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The Rest of the Nativity

All our earlier analysis have shown that a major portion of the story of the birth of Jesus is unhistorical. Now we shall look at the status of the rest of the nativity episodes in Matthew and Luke. We see that all the episodes seem to have been derived almost entirely from the Old Testament:

The Wise Men and The Star of Bethlehem

Matthew 2:1-12 describes the appearance of the wise men "from the east" who came looking for Jesus because they saw a "star in the east". And when they found him they offered him presents of "gold, incense and myrrh."[a] The problem is, despite diligent research by scholars nobody really knows the identity nor the origins of these wise men.[1]

As for the star, many suggestions had been made: a nova, a comet and even a planetary conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter. None of these were successful. there was no Nova recorded during the period of Jesus birth. Halley's comet appeared in 11BC but that was too far back to satisfy most Christian theologians. The planetary conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter occurred in 7BC but the distance between the planets, as viewed from the earth, was still far enough apart for each of the planets to be discernable as separate objects. It was highly unlikely that they could have been mistaken for a single star.[2]

It should also be remembered that the occurrence of heavenly phenomena is a common theme in Greco-Roman legends. For instance a comet's appearance in the sky during the death of Julius Caesar (c110-44BC) was recorded by Suetinos while the same phenomena that accompanied the birth of Mithridates (c132-63BC), King of Pontus was recorded by the historian Justin.[3]

In view of the lack of historical support for the story of the wise men and the star of Bethlehem it is very likely that the whole story was composed by Matthew from Old Testament passages:[4]

On the "star in the east"
Numbers 24:17
There shall come a star out of Jacob, and a specter shall rise out of Israel
On the wise men
Isaiah 60:3
And the Gentiles shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising
On their presents
Isaiah 60:6
And they shall bring gold and incense.

As for the significance of myrrh, I quote Marina Warner's Alone of All Her Sex

The myrrh the book of Exodus, when the Jews at Moses order mix a chrism with which they anoint the Ark of the Covenant-an apt symbol that the child accepts the wise men's myrrh is the anointed one who will inaugurate the new covenant. [5]
All evidence point to the fact that Matthew concocted the whole episode of the wise men, the star and the gifts out of Old Testament passages.

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The Annunciation

Luke's other episodes of the nativity also have very little claims to historicity. Like Matthew, these episodes can be traced directly to Old Testament passages.

Take for instance the annunciation of the birth of Jesus to Mary by the angel Gabriel. The dialogue between the virgin and the angel seems to be taken wholly from the Old Testament. [6] The angel greets Mary the same way he (in Daniel the angel's name was also Gabriel) was said to have greeted Daniel:

Daniel 9:23
"You are greatly beloved."
Luke 1:28
"You are highly favoured."

And Gabriel's reassurance to Mary is similar to that he gave Daniel:

Daniel 10:12
"Fear not, Daniel."
Luke 1:30
"Fear not, Mary."

In another Old testament passage, an angel greets Gideon in the same words that Gabriel used with Mary:

Judges 6:12
And the angel of the Lord appeared to him and said to him, "The Lord is with you..."
Luke 1:28
And he [Gabriel] came to her and said, "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you."

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Mary's Song of Praise

Similarly Mary's song of praise, The Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) is so similar to the Song of Hannah (I Samuel 2:1-10) both in imagery and length that it is simply impossible for these to be merely coincidental. Table A below gives the two passages side by side (with some additional Old Testament passages). [7]

Luke 1:46-55Old Testament Sources

And Mary said:
"My soul glorifies the Lord.
And my spirit rejoices in God my saviour

For He has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden.

For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed,

for he who is mighty has done great things
for me and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has showed strength with his arm,
he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and exalted those of low degree.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.

He has helped his servant Israel in remembrance of mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, top Abraham and to his posterity forever.

I Samuel 2:1
Hannah also prayed and said
"My hear exults in the Lord,
My strength is exulted in the Lord.
I Samuel 1:11
And she took a vow and said;
"O lord...if you will indeed look on the affliction of your handmaid and remember me and not forget your handmaid..."
Malachi 3:12
All nations shall call you blessed.

I Samuel 2:2-5
There is none holy like the Lord,
there is none beside you,
there is no rock like our God.

Talk no more so very proudly,
let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for the Lord is a God of knowledge,
and by him his actions are weighed.

The bows of the might are broken,
but the feeble gird on strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
but those who were hungry have ceased to hunger
II Samuel 22:51
Great triumps he gives to his king,
and shows steadfast love to his anointed,
to david and to his descendents forever."

Table A: The Magnificat and The Song of Hannah [8]

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The Outline of the Nativity

This dependance on the Old Testament for the episodes in the nativity stories is almost total. In fact, as Don Cuppitt and Peter Armstrong pointed out the main outline of the nativity stories can be derived purely from Old Testament passages. [9] Table B gives the nativity episodes and the Old testament passages that were sources for Luke and Matthew.

The AnunciationLuke 1:26-38Daniel 9:23
Daniel 10:12
Judges 6:12
Judges 13:3-4
The MagnificatLuke 1:46-56I samuel 2:1
Malachi 3:12
II Samuel 22:51
The Virgin BirthLuke 1:27
Matthew 1:18
Isaiah 7:14
The Birth in BethlehemLuke 2:4-6
Matther 2:1
Micah 5:2
The Wise Men From the EastMatthew 2:1-12Isaiah 60:3
Isaiah 60:6
Exodus 30:23
Psalms 72:10
The Star of BethlehemMatthew 2:2, 9-10Numbers 24:17
The Slaughter of the InnocentsMatthew 2:16-17Exodus 1:15-16
Jeremiah 31:5
The Return from EgyptMatthew 2:13-15Hosea 11:1
Table B: The dependence of the nativity stories on the Old Testament.

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a.The myths that grew on this gospel story were so luxuriant that popular imagination asserted that there were three kings (not an uncertain number of wise men) and their names were Melchior, Gasper and Balthazar. These are of course merely legends without any historical grounding.


1.Riedel, The Book of the Bible: p466
2.Asimov, Guide to the Bible: p791-792
Craveri, The Life of Jesus: p58
3.Craveri, The Life of Jesus: p57-58
4.Warner, Alone of All Her Sex: p6
5.Ibid: p6
6.Ibid: p11
7.Ibid: p12-13
8.Ibid: p342-343
9.Cuppitt & Armstrong, Who Was Jesus: p45

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