“The Myth of the ‘Manger Scene’ "
By Stephen T. Crye
December 17, 2006
The Christmas season each year spawns a noticeable increase in comments such as "men need faith", "sacrifice is good" and “we should remember the true meaning of Christmas”, often alliterated as "Jesus is the reason for the season". Mixed in with these sentiments are a clamor for more religious displays, grumbles about prohibitions of the use of tax-dollars for Nativity (a.k.a. ‘Manger’) scenes on public property, and the insistence that everyone, both Christian and non-Christian, greet others with the phrase "Merry Christmas" instead of the more neutral "Happy Holidays".
Sadly, the most rabid pro-Christmas pundits are either unaware of or choose to ignore many facts: that the Bible contains nothing to require or encourage birthday celebrations, that people celebrated the Winter Solstice thousands of years before Jesus was born, that he was not born on December 25, that the popular tale of his birth, in Bethlehem, in a manger, as described in the New Testament by Mathew and Luke - has no historical basis. Despite the ever-mounting volume of evidence against this myth, its popularity is on the rise, as evidenced by the December 2006 movie “The Nativity Story”.
The evidence refuting the commonly accepted accounts of Jesus’ birth is overwhelming. Sources include Bart Ehrman’s “Lost Christianities” and “Lost Scriptures: Books That Did Not Make It into the New Testament”, "Asimov's Guide to the Bible", Michael Grant's "Constantine the Great: The Man and His Times", E. P. Sanders' "The Historical Figure of Jesus", Richard Dawkins “The God Delusion” and Robin Lane Fox's "Pagans and Christians".
Lost Scriptures and Heresies
Christians are taught that the Bible is the inspired word of God, penned by men who were acting as a direct conduit from God. Most Christians are unaware of the vigorous debate that raged for centuries after Jesus’ death before the New Testament in its present form of 27 books was finalized in 326 CE. Numerous non-orthodox proto-Christian sects, particularly the Marcionites and Gnostics, offered very different accounts and interpretations of Jesus’ life and teachings.
Christianity is one of a class of religions known as Historical religions, meaning that the beliefs are directly tied to historical events, and the reality and description of those events are critical to the religion. Religions such as Hinduism or Animism (practiced by most American Indians) are examples of non-Historical religions. In the specific case of Christianity, if Jesus were not a real, historical figure who actually lived, the entire religion would be invalid. So, it is not only permissible, it is essential for believers to look to history to support or reject Christianity.
Early Christian groups’ accounts of Jesus differ dramatically from contemporary opinions. Modern, orthodox Christians such as Catholics and Methodists trivialize these disagreements and somewhat correctly classify the Marcionites and the Gnostics as being fringe groups, similar today to Jehovah’s Witnesses or Christian Scientists. Nonetheless, it is important to note that even among those who call themselves devout Christians, disagreements over important details of Jesus’ life have persisted for over 2000 years. When government entities condone Nativity scenes, they are in effect promoting the viewpoints of some, but not all, Christians. Even if one accepts theists’ arguments that the Constitutional prohibition against an “establishment of religion” was not intended to prohibit all religious expression but instead to prevent the governmental endorsement of one type of religion over another, displaying a Nativity scene does imply that Catholics are correct and non orthodox Christianity is wrong.
In addition to the four Gospels of the New Testament, gospels were also authored by (or at least attributed to) the apostles Philip and Thomas, James the brother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and others. There are Acts originally ascribed to John and to Thecla, Paul's female companion. There are Epistles allegedly written by Paul to the Roman philosopher Seneca. ‘Mark’ was reported to have based his writing on a lost gospel by an unknown author, sometimes referred to as the ‘Q’ gospel. Simon Peter wrote an apocalypse describing the details of the afterlife, to include the endless pleasures afforded the saints and the endless tormenting of the damned. An Epistle by Titus (Paul’s companion) argues at length against sex, even with one’s wife, because it leads to damnation. James’ gospel describes Mary receiving a postpartum inspection to verify her virginity, but God is so irritated by this that he burns off the hand of examiner, Salome. From Ronald F. Hock's The Infancy Gospels of James and Thomas:
“(18) And the midwife departed from the cave and met Salome and said to her, "Salome, Salome, I have to describe this new miracle for you. A virgin has given birth, although her body does not allow it."
