Lawrence Smyth reflects on the Christmas infancy narratives.
When at primary school, many of us are likely to have performed in a Christmas Nativity play. Every December parents beam with pride (or cringe with embarrassment!) as their children act as either the Virgin Mary, Joseph, the innkeeper, the three shepherds, the three wise men, angels, or even the donkeys or camels!
Even some Richard Dawkins-type atheists admit the Nativity story is rather charming. A poor Jewish girl is told by an angel she has been chosen for a special mission: to give birth to Jesus the Messiah; she and her husband Joseph then travel to Bethlehem on an arduous journey riding on a donkey. This because of a decree by the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus. In Bethlehem there is nowhere for Mary and Joseph to stay, so she gives birth in a lowly stable - symbolising God’s solidarity with the poor; the Holy Family are then visited in the stable by three shepherds and three Magi (the wisemen) - symbolising that rich and poor alike will come to worship Jesus the Messiah.
There is however an obvious question that arises around Nativity plays: Are the plays depicting real historical events or a fairy tale? However charming a story may be evidently has nothing to do with the reality of the events depicted. This is not an insignificant issue, as for the past 2,000 years most people performing Nativity plays probably thought they were depicting real historical events.
Encapsulating the spirit of the age, a doctor of neuroscience, Dean Burnett, wrote a piece in The Guardian in December 2013 titled “The Nativity (scientifically accurate version).” Arguing the Infancy narratives are nonsensical rubbish, the article contains witty (or facetious!) paragraphs such as (to explain away Mary’s virginity): “Mary wasn’t a virgin and had fallen pregnant after sleeping with someone who wasn’t her partner Joseph, and came up with this fantastical story to explain it to Joseph rather than admit she’d been unfaithful, and Joseph subsequently believed her,” and, on the three wisemen, “So, basically, three men followed an unspecified bright object over hundred of miles of desert in order to meet a baby, about whom all they knew was that it would have a nose, might need money and would eventually die. For this they were considered “wise men.” This goes to show that wisdom is clearly a subjective term.”
As clever and hilarious as Burnett is (!), he is evidently not an artist or poet. To write the article, Burnett presumably picked up a copy of the Bible, thinking it was the product of (in his words) stupid “old celibate men 20 centuries ago” attempting to write history. He has then satirically explained away all the Infancy Narrative details. Unfortunately Burnett did not do his homework and completely missed the rich symbolism and subtle structuring involved in their composition.
Even allowing that the men who wrote the New Testament had minds and carefully considered what they wrote, is it possible to separate fact from fiction in the Christmas narratives? Even if they weren’t stupid “old celibate men” 20 centuries ago, could the authors still have fabricated the Infancy Narratives? Is there any value at all in what children perform during their Nativity plays every December?
Christmas v Easter
Everyone is aware that Christmas and Easter are the two best-known, and popular, Christian festivals. Christmas is a time of presents, turkey, Christmas pudding, Father Christmas etc. Easter, however, is merely a time of lamb and chocolate Easter eggs. Therefore, people today prefer Christmas to Easter. If people go to church once a year, they are more likely to do so at Christmas than at Easter.
However, what is striking if one reads the New Testament is how little interest is shown in Jesus’s childhood. Details about Jesus’s birth and childhood are only described in two of the 27 books in the New Testament: the Gospels of St Matthew and St Luke, and their accounts of Jesus’s birth actually contradict one another!
For the early Christians, Christmas was simply unimportant. Easter was all that mattered. The fifth book of the New Testament, The Acts of the Apostles, describes the origins of the Catholic Church (if one is Catholic or Orthodox that is! For Protestants, Acts describes the origins of the Christian ‘sects’ or ‘movements’).
Acts is a useful book for the historian of early Christianity; it is a Christian account of the spread of Christianity following Jesus’s death. The book was probably written within 50 years of Jesus’s death. It describes Jesus’s disciples’ early preaching and evangelisation efforts. In Chapter 10 St Peter gives a very early summary of central Christian beliefs:
“You know the message [God] sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ - He is lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John [the Baptist] announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him…They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised Him on the third day and allowed Him to appear…He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that He is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
Jesus’s birth and childhood are utterly irrelevant; St Peter exclusively prioritises Jesus’s acts of good and healing, and his death and resurrection.
