It’s the first week of Advent, which means Christians all over the world are gearing up to…wait. That’s what Advent is all about, after all. The waiting. And according to Tom Petty, it is the hardest part. But maybe not. For so many of us the two central moments of the Church year, Christmas and Easter, are fraught. Our faith has shifted. It’s less literal. We have questions and doubts. So, what do we do with these stories about virgin births, stars that guide, and angelic visitors? Each week during Advent I’ll offer a reflection on some element or theme of the Christmas stories, attempt to deconstruct some of the interpretation and mythology that have surrounded it, and offer a hopeful way we might be able to still find meaning in it.
Let’s begin here: The New Testament says very little about the birth of Jesus.
The earliest writings we have are the seven authentic letters of Paul. While Pauline authorship is attributed to a total of thirteen letters, the consensus of scholarship is that Paul only wrote seven of them (1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 + 2 Corinthians, Romans, Philemon, and Philippians). Paul doesn’t say much about Jesus’s life at all, and only makes two comments about the birth of Jesus. The first is from Galatians, written around the year 52 CE:
Galatians 4:4, CEB
But when the fulfillment of the time came, God sent his Son, born through a woman, and born under the Law.
I’d propose this isn’t a claim that’s all that unique. Jesus was born through a woman (the Greek word here is the source of our word gynecology, and doesn’t carry any implication of virginity), which is pretty common, and that he was born Jewish (that’s what ‘under the Law’ means).
The second text is found in Romans, written between 56-58 CE:
Romans 1:2-4, CEB
God promised this good news about his Son ahead of time through his prophets in the holy scriptures. His Son was descended from David. He was publicly identified as God’s Son with power through his resurrection from the dead, which was based on the Spirit of holiness.
Once again, any specific details are absent. Paul asserts that Jesus was descended from David. Does he mean that literally, as in he has it on good authority that Jesus is an actual descendant of David? Or is he speaking metaphorically, as in Jesus is the new (non-violent) David because of who he was? Either way, there is nothing miraculous or noteworthy mentioned by Paul about Jesus’s birth.
Next up, chronologically, is the gospel of Mark, written around the year 70 CE. Mark begins with an adult Jesus coming to be baptized by John the Baptist, and at his baptism the Divine voice declares him to be the beloved Son. The story of the virgin birth enters the written tradition in the 80s with Matthew’s gospel, and then after Matthew wrote, in the late 80s or even perhaps in the 90s, Luke wrote his own story. (Matthew and Luke both incorporate much of Mark into their works, altering it where they need to for their purposes.)
When we think of the Christmas story, or see a Christmas pageant, we know what to expect. An angelic visitor to Mary, the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the birth in the stable, the shepherds, the magi, the flight to Egypt, and the eventual relocation to Nazareth. But the reality is that isn’t one story, but two different stories. It’s basically Luke’s narrative with a couple of Matthean bits added.
It’s important to recognize that Matthew and Luke tell two very different stories.
Matthew’s story takes place completely in Bethlehem. The main character is Joseph, and also includes the visit of the magi, the massacre of the innocents, and the flight to, and return from, Egypt.
Luke’s story focuses on Mary, who is living in Nazareth at the time, which means she and Joseph must journey to Bethlehem where Jesus is born and laid in a manger. They are joined at the nativity by shepherds who found out from some angels that Christ had been born.
These are very different stories, both written to convey who each of these authors have found Jesus to be. Look, I enjoy nativity scenes and Christmas pageants. I also sing Christmas carols, and enjoy all the sentimentality of the season. But theologically, I understand that Matthew and Luke also, when we engage them, deserve to have their unique stories and voices heard. That’s what I hope to do in this series as we move from week to week; I want to help us hear what each writer is saying about Jesus.
One final point this week: Did the Hebrew prophets predict the virgin birth of Jesus?
In short, no. As John Shelby Spong wrote,
No one waits outside a maternity ward for a great person to be born.
Here’s what he means: Stories of miraculous births are always written with the benefit of hindsight. There were lots of stories of miraculous, even virgin, births in the ancient world. Even in the Jewish tradition there were stories centered on couples who were unable to conceive becoming pregnant, often in their old age, when they were past the time for such things to be possible. In the Greco-Roman world, many heroes were retroactively given a remarkable birth story, one that would match and foreshadow who they would go on to become.
What we have in the gospel writer’s use of the Hebrew scriptures is an example of what many of us are experiencing even today. They had an experience that didn’t fit their tradition, so they went back to the scriptures to make sense of it. They had encountered something profound and transformative—even divine they would say—in Jesus, so they went back to mine the scriptures for evidence of their experience.
One such text, employed by Matthew, is found in Isaiah 7:14. Here’s Matthew’s quote:
Matthew 1:22-23, CEB
Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled:
Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son,
And they will call him, Emmanuel.
(Emmanuel means “God with us.”)
And here’s the text from Isaiah:
Therefore, the Lord will give you a sign. The young woman is pregnant and is about to give birth to a son, and she will name him Immanuel.
What do you notice in those two texts? Probably that Matthew uses the word “virgin,” while Isaiah says, “young woman.” What’s the issue with the discrepancy? The Hebrew word for virgin is betulah. Isaiah doesn’t use that word. He uses almah, which means “young woman.” When the Hebrew bible was translated into Greek, the word used to translate almah was parthenos. Parthenos means virgin, but it can also mean a woman of marriageable age. It’s evident Matthew, when quoting, chose the meaning of virgin.
What we often miss is the context of Isaiah 7, and that context might provide some insight into why Matthew chose this particular text and transformed it into a prediction of Jesus’s birth.
Briefly, in the context of Isaiah 7, the kingdoms of Israel and Aram (Syria, today) had created a military alliance to stand again the Assyrian empire, which dominated the region at the time. They wanted the king of Judah, Ahaz, a descendant of David who ruled from Jerusalem, to join their alliance against Assyria. Ahaz knew that was a fool’s errand, so he declined. Infuriated, Israel and Aram laid siege to Jerusalem, with the intent of deposing Ahaz and replacing him with a king who would play ball. The text says that, at this news, his heart “shook as the trees of a forest shake when there is a wind.” Ahaz was terrified.
Enter the prophet Isaiah.
Isaiah assures Ahaz he has nothing to fear. Their plan will fail. God will even give a sign to Ahaz to confirm this:
Therefore, the Lord will give you a sign. The young woman is pregnant and is about to give birth to a son, and she will name him Immanuel. He will eat butter and honey, and learn to reject evil and choose good. Before the boy learns to reject evil and choose good, the land of the two kings you dread will be abandoned. (Isaiah 7:14-16, CEB)
The young woman, presumably the wife of Ahaz, is pregnant with a son. In other words, an heir. Isaiah is assuring Ahaz by telling him his dynasty will continue. By the time his new baby boy is old enough to know good from evil, these two kingdoms will cease to be a problem for Judah.
In context, this is a story about hope in the face of great despair. If we understand the context in which Matthew wrote, it makes complete sense why he would choose this text and this story. Matthew wrote his gospel in the 80s, or roughly a decade since the world had ended (the destruction of Jerusalem, and the Temple, by Rome). He wrote in the midst of intense despair, and he is presenting Jesus as a source of hope and possibility within the context of hopelessness and despair. By presenting the Way of Jesus as Matthew does, he is seeking to offer hope to his community.
I’ll stop here this week. I hope this brief introduction and contextualization has been as fun to read as it has been to write. When we engage these stories contextually, we are invited into deep, transformative meanings that we miss when we remain on the surface, when we insist they must be literal or nothing at all.
Next week: Christmas in Matthew
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