Inside the Nativity Narrative
Joseph went up to the city of David,
Which is called Bethlehem,
To be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed,
Who was with child.
Did you know that the evangelist Matthew never mentions camels when he refers to the Wise Men? As Bible scholars study the text of the Nativity story, some of them are formulating new ideas about who Jesus really was--and what happened on the night of his birth.
What's The True Nativity Story?
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Misconceptions About the Virginal Conception
Our lack of access to narratives about Jesus' birth shouldn't lead us to assume the miracle of his conception didn't happen.
BY: Ben Witherington
Our lack of access to narratives about Jesus' birth shouldn't lead us to assume the miracle of his conception didn't happen. In his essay,
seeks to deconstruct the traditional Christmas story, especially in regard to what we have come to call the "virgin birth." This last term is actually a misnomer, because the miracle we are discussing transpired at conception, not at Jesus' birth.
Spong's article includes a variety of helpful insights into the differences in birth narrative texts, and the interesting and surprising character of Matthew's genealogy. There are, however, a variety of assumptions and assertions in this article that deserve to be challenged--not the least of which is a rather amazing argument from silence.
At the heart of Spong's argument is the notion that the earliest New Testament writers, including Paul and the earliest evangelist, Mark, know nothing about the idea of the virgin birth, and that therefore the idea arose late in the New Testament period, perhaps on the basis of myths and legends about other famous births. Spong's conclusion is drawn from the fact that they write nothing about it. Spong also assumes that what they do write about Jesus' birth assumes there was nothing very special about it.
It is always a risky business to assume someone doesn't know something just because they don't mention it in the limited sampling of their writings that we now, many centuries later, have access to. In the first place, neither Paul nor Mark give a narrative account of Jesus' conception or birth. Had Mark offered us a birth narrative and written something about Jesus' origins that contradicted Matthew and Luke, that would be one thing. Then we could actually talk about differing accounts of Jesus' origins. This we simply do not have.
Paul simply says in passing in Galatians 4 that Jesus was born of woman. He does not say how this transpired, and in any case the issue of a "miracle" in regard to Jesus' origins has to do with the
of Jesus, not the birth.
The birth of Jesus, according to what information we have from Matthew and Luke, was perfectly normal and ordinary. Indeed, it was so ordinary that, according to Luke, Mary went to Jerusalem and performed the normal purification ritual. Comments about Jesus' birth neither state nor necessarily imply anything about the conception of Jesus in Mary's womb.
It is, in fact, possible that Mark does bear witness indirectly to the scandal caused by the virginal conception; in Mark 6, Jesus is called "son of Mary" rather than "son of Joseph" by his hometown folks. This may suggest that they knew something peculiar had happened in regard to Jesus' origins--namely, that Joseph was not the father. An unfriendly interpretation of these origins would suggest Jesus was illegitimate. But we see a positive interpretation of those origins in Matthew and Luke.
Spong also trots out the tired old argument that there were plenty of virgin-birth legends out there in the first-century world, on which the evangelists could have modeled their narrative. This is simply false. The stories about the birth of the emperors (e.g., Augustus or later emperors), do not involve the idea of a virginal conception. What they often do entail is a narrative about how a god took on human form and had sex with a human female.
This is clearly not what the birth story in Matthew and Luke are about. Both of those stories are careful to stress that what happened was a miraculous conception in Mary's womb, not a mating between God and a human being. There are, in fact, no apt parallels in either Jewish or Greco-Roman sources to the stories in Matthew and Luke about the virginal conception.
Several other key points argue against the essence of Spong's interpretation of the virginal conception stories. First, he is partially right when he says the Hebrew term used in Isaiah 6 is not a technical term for "virgin." This is true--it means a young woman of marriageable age. What Spong fails to add is that in Jewish culture, this term would always imply the virginity of the person in question, unless the context suggested otherwise. In other words, while the Hebrew term does not focus on the virginity of the woman in question, the idea is nonetheless contained in the term, as is shown by the translation in the Greek Old Testament, which uses the term parthenos
. This latter term does, indeed, focus more clearly on the virginity of the person in question.
