The Nativity Story
The birth narrative of Jesus shouldn’t be taken literally. Each year, the symbols are everywhere: on radio and television, in newspapers and magazine ads, in store windows, and eventually in our own homes. Sometimes they depict a jolly old elf dressed in red, sometimes accompanied by reindeer and a sleigh. Sometimes they show a manger, a baby, angels singing to shepherds, or wise men following a star. Some of the symbols rotate around the North Pole, the others around a little town named Bethlehem.
Most people do not literalize the story of Santa Claus. He is a symbol–a powerful symbol, but still just a symbol. I suggest that the birth narratives of Jesus, too, cannot be taken literally. They, too, are symbols, a religious version of Santa Claus. Some religious people will be offended by that suggestion. I invite them to reconsider.
The biblical story of Christmas is probably the best known text in the New Testament. These narratives have been part of our conscious life for as long as most of us can remember. We have seen pageants annually; perhaps we have even starred in one. We think we know this biblical content quite well. But do we? How long has it been since we have actually read the biblical text that tells the story of that first Christmas? And how much of our reading is colored by long-standing traditions, a pious imagination, or even those pageants in which we have participated?
The average person would be quite sure that the mode of transportation employed by the Wise Men was the camel. Yet there are no camels in this biblical story at all, not a single one. They have been placed into Matthew’s story by our imaginations, as a careful reading of the first two chapters of Matthew, the only place the story of the Wise Men is told, will reveal.
Second, if one is asked where in Bethlehem the birth of Jesus occurred, the familiar and traditional answer would be “in a stable surrounded by a variety of animals.” We have seen that picture so often, we are quite sure of it. But we would be wrong again. There are no animals mentioned in the story of Jesus’ birth, primarily because there is no stable present in which to house them. The stable is simply not part of the biblical birth story of Jesus. Check it out. Read the first two chapters of Luke. That is the only place in the Bible where details of his Bethlehem birth are given. There is only one word–crib, or manger–around which the stable has been erected in our imaginations.
Third, these two passages in Matthew and Luke are the only accounts of Jesus’ birth found in the entire Bible. There is no mention of a miraculous birth for Jesus in the writings of Paul, in the gospel of Mark, or in the gospel of John, as a quick scan of these texts will reveal.
Paul, who is the first author of a book in the New Testament (he wrote between 50 and 64 C.E.), appears to have no knowledge of anything being unusual about Jesus’ birth. All Paul says is that Jesus was “born of a woman, born under the law” (Galatians 4:4) and “according to the flesh” he was “descended from the House of David” (Romans 1:3). Paul never mentions the names of Mary or Joseph. The only reference he makes to a member of the family of Jesus was to James, whom he called “the Lord’s brother,” and with whom he did not get along very well (Galatians 1).
Mark, who wrote his gospel in the early years of the eighth decade of the Christian era (70-75 C.E.), also tells us no story of Jesus’ birth. He does, however, have two references to Jesus’ family (Mark 3:31-35, 6:1-6), neither of which is flattering. Mark writes that Jesus’ family consists of his mother, four brothers (Simon, Judas, Joses and James), and more than one sister, all left unnamed because of the status of women in that time.
This family, led by Jesus’ mother, believed Jesus was out of his mind and wanted to take him away. That is hardly the response one would expect from a woman to whom an angel had appeared to tell her that she would be the virgin mother of the Son of God.
Joseph makes no appearance in Mark’s gospel, and Mary as the name of Jesus’ mother appears only once–and that on the lips of a critic, who asks of Jesus, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?” (Mark 6:3). Please note that in the earliest gospel, Jesus is a carpenter, Joseph is unmentioned, and Jesus is called the son of Mary. To call a Jewish man the son of a woman had a mildly pejorative quality about it. It was a hint that perhaps his paternity was questionable. But that is all we have in written form from any early Christian source until at least 50 years have passed since the end of Jesus’ earthly life.
Mark clearly did not know about the virgin birth tradition. It had not yet developed.
