© Jay Parini. Reproduced by permission of the author.
Questions to guide your reading:
For you, what is the deep meaning of “the Christmas Story”?
John’s Gospel opens, “In the beginning was the Logos.”
What is the Logos?
God became like us so that we might become like God.
– St. Athenasius, De incarnatione
Aren’t we enlarged
by the scale of what we’re able
– Mark Doty, “Messiah”
The early Christians had little information about the circumstances of Jesus’s birth, and curiosity must have overwhelmed them. The first Christian writings – the letters of Paul (written perhaps two decades after the Crucifixion) – say nothing about Christmas or the birth of Jesus; indeed, Paul shows no interest whatsoever in the life of Christ, his origins, or his family life. The earliest gospel, Mark, makes no mention of the birth whatsoever. Neither does the author of John appear to have any knowledge of Christmas. Instead, that gospel famously opens with a philosophical speculation about Jesus being present before anything else in the form of logos, a Greek term that has no decent equivalent in English, though it’s rendered as “Word” in nearly all translations: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). The emphasis here lies in the notion of logos as an all-governing principle of creation permeating created things. But this is hardly like the Christmas story, which is much less philosophical and abstract.
Christmas is, by contrast, a legendary tale about a threatened family. A messenger of God comes to Mary, a terrified young virgin, and informs her that she would conceive a son without having slept with her husband-to-be, Joseph. The story soon becomes a narrative of dislocation and poverty: Jesus is born in a manger in Bethlehem, with his parents on the road, away from home. It’s a story with obvious political implications, too, as Jesus – a marginal Jew born in meager circumstances – nevertheless seems to threaten the maniacal King Herod, who didn’t want a rival for kingship of the Jews, and so he tried to get rid of this potential rival by killing all young male children in the region – a mythical event known as the Massacre of the Innocents. So the family is forced to hide in Egypt, adding the element of flight and fear to the story. But it’s also a charming and magical account, with alluring imagery that sticks in the mind: a star hovers over the barn where Jesus lies, marking the spot of his emergence into history. Wise Men or Magi come from the east, traveling with gifts, on camels. Shepherds keep watch over their flocks by night, while the desert is cold, glistening on the eve of the Messiah’s birth. The event happens at the winter solstice, when the world grows still in icy weather, only to open up and begin to move again, slowly, as it leans toward hope in the form of a baby, who arrives with the holy hush of amazement.
Only Luke and Matthew include Christmas in their narratives of the life of Christ, perhaps reformulating legends that had spread by word of mouth for many years, and their versions of the birth of Jesus sit uncomfortably together, with many contradictory elements. It’s possible that these accounts arose gradually, in the decades after the death of Jesus, in different communities, and so the stories emphasize unique aspects of the tale, deepening the legend in ways that spoke to their present needs, as followers of Jesus, as threatened and marginal communities of faith who struggled to make sense of the man whose gospel or “good news” informed their lives.
The foregrounding moment in this tale is the Annunciation, a point at the beginning of the tale where Mary (and also Joseph, although separately) get a surprise visit from the angel Gabriel – a spirit mentioned only in the Book of Daniel before this startling appearance to Mary in the quiet of her chamber. Gabriel explained calmly to this young virgin that she would bear a special son. The angel speaks with a respectful brightness: “Hail, you that are highly favored, the Lord is with you: blessed are you among women” (Luke 1:38). This appearance, and the astonishing message of Gabriel, terrified the poor girl. Yet Gabriel told her not to be afraid but to celebrate: “You have found favor with God.” (This favor was the “grace” we associate with Mary, as in “Hail Mary, full of grace,” although the phrase comes from a misreading of the Latin translation of the Bible: the Greek word kechoritomene simply means “favored one.”) (1)
The Annunciation has a wondrous quality about it, and it has been touchingly rendered in paintings by many of the greatest artists of the West, often with challenging interpretations of the scene, as in Fra Angelico’s bold fresco at the San Marco convent in Florence (finished in 1445), where Mary is no meek teenager frightened by her situation and wishing to withdraw; rather, she stares with a frank boldness into the eyes of Gabriel, fully composed and taking on her fate as the person who will deliver God’s child to the world. She seems proud, even delighted, by the fact that God singled her out as “handmaid of the Lord.” Her crucial moment in history has come, and she seems equal to the task at hand.
