The Nativity in Christian
Imagination and in the Gospels
THERE ARE THREE VERSIONS OF THE Nativity play. Churchgoers of all ages are familiar with the first. It is regularly sketched, Christmas after Christmas, in sermons preached from the pulpit. It can be found and admired on the great Nativity canvases lovingly created by Christian artists over the centuries. One sees a bearded old man walking beside a donkey on whose back a heavily pregnant young woman rides. The towers of Bethlehem are faintly visible in the distance. In the crowded city the inns are packed, and Joseph, after much toing and froing and searching, can discover only a modest shed in the neighborhood for Mary to give birth to her son. The newborn Jesus is laid by his mother in the manger between a cow and an ass. Old Joseph observes the scene with benevolent and detached admiration. Local shepherds are alerted by an angel and learn about the arrival in the world of the Savior of the Jews. Soon three kings approach, robed in glorious apparel. They have been led from the far–distant Orient via Jerusalem to Bethlehem by a mysterious star. At the royal palace they inquire where the recently born king of the Jews can be seen. First no one knows. So on the advice of experts summoned by Herod, the kings are sent to Bethlehem and with the help of the reappearing star they find the stable, greet and worship Jesus, and offer him regal presents. The curtain falls: end of act one.
Like a child’s fairy tale, the Christmas story consists of an admixture of the charming and the dreadful. In act two, generally not featured in Nativity plays, sweetness and joy suddenly vanish and disaster looms on the horizon when bloodthirsty Herod enters the fray. Realizing that the kings have tricked him and slipped out of the country, Herod lets loose his cruel soldiers on the infant boys of Bethlehem. They all perish—from newborn babes to toddlers—except the child who has made Herod so anxious.
Suddenly the scene changes again. Joseph falls asleep and dreams of an angel, who sounds the alarm: father, mother, and child must flee at once. Again we see the old man on the road, accompanied by his faithful donkey, but this time it carries the baby and his mother. Cleverly avoiding Herod's frontier guards, they escape from Judaea and reach the safe haven of Egypt, the land of the Nile.
In the last act the scenario gets slightly bogged down. The final phases of the drama become hazy. We are presented with the circumcision of Jesus and with his presentation in the Temple of Jerusalem, but we do not learn when these things happened in relation to the escape to Egypt. Nor are the reason and the time of Jesus’ move to peaceful Galilee and a happy childhood specified.
The Christian mind does not seem to be greatly bothered by these matters. Its perspective is compact and its chronological framework is foreshortened. For the ordinary faithful all the happenings are squeezed together between Christmas and Candlemas. According to the liturgy of the Church, Jesus was born on December 25. The innocents of Bethlehem were murdered three days later. Jesus was circumcised on January 1. In my Oxford University diary New Year’s Day is still designated as the feast of the circumcision, but sadly in the Roman Catholic missals, revised after the Second Vatican Council, a solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, has been substituted for the old Latin rite’s Circumcisio Domini
(the circumcision of the Lord), and in consequence the Gospel reading “And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus” has disappeared from the day’s service. Jesus and Mary (and maybe Joseph) visited the Temple on February 2. So the Egyptian episode must have taken place between late December and the beginning of February, and the trip to Galilee immediately followed. Everything becomes neat and tidy except…most of this is legend or fiction.
With all due respect to Christian tradition, some of the essentials of the extended Christmas complex are a million miles away from fact and reality. For instance, the chances that Jesus was born on December 25 are 1 in 365 (or 366 in leap years). This date was invented by the Western church—as late as the fourth century under the emperor Constantine—as a way to replace the pagan festival of the Unvanquished Sun, and is first attested, to be precise, in a Roman calendar in ad 334. (1) Most Eastern Christians celebrate Jesus’ birth or manifestation to the world on the feast of Epiphany (January 6), while according to the second–century Church Father Clement of Alexandria, other oriental communities commemorated the event on April 21 or May 20 (Stromateis
In our search for clarification, let us begin by eliminating the three features of the traditional depiction of Christmas which are without written antecedents in the New Testament. Try as you may, you will find nothing in the Gospels to suggest that Joseph, repeatedly referred to as the father of Jesus, was an old man. We know nothing about his age, when he was born, or even when he died. The idea of an elderly Joseph derives from an apocryphal Gospel, the Protoevangelium of James the Brother of the Lord. In it he is described as a widower of advanced years who had sons and daughters from a previous marriage. These are then the members of the household of Joseph and Mary, whom the New Testament designates as the brothers and sisters of Jesus.
Neither do the Gospels contain any allusion to the friendly beasts, the ox and the ass, sharing the stable with Jesus. The imagery of these animals is borrowed from the prophet Isaiah, “The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people does not understand” (Isa 1:3). The Church saw in this passage the prefiguration of the later rejection of Christ by the Jewish people.
Finally, the New Testament nowhere suggests that the oriental visitors who followed the star to Bethlehem were kings. The Greek text of Matthew designates them not as rulers or even “wise men,” but as magoi
, “Magi” or magicians (see p. 99). The upgrading of these eastern astrologers to the royal dignity is due to another artificial association of an Old Testament text with this episode of the Infancy Gospel. A passage taken from the Book of Isaiah reads, “And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising” (Isa 60:3). It is completed by another verse a few lines further down in the same chapter of the same book, “They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord” (Isa 60:6). Nor is it anywhere written that there were three
kings. This figure is no doubt deduced from the number of gifts listed in Matthew, “gold and frankincense and myrrh” (Mt 2:11), with the assumption that one present was offered by each visitor.
The two other Christmas pictures are inspired by the New Testament. The first, arising from Matthew’s Infancy narrative, begins with the genealogical table of Jesus (Mt 1:1–17) and is followed by Joseph's intention to divorce the pregnant Mary (Mt 1:18–19). His plan is altered when he is reassured by an angel in a dream that his fiancee's condition is due to the miraculous intervention of the Holy Spirit (Mt 1:20). Indeed, the virgin birth is the fulfillment of a prophecy of Isaiah (Mt 1:22–23). Joseph gives credence to this dream–revelation, marries Mary, and takes her to his home (Mt 1:24–25).
Jesus’ arrival in this world is marked by the apparition of a star on the eastern horizon which leads the “wise men” of the Orient to Jerusalem (Mt 2:1–2). They go to the royal palace to find out the whereabouts of the newly born king of the Jews (Mt 2:3). The astounded Herod consults the Jewish chief priests, who identify Bethlehem as the predicted birthplace of the expected Messiah in conformity with a prophecy by Micah 5:2 (Mt 2:4–6). Herod then extracts from the Magi the time of the first apparition of the star and cannily requires them to share with him whatever they learn about the child (Mt 2:7-8). With the help of the star, the Magi find Jesus and pay homage to him before, in accordance with the instruction they receive in a dream, they return home without retracing their steps to Jerusalem (Mt 2:9–12).
Once more Joseph is instructed by an angel in yet another dream to promptly take Jesus to Egypt in order to escape the massacre of the male children of Bethlehem, decreed by the jealous and enraged Herod, in fulfillment of the prophecy about Rachel, the wife of the Patriarch Jacob, lamenting the loss of her children in Jeremiah 31:15 (Mt 2:13–18). On the death of the king, the same angel, in a penultimate dream, orders Joseph to return to the land of Israel, thus bringing to realization another prediction (Hos 11:1), which announces that God will call his Son out of Egypt (Mt 2:19–21). However, when Joseph learns that Archelaus has succeeded Herod, his father, in Jerusalem, a final dream revises the previous instruction and directs him to take up residence in Galilee. An unidentified prophecy, “He shall be called a Nazarene,” is cited to explain Jesus’ association with Nazareth (Mt 2:22–23).
