A Christmas Myth

For a number of years now, at this time of the year, it has become common to hear sermons or read articles which point out certain aspects of the Christmas story as being myths, traditions that have come down to us but which have no basis in reality. These traditions have been given life over the centuries by popular Christmas carols. For example, the picture of Joseph and a ready-to-deliver Mary riding into Bethlehem, and Joseph frantically going from inn to inn to find a room but being turned away, is now recognized by all to be a myth. The idea that there were three kings and that they  showed up at the manger on the night of Jesus’ birth — also myth. If the biblical texts are read carefully one will find that these notions are not found there but have been read into the story.

But so what, these are unimportant details in the story which are harmless if believed. True. But there is one Christmas myth which is much more insidious — the incarnation. I’m sure everyone would agree that this is a much more serious matter and that this tradition, if not founded upon reality, could have a deleterious affect upon those who believe it. This is the idea that God Himself entered the womb of a young Jewish virgin and took to himself  human flesh, and thus being born as a baby. Hence, Jesus just is God the Creator walking about in a human body. This is such a long-standing tradition, so ingrained into the thinking of Christianity, that the validity of it is never questioned by most Christians.

There are three passages of Scripture that become prominent during the Christmas season, which supposedly teach this concept of the incarnation. I want to look briefly at these verses to show how easy it is to see in Scripture what isn’t really there. Sure these verses can lend support to this idea of incarnation, but that is a different thing than saying that they positively teach it. These verses do seem to give credence to this belief, but only if you already believe it. If you bring that presupposition to the text then you will read the text that way, and you won’t look any deeper than the English text of whatever version you are reading to discover it’s meaning. Presuppositional traditions and beliefs are the death knell to inquiry. Why study a passage out if you are already so certain of what it is saying?

Micah 5:2          “But thou, Bethlehem Ephrathah, which are little to be among the thousands of Judah, out of thee shall one come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting.” (ASV)

This famous passage about the coming of the Messiah from the ‘little village of Bethlehem’ is usually put forth as a proof of the incarnation based on the last part of the verse, “whose goings forth are from of old , from everlasting.” From this it is said that the coming Messiah pre-existed his birth in Bethlehem, that he was indeed God. Other versions also read similarly:

  • Holman Christian Standard Bible —  ” … His origin is from antiquity, from eternity.”
  • International Standard Version —  ” … His existence has been from antiquity, even from eternity.”
  • KJV —  ” … whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.”

Someone reading one of these versions may indeed find in it’s wording a confirmation of the incarnation concept. As I said earlier, without further analysis one can easily read this presupposition into the text. But is this all there is to the matter? Not quite! First of all, many other versions read differently:

  • English Standard Version — ” … whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.”
  • NET Bible —  ” … one whose origins are in the distant past.”
  • NIV —  ” … whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”
  • Young’s Literal Translation —  ” … his comings forth are of old, from the days of antiquity.”

So we see that the wording in these versions is significantly different. But why? The Hebrew behind the words, “… are from of old, from eternity/ancient days,” is qedem yom olam. I think it is safe to say that qedem and yom olam are meant to be synonyms, i.e. yom olam is just a restatement of qedem. This is a common literary device (synonymous parallelism) used throughout the Hebrew Scriptures — to restate something in different words. For other examples where qedem and olam are set in synonymous parallelism see Ps. 77:5; Is. 51:9. The word qedem has two basic meanings, one of location and one of time. When the context is about location it means ‘in front of’ or ‘east‘. When the context is about time it always refers to ‘ancient times’ or ‘the days of old’. This can be seen easily in the following verses from the NIV:

  • Nehemiah 12:46 — “For long ago, in the days of David and Asaph…”
  • Jeremiah 46:26 — “Later, however, Egypt will be inhabited as in times past.”
  • Micah 7:20 — “You will be true to Jacob, and show mercy to Abraham, as you pledged on oath to our fathers in days long ago.
  • Other verses are Ps.44:1; 74:2; 77:5; Is. 19:11; 23:7; 45:21; 51:9; Jer. 30:20; Lam. 1:7

