The errors contained in the nativity story are numerous, with several mangled references that need to be unpacked to make sense of the mess that is the true story of Christmas. Despite the claims of evangelicals that the Bible is literally true and error-free, the virgin birth narrative contains multiple contradictions and mistakes rolled up into this conflicting tale.
Major passages in the Bible are, more often than not, political in nature and such is the case with the origins of the virgin birth. To put the virgin birth into its original context, we need to look back to 732 BCE and the political machinations between the kings of Judah (Ahaz), Israel (Pekah), and Assyria (Tiglath-Pileser III). Judah had been a vassal kingdom to the Assyrian empire since 740, when Ahaz’s father (Jotham) and grandfather (Uzziah), acting as co-regents, wisely opted to submit to Assyrian dominance and pay tribute rather than face annihilation. Around 735, Jotham was forced to abdicate in favour of Ahaz by pro-Assyrian factions within his government; and the political slurs directed at Ahaz by the pro-Judahite writers of the Bible are listed in their coverage of him.
By 732, Pekah was pressuring Ahaz, and Ahaz appealed to his political masters for help. What followed had major implications for subsequent Western history and Judeo-Christian doctrines. One of those events was the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel and the so-called scattering of the ten northern tribes, as recorded in 2 Kings 15:29, which factored into Josiah’s Deuteronomistic reforms in his subsequent pious family history, and later apocalyptic writings that would see the twelve tribes reconstituted as a prelude to the End-Times; something which, obviously, would require divine intervention to accomplish.
The second major event, and the one that became intricately tied to the legend of Jesus, was the prophecy given by Isaiah to Ahaz during this time: a sign that Judah’s deliverer was forthcoming with the birth of his son, Hezekiah. Specifically, it was the mistranslation of Isaiah 7:14 which was altered in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) that became the basis of Matthew’s (copied by Luke) virgin birth narrative, when Matthew used the Greek Bible (note: not the Hebrew version) as the basis of his messianic cherry-picking to construct a reality which suited his needs:
Isaiah 7:14 — “Look, the young woman [original] / virgin [Septuagint] is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”
Matthew 1:23 — “Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.”
Luke 1:27 — “To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary.”
Let’s examine the contradictions between Matthew and Luke; note also that Paul, Mark (written before Matthew and Luke), and John (written after) are silent on the virgin birth and focus only on the ministry of Jesus. The first thing to note is that both Matthew and Luke needed to contrive a way to get Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. Why? Because as already pointed out, Matthew was adept at scouring the Hebrew scriptures for references to fit the narrative he was crafting, and it was written that the messiah would come from Bethlehem:
Micah 5:2 — “But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.”
There is another inconsistency to note here: Micah is one of the contemporary prophets with Isaiah (first Isaiah) and others (Hosea to Micah) writing in the time of the Assyrian vassalage and aggressions. However, only the first three chapters of Micah are set in the 700s BCE, the remainder (chapters 4–7) were written in the post-Exilic period, after messianism (calls for a return of the House of David) emerged following the Babylonian exile. Therefore, Micah 5:2 stating that the messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of David, cannot be original to the book but only a later insertion with the other chapters.
Matthew only cited Micah as the reason for Jesus being born in Bethlehem, but Luke went to great pains to fabricate a reason for Mary and Joseph to be there; a reason scholars have thoroughly debunked. Luke claimed they had to travel from Nazareth, where it was well-known that Jesus was from, because of a census. Three problems with this theory: one, there was never any empire-wide census, but only in Judea, and Galilee was governed separately; two, there was never a requirement to travel to one’s ancestral village; and three, the dating in Matthew and Luke contradict each other. Matthew stated Jesus was born within the reign of King Herod who died in 4 BCE, and the most likely time of his birth, whereas Luke cited the census of Quirinius which took place in 6–7 CE; an error of ten years — apologies to evangelicals for so impudently pointing this out.
Next is the contradiction in the genealogies listed in Matthew 1 and Luke 3. Matthew, who loved to make allusions between Moses and Jesus (Moses 40 years in the desert, Jesus 40 days), force-fit his genealogy (mostly copied from 1 Chronicles 3, but with further contradictions to both Luke and Chronicles — sorry again, evangelicals) into forty generations between Jesus and Abraham. Further, as Matthew shows a descent from Solomon (as does Chronicles), Luke shows a descent from Nathan; yet, both Matthew and Luke make a convergence at Shealtiel and Zerubbabel — how coincidentally ironic.
Finally, Matthew and Luke contradict each other, yet again, in what happened after the birth. Luke simply stated the family went back to Nazareth. Matthew, however, not content with that plot line, decided to add more Mosaic parallels. Echoing Exodus 1:22 and the pharaoh’s order to kill all male children, Matthew deliberately invented the Massacre of the Innocents — which has absolutely zero grounding in history — and the family flight to Egypt before the return to Nazareth.
It is said one should not discuss politics and religion in polite company, and yet given that Jesus was executed for treason against the state, both his birth and death narratives are entirely politically and religiously entwined in their contexts. So, please, feel free to discuss at your family Christmas dinner.