Skipping over to John, written some time between 95 and 100 C.E., we discover that this writer also does not mention the Virgin Birth. It would be difficult to argue that by this late date, the author had not heard of that tradition. Instead, he opens his story with an even more powerful God claim: Jesus was the pre-existent word of God present at the creation. This word of God was simply enfleshed, said the fourth gospel. But that was not achieved by way of a miraculous birth. Indeed, on two occasions this evangelist refers to Jesus as “the son of Joseph” (John 1:45, 6:42).
So in the five major sources of New Testament materials–Paul, Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John–only two, Luke and Matthew, mention the Virgin Birth. It is neither the majority nor the universal understanding of Jesus’ origins even in the Bible.
When we turn to the actual text in Matthew and Luke, the questions and problems indicating that these stories are not literal history multiply. Matthew, who wrote between 80 and 85 C.E., wrote the first stories of Jesus’ birth. He was also the gospel writer most appreciative of and anchored in his Jewish background. Matthew introduced this birth story with a genealogy that grounds Jesus in a thoroughly Jewish past, describing his lineage from Abraham, through David and the kings of Judah, to the exile and finally to Joseph, whom he identified as “the husband of Mary of whom was born Jesus who is called Christ” (Matthew 1:16). Provocatively enough, and quite rare in the ancient world, Matthew adds four women to this lengthy genealogy– all of whom are sexually tainted in the stories about them in the Hebrew Scriptures.
First there is Tamar, the daughter-in-law of Judah who became pregnant by her father-in-law in an incestuous relationship (Matthew 2:1, Genesis 38). Yet Matthew says the line of Jesus came through this woman.
Next, there is Rahab, who was called “the harlot,” who assisted with Joshua’s invasion of the promised land (Matthew 1:5, Joshua 2). Matthew also says the line of Jesus came through this woman.
Then there is Ruth, the great-grandmother of King David who in her time was said to have seduced her future husband, Boaz, with the aid of much wine. When Boaz woke up to discover Ruth in his bed, he covered her with his blanket and proceeded to do the honorable thing by marrying her (Matthew 1:5, Ruth 3). The hereditary background of Jesus includes Ruth, according to Matthew.
Finally, there was “Uriah’s Wife,” Bathsheba, who was first King David’s adulterous lover and eventually, after David arranged for the death of her husband, his wife (one among many). She was also the mother of the heirs of David’s throne, including King Solomon. Bathsheba, an adulterer, is thus a major player in the line of Judah’s kings and Jesus’ ancestry (Matthew 1:6, II Samuel 11).
One wonders what he means to imply about Mary, who is the fifth woman mentioned in his genealogy.
Over and over again, Matthew grounds his story of Jesus’ birth in the presumed expectation of the Hebrew Scriptures. When he comes to the story of Jesus’ miraculous birth, his proof text appears to be Isaiah 7:14. It is a familiar text that reads, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel.” Clearly, Matthew developed his story under the influence of that text.
This text, however, has two problems. First, Matthew did not apparently read Hebrew, so he quoted this text from a Greek translation. If he had gone to the Hebrew original, he would have discovered that the word “virgin” is not in the book of Isaiah. Isaiah used the Hebrew word almah, which simply means “young woman.” He did not use the word betulah, which means virgin. Isaiah’s text announces that the woman is with child, which hardly qualifies her to be a virgin. When Isaiah was translated into Greek, the translators rendered almah with the Greek word parthenos. Only in that Greek word does the hint of virginity enter the text.
The second problem with this text is that when Isaiah wrote it, the city of Jerusalem was under siege from the combined armies of the Northern Kingdom and Syria. Isaiah suggested that the birth of this child would be a sign to the king of Judah that his nation would not fall to these enemies whom Isaiah described as “the tails of two smoking firebrands.” A reference to a child born 800 years later would hardly have been relevant to that crisis.
Clearly, the prophet was not referring to either Jesus’ birth or to some future messiah’s birth.
There are still other problems connected with the stories of Jesus’ birth, but these are sufficient to raise significant questions about their historicity–an issue I believe Christians must face. When one adds to that the fact that virgin birth stories were common in the Mediterranean world as part of the mythology of the first century, other concerns surface. A second-century Christian critic named Celsus articulated this concern when he wrote: “Do you think all the other stories are legends, but that your story of Jesus alone is noble and convincing?”
