We shouldn’t get hung up on the details surrounding Jesus’ birth, says this Bible scholar. As with any scripture story, there’s more here than meets the eye.
Learning scripture in the land of the Bible changes the way you read it, says Sister Laurie Brink, O.P., who leads study tours to places such as Bethlehem. “The land holds memory,” she says. “It’s made holy by everybody that went there before.”
Memory and history aren’t exactly the same thing, though, and the stories of Jesus’ birth are a case in point. “If you want to know the historical facts about Jesus’ birth, you’ll be disappointed,” says Brink. “We really can’t verify the Magi or even a manger. But the purpose of the stories is not to present facts; it’s to place Jesus’ birth in human history. He was a real human being, born like other human beings, though his conception was unique.”
Like the gospels as a whole, the infancy narratives should speak to us today, says Brink. “We have made the Bible a church book, when in truth it is our family book. When we read these stories, they become ours, and then we can live them. That’s what we Catholics have sometimes forgotten to do.”
What’s the difference between what scripture tells us about Jesus’ birth and how we tend to see it today?
The first Christmas decoration my folks unpacked was always the nativity set. It was something they had made together in a ceramics class when they were newlyweds, so it’s more than 50 years old. Mary’s missing her hand, the angel’s got a dented wing, and the donkey’s head has been glued on several times. The shepherds are indestructible, and Baby Jesus is glued into the manger, so he’s not going anywhere. My father built a barn out of my Lincoln Logs.
This was my Christmas story, and this is what my brother and I thought the story was about. It’s only when I got a little older that I actually read the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke and realized there are too many people in the picture. We’ve conflated the two stories, which makes a great nativity scene, but it’s not what the biblical text says.
Can you distinguish those two different stories for us?
In Matthew’s story the main character is Joseph. Joseph is the one taking the action. He’s going to divorce Mary when he finds out she’s with child before they’ve lived together.
Joseph has a dream, and the angel says it’s OK to stay with Mary because her baby is from the Holy Spirit. Jesus is born in Bethlehem—not in my father’s barn made of Lincoln Logs but in a house, according to Matthew.
Then there are Magi, wise people from the east, probably astrologers. They make reference to a star. What’s interesting about this star is that it doesn’t just hang in the heavens; it leads them. When they get to Jerusalem, they ask King Herod where the newborn king of the Jews is.
Finally the wise people go to Bethlehem, and they give the baby some really interesting gifts—not what you’d find at a normal baby shower. He gets gold, frankincense, and myrrh. You can interpret those gifts in different ways, but they’re probably meant to signify the most expensive things that could have been brought.
The Magi decide not to go back to the king because they’re warned not to in a dream. King Herod gets very upset and decides that any baby boy born within the previous two years needs to be killed. That’s the story of the Holy Innocents. The Holy Family flees to Egypt and eventually settles in Nazareth.
What about Luke?
Luke actually gives us two infancy narratives. The first is the story of John the Baptist, which we tend to overlook.
Luke doesn’t give the same status, of course, to John the Baptist as he does to Jesus. John is conceived in the normal way. The Spirit doesn’t enter into John the Baptist or Elizabeth, his mother, until Elizabeth encounters Mary, so it’s clear that John and Jesus are on different levels.
But John the Baptist is certainly significant. In the story of John’s birth, his father, Zechariah, has a vision in the temple. The angel Gabriel tells him he’s going to have a son. Zechariah asks how this is going to happen, which I think is a reasonable response to a vision. Gabriel obviously didn’t because he says that Zechariah will be mute.
When you look at the story of Gabriel encountering Mary—and Mary is the main character in Luke, not Joseph—Gabriel gives her the news, and Mary asks, “What does this mean?” The angel is very forthcoming; there’s no punishment for asking questions. And Mary has a wonderful response, “Be it done to me according to your word.”
We don’t hear Joseph’s response. We do hear, though, that Mary is in Nazareth, which is a problem. Luke knows that Jesus is born in Bethlehem, but he also knows that Jesus is from Nazareth. So he uses the census of Quirinius, which was actually a bit later in history, as a device to get the Holy Family to Bethlehem.
How did they end up in a stable?
There was no place to stay in Bethlehem; the term that’s used in the Greek means “inn,” so there’s no room in the places you could rent. So the baby gets born and placed in a manger.
We tend to envision my dad’s Lincoln Log barn. But from archeology we know that houses would have had two stories. The first floor was where the animals stayed, and the second floor housed the people. If the upstairs is full, downstairs is the next best thing.
Another possibility is a cave. The rock is really soft in the limestone cliffs in that area, and people would carve it out and build a house in front. They put the animals in the back as the natural heating source, and the division between the animals and the people was the manger. Archeological evidence shows that both options are possibilities.
What’s interesting is that the setting isn’t as significant for Matthew as it is for Luke.
