Celebrating the Birth of Jesus

Christian faith begins without Christmas. Most Christians are unaware of this fact, but it is obvious if we look both at the New Testament and history. Paul’s letters in the New Testament are the earliest records of Christian faith that we have, and Paul says nothing about the birth of Jesus. In fact, Paul’s letters hardly say anything about Jesus, for Paul’s experience of the risen Christ is what sustains his ministry to Greek-speaking Jews and Gentiles.

Most New Testament scholars think the gospel attributed to Mark is the oldest of the four gospels in the New Testament, and it begins without a birth story by announcing “the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” and then relating the story of John the Baptist. What we think of as the Christmas story of the birth of Jesus is actually a combination of the two different stories in the gospels attributed to Matthew and to Luke. There is no birth story in the gospel attributed to John.

I use the phrase “attributed to” rather than “according to” because the oldest known texts of the New Testament gospels do not include any author’s name. The names attached to these gospels are the result of debates and decisions made by early Christian leaders.

In the gospel attributed to Matthew, Jesus calls a tax collector named Matthew to be his disciple, and this apostle is assumed to be the gospel’s author. (In the gospels attributed to Mark and Luke, the tax collector who follows Jesus is named Levi.) The author of the gospel attributed to Mark was thought to be John Mark, a Jewish Christian identified in several books of the New Testament. (The Acts of the Apostles identifies John Mark as the son of a Jewish Christian named Mary, whose home in Jerusalem was a meeting place for early followers of Jesus. It seems from the New Testament letter identified as 1 Peter, that after Paul’s death John Mark assisted Peter in Rome.) Luke is identified in two letters attributed to Paul (Philemon and Colossians) as the physician who traveled with Paul during his ministry. The early church attributed the fourth gospel in the New Testament to the disciple and apostle John. For the rest of this essay, I will avoid the phrase “attributed to” and refer simply to the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, or even more simply to Mark, Matthew, and Luke.

Most New Testament scholars believe Matthew and Luke were written later than Mark—as edited versions of Mark using material unique to each of these later gospels as well as a common collection of teachings that are in both Matthew and Luke but not in Mark. Most of these scholars also think that Mark was written after Roman armies destroyed the temple in Jerusalem in 70—crushing the Jewish revolt in Judea that began in 66—and that Matthew and Luke were written in the 80s or 90s.

A Brief History

In the second century, Christians in the Eastern churches of the Roman Empire begin celebrating on January 6th the Feast of the Epiphany (a Greek word referring to the manifestations of God in the life of Jesus). By the fourth century in the Western churches, the focus of Epiphany was the visit of the magi (wise men) to Bethlehem, and Christians were celebrating the Feast of the Nativity on the winter solstice, December 25th. These two dates are the source of “the twelve days” of Christmas.

Early Christians in the Roman Empire were likely unaware that shepherds in Palestine did not tend sheep in the fields during the winter. When Christian scholars in the Middle Ages were confronted with this factual inconsistency in the birth story in Luke, they concluded that the shepherds had stayed in the fields because of the winter solstice. In Palestine in the first century, the manger would have been a stone ledge, trough or niche in the wall of a stable, in which fodder was placed. In later European paintings and crèche scenes, however, the manger is a wooden rack or "crib."

What is called the “canon” of the New Testament, the 27 books that were included at the end of the fourth century, excludes many texts that also refer to the birth of Jesus. The most well-known of these “non-canonical” documents, the Protoevangelium of James, was composed in the second century and translated into Syriac, Ethiopic, Coptic, Georgian, Old Slavonic, Armenian, Arabic, Irish and Latin. Attributed to James, the brother of Jesus who was the leader of the first church in Jerusalem, this “Gospel of James” is sometimes known as the “Infancy Gospel of James” because of its stories about Mary and Jesus. Its narrative includes the birth of Mary to Anna (Saint Anne in the Catholic tradition), the dedication of Mary at age 12 to service in the Jerusalem temple, and the appearance of an angel who selects a widower with sons named Joseph to be Mary’s husband.  The Protoevangelium of James emphasizes Mary’s virginity before and after the birth of Jesus, which is confirmed by a midwife who visits Mary in the stable soon after Jesus is born. Also, in this non-canonical account, Mary gives birth to Jesus in a cave and hides him in a feeding trough in this cave, when soldiers sent by Herod to slay all the young boys in Bethlehem try to kill the newborn king.