If the biblical stories we identify with Christmas are not history, then what are they? And what do they mean? Why did these stories become so powerful in shaping the Christian world? What are the story writers trying to communicate about God, about Jesus, about human life itself? Those will be the questions I intend to address in this column as the Christmas season unfolds.
Matthew and Luke’s Nativity Accounts: Symbolism or Fact?
Part II in a series about the Nativity.
Both Matthew and Luke, the gospel writers who brought the story of Jesus’ miraculous birth into the Christmas tradition, wrote no earlier than the ninth or perhaps even the 10th decade of the Christian era.
This means that Christianity lived and flourished for 50 to 60 years before the virgin birth became part of its theology. This fact serves to demonstrate that the virgin birth is neither original nor essential to Christianity. It is also a story filled with obvious inaccuracies.
Matthew tells us that Jesus was born when Herod was king in Judea (Matthew 2:1). From other historical records, we know that Herod died in 4 B.C.E. To complicate the dating process, Luke’s gospel repeats the Herod tradition (Luke 1:5) but adds that Jesus was also born when Quirinius was governor of Syria (Luke 2:1). From other historical records, we know that Quirinius did not become governor of Syria until the winter of 6/7 C.E., by which time Jesus would have been at least 10 years old. The stories do not add up.
There are still other discrepancies in the two biblical birth stories of Jesus. Matthew appears to believes that Mary and Joseph live in Bethlehem in a house over which a star can stop to bathe it in light. So he has to develop a story that will enable Jesus to move from Bethlehem, into Nazareth in Galilee–since Matthew had to deal with the fact that Jesus was known both as a Nazarene and a Galilean. So Matthew tells us that when the holy family returned from Egypt, God in a dream directed them to flee to Galilee, since Herod’s brother was now on the throne and was regarded as a threat to Jesus’ life.
Luke, on the other hand, believes that Mary and Joseph live in Nazareth. But in view of the fact that tradition suggested that the messiah had to be born in the city of David–Bethlehem–he had to develop a story that enabled Mary and Joseph to be in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth. The proposed census ordered by Quirinius served his purpose.
The literalness of this story is also called into question by the fact that there are no indications anywhere in Roman, Syrian, or Jewish records that there ever was an enrollment that required people to return to their ancestral homes. Luke is clearly stretching his story in several directions, and once more history is not well represented in these stories.
There is one other problem with Luke’s narrative. Mary was said to have accompanied Joseph on this journey, even though women in that society were not allowed to participate in the civic activities for which the enrollment was said to be required. Luke describes Mary as being “great with child.” I assume that means she was in the last month to six weeks of her pregnancy. Bethlehem was a 94-mile journey from Nazareth. Under normal circumstances, it would take seven to 10 days to navigate that distance. One could not walk except in the twilight hours or in the early hours of the morning. Both the heat of the day and the darkness of the night drove people to cover. There were no hotels, restaurants, or toilet facilities along the way. You slept on the side of the road. You carried water, perhaps some figs, olives, and a loaf of bread. It was a hard, dangerous, and grueling journey. You would hardly set off on such a trip with a woman that far along in her pregnancy. One female New Testament scholar suggested that this story, far from being history, could only have come out of the imagination of a man who had never had a baby!
From every angle, the facts suggest that these stories are not history. Virgin births, singing angels, and guiding stars occur only in mythology. The story of Jesus’ virgin birth is no more literally true than is the story of Santa Claus.
Once we arrive at this conclusion, then we are free to search for the real meaning of these stories. They were written not to describe the details of his birth but to reveal who they believed the adult Jesus was. To Matthew, Jesus was “a God presence,” a life through which the holy God could be experienced. That had been the conviction of Jewish people about other heroes, such as Moses, Samuel, Elijah, and Isaiah. But this Jesus was a more total “God presence” than any of those, Matthew asserts–and when he writes his gospel he wants to spell that out in a typical Jewish manner. He starts with a tale of his miraculous birth.
