- Micah 5:2-5a and Luke 1:46b-55 (or Psalm 80:1-7)
- Hebrews 10:5-10
- Luke 1:39-45, (46-55)
The stories we tell about people, and especially the stories we tell of their birth and early development, are powerful ways to celebrate their importance to us and the significance they have in our lives.
Jesus lived in Palestine during the first 30 years of the Common Era (= CE). It is a measure of his significance for Western culture that we traditionally divide time into two great epochs, with his birth as the beginning of the current era. We know very little of the exact details of his life, but the following dates are the most probable:
- ~4 BCE – Approximate date for birth of Jesus
- 28 CE – Jesus begins his public activity
- 30 CE – Jesus is executed by the Roman Empire
Jesus commanded no military forces, had no social status, and was not part of an ancient priesthood. Yet within a short period of time Jesus had an impact that changed world history. In this week’s notes we will look at some of the birth stories people told about Jesus as they tried to understand how he could have been so special, and as they tried to express what his life meant to them.
When someone excels in a particular area of life we often go looking for something in their background that would explain their success. You may be able to suggest examples from recent news and current affairs reports, documentaries, history lessons, popular magazines, and even your own family tree.
In the ancient world people also offered explanations for the success of heroic individuals, and they often did this by telling stories about some remarkable circumstances at the time of the person’s birth. We have examples of this in the Bible as well as in other writings from the ancient past.
You may wish to check the following stories, noting their common elements and considering how they were intended to be understood by those who first heard them:
Adam & Eve
|Twins, one becomes a ruler||
Esau & Jacob
Romulus & Remus
|Baby survives danger||
Sargon II of Akkad
|Birth of great military leader & hero||
Alexander the Great
|Birth of religious leaders||
Like our literary stereotypes (eg, Robin Hood or the Cowboy in the American Western—outlaws who are really good guys even though the powerful people hate them), people in the ancient Roman world were familiar with the idea of the Greek Hero. This may have influenced some of the ways that Christians chose to describe Jesus, just as we could re-tell the Jesus story with him as a kind of Robin Hood (the disciples = the “Merry Men” of Sherwood, and Mary Magdalene = Maid Marion).
Categories of Birth Stories
We can group the traditions about the birth of Jesus in the Bible and other ancient Christians texts by the kind of information they focus on:
Birth of Jesus
InfJas 17:1-11; 19:1-19
Miraculous Conception of Jesus
Ignatius: Eph 7:2; 18:2a; 19:1; Smyr 1:1b
Star of Bethlehem
Joseph as Jesus’ biological father
Jesus a descendant of King David
various parts of the NT
Major Sources for the Birth Stories of Jesus
We find the birth stories of Jesus in some parts of the New Testament but not in others, and also in some non-biblical Christian writings.
(letters dating from 50–60 CE)
Jesus’ mother was a Jewish woman
as the mother of Jesus is not named, this suggests that Paul did not even know the “son of Mary” tag for Jesus)
But when the fullness of time had come,
God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law …
Gospel of Mark
no interest in Jesus’ birth or childhood
Gospel of Matthew
conception before parents married
escapes an attempt to kill him shortly after birth
exile in Egypt
moves to Nazareth
Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth can be outlined as follows: </p>
1:1–17 Jesus’ family tree
1:18–25 Conception and birth
2:1–12 Threat to the Christ child
2:16–18 Massacre of the Innocents
2:19–23 Moving to Nazareth
Matthew seems to have been influenced by Jewish traditions about the birth and childhood of Moses when writing his story about the birth of Jesus. These traditions are known as the Moses Haggadah (“Haggadah” is a Hebrew word for story.)
Gospel of John
no birth stories
but Jesus is the eternal “Logos” (or sacred principle) at the heart of the cosmos
Joseph is Jesus’ natural father
Jesus is not born in Bethlehem.
Gospel of Luke
twin birth stories for John the Baptist and Jesus
set in the context of Jerusalem and its Temple
(including Bethlehem, ancestral town of King David)
lots of holy people bursting into sacred songs and lots of visits to the Jewish Temple.
no escape needed as no one threatens the Holy Child
Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth can be outlined as follows:
Scene 1 – John’s miraculous conception (Luke 1:5-25)
Scene 2 – Jesus’ miraculous conception (Luke 1:26-38)
Scene 3 – Mary visits Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-56)
Scene 4 – John’s birth and naming (Luke 1:57-80)
Scene 5 – Jesus’ birth and naming (Luke 2:1-21)
Scene 6 – Presentation in Temple (Luke 2:22-40)
Scene 7 – 12-year old Jesus in Temple (Luke 2:41-52)
Infancy Gospel of James (ca 150 CE): a collection of stories about Mary’s special childhood, the circumstances of her arranged marriage to an elderly widower named Joseph, and various episodes relating to the miraculous birth of Jesus.
Infancy Gospel of Thomas
(ca 180 CE):
a collection of childhood adventures by Jesus that fill the gap between the birth of Jesus and his appearance in the Temple aged 12
As we study these ancient stories about the birth of Jesus, we are entering an area of considerable sensitivity for some people as they may take some of these stories literally.
The real point is not to debate the historicity of these ancient stories, but to ask how they shape and convey meaning. The core issue for us is not whether things actually happened as described, but what such wonderful stories tell us about the significance of Jesus in the beliefs of the people telling the story.
Rather than focus on questions such as, “Did this really happen the way it is described in this story?” it is more helpful to ask questions such as these:
- WHO? (note the characters)
- WHAT? (check the events and the flow of the story)
- WHERE? (at what locations are the events said to occur?)
- WHEN? (what times and sequences are involved?)
