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.

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).

Today, biblical scholars believe there is much we can know about Jesus, although there is no agreement about what that "much" entails. Several portraits have emerged.

John Dominic Crossan (The Historical Jesus, page 421) concludes that the real, or historical, Jesus was then "a peasant Jewish cynic." A "cynic" in the first century was a philosopher-critic who through his teachings (short, wisdom sayings) and lifestyle (abandonment and disregard of societal conventions) challenged the cultural values of the day, especially with regard to the concepts of shame and honor.

By emphasizing that Jesus was a peasant, Crossan reminds me that God is on the side of the poor, the widows, the orphans, all those who have been disenfranchised by society. The real Jesus didn't accept the status quo in which position and wealth determined one's worth in God's kingdom.

Crossan sees this view of Jesus in the way he challenged the religious rules (Matthew 12:1-8) and the religious leaders (23); his call to his followers to "deny" themselves (Mark 9:34-38); and his eating with tax collectors and sinners (Luke 5:29-32 and 7:33-35).

So why do we as followers of Jesus today put so much energy into upholding the status quo - not making waves, not rocking the boat?

For Marcus Borg, the real Jesus is Jewish as well but also needs to be understood as a "Spirit person or mediator of the sacred" (Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, pages

31-32). Jesus was connected in a profound and intimate way to God, and when his disciples were in his presence they experienced the very presence of the divine.

Borg identifies Jesus as a Spirit person because of his vision at his baptism and experience of fasting and prayer in the temptation story (Matthew 3:13-4:11); speaking with authority (Luke 4:32) and identifying himself as one upon whom the Spirit of the Lord resides (4:18); and addressing God as "Abba," an intimate term of endearment that expresses his experience of God (Mark 14:36).

Remembering that Jesus was a Spirit person, or charismatic figure, is a helpful balance for my faith understanding that I live out much more in my head - explaining the theology of Jesus - than in my heart. It helps my heart connect to the Spirit of God so that through my life others can also connect to God's sacred presence.

N.T. Wright presents the "real" Jesus as a "first-century Jewish prophet announcing God's kingdom" (The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, page 33).

In this Jesus, the story of the people of Israel reaches its climax, and God's kingdom is ushered in.