This week, I am preparing to teach about the Nativity. It's a subject with which most people are familiar, at least superficially. Everyone who is in my class Sunday will know about the virgin birth in Bethlehem, heralded by a wondrous star and choirs of angels who led the Magi and the shepherds to the mother and son.
Because they attended my classes earlier this year on the canonical gospels, most of the class may even remember that Nativity stories occur in only two of the four gospels, Matthew and Luke, and that there are significant differences between those two accounts.
But as always when I lead these sessions, I want to both dig into the text and to look at the larger context.
There are some topics I know I will want to touch on:
- The canonical accounts. People not overly familiar with the Bible are sometimes surprised to learn that the birth of Jesus is recounted only in Matthew and Luke. John's gospel links the origin of Jesus to the origin of the universe itself in the famous prologue ("In the beginning was the Word ..."). And Mark, generally considered the earliest of the canonical gospels (the gnostic gospel of Thomas may have preceded it) begins, as I often say, like a James Bond movie, with the reader plunged into the middle of the action at the river Jordan, followed rapid-fire by Jesus' desert fast and the early days of his ministry. In Matthew, the most Jewish of the canonical gospels, we begin with a genealogy leading from Abraham through David and down to Jesus, by way of Joseph. Neatly divided into three sets of 14 generations (14 being the numerological sign of David), the genealogy establishes Jesus' royal heritage, although interestingly it passes through his earthly, legal father, who most Christians believe was not his true father. The chronology also serves to position Matthew not as so much a New Testament as a continuation of the Old Testament, genealogy being the common device in the Old Testament to indicate the passage of long periods of time between stories, and Matthew being concerned throughout his gospel with establishing continuity between Jewish history and the story of the Messiah Jesus. Also from Matthew we get many of the familiar images of the Nativity, including the visitation of the Magi, Herod's massacre of the innocents and the holy family's flight to Egypt to avoid that massacre. Reading Matthew, one gets the sense that Mary and Joseph were residents of Bethlehem, not visitors, and that they settled in Nazareth only on their return from Egypt, when Joseph was warned in a vision to avoid Judea. Joseph is the primary vehicle for visions and angelic visits in Matthew's gospel: It is he who is visited by an angel to announce Mary's pregnancy, and he who is warned again to take his wife and her baby to Egypt to escape Herod's impending massacre of their country's children. In Luke, by contrast, Mary is privileged with angelic visitation and offers up the prayer of thanks for her unexpected pregnancy that we have come to know as the Magnificat. Also from Luke we get the story of John the Baptist's birth, the establishment of John as a relative of Jesus, the travel of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem for the Roman census, the birth of Jesus in a stable because there was no room at the inn, and the appearance of a host of angels to shepherds in the field. In Luke, there are no wise men, no massacre of the innocents, no flight to Egypt, an odd distinction given how important these episodes are in Matthew. The disparities between Matthew's and Luke's Nativity stories have led some to posit that Matthew is a recording of the Nativity as told by Joseph while Luke's account is taken from Mary's recollection. If that is the case, this couple seems not to have communicated much -- a typical marriage, one might say. Jesus' genealogy is recounted in Luke only at the end of the third chapter, where it is given in reverse order as compared to the Hebrew tradition, and takes the family line all the way back to Adam, "who was from God." Like Matthew's genealogy, it carefully takes Jesus' earthly lineage through David and Abraham, but otherwise it differse significantly from Matthew's. Oh, those gentiles, just can't get Jewish concepts right. Sort of like blueberry bagels ...
- The place of virgin birth and the birth of divinities in the ancient world. While such stories have little to no place in ancient Jewish culture, they were quite a common theme in the religions of the ancient Mediterranean. Virgin birth, we learn from Marina Warner in Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary, was "a shorthand symbol, commonly used to designate a man's divinity." Moreover the concept of a child parented by a god and a human was well-known in the ancient world: the god Bacchus, the demigod Hercules and the all-too-human Helen of Troy are among the classical figures said to have been born of an earthly mother and the god Zeus.
- The legend of Pantera. Evidently a common slander in the early days of Christianity was that Jesus was actually the son of a Roman solider, Pantera or Panthera, who had impregnated Mary before her marriage to Joseph. This story is attributed most famously to Celsus, a Greek philosopher whose work is preserved only in an attack on him by Origen, an early Christian leader. In the 19th century, a Roman tomb of a soldier Pantera, was unearthed in Germany; there is some speculation that this may be the same Pantera who is the subject of the legend, which has recently been revived by James Tabor in his book The Jesus Dynasty.
- The Immaculate Conception, the feast of which is being celebrated today among Catholics around the world. While not considered canonical by any Christian sect of which I am aware, the Infancy Gospel of James tells a story of Mary's conception and birth that has had an enormous influence on Mariology, the study of Mary. In James' gospel, Mary's parents are identified as Joachim and Anna, a couple who had been married and childless for nearly 50 years. While Joachim, presented as a faithful Jew, is in the desert praying, Anna receives an angelic visitation to inform her that she will give birth. The birth, of course, comes to pass and the child is Mary, whom her parents dedicate to service in the Temple at the age of three. The story of Mary's conception and birth have been accepted in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, despite the fact that their source book has not. Among other things, it has led to the tradition in both churches that Mary was "ever virgin," a concept over which gymnastics have been turned to explain away the fact that in the canonical gospels, Jesus is said to have four brothers and at least two sisters. In the Catholic church, in particular, the tradition has been extended to posit that Mary was born without the stain of original sin, hence, the Immaculate Conception. In 1854, Pope Pius IX declared the Immaculate Conception to be Catholic dogma, meaning that it is a mandatory belief for Catholics (it was this same pope who some 16 years later declared papal infallibility to be Catholic dogma).
- The relationship of the story of Joachim and Anna to the Old Testament stories of Abraham and Sarah, and also to that of Hannah, the mother of Samuel. Hannah's giving over of Samuel after his weaning to service of the priest Eli (see I Samuel 2) is in fact very similar to Joachim and Anna's dedication of Mary to the Temple. The Lucan story of John the Baptist's birth to the aged Elizabeth and Zecharias is also obviously a close relative. Hey, if a story is good, why not re-use it?
- The Islamic connection. I was not aware until yesterday, when I was doing some research, that the birth of Mary is related in highly respectful terms in Sura 3 of the Koran and thus may also be considered a source of the Immaculate Conception tradition.
- The childhood of Jesus. This is referenced only glancingly in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, and has been a matter of sometimes intense speculation in the ensuing centuries. Infancy gospels were a popular literary form in the early days of Christianity, and several of these are available to us today. In one of the most famous, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (not to be confused with the Gospel of Thomas mentioned above) the child Jesus is presented as something of a holy terror. He strikes his playmates dead and then raises them again, he fashions clay swallows and then animates them when a priest accuses him of working on the Sabbath. While never canonical, stories of Jesus' childhood remain popular down to our own day, as evidenced in the writings of Norman Mailer (The Gospel According to the Son) and Ann Rice (Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, which revives the "holy terror" stories from Thomas).
All of this is interesting, at least to me, but how do I shape it into a coherent lesson? I'll be working within my own context and that of Religious Science, which suggests looking within for the lessons. Essentially, I view the Nativity as a parable of the birth within each of us of the Christ Consciousness, the ability to see and understand our lives and experiences in a way that reflects the extraordinary insight and understanding handed down to us from the words of Jesus. I'll post more as these thoughts come together.