Hence the word qedem always refers to long ago in the past but never to eternity. Now the phrase yom olam must bear the same meaning for the device of synonymous parallelism to work. Yom is simply the Hebrew word for day. In Micah 5:2 it is plural and so we get ‘days of olam’. Olam is a little more complicated. It is a word denoting long indefinite time. The word does not mean eternity; in fact, that is a misleading translation. ‘Eternity‘ in today’s English vocabulary  has more of the meaning of endless existence, not just forward into the future, but backward into the past. Hence we speak of something ‘eternal‘ as having always been. So when we see the words “from eternity” in Micah 5:2 spoken of the Messiah we think he must have always been. But this is never the meaning of olam. I will now show that the word olam, when speaking of the past, is practically a synonym for qedem, with the meaning of ‘long ago’ or ‘in ancient times.’    The following verses contain the word olam without yom and speak of the past:

  • Genesis 6:4 — “They were the heroes of old, men of renown.”
  • Joshua 24:2 — ” … Long ago your forefathers … lived beyond the River and worshipped other gods.”
  • 1 Samuel 27:8 — ” … From ancient times these peoples lived in the land … “
  • Psalm 77:5 — “I thought about the former days, the years of long ago.”
  • Jeremiah 28:8 — “From early times the prophets … have prophesied war … “
  • Other verses are Is. 64:4; Jer. 5:15; 6:16; Ezek. 26:20.

None of these verses could possibly carry the meaning “from eternity“, and so ‘in eternity past’ or ‘before the world began’.

Now let’s look at verses that contain the same phrase as in Micah 5:2, ‘yom olam’.

  • Deut. 32:7 — “Remember the days of old; consider the generations long past.”
  • Isaiah 63:9b — “In his love and mercy he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.”
  • Amos 9:11 — “In that day I will restore David’s fallen tent … and build it as in days of old.”
  • Micah 7:14c — “Let them feed in Bashan and Gilead as in days long ago.”
  • Malachi 3:4 — ” … and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days of old, as in former times.”

It should be obvious by now that the words used by Micah, qedem and yom olam, are not and cannot be referring to ‘in eternity’ or ‘before the world began’. So why do some translations say this? I see this as a simple case of  translation bias. The translators already believe that Jesus is eternal, since in their minds he is God, and so they translate in accordance with that belief.

So the correct translation is ” … whose origins are from of old, from ancient times (or days of antiquity).” So what does that mean? The Hebrew for origins literally means goings forth. He came forth, at a point in history, from Bethlehem, but his goings forth in the prophetic word are from ancient times. The LORD spoke through Isaiah, ” … so is my word that goes forth out from my mouth; it will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” { Is. 55:11 }. The first going forth of the Messiah in prophecy was in the Garden of Eden {Gen. 3:15}; and many more would follow until he literally came forth out of Bethlehem.

The immediate context, also, is against the notion that this ruler (or king) would be God incarnate, for the passage clearly differentiates between God and this king. Note verse four, “He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of Yahweh his God.”

Isaiah 9:6          “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of peace.”

Here is another popular verse which, on the surface, seems to support the idea of the incarnation of God. We have a child being born who is called ‘Mighty God’. But when we look beneath the surface not everything is as it might appear.

We must first look at the overall context. The prophecy foretells the time when the yoke of the oppressors of Israel will be broken and they will be lifted out of their despair and darkness (vv.2-4). War will cease (v.5), for a king will be born who will take the government upon his shoulders (vv.6a, 7a). He will be the long promised Davidic King who will restore justice and righteousness to the land (7b). It will be the zeal of Yahweh Almighty that accomplishes this (7c). This is in fact the same prophesied ruler coming forth from Bethlehem, that we saw in Micah 5:2. In the midst of this description of this coming king we are told that “his name shall be called …. ” This phrase could be translated “his fame shall be proclaimed … ” Then we get this list of appellations which tell us the reason for his fame and renown. I will not deal with all of these titles for lack of time, but will focus on the one that is usually pointed to by those who believe in the ‘incarnation of God’ theory, i.e. Mighty God.