What about the shepherds?
Luke also has different people encounter Jesus first. It’s the Magi in Matthew, but Luke says there were shepherds.
Now the shepherds could simply be a stand-in for biblical Israel, since it’s a common metaphor to describe Israel’s relationship with God. But it’s also true that in the first century shepherds were not well thought of. They weren’t clean because they were with sheep all the time. Depending on your point of view, the presence of shepherds is either very interesting or really odd.
Since Luke’s gospel is always promoting the odd person out as the privileged one, it stands to reason that we’re supposed to see these shepherds as those privileged outsiders who acknowledge Jesus. That’s going to continue throughout the gospel. Tax collectors and prostitutes are favored. The people that you don’t think are worthy to be with Jesus really are.
Why do the stories differ in these significant details?
One way to account for differences is that the authors are talking to different people with different interests, and from the ancient Church Fathers on, most people have presumed that there were different communities.
Matthew’s community is probably Jewish-Christian, well versed in the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Hebrew scriptures. That’s why he cites the prophet Isaiah. Those make sense only if you know what he’s referring to.
Matthew’s audience is probably deeply rooted in their Jewish past, and he is helping them connect that heritage with Jesus. He parallels Jesus with Moses. That typology only works if you’re familiar with the Moses story.
Luke’s community is probably more Gentile. Luke certainly has references to the Hebrew scriptures, but they’re more subtle. His audience knows the scriptures the way Catholics know the Bible: We know it generally.
But Luke does expect his audience to have an understanding of the Roman Empire. He uses imperial events to mark dates. He names politicians that were popular at the time. He uses military references and shows soldiers in a good light in his gospel and in Acts of the Apostles, indicating he could have had veterans or soldiers in his community.
The needs of those communities determine how the writers shape the story, which has the same basic outline in both gospels: Mary and Joseph, Baby Jesus, Bethlehem, angels. But they’re told from different perspectives depending on who’s listening.
That’s not unusual. If I were giving a lecture to an international group of graduate students as opposed to a parish group in Iowa, I would use different language and metaphors depending on the community I’m speaking to.
What can the differences tell us about those communities?
Matthew favors non-Jews, the Magi, in his infancy narrative. Does that mean that there might be people who are perceived as outsiders in Matthew’s community? I’m sure Matthew had Gentiles in his community. Perhaps the Jewish-Christian majority was dominating the group. So Matthew includes the Magi and points out that the Jewish king, Herod, didn’t recognize Jesus and even tried to have him killed.
Luke chooses the poor, the shepherds, as those first to visit the infant Jesus. His gospel has a lot about rich and poor. People who are into social justice like Luke. He has Zaccheus the tax collector promising to return everything he swindled from people.
The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is also only in Luke, in which the Pharisee thanks God that he’s not like the miserable tax collector, while the tax collector doesn’t even raise his eyes to heaven because he recognizes his lowliness. The tax collector turns out to be the one who is justified.
You have that reversal throughout Luke. Perhaps his community had some wealthier or self-righteous people that needed to be reminded that Jesus favored the poor.
If Mark, the earliest gospel, doesn’t need an infancy narrative, why should Matthew and Luke have them?
There’s a TV show called Smallville. What’s Smallville about? It’s about the childhood of Superman.
We want to know where significant people came from, even comic book heroes! Many folks did not know who Barack Obama was until he wrote a book. Now they do.
There are a lot of years of Jesus’ life unaccounted for. Depending on how you do the math, Jesus had one or three years of ministry. What’d he do before that? Was he just a good carpenter? Did it only dawn on him at his Baptism that he had a different vocation?
I think after the Resurrection experience, people understood Jesus in a radically different way. They wondered what happened in those years before Jesus’ ministry. Did he know he was the Son of God when he was a kid? Certainly stories were told the way stories are told in our families.
Stories about Jesus and his family were probably passed on orally first. How much of those actually appear in our narratives? I can’t tell you that. But certainly there were traditions that people got interested in after the fact.
The Gospel of Mark was written around A.D. 70. Jesus probably died in the 30s, so Mark is writing 40 years after the fact. Chances are he might not have had all the same information that he would have had if he had written immediately after Jesus’ death.
Paul was writing around the late 40s and early 50s, 15 years after the life of the earthly Jesus. What does Paul say about the birth of Jesus? Nada. Nothing.
Paul doesn’t tell us much about the earthly Jesus because he never knew the earthly Jesus, nor does he have any access to stories, or he’d have thrown them in. So early after the experience of the Resurrection nobody’s telling these stories. What are they telling stories about? His death. That’s why Mark wrote his gospel.
Only later do people want to know Jesus’ back story, and so the authors of Matthew and Luke provide their accounts of Jesus’ birth.
Why do the stories stop with Jesus’ infancy instead of continuing to his adulthood and ministry?
