The story of the nativity of Jesus of Nazareth is so familiar that it is difficult to look at it afresh. However, Luke’s version may be worth looking at closely.
It begins with these familiar verses, which locate the story and place and time:
1 And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.
2 (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)
3 And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.
4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)
5 To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.
6 And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.
(King James Version)
And a twentieth century translation goes as follows:
1 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.
2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.
3 All went to their own towns to be registered.
4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.
5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.
6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.
(New Revised Standard Version)
There are a number of perhaps interesting points about these verses.
First, there was no such decree from Emperor Augustus. The Roman imperial bureaucracy left detailed records, and if a decree had been made we would know about it. There is no evidence for such an event whatsoever.
Even if there had been such a decree, Quirinius (Cyrenius) did not become governor of Syria until 6AD, a date which would perhaps be too late for the correct birth of Jesus.
And this in turn is significant, for until 6AD Galilee (and hence Nazareth) was not part of the Roman Empire, and so would not have been subject to such a decree.
Furthermore, the principles of Roman taxation (and of the taking of censuses) would have meant Joseph would have been registered for his property in Nazareth, and not on the basis of where a distant ancestor came from. There also would have been absolutely no need for Mary to travel with him.
The nativity account of Luke is simply incorrect or incredible in every historical detail.
But so what?
None of the above information about Luke’s account is new or even particularly controversial among Biblical scholars and first century historians.
Other than a few literalists, the scholarly consensus is that the nativity account of Luke and the separate account of Matthew (with the similarly unhistorical murder of the innocents) are probably later additions to the gospel accounts. Both narratives explain (contrive) how someone known to be from Nazareth also was born (according to prophecy) in the town of David: Luke has the non-existent census, whilst Matthew has Joseph and Mary as being in Bethlehem to begin with.
And the nativity of Jesus was not especially important to early Christians. Nowhere else in the New Testament is there mention of either nativity story. Mark and John both start with Jesus’s adult ministry; and neither Luke nor Matthew mention the nativity story again. Paul (probably writing before the gospel accounts) does not mention the nativity stories in any of his letters.
For early Christians, it would appear the stories of Jesus’s ministry (with the accounts of miracles and exorcisms) and of his crucifixion and resurrection were more than enough. They had no need of the virgin birth and the star of Bethlehem.
So a critique of the nativity stories is not (and should not be taken to be) an attack on Christianity. Indeed, the very early Christians – the one who actually got the faith up and running – managed without the nativity stories.
However, later generations placed immense doctrinal and theological weight on the nativity stories. The problem with having done this is that once the historical foundation is shown to be wanting, the superstructure placed upon it can be seen as compromised.
But again, this does not mean that Christianity is false; but it does mean that human beings – even fathers of the early church – are fallible. The problem here is certainty, not Christianity.
And nor does it take away from the literary beauty of the stories (and of the artistic and musical works inspired by the stories).
Twenty years ago, reading of the works Robin Lane Fox and Geza Vermes allowed me to understand that it was possible to have an entirely secular understanding of Jesus of Nazareth and the development of the early church. This realisation – combined with reading Hume on miracles and Darwin on natural selection – in turn became part of the reason I became an atheist.
Twenty years later, I am less certain. Disproving the historical details of the nativity story of Luke (or any part of the New Testament) may well undermine a certain approach to Christianity, but it does not mean in and by itself that Christianity is wrong. It takes one so far, but not all the way.
All because it is easy to discredit the misplaced certainty of some Christians, this does not lead to the certainty of some atheists being any better founded.