See earlier discussion at https://johntsquires.com/2021/12/19/questions-about-christmas-interrogating-the-biblical-story-1/ and https://johntsquires.com/2021/12/20/questions-about-christmas-interrogating-the-biblical-story-2/
8 Was Jesus born in the year zero?
In one word: no.
Luke sets his story of the birth of Jesus “in the days of King Herod of Judea” (Luke 1:5). King Herod died soon after an eclipse of the moon soon before a Passover, according to the Jewish historian Josephus; that was most likely in March/April of 4BCE, by our reckoning. So Mary was pregnant, and gave birth, some years before the mythical “year zero”. (There was, of course, no “year zero”. The calendar flipped from 1BCE straight to 1 CE.)
Later, after the death of Herod, the region of Galilee came under the control of Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great and one of his wives, Malthace, from Samaria. Herod senior was the king who, according to Matthew, ordered the slaughter of all males born in Israel (Matt 2:16-18). Herod Antipas was, according to Mark, the ruler who, against his better judgement, ordered the beheading of John the baptiser (Mark 6:17-29). Herod Agrippa was another member of the family, a grandson of King Herod by another of his wives, Mariamne, who ruled as King of Judea from 41 to 44 CE.
9 Was Mary a pregnant virgin?
When Luke introduces Mary, he reports that the angel Gabriel appears to “a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; the virgin’s name was Mary” (Luke 1:27). After listening to what the angel says, Mary questions the announcement of her pregnancy and the promised birth of a son: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34).
The assertion that Mary is pregnant despite being a virgin is a part of the cluster of miraculous events taking place in the first two chapters of Luke’s orderly account—a young virgin conceives, a barren old woman conceives, a talkative father is struck dumb, and a number of angelic appearances occur. Luke never explains his claim that Mary is a virgin; he simply assert this.
Matthew explains that “the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way: when his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit” (Matt 1:18). The event is seen by Matthew also as a miraculous divine intervention. However, Matthew provides an explanation of the birth of Jesus as taking place “to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet” (Matt 1:22).
Unfortunately, this claim depends on an incorrect reading of a prophetic text (Isaiah 7:14). The original Hebrew reads “a young woman shall conceive”, but Matthew has chosen an inexact Greek translation which renders it “a virgin shall conceive” (Matt 1:23). See https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/21/a-young-woman-a-virgin-pregnant-about-to-give-birth-isa-714-in-matt-123/
At this point, Matthew agrees with Luke; they each include the claim about Mary’s virginity. And from this, the statement made it into the Apostles Creed and later affirmations of faith.
However, these two writers are the only two amongst all the New Testament writers who know anything of Mary’s alleged virginity. Neither Mark nor John tell of the actual birth of Jesus, while Paul makes no reference to Mary’s virginity when he states that “God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law” (Gal 4:4). Other authors don’t refer to his birth at all.
So I don’t adhere to the “Virgin Mary” part of the story. I think she was pregnant to Joseph, pure and simple. The claim that Mary was a virgin was not historical; it was a later apologetic addition.
10 Why are the shepherds included in the story?
The story of the shepherds is not told in Matthew’s book of origins. It is told only in Luke’s orderly account. I think it likely that the shepherds who came in from the fields to pay homage to the newborn child would have been somewhat ambiguous visitors. On the one hand, they were really “essential services”. Sheep were common in Israel; they provided meat for food, milk for drink, wool for clothing, and the animal for the requisite daily sacrifice at the Temple.
On the other hand, they were considered akin to outcasts, impure and unclean, placed outside the circle of holiness within which good Jews were expected to live. In the Mishnah, a third century work which collects and discusses traditional Jewish laws, shepherds are classified amongst those who practice “the craft of robbers”. These are not highly valued guests!
Luke’s recounting of the visit of the outcast shepherds to the infant child and his family serves a theological purpose. The visit indicates that those on the edge were welcomed by Jesus, at the start of his life, as well as right throughout his ministry (Luke 5:12–13; 5:29–32; 6:30; 7:34, 37; 8:26–33; 9:37–43; 14:13, 21: 15:1–2). He grounds the message of the Gospel in the heart of the needs of the people of his day.
The role of the shepherds in the story also allows Luke to include another song of joy in these opening chapters: the song sung by the angels to the shepherds in the fields: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!” (Luke 2:14). This follows on from the songs of Mary (1:46–55) and Zechariah (1:68–79), and leads on to the song of Simeon (2:29–32). All four songs show that the birth of Jesus signals forgiveness, joy, peace, salvation, and redemption for Israel.
So whether these characters were actual historical events is almost by-the-by. What is most important is the role they play in the story that Luke has shaped—an ancient story which endures (albeit with elaborations and additions) into the present age.
See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/12/22/questions-about-christmas-interrogating-the-biblical-story-4/