitly this only applies to Matthew's account.) Many scholars debate about whether or not “virgin” is the proper interpretation. That's actually a minor issue when you put this prophesy in its proper context. The prophesy comes from Isaiah 7, and specifically Matthew quotes verse 14. I'll leave you with the contextual lines adjacent to that verse, and I'll leave you to ask yourself if this it is supposed to be about Jesus. I don't think so, because Jesus, being God, would know right from wrong; not to mention that the entire remainder of the prophesy doesn't seem to apply. Here is Isaiah 7:13-17:
Then Isaiah said, "Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of men? Will you try the patience of my God also? 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. He will eat curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right. But before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste. The LORD will bring on you and on your people and on the house of your father a time unlike any since Ephraim broke away from Judah—he will bring the king of Assyria." NIV