Light in the darkness – the Christmas myth and Bible as literature
TOM WRIGHT and I see the birth stories quite differently. I do not think they are historically factual, but I think they are profoundly true in another and more important sense. For reasons I will soon explain, I do not think the virginal conception is historical, and I do not think there was a special star or wise men or shepherds or birth in a stable in Bethlehem. Thus I see these stories not as historical reports but as literary creations. As the latter, they are not history remembered, but metaphorical narratives that use ancient religious imagery to express central truths about Jesus’ significance.
There are three primary reasons why I do not see these stories as historically factual. First, the tradition that Jesus had a remarkable birth is relatively late. The stories of his birth are found only in the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke, both written near the end of the first century. Earlier writers (as well as the rest of the New Testament) do not refer to a special birth. Paul, our earliest writer, does not. Neither does Mark, the earliest Gospel. Moreover, though the Gospel of John is probably later than Matthew and Luke, John does not mention it either.
At the very least, this indicates that it was possible to write a gospel without mentioning the birth of Jesus. There are two possible explanations. The tradition of a special birth was old, but these authors either didn’t know about it or didn’t deem it important enough to include. Or the tradition didn’t develop until quite late, and that’s why most New Testament authors do not mention it–the stories did not yet exist. The second option seems more likely to me, to a considerable extent because of the next two reasons.
The second reason is the striking differences between Matthew’s birth story and Luke’s birth story. Without being comprehensive, I note the following differences between them.
Both Matthew and Luke trace the genealogy of Jesus back through Joseph to King David and beyond. But the genealogies differ significantly. Matthew takes Jesus’ ancestry back to Abraham, the father of Israel; Luke takes it back to Adam, the father of the human race. Moreover, the genealogies differ even when they are covering the same period of time. From David forward, Solomon and the kings of Judah are the ancestors of Jesus in Matthew; in Luke, the lineage goes through the prophet Nathan, not King Solomon.
In Luke, Mary and Joseph live in Nazareth, but because of the census they travel to Bethlehem, where the birth occurs in a stable. They go back home to Nazareth after the birth. In Matthew, Mary and Joseph live in Bethlehem and the birth occurs at home (not in a stable). The family then moves to Nazareth after spending time in Egypt. Matthew mentions no trip to Bethlehem.
In Matthew, “wise men from the East” follow a special star to the place of Jesus’ birth. Luke has neither wise men nor star, but angels singing in the night sky to shepherds who then come to the manger.
In Matthew, Herod the Great orders the killing of all male infants under the age of two in Bethlehem. The family of Jesus escapes by fleeing to Egypt. Luke’s story has neither Herod’s plot nor a trip to Egypt.
Both Matthew and Luke use the Hebrew Bible extensively, but they use it differently. Matthew uses a “prediction-fulfillment” formula five times in his birth story: “This took place to fulfill that which was spoken by the prophet.” Luke, on the other hand, echoes language from the Hebrew Bible without treating it as fulfillment of prophecy, especially in the great hymns which he attributes to Mary (the “Magnificat”) and Zechariah (the “Benedictus”).
There are other differences as well. But these are enough to make the point that we have two very different stories. Though some of the differences can perhaps be harmonized, some seem irreconcilable.
Third, the stories look as if they have been composed to be overtures to each Gospel. That is, the central themes of each birth story reflect the central themes of the Gospel of which they are a part. For example, for Matthew, Jesus is “the king of the Jews,” and so his ancestry is traced through the kings of Judah. For Luke, Jesus is a Spirit-anointed social prophet, and so his ancestry includes prophets. For Matthew, Jesus is “one like unto Moses,” and the story of Herod’s plot calls to mind the story of Pharaoh ordering the death of all newborn Hebrew boys in the time of Moses. Luke emphasizes the spread of the gospel into the gentile world (especially in the Book of Acts), and so the ancestry of Jesus is traced back not simply to Abraham the father of the Jewish people, but to Adam, the father of Jew and gentile alike. In short, the stories look like the literary creation of each author.
