There are two Canonical accounts of the birth and early childhood of Jesus.
By Canonical of course I mean texts that are deemed worthy of inclusion in the Bible per the standards of the Catholic scribes who composed such in the 4th Century CE. There are several Infancy gospel accounts, but only those of Matthew and Luke met the approval of the Bible composers. I myself am somewhat partial to the Gospel of Thomas. Thomas relates several fanciful boy Jesus stories which did not merit Catholic scribe approval for inclusion in the Bible; yet which are both entertaining and enlightening nonetheless. A topic for another day no doubt.
Now though the tone, topics, and even time frames of Matthew and Luke differ with regards to the childhood of Jesus, they each claim that he was divinely conceived and of a virgin birth. Those two qualities in and of themselves were enough apparently to merit Catholic scribe approval in spite of the obvious differences in their accounts.
Matthew envisions Jesus as having been born during the days of Herod, and furthermore being proclaimed to be “the King of the Jews”.
Luke on the other hand envisions Jesus as having been born some 12 years later; during the days of the Census of Cyrenius (Governor of Syria), and furthermore indicates that his birth brings “Peace on earth, and goodwill to humanity”.
Thus, Matthew portrays Jesus as a Messiah sent to reclaim the throne on behalf of the nation of Israel. The emphasis of the Matthew’s version then is that Jesus is a boy ruler who was in constant danger of being “found out” and executed by the reigning madman; Herod the Great. Matthew thus depicts the parents of Jesus as nomadic refugees who lived life “on the lam” and lead a low profile existence due to the constant peril surrounding the boy king and Messiah of the Jewish people.
Now, like Matthew, Luke likewise envisions Jesus as being miraculously born to a Virgin mother. In fact, he even “spices up” the story with a dramatic description of the setting and surroundings. (The stereotypical Nativity scene owes much to the author of Luke; who was likewise the author of the imaginative and informative canonical Acts of the Apostles).
However Luke represents Jesus not as a ruler, but as a reconciler of humanity. Rather than proclamations of rule and reign for Jesus, Luke emphasises Jesus as a savior who brings peace on earth, and goodwill towards humanity. Thus, Luke portrays the parents of Jesus as leading a stable (no pun intended) existence which allowed them to function as normal faithful Jewish parents both in ritual practice and personal lifestyle.
The contrast to the versions of the story of the childhood of Jesus is quite clear:
Matthew envisions a baby Jesus whose life is in constant peril, and whose existence brings grief, suffering and murder.
Luke envisions a baby Jesus whose life was publicly celebrated, and whose existence brings joy, peace, and goodwill.
The accounts of Matthew and Luke differ so drastically with regards to the birth and early childhood of Jesus as to merit a query and inquiry as to why the distinction.
It seems to me that the answer to the question is to be found by considering the local events of each world into which Jesus was born:
Matthew envisions baby Jesus being born during the days of the ever mercurial Herod the Great.
Luke envisions baby Jesus being born during the days of the Census of Quirinius (aka Cyrenius).
The generally accepted death of Herod the Great was 4BC.
The well recorded Census during the days of Quirinius was during the years of 6-7CE.
Since Matthew envisions Jesus as being two years of age when Herod allegedly killed all the babies of Bethlehem, and since Herod seems to have died shortly thereafter, then Matthew dates the birth of Jesus approximately 6BC.
Hence: Jesus’ birthday per Matthew: 6BC
Hence: Jesus’ birthday per Luke: 6AD
Hence: THE TWELVE YEARS OF CHRISTMAS.
The distinction between the worlds into which Jesus was born is evidenced by the events of each respective era.
Now 12 years may not sound like a long period of time, but such can allow for an extreme social shift in any given society. For example, consider our own culture in 1981 as compared to 1969. The differences in those two time eras in US History amounts to two distinct cultures. Yet distinguished solely by time. Indeed a dozen years can make a significant difference in the thinking and general disposition of any populace, and the world into which Jesus was born is a primary example of such.
And those social distinctions are likewise evidenced by each respective account of Matthew and Luke.