When Jesus is born, a star appeared in the sky, he writes. The star was a common Jewish symbol. In the commentaries on their scriptures, the rabbis suggested that a star appeared in the sky to announce the birth of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Moses. The birth of Jesus is to be marked with nothing less.
Matthew wants his readers to know that Jesus is a Jew, but one who breaks the boundaries that separate Jews from gentiles. A star, a heavenly sign, would do that, since it would be seen all over the world and not just in the land of the Jews. Hence, a star would draw everyone, even gentiles, to its meaning.
That is exactly what Matthew says happens–for under the symbol of the wise men, the whole world is portrayed as being drawn to this Christ. The fact that no star travels through the sky at a pace slow enough for magi to follow is one more hint that this is not a literal history.
And yet another text from Isaiah that gives Matthew the framework in which to build his magi story: Kings “shall come” to the brightness of God’s rising, the prophet said (Isaiah 60). They shall come on camels. (It is in this Isaiah passage alone that camels are mentioned.)
He adds that they will come from Sheba, and they will bring gold and frankincense.
Does that sound just a bit familiar? But “where’s the myrrh?” someone will always ask. The myrrh is there, but one has to know how to read the scriptures with Jewish eyes to find it. The Sheba reference in Isaiah triggered the Jewish Matthew to recall another story of another royal visitor who came to pay homage to another king of the Jews. So back into the sacred text he roamed until he arrived at the story of the Queen of Sheba coming to visit King Solomon. What were her gifts? Truckloads of spices, according to the text (I Kings 10:10). The only spice familiar to the Middle East was myrrh, a sweet smelling resin plentiful in the area and used by the Jews as a substance with which to wrap a deceased body prior to burial.
So from the Jewish tradition, Matthew has borrowed the star, the kings journeying to the brightness of God’s rising, and the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Into this developing narrative, Matthew also introduces a Moses story. When God’s promised deliverer, Moses, was born, a wicked king named Pharaoh sought to destroy this life by killing all the Jewish male children in Egypt. So Matthew says that at the birth of Jesus, a wicked king named Herod moved to destroy this life by killing all the Jewish male babies in Bethlehem. Every Jew reading Matthew would know that this deliberate comparison was not history.
When the virgin birth entered the Christian tradition, someone had to play the role of the earthly father of this special child. So Matthew created and introduced into his story the person we know as Joseph. Why did he call this person Joseph? Because the two great patriarchs in Jewish history were Judah, the father of the Southern Kingdom, and Joseph, the father of the Northern Kingdom. Matthew had already traced the line of Jesus through Judah; now, by making the earthly father of Jesus bear the name Joseph, he could present Jesus as uniting the expectations of all the Jewish people.
Why Joseph? Because whenever the name Jesus (Joshua) is mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures, that Joshua (Jesus) has a connection with an ancestor named Joseph.
With the name of Joseph now chosen, Matthew had to develop his character. From where would that content come? When reading Matthew’s story, we learn three things about Joseph. First, we learn that he had a father named Jacob. Second, we are told that God only spoke to Joseph in dreams. Third, Joseph’s role in salvation history was to save the child of promise from death by taking him down to Egypt.
Does that sound familiar? It would if you read the story of Joseph, the Joseph of the coat of many colors found in the book of Genesis (37-50). There you learn three things about the patriarch Joseph. First, you learn that he has a father named Jacob. Second, he was constantly identified with dreams, even rising to power in Egypt on his ability to interpret the dreams of the Pharaoh. Third, his role in salvation history was to save the people of promise from death by taking them down to Egypt. That is where Matthew borrowed his material to create the story of Joseph.
The birth story of Jesus in Matthew was designed to introduce the adult Jesus of Nazareth as the one who fulfills the expectations of the Jews, the one whose birth was announced by a heavenly sign that drew all the world in the persons of the magi to worship him. These magi brought gold, the gift for a king, because he was seen to be the King of the Universe. They brought frankincense, the gift for a deity, because they perceived him to be one with God. They brought myrrh, the spice associated with death, because it was his destiny to suffer and to die.