Among these differences, there are some similarities. These include the names of Jesus’ parents, his birth while Herod the Great was still king, and the tradition of Jesus growing up in Nazareth. Beyond these details, there are two major similarities: conception by the Spirit and the birth in Bethlehem. I will leave the first until later and comment about the second now. How does one account for the common emphasis upon Bethlehem? One possibility, of course, is that Jesus really was born in Bethlehem, even though the two stories disagree about why Mary and Joseph were there.
A second possibility is that Jesus was born in Nazareth, but the story of his birth in Bethlehem arose because of Bethlehem’s significance in the Hebrew Bible. It was the ancestral home of King David, and there was a tradition that the great and future king of Israel would be descended from David. This is the point of the famous passage in Micah 5:2: “But you, O Bethlehem … from you shall come forth one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.” By the time of Jesus, many thought of the great and future Davidic king as the messiah. On this view, the early Christian conviction that Jesus was the messiah and Son of David created the story of Jesus being born in “the city of David.” Certainty is impossible, but I think the second option is more likely.
What then is left historically from these stories? Jesus was born before the death of Herod the Great, and thus probably not later than 4 B.C.E. His parents were Mary and Joseph. He was probably born in Nazareth, not Bethlehem. He was born into a marginalized peasant class.
THUS I DO NOT see the basis of the birth stories as history remembered. Yet I think these stories are true. To use familiar terminology, I see these stories as history metaphorized, that is, as metaphorical narratives. And the history that is being metaphorized is not the birth itself but the Jesus story as a whole. With beauty and power, these symbolic narratives express central early Christian convictions about the significance of Jesus.
Light shining in the darkness is a central image in the birth stories. It is most obvious in the star of Matthew’s Gospel, shining in the night sky and leading the wise men of the gentiles to the place of Jesus’ birth. Luke makes use of the imagery as his story of “shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night.” The “glory of the Lord shone around them” as an angel told them of the birth of Jesus, and then “a multitude of the heavenly host” filled the night sky, singing, “Glory to God!”
The symbolism of light and darkness is ancient, archetypal and cross-cultural. It has many rich resonances of meaning. Darkness is associated with blindness, night, sleep, cold, gloom, despair, lostness, chaos, death, danger and yearning for the dawn. It is a striking image of the human condition. Light is seen as the antidote to the above, and is thus an image of salvation. In the light, one is awake, able to see and find one’s way; it is associated with relief and rejoicing that the night is over; in the light one is safe and warm. In the light there is life.
Many texts in the Hebrew Bible use this symbolism. Light is associated with creation: “Let there be light” is the first of God’s creative acts in the Book of Genesis. Light is a metaphor for God’s illumination of the path: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” In texts from the Hebrew Bible often read in churches during the season of Advent, light is associated with God’s acts of deliverance:
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived
in a land of deep darkness–on them has light shined.
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen
upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the
peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and God’s glory will appear over
you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your
FOR MATTHEW and Luke, and for Christians ever since, Jesus is the light shining in the darkness. The author of John’s Gospel makes the same affirmation with compact perfection: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” Jesus is the light who brings enlightenment; indeed, he is “the light of the world.” This is the truth of this theme of the birth stories. And it is true independently of their historical factuality.
The conflict between two lordships runs through the birth stories. In Matthew, the conflict is between rival claims to be “king of the Jews.” Herod the Great saw himself as the king of the Jews, and indeed was the reigning king. But for Matthew, Jesus is “the King of the Jews.” Moreover, by portraying Herod as acting like Pharaoh, Matthew calls to mind Israel’s story of the ancient conflict between the lordship of Pharaoh and the lordship of God. Jesus, not the Herods and Pharaohs of this world, is the true King and Lord.
Luke presents this conflict differently. For Luke, the conflict is between the lordship of Caesar and the lordship of Christ. Luke signals this view most clearly in the words spoken by the angel to the shepherds and in the chorus sung by the heavenly host:
I bring you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this
day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah the Lord….
Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God
Much of this language was also used about Caesar, the emperor of Rome. In an inscription from 9 C.E. found in Asia Minor, Caesar is spoken of as “our God” and as a “savior” who brought “peace” throughout the earth, and whose birth was “good news” to the world. In other texts, he is also spoken of as divine and as descended from a divine/human conception. By echoing language used about the Roman emperor, Luke affirms that Jesus, not Caesar, is the Good News, the true Savior and Son of God who brings peace.
