Story of Nativity Brings Many Threads Together
BY JOHN CHAPPELL
"What's today, my fine fellow?" Scrooge asks the boy, in Dickens' grand ghost story of the season.
"Today!" the boy says. "Why, Christmas Day!"
And indeed it is, today - but it hasn't always been.
Christmas is far from being an ancient celebration of Christianity. Indeed, there was no such thing as Christmas Day in all of the church's early years. For the first three centuries of Christianity, the church had only one great festival. It was called Pentecost and included everything from Passover, cross and resurrection to the Holy Spirit arriving 50 days later.
Not until the fourth century did celebrating the birth of Jesus have much of any importance in Christianity. There was little in the life or teaching of the church dealing with Jesus' life and ministry aside from Pentecost-related events.
That is partly because little is known historically about the man Jesus. Gospel narratives were written decades after the lifetime of the man from Nazareth who died on the cross and whose followers came to believe he had been raised from the dead.
Nowhere in any historical record are early Christians doing or saying much about the birth of Jesus. Indeed, the only two accepted Gospels that mention his birth at all were written much later than the events they describe.
Matthew and Luke both have accounts of the birth of Jesus. Trouble is, their Christmas Day stories aren't the same. Another Gospel is earlier, but it has no Christmas in it.
For many years now, scholars have considered Mark to be the earliest of the four canonical Gospels. They generally put the time of its writing somewhere around 65 or 70 C.E. (formerly A.D.) Matthew and Luke came later, and both quote Mark extensively.
Most of Mark could actually be reconstructed from the parts of it quoted verbatim in Matthew and Luke - passages which match Mark word-for-word in the original Koine Greek. Mark, though, doesn't have anything at all to say about the birth of Jesus. Neither does John's Gospel, generally considered the last written and often called "the Fourth Gospel" by scholars.
Gospels aren't biographies. Each of the four was written to make particular points, and differ according to the writers' aims. That's why Mark says nothing about his birth or family, and the Fourth Gospel stresses his divinity.
Gospels weren't about Christmas. They were to show how this man from Nazareth could claim messianic status. Matthew and Luke found it useful to include (differing) lists of ancestors tracing back to David and tell birth stories. Each has a different tale to tell.
In Matthew, some astrologers "from the East" show up in Jerusalem and tell King Herod they have been "following a star" and ask where the King of the Jews is to be born. Herod checks with his advisers, then tells these magicians to cross Jordan and head up the hill to the little town of Bethlehem.
Off they go, again following that same star that now stops (how a star does that is not explained) exactly over the place where Mary and Joseph are living with her baby boy. There's nothing in Matthew about a stable, a manger, or an inn with no vacancy.
According to Matthew, when Joseph found out his fiancee was pregnant, he thought about breaking up with her. However, an angel appeared to him in a dream and told him she had conceived spiritually. They marry and their baby is born in Bethlehem. There is nothing in Matthew at this point about Nazareth.
The Magi dream in Matthew, too. A dream warning keeps them from going back to report the child's birth to Herod. They avoid Jerusalem and go home a different way. Joseph then has another dream angel warning him that Herod means to kill any rival king, even a baby. He and Mary take the baby and head for Egypt, saving him from Herod, who sends soldiers to kill every baby boy in Bethlehem.
Stories Vary Wildly
Luke has nothing about any of that.
In his version - which is much longer - an angel tells a childless woman, Elizabeth, that she will give birth. She will have a boy and is to name him John. Another angelic messenger has told her cousin Mary that she will conceive, so based on Luke's account, John and Jesus are cousins.
Mary comes to visit Elizabeth, and Elizabeth's unborn baby kicks in her womb. When that happens Mary starts to sing. John (the Baptist) is born, and his father, Zechariah, speaks up with a prophecy about his son's future role.
Only then does Luke get to his birth story and tells us a census required Joseph - who is a descendant of King David - to go to Bethlehem, which is David's hometown. This is the "no room at the inn" story, in which Mary has to lay her baby in a feed trough. Angels appear to shepherds tending flocks, and they come to worship the child they've been told is the Messiah.
Nobody runs away to Egypt in this account; there is no threat from Herod. Instead, the boy is circumcised eight days after his birth, and his parents present him in the temple and make the sacrifice prescribed by Mosaic law.
