Matthew's Nativity is charming and frightening... but it's a Jewish myth
By Géza Vermes
December 19, 2004
When we speak of the Nativity story, we speak, in essence, of the account in St Matthew's Gospel. The virgin birth, Joseph's dream, the star, the Wise Men and their gifts, the flight to Egypt, and Herod's slaughter of the innocents: all these elements are drawn from Chapters 1 and 2 of the first Gospel. Only the adoration of the shepherds and the birth in the manger are missing - these staples of the tale being supplied by St Luke.
St Matthew's account of the Christmas story, like a child's fairy tale, consists of an admixture of the charming and the frightening. The sweet image of the baby cared for by the Virgin Mary, greeted by angels, and visited by the Magi - magicians in pursuit of a miraculous star - is followed by menace. The bloodthirsty Herod enters the fray, informed of Jesus's birth by the Magi, and advised by the interpreters of what we have come to call the Old Testament ("the chief priests and scribes"), sages who identify the place where the new king of Israel is to be found.
To rid himself of a potential rival, Herod lets loose his cruel soldiers on the infants of Bethlehem. They all perish - except the child whom Herod actually fears. Joseph, warned by a dream, carries Jesus to safety in Egypt - where, centuries before, the very existence of the Jewish people had nearly been brought to an end by Pharaoh. Yet another dream, and Joseph is told by "an angel of the Lord" that he can take Mary and Jesus back to the Holy Land.
This account of Jesus's birth is missing entirely from the Gospels of Mark and John, and appears in a radically different form in Luke, where there is no mention of a star, wise men or Herod, nor of the murder of the innocents and Jesus's escape to Egypt. The question, then, is: what are the true origins of St Matthew's account, which have proved so extraordinarily influential in Christian civilisation?
To answer this, we have to examine Biblical sources and Jewish folklore. Dreams, for instance, play an essential part in Matthew's account of the Nativity. Joseph discovers by means of a vision that the pregnancy of Mary is miraculous - "that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost" - in fulfilment of a prophecy by Isaiah.
According to the prophet, a child called "Emmanuel" would be born of a virgin. The crucial point here is that Matthew is quoting the Greek translation of Isaiah: "Behold a parthenos [virgin] shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Emmanuel." But Isaiah wrote in Hebrew, not in Greek, and in the Hebrew Bible, the mother of Emmanuel is not a virgin - the Hebrew for this would be betulah - but a young woman, almah, already pregnant. She is to give birth to a son, Immanu El, meaning "God is with us"
Here, the historical context of Isaiah's original words is key: this name - Immanu El - promised divine protection to the inhabitants of Jerusalem during the siege of the city by two enemy kings seven centuries before the birth of Jesus. But the writer responsible for St Matthew's Gospel - which is in Greek - added his own double twist to the Hebrew words of Isaiah, distorting them dramatically in the process. The Gospel author took the translated word parthenos, not in the loose sense of a young girl but strictly as "virgin"; and the name "God is with us" not as a promise of hope but, literally, as a person sharing the nature of the Deity.
It is hard to exaggerate the significance of these changes. Matthew's Gospel was written in about AD 80-90 for Christians who were not of Jewish provenance - that is, Gentiles who had no knowledge of Isaiah's original Hebrew. For them, the passage announced, unambiguously, the fulfilment of an ancient prophecy: the miraculous birth of a divine being. But the prophet himself and readers of his original Hebrew sentence regarded it as a quite specific allusion to the historical circumstances of Isaiah's age - and would have found its mutation in Greek into one of the foundations of Christian doctrine quite baffling.
Matthew's Christmas narrative also refers to the providential escape of Jesus from Herod's murder plot. Here, the Evangelist did not need to cite Biblical authorities such as Isaiah. Herod's record of atrocities was a matter of common knowledge. He was responsible for putting to death his favourite wife, three of his sons, his brother-in-law, his uncle, as well as his mother in law and her father, together with countless other Jews. He was certainly capable of murdering small children.
This part of the story is historically plausible, therefore. However, there are good reasons, based on close analysis of Jewish tradition, to suppose that St Matthew's claim is a variant on a powerful tradition rather than a literal historical claim: a generic story, so to speak, rather than a specific one.
A contemporary of Matthew, the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (AD 37-c.100), reports, and later rabbinic literature confirms, a folk tale which was in circulation in New Testament times. It relates to the birth of Moses and his miraculous escape from the hands of Pharaoh of Egypt. In the Old Testament, the extermination of the new-born male children of the Jews was decreed by the Egyptian king in order to stop the growth of the dissatisfied Jewish population, perceived as a threat to the Egyptian state.
The rabbis recorded a similarly murderous plan. Pharaoh - like Joseph in St Matthew's Gospel - had a dream. In it, he saw two scales, with the whole of Egypt lying in one of them, and a lamb in the other. But the lamb turned out to be weightier than Egypt. The court magicians were summoned and explained to the king that the lamb symbolised a Jewish boy who would become a lethal threat to Egypt. In Aramaic, the word talya, like "kid" in English, can mean both a young animal and a child.
Amram, the father of Moses, also had a dream and learned that his son was the future redeemer of the Jews. Afraid of breaking the royal command, yet intent on saving his son, he constructed a papyrus basket and entrusted the fate of the child to God. As in the Bible, little Moses is said to have been found by Pharaoh's daughter who persuaded her father to appoint Moses as his heir. The willing Pharaoh took the baby in his arms, but Moses grabbed the king's crown and threw it to the floor. The sacred scribe, who had foretold the birth of the liberator of the Jews, realised who the baby was and advised the king to kill him. However, Divine Providence in the person of Pharaoh's daughter quickly stepped in, and Moses survived.
My point is that St Matthew's account of the Nativity - the basis of all Christmas celebrations - appears in a quite different light when it is considered as the product of a particular Jewish linguistic, literary and religious context, rather than the sentimental narrative we have inherited.
The doctrine of the miraculous conception and birth of a God-man was based on a remarkable mistranslation into Greek - wilful or otherwise - of Isaiah's original, quite specific Hebrew words. As for the episode of the massacre of the innocents and escape to Egypt, its similarity to the rabbinic story of the birth of Moses is so striking that it hardly can be attributed to coincidence. In both we find dreams, a murderous king advised by interpreters of sacred writings, and the frustration by divine intervention of wicked plans. Nor is it conceivable that Josephus and the rabbis, spokesmen of Jewish tradition, copied their birth legend of Moses from Matthew.
We are led inescapably to this conclusion: that the awesomely influential Nativity story in the first book of the New Testament is a speculative, rather than a historical text. Far from being a report of a literal happening, it is an amalgam of flawed Greek-Christian scriptural references, and of "birth tales" current in Judaism in the first century AD. The story with which we are all so familiar is not fact, but folklore.