The Richer Meaning of the Birth Narratives: "God With Us"

After a discussion of the gospels' historical accuracy, someone told me: 'You've ruined the Christmas story!' I don't think so

Reprinted with permission of The Lutheran magazine.

No matter how we set up our manger scenes at Christmas, we read two very different birth stories in the Gospels. In

Matthew's version

, Joseph is the prominent character. The Magi, or wise men, come seeking Jesus sometime within the first two years of his birth. And because Herod decrees that all the male children 2 years and younger be killed, Joseph flees with his young family to Egypt. Matthew seems to be making a connection between Jesus and Moses: Both had their lives threatened, and both came "out of Egypt."

In

Luke's account

, Mary is the main character. The child is born and laid in a manger. Shepherds come to worship the newborn king. Luke is concerned about setting Jesus' birth story within a cosmic, world-history context. He has Jesus immediately identified with the lowly of society, the shepherds.

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But the importance of these stories doesn't depend on whether there were wise men or shepherds, or whether the child was laid in a manger or not. It's possible that these narrative details have little basis in historical fact. Neither narrative can claim to be an eyewitness account.

The importance of these stories, rather, is that they both claim this child, Jesus, is the Savior, the Messiah, Emmanuel--God with us.

One of the unique claims of the Christian faith is that God became incarnate: God took on human flesh and was revealed to the world in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, at a specific time and place in history.

With that understanding of the Incarnation, doesn't it make sense to ask: What was this particular person like? What was it about this man Jesus that revealed the God of Israel?

Biblical scholars have asked such questions throughout the centuries. We are now in what is called the "third quest" for the historical Jesus. Many scholars no longer agree with theologian Albert Schweitzer, who in 1906 wrote the closing chapter on the "first quest" by arguing that we really can't succeed in discovering much of anything at all about Jesus of Nazareth (The Quest of the Historical Jesus).

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