Christmas in the Bible

(This blog will be on hiatus for a few weeks as my wife and I enjoy our honeymoon and some well-needed rest. The blog will resume it’s regular irregular course in January.)

The holiday season is full of rush-rush-rush. Hanukkah is long gone and now it’s Christmas Day already! I hope that you have a great one!

For most people that grew up in Christian households like mine, Christmas is THE holiday of the New Testament. In the popular mind, Christmas has long since eclipsed Easter as the most celebrated holiday. Although some commentators claim that there is a “War on Christmas” today, it is nothing compared to the war on Christmas that many Christians waged in the past to keep Easter’s place secure. The Puritan founders of New England, my home, even tried to ban the celebration of Christmas!

How did Christmas become dominant? It could be that it replaced various Roman and pagan rituals as the holiday of the Winter Solstice. I dare say most of our Christmas traditions from mistletoe to Christmas trees are non-Christian, even though there’s a Christian gloss on them now. But more likely it’s because Christmas is simply a more uplifting holiday. As important as Easter is to Christians, the birth of a man is more celebratory than his death, even if he does manage to come back later.

In the Bible (and this is a bible blog, remember?), Christmas has the distinction of appearing first in the New Testament, starting shortly after the genealogies in Matthew 1:18. This may seem like a natural placement, but it’s not: most scholars now believe that Mark was the first gospel to be written and Mark begins at Jesus’ baptism. In fact, unlike Easter and the other “important” events in Jesus’ life that is recounted in all four gospels, Christmas is only discussed in two of them: Matthew and Luke. And, except for the fact that Jesus is born in both of them, they are very different stories.

Remember the wise men? The adoring shepherds? The manger? Our modern Christmas story is a mixture of the TWO Christmas stories of the bible, with no two details (except Jesus being born) repeating in both of them.

The TWO stories of Christmas? Read more after the break.

Christmas, according to Matthew

The Christmas story of Matthew is a straight-forward narrative, primarily centered on Joseph and the infant Jesus’s flight. In the beginning of this story, Joseph has a decision to make. He has found his betrothed to be pregnant already and he knows that he didn’t do it. He has to make the choice to “put her away secretly” (1:19) or keep up the ruse that the child was his. (Other translations use “divorce her quietly”.) While he is considering this, an angel appears and tells him that Mary is pregnant by the Holy Spirit and so Joseph decides not to divorce his wife and she has the child in Bethlehem.

Sometime later, three wise men from the “East” (Persia? Babylon?) had determined through astrology and the appearance of a new star that the “King of the Jews” had been born. They set out for Israel to find out who he was and worship him. (The narrative doesn’t explain why non-Jews would do it, but presumably the appearance of this star was a big deal.) They make it to Jerusalem and consult with Herod on the matter and while Herod outwardly supports their actions, he secretly schemes to have the new “king” killed before he becomes a problem. Herod tells the wise men that the prophecies speak of the messiah being born in Bethlehem, so they head off there. As they approached the town, the eastern star appeared in front of them and led the way to Mary and Joseph’s house where they met (and presumably worshipped) the young child and gave him gifts before heading back the way they had come. Meanwhile, Herod schemes to kill all of the male infants under two years of age in Bethlehem, but an angel appears to Joseph again and the holy family flees to Egypt to avoid the infanticide.

That’s it for the Christmas story, according to Matthew. A few bullet points on things I noticed as I re-read:

  • This is Joseph’s story. He is the descendant of David, he is visited by angels three times, and he has the key decisions to make. Despite the fact that Joseph is not Jesus’ father, the author goes a long way to put him on a pedestal. I also wonder why it was important that this story (and Luke’s, too) make it clear that Joseph was descended from David.  Does this imply that Jesus was LEGALLY a descendant of David instead of a genetic one? Does Jesus, despite not being born of Joseph, still contain some of his “genetic” traits? (Other commentators posit that Mary was ALSO of the house of David, but this is a huge discussion for another time. Luke specifies that she was descended from Levi, but that neither specifies or rules out other Davidic genes.)
  • Some commentators use Matthew 1:25 as evidence against the perpetual virginity of Mary: “And he did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son. ” (In other words, he “knew” her afterwards.) A topic for another day, certainly.
  • Mary and Joseph were living together when Jesus was born, but was engaged during the pregnancy. Can you say “shotgun wedding”?
  • How did Mary and Joseph afford to live in Egypt until Herod died? I like to speculate that they pawned off all of the gifts of the wise men…

Christmas, according to Luke

The strangest thing about the Christmas story in Luke’s gospel is how it is upstaged, in a way, by the birth of another holy figure: John the Baptist. The short version of that story is that Elizabeth, a relation of Mary’s but older and barren, is married to Zacharias. God appears to Zacharias and tells him, like Abraham a very long time earlier in the bible, that Elizabeth will have an important child. In return, God makes Zacharias mute and disbelieving so he can’t tell anyone about it. With God’s help, but presumably some of Zacharias’ help as well since Elizabeth wasn’t a virgin, she becomes pregnant. When she finally gives birth, there is a squabble over the name (she wants John, her relatives do not) and so the assembled turn to the mute Zacharias who writes the name “John” on his tablet in agreement. At that moment, his muteness is cured, he praises God, and deliveries a prophecy about the future ministry and role of his son, John the Baptist.

In the middle of all of this about John the Baptist, Luke’s Christmas story begins. Mary is visited at her home in Nazareth by an angel who tells her that she will conceive a child of the Holy Spirit. Mary asks how that is possible since she is still a virgin, and the angel cites Elizabeth’s pregnancy as an example of God doing the impossible. Mary must be inspired by this because shortly after she travels to visit Elizabeth. On her arrival, the unborn John “leaps” with joy in his mother’s womb at the presence of the unborn Jesus. The pair both praise God.

Once the John the Baptist stuff is out of the way, the narrative cuts to Mary and Joseph’s story in full. A census is being held and all the Jews in Israel must be counted by their tribe. Joseph is descended from David and so must travel to Bethlehem (David’s birthplace) to be counted there. But it seems that there are a LOT of other descendants of David around because there is no place for them to stay, no rooms at the inn. The pair are forced to stay in a manger where Mary eventually gives birth to Jesus and wraps him in swaddling clothes. Immediately after his birth, angels visit nearby shepherds and they all come to the manger to tell of their experiences and to see the new baby.

Approximately forty days later, Mary and Joseph and family visit the temple in Jerusalem to offer a sacrifice for the birth of their son. Once there, they meet a man who has been promised by God that he will meet the messiah before he dies. The man, Simeon, immediately sees Jesus as that messiah and tells the holy family all about it. The family return to Jerusalem every year thereafter for passover.

A few bullet points:

  • This story is profoundly different from the one in Matthew. There are no wise men here, only shepherds. Luke’s beginnings for Jesus are far more humble than Matthew’s.
  • This time, the cause of Jesus’ migration is not a purging of children by Herod, but rather a more benign census. The family never flee to Egypt and are even said to make annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem while Jesus is growing up. The fear doesn’t exist in this story.
  • Mary is the protagonist here as she is the one receiving the visions, but even so she is very passive in the story and is not seen making any decisions, except to visit Elizabeth.

A synergy

The purpose of this post was to look at the bible stories behind Christmas, not poke holes in the narrative. Despite their differences, it is possible (with some massaging) to stitch the two stories together. Our modern conception of the story generally does just that: we envision the three wise men visiting Jesus in the manger, even though the text says no such thing. There are many cases in the four gospels where some creativity must be applied to reconcile one’s stories with another and Christmas is not special in that regard.

I hope that this has given you a chance to revisit the bible stories behind the holiday. Merry Christmas!

Up next: No posts for a while, but then we really will talk about Sodom and Gomorrah… really!

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