December 1, 2018
The Christmas trees are lit. We are now rushing into the season, celebrating in theory at least, Jesus’ birth.
A friend asked how we know when and where Jesus was born. My short answer: we have biblical suppositions and creative theologies, but there is much we really don’t know.…. We do know what is important: that Jesus was born, what he said, what he did, and what happened to him. We believe. Jesus, “the anointed one,” Christ, the Messiah, is our Way, the Truth, and Life. When and where he was born are secondary matters.
Another friend suggested that we really need to “Put Christ back into Christmas.” I understand the concern but feel more strongly that we need to put Christ back into the lives of those “Christians,” who deny and reject him in their words and actions. First, let’s put Christ back into Christianity. Then we can move on to Christmas.
As we begin Advent 2018, I do have some thoughts about interpreting the birth of Jesus. First, however, some background information:
Jesus of Nazareth was born more or less around the year AD 1. The Anno Domini (The year of the Lord) dating system was invented in the year AD 525 by Dionysius Exiguus, a medieval monk who wanted a calendar system that was not based on the reigns of anti-Christian Roman emperors. By around the year AD 800 the new calendar was a fact of life across Western Europe. Dionysius picked the date for the start of his AD calendar system using his own theory and calculations about when he thought Jesus was born.
There is a trend today to move to BCE/CE. The years are the same as AD/BC: BCE understood to mean “Before the Common Era” and CE to mean “Common Era.”
We really do not know the month when Jesus was born. The first recorded date of Jesus’ birth being celebrated on December 25th was in AD 336, during the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine, the first Christian Roman Emperor. A few years later, Pope Julius I officially declared that the birth of Jesus would be celebrated on the 25th December, the old Roman festival day celebrating the birth of “the unconquered sun.” Jesus, of course, was understood as the Light of the World. When Christianity became the new imperial religion, the old “pagan” Roman festivals were replaced with Christian ones.
The Gospels offer very little information about the birth of Jesus the Messiah. Although we refer to the “Infancy Narratives” in Matthew and Luke, they do not actually give us information about Jesus’ infancy and childhood. Rather, they answer the theological question, “Who is Jesus of Nazareth?”
Moving into December 2018, I suggest that we re-read the actual infancy texts: Matthew 1 & 2 and Luke 2.
Some observations as we begin:
(1) The Scriptures are more concerned about theology — belief — than strict historic detail. There is some real and some imagined history in the Scriptures, but that is secondary to theology.
(2) The language in all of Sacred Scripture has to be understood in the original socio-cultural understandings of the people at the time when the biblical narratives were being composed and written. As the biblical scholar, John Dominic Crossman, stresses: “My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.”
(3) As the first century Christians reflected on the meaning of Jesus they also re-read and re-interpreted the Hebrew Scriptures: seeing signs of Jesus in the Hebrew Scriptures that they had never seen before. They understood Jesus, for example, as the NEW Moses.
Matthew and Luke:
The Infancy Narrative in Matthew was written around AD 85 for Jewish converts to Christianity. Matthew constructs his genealogy to link Jesus with Abraham. For Matthew, Jesus as the New Moses and he uses creative historical imagery. Note the striking parallels between Jesus’ birth and Moses’ birth – the slaughtering of innocents, and the flight to Egypt.
The Infancy Narrative in Luke was written around between AD 85 and 90 possibly as late as 95. It was written for highly educated Gentile converts to Christianity. In Luke, Jesus is the high point of humanity and the light to enlighten the Gentiles. Luke creates a genealogy (chapter 3) that links Jesus with Adam. For Luke, Jesus is the man for all peoples, with special compassion for women, the poor, and social outcasts.
Closely examined, the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke offer differing pieces of information:
(1) Luke mentions the census of Quirinius which requires Joseph to go to Bethlehem.
(2) Matthew, however, gives no details of how Joseph and Mary came to be in Bethlehem.
(3) In Luke, shepherds guided by an angel find Jesus in the manger.
(4) In Matthew, wise men from the East, guided by a star, come not to Bethlehem but to Jerusalem to worship the Infant.
(5) In Matthew Joseph flees with his wife and child to Egypt where they live until Herod’s death. Later they return to Nazareth not to Bethlehem.
(6) Luke, on the other hand, does not mention the descent into Egypt. Instead, he describes how the Infant is brought to Jerusalem for the ritual of the first-born.
(7) AND there are some historical problems if one sees Matthew and Luke as strict history: Herod died in 4 BC. The census of Quirinius was in AD 6.
By the way, there is no mention of three kings in either infancy narrative. ONLY Matthew mentions “some wise men.”
We will continue our Infancy Narrative reflections next week….Read the biblical texts and jot down your own observations….
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4 thoughts on “The Birth of the Messiah”
Thank you, Jack, for summarizing so clearly the meaning of this pivotal event in our Christian history! It’s always a pleasure to read your explanations, full of learning, wisdom, and good sense. I especially appreciate your words as you give an up-to-date reinterpretation of the old salvation story and the meaning of the life of Jesus.
We need to be cautious about using 336 as the date of origin of a Christmas feast in Rome. The theory was based on the identification of Dec 25 as the Nativitas Christi in the 354 Chronograph of Furius Philocalus. In this almanac Dec 25th as the date of the birth of Christ seems to have been added to existing lists, including one of all the consuls of Rome since its founding, where it doesn’t quite fit. The emperor Constantine did not introduce a feast of the Nativity of Christ to Rome — he spent the last years of his reign, 325-337 in his new city of Constantinople which did not mark Christmas until the 380’s, after some intensive lobbying by John Chrysostom.
Most of the current secondary literature on the origins of Christmas claims flatly that a feast of Christ’s birth was directly related to the Roman civic celebration of the Sol Invictus, instituted by the emperor Aurelian in 275, on the winter solstice, Dec 25 on the Julian calendar. There is no direct proof of cause. The first reference to a Christian counter-celebration appears in an unrelated 11th century manuscript, in a handwritten marginal note of unknown provenance — and here, the ‘pagan’ feast was that of Yul, building bonfires on hillsides at the solstice.
Thanks for the clarifications……
The reason for BCE/CE is that not all Americans believe in the Incarnation, that Jesus was/is fully human and fully divine. BCE/CE accomadates non-Christians in our society.