Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power. (Mark 9:1)
So says Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, in one of the biblical utterances most likely to have actually been said by him (according to biblical scholars). In essence, here Jesus says that there will be a “kingdom of God” established in the lifetime of some of the people whom he addresses directly. What does he mean by this?
The “kingdom of God” to which Jesus refers was meant to be a “kingdom” in the literal sense of the word—a territory ruled by a king. Many of Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries, who had endured several centuries of rule by foreign empires in Palestine, expected God to institute this kingdom very soon indeed. Some believed that it would encompass the ancient biblical lands of Palestine; others, that it would stretch across the whole world. Followers of Jesus expected him to be its king or “Messiah”—a Hebrew phrase which translates as “anointed one,” referring to the practice of pouring oil on to the heads of new Israelite monarchs. The “kingdom of God,” however, never came to fruition in its literal sense. Jesus of Nazareth, just one of the many figures who had garnered support to rule over this kingdom, was unceremoniously executed by the Romans.
Early followers of Jesus were nevertheless undaunted by this abrupt outcome and needed some way of promoting the idea that Jesus was more than merely a charismatic religious leader who fell victim to the undignified process of crucifixion. One of the claims made by his followers was that Jesus had cheated death and appeared posthumously to multiple people. This assertion appears, albeit briefly, at the end of the earliest New Testament account of Jesus’ life, the Gospel of Mark.
However, readers of this Gospel encounter no mention whatsoever of the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. Earlier Christian sources, such as the letters written by St. Paul to fledgling Christian churches around the Mediterranean, make no mention of them, either. As followers of Jesus began to stall in their aim to convert fellow Jews to the new Jesus movement, further attempts were made to embellish Jesus’ life story to make it more attractive to potential converts.
The authors of the next two chronological Gospels, Luke and Matthew, went further in their attempts to convince other Jews that Jesus was the Messiah. For example, they add further to the description of Jesus’ resurrection. They also add accounts of how Jesus was born. The author of Matthew was particularly zealous in showing how Jesus’ birth added to his messianic credentials. For example, he draws his readers’ attention to the writings of prophet Micah, who foretold of the Messiah thus:
But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah
though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
one who will be ruler over Israel. (Micah 5:2)
These verses, written some 700 years before the time of Jesus, were interpreted to reflect the widely held belief that the future Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, birthplace of its most revered ruler, King David. In order to show that this prophecy was fulfilled, the writer of Matthew has Mary make a three-day trek with Joseph from her hometown of Nazareth to Bethlehem to give birth to Jesus. The slightly later Gospel of Luke provides the reason for their journey: partaking in a census, ordered by Rome, in which “all the world should be registered” (Luke 2:1). Purportedly, Roman subjects were expected to present themselves in their ancestral hometown, which in Joseph’s case was Bethlehem. Notwithstanding the lack of a rationale for a census where one has to register in the birthplace of a very distant ancestor, rather than in the place of one’s current residence, there is no evidence at all for such a census taken by the Roman Empire at this time.
The author of Matthew also arbitrarily selects a number of other Old Testament passages and reinterprets them as messianic prophecy. For example, in the 8th century BCE, the prophet Isaiah writes:
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The young woman will conceive and give birth to a son. (Isaiah 7:14)
These words did indeed constitute a prophecy, but not one about a future Messiah. They were given by Isaiah to Ahaz, King of Judah from 732 BCE to 716 BCE, when faced with invasion from the kingdoms of Israel and Syria. God, speaking through Isaiah, goes on to reassure Ahaz that before the aforementioned son grows up, his aggressors will be destroyed. Matthew, using a Greek translation of Isaiah in which the Hebrew word “almah” is rendered as “virgin” as opposed to “young woman,” uses the story of the virgin birth of Jesus in order to see to it that this prophecy is fulfilled. In addition to having the words of Isaiah realized, the idea of a figure conceived by divine intervention would have added to his appeal in the pagan environment in which the early Christians operated.
Matthew then turns to another passage from the Old Testament. Also writing in the 8th century BCE, the prophet Hosea writes:
When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son. (Hosea 11:1)
Notice that the passage is written in past tense. It is also in this tense in its original Hebrew, and the writer is clearly writing about events which have already happened. The passage refers to the Israelites, whom God loves so much that he frees them from slavery in Egypt under the rule of a tyrannical pharaoh. Matthew seizes upon this verse, spectacularly treating it as messianic prophecy—the Messiah had to be “called out of Egypt” for some unfathomable reason.
Matthew then choses another unrelated part of the Old Testament, this time from the prophet Jeremiah, written in the sixth century BCE:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more. (Jeremiah 31:15)
Again, this is not a prophecy, but a passage that refers to events that happened during the time when Jeremiah was writing. Before large parts of the Israelite population were taken into captivity by the Babylonian Empire in 586 BCE, they were assembled in Ramah, a city in ancient Israel. Rachel, wife of Jacob (Abraham’s grandson), is described as crying, from beyond the grave, for the Israelite children that have been captured or even killed.
The writer of Matthew weaves these unconnected passages into his account of Jesus’ birth in the story of the “Massacre of the Innocents.” Herod the Great, the puppet-king of Jewish lands around the time of Jesus’ birth, was apparently so threatened by the birth of a new “king-to-be” that he ordered the slaughter of all newborn babies that happen to be in Bethlehem at the time. Jesus’ parents, however, take him to Egypt to escape the impending infanticide. In the new spin on the old passage, Rachel cries not for those Israelites taken into exile at the time of Jeremiah, but for the babies of Bethlehem who have been indiscriminately slaughtered. God then calls Jesus and his parents “out of Egypt” so that Jesus can grow up and fulfil his divine mission. As with the Gospel of Luke’s census, no evidence outside of the Bible exists to support the historicity of this event.
Many elements of the earliest version of the Christmas story therefore have their origins in the writer of the Gospel of Matthew selecting various fragments of existing Jewish scriptures. When these scriptures were originally written, some of their passages were widely viewed as pertaining to a future kingly figure. Centuries later, however, others were reinterpreted as having this quality in order to present an account of Jesus’ very early life that saw each of these prophecies fulfilled. This was done to add to the appeal of Jesus to Jews who, in the main, were dismissive of the concept of his messiahship. The story was further embellished with traditions of innkeepers, donkeys, and stables, creating the composite narrative familiar to billions of people around the world today.