In the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which was also composed in the second century, Jesus as a child performs numerous miracles including restoring life to dead animals and humans, and breathing life into birds he fashioned from clay. Later the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew added to the Protoevangelium of James details of the family’s stay in Egypt including stories of his childhood. The non-canonical Syriac Infancy Gospel (also known as the Arabic Infancy Gospel) expanded this material and drew on stories in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. These works were widely circulated and, in the minds of many Christians, were simply part of the birth story of Jesus despite their non-canonical authorship.

By the fifth century the magi in Matthew’s story were called "kings" because Psalm 72 refers to kings bringing gifts to the king of the Israelites. An ox was added to the manger scene, because Isaiah 1:3 says: "The ox knows his owner, and the ass his Master's crib," and because Habbakuk 3:2 in the Septuagint version of the Old Testament says: "Between two beasts are you known." (The Septuagint, which is the Jewish authorized Greek translation of the Hebrew books of Jewish scripture, was read by Greek-speaking Jews throughout the Roman Empire and therefore also by Greek-speaking Christians. This is why all the references in the New Testament to what Christians call the Old Testament refer to texts from the Septuagint that are translations from the original Hebrew.)

As the Greek word magi translates a Persian word referring to the priests of the Zoroastrian tradition in Persia, Syriac Christians chose Persian names for the magi who brought three gifts to the baby Jesus—Larvandad, Gushnasaph, and Hormisdas. In the Western church, the names given these magi were variations of Balthazar, Casper, and Melchior. European celebrations of the Feast of the Nativity reenacted the flight into Egypt with angels guiding Joseph, who with his four sons by his deceased wife led an ox, as Mary rode on an ass with Jesus in her arms. Nativity scenes in Eastern churches often include a midwife beside Mary in a cave outside Bethlehem, as well as an ox and an ass.

A procession of the prophets, each one foretelling the birth of the Messiah by reading a passage from the Old Testament, became standard in the Feast of the Nativity. A Feast of the Ass was added to celebrate the animal that carried Mary to Bethlehem and into Egypt, but in the 13th century churches were prohibited from staging this drama as bringing an ass into the church had become a raucous and ribald event. The Feast of the Nativity in Middle English was called "Christes masse," and over time this was shortened to our present word for Christmas.

After Puritans in England took control of Parliament in 1647, they banned celebrations of Christmas for being Catholic and involving pagan imagery. This prohibition against celebrating Christmas led to riots, and when Puritans were voted out of office Christians once again celebrated Christmas openly. In New England, however, Puritan zeal persisted, and in Massachusetts Christmas celebrations were illegal until the second half of the nineteenth century. The flood of immigrants from Europe, however, overwhelmed all the Puritan arguments. Germans decorated their Christmas trees, and Irish families put lights in their windows. Catholic and Orthodox immigrants from Eastern European countries sang their native carols and refused to work on Christmas Day. By the beginning of the twentieth century neither church leaders nor elected officials were able to prevent the public celebration of Christmas.

Muslims, of course, do not celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, because they reject the Christian belief that Jesus is the Son of God. But few non-Muslims realize that the Quran includes two accounts of the birth of Jesus, or that Mary the mother of Jesus is mentioned more often in the Quran than in the New Testament. The Quran describes Mary as being cared for in the temple in Jerusalem by her uncle, Zechariah, before the angel Gabriel appears to her and explains that she will bear a son, despite her virginity, who will be a great prophet. The Quran explains the virgin birth as being due to the spirit of God breathing upon Mary, and also refers to Jesus (Isa in Arabic) as “the spirit of God.”

Verses from the Quran relating to Mary are frequently inscribed on mosques, and mosques are also named for Mary. Sura 3:42 in the Quran reads: “O Mary! God has chosen you and purified you and again he has chosen you above all women of all nations of the worlds.” Jesus is mentioned in 93 verses of the Quran and is called not only “the son of Mary” but also the “Word of God.” Miracles attributed to Jesus by the Quran include healing those who are blind, raising those who are dead, and making birds out of clay and breathing life into them. In Islamic history Jesus is identified as a Muslim (which means submitting to the will of God), because he told his followers to keep to “the straight path.”

Many Muslims today are persecuting Christians in Egypt and Iraq and elsewhere, and we rarely read of Muslims recognizing Jesus as a prophet or a Muslim. Yet, not long ago in the city of Bangalore, India I celebrated the birth of Jesus with Christians and Muslims, who sipped sweet tea together as they shared teachings of Jesus that have been cherished in each of their religious traditions.