The contradictions in the two birth narratives emerge with the genealogies that Matthew and Luke offer, as a way of establishing the pedigree of Jesus. In Matthew, the lineage begins with Abraham – the ultimate Jewish patriarch of the Old Testament – and moves to David, a triumphant Jewish king, then pivots through a sequence of royal Jewish names. This seems in keeping with the Jewish slant on Jesus generally offered in that gospel, as it stresses the Judaic heritage of the Christ child. Luke, on the other hand, offers a lineage that would appeal to gentiles as well as Jews: Jesus’s ancestry starts with Adam, father of all mankind, and not Abraham, a shift of emphasis that brings Jesus into a larger family that included gentiles. David is still there, but the line runs this time through the prophets, suggesting a more spiritual kingdom than the one that Matthew had in mind.
In both narratives, Mary gives birth to Jesus in Bethlehem. No doubt it meant something to early Jewish followers of Jesus that Bethlehem should be the birthplace of their beloved rabbi, as this small city on the West Bank of the Jordan was the home of Jesse, father of David. It’s a place where David had once kept sheep and eventually was crowned King of Israel. Unlike Nazareth, probably the real birthplace of Jesus, it had huge symbolic import. One recalls that when Philip, a disciple of Jesus, explained to Nathanael that Jesus was the Messiah foretold by Moses, Nathanael asked in a withering voice: “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:43-46). It’s also significant that in the Old Testament one hears that a future shepherd of the flock of Israel would emerge from Bethlehem (Micah 5:1-14). So it was fitting that the birth of Jesus should be associated with a holy place.
In Matthew, the Christmas story morphs into a tale of displacement, fear, and flight, with the Holy Family escaping into Egypt, a thrilling but scary narrative. In Luke, a very different kind of story unfolds. Joseph and Mary have been forced to travel from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea because of a Roman census that is never even mentioned in Matthew. (2) It’s not obviously a dangerous situation. Indeed, Herod does not threaten male children in Luke, nor do Jesus, Mary, and Joseph rush away to Egypt to escape the vengeance of Herod and his desire to murder a rival to his throne. It’s an altogether more comforting story, easier on the ears of children, if less riveting.
The discrepancies in the Christmas narratives don’t matter, not unless one feels an urgent need to regard these texts as literal truth, the infallible Word of God (not unlike the Koran in fundamentalist Islam). Each account of the Christmas story has its unique emphasis, with Matthew putting forward the concept of Jesus as royalty, in both his lineage and the notion that people of importance (the Magi) would come from far away to worship at his feet. Herod’s sense of rivalry is also important in Matthew. He is a royal person, after all, if only in a spiritual way, and his presence in the world has political consequences, for himself and others. Luke, on the other hand, emphasizes the ordinary aspects of Jesus, his position as a marginal person. He is the son of Adam and the “Son of Man” as much as “Prince of Peace” or “Son of God.” (3) Poor folk – shepherds are nothing if not poor – come to visit the manger, not Magi bearing fancy gifts.
Yet Luke is a wonderful writer, adding scenes that intensify the mythic echo chamber of the story. He says, for example, that after Mary became pregnant, she paid a three-month visit to her cousin Elizabeth in Hebron, in the hill country south of Jerusalem. Elizabeth was an old and previously barren woman. Her husband was Zacharias, an elderly priest of the temple, who learned from an angel that his wife was pregnant. (This visit to Zacharias mirrors a similar visit to Joseph, who has never gotten much attention for having been told by an angel that Mary’s child would be someone special.) Zacharias actually doubted the news about his wife’s pregnancy. How could such a thing happen at their age? Never one for skepticism, God struck Zacharias dumb, though he later regained his powers of speech upon the birth of his son: a symbolic restoration. The angel instructed Elizabeth that her son should be named John, and he in due course became John the Baptist. The narrative pointedly foreshadows a later story in the gospels, where John precedes Jesus as a prophet and religious teacher, then baptizes him in the Jordan River. And so the birth of John prefigures the birth of the Incarnate Word, Jesus: the spirit made flesh. John himself becomes “a voice crying in the wilderness.”