(19) And Salome said, "As the Lord my God lives, unless I insert my finger and investigate her, I will not believe that a virgin has given birth."
... Chapter 20
(1) And the midwife went in and said, "Mary, position yourself, for not a small test concerning you is about to take place."
(2) When Mary heard these things, she positioned herself. And Salome inserted her finger into her body. (3) And Salome cried out and said, "Woe for my lawlessness and the unbelief that made me test the living God. Look, my hand is falling away from me and being consumed in fire."”
Thomas’ Gospel describes a young Jesus willing to use his power in “Harry Potter” fashion to transform his childhood chums into barnyard animals (or kill them outright!), bring mud to life in the form of sparrows and assist his Dad’s carpentry business by fixing mistakes in lengths of cut wood. From the Greek “Text A” Translation:
“II. 1 This little child Jesus when he was five years old was playing at the ford of a brook: and he gathered together the waters that flowed there into pools, and made them straightway clean, and commanded them by his word alone. 2 And having made soft clay, he fashioned thereof twelve sparrows. And it was the Sabbath when he did these things (or made them). And there were also many other little children playing with him.
3 And a certain Jew when he saw what Jesus did, playing upon the Sabbath day, departed straightway and told his father Joseph: Lo, thy child is at the brook, and he hath taken clay and fashioned twelve little birds, and hath polluted the Sabbath day. 4 And Joseph came to the place and saw: and cried out to him, saying: Wherefore doest thou these things on the Sabbath, which it is not lawful to do? But Jesus clapped his hands together and cried out to the sparrows and said to them: Go! And the sparrows took their flight and went away chirping. 5 And when the Jews saw it they were amazed, and departed and told their chief men that which they had seen Jesus do.
III. 1 But the son of Annas the scribe was standing there with Joseph; and he took a branch of a willow and dispersed the waters which Jesus had gathered together. 2 And when Jesus saw what was done, he was wroth and said unto him: O evil, ungodly, and foolish one, what hurt did the pools and the waters do thee? Behold, now also thou shalt be withered like a tree, and shalt not bear leaves, neither root, nor fruit. 3 And straightway that lad withered up wholly, but Jesus departed and went unto Joseph's house. But the parents of him that was withered took him up, bewailing his youth, and brought him to Joseph, and accused him 'for that thou hast such a child which doeth such deeds. …
… XIII. 1 Now his father was a carpenter and made at that time ploughs and yokes. And there was required of him a bed by a certain rich man, that he should make it for him. And whereas one beam, that which is called the shifting one was too short and Joseph knew not what to do, the young child Jesus said to his father Joseph: Lay down the two pieces of wood and make them even at the end next unto thee (MSS. at the middle part). And Joseph did as the young child said unto him. And Jesus stood at the other end and took hold upon the shorter beam and stretched it and made it equal with the other. And his father Joseph saw it and marveled: and he embraced the young child and kissed him, saying: Happy am I for that God hath given me this young child.”
Different proto-Christian groups had beliefs that not only differed from modern ones in the details but also were fundamentally opposite and incompatible with each other. For centuries, they argued about which view was correct. One sect held that Jesus was never born from a human mother but instead came down from heaven as a fully-grown adult. Another sect, the Gnostics, insisted that Jesus was born a human, but that God then entered his body, possessing, controlling and providing for him. According to them, Jesus’ anguished cry before his death of “God, why have you forsaken me?” was the cry of the human Jesus after God suddenly abandoned the body before it was killed. Still other sects (the ones that were closest to the traditional Jewish religion) maintained that Jesus was 100% human but divinely inspired. It was not until many centuries after his death that the modern concept of the Trinity was invented. Some proto-Christians claimed that Jesus never died and was never crucified. The Ebionites maintained that no salvation was possible for individual souls and no heaven existed, but that someday people would exist on a “paradise Earth”, similar to what Jehovah’s Witnesses believe. Gnostics thought there were three “classes” of souls – those similar to animals (no afterlife at all), those possessed by the masses of good people of faith, who would be treated to an OK, vacation-like afterlife, and those of the top level highly enlightened Gnostics, who would get the full-blown angelic afterlife in heaven.
Centuries of debate led to the formation of increasing numbers of splinter sects that drifted away from the proto-Catholic orthodoxy. Finally, in 326 CE, the First Council of Nicaea established the 27 books New Testament as we know it today, but not without bitter arguments and dissention. Books were rejected, then accepted, and then rejected again. The Gospels of Peter and Thomas were excluded. The Book of Revelations was included at the last minute, after having been very unpopular early on. The earliest known copy of the New Testament in its present form dates from Alexandria in 367 CE. Although Rome went through a seesaw period in the 4th and 5th centuries where paganism competed with Catholicism for a while, the trend toward orthodoxy and the modern church significantly accelerated after Pope Julius’ term in the mid-4th century.
Why December 25th?
The question of exactly when Jesus was born is an interesting one. Matthew states that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great - the problem is, Herod died in 4 BCE! Non-Biblical historical references place the birth of Jesus sometime in the interval from 17 BCE to 4 BCE.
There is no reference in the Bible and few in history regarding the time of year or the exact date of the birth of Jesus. Scholars in the first millennium tried to pinpoint the date, with some concluding Jesus was born in November and others concluding he was born in March; there is little information available as to how the dates were arrived at. The reference to shepherds watching over flocks of sheep at night points away from the birth occurring in the winter. Even Luke's foil of the Roman census and forced travel would seem more plausible if it did not happen in the dead of winter. However, it is unnecessary and pointless to use the content of the Synoptic Gospels to challenge December 25th as the birth date of Jesus.
To understand why December 25th was chosen as the date, all one must do is look at the history of the early Romans and the tradition of the celebration of Saturnalia, the festival of the Winter Solstice. In the first centuries of the Roman Empire, Christianity had to compete with many popular religions such as Mithraism, a form of sun worship that had its roots in Persia. The custom of celebrating a significant birth during the winter solstice festival is very ancient. Egyptians believed the god Osiris was born on the winter solstice and held ceremonies greeting the newborn Sun. Celebrating with lights, fir trees and presents goes back at least to the time of Nimrod – grandson of Noah and King of Babel - 2300 years before the birth of Jesus.
The celebration of the winter solstice could have been a stumbling block for early Christianity, but the leaders of the church, with Judo-like skill, turned it to their advantage. Had Christian authorities insisted that Saturnalia and the Birth of the Sun were purely pagan and must not be celebrated, many potential converts would have been discouraged. (The requirement of circumcision (ouch!) was already an obstacle). After converts abandoned Mithraism and the Roman gods, they still wanted the pleasure of a winter holiday. Because there were no explicit references to the exact date of Jesus’ birth in the Bible, the early Christian church was free to choose any day and selected the Winter Solstice – celebrating the "Birth of the Son" instead of the "Birth of the Sun".
Julius Caesar and the Modern Calendar
The tradition of celebrating Christmas must have been established after ~45 BCE, because Christmas falls on an exact date (December 25), not a shifting date like "the fourth Thursday in December". Prior to the time of Julius Caesar (who in 45 BCE adopted the Alexandrian astronomer Sosigenes' recommendations about calendar reform), the Roman calendar was poor and erratic. Julius wanted to start the year on the Spring Equinox or the Winter Solstice, but the Senate, which traditionally took office on January 1st, the start of the Roman civil calendar year, wanted to keep January 1st as the start of the year, and Caesar yielded in a political compromise. The practice of inserting leap days every four years started at this time, but it was not fully stable in its modern form until 4 CE.
Although the modern calendar in its current form started in 4 CE, failure to correct for the 11.23 minute difference between the length of the Julian calendar year (365.25 days) and the length of the real solar year (365.2422 days) caused the calendar to drift by about 1 day every 113 years. This was one reason that in 274 CE, the Roman Emperor Aurelian decreed that winter solstice fell on Dec. 25 - the day of the "Birth of the Invincible Sun". Modern Christian apologists make the unsubstantiated claim that Aurelian's designation of December 25th was a response to the widespread popularity of Pre-Constantine Christmas celebrations in the empire, but the fact is that in the 3rd century, Christians constituted less than 2% of the Roman population, whereas pagan celebrations of the Solstice has been popular for thousands of years.
Constantine the Great
In 318 CE, emperor Constantine, who ruled from 306 CE to 337 CE, declared December 25th to be the birth date of Jesus. Constantine, in the first part of his reign, was an Apollonian sun-worshiper, which was reflected in his coinage and his designation of Sunday as a dual-purpose day of pagan sun-worship and Catholic holy-day. A shrewd politician, after his conversion to Christianity around 311 CE, he not only realized the importance of working with the Catholic church, he was convinced that the Christian God was directly responsible for two of his key victories; the defeat of Maxentius at the bridge of Milvian in 312 CE, and his victory over Licinius in 324 CE. By choosing the date of the celebration of the birth of Mithras as the date of the birth of Christ, Constantine was able to accelerate Christianity’s displacement of paganism. In 349 CE, during the reign of Constantius II, Pope Julius reinforced this with an official decree requiring that Christmas be celebrated on December 25th. Constantine, who had an Empire to govern and battles to win, regarded Jesus' death by crucifixion as an embarrassing humiliation and downplayed that aspect of Christianity; he went so far as to abolish crucifixion as a punishment.
Modern-style Christmas celebrations are largely of American origin, growing sharply in popularity after Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” became widely read in the 1800s. Christmas was not important to the early settlers of America – Congress did not even get a day off for Christmas until 1828! Birthdays simply were not important to European settlers in America. Early pre-Dickens Christmas celebrations in Europe were essentially drunken bashes with very little gift giving and no tree decorating, sort of a second Halloween celebration.
Early Christians would be puzzled over the contemporary position – stated but not practiced – that the evolution of Christmas into a gift-buying frenzy that drives our economy is materialistic and immoral. The altruistic error that regards wealth as inherently evil was not a Jewish tradition; the Jews did not believe in a system of Theistic justice where rewards or punishment were handed out in the hereafter and in fact held the belief that virtue was rewarded in the form of wealth here on Earth. Christians eventually adopted a philosophical system that called for suffering on Earth followed by reward in the afterlife, which led to the "you cannot serve God and Mammon" tripe. Amusingly, this philosophical flaw eventually caused them embarrassing problems as Christians gained stature and wealth. The idea of "tithing" was developed to handle it – this allowed Christians to assuage their guilt; they could be rich and virtuous at the same time, as long as they kept the Church coffers full.
In the 4th and 5th centuries, Catholics continued the consolidation of their power and strengthened the hierarchy of Priests, Bishops, Cardinals and the Pope. Bishops burned every “heretical” manuscript they could get their hands on, and suppressed those they were unsuccessful in destroying. Despite their efforts, disagreements within Christianity continue to this day, over critical issues such as baptism, the Divinity of Christ, the Apocalypse, and if Christmas should be celebrated at all, or if it is (as Jehovah's Witnesses and others maintain) a pagan ritual to be avoided by True Christians.
Fresh proto-Christian writings continue to be discovered in modern times, for example the Coptic manuscript uncovered in the Egyptian museum in Berlin by Paul Mirecki, associate professor of religious studies at the University of Kansas, in 1991. This manuscript has been referred to as the “Gospel of the Savior”, and purports to contain quotes from Jesus, though many dispute this claim, saying that it is one of a class of Coptic manuscripts from the 4th century that were authored by Gnostics in order to undermine the orthodoxy of that time. Other recent examples include the Lost Gospel Of Judas, the discovery and restoration of which is documented in the April 2006 issue of National Geographic Magazine.
The Synoptic Gospels:
Turning now to the orthodox cannon: the first four books of the New Testament are known as "The gospel according to:" Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Gospel is a word with Anglo-Saxon roots that originally was pronounced "God's Spell" which loosely translated into "Good News" The sequence of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John does not represent the chronological order that those books were written in, and it is generally agreed today that Mark's account came first, followed by Matthew, Luke and then John. (The term synoptic comes from the combination of the Greek words συν (syn = together) and οψις (opsis = seeing). The contents of these Gospels are intended to be taken together.)
The actual identities of the authors of the Gospels are somewhat indeterminate. For example, many Christians maintain that the Matthew of the gospel was one of the Disciples, but there is no evidence one way or another as to the identity of Matthew. If Matthew the Disciple wrote it, he would have been over 100 years old at the time of the writing – unlikely, but not impossible. The reality is that all of the Gospels originated as short tracts and were, over time, embellished, edited and fleshed-out until they were frozen in their current form in 326 CE. For a wealth of information on the writing of the Synoptic Gospels, please refer to E. P. Sanders' "The Historical Figure of Jesus". In this essay, I use the common convention of referring to the authors by name as if they were actual individuals.
The birth narratives in Luke and Matthew are completely different and irreconcilable. Both authors felt compelled to show that Jesus had been born in Bethlehem (to satisfy the prophecy of Davidic Descent), and concocted incompatible schemes to place Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus' birth. Matthew (1.18- 2.23) has Jesus' parents living in Bethlehem, only to flee to Egypt after his birth to escape Herod's murder of all first-born sons, eventually returning to Bethlehem and subsequently moving to Nazareth. Luke (2.1 – 39) depicts Joseph and Mary as living in Nazareth, forced to travel to Bethlehem for a census, and then returning to their home in Nazareth.
References in the book of Matthew to the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem, which did not occur until around 70 CE, indicate that Matthew had to have been written after 70 CE.
Matthew (and also Luke) was trying to reinforce the Old Testament prophecy that calls for the Messiah to be a direct descendant of David. The modern name "Jesus Christ" derives from the original Hebrew, which refers to someone called Joshua the Messiah (meaning Joshua the Anointed One) and was modified over the years into Jesus Christ. Matthew tries his best to show that Jesus was a direct descendant of David, using a highly artificial scheme that tried to break up the generations from David to Jesus into three sets of 14 generations. This account is clearly incorrect, both from a historical viewpoint and a Biblical one. One example can be found in Matthew 1:11 "...and Josias beget Jechonias...”; the problem is that the Old Testament states that Josias was the grandfather of Jechonias, not his father.
Another puzzler is the entire idea of the Virgin Birth. On a common-sense level, why bother showing that Jesus was a direct descendant of David if God, not Joseph, was the father of Jesus? Virgin births were not part of established Jewish tradition, and the only reference in the Old Testament is in Isaiah 7:14: "... behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son...". However, the Hebrew used by Isaiah translates "a virgin" into "a young woman", with no implied abstinence from sex whatsoever. So, why the emphasis by Matthew that Jesus was the product of a virgin birth? Jesus was an obscure Galilean preacher. After Jesus died, tales of his childhood naturally arose and were embellished, and while the Jews of the period had no need to believe that Jesus was the product of a virgin birth, Gentile religions at that time commonly required that the incarnation of any god on the Earth was always the result of coitus between the mother and a god. Aside from a few sideways references in Luke, there is no other mention of the Virgin Birth in the Bible, although it is mentioned in the excluded gospel of James.
The account in Matthew of the slaughter of the first-born sons shortly after the birth of Jesus is not recorded in history, while other far less wicked deeds of Herod the Great are clearly documented. It is plausible that the “Hero’s” need to barely escape death, a popular Jewish foil, was applied to Jesus and patterned after the tale of the infant Moses and Pharaoh. Joseph and his family’s period in exile until an angel appears and gives the "all clear" is similar to the Old Testament’s account of Moses’ exile and return.
Regarding the Three Wise Men and the Star in the East: this has generated much speculation in recent times - most Christians mistakenly believe that astronomers have found a scientific explanation for the Star. However, the entire story was apparently an embellishment on the part of Matthew. There are no records of a nova during this period, or of bright comets, which the careful astronomers of India, China, and other cultures would have recorded. Some claim that a conjunction of several planets might be what is referred to as the Star, but this is unlikely, as the ancients were very familiar with the planets and the paths they took through the sky. They would not have confused a conjunction with a new star in the east – the motions of the planets were not a source of surprise.
