The birth narrative of Jesus shouldn't be taken literally. Each year, the symbols are everywhere: on radio and television, in newspapers and magazine ads, in store windows, and eventually in our own homes. Sometimes they depict a jolly old elf dressed in red, sometimes accompanied by reindeer and a sleigh. Sometimes they show a manger, a baby, angels singing to shepherds, or wise men following a star. Some of the symbols rotate around the North Pole, the others around a little town named Bethlehem.

Most people do not literalize the story of Santa Claus. He is a symbol--a powerful symbol, but still just a symbol. I suggest that the birth narratives of Jesus, too, cannot be taken literally. They, too, are symbols, a religious version of Santa Claus. Some religious people will be offended by that suggestion. I invite them to reconsider.

The biblical story of Christmas is probably the best known text in the New Testament. These narratives have been part of our conscious life for as long as most of us can remember. We have seen pageants annually; perhaps we have even starred in one. We think we know this biblical content quite well. But do we? How long has it been since we have actually read the biblical text that tells the story of that first Christmas? And how much of our reading is colored by long-standing traditions, a pious imagination, or even those pageants in which we have participated?


The average person would be quite sure that the mode of transportation employed by the Wise Men was the camel. Yet there are no camels in this biblical story at all, not a single one. They have been placed into Matthew's story by our imaginations, as a careful reading of the first two chapters of Matthew, the only place the story of the Wise Men is told, will reveal.

Second, if one is asked where in Bethlehem the birth of Jesus occurred, the familiar and traditional answer would be "in a stable surrounded by a variety of animals." We have seen that picture so often, we are quite sure of it. But we would be wrong again. There are no animals mentioned in the story of Jesus' birth, primarily because there is no stable present in which to house them. The stable is simply not part of the biblical birth story of Jesus. Check it out. Read the first two chapters of Luke. That is the only place in the Bible where details of his Bethlehem birth are given. There is only one word--crib, or manger--around which the stable has been erected in our imaginations.

Third, these two passages in Matthew and Luke are the only accounts of Jesus' birth found in the entire Bible. There is no mention of a miraculous birth for Jesus in the writings of Paul, in the gospel of Mark, or in the gospel of John, as a quick scan of these texts will reveal.

Paul, who is the first author of a book in the New Testament (he wrote between 50 and 64 C.E.), appears to have no knowledge of anything being unusual about Jesus' birth. All Paul says is that Jesus was "born of a woman, born under the law" (Galatians 4:4) and "according to the flesh" he was "descended from the House of David" (Romans 1:3). Paul never mentions the names of Mary or Joseph. The only reference he makes to a member of the family of Jesus was to James, whom he called "the Lord's brother," and with whom he did not get along very well (Galatians 1).

Mark, who wrote his gospel in the early years of the eighth decade of the Christian era (70-75 C.E.), also tells us no story of Jesus' birth. He does, however, have two references to Jesus' family (Mark 3:31-35, 6:1-6), neither of which is flattering. Mark writes that Jesus' family consists of his mother, four brothers (Simon, Judas, Joses and James), and more than one sister, all left unnamed because of the status of women in that time.

This family, led by Jesus' mother, believed Jesus was out of his mind and wanted to take him away. That is hardly the response one would expect from a woman to whom an angel had appeared to tell her that she would be the virgin mother of the Son of God.

Joseph makes no appearance in Mark's gospel, and Mary as the name of Jesus' mother appears only once--and that on the lips of a critic, who asks of Jesus, "Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?" (Mark 6:3). Please note that in the earliest gospel, Jesus is a carpenter, Joseph is unmentioned, and Jesus is called the son of Mary. To call a Jewish man the son of a woman had a mildly pejorative quality about it. It was a hint that perhaps his paternity was questionable. But that is all we have in written form from any early Christian source until at least 50 years have passed since the end of Jesus' earthly life.

Mark clearly did not know about the virgin birth tradition. It had not yet developed.

Skipping over to John, written some time between 95 and 100 C.E., we discover that this writer also does not mention the Virgin Birth. It would be difficult to argue that by this late date, the author had not heard of that tradition. Instead, he opens his story with an even more powerful God claim: Jesus was the pre-existent word of God present at the creation. This word of God was simply enfleshed, said the fourth gospel. But that was not achieved by way of a miraculous birth. Indeed, on two occasions this evangelist refers to Jesus as "the son of Joseph" (John 1:45, 6:42).