What does The Bible actually say about Jesus's birth?
St Mark and St John
As mentioned, Jesus’s birth is only described in two of the four Gospels: St Matthew’s and St Luke’s. The Gospels of St Mark and St John get straight into the action. St Mark’s gospel, which many modern historians believe was the first to be written, begins its account of Jesus’s life with a direct quotation from the Jewish prophet Isaiah:
“As is written in the prophet Isaiah: See I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
This quote comes from Chapter 40 of the Book of Isaiah (written between the 8th and 6th Centuries BC), in which Isaiah announces that God has promised comfort, restoration and good news for the people of Israel - who are the people of God. Chapter 40 asserts “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” Mark is therefore immediately associating Jesus’s mission with the time when the people of Israel will see the ultimate greatness of God. He isn’t concerned with Jesus’s birth or childhood.
St John’s Gospel begins with a mystical meditation on Jesus’s relationship to God and the creation of the universe. St John writes “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him…What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it…And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”
These words are influenced by several Old Testament books including Genesis, Isaiah, Wisdom and Proverbs. In the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, for example, God says: “So shall my Word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” Like St Mark, St John then begins his narrative with an account of John the Baptist ‘preparing the way’ for Jesus.
St Matthew and St Luke
Therefore, we are left with St Matthew and St Luke’s accounts of Jesus’s birth - and they are both different! However, there are good reasons for this, and this is probably to do with the writers’ target audience. Early Christian writers such as Origen, Ireneaus, Eusebius, and Clement of Alexandria all say that St Matthew was one of the Twelve apostles. They say he wrote his gospel for Christians who had converted from a Jewish background. Given that St Matthew’s gospel is the one most concerned with specifically Jewish customs and beliefs, there doesn’t seem any reason to doubt this.
By contrast St Luke was, according to Christian tradition, a Greek-speaking doctor from Antioch in Syria and a travelling companion of St Paul. His gospel is aimed at a non-Jewish audience and is most concerned with the poor, the outcasts and the oppressed. It also has a high regard for women (unusual for the time), and women occupy a prominent place in the gospel. As shall be seen, this too influenced the structure of the Infancy Narratives in his Gospel.
St Matthew's v St Luke's account
In St Matthew’s account Mary becomes pregnant by the Holy Spirit. An angel tells her husband Joseph not to fear. Jesus is born in Bethlehem, after which wisemen from the East follow a star and search for Jesus. The wisemen bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. King Herod hears of this, is frightened and orders all children under the age of two in the Bethlehem area to be slaughtered. Mary and Joseph flee to Egypt. Mary and Joseph return from Egypt to Galilee and settle in Nazareth. Therefore, there is not actually much joy in St Matthew’s account; the Holy Family must flee violence and persecution.
St Luke’s narrative begins with an old devout childless couple, Zechariah and Elisabeth, who are unable to have children. The Angel Gabriel appears to them and announces Elisabeth will give birth to John the Baptist. Six months later, the Angel Gabriel visits Elizabeth’s relative, the virgin Mary, in Nazareth and announces “Do not be afraid Mary, for you have found favour with God…You will bear a son…Jesus…He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High…He will reign over the House of Jacob and his kingdom will have no end.” The account then moves on to Mary’s Song of Praise, known as the Magnificat, before it describes John the Baptist’s birth.
St Luke’s description of Jesus’s birth begins with a decree by Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus that commands all citizens in the Roman Empire should be registered. Joseph travels along with the pregnant Mary to Bethlehem to register himself. In Bethlehem Mary gives birth to Jesus. An angel of the Lord appears to nearby shepherds and announces “I am bringing you good news great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” The shepherds visit Jesus in the manger and ‘glorify and praise God’ for what they see and hear.
As can be seen, Matthew mentions the wisemen, the flight into Egypt, the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem, the star in the sky, but nowhere mentions a manger, shepherds, or Caesar Augustus’s call to registration. Luke does not mention the flight into Egypt, the slaughter of the innocents or the wisemen.
Additionally, Luke identifies the angel (Gabriel) by name, but Matthew doesn’t. Matthew says Mary and Joseph lived in Bethlehem, but Luke says they were from Nazareth (although both agree Jesus was born in Bethlehem). Luke’s account is joyful, Matthew’s is overshadowed by fear. Furthermore, there is no mention of innkeepers, donkeys, or oxen in either of the Gospel narratives - which Pope Benedict XVI pointed out in a 2012 book, sparking the Daily Mail headline “Killjoy Pope Crushes Christmas Nativity Traditions”!