He was portrayed in Matthew’s gospel as a new and greater Moses, so his birth was attended by the signs that marked Moses’ birth.
For people raised on biblical literalism, this is a new way to read the birth story of Matthew–but it is the way that Matthew intended his story to be read. In my next column, I will examine Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth where the literal problems are equally as acute.
Not How He Was Born, But Who Was Born
Part III in a series about the Nativity
The gospel we call Luke came into the life of the Christian community between 85 and 95 C.E.; or 55 to 65 years after Jesus’ earthly life came to an end. Luke’s birth story is not history. It is not a literal account of what happened when Jesus was born. It is rather Luke’s attempt to capture the essence of who he thinks Jesus is, namely, the one through whom God can be met.
The author, identified in the tradition as Luke the Physician, appears to have been a gentile convert to Judaism who then became a Christian. Luke clearly had the gospel of Mark in front of him as he wrote. He also seems to have had a second source, which some call Q (for Quelle, which means “source” in German). Other scholars, though a minority, suggest that instead Luke had Matthew as his second source. At least we know that Luke employed the Virgin Birth tradition, which Matthew had introduced. (Never, however, does Luke quote the text from Isaiah on which Matthew built his virgin story. Perhaps the problems to which I have previously referred (see Part One of this series of articles) were already known to him). But Luke does develop the story in his own unique way.
Luke opens his story not with the birth of Jesus but with the birth of John the Baptist. He clearly knows the tradition that the Baptist’s role was that of preparing the way for Jesus. As a fact of history, it seems obvious that Jesus began his public career as a member of the John the Baptist movement. The scriptures are clear that Jesus was not only baptized by John but also that he did not emerge as a leader in his own right until John the Baptist had been arrested and perhaps even executed.
There are bits of biblical evidence that some competition existed between the followers of Jesus and the followers of John in the earliest years of the Christian movement. By the time the gospels were written (70-100 C.E.), John had been incorporated into the Christian story but in the secondary role of the forerunner, the one “who prepared the way for the Lord.” John was even said to have validated Jesus’ claim to superiority in his reticence to baptize Jesus, suggesting that he, John, had a need to be baptized by Jesus. So Luke began his gospel by telling a story that suggested that even in the births of these two figures, the pre-eminence of Jesus had been established.
By the time Luke wrote, the birth of Jesus was some 90 years in the past, the birth of John the Baptist still longer ago. In Luke’s world, there was no place to go to verify historical facts like names. There were no birth records, no newspaper stories, and, by this time, no eyewitnesses. In Luke’s community of dispersed Jews and gentile converts, there would have been no knowledge of or interest in the parents of John the Baptist. He was for them a minor figure in Judea. So when Luke decided to interpret the life of John the Baptist solely in terms of his relationship with Jesus, he had a clear field to let his literary imagination run free. He did not have to be bothered with history.
He therefore chose names for John’s parents that added greatly to the significance of the story he was determined to tell. He also created the character of John the Baptist by lifting content directly out of the Hebrew scriptures. For Luke, John’s identity was best seen not as the new Elijah, but as the nameless voice from the book of Malachi whose task it was to prepare the way for the coming of “the day of the Lord.”
In a part of the Hebrew Scriptures called “The Book of the Twelve,” Malachi was listed as the last of the Jewish prophets. Malachi’s immediate predecessor in those Jewish Scriptures was Zechariah. So Luke used Zechariah as the name of John’s father, the Baptist’s immediate predecessor. (That choice required an explanation, which Luke added to his story, of why the name John was chosen when none of Zechariah’s kinsmen bore that name.)
The choice of the name Zechariah also helped Luke to assert how deeply the book of Zechariah had shaped the early Christian message. Zechariah 9:9-11 gives the embryonic story of the Palm Sunday procession, and elsewhere the book contains a story about the shepherd king of Israel, who was betrayed for 30 pieces of silver by those who bought and sold animals in the Temple. All of these themes show up in the Jesus story. In Zechariah is also found the familiar verse, used by Jesus in almost all the gospels, about the shepherd being struck and the sheep being scattered. So the choice of the name of Zechariah opened a rich vein that Luke could mine as he told his story.
