The Mystery Of Christmas

48 Hours Goes To The Holy Land To Explore The Nativity

This story originally aired on Dec. 20, 2005. It was updated on Dec. 19, 2007.

It's one of the most powerful and beautiful stories in all of Western culture: the son of God, born of a virgin in a manger in Bethlehem, his coming announced by angels, celebrated by shepherds and wise men.

But is what the Bible tells us about the birth of Jesus really true? Where was Jesus born? When? How? And why? As the Christmas carol asks, "What child is this?"

48 Hours correspondent Maureen Maher explores these questions with curiosity and with respect.

Hard facts about Christmas are hard to come by, since the birth of Jesus was not a well-covered news event. To get any kind of glimpse into what really happened, one has to travel back to the first century and into the world of Jesus.

The troubled lands of Israel and the West Bank are saturated with pilgrimage sites where, at least according to legend, the events of the Christmas story occurred.

Nowhere does the story seem more concretely real than inside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

A small staircase leads down to the grotto where it is claimed that Jesus was born.

As much as we know anything, we know from multiple historical documents that Jesus was a real person who really died on a cross. But the mystery of his birth is much harder to solve.

The monuments to Christmas were built hundreds of years after the fact, and there are no contemporary documents such as birth records to delve into.

"We would like there to be records of all of this. And instead, what we have is Gospels," says John Dominic Crossan, a former Roman Catholic monk and a professor emeritus at DePaul University.

Crossan has spent a lifetime studying the four separate texts of the New Testament that recount the life of Jesus - the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. On the subject of Christ's birth, Crossan says, their stories are very difficult to harmonize.

"The interesting thing is, of the four gospels, Mark and John of course have no nativity story. Only Matthew and Luke," he explains. "They agree that Mary and Joseph are the parents. They agree about a virgin birth. They agree about a birth in Bethlehem. But pretty much apart from that, the stories go completely their own way."

The shepherds, for instance, appear only in Luke, while the magi are only in Matthew.

"When you start looking at them and realize that you can't make the way you heard it come out the same way, you have to ask, 'Wait a minute, what's going on here?'" says Michael White, a New Testament scholar at the University of Texas. Unlike fundamentalist Christians, White concludes that the Gospels include plenty of creative writing.

"The Gospels themselves were not really intended to be the kind of newspaper-like reporting of day-to-day events that we tend to assume," says White.

He says that's because the Gospels aren't just recording facts. They are making a case to convince people that Jesus was divine.

How would White suggest people read the Gospels? "To read them as religiously-motivated stories," he says.

"They are not writing history. They are trying to tell you the meaning of history. So to do that, they have to take historical events, of course. But they will adapt them. They will change them. They will create," says Crossan.

And most scholars agree that each Gospel author tailored his argument to fit his target audience.

"If they had a complete videotape of everything Jesus did and said, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John would still say, 'Well, no, I'm going to adapt that for my community,'" Crossan says, with a laugh.

The Gospel of Matthew, for instance, was written for newly-converted Jews.

"It's a message that gets involved in the whole sense of Jewish identity and the role of Jesus as the Messiah," says White.

"Matthew is in there, saying in effect, 'It's the Christian way that is the future for Judaism,'" says Crossan.

The implications for the accuracy of the Christmas story are profound.

"It becomes pretty clear, I think, that Matthew is creating a lot of the story," says White.

Where was Jesus really born? Matthew says in Bethlehem, which is, coincidentally, the home of the great Jewish King David and the place where the Jews had always expected their messiah to come from.

"It is the natural way to link Jesus into the lineage of David," says White.

Some scholars argue that it all seems to fit too well.

"Born in Bethlehem is a clue that we are making the claim that this child is the Messiah," says Crossan. "But nobody else seems to know anything about it in the New Testament…. It doesn't seem, for example, that John, in John's gospel, has any idea that Jesus was born in Bethlehem."

But if Jesus was not born in Bethlehem, then where? Crossan and White believe the name says it all: Jesus of Nazareth.

"It's probably the case he was born in Nazareth," says White. "He's called 'Jesus of Nazareth.' And that would've been the norm, that is, wherever you're born is the namesake that you will carry with you."

Instead of a manger, the actual birthplace might have been within a house. "The houses that we have excavated at Nazareth are very often very small, tiny houses, many of them backing into a cliff which has a cave in it," says Crossan.

But we don't know exactly where that house might have stood. While most of the ancient village has been excavated, part of it remains buried under what is now the bustling present-day town of Nazareth.

It may be hard to grasp, but there's a real possibility that Jesus was actually born on a plot of ground now used as a market place, unmarked by a church or even a monument.

But if Matthew concocted the Bethlehem birthplace to inspire his Jewish audience, what else did he make up? White suspects other episodes were inspired by another Jewish hero.

"There's this constant undercurrent in Matthew to Moses stories and Exodus stories, and aspects of the life of Moses," says White.

For example, Matthew writes that Herod, the power-mad king of the Jews, ordered the slaughter of all the young boys in Bethlehem, and Jesus, Mary, and Joseph fled to Egypt.

"So, now Matthew is saying to himself, 'Jesus is the new Moses. Aha, I know what I'll do. When Moses was born, Pharaoh tried to kill him, and kill all the young men. I will say the same of Herod,' " says Crossan.

In a cave underneath the Church of the Nativity lie the skulls of Herod's alleged victims. To some they look too big to be those of children.

"We have no historical evidence that such a massive slaughter or any kind of event like that ever occurred," says White. He adds that there is no historical evidence he is aware of that the holy family fled to Egypt.

But if Matthew took liberties with the truth, what about Luke?

"The birth narrative in Luke is far more miraculous at every turn. More spectacular," says White.

And how did people who first heard the Christmas story respond to its most important miracle, the virgin birth?