The theme of two lordships is powerful and central to the biblical tradition as a whole. Explicitly, the birth stories affirm that Jesus is the true lord. Implicitly, they leave us with a question: where are you going to see your lord? In the power and wealth of Herod and Caesar, of kingship and empire? Or in this Galilean Jewish peasant who saw things very differently? Where are you going to see the decisive manifestation of God? In the domination system? Or in Jesus who was executed by the domination system?
Thus, like Easter itself, the birth stories affirm the lordship of Christ. His lordship has both existential and political dimensions. Existentially, we are in bondage to many things, and the lordship of Christ is the path of personal liberation. Politically, the lordship of Christ challenges systems of domination in the name of God’s passion for justice. It is no accident that the rulers of this world, both at the beginning of Jesus’ life and at the end, seek to destroy him.
WHAT IS THE TRUTH of the story of a virginal conception? Two related claims seem most important. First, the theme of remarkable births is part of the tradition of Israel. According to the Book of Genesis, Abraham the father of Israel was given the promise that he would have many descendants. Yet he and his immediate descendants (the patriarchs of Israel) all had difficulty having children. Sarah and Abraham, we are told, were 90 and 100 years old when they finally conceived Isaac. Isaac married Rebekah, and they also were infertile until their old age, when they conceived twins, Esau and Jacob. Jacob became the child of promise, but he and his beloved wife Rachel also had difficulty conceiving. The theme continues in the stories of the conception of Gideon and Samuel. Both were deliverers of Israel in a time of crisis, and both were born to barren women. This repeating theme suggests that the people of God come into existence and are sustained in their existence by the grace of God. Humanly speaking, it was impossible that God’s promise would be fulfilled, but by God it was.
Matthew and Luke are both playing this theme. Just as God had acted in the history of Israel to create and sustain the people of God through remarkable births, so also God had now acted in the birth of Jesus. Just as Israel came into existence through the grace of God when–humanly speaking–it was impossible, so the early Christian community as the continuation of Israel came into existence through the grace of God. This is one dimension of meaning in the story of the virginal conception of Jesus.
There is a second nuance as well–namely, the story of Jesus being conceived by the Spirit affirms that what happened in Jesus was “of God.” The activity of the Spirit of God in his life was projected back to the beginning of his life. What happened in Jesus was not “of the flesh,” but “of the Spirit.” The story of Jesus’ virginal conception affirms that Jesus was “born not of blood or the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” It is a metaphorical affirmation of Jesus’ identity and significance. Like the voice in the transfiguration story, it affirms, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.”
Thus I do not see the story of the virginal conception as a marvel of biology that, if true, proves that Jesus really was the Son of God. Rather, it is an early Christian narratival confession of faith and affirmation of allegiance to Jesus. To say that “what happened in Jesus was of the Spirit” is not a factual claim dependent upon a biological miracle, but a way of seeing Jesus that immediately involves seeing him as the decisive disclosure of God. He was not possessed by another spirit, as some of his critics said, but animated by God’s Spirit. This is the truth claim in the story of Jesus’ conception by the Spirit of God.
The truly important questions about the birth stories are not whether Jesus was born of a virgin, or whether there was an empire-wide census that took Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, or whether there was a special star leading wise men from the East. The important questions are, “Is Jesus the light of the world? Is he the true Lord? Is what happened in him `of God’?” Answering these questions lays claim to our whole lives.
Much more could be said about the meanings of these stories for Christians. Like all good stories, their resonances are many. But I will conclude by noting one more dimension of meaning, which I owe to Meister Eckhart, a Christian mystic, theologian and preacher from the 13th century. In one of his Christmas sermons, Eckhart spoke of the virgin birth as something that happens within us. That is, the story of the virgin birth is the story of Christ being born within us through the union of the Spirit of God with our flesh. Ultimately, the story of Jesus’ birth is not just about the past, but about the internal birth in us in the present.
Marcus J. Borg is Hundere Distinguished Professor of Religion at Oregon State University. This’ article is adapted from The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, by Marcus J. Borg and N. T Wright. The book will be published in January 1999. Reprinted by arrangement with HarperSanFrancisco, a division of HarperCollins Publishers.
COPYRIGHT 1998 The Christian Century Foundation
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