The Hebrew behind this title is el gibbor. Let’s look first at gibbor. The word can function as a noun or an adjective. As an adjective it means mighty, such as in Gen. 10:9; Prov. 30:30 & 1 Sam. 14:52. As a noun it means a mighty one and can be translated as warrior, champion, or valiant man, as in Gen. 6:4; Judges 6:12; 1 Sam. 17:51 & 2 Sam. 23:8.

The word el is translated as God when referring to Yahweh but is also used of men and so is translated as ‘mighty one’, as in the following verses: Ezek. 31:11 (where Nebuchadnezzar is called the el of the nations); Ezek. 17:13 (where Nebuchadnezzar is said to have carried away the ele of the land; see also 2 Kings 24:15); Exodus 15:15 (where the ele of Moab is parallel to the chiefs of Edom). El seems to take on an adjectival sense in Psalm 36:6 and 80:10 where it is rendered mighty in reference to mountains and cedars.

Now the combination of el and gibbor, as in our text, appears again only in Is. 10:21 and Ezek. 32:21. The Ezekiel passage is translated various ways:

  • ASV & KJV —  ” … the strong among the mighty … “ 
  • ESV —  ” … the mighty chiefs … “
  • HCSB —  “Warrior leaders
  • NIV & ISV —  “… mighty leaders … “
  • NET —  “The bravest of the warriors … “

So, possible translations of el gibbor in Isaiah 9:6, besides ‘Mighty God’ are Mighty Warrior, Champion, Leader, or Chief. The el may have an adjectival sense here, hence Mighty or Strong or even Divine. The Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon says of Isaiah 9:6, “mighty hero …  or divine hero (as reflecting the divine majesty).”

So is Isaiah telling us that the child to be born will be God Himself or a Mighty Hero or Champion. When we consider what we learned in my previous post, Son of God, concerning the exalted status of the Davidic king, who sits on Yahweh’s throne ruling over Yahweh’s kingdom, it becomes clear that Isaiah is not speaking of ontological or metaphysical categories but representational position and status. So this coming king’s fame will include his status as a mighty champion/hero.

Matthew 1:22-23          “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son and they will call him Immanuel —- which means God with us.’ “

Again, the supposed obvious meaning of the text is that the child being born is God Himself. But is this tenable? What would a 1st century Jew have thought upon reading Matthew’s words? Or better, how would the Jews of Isaiah’s day, when this prophecy was given, have understood his words? {see Is. 7:13-14}

Let us look at the context of this prophecy. In Isaiah 7 we find that Rezin, king of Aram, and Pekah, king of Israel, have allied in an attack upon Jerusalem. Ahaz was then king of Judah, in the Davidic line. God instructed the prophet Isaiah to go to Ahaz to calm his fears and reassure him of His commitment to uphold the Davidic dynasty. After foretelling the failure of this attack and the ultimate fall of the northern kingdom, the LORD said to Ahaz, “Ask Yahweh your God for a sign … “(v.10). Ahaz then feigns piety saying, “I will not ask; I will not put Yahweh to the test ” (v.11).  The prophet then responds, “Hear now, you house of David! … the Lord Himself will give you ( the Davidic dynasty) a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel.”

The Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon says the meaning of Immanuel is ‘with us is God.’ Now often, in Scripture, when one is named, the name is not necessarily saying something about the one who bears it, but about the God whom they serve. This is known in academia as a theophoric name. For example, Samuel means ‘his name is God’; Daniel means ‘God is my judge’; Ezekiel means ‘God strengthens‘; Nehemiah means ‘Yah comforts’; Joshua means ‘Yahweh is salvation’; Josiah means ‘Yah supports’; Hezekiah means ‘Yah strengthens’; and perhaps the most striking, Jehu, which means ‘Yah is he’. Examples could be multiplied but this should suffice to demonstrate the point, i.e. no one would have thought that any of the bearers of these names was Yahweh himself. So Immanuel, i.e. with us is God, is not necessarily saying something about Jesus, but about God, who sent him. The coming of the Messiah into the world was a sign to the house of David that God had not forgotten His promise, that He had not forsaken David’s dynasty; he has raised up the promised seed of David to rule over His people Israel forever. God was with the house of David to fulfill his covenant {see Psalm 89:3-4}.

Matthew’s use of this prophecy seems to expand it to the whole nation of Israel, both those in the land at that time, and those scattered abroad. The coming of Jesus on the scene at that time in the history of the Jewish people, was a sign that God had not forgotten His ancient people, but that He was with them to fulfill all of His gracious promises to them. At that time it had been nearly 600 yrs. since a king from David’s line had sat on the throne, and 400 yrs. since a prophet had been sent to them, in accordance with the word of the LORD through Hosea {Hosea 3:4-5}. Luke 7:16 gives us a good understanding of how the people in Jesus’ day viewed him. After he had raised the dead son of a widow Luke records these words, “They were all filled with awe and praised God. ‘A great prophet has appeared among us,’ they said. ‘God has come to help his people.’ ” (NIV) Certainly no one in Jesus’ audience would ever have had the notion that he was God himself in human form. But the obvious conclusion, based on the miraculous powers he displayed, was that he was sent by God and so God had visited his people in and through this prophet {see also John 3:1-2}.

I think that we can extend the fulfillment of this prophecy even further; the coming of Messiah into human history is also a sign that God had not forsaken the Gentile world, but in and through Messiah he has included us, with his people Israel, in such a great salvation. Truly God is with us!

Merry Christmas to all!


Author: Troy Salinger

I am 60 yrs. old. I live with my wife of 37 yrs. in Picayune MS. I have been a believer in the Lord Jesus since August of 1981. I have no formal theological education, but have been an ardent student of Scripture for 41 yrs. I am a biblical Unitarian i.e. I believe the Father is the only true God (John 17:3) and Jesus is His human Son, the Messiah.

5 thoughts on “A Christmas Myth”

  1. Great post.

    Names like “Mighty God” (El Gibbor) and “God with us” (Emanu El) are names given to humans (sometimes angels, like Gabriel, which contains the same idea as El Gibbor) that describe a characteristic or truth about God. This is called a theophoric God-bearing name. A person bearing the name is not God. I personally know about five Emanuels. None of them are literally God dwelling in our midst, but their name declares that God is with us, concerned for us, working for us, etc.

    God being with his people is a truth seen often in the Bible.
    God to Moses: “I will be with you.” Exodus 3:12
    “Is not the LORD your God with you?” 1 Chronicles 22:18
    “Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem…” Ezra 1:3
    Before Jesus was born, at the birth of John the Baptist, his father declared “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people” Luke 1:68

    We can understand better the theophoric aspect of these names when we understand that in Hebrew there is no present tense form of “be”, no “am, are, is”. So whenever two nouns (or pronoun/s) are juxtaposed one with another, the phrase can be understood and translated with “is”.

    El Gibbor = God is great.
    Emanuel = God is with us.

    The names are declaring a truth or a characteristic about God.

    Trinitarians should refrain from stating that Isaiah 9:6 shows the deity of Messiah, since in the very same verse the Messiah is called Avi-Ad, Everlasting Father. The Messiah is not the Everlasting Father even in Trinitarianism. Rather, this is another theophoric name that describes a characteristic of God in His relation to humankind. I know several people named Avi-Ad (Everlasting Father). They are not God our Everlasting Father, but their name tells us that God is our Everlasting Father.

    His more detail on the Micah 5:2, Matthew 2:5-6 passage.


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