The world into which Jesus was born per Matthew (6BC)…….
Was ruled by a tyrant by the name of Herod the Great. Now the fact that Matthew envisions Jesus as being born during the days of Herod is significant.
Herod was a ruthless individual; and a paranoid personality.
Herod was especially ruthless with regards to his royal power and his personal pleasure. When he wanted another wife, he married her, and had his wife and child banished. In order to protect his royal position, he had several family members executed, including his favorite wife and two of his own children. His ruthless nature and atrocious deeds even offended Rome periodically throughout this 33 year reign.
Herod was so paranoid that he reportedly hired secret police to walk the streets and monitor public opinion. He likewise would not allow public demonstrations. (Herod would have fit in quite well in post 911 America. Or so it seems to me)
It was in fact Herod’s reputed paranoid and ruthless nature which Matthew incorporated into the story so as to provide a context whereby the life of baby Jesus would be in mortal danger. The life threatened baby god/hero story was of course a common and recurring theme of the cultural myths of that era. For example, the Greek god Dionysus was in peril from birth, which lead to his being ripped apart by Titans. And the mother of the infant Horus had to flee into the marshland of the Egyptian Nile Delta in order to protect the Egyptian god from those who sought to take his life. And of course, the Hebrew baby Moses was spared from a “mass baby execution” much like Matthew’s claims with regards to baby Jesus. (The latter may in fact be the very story Matthew relied upon as he depicts baby Jesus in a similar circumstance)
So likewise Matthew portrays baby Jesus being urgently relocated by his parents to Egypt in order to escape Herod after the paranoid and ruthless King heard that another “king of the Jews” had been born in Bethlehem. Per Matthew, Herod had all babies less than two years of age in Bethlehem and in the coastal region executed in search of baby Jesus; whom he naturally viewed as a threat to his royal reign. (Fortunately, there is absolutely no historical record to confirm this alleged atrocity, thus the claim by Matthew that this slaughter took place is more than likely mythical.)
Try as Herod might to find and slay the boy Messiah, revelations from God to the parents of Jesus kept the nomadic couple one step ahead of his dastardly intentions for baby Jesus. First they were warned to flee with the baby to Egypt and await word. Then, when they received word that Herod had passed away, they made their way back to Judea. Finally though, when they learned that Herod’s son was on the throne, they went into hiding in Nazareth.
And so Matthew’s account ends as it began: Jesus a hunted boy, his parent’s nomadic ploys to rescue their son from the clutches of the powers that be ever hanging over their heads. Like refugees they settled in Nazareth.
There is of course no indication in Matthew that the potential danger for the boy Jesus ever went away, but rather that his parents simply outmaneuvered and hence successfully hid their son from a sure death if ever caught.
Then, 12 years later:
The world into which Jesus was born per Luke (6AD)…….
Judea in general, and Jerusalem more specifically were in the embryonic stages of an emotional and radical social revolution. The social frustration which subsequently developed would span approximately 135 years; and its inevitable end would alter Jewish history forever.
Herod the Great had been dead for ten years, and his son Herod Archelaus would soon be recalled by Rome for evident incompetency in the light of his inability to suppress the populace that were under his rule.
The first decade of the millennium was a time of radical resistance and religious reformation for the Jewish people. One movement lead by a “Judas the Galilean” rebelled against any form of Roman influence in the Jewish culture, including taxation and census calculation. These were a matter of more than petty concern to Judas and his band, who were representative of a nationalistic revival among the people.
Judas was a patriot and a zealot, and the movement which he inspired would become known as the Zealot movement. Judas would eventually pay the ultimate price for the cause he so believed in, as would his two sons after him (Both were crucified, the Roman type of execution for treason and sedition), yet the movement he inspired became an organic and influential faction amongst the Jewish people even into the next century. Their dedication to Orthodox Judaism, and their willingness to fight for Jewish independence would in time be the catalyst for the uprising of the 60’s which lead to the Jewish Wars of the late 60’s and 70’s; and again to a similar yet even more violent uprising in 130’s CE. The latter rebellion was crushed so extensively that the Jews were completely banished from Jerusalem after 135 CE.