Luke identified the mother of John the Baptist as a member of the priestly family of Aaron and gave her the name Elizabeth. This name, Elisheba in Hebrew, appears only once in the Jewish scriptures. There she is the wife of Aaron and thus the sister-in-law of both Moses and Miriam (which is, of course, the Hebrew spelling of Mary). Playing on that theme, Luke suggests that since Mary and Elizabeth are sisters-in-law, John and Jesus are perhaps cousins.
As Luke’s story develops, other themes from the Jewish scriptures dance across his stage. Elizabeth and Zechariah are like Abraham and Sarah, too old to conceive a child. But again God overcomes that barrier. Zechariah’s vision in the Temple, his speaking with the angel, and his being struck mute echo a similar story in the book of Daniel.
But the major thrust of these stories is Luke’s assertion that as wondrous as John the Baptist’s story is, he pales beside Jesus of Nazareth. For John to be born to aged parents was a wonder but not near so great a wonder as a Virgin Birth. When John is born, the neighbors gather to rejoice. When Jesus is born, the heavenly hosts rejoice. When Zechariah doubts, he is punished with muteness. When Mary doubts, she is assured by the angel. John, while still in the womb of his mother Elizabeth, salutes Jesus, still in Mary’s womb. A salute from one fetus to another is hardly the stuff of actual history.
Then Luke tells the story of Jesus’ birth. He emphasizes two symbols, mentioning one three times, the other twice. First, this special child is to be found in a manger. Second, the Christ is to be wrapped in swaddling cloths.
In Isaiah Chapter 1, the prophet bemoans the fact that while even the donkey knows from whose manger he eats, Israel is not faithful to its God. But for the holy child to be found in the manger at birth suggests that this child will recall the people of Israel to the God who is the source of their life.
In the Wisdom of Solomon, Israel’s greatest and most opulent king observes that when he was born, he was carefully swaddled, for that is the only way a king can come to his people. To have Jesus come to his people in swaddling cloths is Luke’s way of announcing Jesus’ kingship.
There is no star in Luke. He replaces it with the light of an angel and the greater light of the heavenly host. But the purpose is the same. The birth of Jesus is announced from the sky, for beyond the sky is the place from which God reigns. Jesus is the sign of God’s presence coming out of heaven to redeem the sinful world.
There are no wise men in this gospel. Rather, humble shepherds attend the newborn. Luke’s treatment of Simon Magus in the book of Acts indicates that he did not care for magi. And he had little use for royalty–humble shepherds were more to his taste. The shepherds also allowed him to play on the theme of Bethlehem being the birthplace of David, the Shepherd King. Armed only with the clues of manger and swaddling clothes, these shepherds went to seek the Christ child and to worship him. God and human life had come together in Jesus.
Luke has one other feature that is unique to him: His characters regularly break into song. When Mary goes to visit Elizabeth, she sings the “Magnificat”: “My soul doth magnify the Lord.” This song is modeled after a song Hannah sang in the Hebrew scriptures when Samuel was born. Zechariah, who is struck mute when he is told of the promise of the birth of John, later has that muteness lifted. Immediately, he breaks into a song called the “Benedictus”–“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel.” When the angels announce the birth of Jesus, they form a heavenly chorus singing what today we call the “Gloria in Excelsis”–“Glory to God in the highest.” Finally, when Luke tells the story of Jesus being presented in the Temple at 40 days, the old priest Simeon breaks into the song known as the “Nunc Dimittus”: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.” It is almost as though Luke has turned his pageant into an operetta. Perhaps what he did was to place into the beginning of his gospel a Christmas play to which he added a musical score.
Luke closes his birth story with the account of Jesus visiting the Temple when he is 12 years old and claiming his “father’s house” as his own. This is patterned after a story of Samuel, and it presages the adult Jesus claiming the Temple as his father’s house the week before his crucifixion.