Elizabeth understood Mary’s situation at a glance. She intuited that the Holy Spirit, not Joseph, had created this child in her cousin’s womb, and she understood that Mary would deliver the Son of God to the world. She cried out with a kind of giddy appreciation: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Luke 1:42). Mary replied eloquently and modestly, lowering her eyes to the floor: “My soul does magnify the Lord.” Her response echoes in history, and the words have been set frequently to music, called the Magnificat after the Latin version of Mary’s statement, which begins: Magnificat mea Dominum. (4)
The concept of the Virgin Birth, a miraculous event, means a great deal to Christians as a sign from God that the spirit was sent to dwell in human form. Yet it’s worth recalling that the word “virgin” had an elastic meaning in both Greek and Hebrew. “It was certainly not confined to denoting men and women without experience of sexual intercourse,” notes Vermes. “The Greek word could explicitly or implicitly include this meaning, or the main stress could fall on the youth of a girl or boy, and generally, though not necessarily, on their unmarried state.” (5) In The Masks of God, Joseph Campbell observes: “On the level simply of legend, without regard to the possibility of an actual miracle, the Virgin Birth must be interpreted as a mythic motif from the Persian or Greek, not Hebrew, side of the Christian heritage.” (6) Judaism, with its love of patriarchy, could not easily have generated a story in which the Messiah was not really one of Abraham’s full-blooded sons.
Exactly what the gospel writers meant by proclaiming Mary’s virginity has preoccupied theologians down the centuries as they have tried to understand or tease out its many possible implications. What is not in dispute among Christians is the more general idea that Jesus was no ordinary man, and that from conception he carried within his soul the spark of God, as in the word “Immanuel,” which means “God dwells within,” a name first mentioned in Isaiah 7:14, “Therefore the Lord will give you a sign: the young maiden will give birth to a son, and he will be called Immanuel.” And the Virgin Birth anchors the Christmas story, putting forward a theological point of considerable subtlety as well as force.
Despite the lack of any reference to it elsewhere in the entire New Testament, the Virgin Birth remains a central tenet of Christian dogma, one developed by the Church Fathers – those early, highly influential, theologians and teachers, such as Origen, Tertullian, and Augustine. Sensing the lack of scriptural authority for the concept, the authors of later apocryphal gospels, such as the Infancy Gospel of James, often focused on the subject of Mary’s virginity, suggesting that she remained a virgin even after her marriage to Joseph. The fact that Jesus had siblings, however, complicated the matter. Was Mary not their mother? These siblings may, of course, have been half siblings from an earlier marriage or, perhaps, cousins. Theologians have argued as much. But Matthew 13:55 states firmly that Jesus had at least four brothers (James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas) and two unnamed sisters. None of this contradicts the idea that Jesus was Mary’s first child or that he didn’t come from Joseph, but of God – at least in a symbolic way.
The rather fantastic idea that a human being might give birth to a child created by a god would have puzzled no one in the ancient world. Important people were often thought to be part human, part divine: Romulus and Remus, for example, the mythical twins who founded Rome, were the children of Rhea Silvia and the god Mars. It was frequently said that Augustus, the great emperor, was conceived in the Temple of Apollo, with no human father. Modern readers with any knowledge of pagan mythology will be familiar with the concept of gods mingling with human beings, sometimes with astounding consequences, as when Leda was raped by Zeus in the form of a swan, producing an offspring named Helen, who would become Helen of Troy, that extraordinary beauty whose face, according to the poet Christopher Marlowe, “launched a thousand ships” and led to the Trojan War.
Just to note: the Virgin Birth should not be confused with the Roman Catholic idea of the Immaculate Conception, the doctrine that Mary was a human being and yet conceived without sin (Latin: macula), and therefore Jesus was not born to someone who had been tainted by the transgressions of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, relating back to the doctrine of original sin, which simply means that every human being is stained by the sins of their original parents. But this lurches into the wilder thickets of theological speculation. What matters in the Christmas story is that Jesus should have come into the world in a way that conveyed a sense of his unique connection to God as well as his deep-seated humanity. The Virgin Birth, as a mythical concept, delivers that message quite beautifully.
It’s worth dwelling on the story of the Magi, told with compression and charm in Matthew 2:1-12. “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking Where is the infant who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star rising, and have come to pay him homage.” The star actually hovers over the stable where the child lies, suggesting to many in later years that these wise men could have been astrologers, who read meaning into stars and their patterns. “On entering the house, they saw the infant with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure baskets, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by a different path.”
