Did it really happen? Or are these narratives a kind of religious Santa Claus story, not meant to be taken literally?
For most of the first 1,700 years of Christian history, the unchallenged answer to each of these inquiries would have been a resounding yes. Human beings lived then in a prescientific world of miracle and magic. The faith story, rooted as it was in the past, wove into its central fabric tales of wonder without either hesitation or embarrassment. But in the last 400 years of Western history, we have experienced an enormous intellectual revolution that has changed dramatically the way we view the world in which we live.
Our world does not admit of heavenly signs that broadcast events on earth, nor do we admit that there is such a thing as a supernatural or miraculous birth. We know that the story of a Santa Claus who travels through the sky is not literal truth, and we have come to suspect that neither is the story of Jesus' birth.
So, modern people face the "Did it really happen?" question about these Christmas stories and answer it with an increasingly clear No! No, these things did not really happen. No, they are not literal. They did not occur in history, and it is time for the leaders of the church to say so openly. The fact is that no reputable biblical theologian today, Catholic or Protestant, is willing to defend the historical accuracy of the details of the biblical birth stories.
That is true of all birth traditions. No one waits outside a delivery room for a great person to be born. People are born with little fanfare outside their immediate families. But when a life becomes critical in the lives of others or in history, then stories develop to indicate that the moment this life was born was a significant moment in the life of the world, and that that moment was marked with presaging signs. That is what the birth stories of Jesus mean.
These stories are the conscious attempts to stretch the boundaries of language so that words could point to a transcendent reality that they normally cannot embrace. They represent first-century attempts to say, "We have met something in this particular life that we do not believe human beings by themselves could ever have produced." In narrative form, the gospel writers were trying to join in Paul's assertion that somehow and in some way "God was in this Christ!" So, they wrote that at the moment of the birth of this life, the whole created order took notice.
The fact that the birth stories of Matthew and Luke were literalized was a tragedy, for that literalizing process also succeeded in distorting, warping, and, in a very real way, destroying both the power and the significance of the narratives. When children cease to take the Santa Claus story literally, they can begin the process of discerning what the symbol of Santa Claus means. He is the personification of the spirit and joy of giving.
If it is history that we desire, then let me state that the overwhelming probability is that Jesus was not born in Bethlehem but in Nazareth of Galilee. The whole Bethlehem tradition was quite clearly a much later attempt to interpret Jesus as the heir of David and thus the anticipated messianic figure who would arise out of the line of David, and whose prophesied birthplace would be Bethlehem.
There is also no irrefutable body of data about the parents of Jesus that is available for our knowledge, despite the elaborate traditions of Christian history. Mary might loom large in the developing Christian tradition, but she does not loom large in the early Christian writings. Her name appears only once in the biblical narrative before the ninth decade C.E. That sole mention was contained in a critical shout from a nameless person in the crowd and came in the form of a question: "Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?" It was a hostile question designed to insult or to question Jesus' origins. (People were normally identified with their father's name--if the father was known.) Certainly there was no suggestion, in this first biblical reference to the mother of Jesus, that she was a virgin or that Jesus' birth was in any way miraculous.
It is also clear from a study of early Christian documents that early Jewish critics of Jesus and the Jesus movement made similar charges, even suggesting that Jesus was the child of a Roman soldier (whether by rape or by consent is not always clear). Perhaps the virgin-birth tradition was born as a Christian defense against such charges. Those are the facts of history; beyond them, we can say little more.
Christianity moved beyond its Jewish origins toward the end of the first century and began to be known to the people in the broader Mediterranean world, which was deeply shaped by Greek thought. In that context, these stories took quantum leaps in importance. The Greek world was dualistic; that is, it thought of flesh and bodies as something sinful, evil, corrupt, and unworthy of spiritual people. For this reason, celibacy for men and virginity for women began to be thought of as the paths toward holiness. The Virgin Mary became the supreme model of spirituality. Celibate men could adore her safely, because she was the epitome of purity. Virgins could emulate her and thus claim the highest virtue. Sex came to be thought of as dirty, base, and carnal, and to engage in sexual activity was a sign of spiritual weakness. In time, sex and sin were identified with each other, and sexual guilt became the lever by which the church sought to control human behavior. That is why to this day, sex is still the subject about which the fiercest, most rending debates occur inside the Christian church.
The story of the Virgin has not served the world well. More important, that story has not served women well. The fetish about virginity made marriage appear to be a compromise with sin and made sex even inside marriage acceptable only if conception was the desired goal. To impose a barrier between sex and conception became a sign of absolute evil. The condemnation of birth control began in this formulation.
These columns have articulated my conviction that the Christian church must free Christianity from these distorting attitudes toward human sexuality by going back to the origin of the tradition out of which this development arose. We must place those stories into their Jewish context, deliteralize them, and begin to see what the authors intended to say.
Immediately, I have suggested, the miraculous birth tradition disappears as history, but it re-emerges as powerful and shaping narratives that provide a primary insight into the meaning of Jesus. To journey into the heart of these narratives is to journey into the Christian claim that God was present in this man Jesus and that this experience compels us to come and worship. Frankly, this transition from history to poetry is that which will save the meaning of Christmas in our postmodern world.