Luke’s gospel is a beautiful story filled with meaning, deeply steeped in the Jewish storytelling tradition. To see it as myth or parable is to enter it in a new way. It is a religious story not unlike the secular story of Santa Claus. Both stories were created to capture a truth that human words cannot fully contain. But if either story is literalized, and one pretends that this mythology is real history, disillusionment is inevitable. That is the fate of Santa when one reaches the age of 6 or 7. That will be the fate of the birth narratives in the maturity of our emerging consciousness.
I will conclude this analysis of the birth narratives of the New Testament in the final column of this series.
The Christmas Story: What’s Real–and What’s Not
Fact or folklore: Part IV in a series about the Nativity
Did it really happen? Did the angel Gabriel really appear to Mary to tell her she was to be the virgin mother of the Son of God? Do virgin births really occur anywhere except in mythology and fairy tales? Did Herod really slaughter the innocent children in his attempt to remove the threat of a newborn king? Did a star really appear in the sky when Jesus was born? Did that star really travel at a pace so slow that wise men could follow it from wherever they came from all the way to Bethlehem? Did these magi really offer gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the infant? Did a heavenly host really sing to hillside shepherds when the child was born?
Did it really happen? Or are these narratives a kind of religious Santa Claus story, not meant to be taken literally?
For most of the first 1,700 years of Christian history, the unchallenged answer to each of these inquiries would have been a resounding yes. Human beings lived then in a prescientific world of miracle and magic. The faith story, rooted as it was in the past, wove into its central fabric tales of wonder without either hesitation or embarrassment. But in the last 400 years of Western history, we have experienced an enormous intellectual revolution that has changed dramatically the way we view the world in which we live.
Our world does not admit of heavenly signs that broadcast events on earth, nor do we admit that there is such a thing as a supernatural or miraculous birth. We know that the story of a Santa Claus who travels through the sky is not literal truth, and we have come to suspect that neither is the story of Jesus’ birth.
So, modern people face the “Did it really happen?” question about these Christmas stories and answer it with an increasingly clear No! No, these things did not really happen. No, they are not literal. They did not occur in history, and it is time for the leaders of the church to say so openly. The fact is that no reputable biblical theologian today, Catholic or Protestant, is willing to defend the historical accuracy of the details of the biblical birth stories.
When one goes deeply into these texts, it also becomes obvious that even the original authors of Matthew and Luke never intended their stories to be accounts of something that actually happened. That is something Western believers have imposed on these biblical texts. It was Dr. Jeffrey John, a New Testament scholar in the United Kingdom, who first identified these birth narratives for me as “haggadic midrash,” by which he meant that they are part of the ongoing Jewish storytelling tradition crafted out of the pieces of the Jews’ sacred past. They were designed to introduce Jesus, who in his adult life made people believe that a God presence had appeared in human history, in a unique way into this life. They were not intended to say anything factual about the details of his birth.
That is true of all birth traditions. No one waits outside a delivery room for a great person to be born. People are born with little fanfare outside their immediate families. But when a life becomes critical in the lives of others or in history, then stories develop to indicate that the moment this life was born was a significant moment in the life of the world, and that that moment was marked with presaging signs. That is what the birth stories of Jesus mean.
These stories are the conscious attempts to stretch the boundaries of language so that words could point to a transcendent reality that they normally cannot embrace. They represent first-century attempts to say, “We have met something in this particular life that we do not believe human beings by themselves could ever have produced.” In narrative form, the gospel writers were trying to join in Paul’s assertion that somehow and in some way “God was in this Christ!” So, they wrote that at the moment of the birth of this life, the whole created order took notice.
The fact that the birth stories of Matthew and Luke were literalized was a tragedy, for that literalizing process also succeeded in distorting, warping, and, in a very real way, destroying both the power and the significance of the narratives. When children cease to take the Santa Claus story literally, they can begin the process of discerning what the symbol of Santa Claus means. He is the personification of the spirit and joy of giving.