So in the five major sources of New Testament materials--Paul, Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John--only two, Luke and Matthew, mention the Virgin Birth. It is neither the majority nor the universal understanding of Jesus' origins even in the Bible.

When we turn to the actual text in Matthew and Luke, the questions and problems indicating that these stories are not literal history multiply. Matthew, who wrote between 80 and 85 C.E., wrote the first stories of Jesus' birth. He was also the gospel writer most appreciative of and anchored in his Jewish background. Matthew introduced this birth story with a genealogy that grounds Jesus in a thoroughly Jewish past, describing his lineage from Abraham, through David and the kings of Judah, to the exile and finally to Joseph, whom he identified as "the husband of Mary of whom was born Jesus who is called Christ" (Matthew 1:16). Provocatively enough, and quite rare in the ancient world, Matthew adds four women to this lengthy genealogy-- all of whom are sexually tainted in the stories about them in the Hebrew Scriptures.

First there is Tamar, the daughter-in-law of Judah who became pregnant by her father-in-law in an incestuous relationship (Matthew 2:1, Genesis 38). Yet Matthew says the line of Jesus came through this woman.

Next, there is Rahab, who was called "the harlot," who assisted with Joshua's invasion of the promised land (Matthew. 1:5, Joshua 2). Matthew also says the line of Jesus came through this woman.

Then there is Ruth, the great-grandmother of King David who in her time was said to have seduced her future husband, Boaz, with the aid of much wine. When Boaz woke up to discover Ruth in his bed, he covered her with his blanket and proceeded to do the honorable thing by marrying her (Matthew 1:5, Ruth 3). The hereditary background of Jesus includes Ruth, according to Matthew.

Finally, there was "Uriah's Wife," Bathsheba, who was first King David's adulterous lover and eventually, after David arranged for the death of her husband, his wife (one among many). She was also the mother of the heirs of David's throne, including King Solomon. Bathsheba, an adulterer, is thus a major player in the line of Judah's kings and Jesus' ancestry (Matthew 1:6, II Samuel 11).

One wonders what he means to imply about Mary, who is the fifth woman mentioned in his genealogy.

Over and over again, Matthew grounds his story of Jesus' birth in the presumed expectation of the Hebrew Scriptures. When he comes to the story of Jesus' miraculous birth, his proof text appears to be Isaiah 7:14. It is a familiar text that reads, "Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel." Clearly, Matthew developed his story under the influence of that text.

This text, however, has two problems. First, Matthew did not apparently read Hebrew, so he quoted this text from a Greek translation. If he had gone to the Hebrew original, he would have discovered that the word "virgin" is not in the book of Isaiah. Isaiah used the Hebrew word almah, which simply means "young woman." He did not use the word betulah, which means virgin. Isaiah's text announces that the woman is with child, which hardly qualifies her to be a virgin. When Isaiah was translated into Greek, the translators rendered almah with the Greek word parthenos. Only in that Greek word does the hint of virginity enter the text.

The second problem with this text is that when Isaiah wrote it, the city of Jerusalem was under siege from the combined armies of the Northern Kingdom and Syria. Isaiah suggested that the birth of this child would be a sign to the king of Judah that his nation would not fall to these enemies whom Isaiah described as "the tails of two smoking firebrands." A reference to a child born 800 years later would hardly have been relevant to that crisis.

Clearly, the prophet was not referring to either Jesus' birth or to some future messiah's birth.

There are still other problems connected with the stories of Jesus' birth, but these are sufficient to raise significant questions about their historicity--an issue I believe Christians must face. When one adds to that the fact that virgin birth stories were common in the Mediterranean world as part of the mythology of the first century, other concerns surface. A second-century Christian critic named Celsus articulated this concern when he wrote: "Do you think all the other stories are legends, but that your story of Jesus alone is noble and convincing?"

If the biblical stories we identify with Christmas are not history, then what are they? And what do they mean? Why did these stories become so powerful in shaping the Christian world? What are the story writers trying to communicate about God, about Jesus, about human life itself? Those will be the questions I intend to address in this column as the Christmas season unfolds.
more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad