At the risk of being called the Grinch Who Stole Bethlehem, Paula Fredriksen states emphatically: Jesus was born in Nazareth, not the "little town" of the Christmas carol.

"I can't think of any New Testament scholar who takes [the Gospel accounts of Jesus's birth] to be historically reliable," said Fredriksen, a Boston University professor who specializes in early Christianity. "Most believe he was born in Nazareth."

That's just one of many findings of contemporary scholarship that run counter to traditional readings of the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke.

Jesus was not born in a barn, for example, but on the ground floor of the house of relatives. The wise men were intended to look like fools, not scientists or kings. And the early biographers of Jesus created the story of the virgin birth to counter the same claim by followers of Augustus Caesar.

Such conclusions are reached by scholars who have more extensive knowledge of ancient Hebrew and Greek than ever, use computers for comparative textual analyses and benefit from more than a century of archaeological discoveries that clarify the religious, sociological and political contexts of the Bible's authors.

Critics question the motives of these New Testament analysts, charging them with attacking Christianity and "taking the theology" out of the Bible. Scholars deny such accusations, arguing that their goal is to present an accurate picture of the life of Jesus and the early Christian community.

Traditional interpretations of biblical texts have become so embedded in the lives and worship of most Christians that simply questioning the factuality of such passages as the infancy stories can result in a "tremendous amount of emotional shock," Fredriksen said.

"For 19 centuries, we've had the stories to chew on and have combined them into one," she said of the distinctly different versions of Jesus's birth offered by Matthew and Luke. Some elements of the two accounts are complementary, others contradictory.

The version most widely accepted by Western Christians incorporates, from Matthew, the "wise men from the east" (never saying how many), the family's flight into Egypt and Herod's killing of the children of Bethlehem. Luke adds Mary's song of praise, known as the Magnificat, after an angel tells of her destiny; the Roman census; and the host of angels singing in the fields.

Modern scholarship has moved beyond obvious story-line differences in these brief accounts to focus on issues such as the time and location of Jesus's birth. There are two reasons scholars believe he was not born in Bethlehem, Fredriksen said.

First, he was known as Jesus of Nazareth, not Jesus of Bethlehem or Jesus of Capernaum, the center of his Galilean ministry. Think of the writer of Acts, she suggested -- Paul of Tarsus, so-called because of his place of origin.

Second, the authors probably wrote their gospels at least half a century after Jesus's death. Either they did not know the historical details or, more likely, they presented the infancy narratives to reflect the need of the young Christian community to believe that the birth of Jesus coincided with prophecies of the Messiah in the Hebrew scriptures, Fredriksen said.

Micah prophesied that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, so Matthew and Luke wrote their stories to place Jesus there, she said. Luke tells of Mary and Joseph traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem to participate in a Roman-mandated census. Matthew places all the action in Bethlehem, as if Bethlehem were the home town of Mary and Joseph, and doesn't mention Nazareth until later.

It's also commonly agreed that Luke's timing of Jesus's birth is wrong, because he put the birth at the time of the first census called by Caesar Augustus, which historians place at A.D. 6. Scholars generally agree that Matthew correctly placed the birth during the rein of Herod, but because Herod died in 4 B.C., they believe that Jesus's birth could be no later than that.

One often overlooked aspect of the narratives is the authors' sense of humor, said Amy-Jill Levine, professor of New Testament at Vanderbilt University Divinity School.

While astronomers and theologians continue to argue over what "star" the Magi saw -- a comet, alignment of planets or supernova -- she believes that Matthew intended the roaming star as a humorous image. But it made a serious point, she said: "This is the child whom Heaven acknowledges."

Mark Allan Powell, in a new book "Chasing the Eastern Star," argues that Matthew intended the Magi to look like bungling astrologers or sorcerers, more like the Three Stooges than the Three Wise Men, he says. Perhaps their dumbest move is going to Herod to ask directions to the child Herod himself wants to find and kill.

Powell, a professor of the New Testament at Trinity Lutheran College in Columbus, Ohio, said the foolish magician was common in 1st-century literature and a staple in early Christian drama. The character's purpose was to show that "even the most foolish people on Earth can find the truth with God's help."

Only in the Renaissance did the image best known today -- the wise astronomer rather than the foolish Persian astrologer -- begin to emerge, Powell said.

As for the virgin birth, there's no question that Matthew and Luke used it to counter the Roman claim that Caesar Augustus was conceived by the god Apollo through a human mother, said John Dominic Crossan, author of numerous books about Jesus and professor emeritus at DePaul University. Followers of Caesar, who brought a new era of peace to the empire, also gave their ruler such titles as Savior, Lord and Son of God.

The 1st-century Christians, whom Crossan calls a "small group of Jews," took those imperial titles and the story of miraculous conception and applied them to Jesus. That action said, in clear terms, "your God is not our God . . . , your Son of God is not our Son of God and your peace . . . is not our peace."

And the barn? Does that image really disappear, too? The barn, yes; the manger in a stable, no, said the Rev. Michael Patella, chairman of the department of theology at Saint John's University in Collegeville, Minn.

A devoted believer in the Gospel accounts, Patella said traditional translations mislead by saying Mary and Joseph spent the night in a stable because "there was no room for them in the inn." The Greek word translated as "inn" in Luke's gospel is kataluma, which most accurately refers to a private house rather than a public inn, he said. And in all likelihood, Mary and Joseph would have gone to the house of relatives when they arrived in Bethlehem.

A typical house of the time would have consisted of two stories, Patella said. The lower level, entered from the street, would have stalls where livestock would be kept. The residents, often an extended family with parents, children and in-laws, would live in a second-story space with a kitchen and one or two separate rooms.

"Mary and Joseph ask to stay in the house, but the upper level is crowded, and Mary goes into labor and wants privacy," Patella said in his own retelling of the story. "So they go downstairs where the animals are." And a manger.

"In the school play, we usually see three big bullies playing innkeepers and slamming the door in their faces," said Patella, head of a committee overseeing the six-year production of an illuminated manuscript called the Saint John's Bible. The idea that Mary and Joseph would have been visiting family "puts more of a human face on the Christmas story."

Seeing life the way 1st-century Christians saw it is one outcome of the scholarly examination of the infancy narratives and other New Testament stories, several scholars said. And the messages resonate today.

Jesus demonstrated that a child born in humble circumstances, away from the power center of an oppressive government, could change the world, the scholars said. The theme of empowerment of the weak restates God's directive in the Hebrew scriptures to help the poor and needy. And Joseph's willingness to raise a child not his own provides a model for one of today's major concerns -- fatherless children.

"The truth of these stories is not dependent on their historical factuality," said Marcus J. Borg, professor of religion and culture at Oregon State University and author of "Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time" and other works about the Bible. Instead, the truth lies in their use of such universal metaphors as light in the darkness, waking from sleep, the coming of the dawn.

"Many of our hymns speak about the birth of Christ within us, a birth that is the [continuous] source of our enlightenment and our awakening," Borg said. "Though Christmas does remember the past, it is primarily about something that happens in the present -- and again and again."

Modern illumination: This illustration of the Nativity appears at the beginning of the Gospel of Luke in the Saint John's Bible. The Rev. Michael Patella, of St. John's University, said the bull in the foreground is based on a prehistoric painting found in Lascaux, France, in 1940. The bull has been a popular symbol of Jesus in Christian art, and its use here, he said, suggests that "the birth of the Savior of the world . . . goes into the depths of human history."