I want to add that I quite agree that the story of Jesus' virginal conception is not likely to have been invented on the basis of the Isaiah text--when this text says "a young woman will conceive and give birth to a child," it does not go on to state how this will happen. Early Jewish readings of this text did not take it to refer to a miraculous conception without aid of a man's action. This means that the stories we find in Matthew and Luke referring to the virginal conception were neither derived from the Old Testament nor from Greco-Roman legends.
In fact, I would argue that it is highly unlikely Christians would make up a story about a virginal conception, precisely because it would lead to the charge of Jesus' illegitimacy by opponents of the Christian movement. There must have been some historical substance to this tradition for both Matthew and Luke to refer to the matter, independently of each other and in differing ways.
Evangelistic religions, like early Christianity, grounded in the life of a historical figure, Jesus, were unlikely to make up stories about their hero that would leave them wide open to the charge that Jesus was the offspring of an unholy union of man and woman.
As for the complaint that the gospel of John also does not mention Jesus' virginal conception, once again we are dealing with an argument from silence. Besides overlooking the fact that the prologue to John's Gospel is a hymn fragment--not a narrative account of the conception of Jesus--Spong also does not seem to realize that the concept of incarnation in that hymn and the concept of a virginal conception in Matthew and Luke are perfectly compatible notions.
The virginal conception focuses on how Jesus came into this world. The incarnation stresses that the Son of God in his divine nature existed in heaven before he took on flesh in Mary's womb, or as John puts it: "the Word took on flesh and tabernacled amongst us." Nothing in John 1 or elsewhere in this gospel contradicts the other birth stories. There are, therefore, not alternate mutually contradictory versions of Jesus' origins. Indeed, we have the testimony of two different and independent witnesses, Matthew and Luke, that there was indeed a virginal conception.
As the late Gospel scholar Raymond Brown argued in "The Birth of the Messiah," this dual and independent testimony to the virginal conception strongly suggests a firm historical basis for the story. Mary told someone about what had happened, clearing up questions about Joseph's lack of paternity.
We may be thankful that she did so.
Scholars In Search Of Answers
The Richer Meaning of the Birth Narratives: "God With Us"
After a discussion of the gospels' historical accuracy, someone told me: 'You've ruined the Christmas story!' I don't think so
BY: Susan Candea
No matter how we set up our manger scenes at Christmas, we read two very different birth stories in the Gospels. In
, Joseph is the prominent character. The Magi, or wise men, come seeking Jesus sometime within the first two years of his birth. And because Herod decrees that all the male children 2 years and younger be killed, Joseph flees with his young family to Egypt. Matthew seems to be making a connection between Jesus and Moses: Both had their lives threatened, and both came "out of Egypt."
In Luke's account , Mary is the main character. The child is born and laid in a manger. Shepherds come to worship the newborn king. Luke is concerned about setting Jesus' birth story within a cosmic, world-history context. He has Jesus immediately identified with the lowly of society, the shepherds.
But the importance of these stories doesn't depend on whether there were wise men or shepherds, or whether the child was laid in a manger or not. It's possible that these narrative details have little basis in historical fact. Neither narrative can claim to be an eyewitness account.
The importance of these stories, rather, is that they both claim this child, Jesus, is the Savior, the Messiah, Emmanuel--God with us.
One of the unique claims of the Christian faith is that God became incarnate: God took on human flesh and was revealed to the world in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, at a specific time and place in history.
With that understanding of the Incarnation, doesn't it make sense to ask: What was this particular person like? What was it about this man Jesus that revealed the God of Israel?
Biblical scholars have asked such questions throughout the centuries. We are now in what is called the "third quest" for the historical Jesus. Many scholars no longer agree with theologian Albert Schweitzer, who in 1906 wrote the closing chapter on the "first quest" by arguing that we really can't succeed in discovering much of anything at all about Jesus of Nazareth (The Quest of the Historical Jesus).
Today, biblical scholars believe there is much we can know about Jesus, although there is no agreement about what that "much" entails. Several portraits have emerged.
John Dominic Crossan (The Historical Jesus, page 421) concludes that the real, or historical, Jesus was then "a peasant Jewish cynic." A "cynic" in the first century was a philosopher-critic who through his teachings (short, wisdom sayings) and lifestyle (abandonment and disregard of societal conventions) challenged the cultural values of the day, especially with regard to the concepts of shame and honor.
