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.
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.
Wright sees Jesus' ministry as a prophet when Jesus calls people to repent for the kingdom of God is near (Mark 1:14-15) and then when he teaches people what that kingdom is all about (Matthew 13).
Do I hear the voice of Jesus as prophetic, challenging me to turn from those paths that have led me away from God? How do I as a 21st century person live in God's kingdom? What ethical and moral conduct does this call forth from me?
Many people consider this "third quest" of scholars disturbing, in part, because there is so much diversity: Will the real "real" Jesus please stand up?
Most of us tend to read the Gospels as historical biographies of Jesus that report what he did and said - forgetting that each one provides a separate, and different, report.
But if we only read them from our 21st-century perspective about what constitutes historical accuracy, we run the risk of missing the truth of the Gospels. They aren't biographies but are more powerful texts that recount the early followers' experience of Jesus, which was "good news" to them.
The Gospel writers recorded these stories and experiences "so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name" (John 20:31).
I find it incredibly freeing to be able to ask questions, to have doubts, to not understand - and know that this very questioning, not certainty, is faith. What binds me together with other Christians is not my view of the historical Jesus but the reality of the one Christ. God is always more than I can comprehend and understand. God remains a holy mystery.
Someone once told me after a discussion of the historical accuracies of the birth narratives, "Now you've ruined the Christmas story!"
I don't think so. These beloved stories can take on even richer meaning. As I hear the stories of Jesus' birth today, I am struck by the truth that something incredible, something wonderful happened.
Mere human words could not tell it. No, it is the angels' song that announces the birth. And who does Luke choose to hear the song? The shepherds. He tells us that the first to hear the good news of Jesus' birth were people at the bottom of the social rung, as he tells us earlier in his narrative that the one chosen to give birth to Jesus is a peasant girl.
Matthew tells the same incredible, wonderful story of Jesus' birth by having the cosmos proclaim the event, sending a star high into the heavens. Why? To guide to Jesus those who were from the outside, those who didn't belong. The star signals the new era when all will belong. And these Magi, these "wise men," came to worship even though they didn't fully understand. Can I do any less?
Only stories of angels and heavenly songs, bright stars and Magi from afar could begin to communicate the wonder of God's love coming to dwell with us, within human flesh. Letting go of the effort to explain or defend the details of the stories, I'm free to submerge my heart in the symbols. I hear the stories, knowing they aren't simply recounting an event that happened once long ago. They are telling about Jesus' coming - something that happens over and over again. Even now, in my life.