This unlikely visit forms a haunting piece of narrative, often depicted by painters and framed with idiosyncratic perfection in T. S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi.” In this poetic monologue, one of the wise men revisits the miraculous event years afterward, remembering a journey undertaken in the “very dead of winter.” It had been a “cold coming” over icy mountains: a journey from the old world of faithlessness and uncertainty to the new world, where redemption and new life seemed at last possible. The three Magi may well have been “holy Zoroastrian astronomers,” as E. F. Burgess speculated, suggesting they were used to following the signs of heaven. The “Yonder Star” that drew them to the West “was a sign prophesied 600 years before by Zoroaster. The prophecy not only described the celestial occurrence, but also specifically named Bethlehem as the birthplace of the new prophet.” (7)
The Magi have lodged themselves in the Western imagination, where names soon attached to them: Melchior, Caspar, and Balthasar. That they came “from the east” has within it a sense of the rising sun, the beginning of a new day. In various Christian traditions, the wise men traveled from Babylon, Persia, or Yemen. The actual number of Magi is never stated in Matthew, but since they brought three gifts, they are commonly imagined as a trio. The gifts they bring seem to acknowledge the royalty at hand, and this follows Matthew’s efforts to make the Jesus into a princely child, with a Davidic heritage. And there is the added sense of fulfilling Old Testament prophecies, as in Isaiah 60:3: “And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.”
The gifts they bring have symbolic radiance. Gold was then, as now, the most valuable of metals, the standard for wealth from time immemorial, fit for a king. Frankincense was a coveted perfume associated with temple rituals. And myrrh was a kind of oil, used for anointments and during the process of embalming. (It was later used in the Eastern Orthodox Church for major sacramental rites, such as confirmation or extreme unction – the last rites of the Church – which are bestowed upon the dying.) It was also widely believed in Jewish tradition that royalty would visit the infant who would become the Messiah, and the writer of Matthew understood the significance of this homage, that the Magi stand in for all yearning Christians, those who lean to beginnings, in search of the child who will bring light to the world in a dark time.
Even with all of its gleaming details, the Christmas story leaves a lot to the imagination, which is why in subsequent centuries the followers of Jesus filled in the blanks wherever possible, making the myth as concrete as they could. Neither Matthew nor Luke, for instance, specified the date of Jesus’s birth – the calendar year would have been different in any case. Christians didn’t settle on December 25 as Christmas Day until the fourth century, and this choice probably had something to do with its proximity to the winter solstice or its position as the final day of the Roman Saturnalia. It was in the late third century, in fact, that the Roman emperor Aurelian established this date as a feast day celebrating the birth of the Unconquered Sun (Sol Invictus), so it already had festive and quasi-religious prominence.(8) The Unconquered Sun becomes the Son of God, who conquers death itself.
What followed the manger scene in Bethlehem varies in Luke and Matthew, as noted above. In Matthew, the family in due course returns to Nazareth after the flight to Egypt, once the coast is clear. The flight itself, as Matthew wished to emphasize, fulfilled a prophecy in the Hebrew scriptures (Hosea 11:1), where we read that a future leader will come “out of Egypt.” Such a twist in the narrative may have been added to underscore the Jewish inheritance of Jesus as well as to amplify the mythic reverberations of the story. The echoes between the flight to Egypt and the legendary flight of the Jews into Egypt during the period known as the Exodus were intentional. As ever, Matthew had a Jewish audience in mind, and his readers would hear the reverberations in his telling. Herod wished to get rid of the child who might be a future king of the Jews much as the Pharaoh (Exodus 2:15) wanted to get rid of Moses, issuing a bloody command (1:22) that every Jewish male baby be thrown into the Nile. God instructed Joseph, father of Jesus, in his dreams how to proceed in difficult circumstances, perhaps reminding readers that Joseph’s namesake in Exodus possessed the gift of interpreting dreams: so much so that his talent attracted the eye of Pharaoh (Genesis 37:19; 41:25).