In the third version of the events of the Nativity, Luke has a substantially different story to tell. It contains two annunciations. In the first, the elderly priest Zechariah, resident in Judaea, is informed by the angel Gabriel that his aged and sterile wife, Elizabeth, will miraculously give birth to a son, John the Baptist (Lk 1:5–25). This is followed by a further message by the same Gabriel to Mary, an engaged virgin living in Nazareth, that she will conceive and bear Jesus, and that it is no more difficult for God to make her pregnant and keep her a virgin than to allow her kinswoman Elizabeth to give birth to a son in her old age (Lk 1:26–38). Mary at once visits Elizabeth in Judaea and stays with her until the birth of John the Baptist (Lk 1:39–80). She then travels back to Nazareth, only to take to the road again within a few weeks. The census ordered by the emperor Augustus is given as the explanation of the journey of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, where Jesus is born in an animal shelter outside the city of David, the town’s hostels being filled to the brim by crowds of people arriving to register (Lk 2:1–7). The newborn child is greeted by local shepherds, and by a heavenly choir singing glory to God (Lk 2:8–20). Eight days later, in conformity with Jewish law, Jesus is circumcised, and on the fortieth day following his birth he is taken to the Temple and the ceremony of the redemption of the firstborn is performed, while his mother completes the purification ritual obligatory after giving birth to a male offspring. In the sanctuary Jesus is recognized by two old worshippers as the Messiah of the Jews and the redeemer of the Gentiles (Lk 2:25–38). Their religious duties accomplished, Joseph, Mary, and the infant immediately return to Nazareth, their original hometown (Lk 2:39–40).
The nature of the material determines the form that our investigation will take. Matthew and Luke seldom furnish the same information in the same order. Sometimes the themes are not unlike in substance, but most frequently the two evangelists offer totally independent data. As a parallel or “synoptic” approach to the birth accounts is in consequence not feasible, I will deal with the problems as they emerge one after another from the Infancy Gospels of Matthew and Luke.2
The Enigma of the Infancy Gospels
THE INFANCY NARRATIVES OUT OF which the traditional Christmas story has arisen constitute a major oddity in the Gospels. They are not attested by all the sources. Only two evangelists felt it necessary to place a very peculiar kind of birth account in front of their theologically motivated biography of Jesus. Neither the oldest nor the most recent of the Gospels contains any reference to the temporal entry of their hero into the world.
Mark, whose work was most probably completed around ad 70, goes without any preamble in medias res
, and starts straightaway with the public appearance of John the Baptist, to be almost immediately followed by the story of the baptism of Jesus. He reports nothing about the historical and geographical circumstances of the birth of Jesus or of his family background and early life. The same is true about the Gospel of John, finally formulated probably in the first decade of the second century, give or take a few years. It has nothing to convey about the earthly beginnings of Christ, except that in some way they were connected to the ministry of a man named John—John the Baptist—but supplies in its magnificent prologue a mystical-philosophical insight into the eternal pre-existence of the Logos
, the creative Word of God, that in the fullness of time and for a brief moment appeared in human shape in the person of Jesus to reveal God to mankind.
Matthew and Luke, whose Gospels are thought to have been published in the final two decades of the first century (ad 80–100), appended their birth stories as an introductory supplement to their compilation. The Infancy Gospels stand on their own. All four evangelists begin their main story with an adult Jesus (in his thirties, according to Lk 3:23), coming from nowhere and suddenly stepping into the limelight in ad 29, in the fifteenth year of the emperor of Rome, Tiberius.
In chronicling Jesus’ infancy, Matthew and Luke agree only on a few basic points. The names of the protagonists are the same. The place of birth, the date, and the permanent address of the family are identical in both accounts. They also claim, each in his own way, that the pregnancy of Mary was out of the ordinary. But on most other details they completely differ.
Regarding the contradictions between Matthew and Luke, the names of the ancestors of Jesus are irreconcilable. The original place of residence of the parents is the Galilean Nazareth in Luke, but apparently the Bethlehem of Judaea in Matthew. The extraordinary conception of Jesus through the Holy Spirit is announced only to Joseph in Matthew, and only to Mary in Luke. In Matthew, Joseph's first thought on noticing that Mary is expecting a child is that she has misbehaved, hence his intention to divorce her. There is no question in Matthew of Jesus being born in an improvised shelter. The family is found by the wise men in a house
in Bethlehem. Only Matthew reports the apparition of a prodigious star, the visit of the Magi and the vicious intervention of Herod, the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt and their subsequent choice of Nazareth in Galilee as their permanent place of residence. A final distinctive mark of Matthew's infancy narrative is the presence of five biblical proof texts, Old Testament quotations introduced to demonstrate that in the events connected with the birth of Jesus biblical prophecies have been realized. The first of these—“Behold, a virgin shall conceive” (Isa 7:14 in Mt 1:23)—is of crucial importance.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Nativity by Geza Vermes. Copyright © 2007 by Geza Vermes. Excerpted by permission of Image, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.