St Matthew's and St Luke's accounts: Old Testament Echoes
For those who remember their Sunday school classes, St Matthew’s account ought to bring to mind another Biblical description of a birth and childhood…that of Moses. Moses was, and still is, of course the great Jewish prophet, law-giver and liberator. In the Book of Exodus, when Moses is a baby, Egyptian Pharaoh commands “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile.”
Moses’s mother puts the baby Moses in a basket and leaves him amongst the reeds in the Nile to save him. Therefore, Jesus, like Moses, survives the decrees of an infanticidal tyrant as a baby in Egypt. Moses’s God-given task is to lead the Israelites “out of the misery of Egypt…to the land flowing with milk and honey.” The echoes of Jesus as the new Moses lie here, although Jesus’s mission has been spiritualised: to lead the people of God [the Israelites] from sin [slavery in Egypt] to redemption and paradise
[the land flowing with milk and honey]
Furthermore, regarding Joseph fleeing from violence to Egypt, there are echoes of another famous Old Testament narrative…that of Joseph, beloved son of Jacob. Driven by jealousy, Joseph’s brothers plot to kill him before selling him to Potiphar, an officer of the Egyptian pharaoh. Joseph then lives in Egypt, where he enjoys success. On his deathbed, Joseph, the righteous and forgiving man, tells his brothers “I am about to die; but God will surely come to you, and bring you up out of this land [Egypt] to the land that he swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob [ie. Canaan, Israel].”
Matthew also links many of the events in his account of Jesus’s nativity to the sayings of Old Testament prophets. Here are a few:
The Book of Isaiah ch.7: “The Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the virgin is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel” (the name Emmanuel means ‘God is with us’; the name Jesus means ‘God saves.’)
The Book of Isaiah ch.60: “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”
The Book of Isaiah ch.60: “They from Sheba (Sheba is in southern Arabia, so ‘east’ of Israel) shall come: they shall bring gold and incense; and they shall show forth the praises of the lord.”
The Book of Tobit ch.13: “A bright light (the ‘star’) will shine to all the ends of the earth; many nations will come to you from far away…bearing gifts in their hands for the King of heaven. Generation after generation will give joyful praise in you.” - (Tobit is not strictly speaking a prophet, but Ch.13 of the book is a prophetic one)
The Book of Micah (a prophet from around the same period as Isaiah) ch.5: “But you, O Bethlehem…from you shall come forth for me One who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from old, from ancient days.”
The Book of Hosea (a prophet from the 8th Century BC): “When Israel was a child, I loved him and out of Egypt I called my son”
Thus, from the above, we can see that Matthew’s inclusion of the Virgin birth, kings (wisemen) visiting the ‘light of God’, wisemen bringing gold and frankincense, the flight to Egypt, and the birth in Bethlehem, are not random at all. They are all connected to prophecies about when the People of God (Israel’s) woes and sufferings would cease due to the greatness of God.
St Luke’s Narrative
Meanwhile, echoes of the Old Testament are perhaps even more prominent in St Luke’s account. Luke’s description of the miraculous births of both John the Baptist and Jesus have uncanny resemblances to Old Testament births:
In the Book of Genesis ch.16/17, Jewish patriarch Abraham’s wife Sarah is old and childless, but a miraculous birth produces Isaac: “Now Sarah, Abraham’s wife bore him no children…[Later] God said to Abraham ‘As for your wife…I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her and she shall give rise to nations, kings of peoples shall come from her’…Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said ‘Can Sarah, who is 90 years old, bear a child?…The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said…Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son…[and] gave the name Isaac to his son.”
In the Book of Judges ch.13 it describes the birth of Samson (as in Samson and Delilah): “Manoah’s wife was barren, having borne no children. And the angel of the Lord appeared to the woman and said to her ‘Although you are barren, having borne no children, you shall conceive and bear a son…It is he who shall begin to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines.”
In St Luke, the Virgin Mary’s song of praise - her Magnificat - has clear similarities with the Song of Hannah in the first Book of Samuel. Mary’s Magnificat runs: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour…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.”
