I’m sure lots of things happened on Dec. 25th over the years, but as far as history can tell us, none of them involved any virgin giving birth to a baby named Jesus. Although later Gospel accounts have stories about Jesus being born, none of them tell us what day that was, or even give us any clear indication of what time of year. It wasn’t until centuries later that Christians are reported as associating any particular holy day with the story of “The Nativity.”
That’s rather interesting, because it’s consistent with the theory that Jesus was not, in fact, ever born.
Count me among those who were initially skeptical of the theory that Jesus might be a complete myth. I started reading Richard Carrier’s book On the Historicity of Jesus with the suspicion that it would probably reflect an unjustifiable hyper-denialism. What I found instead was a well-researched exploration of prior material and ancient mystery religions that do indeed raise the possibility that the Gospel might be merely an incremental adaptation of existing legends and well-known mythic memes of the time.
The book goes into extremely great detail, which I’m obviously not going to try to reproduce here, but he brings to light such things as the story of Jesus the high priest and savior mentioned in Zechariah, and Plutarch’s story of how Romulus and Remus were conceived by a divine ghost impregnating a young maiden, and some of the common elements of faith and practice in the numerous mystery religions of the time.
The curious tale of the Nativity, and its 300 year quest to find a particular day for Jesus to be born, seems to fit this pattern. Ancient peoples placed a great deal of importance on birthdays (since so many celebrated so few of them), and it’s inconceivable that early Christians would have forgotten which day it was, or moved the celebration to a different day. Had Jesus begun his career as a purely mythical figure, though, he would not have had an original birthday, and thus it’s less surprising that the church would take a century or two to provide him with one.