By emphasizing that Jesus was a peasant, Crossan reminds me that God is on the side of the poor, the widows, the orphans, all those who have been disenfranchised by society. The real Jesus didn't accept the status quo in which position and wealth determined one's worth in God's kingdom.
Crossan sees this view of Jesus in the way he challenged the religious rules (Matthew 12:1-8) and the religious leaders (23); his call to his followers to "deny" themselves (Mark 9:34-38); and his eating with tax collectors and sinners (Luke 5:29-32 and 7:33-35).
So why do we as followers of Jesus today put so much energy into upholding the status quo - not making waves, not rocking the boat?
For Marcus Borg, the real Jesus is Jewish as well but also needs to be understood as a "Spirit person or mediator of the sacred" (Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, pages
31-32). Jesus was connected in a profound and intimate way to God, and when his disciples were in his presence they experienced the very presence of the divine.
Borg identifies Jesus as a Spirit person because of his vision at his baptism and experience of fasting and prayer in the temptation story (Matthew 3:13-4:11); speaking with authority (Luke 4:32) and identifying himself as one upon whom the Spirit of the Lord resides (4:18); and addressing God as "Abba," an intimate term of endearment that expresses his experience of God (Mark 14:36).
Remembering that Jesus was a Spirit person, or charismatic figure, is a helpful balance for my faith understanding that I live out much more in my head - explaining the theology of Jesus - than in my heart. It helps my heart connect to the Spirit of God so that through my life others can also connect to God's sacred presence.
N.T. Wright presents the "real" Jesus as a "first-century Jewish prophet announcing God's kingdom" (The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, page 33). In this Jesus, the story of the people of Israel reaches its climax, and God's kingdom is ushered in.
Wright sees Jesus' ministry as a prophet when Jesus calls people to repent for the kingdom of God is near (Mark 1:14-15) and then when he teaches people what that kingdom is all about (Matthew 13).
Do I hear the voice of Jesus as prophetic, challenging me to turn from those paths that have led me away from God? How do I as a 21st century person live in God's kingdom? What ethical and moral conduct does this call forth from me?
Many people consider this "third quest" of scholars disturbing, in part, because there is so much diversity: Will the real "real" Jesus please stand up?
Most of us tend to read the Gospels as historical biographies of Jesus that report what he did and said - forgetting that each one provides a separate, and different, report.
But if we only read them from our 21st-century perspective about what constitutes historical accuracy, we run the risk of missing the truth of the Gospels. They aren't biographies but are more powerful texts that recount the early followers' experience of Jesus, which was "good news" to them.
The Gospel writers recorded these stories and experiences "so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name" (John 20:31).
I find it incredibly freeing to be able to ask questions, to have doubts, to not understand - and know that this very questioning, not certainty, is faith. What binds me together with other Christians is not my view of the historical Jesus but the reality of the one Christ. God is always more than I can comprehend and understand. God remains a holy mystery.
Someone once told me after a discussion of the historical accuracies of the birth narratives, "Now you've ruined the Christmas story!"
I don't think so. These beloved stories can take on even richer meaning. As I hear the stories of Jesus' birth today, I am struck by the truth that something incredible, something wonderful happened.
Mere human words could not tell it. No, it is the angels' song that announces the birth. And who does Luke choose to hear the song? The shepherds. He tells us that the first to hear the good news of Jesus' birth were people at the bottom of the social rung, as he tells us earlier in his narrative that the one chosen to give birth to Jesus is a peasant girl.
Matthew tells the same incredible, wonderful story of Jesus' birth by having the cosmos proclaim the event, sending a star high into the heavens. Why? To guide to Jesus those who were from the outside, those who didn't belong. The star signals the new era when all will belong. And these Magi, these "wise men," came to worship even though they didn't fully understand. Can I do any less?
Only stories of angels and heavenly songs, bright stars and Magi from afar could begin to communicate the wonder of God's love coming to dwell with us, within human flesh. Letting go of the effort to explain or defend the details of the stories, I'm free to submerge my heart in the symbols. I hear the stories, knowing they aren't simply recounting an event that happened once long ago. They are telling about Jesus' coming - something that happens over and over again. Even now, in my life.