Matthew borrows liberally from the Old Testament in his tale of the birth and life of Jesus. In places, some of the stories of Jesus' life that Matthew depicts conflict with earlier Old Testament writing. In at least one passage in the book of Matthew, Jesus himself debunks the "descendant of David" theory. (The theory of Davidic Descent was not fully developed until after Jesus' death, so the debunking represents clear evidence that the "author" of Matthew was less interested in historical accuracy than in making a point.) After Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, heralded as being the Messiah while simultaneously being from Galilee, he is having a discussion with the Pharisees:
Matthew 21:11 "... And the Multitude said, this is Jesus the Prophet of Nazareth of Galilee".
The Pharisee's were naturally outraged by a "Galilean nobody" waltzing into town and claiming to be the Messiah, so one would expect them to challenge Jesus to prove that he is of Davidic descent. That would have then given Jesus the chance to demonstrate to them that he actually is the "Son of David". Instead, Matthew depicts Jesus himself as raising the question, and the answer Jesus gives to his own rhetorical question embarrassingly contradicts Matthew's own claims of Jesus' Davidic descent. Jesus quotes from the Old Testament, referring to Psalms, and makes it clear that he is more than a mere descendant of David, and that Davidic descent is not a requirement to qualify as the Messiah.
Why does Matthew present both arguments? Perhaps he was trying to cover all the bases, or perhaps the inconsistency is the result of multiple authors contributing to the book.
Regarding the disappearance of the body of Jesus from the Tomb: This tale appears only in the book of Matthew. Matthew advances an unlikely account that the priestly authorities bribed the Roman guards, so that the guards would claim that they fell asleep, and that while they were sleeping Jesus' disciples stole the body - the body had not actually risen. This is somewhat bizarre in that sleeping on guard duty is a cardinal sin for any soldier, particularly a Roman soldier, and would have resulted in the guards being severely punished or executed by Pilate. Perhaps one could imagine that a group of guards could be persuaded by a large sum of cash to risk flogging, disgrace and demotion - but execution?
To summarize the Book of Matthew from a historical viewpoint:
The book is an after-the-fact account of the life of Jesus, designed to accomplish two primary goals:
* Show Jesus to be a Bethlehem-born scion of the line of King David, and
* Show Jesus' similarities to Moses.
Historically, Jesus' real "career" as the Messiah probably started when Jesus met John the Baptist.
The book of Mark is generally accepted to be the earliest of the Gospels, and is the smallest. It was probably written shortly after 64 CE. Jesus' birth is not mentioned in Mark, and there is no effort to show Jesus is of Davidic descent. Mark apparently wrote his Gospel for Christians of Jewish origin who did not have extensive knowledge of Biblical lore and Old Testament history, and it is a simple story of a prophet and a wonder-worker who is viewed by the author as the Messiah, who is then wrongfully accused and executed but then triumphantly restored to life. Mark was apparently a younger associate of Peter and would not have been very old at the time of the crucifixion.
The Gospel of Luke was written sometime after 70 CE, probably around 80 CE, and was based on the book of Mark, but with additional subject matter included. It was written primarily for an audience of Gentiles who were considering conversion to Christianity. The author of Luke was an educated Greek, judging from the style and syntax of the writing, and was probably a physician friend of the Apostle Paul. Both Matthew and Luke used the book of Mark as their primary source, but each added, (i.e., "invented") material to fit the ears of their respected intended audiences. In Luke, the Roman authorities are treated more gently, and Jesus himself is depicted as being more sympathetic to Gentiles, than in the other synoptic Gospels.
Luke's account of the genealogy of Jesus differs from Matthew's, with Luke counting forty-one (or thirty-five, by some accounts) generations from Abraham to Jesus vs. twenty-eight (or forty-five, by some accounts) in Matthew; Luke also goes all the way back to Adam in his account and traces it through a different line than Matthew does. Historians generally agree that Matthew's account is more accurate.