Meanwhile, Hannah’s Song of praise in the first Book of Samuel reads: “My heart exults in the Lord, my strength is exalted in my God…Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil…The Lord makes poor and makes rich…He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honour.”
Finally, two other elements in St Luke’s narrative are intended to show both that God’s Spirit is really present as Jesus, and that Jesus will usher in a time when God’s mercy will come to the fore and He will ultimately forgive the wickedness and unfaithfulness of Israel.
St Luke writes that “The angel said to [Mary] “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”
Correspondingly, in the Old Testament, during the Exodus, the Spirit of God accompanies the Jews through the wilderness in the Ark of the Covenant. Moses ascends Mount Sinai and “The cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud.” Later, “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.”
Thus, in both of the preceding preceding quotations, we have the image of this mysterious cloud/Spirit of God ‘coming down’ and making its presence known to humans: in both the tabernacle of the Ark of the Covenant and in Jesus.
Finally, St Luke has John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah, speak the ‘Benedictus.’ In it, he sums up how John the Baptist fulfils the hopes of the ancient Israelites, especially their prophets, by preparing the way for Jesus. Zechariah says “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty saviour for us…Thus He has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant…By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
This sums up the prophetic hope, as exemplified by the Prophet Micah: “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of your possession? He does not retain his anger for ever, because he delights in showing clemency. He will again have compassion upon us; he will tread out iniquities under foot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. You will show faithfulness to Jacob and unswerving loyalty to Abraham as you have sworn to our ancestors from the days of old.”
If our Guardian man, Dean Burnett, had been aware of the above, would he still have published his article? As shown, St Matthew and St Luke were not stupid gullible ’celibate old men’ naively attempting to write history. It is evident the point of the Gospel Infancy narratives is to contextualise Jesus’s coming into being in actual human history.
The Jewish people were unique in the ancient Mediterranean world for their strict and uncompromising monotheism. Despite all their material disasters and exiles, they always looked ahead to a time when their God would send a Messiah. The Messiah would end their disasters and achieve an eternal victory - creating ‘the everlasting kingdom’ that would last from ‘generation to generation.’ It is true that the writings of the prophets can be vague, uncertain, cryptic, imprecise, and sometimes nationalistic. But they look forward to a time of light and of God’s triumph and mercy. The point of the Infancy narratives is to emphasise this time has come.
Therefore, can we separate fact from fiction in the Infancy narratives, given their theological and apologetic underpinnings? To be a Christian does not mean having to accept the Infancy narratives as certain historical fact; the contradictions between the two accounts are an instant red flag! The Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture notes of St Luke: “We have noted the theological preoccupation of St Luke…What are we to say on such matters as the nature of apparitions to Elizabeth and Mary?…It is more likely that St Luke has presented genuine spiritual experiences in a traditional and consecrated style.”
The Oxford and Cambridge scholar C.H. Dodd perhaps sums up best whether the Gospel Infancy narratives are fact or fairy tale: “Symbols and images…cluster thickly in the scenes of the ‘Christmas story’ which in Matthew and Luke is the prelude to their account of the pubic career of Jesus: visits of angels, prophetic dreams, the marvellous star in the east, the miraculous birth greeted with songs from the heavenly choir…That there is a basis of fact somewhere behind it all need not be doubted, but he would be a bold man who should presume to draw a firm line between fact and symbol. What our authors are saying through all this structure of imagery is that the obscure birth of a child to a carpenter’s wife was, in view of all that came out of it, a decisive moment in history, when something genuinely new began, and the traffic of two worlds was initiated, to be traced by the discerning eye all through the story that was to follow.”
Finally, we can see the ultimate significance (for Christians!) of Jesus’s birth in St Luke’s narrative, during the Presentation in the Temple, just after his birth. The old pious Jewish man Simeon, on seeing Jesus, speaks the Nunc Dimittis: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace: according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation; Which thou hast prepared: before the face of all people; To be a light to lighten the Gentiles: and to be the glory of thy people Israel.”
Thus the prophet Isaiah’s prophecies are fulfilled: “You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice…I am coming to gather all nations and tongues; and they shall come and see my glory…I will send survivors to the nations…to the coastlands far away that have not heard of my fame or seen my glory; and they shall declare my glory among the nations.”