The Gospel Stories

The story of the birth of Jesus combines elements from the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Matthew begins with a genealogy that places Jesus in the line of descent from Abraham and David. Then, in Bethlehem, a man named Joseph, identified as a descendant of David and as a “just man,” becomes engaged to a Jewish woman named Mary. When Joseph learns Mary is pregnant, he decides to cancel the wedding quietly. But an angel in a dream explains to Joseph that Mary’s miraculous pregnancy is God’s will, and that the child shall be known as Emmanuel (meaning “God with us”). So, Joseph takes Mary to be his wife, but does not (the gospels says) have marital relations with her until she bears the son that was foretold in the writings of the prophet Isaiah.

Jesus is born, and magi from the East following a star come to Jerusalem looking for the newborn “king of the Jews.” When Herod, King of Judea by appointment of the Roman Emperor, learns from the chief priests of the Jewish temple that the prophet Micah wrote of a ruler to be born in Bethlehem, he asks the magi to go there and then report back to him, so he might “pay him homage.” But after the magi find Jesus in a house in Bethlehem and deliver their gifts, they leave Judea without informing Herod. In a rage, Herod sends soldiers to kill all the boys in Bethlehem two years of age or younger. Joseph is forewarned, however, in a dream, and escapes with his family to Egypt. Only after Herod’s death, the gospel says, does Joseph leave Egypt with his family. And because Herod’s son is ruling Judea, Joseph and his family travel to Galilee and there settle in the village of Nazareth.

In the gospel of Matthew crucial events take place according to prophecy. Mary’s virgin birth is said to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah, which English Bibles record as: “the virgin shall conceive and bear a son.” The Septuagint Greek translation of the Hebrew Isaiah text uses parthenos in this passage, which does mean “virgin.” But the original Hebrew version of Isaiah does not use the Hebrew word for virgin here; instead it uses the Hebrew word almah, which simply means “young woman.” Although writing for Jewish readers, the author of the gospel of Matthew is reading Jewish scripture in the Greek translation of the Septuagint. Similarly, the Old Testament in Catholic Bibles is a translation of the Septuagint, whereas the Old Testament in Protestant Bibles is a translation of Hebrew scripture. This is why in many Protestant English Bibles, Isaiah 7:14 in the Old Testament refers to a “young woman” although the passage in the gospel of Matthew quoting Isaiah 7:14 refers to a “virgin.”

In addition to Mary's virgin pregnancy, the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, the flight of Joseph with his family into Egypt, and the slaying of young boys in Bethlehem are all interpreted as fulfilling the prophecies of Jewish scripture. Nonetheless, Matthew extends the hope expressed in these ancient texts beyond any narrow view of Jewish prophecy by telling the story of the magi. Representing the wisdom of the non-Jewish world, these men also recognize the coming sovereignty of Jesus and pay him homage. Their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh have symbolic meaning for Jewish readers of the gospel of Matthew. Gold reflects the promised kingship of the messiah. Frankincense, used in worship in the Jerusalem temple, identifies Jesus as God’s new high priest. And myrrh, used for Jewish burials, points beyond the crucifixion to the resurrection of Jesus and the promise of his coming reign.

In the gospel of Luke the story of the birth of Jesus begins with a story about the birth of John the Baptist. Elizabeth and Zechariah are elderly and without a child. Yet, Elizabeth conceives and an angel tells Zechariah that the child is to be named John. Six months later the angel Gabriel comes to Mary and tells her that she will give birth to a child who is to be called Jesus. “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

In Jewish scripture the word LORD refers to the unspoken Hebrew name of God (represented by the Hebrew letters YHWH, sometimes written by Christians as Yahweh or Jehovah). The phrase LORD God combines the name of God with the Hebrew word for god (El).  Jews reciting scripture substitute the Hebrew word adonai (translated as Lord) for YHWH. New Testament references in an English Bible to the use of LORD in Old Testament texts are rendered as Lord. In Christian writings, Therefore, Lord refers both to Jesus and to God, and is a word that affirms the divine nature of Jesus.

In Luke, when Mary says she is a virgin, the angel replies: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.” To reassure Mary, the angel says her elderly relative, Elizabeth, is also pregnant, for “nothing will be impossible with God.” When Mary visits Elizabeth, who feels her baby leap within her, Elizabeth says to Mary: "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb." Then Mary praises the LORD God, in verses known as the Magnificat, because in Latin this is the first word of what becomes a popular “canticle” (a hymn with a biblical text sung in Catholic worship):

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.

The child born to Elizabeth and Zechariah is named John, and “filled with the Holy Spirit” Zechariah says of this child that he “will be called the prophet of the Most High” for he “will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.” This prophecy concerning the crucial role that John the Baptist will play in the ministry of Jesus explains why the gospel of Luke begins with the story of John’s birth.

The story of the birth of Jesus follows. We hear of Joseph and Mary traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem, finding no room in the inn, and taking shelter in a stable. During the night Mary gives birth to Jesus, wraps him in swaddling clothes, and lays him in a manger, before shepherds directed by an angel chorus come and adore him. Eight days after his birth, Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem to be circumcised. The sacrifice they offer to the priests, to fulfill the requirement of Jewish law in Deuteronomy 12:8, is only two birds—as this is allowed for a family too poor to sacrifice a sheep. As Mary and Joseph leave the temple, a woman named Anna praises God and a man named Simeon takes Jesus in his arms and recites a blessing, which becomes in Catholic worship a familiar canticle known by its opening words in Latin as the Nunc Dimittis:

Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to you word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for the glory to your people Israel.

At the very beginning of Luke's gospel we read that the author is writing his account for Theophilus, a Greek-speaking Christian with a Gentile name. The Acts of the Apostles begins “In the first book, Theophilus,” so we see it is a sequel to the gospel. The account of Elizabeth and Mary, and their children born in Judea, is the beginning of a story for Gentiles about the ministry, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, but also the conversion of Saul (who becomes the apostle Paul) and Paul's missionary work to Greek-speaking Jews and Gentiles until his imprisonment in Rome.

What meaning might Luke’s birth story have had for Theophilus and other Greek-speaking Christians of his largely Gentile church? We know there were conflicts in the early church between Jews and Gentiles. Jewish Christians led by Peter and James, the brother of Jesus, believed that Jesus had tried to reform and renew Jewish law. Gentile Christians and many Greek-speaking Jewish Christians, such as Paul, believed Jesus had freed Jews as well as Gentiles from the requirements of Jewish law.

The story at the beginning of the gospel of Luke sets the birth of Jesus within the Roman Empire at a time when the Emperor was identified as the Son of God. Mary’s hymn of praise and hope offers an alternative vision of God’s reign, beginning with the life, crucifixion, and resurrection of a man born in a stable to a poor Jewish couple. The gospel story of Luke concludes in Acts 28 with Paul in Rome proclaiming new life in Christ Jesus—for both Jews and Gentiles, for women as well as men, for slaves as well as those who are free—and especially for all those who are poor.

The Meanings of Christmas

For many Christians, Christmas is the celebration of the miraculous birth of Jesus—a miracle because of the virgin birth and because Jesus is the Son of God who brought salvation to the world. For some Christians, the virgin birth is a legend rather than a fact, but the life and teachings of Jesus have nonetheless transformed our lives and the world in ways that inspire acts of compassion and justice.

For many who are not religious, Christmas is a time of sharing gifts, special meals, and Christmas songs with family and friends. This is also how Christians celebrate Christmas. And in many families Christmas is a holiday that allows family members with diverse beliefs in God, or no belief in God, to express and share their gratitude and hopes without having to argue about religion.

Yet, despite the warm greetings of Merry Christmas, for many persons Christmas is a sad time. Those who are alone at Christmas, or are separated from family by disagreements or distance, or are mourning the death of a loved one, may feel more keenly at Christmas the weight of their loss. Also, the celebration of Christmas where Christians are a majority of the population may be experienced by Jews or Muslims as overbearing or lacking in regret for the suffering and violence inflicted on their communities for centuries by Christians rulers, self-righteous missionaries, and violent crusaders.

In addition, many people are dismayed by the commercialization of Christmas and the amount of money spent on expensive gifts—by many people celebrating the birth of a baby in a stable into a poor family forced to flee as refugees to survive. The lights, songs, and business of Christmas too easily distract us from the good news that Mary affirms in the challenging words of the Magnificat.

At its best, Christmas expresses our hope for a world marked by love and justice. This is, of course, a fantastic expectation. A king born on a dark night, with angels singing, and shepherds and wise men kneeling before a manger . . . and a young woman proclaiming a time will come when the powerful are brought down, and the lowly are lifted up, and the hungry are filled.

December 25, 2016 

 Bob@rtraer.com © Robert Traer 2016