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 were and 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 – the “Infancy Narratives” — are found only in Matthew 1:1 – 2:23 and Luke 1:5 – 2:52.
The Infancy Narratives are certainly not fairy tales. But they are not strictly historical either. Our Bible contains 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. But 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. Very importantly they don’t know or realize that folkloric legends that arose centuries after Jesus’ birth get thrown into the mix.
Most of our contemporary Jesus-birth imagery comes actually from the Catholic friar Francis of Assisi (c.1181 – 1226). Francis created the Christmas Creche tradition. That tradition originated in Greccio, Italy, where Francis had visited a community to celebrate Christmas. Francis had wanted to create a scene that would be symbolic of Jesus’ birth and that would leave an everlasting impact on those in attendance. He therefore prepared a manger, which was a feeding trough for farm animals, and hay. He even brought an ox and donkey to where he prepared the altar, on which placed a statue of baby Jesus. The scenery had clearly symbolized the poverty and plainness that was associated with Jesus’ birth into the world.
Three kings? Neither Matthew nor Luke 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 Matthew that implies that they were rulers of any kind. In addition, 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 do 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 U.S. American biblical scholar and Catholic priest, John Meier (1942 – 2022), often stressed that Jesus’ birth in 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 his birth in Bethlehem, because King David (c. 1010 – c. 970 BCE) was born and raised in Bethlehem.
The Bethlehem Church of the Nativity, built in the fourth century CE and located in the West Bank, Palestine, is built over a cave where supposedly Mary gave birth to Jesus. 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 hired “helpful” tour guides.
Helena paid her tour guides very well, and they came up with creative “discoveries” for her that greatly pleased her son Constantine. Helena’s tour guides found the a bunch of old bones called 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 – and there has been great debate about that since 1864 when the remains were examined — the relic’s are still in Cologne Cathedral, which I have visited many times, behind the main altar.
[Helena’s tour guides also found for her: three pieces of wood said to be actual pieces of the “True Cross,” two thorns, said to be from Jesus’ crown of thorns, a piece of a bronze nail, said to be from the crucifixion itself. And finally, they found a piece of wood said to be from the sign Pontius Pilate was said to have erected over Jesus when he was crucified.]
Some differences in Infancy Narratives: Unlike the infancy narrative in Luke, Matthew mentions nothing about a census, nothing about a journey to Bethlehem, and nothing about Jesus’ birth in a stable. In Matthew, after Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, the Wise Men from the east visit Baby Jesus at Joseph and Mary’s house in Bethlehem. They were led there by a star, to fulfil the Hebrew Scriptures prophecy of Micah 5:2, that a ruler for Israel would come from Bethlehem. Most contemporary scholars do not consider Matthew’s story about a star leading the Wise Men to Jesus to have been an historical event. The ancients believed that astronomical phenomena were connected to terrestrial events. Linking a birth to the first appearance of a star was consistent with a popular belief that each person’s life was linked to a particular star.
According to Luke, a census was called for throughout the Roman Empire. It meant that Joseph and a very pregnant Mary – probably between 12 and 16 years old — had to go to Bethlehem, since Joseph was of the “house of David.” When they got there, there was “no room for them in the inn,” and so Jesus was born and put in the stable’s manger. (Some people really don’t know that a manger is a feeding trough for animals. The English word comes from the Old French word mangier — meaning “to eat” — from the Latin mandere, meaning “to chew.”)
Difficulties in Luke: There are major difficulties in accepting Luke’s Roman census account. First it could not have happened in the days of King Herod, who had died in 4 BCE. Luke refers to a worldwide census under Caesar Augustus when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Publius Sulpicius Quirinius was not appointed as the governor of Syria until 6 CE, when Herod had already been dead for ten years. In addition, according to the annals of ancient Roman history, no such census under Caesar Augustus ever took place. In fact, there was no single census of the entire Roman Empire under Augustus. More importantly, no Roman census ever required people to travel from their own homes to those of distant ancestors. A census of Judaea, therefore, would not have affected Joseph and his family, living in Galilee.
Luke clearly followed the models of historical narrative which were current in his day. He needed an explanation for bringing Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, in order to have Jesus born there. Let’s call the journey to Bethlehem an example of Luke’s “creative historical imagination.”
In Luke, we have no Wise Men, as we saw in Matthew, but angels appear to lowly shepherds, telling them to go visit Baby Jesus. The angels then sing out the famous words of the Gloria: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, and good will toward all people.”
Jesus was circumcised eight days after his birth. Then forty days after his birth, Mary and Joseph took the infant Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem to complete Mary’s ritual purification after childbirth. Mary and Joseph simply followed the regulations in Leviticus 12:1-8. The holy family then returned to their home in Nazareth. (Notice that Luke makes no mention of a trip to Egypt.)
Luke’s Infancy Narrative concludes with a story of the very bright twelve-year-old Jesus. While on a trip to Jerusalem, Mary and Joseph lose Jesus. They later find him in the temple astounding the temple teachers with his understanding.
Today of course – more than two thousand years later – we too are astounded and encouraged not just by Jesus’ understanding but by his vision and his spirit that truly animates us and gives us hope for today and tomorrow.
Next week we take a look at the Gospel According to John.
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