Jesus is recognized as the Messiah at the time by two pious people: a man by the name of Simeon and a widow by the name of Anna. Matthew didn't mention either of them, or the shepherds, or the circumcision or the temple sacrifice. Luke apparently never heard about Herod's murderous infanticide or any trip to Egypt.
Luke is the only Gospel to say Joseph and Mary lived in Nazareth. Matthew has them living in Bethlehem but fleeing to Nazareth when they return from Egypt, because they cannot return to Bethlehem - where, presumably, they lived before.
Why these wildly varying stories? It's obvious that each Gospel writer has theological points to make.
Matthew is always pointing out how this or that fulfills prophecy. One problem was that everybody knew, you see, that Jesus grew up in Nazareth, but everybody also knew the Messiah would have come from Bethlehem, the city of David. Worse, that long-prophesied Messiah was almost universally expected to be an earthly king who would restore the throne of David and kick out all the Gentiles.
The Original Meaning
And here we get to the real, original meaning of Christmas. Christianity became the Roman state religion under Constantine, who became emperor in 306 C.E., when the dominant religion in Rome was Mithraism. It was said that Mithra, a god of light and wisdom, was born from a rock - on Dec. 25.
That date also happened to be the final day in the Roman festival of Saturnalia, and came to be called the feast of Sol Invictus - "the Unconquerable Sun" - celebrating that the year's days were now getting longer.
Most cultures have festivals on or near the time of the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, that celebrate the return of the sun. Festivals, like the Roman one, were generally times of gaiety and revelry, times to get drunk and have fun. At this particular festival, Romans traditionally decked their halls with boughs of holly. They did it to ward off witches.
Christianity absorbed and adapted rather than challenged pagan celebrations. Following their pattern, the church began to celebrate Jesus' birth at the same time and with some of the same gaiety.
After his conversion, the emperor Constantine paid the cost of building the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on the very spot tradition said was the birthplace of Jesus.
A celebration of the birth of Jesus was recorded as taking place in Rome in 336 C.E. In 349 or 350, Pope Julius I declared the Mithraic festival date of Dec. 25 as the official date for the birth of Jesus.
By this time in the history of Christendom, there was more and more theological focus on the coming of Jesus as the birth of the new man, succeeding and replacing the fallen Adam. The church father Irenaeus referred to Mary as a "second Eve" who, this time around, obeyed rather than disobeyed God.
Jesus - the "new Adam" - also was the obedient, rather than rebellious, son.
Nativity came to represent new life. As belief in the divinity of Jesus became more important to the church, it raised questions as to how God could also be a man born of woman. The theological importance of the virgin birth (one of the few points of agreement between Matthew and Luke) in this light also meant renewed interest in the birth narratives.
Theologically, debate was raging over the nature of Jesus as Christ and whether Jesus was sanctified by the manner of his birth - or at the moment of his birth. The humble circumstances described in the two birth stories came to exemplify the notion of a God humbling himself to become flesh, "God with us" or Emmanuel (a word which appears in the New Testament only once, in Matthew).
As celebration of Christmas - literally "Christ's Mass" - grew, Christendom adapted and absorbed many aspects of the popular solstice festivals. Official disapproval of their wild revels and efforts to abolish them gave way to allow them with changes so they honored the Christ child.
In this way the public could keep their joyful times of song and feasting, while the Church made sure that Christ's birth would be properly honored. Many of the old ways continued, while others changed to honor the birth of Jesus. Giving gifts, decorating homes with greenery, lighting candles, burning Yule logs, and other parts of Christmas came directly from those pagan rites.
And so we do.
We happily blend Matthew and Luke, add Magi to shepherds and bring in other animals not mentioned by either. We set out Nativity scenes with characters from both Gospels and think nothing of it - it is the day we celebrate the coming of hope into the world.
Into the bargain, we add Santa and reindeer, hot grog and eggnog, roast goose and turkey and spiral-sliced ham. Gifts we wrap and give, and lights go up on Woden's tree and rooftops blaze away.
We parade, we sing, and bells we ring with Roman gusto. We say it is a time of joy, as light comes into the world - not just the light of the Eternal Sun - but the light of the Son of Righteousness. We blend merriment with thoughts of a little hill town of Bethlehem and a newborn babe far away in a manger, no crib for a bed.
"God rest ye merry, gentlemen," we sing - and we always have.
Pilot Staff Writer John Chappell has two advanced degrees, including years of graduate study in ancient Greek and the New Testament. Contact him at by email at jfchappell@ gmail.com.
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