They don’t, but the other stories didn’t make the cut. One text, written around 150, is the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (not to be confused with the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas). The Infancy Gospel of Thomas is really the story of Jesus as a 5-year-old.
It’s the Sabbath, and Jesus is down by the river. He takes some stones and blocks up a river to make a pool, and one of the other children says he can’t do that because it’s the Sabbath, and the child goes and gets his dad.
Either before or after this happened Jesus had taken some mud and made clay pigeons. The other child’s dad corrects him for doing work on the Sabbath, so Jesus says, “Be gone,” and the clay pigeons come to life and fly away.
Then the little boy knocks down the dam so the water can flow, and Jesus gets really ticked off and strikes the boy, who becomes paralyzed. So the father of the son goes to Joseph and says, “Your little boy is turning my little boy to stone.” So Joseph has to take Jesus home and correct him.
In a second story Jesus is walking through town, and another little boy bumps into him. Jesus strikes him dead on the spot, and the boy’s family comes and carries the boy off.
The people are ready to run Jesus’ family out of town: “Listen, your little devil boy can’t stay here anymore,” they tell Joseph. “You’ve got to send him to school.”
That’s the answer. So this is a story about Jesus before he was educated. He didn’t know what to do with his powers, according to the story, and he obviously had an anger management issue.
Why did those stories fail to make it into the Bible?
The stories had to be consistent with church teaching at the time to get approved, and a destructive Jesus was not the image that was in the other gospels. The gospels might differ, but the portrait of Jesus is the same. Jesus doesn’t kill. Jesus doesn’t destroy. So there is no way these kinds of stories would have been authentic.
Are there stories from other traditions similar to the infancy narratives?
The story that’s probably most contemporaneous is about the birth of Caesar Augustus (Octavius), who died in A.D. 14, from the Roman historian Suetonius, who wrote in the late first century.
The Roman senate discovered by reading signs generated during religious rituals that nature was pregnant with the next king of the Romans. Since the last king of Rome had been driven out long ago, the senate ruled that any child born that year would not be reared. But some of the senators whose wives were expecting made sure that the statement didn’t get posted.
The second part of the story has Atia, the mother of Octavius, ministering in the temple of Apollo. She sleeps in the temple, and at night a serpent slithers up her thigh. She dreams that the god Apollo visited her. The next day she goes back to her husband, and later Octavius is born.
The presumption in the ancient world is that important people have really interesting beginnings. There had to have been something to show Jesus was significant—a bright star that people recognized, for example. These elements filtered into the stories about Jesus that people already knew.
So the ancient Christians were comparing Jesus to Caesar?
There is a calendar from about nine years before Jesus’ birth that was discovered in Priene, in present-day Turkey. The inscription says that it seemed good for the city to celebrate the evangelium, the “good news,” of the birth of Caesar Augustus, the savior of the world. Augustus was seen as the Son of God, since his father through adoption, Julius Caesar, had been deified. Some of our first instances of the term “good news” being used in relationship to an individual are for Augustus, almost at the same time as the birth of Jesus.
That’s happening as Christians are developing their stories about Jesus. In Matthew’s gospel a centurion says, “Surely this is the Son of God.” We don’t understand how absolutely significant that is. The centurion whose oath is sworn to Caesar says the Son of God is Jesus, not Caesar.
So the infancy stories were treason?
In the gospels Jesus continually trumps Caesar. We’re so far removed that we don’t get how dangerous it was. Mark’s gospel starts out with, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus, the Son of God.” In the Roman Empire that’s heresy! I can’t think of anything to compare it to today. We would be scandalized today if anyone said the president had more power than Jesus, but not then.
With all these different elements in the mix, what does it mean to say these stories are true?
I see everything in the gospel as true. Even if it is not scientifically provable, we believe that Jesus was born of the Holy Spirit. I don’t know the details, and the text doesn’t narrate them, but it says that Jesus’ conception was ordained by God from the beginning.
We get caught up in wanting to know exactly how it happened. I think that’s a bit heretical because it’s like we don’t want the story to be really believable. We want to be able to prove it. Then we’ll believe better.
There is a power in the story that transcends the facts. The facts aren’t what is most significant. If you want facts, read a history book. This is a faith story, and it’s telling us where the person we believe in came from.
From conception Jesus was holy, as opposed to John the Baptist. It’s in the encounter with Jesus that John becomes holy. When does it happen for the disciples, according to Luke? Pentecost. And for us it happens at our Baptism. So the stories are really about how all of us receive the Holy Spirit. Jesus was the first, and Jesus got it at conception. But the Holy Spirit is also bequeathed to us in our Baptism. Therefore our Baptism narrative is like Jesus’ infancy narrative. It’s about how we receive the Holy Spirit. We just receive it at different times.
Is that true? I think it is.
This article appeared in the December 2008 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 73, No. 12, pages 28-32).