In the New Testament the birth of Jesus is described in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. In Matthew we read that Jesus’ parents Mary and Joseph travelled to Bethlehem in Judea and that wise men “magoi” from the East arrived in Jerusalem, at the court of Herod the Great after having seen signs in the sky that said that a child was born in Israel which would become king. Herod was frightened and started looking for newly born children to have them killed. The magoi found Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem and presented gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to their infant son, Jesus. In Luke we read that shepherds outside Bethlehem got a shock when an angel appeared and said: “Don’t be afraid. Behold. I will give you a message of great joy, which shall be for all people, because today a Saviour has been born, Christ, the Lord, in the city of David. You shall find a newly born child wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger” (Luke: 2: 8-12). For those who believe in the litteral descriptions of the events in the Bible this is the true description of what happened, but for most others, including myself, we have to see behind the legend, underneath the surface to find a realistic truth. Moreover, Jesus’ message has been “improved”, reinterpreted and formalised by various priests, churches and monks long after his death and therefore his message must be considered in a way that goes beyond dogmas to find a value that can be valid and applicable for us today, believer, agnostic or atheist alike.
When was Jesus born? Well, the monk Dionysius Exiguus miscalculated it with some years in the 6th century when he gave us our present day counting. King Herod the Great ruled between 37 and 4 BCE. He was both an inventive king who started many building projects, palaces, temples, arenas, cities etc, extended and improved the temple in Jerusalem etc. But he was also very suspicious and cruel. He killed his first wife Mariamne, member of the Hasmonean family, and his own grown-up sons Alexander, Aristobulos and Antipather. The last one just before his own death in 4 BCE. However it’s not proven or even likely that Herod killed infant children in Bethlehem. We don’t know exactly when Jesus was born, but most modern scholars believe sometime between 7 and 4 BCE. The story of King Herod the Great, the taxing ordered by Ceasar Augustus, under the surveillance of governor Cyrenius in Syria are mentioned in the Bible. Cyrenius had a taxation in both 6 A.D. and 6 BCE and Herod died in 4 BCE. When it comes to the Bethlehem star what was that? Magoi in Babylon and Persia existed in those days who studied the sky astrologically. Some believe today that what is reffered to in the text is the great conjunction that happens every 794th year when Jupiter, Saturn and stars in the Pisces meet. Three times in 7 BCE these conjunctions were seen from earth. The so called star map of Sippur from Babylon which has been found and is dated to 8 BCE predicts this conjunction. All the same it is doubtful by many if Jesus was born in Bethlehem, some say he was, others disagree. The story of the birth in Bethlehem was primarily made to legitimise Jesus’ ruler status, from the House of king David a thousand years earlier and who came from Bethlehem. In all texts he is mentioned as Jesus of Nazareth in Galilee, and it’s plausible that he also was born there. For Jesus’ first followers the date or place of his birth wasn’t very important. That changed long afterwards. The early Christians talked about his resurrection day on the 14th or 15th of Nisan as “dies natalis”, the birth day. It was also said that Jesus was concieved and died on the same day, on the 14th of Nisan /March 25th. Since he was presumed to have been concieved on March 25th the churches later assumed that he had to be born on December 25th. However, we don’t know the date for certain. December 25th, Jesus’ presumed birth day later merged in Rome, in 274 A.D. , with the ancient pagan beliefs of the Mithra/Jupiter cult and “dies natalis Solis invictus”, the birth of the invincible Sun. In the beginning there existed different suggested dates, but Sextus Julius Africanus in 221 A.D. and in Deposito Martyrum folicaliana from 354 A.D. fixed the date to December 25th.
So who was Jesus and did he exist? 2000 years have passed and Jesus as a person, status and message have been under fierce debate and still is. Outside the New Testament the most important source is the Jewish history writer Josephus, who wrote e.g. “Antiquities of the Jews” in 93-94 A.D. He had been fighting in the Jewish war in 70 A.D., surrendered to the Romans and was then seen as a traitor in Jewish eyes. Josephus makes two short references to Jesus and one to John the Baptist. He mentions ca 20 people by the name of Jesus, but only one “Jesus, who was called Christ”. In Book 23, Chapter 9 he tells us that “the brother of Jesus, who was called the Messiah, whose name was James” had been prosecuted and sentenced to death by stoning, probably in 62 A.D.In Book 18, Chapter 3, there’s the so called Testimonium Flavium. This reference to Jesus most scholars realise has been tampered with by later church men, but the text in general seems genuine. Most existing copies are in Greek, but also versions in Arabic have been found. If we take away the obvious inclusions made by later Christian priests this is what Josephus said: “Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man. For he was a doer of startling deeds. And he gained a following both among many Jews and many of Greek origin. He was called the Messiah. And when Pilate at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct to this day”.
Rabbi Robert Wolkoff in Gothenburg once said concerning Jews and Christians : “Jesus’ faith connects us, but the faith in Jesus separates us”. The Shroud of Turin, which is said to be Jesus’ burial cloth still is under debate. The marks of the crucified body is in 3D, in photo negative, and quite mysterious. The scientists said in the 1980’s that it was a Medieval fake, but it was discovered in 2001 that the samples taken for carbon dating were taken from corners that had been woven into the cloth much later after a fire, and wasn’t part of the original cloth. If the cloth belonged to Jesus 2000 years ago we don’t know yet. It’s up to each and every one to believe or not believe. We can be good people irrespective of which. Let’s try to treat each other well and accept each other’s differences.
Anders Moberg, December 19th 2012