Thanksgiving was a week ago. But now we are already nearing the second Sunday of Advent. 

Today and over the next two week ends, I would like to share reflections about the birth of Jesus as described in the “Infancy Narratives,” which are found only in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

Today some introductory observations. Next week, a look at Matthew’s presentation.

The “birth day” of Jesus of Nazareth is not mentioned anywhere in the New Testament, which is quite silent about the day or the time of year when Mary gave birth to her son. In keeping with Hebrew customs at the time, Mary was most likely between 12 and 14 years old when Jesus (Yeshua) was born. Her husband was probably a couple years older. In Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus and his parents, Mary was called Myriam. 

We really don’t know much about Joseph. In Matthew 13:55 we read: “Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas?” Most biblical translations use the word “carpenter” to describe Jesus’ and Joseph’s trade. But the Greek word can be read in many different ways. The word is téktōn, a common term used to describe artisans, craftsmen, and woodworkers. But it also, can refer to stonemasons, builders, and construction workers. Perhaps even what today we call a “handyman.”

Nevertheless, the early Christians did not focus on Jesus’ birth. The key Jesus-event for them was Easter. They rejoiced in their belief that Jesus was raised from the dead and entered a new form of life: promising new life for all who believed and followed him. Christians are Easter people.

It was not really until around 200 CE that Christians began to commemorate a Jesus birth date. Not at first on December 25 but on January 6. Most likely the earliest source for setting December 25 as the date for celebrating Jesus’ birth is a document written by Hippolytus of Rome (c. 170 – c. 235). Hippolytus was an important second-third century Christian theologian. Early Christians connected Jesus to Sun imagery through the use of such phrases as his being the “Sun of righteousness.” They Christianized and took over the Roman celebration of the winter solstice which was held on December 25. 

New Testament accounts of the birth and early life of Jesus are found only in Matthew 1:1 – 2:23 and Luke 1:5 – 2:52. The accounts are certainly not fairy tales. But they are not strictly historical either. Our Sacred Scriptures contain a variety of literary forms by which the truths of our faith are expressed and communicated. We find poetry, drama, symbolism, metaphors, imaginative recreations of past events, and varying degrees of historical narration. The Bible is primarily about understanding our faith. It is not primarily a history book. I resonate with the observation by the biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan: “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.”

Most people today ignore the differences found in Jesus’ birth accounts in Matthew and Luke. They simply combine the accounts without noticing the differences; and folkloric legends that arose centuries after Jesus’ birth get thrown into the mix. 

Neither Matthew nor Luke, for instance, mentions “three kings.” Matthew mentions “wise men” magoi in Greek, from which we get the English word “magi.” Although the “magi” are now commonly referred to as “kings,” there is nothing in the account from the Gospel of Matthew that implies that they were rulers of any kind; and nowhere in the New Testament do we find them called “Balthasar, Melchior, and Casper.” Those names are creations from the 8th century CE. 

In Matthew we find: the visit of the wise men, the star, and Herod’s plot to kill Jesus. These are not found in Luke however. In Luke, on the other hand, we find: the birth of John the Baptist, the shepherds, and the presentation of Jesus at the Temple. But these are not found in Matthew.

The differences between Matthew and Luke are nearly impossible to reconcile, although they do share some similarities. The American biblical scholar and Catholic priest, John Meier, has often stressed that Jesus’ birth at Bethlehem is not to be taken as an historical fact. Meier describes it as a “theological affirmation put into the form of an apparently historical narrative.” In other words, the belief that Jesus was a descendant of King David led to the development of a story about Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. King David (c. 1010 – c. 970 BCE) was born and raised in Bethlehem. No doubt a text from Micah 5:2 in the Hebrew Scriptures contributed to this belief as well: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the rulers of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”

The Church of the Nativity, built in the fourth century and located in Bethlehem in the West Bank, Palestine, is built over a cave where Mary is said to have given birth to Jesus. The church has been undergoing extensive renovation – at a cost of $17 million – since 2013. The church was originally commissioned by Constantine the Great (c. 272 –  337 CE) a short time after his mother Helena’s visit to Jerusalem and Bethlehem in 325–326 CE. Helena had been instructed by her son to find important Christian places and artifacts, since Christianity was becoming the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. She paid her scouts well, and they came up with exciting (though not always historically supported) discoveries. Helena also found the“relics of the Magi.” They were kept first in Constantinople; but then moved to Milan. Eight centuries later, in 1164, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa took the “relics of the Magi” and gave them to the Archbishop of Cologne. Whatever they really are, the relic’s are still in Cologne Cathedral.