Matthew’s Egyptian episode fascinated later writers, as we see in the Apocrypha and Gnostic Gospels – material excluded by makers of the official canon, yet fascinating to read. In one of these, palm trees bow down before the progression of the infant Jesus – an image of such brightness that it somehow lodged in the Koran (19:25). In some versions of the flight to Egypt, a patient nurse called Salome looks after the child, and some regard her as the sister of Mary; indeed she is occasionally thought to be the Mary who appears beside Mary Magdalene at the foot of the cross in Matthew 27:55, though once again the gospel narratives lack enough specificity to make such an identification. Names, in fact, presented a constant problem for later generations of readers, who couldn’t be sure that a particular name in the New Testament attached to someone with the same name elsewhere.
After his birth, Jesus would have been circumcised on the eighth day, in accordance with Jewish custom; the eight days symbolize the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac on the eighth day. Luke mentions that Jesus was circumcised, dwelling on the ritual presentation of the child at the Temple (Luke 2:22-40). In this memorable scene, an elderly man called Simeon the Righteous steps into the picture from the wings, thrilled to see the Messiah before he dies. He was possibly one of the temple elders from the tribe of Levi who would have been authorized to bestow on the child the usual blessing for such occasions: “The Lord bless thee and keep thee, the Lord make his face to shine upon thee and be gracious unto thee, the Lord lift his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace” (Numbers 6:24-26). With relief and delight, he lifted the child in his arms, telling God that he could “now dismiss” him from this world. He offers a remarkable prayer of thanks known as the Nunc Dimittis, meaning simply “Now dismiss.” It opens movingly: “Now Lord, let your servant go in peace.” Another devout person in the temple at the time was Anna, referred to as a “prophetess” and remembered as a kind of godmother to Jesus. (Her name could also be translated as Hannah, echoing the story in Samuel where the prophetess Hannah gave birth to Samuel, another blessed child who would play a pivotal role in the history of the Jews.)
The ritual of purification happened forty days after the birth of the child in keeping with Jewish law (as framed in both Leviticus and Exodus). As required by law and custom, the parents of the newborn child sacrificed a pair of turtledoves (young pigeons) – no doubt because they could not afford to sacrifice a lamb.(9) Here, as elsewhere, readers must choose which tradition to follow, Matthew or Luke. If Jesus and his family had fled to Egypt from Bethlehem, as Matthew suggests, he would never have gone to Jerusalem for Mary’s ritual purification, though literal-minded readers find ways to reconcile these stories.
Reconciliation is unnecessary, however, as anyone who engages Christianity in liturgy and practice will know; the Christmas story requires no defense. It represents the moment when the timeless enters time, when God begins a grand process of revelation. The star hovering over the manger in Bethlehem beckons, and the notion of wise men, or Magi, coming from the east to pay homage to the Christ child feeds our sense of expectation; we, like them, embark on a journey without a guarantee of arrival, bearing the gift of our own hope. And every year, as the holiday looms in late December, the urge to sing out in adoration comes. As the poet George Herbert wrote in the seventeenth century: “The shepherds sing; and shall I silent be?”
THE HIDDEN YEARS
We know nothing about Jesus during the years of childhood, adolescence, and young manhood except for a slight but intriguing story in Luke 1:41-52. This glimpse of him involves his conversation with Temple elders in Jerusalem, at the age of twelve, offering a look at his developing character. It gives us an opportunity to see how Jesus regarded himself – and was viewed by others – at the doorstep of manhood.
The family – Mary, Joseph, Jesus, and his siblings – traveled to Jerusalem on their annual pilgrimage to the Second Temple. This edifice would have dazzled the young man: fifteen stories in height, with a profusion of gold ornamentation on a foundation of glistening limestone blocks called ashlars. The Wailing Wall – still in place – was its western foundation, and it’s all that remains of the original edifice. It was actually a sequence of interlocking spaces that included rooms for prayer, worship, and study. Rabbinical courts met there as well, including the Sanhedrin. Like the Egyptian pyramids, Herod’s Temple was a wonder of the world, grander than anything in Rome itself. That Mary and Joseph would come to Jerusalem to visit the Temple says something about their piety and spiritual ambitions. Being a tekton, or carpenter, Joseph ranked low – even a peasant with a little bit of land had more clout in society. Yet the family must have had the support of the Nazarene Jewish community. One assumes that Mary and Joseph traveled as part of a company of faithful Jews who made this three-day journey along dusty roads, traveling in a caravan, taking plenty of food and water, with some of the pilgrims riding on camels or donkeys. They would have passed through the lush Galilean countryside into the barren hills of Judea, edging along high cliffs as they approached the Holy City, with its amber walls, no doubt joining a throng that moved toward Jerusalem for the high holidays.
Jesus and his family would have entered the Temple through a grand entrance on the southern slope, which archaeologists have uncovered. It contained a series of bathing pools or miqvaoth that pilgrims used for ritual purification before entering the presence of God. One would have heard singers from the tribe of Levi chanting hymns from the Book of Psalms. One then approached the esplanade of the Great Court, under a series of broad porticos. The interior courtyards were reserved for Jews who had been purified in a ritual fashion. The final approach led to the Holy of Holies, the most sacred place in Judaism, which once (during the First Temple period) contained the Ark of the Covenant. Of course neither Jesus nor his family would have seen this holy place, which the High Priest himself could only approach one day a year (on Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement, when blood was sprinkled on the altar).
After a week of celebrations that included gatherings for prayer, the sacrificing of animals, ritual bathing, and attendance at readings of Holy Scripture, the family of Jesus began their journey back to Nazareth. In the shuffle of their departure, Jesus got left behind, and his parents hurried back to look for him. It would have been terrifying for them, as anything might happen in a strange city. For two days they searched for their child without luck. On the third day they found him in the Temple, where he sat in a circle of elders and discussed the meaning of scriptures – the gospel doesn’t give much detail here, although it would have been highly unusual to see a child of this age in such august circumstances and being taken seriously by the elders at hand. Jesus seems to have been precocious as well as devout and wildly self-confident. Mary, however, was not impressed by this spectacle, and she asked her son how he could act in such an inconsiderate manner. He replied, in a tone that still rings with a shock: “Don’t you know I must be about my father’s business?” As we read in Luke 2:50, “And they didn’t understand what he said to them.”
Jesus reluctantly deferred to his mother, who had apparently not fully absorbed yet that her child was God’s own son. He went with his parents back to Nazareth and “was subject unto them,” fulfilling the commandment to obey one’s father and mother. (A later writer may have added this reassuring verse, feeling uncomfortable with this adolescent rebellious streak in Jesus.) During the years of his public ministry, however, Jesus urged his disciples to abandon their homes and to put everyone and everything to one side in pursuit of God’s will for them. Family did not come first, not in his own life, even as a boy of twelve. He was obviously not easy for his parents to control, and it’s probably a good thing that we hear little about him in Nazareth until he reemerges as a grown man.
This anecdote has another purpose, giving us a sense that Jesus was a scholar at heart. From an early age, he devoted himself to studying the scripture, and he enjoyed discussing the meaning of various passages. This seems right for one who would, in due course, become a model teacher, a man addressed by his followers as Rabbi, which means “a teacher of Torah,” one grounded in Jewish law, the halakha. In fact, during the years of his public ministry, Jesus wandered through Galilee and adjacent territories with a notable aura of mission, offering his own readings of familiar Hebrew texts, attracting large crowds, who found his teachings both uplifting and convincing, if at times challenging and even heretical. This radical teacher is, in fact, an adult version of the twelve-year-old boy in the Temple.
The paucity of stories about the young Jesus frustrated early Christians, but any number of apocryphal evangelists took up the subject with relish, trying to fill in gaps. Over twenty more gospels have been found, sometimes in fragmentary form in languages such as Syriac and Armenian as well as Greek.(10) In many of the anecdotes associated with this extra-canonical literature, Jesus takes the form of a trickster child-god from mythology, performing astounding (often silly) miracles. In one of them, for instance, he turns a salt cod into a live fish, scaring the wits out of his boyish companions. Elsewhere, he forms a number of birds from raw clay and then brings them to life with a sweep of the hand: voila! In another, he shows a command of the alphabet that astonishes his teachers. But there is a dark side, too, as in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, where he blinds the parents of a child who offends him – a bizarre and cruel act that seems calculated to make readers dislike or fear him. (One assumes, perhaps, that the writers of these gospels projected their own angers or frustrations onto this fantasy version of Jesus, which the church firmly rejected. Indeed, the Gospel of John states clearly that the miracle of changing water into wine at the wedding in Cana was Jesus’s first miracle.)
