As an atheist, I am sometimes asked by Christians how I can celebrate and legitimately enjoy the Christmas holiday.
However, I think this challenge is be misconceived.
Christmas has little, if anything, to do with Christianity - even if Jesus was indeed Christ.
So familiar is the imagery of the holy birth in Bethlehem that it is astonishing to realise how unimportant it is both in the New Testament and to the early church.
There are two nativity stories for Jesus of Nazareth contained in the Gospels. One is in Luke, the other is in Matthew.
Neither Luke nor Matthew mention their nativity story again.
There is no nativity story at all in Mark, usually regarded as the earliest Gospel, nor in John, the most theologically-developed of the Gospels, always anxious to assert the divinity of Jesus.
There is no mention of or reference to the nativity stories anywhere else in the New Testament.
Paul and other letter writers, writing independently of and largely before the Gospel accounts, simply do not mention the virgin birth, the star, or the attendant angels.
If it were not for the nativity stories placed at the start of Luke and Matthew, it would appear that early Christians either were unaware of the divine birth of Jesus of Nazareth or did not think it of any importance.
It certainly did not matter to them when seeking to emphasise or persuade others of the divinity of Jesus: the baptism (which both Mark and John commence with) and the resurrection (central to Paul's teachings), as well as the recorded miracles, constituted sufficient evidence of the "Christ" status of Jesus.
Many biblical scholars explain the absence of any reference to the nativity stories in the New Testament (other than at the start of Luke and Matthew) by suggesting that both stories were later insertions.
The two stories sought to show, for doctrinal reasons, how someone from Nazareth was actually born (according to prophecy) in Bethlehem. Given the distance of Bethlehem from Nazareth, and that Jesus was widely known to have been a Nazarene, this would require quite an explanation.
And because the nativity stories were later insertions, they are easily caught out.
Luke's nativity story is especially open to attack, as it purports to rest its account on verifiable historical events and practices.
I will now "Fisk" the start of Luke's nativity story. So that I cannot be accused of favouring just one translation, I now set out the first five verses of the second chapter of Luke in three different translations, accompanied with my comments.
And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.
There is no historical basis whatsoever for this decree from Augustus.
Furthermore, as we have records from the Roman imperial state from the time, we would know of any decree had one been issued. It is thereby safe to say that this is an entirely false statement.
It may be that Luke mistook this decree for one of Quirinius dating from 6AD onwards. Even so, the mention of Augustus would be false and the birth of Jesus would be too late for the other Gospel narratives.
Of course, once this decree is removed from the story then the rest of Luke's account becomes meaningless.
(And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)
(This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.)
This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.
Quirinius was indeed Governor of Syria, from around 6AD. (This date coincidentally places him ten years after the death of Herod, who is of course rather important in Matthew’s nativity and infanticide story.)
And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.
And everyone went to his own town to register.
All went to their own towns to be registered.
Even if there were a tax decree, or a census, and even if Bethlehem had been subject to Roman imperial jurisdiction before 6AD, the Roman principles of taxation and census-taking would have meant that Joseph would be taxed on property he held, not on the basis of remote genealogy.
So, if Joseph held his property in Nazareth and none in Bethlehem, then he would not have needed to have travelled to anywhere else.
And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)
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.
So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.
Nazareth was an obscure village in Galilee. (It is not mentioned in the Old Testament.) Bethlehem is in the separate province of Judea. Significantly it did not even come under Quirinius’s jurisdiction (and thereby Roman imperial jurisdiction) until after around 6AD.
The prophecy being fulfilled is that in Micah 5:2:
But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting. (KJV)
In my view, Luke (Nazareth to Bethlehem, Census, Manger, Angels, Shepherds) and Matthew (Bethlehem to begin with, Star, Magi, Herod, Infanticide (also not historically evidenced, which it would have been), flight to Egypt, settling in Nazareth) are best regarded as two separate and distinct attempts to account for how Jesus was born in Bethlehem but brought up in Nazareth.
To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.
He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.
He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.
Even if there had been a decree, or any census or registration whatsoever, and Bethlehem had somehow been temporarily shifted into the Roman Empire for the holiday period, Joseph as householder would presumably have been competent and capable to have answered on behalf of his household. He could have gone down to Bethlehem by himself whilst Mary gave birth in Nazareth.
In other words, even if Luke was otherwise correct, there was no reason for a heavily pregnant Mary to travel on a donkey the long distance to Bethlehem for Jesus to be born there according to prophecy.
The implications of the nativity stories being later insertions - narratives fabricated or developed to fullfil an ancient prophecy - are profound and, for an atheist, rather intriguing.
For example, the Virgin birth and the Marian cult more generally, both so central to the Catholic and other traditions, become null and void.
There is no reliable textual basis for either phenomenon, notwithstanding the centuries of teaching and dogmatic assertions.
And if this is the case, then many great works of art, however uplifting and inspiring - from the Renaissance Virigins and Child to Part I of Handel's Messiah - have no ultimate divine basis.
These works of art were just human creations all along.
And, for me, there is a similar implication for the modern celebration of Christmas.
The institution of Christmas is a human creation, pulling on many sources; it ultimately has as much to do with Christianity as Thursday has to do with Thor, or March to do with Mars. It just shares a (for some) hallowed name.
Some of the most uplifting elements of this modern celebration - like A Christmas Carol and A Fairytale of New York - have no expressly Christian content. And this is also true of almost all the usual paraphernalia, from Christmas decorations to turkey dinners.
My suggestion is that by celebrating Christmas one is really celebrating what humans are capable of creating for themselves.
And so I sometimes ask Christians that given the (literally) incredible and (for the New Testament and early church) irrelevant nature of the nativity stories, how can they also celebrate and legitimately enjoy the Christmas holiday?
Not that I mind, of course: after all it is the season of goodwill to all men and women, including Christians.