Luke, like Matthew, felt compelled to say that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. This presented serious difficulty, because Jesus was in fact not born in Bethlehem; all historical references show that Jesus was born in Nazareth, and the only other references in the Bible to Jesus being born in Bethlehem are found in Matthew. Both authors put on their fiction-writer hats to deal with the problem. Matthew handles it by claiming that Joseph and Mary were natives of Bethlehem that later migrated to Nazareth shortly after the birth of Jesus. Luke apparently did not have access to Matthew's version and it did not occur to him to use so straightforward a device. Instead, he depicted them as dwellers in Nazareth who traveled to Bethlehem just in time for Jesus to be born and then went back to Nazareth.
Why then would Joseph and Mary have to travel to Bethlehem? Luke, in an attempt at literary economy, makes double use of the census of Quirinius' second administration. Luke introduces the census early in his Gospel, apparently as a literary device to pinpoint the date of the birth of Jesus. Luke tells the story of a Roman decree that all subjects were required to travel to the city of a distant ancestor's birth to be counted:
"… So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David."
There are many problems with this explanation. First, Luke's dates are in error. He contends that the census took place close to the date of Herod's death in 4 BCE, but later states that it took place 10 years later when Quirinius was legate of Syria. In 6 CE, the Romans did conduct a census in Judea, Samaria and Idumaea, but it did not include Galilee (which at the time was independent and not a Roman province), and they did not ask anyone to travel – in fact, the census takers did the traveling. It is possible that Luke, writing about 80 years after the fact, confused the riots at the time of Herod's death with Quirinius' census.
It is highly doubtful that the Romans would ever have conducted a census in the queer fashion described by Luke - particularly Augustus, the most rational of Caesars. There were no “birth certificates” in those times, and many people did not know where they were born, let alone where their great-great-great…grandfather was born. How would a person know which ancestor to use? (40-45 generations implies millions of ancestors) Why would the Romans have wanted residents to be counted in the city of their birth instead of the city in that they worked, resided and paid taxes? What about people who were born outside the Empire? What about families where members were not all born in the same place – would they have had to travel to more than one city? How could the census takers in Bethlehem have accommodated the tens of thousands of living descendants of David? The Romans would not have wanted their subjects clogging the roads and interfering with military efficiency, particularly at a time when the Romans were having problems with the Parthians. They would not have wanted to irritate the populace unnecessarily - censuses were hated anyway, and generally caused riots and commotion without the additional irritant of having to travel to be counted.
Even if the ancestral town of a resident were information that the Romans wanted, it would have been sufficient to simply record this when the person was counted. Accepting for the sake of argument that the Romans did require this silly journey, would it not be simpler for just the head of the household to make the trip? Why would the entire family, including a very pregnant wife, have to go? Historians universally agree that this census did not take place, and certainly not in the fashion described in Luke. There is no record of a census at the time of Jesus' birth outside the Bible, in contrast to numerous other censuses that are described in the Bible and backed up by history. The tale of the census was pure fiction on the part of Luke.
There is no mention of Jesus' birth in the Gospel of John.
Conclusion: Jesus was not born in Bethlehem on December 25th
Notwithstanding the persistent and often successful efforts of Christians to rewrite history, Jesus was born in Nazareth, not Bethlehem. He led a nondescript life until he started preaching and attracted the attentions of the Jews and Romans. His birth was an uneventful, private affair in Nazareth. There was no forced journey, no need to find a “motel”, no problem with lack of rooms necessitating sleeping in the barn, no lack of a crib, no wise men following a star bearing gifts … in other words: the manger scene is fiction.
Theists who insist that the Bible is the inspired word of God and 100% accurate either don’t know the facts or choose to ignore them.
For most of my life, I accepted the commonly told tales of the birth of Jesus as historical fact, even though I never believed that Jesus was a god. I never realized just how much of it was fantasy until I read Asimov's Guide to the Bible, which led me to investigate further. Although I have not consulted the primary sources directly – those are in museums and libraries that limit access - I have read many works where the authors did read those primary sources.
So, when you encounter rabid pro-Christmas fundamentalists spouting the "how dare you say 'Happy Holidays' instead of 'Merry Christmas'!! " nonsense, please do your part to dispel the myth.