- WHY? (what explanations are offered or suggested?)
Rather than puzzling over the historical questions, it is important to ask, “What does it mean?”
It can sometimes be important to distinguish between fact statements (eg, Jesus was killed by the Romans around 30 CE) and faith statements (eg, Jesus died to take away our sins).
Stories can be a powerful way to create and sustain meaning, but underlying the story is often some central metaphor. Metaphors are not the same as facts, but they may be more important to express the meaning we make of life. After all, even so-called “facts” need to be verified and interpreted.
You will already have encountered some of the most powerful metaphors for Jesus:
- Jesus as the Lamb of God
- Jesus as the Word of God
- Jesus as the Son of God
Take some time to think about these metaphors as symbols that express the significance of Jesus. They are not meant to be taken literally. All of them express some important aspect of Christian belief about Jesus.
“sons of God” in ancient Rome
Ancient rulers used slogans to communicate their message to the people and to maintain their hold over them. As there were no print or electronic media, these were especially disseminated on coins and inscriptions. The key terms were: kyrios (lord, ruler), soter (saviour), and hyios tou theou (son of God). The religious ceremonies at the beginning of major civic events, and temples dedicated to the ruler cult, made this a major social influence.
Here is one famous example of this imperial theology:
Whereas Providence … has … adorned our lives with the highest good: Augustus … and has in her beneficence granted us and those who will come after us [a Savior] who has made war to cease and who shall put everything [in peaceful] order … with the result that the birthday of our God signalled the beginning of the Good News for the world because of him therefore … the Greeks in Asia Decreed that the New Year begin for all the cities on September 23 … and the first month shall … be observed as the Month of Caesar, beginning with 23 September, the birthday of Caesar.
[Calendrical Decree from Temples of Rome and Augustus in the Province of Asia.]
While the Gospel of Mark does not have any special stories about Jesus’ birth, it does present Jesus as a hero whose mighty deeds demonstrated his divine status. While most characters in the Gospel do not recognise Jesus, Mark lets the reader know the secret of Jesus’ identity: at his baptism (1:11), as Jesus exorcises demons (1:24), at the transfiguration (9:7), and even the Roman centurion who executed Jesus (15:39).
For early Christians there was a tension between belief in Jesus as their Lord and Saviour and the pressure to recognise the Emperor as the source of all life’s blessings. Jesus had been executed as a rival “Jewish king.” Thirty years or so later, Jews had fought a major war with Rome (66–73 CE) ending with the destruction of Jerusalem. Many Christians were tortured and killed because they refused to worship the Emperor Domitian as Lord and God. The Book of Revelation reflects that struggle for supremacy between Christ and Caesar. In the end, the empire became Christian, but that was to take 300 years!
The earliest followers of Jesus were looking for someone who would apply the holiness and power of God to the problems people were facing in their lives. After almost 2,000 years of Christianity we may think of Jesus as solving spiritual problems rather than fixing social and political problems. However, there is much more to “sin” than bad habits and guilty consciences. “Sin” includes structural evil: things that are wrong about the ways things are organised in our world.
Christians believe that Jesus acts on God’s behalf against evil and injustice of every kind: poverty, slavery, sexual abuse, corruption, drug crime, unfair interest rates, sickness, and loneliness. That can be a great source of hope for people in bad times, but it can also be a challenge for a society like ours that seems to have such an easy life.
Jesus – divine Wisdom in human flesh
The classic interpretation of Jesus as a powerful hero sent from God with divine powers to rescue others has dominated Christian theology for much of the past 2,000 years. But there are other significant voices in the Bible that reveal other ways to interpret Jesus. You may wish to explore the ancient interpretation of Jesus as “child of Sophia/Wisdom.”
As we have already seen, Mark’s heroic representation of Jesus was adopted and elaborated by Matthew and Luke. But there is another major interpretation of Jesus within the NT itself—the Gospel of John. This alerts us to the possibility of using different metaphors to express the significance of Jesus. With the lenses provided by John, we can recognise otherwise overlooked metaphors for Jesus in different parts of the NT.
The divine Logos: The famous prologue to John’s Gospel presents Jesus as the incarnation of the eternal Logos, a Greek philosophical term used to refer to the ultimate organising principle in the cosmos. (logos occurs in many English words: astrology, cosmology, geology, theology, zoology, etc.) Have someone read John 1:1–18 then discuss its underlying view of Jesus.
Divine Sophia/Lady Wisdom: this is one of the oldest ways of describing Jesus, and it involves speaking of Jesus in feminine imagery! Remember, metaphors are not literal descriptions. This description takes up the idea of Lady Wisdom (divine Sophia) in the OT texts, an idea that develops and becomes more complex as we get closer to the time of Jesus.
- see Sophia Bible Jewish for OT traditions about Lady Sophia
Take the time to compare closely the description of Wisdom in the Wisdom of Solomon 7:22–8:1 and the Logos Hymn in John 1:1–18. As the WisSol was composed in Greek around 40 CE, it provides an interesting sample of Jewish spirituality around the time of Jesus and Paul.
Jesus as divine Wisdom: Take some time to read through and consider carefully the examples of early Christian texts that interpret Jesus as a manifestation of Sophia:
- Sayings Gospel Q (the oldest known Christian text)
- Paul’s genuine letters
- Deutero-Pauline writings
- Johannine texts
- Other NT writings
Jesus as the human face of God: Reflect on the significance of Jesus as the human face of God. Are there particular aspects of God that Jesus signifies for you? What difference does it make to you? Do you now have a richer appreciation of the meaning of Christmas?
Liturgies and Prayers
For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site
Other recommended sites include:
See David MacGregor’s Together to Celebrate site for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre.