Geza Vermes, Oxford professor of Jewish studies, has made a profitable third career out of little books on the history behind the gospels, lobbed into the British popular press like hand grenades. Although he's been explicating Jesus from his Jewish historical context for decades, in the past few years, Vermes has been a skeptical observer of Jesus-related popular culture. His 2005 volume The Passion explored the complicated political, legal, and cultural forces portrayed in the gospel narratives of Jesus' death, often revealing the ignorance or misunderstanding of their authors. Now, with The Nativity: History & Legend, he turns his attention to the stories of Jesus' birth in a book with far less historical meat on its bones—because the Nativity is almost wholly a legendary invention, awkwardly mapped onto history by early Christians who needed their hero to have an origin story worthy of a Greek demigod.

Not much of the material Vermes surveys will be new to serious students of the Gospels, but he correctly surmises how little of it has leaked out to the general public. The familiar Christmas story is a clumsy synthesis of two contradictory tales found in the so-called "Infancy Gospels" of Matthew and Luke. Both begin with long genealogies for the Christ child, containing different numbers of generations and diverging for long stretches. Matthew has no journey to Bethlehem (the Holy Family is already living there when the miraculous conception occurs), and therefore has to propose a relocation to Nazareth in order to get Jesus to his well-known hometown. Luke, meanwhile, situates Joseph and Mary in Nazareth and tries to shove an unlikely (and chronologically inaccurate) census into the picture to get them into David's ancestral city for the blessed event.

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Vermes revisits the well-known dating problems plaguing the story and disassembles its apocryphal accretions, such as elderly Joseph. For a popular audience, however, his signal accomplishment is in separating the Nativity legends from the historical record, leaving them to be plundered for the theological motives and authorial tropes they inaugurate. Christian readers will be intrigued by Vermes' explication of Matthew's overarching "New Moses" theme, which prompts the evangelist's inclusion of Herod's slaughter of the innocents and the dreams that drive Joseph and the Wise Men all over the ancient Near East. While Vermes' patient demeanor sometimes slips into arrogance, his slim book provides a healthy side dish of scholarship to the familiar but insubstantial Christmas feast.