Although Judas is recognized as the founder of this nationalized Zealot movement, the rumblings of dissent and dissatisfaction were already underway in the years leading up to the Census which so incensed the militant patriot. These populist movements were in response to the perceived Roman involvement and influence in the practices of the Jewish religion, and resulted in organized demonstrations and civil disobedience in isolated instances. One such instance stands out for its brutal response and subsequent ramifications.
The Golden Eagle incident began as a somewhat presumptuous and admittedly disrespectful act by Archelaus, but surely no one could have foreseen the blood bath to follow. In defiance of Jewish law, Archelaus inexplicably had a Golden Eagle mounted on the Temple entrance. The graven image in public display over the Temple entrance was too much for the more proactive Orthodox Jews; hence two Instructors (named Judas and Matthias) along with a number of students removed the Eagle and destroyed it with axes.
Archelaus was furious. His reaction was drastic, and his response was dastardly.
Archelaus had the two Instructors and approximately 40 of the students who were involved in the destruction of the Golden Eagle publicly executed by being burned alive. The fury this action instigated was swift and brutal. In the evening, demonstrators and mourners throughout the city but especially in the Temple area made such a noise that Archelaus and those with whom he was feasting were disturbed.
Finally, Archelaus sent a General and a few men to quiet the crowd and appease their anger. The General and his men were stoned, with many killed in the process. After killing the King’s men, the mourners continued to wail and lament the awful experience of the atrocious execution of the two teachers and the 40 or so students.
Realizing now that he had an uprising in the making, Archelaus sent the entire Army in to invade the temple and break up the crowd. It was after midnight when the Army entered the Temple. The result was a melee that developed into a massacre. By the time the fighting ended there were over 3,000 dead. Relations between the Jews and the Romans was never the same again.
As for Archelaus, this incident cost him his royal position. He was recalled by Rome and given a less volatile domain to rule.
As for Jerusalem and Judea; the next 12 decades would be marked by a continuous struggle and a seemingly constant friction between the Jewish people and their Roman overlords. The attempted assimilation of the Roman influence into the the religion of the Jews merely intensified the resentment of the nationalist zealots; who likewise rebelled continuously against the concept of the assumed authority of the Roman government over the national identity of the Hebrews. The feelings were ever intense and emotions were seemingly always at the breaking point on both sides. These were difficult times, and social frustration was to be a way of life from that time forward until the Jewish people were completely subjugated and subsequently banished from Jerusalem in 135 CE.
And so it was that Luke envisioned the birth of Jesus at a time of intense turmoil and social instability.
Is it then any surprise that Luke records the arrival of baby Jesus at precisely the very time that the region of Judea were so badly in need of:
“Peace on earth and goodwill towards humanity?”
In closing, it is evident to me that Matthew and Luke each envisioned a Jesus who, like Jeff Lebowski in “The Big Lebowski” was a “man for his time and place”.
Matthew envisioned the Messiah, the deliverer, the king of the Jews. Thus Mathew depicted Jesus being born at a time when he could draw the attention of the oppressive Herod, and be confirmed as the rightful ruler of the Jews by outmaneuvering Herod’s efforts to kill him, thereby establishing the superiority of the rightful “King of the Jews”.
Luke of course envisioned a Reconciler, one who would bring peace to a time of war, and bring tranquility to a period of chaos. Thus Luke depicted Jesus being born at a time when the message mostly needed was: “Peace on earth; Good will to Humanity”.
If ever there was a time when these words had true meaning, it was then and there.
If ever there was a time when these words had true meaning, it is here and now.
I don’t particularly care whether Jesus was born in 6BC.
Nor do I care whether Jesus was born in 6CE.
In fact, I honestly do not care whether Jesus was ever born at all.
What I care about is:
“Peace on earth, goodwill to humanity”.
Because with or without Jesus, there will never be the former, unless we all begin with the latter.
To all my Christian friends: MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!
To all my Jewish friends: HAPPY HANUKKAH!!!
To all my fellow Humanist friends: HAVE A GREAT DAY!!!