So where was Jesus during his first thirty years, and how did he spend his time? One easily imagines him working with his father, perhaps in nearby Sepphoris, helping to build a theater or colonnade or sports arena. It’s obvious that he studied the Hebrew Bible at his local synagogue, as his later ministry reveals an intimate knowledge of these texts. He might have spent time working in nearby vineyards or barley fields, as his later teachings often rely on pastoral images, perhaps gleaned from childhood. His geographical horizon was limited, a point that emerges when he commands his followers to witness for him “in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and to the outermost parts of the earth” (Acts1:8). The likelihood is that Jesus never left Palestine, although folklore has placed him as far afield as India. The notion that Jesus visited England was prevalent, too, as we see when William Blake asks: “And did those feet in ancient time / Walk upon England’s mountains green?” The answer, alas, is: No.
The hidden years in the life of Jesus remain unrecoverable, the stuff of legend, most of it fanciful. No doubt he underwent many of the same transformations, sexual and personal, that occur within the body and mind of any adolescent. He grew in knowledge of the world and, in his case, vastly increased his spiritual awareness. “That he, like every human being, struggled toward some definition of self within, in relation to, and perhaps in opposition to, larger social units is equally clear,” writes John P. Meier in A Marginal Jew, a major four-volume study of Jesus and his teachings.(11) Yet Jesus came into full public view only in young adulthood, after his baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptist, when the heavens opened for him, and he experienced a transformation from Jesus to Messiah or Christ: one fully realized in his ministry, his death, and his ultimate resurrection.
QUESTIONS FOR OUR DISCUSSION
For you, what is the deep meaning of “the Christmas Story”?
John’s Gospel opens, “In the beginning was the Logos.” How
would you explain the Logos?
Notes for Chapter 2
1. The liturgy of the Christian church owes more to the Latin translation by Jerome than to the original Greek gospels, which were not widely known until long after many traditions and rituals hardened into formalities. Even most of the Church Fathers, including Augustine and Aquinas, knew very little Greek. It wasn’t until the time of Erasmus and Luther, in the early sixteenth century, that it was taken for granted that a biblical scholar should go back to the original Greek for guidance.
2. The census is mentioned in Luke 2:1. The author takes pains to identify the time: it happened when Quirinius was governor of Syria. There are complex historical problems with the dating; but there was certainly a governor of Syria called Publius Sulpicius Quirinius (d. 21 ACE), who is mentioned in such ancient historians as Josephus, Suetonius, Tacitus, and Dio Cassius. This leads us to a further question: If the Christmas story here is “made up,” why did the author take such pains to identify the historical setting? Perhaps the question answers itself. Veracity is important in a testimony, and the gospels are testimonial literature. The more specific the details, the more believable the story becomes. One added problem is that the census under Quirinius only related to the province of Judea, not those living in Galilee.
3. The phrase “Prince of Peace,” commonly associated with Jesus, actually derives from a passage in Isaiah 9:6 in the Hebrew scriptures.
4. J. S. Bach’s Magnificat (1723) is among the finest musical settings of this passage.
5. Vermes, 218.
6. Campbell, 336.
7. E. F. Burgess, “T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Journey of the Magi.’” Explicator 42 (Summer 1984), 36.
8. A Syrian commentator called Dionysius bar-Salbi, writing in the twelfth century, seems to have first suggested that Christmas was moved from January 6 to its present position because of the pagan Sol Invictus holiday. For a discussion of this and other theories about the dating of Christmas, see Thomas J. Tally, Origins of the Liturgical Year (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991).
9. From this, perhaps, follows the number of birds among the gifts given during the Twelve Days of Christmas, including the partridge in a pear tree!
10. This was quoted by Ireneaus of Lyon toward the end of the second century CE. A similar gospel is the Protoevangelium of James, which has similar tales of the young Jesus. For a good survey of recent scholarship on the Thomas tradition and other non-canonical gospels, see: Simon Gathercole, The Composition of the Gospel of Thomas: Original Language and Influences (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).
11. John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: The Roots of the Problem and the Person, Vol. I (New York: Doubleday, 1991), 254.