As I write this reflection, my wife and I are sorting our Christmas decorations and getting ready to set up our “manger scene.” I suspect that few people today realize that our Christmas manger scene imagery owes a lot to St. Francis of Assisi (c 1181 – 1226). 

Francis began the Christmas tradition of nativity scenes, because he wanted to help people gain a fresh sense of wonder about “the first Christmas.” Long before Francis set up his first nativity scene in 1223 CE, people celebrated Christmas primarily by going to Mass where priests would tell the Christmas story in a language that most ordinary people really didn’t speak: Latin. Although churches sometimes featured fancy artistic renditions of Christ as an infant, they didn’t present any realistic manger scenes. Francis decided that he wanted to make a difference. 

Francis, living in the town of Greccio, Italy at the time, asked his friend John Velita to loan him some animals and straw to set up a scene to represent Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. The scene was set up in a cave just outside Greccio. It featured a wax figure of the infant Jesus, people in costume playing the roles of Mary and Joseph, and a live donkey and an ox that John had loaned to Francis. Francis’ nativity scene presentation proved to be so popular that people in other areas soon began setting up nativity scenes to celebrate Christmas. 

Next week we take a close look at Matthew’s infancy narrative.

  • Jack


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4 thoughts on “The Infancy Narratives

  1. Thank you, Jack, for this fascinating history of Christmas. Can’t wait for next week’s narrative. (Would love to take a class from you!)

  2. The Birth Stories of Jesus in Matthew and Luke
    Recorded by David Garshaw December 24, 2020.

    Matthew and Luke recently appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show
    Matthew, will be 1,938 years old next February 20
    Luke will be 1,952 years old on December 30
    Ellen DeGeneres will be 62 next January 26

    Note: Here’s another effort to help Christians better understand Bible stories do not conflict with science, as they are mostly metaphorical. They need not fear and disrespect science, as so many now do, creating havoc in our religious and political worlds.

    Good morning, America. This is Ellen DeGeneres in Burbank welcoming you to an exciting conversation with the writers of two of the four Christian gospels in the Bible, Luke and Matthew. As they shared with me in the green room, these are not their real names. They choose to remain anonymous as they have been for 2,000 years.

    First, can you tell us the basic motivations for your approaches to what we call the Christmas story? Matthew?

    Yes. First of all, Luke and I agree we were both inspired by the Lord in the stories we tell. They may not describe the facts of Jesus’ birth in a scientific way according to history, but they tell stories as metaphors that can be more truthful and greater than facts and reflect on the glory of Jesus, God’s Anointed One. The stories complement each other. Actually, we don’t know of any historical information about Jesus until Paul wrote 1st, or as Trump says One, Thessalonians about 50 CE, and in none of his letters does he ever mentions the birth of Jesus. Mark in his gospel doesn’t either.

    In my story, I begin with two facts we know from history. First, the Hebrew testament is clear that the Messiah would be born in the city of David, Bethlehem in Judea. The other is that Jesus grew up in Nazareth in Galilee. What we had to deal with was how to connect his birth in Bethlehem with his growing up in Nazareth, which is about 75 walking miles between the towns, not the 61 miles as the crows fly.
    I began with my heritage. Among all the stories of the Israelites that influenced my family’s faith over the years is the miraculous escape from Egypt led by Moses. Over forty years he led our people into the land of milk and honey. I believe that the birth of the Messiah was at least on the level of significance of that of the escape from Egypt. So I wanted to work that into the story.

    When I remembered my background in the region of Bukhara which was close to the Silk Road trade route, I remembered wealthy traders with their goods on camels coming and going. Instead of traders, I picked up the quote about kings from Psalm 72:11, “May all kings fall down before him”. To help them find the new king, I adapted the tradition in which stars are connected to rulers. The rising of a star signified that a ruler had come to power. In the biblical book of Numbers, for example, which dates to 5th century BCE, the prophet Balaam predicts the arrival of a ruler who will defeat the enemies of Israel. “A star shall come out of Jacob, [meaning Israel] … it shall crush the borderlands of Moab.”

    Pardon me, Matthew, for interrupting.
    Sure, that’s okay, Ellen.

    Was the Jupiter and Saturn ‘great conjunction’ on winter solstice the star in your story?