So, in the task of rediscovering the true meaning of the stories of Jesus’ birth, the first thing that must be faced is that these narratives are not accounts from memory of something that actually happened. Let me be clear, as most religious people like to hedge their language so that they do not offend. There was no annunciation of the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary. There was no star that shone in the sky to announce Jesus’ birth. There were no wise men who followed that star. There were no gifts of gold, frankincense, or myrrh. There was no murder of innocent male babies by the wicked King Herod. There was no tax enrollment ordered by Quirinius, the governor of Syria, and thus no journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. There was no manger. There was no heavenly messenger who proclaimed the birth of this Jesus to hillside shepherds, no angelic chorus that sang “Glory to God the highest.” There was no journey to the Temple in Jerusalem at age 12. All of these are storytelling creations of the Jewish mind, seeking to explain in a thoroughly Jewish way the experience that people had with the adult Jesus.
If it is history that we desire, then let me state that the overwhelming probability is that Jesus was not born in Bethlehem but in Nazareth of Galilee. The whole Bethlehem tradition was quite clearly a much later attempt to interpret Jesus as the heir of David and thus the anticipated messianic figure who would arise out of the line of David, and whose prophesied birthplace would be Bethlehem.
There is also no irrefutable body of data about the parents of Jesus that is available for our knowledge, despite the elaborate traditions of Christian history. Mary might loom large in the developing Christian tradition, but she does not loom large in the early Christian writings. Her name appears only once in the biblical narrative before the ninth decade C.E. That sole mention was contained in a critical shout from a nameless person in the crowd and came in the form of a question: “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?” It was a hostile question designed to insult or to question Jesus’ origins. (People were normally identified with their father’s name–if the father was known.) Certainly there was no suggestion, in this first biblical reference to the mother of Jesus, that she was a virgin or that Jesus’ birth was in any way miraculous.
The suggestion that Jesus’ paternity was in doubt or was a source of scandal also finds an echo in the Song of Mary in Luke’s gospel, where the mother of Jesus is made to say, “He has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden,” which could easily be a reference to the status of an unmarried but pregnant woman. Further hints of the scandal of his birth occurs in the Fourth Gospel, where a loud debate about Jesus’ origins produces a member of the crowd who accosts Jesus with the words, “We were not born of fornication” (John 8:41). The clear implication of this text was that Jesus was so born.
It is also clear from a study of early Christian documents that early Jewish critics of Jesus and the Jesus movement made similar charges, even suggesting that Jesus was the child of a Roman soldier (whether by rape or by consent is not always clear). Perhaps the virgin-birth tradition was born as a Christian defense against such charges. Those are the facts of history; beyond them, we can say little more.
Christianity moved beyond its Jewish origins toward the end of the first century and began to be known to the people in the broader Mediterranean world, which was deeply shaped by Greek thought. In that context, these stories took quantum leaps in importance. The Greek world was dualistic; that is, it thought of flesh and bodies as something sinful, evil, corrupt, and unworthy of spiritual people. For this reason, celibacy for men and virginity for women began to be thought of as the paths toward holiness. The Virgin Mary became the supreme model of spirituality. Celibate men could adore her safely, because she was the epitome of purity. Virgins could emulate her and thus claim the highest virtue. Sex came to be thought of as dirty, base, and carnal, and to engage in sexual activity was a sign of spiritual weakness. In time, sex and sin were identified with each other, and sexual guilt became the lever by which the church sought to control human behavior. That is why to this day, sex is still the subject about which the fiercest, most rending debates occur inside the Christian church.
The story of the Virgin has not served the world well. More important, that story has not served women well. The fetish about virginity made marriage appear to be a compromise with sin and made sex even inside marriage acceptable only if conception was the desired goal. To impose a barrier between sex and conception became a sign of absolute evil. The condemnation of birth control began in this formulation.
These columns have articulated my conviction that the Christian church must free Christianity from these distorting attitudes toward human sexuality by going back to the origin of the tradition out of which this development arose. We must place those stories into their Jewish context, deliteralize them, and begin to see what the authors intended to say.
Immediately, I have suggested, the miraculous birth tradition disappears as history, but it re-emerges as powerful and shaping narratives that provide a primary insight into the meaning of Jesus. To journey into the heart of these narratives is to journey into the Christian claim that God was present in this man Jesus and that this experience compels us to come and worship. Frankly, this transition from history to poetry is that which will save the meaning of Christmas in our postmodern world.
Books by Bishop John Shelby Spong