Joseph Kelly, a professor of religious studies at John Carroll University in Ohio, has been working on a three-volume series on the history of Christmas. The first volume came out in 2004, and is titled The Origins Of Christmas (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2004). The second volume came out last year, under the title The Birth Of Jesus According To The Gospels (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2008). I don't know when the third volume is due out, nor do I know which aspects of Christmas it will address. But I've read the first volume and recently finished reading the second, and I want to provide an overview of both.
Page citations from the two volumes will be in the form of a volume number followed by the page number. For example, "2:75" would refer to page 75 of the second volume cited above.
The first volume addresses the history of the holiday during the first six centuries of church history, and the second addresses the relevant Biblical material. The first book is around 150 pages long, and the second is about 100 pages. Both are directed at a general readership. Neither has any notes. Both volumes end with some recommended resources for further study, which give some indication of how Kelly reached his conclusions.
He's not as critical of the traditional Christian view of the infancy narratives as somebody like Geza Vermes or Marcus Borg. He's closer to Raymond Brown, but somewhat less liberal. Either he's largely unaware of conservative scholarship and argumentation on the infancy narratives or he often chooses to ignore that scholarship and argumentation. He frequently makes claims that have been addressed by conservatives, even addressed many times, without interacting with the conservative position or even giving any indication that he's aware of it. Nobody who has read much of Craig Keener's material on Matthew, Darrell Bock's material on Luke, or this blog's material on Christmas issues, for example, should find anything that's significantly challenging to a traditional Christian view of the infancy narratives in Kelly's work.
According to Kelly, Matthew didn't write the first gospel (1:5). There was a lengthy period of oral tradition prior to any writing of the gospel material (2:2-3). He even claims that "both evangelists wrote eighty to ninety years after the event [Jesus' birth] and did not have access to reliable written sources, only to oral traditions passed along for decades, and even then only to the oral traditions known to their own local communities" (1:27). Ancient sources often made up the words they attributed to a source (2:4). The gospel authors didn't intend their accounts to be read as entirely historical, and the early readers of the gospels would have been aware of that fact (2:59, 2:70). Inconsistencies among the gospels, such as the timing of Jesus' confrontation with the money changers and the differences in the wording of The Lord's Prayer, prove that "Clearly, 'lives' of Jesus that do not agree with one another on the basic facts or words cannot be biographies as we think of them today." (2:2) Vague and inconsistent parallels with Old Testament material are made out to be highly significant. For example, Luke 2:6-7 is compared to 1 Samuel 1:20. Then we go several verses ahead in Luke 2, to verse 24, and compare that verse to the next verse in 1 Samuel 1, verse 21. Then Kelly tells us to go ahead several more verses in Luke 2, to verse 39, while going back a couple of verses in 1 Samuel 1, to verse 19. That sort of vague and inconsistent paralleling is supposed to show that Luke "relies heavily upon the OT account of the birth of the judge and prophet Samuel" (2:65). Jewish genealogies focused on men rather than women because of "an attitude that considers women to be inferior in all aspects" (2:29). A woman in the ancient world had "one role in life", and that role was to produce a son for her husband (2:61). If a couple didn't have a child, it was "always" considered the woman's fault (2:61). Because of the words he attributes to Elizabeth in Luke 1:25, Luke is a sexist, even though he did "rise above many of the sexist attitudes of his age" (2:62). Herod would have had some of his men follow the magi if the events of Matthew 2 were historical (2:47). Luke's census account can't be historical (2:83). The plural "their" in Luke 2:22 is wrong (1:25). Etc.
On the other hand, Kelly is more moderate or conservative on some points, and he acknowledges some significant evidence that supports a traditional view of the infancy narratives. Jesus' disciples probably spoke with Him about His childhood and passed some of that information on to the early church (1:4). If the first gospel had been written by Matthew, his testimony would be "of immeasurable value" (1:5). Though Kelly doesn't say much about James' potential role as a source for the infancy narratives, and he doesn't discuss Luke's access to James (Acts 21:18), he does acknowledge that James was "someone who was knowledgeable about the early history of Mary and Joseph" (1:38). Though there was much apocryphal material about Jesus' infancy in the ancient church, most people realized its non-historical nature (1:53). The majority of those who passed on oral tradition were concerned about historical accuracy (2:3). The gospels "show strong agreement on many major points in Jesus' life" (2:3). Luke "knows the Gentile world very well" and writes with a high degree of knowledge and accuracy about the Roman empire (2:13). Matthew and Luke's infancy material was largely gathered by them, not invented by them (2:17). Jesus was born in Bethlehem (2:43-44). Two astronomers who have recently written on the star of Bethlehem, Mark Kidger and Michael Molnar, "make a good case for some unique astral phenomenon or phenomena at the time of Jesus' birth" (1:31). The perpetual virginity of Mary, the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption of Mary, and the veneration of images weren't beliefs held by the universal church from the start, but instead grew in popularity over centuries of time (1:43, 1:92, 1:104). Christians were associating December 25 with Jesus' birth prior to the fourth century (1:61-70). Etc.
Given how little Kelly seems to know about conservative scholarship and argumentation on the infancy narratives or his unwillingness to interact much with what he does know, the degree to which he agrees with conservative conclusions is significant. Still, the first two volumes in his series are more liberal than conservative, and they don't do much to advance the issues. Kelly considers himself a Christian, and he "loves Christmas" (2:100), but these two books are largely a disservice to Christianity and to Christmas.