    Sorry, Ellen. That would be impossible as the star I described settled right over the cave where the new baby lay so he could be found by travelers. You see, Ellen, my story, as it is for most Bible stories, is a metaphor not history – not to be taken literally. Back in the day, folks didn’t take such prose and poetry literally. As I understand unlike in your current day of 2020, my people in the first century didn’t think of reality as simply true in a scientific way. It is unfortunate so many Christians in your day deny science to make some stories appear to be real history in their eyes. I suggest this influences people to feel free and justified to deny any science they want. At this point I was ready to include the Moses story of leading the Israelites out of Egypt as a symbol of the Christ leading all people out of the darkness of the wilderness and into God’s Kingdom.

    I now understand I too quickly misinterpreted in the Isaiah text that Jesus would be born of a virgin, instead of Isaiah’s word for maiden. Words in the Greek text of the Septuagint can easily be confused. Not being a Greek scholar, I quickly thought such a virgin birth would be like the births of other Greek and Roman gods, including Roman Emperors, and give a higher significance to the birth of Jesus. Certainly, the kings would want to visit and worship such a divine king.

    The kings followed the star to Jerusalem and learned of Herod’s hatred of a competing king. When they visited the Christ Child, they told Joseph about it. Here is where the Exodus comes in. Worried about the child’s safety, Joseph had a restless sleep, but heard an angel tell him to take the family and flee to the safety of Egypt. Later, after Herod died, the angel told Joseph to go settle far away in a small town in Nazareth of Galilee, as it would be too risky for many years for the Lord to be in his hometown of Bethlehem. Now you know the rest of the tale.

    That’s a wonderful story, Matthew. It has not been as popular as Luke’s in Christian imagination, but we know both stories get conflated by the re-telling, as with the story of the birth of Jesus with the kings arriving later.

    Ellen I’ve never been upset about that. Luke’s story has value, too. God speaks to us in different ways, and there is always a good thread of truth that goes with them. My sense of sadness is that so many faithful Christians believe these stories are history and likely minimize or overlook the significance of Jesus’ birth.

    Luke, I’m sorry to give away part of your story about the kings. How did you gain your perspective?
    That’s okay, Ellen. My family had always been poor sheep herders. I believe the Messiah was born into a lower class of folks like shepherds, not the higher elites from whom earthly kings are born. Getting Mary to Bethlehem for the birth required a trip by foot, on a donkey in Mary’s case. A Buick would have been better; but you know how it was in those days.

    When Mary told Joseph that an angel told her she was going to give birth to the Lord in Bethlehem, Joseph about choked, as he saw that circumstance impossible. Regrettably and sadly, the rest of the embarrassed family refused to take care of an unmarried pregnant teen, so Mary had to go with him, her health notwithstanding.

    For Joseph to get Mary to Bethlehem required an action that Joseph could not legally ignore for fear of death, even at the risk of Mary’s health. Fortuitously, a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. As it was, Joseph had to register in Bethlehem and take Mary with him.
    Now I might mention some have argued against this decree, as it is not historically true, e.g., in a citation in Jewish Antiquities, Vol. XVIII, written by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus around 93 or 94 CE in the reign of Roman emperor Flavius Domitian, “there is no record of any Roman census when people had to return to their birthplace. Each person had to be counted where he earned his living, because that was where tax would be assessed.” No doubt Josephus, a historian, read or heard of my story and made this rebuttal in his book.

    Remember, the decree from Augustus is the key to requiring Joseph to take Mary to Bethlehem for Jesus to be born. I just could not think of anything other than a Roman decree with the penalty of death would force Joseph to put Mary through that horrendous and unrealistic ordeal. From what I’ve heard, many Christians believe if one story in the Bible is wrong, then all are wrong. Actually, I believe that is sacrilege.
    Gloriously it was to the lowly sheep herders that the angel announced the birth and gave directions on how they could find him. It was the appearance of the Heavenly Choir that convinced them this was a big deal; so they decided to go see the Christ child. When they arrived at the scene, they found the baby in a manger surrounded with some pretty unhappy and hungry sheep and donkeys.
    When Mary was well enough to travel, they returned to Nazareth the way they had come to Bethlehem. Now you know the rest of the story.

    Thank you, young fellas.

    Ellen, let’s be clear about this. I am 19 hundred and 38 years old and Luke will be 19 hundred and 52 later this month. I’m the young fella and he’s the old fella.

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