Rare indeed is the Christian who rejects the story of Jesus’ birth as purely mythical. They may accept any number of ideas and notions in the Bible as metaphorical, yes. But not this one. This one, Christians are sure, must have truly happened: a god-baby, born in a barn, laid in a manger. But did it? I don’t think so. I’ll show you why today–and what I think the story really means.
The Missing Stories.
The Gospel of Mark doesn’t deal with Jesus’ birth at all. Its writer begins with John the Baptist, helpfully quoting from Isaiah 40:3 to place him into the narrative:
A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
John baptizes the adult Jesus, and then Jesus flees into the wilderness to be tempted.
It’s entirely possible, by the way, that John the Baptist competed with Jesus in the religious marketplace of the 1st century. In that case, it makes sense that the writer of Mark would want to turn John into the fulfilment of a prophecy, in this case from Isaiah 40:1-5–to suck him into the Jesus narrative. We’ll see Gospel writers doing this a lot.
Either way, this gospel–the shortest of them, and likely the first of them–gives us no baby, no stable, and no manger. John, the longest and likely last of the Gospels to be written, omits the story of Jesus’ birth as well. Maybe to those writers, the nitty gritty details of Jesus’ earthly existence before his supposed ministry simply didn’t matter–just as his biographical details don’t matter to the writer(s) of Acts and the Epistles.
Matthew begins with a long genealogy–of Jesus. He begins with Abraham and rolls on through Joseph. That genealogy will conflict with the one in Luke. The goal is to show Joseph was descended from King David, and thus that Jesus was. Jews required that their Messiah be descended from David, and so the Gospel writers tried to show that. (Sometimes I see Christians try to make the case that Mary was descended from David, or that she became part of that lineage by marrying Joseph.)
Of course, if Yahweh fathered Jesus, then Joseph’s lineage doesn’t particularly matter.
Moving on, Matthew’s writer tells us that a young woman named Mary came up pregnant while betrothed to Joseph. It doesn’t specifically say she’s a virgin, only that the two of them hadn’t done the deed yet. Joseph mulled the idea of divorcing her, but he had a divinely-sent dream telling him that he should go ahead and marry her. The baby had been conceived “from the Holy Spirit.” Joseph believed this.
The gospel writer then bolsters this part of the story with another prophecy, this one from Isaiah 7:14. Christians regard this prophecy as applying to Jesus. But it appears to apply much more to something that happens in Isaiah 8.
I highly recommend that “Fabulous Prophecies” link above for a list of bunches of other big problems with the Gospels, as well as this one and also this one in particular. The more someone studies the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth, the more problems one encounters! From towns that didn’t actually exist at the time of his birth to censuses that didn’t work like that to rulers who never did the stuff attributed to them, the Gospels are chock-full of events that could not possibly have occurred.
Moving Away from a Very Big Problem.
But let’s move away from literal interpretation of the Gospels. We’d be here all day, and most Christians aren’t particularly literalist anyway.
Most Christians would likely consider the more outlandish elements of the Gospels to be exaggerations or metaphors anyway. Indeed, many Christians regard literalists as childish and over-simplistic. More to the point, such Christians regard literalism as missing the point of the whole damned religion. To them, the birth narratives embody a different kind of truth, as Vridar quotes John Shelby Spong as stating.
But even more progressive and liberal Christians want a real live god who was literally incarnated and literally lived and died and rose again. That’s the line in the sand for Christians, even if they totally reject other doctrines based on literalism. Thus, the inconsistencies and impossibilities of the Gospels (not to mention the total lack of contemporary corroboration for these tall tales) present insurmountable problems to them.
I can’t particularly blame those Christians for wanting to move away from the literal historicity of the Gospels. They likely consider far safer ground as the ultimate meaning of the birth narrative.
And That Is..?
Instead, Christians–be they literalists or not–find inspiration and joy in the notion of a real live god who incarnated into poverty and was born in completely humble surroundings. As one evangelical site notes,
Surely, God’s Son deserved a high-profile birth in the most elegant of surroundings. But, instead, God’s own Son made His appearance on earth in the lowliest of circumstances. This humble birth conveys an amazing message to creation: the transcendent God condescended to come to us. Instead of coming to earth as a pampered, privileged ruler, Jesus was born in meekness, as one of us.
(We’re coming back to this quote on Thursday.)
In this view, a god humbles himself to become as one of his people. And not only one of his people, but one of the lowliest of his people. He incarnates into the form of an infant. His parents possessed no great wealth–not even a home of their own right then. He shrouded his own origins in the anonymity of poverty.
But there, in a manger, other poor and lowly people marveled in awe. They already knew he was not lowly; he merely cosplayed at poverty. Signs and wonders already accompanied his birth to put the lie to his humble surroundings.
It’s like he couldn’t help but leak the truth. That theme continues briefly in the canonical gospels (and can be seen in the totally non-canonical Infancy Gospel of Thomas).
Jesus took no particular pains to hide his divine status. So why bother with the coy incognito act at all?
(He’ll Never) Live Like Common People.
Jesus wasn’t one of us. That’s the whole point of what would become the whole charade of his life, death, and resurrection.
His DNA was already at least half-divine, which makes him not “one of us.” Instead, his story comes off way more as one about a rich person slumming it among the poor. This element of the story makes Jesus sound like the wealthy young woman character created in Pulp’s song “Common People.” In the song, she thinks it’s a total lark to pretend to be “common people” for a spell, but she always knows it is just that: a game, a pretense.
Jesus’ father, Yahweh, allows or orders Jesus to be crucified to fulfill his own cruelty and bloodlust. Yahweh created him specifically to die horribly. That death only succeeded because Jesus wasn’t truly mortal. Only the sacrifice of a pure and “sinless” human being could satisfy and appease that eon-spanning cruelty and bloodlust. And the only way a human being could be “sinless” was if that person happened to be divine (at least, if we ignore a few Bible verses). If Jesus had truly been “one of us,” his brutal death would not have appeased Yahweh.
Indeed, a bunch of ancient heresies dealt with how human or divine Jesus really was. It doesn’t sound like the earliest Christians agreed at all on anything, but especially not on the nature of their supposed messiah!
In that light, Jesus’ birth was exactly as meaningful as those times on MUDs (Multi-User Domains) when I, as one of the head admins, roleplayed incognito with the regular players. I had a lot of fun doing it, but sooner or later I’d have to retire the characters when big projects demanded my time or when too many people figured out it was me through textual habits. All the same, I guarantee you that I did a way better job of hiding my true status than Jesus did.
The Other Problem.
Jesus’ incarnation wasn’t actually unique to Christianity.
Lots of gods conceived babies with human women. It wasn’t even rare, in stories at least. Particularly skilled or powerful people often claimed divine parentage–or were accorded it in life and after death. That’s where Jesus landed in the earliest stories about him. It took time for Christians to arrive at the “100% man, 100% god” doctrine and then to come to vague consensus about it.
In mythology, many of those babies were born to women in dire or poor (or humbled) circumstances, as well. Let’s consider just one of them: Perseus. Conceived of Zeus without sex, Perseus was born to a princess. But his mother’s father, King Akrisios, feared a prophecy about her child. He locked them on a boat and sent the boat into the ocean for the pair to die. However, a fisherman rescued the mother and baby and let them live with him. Perseus, then, grew up as the fosterling of a fisherman and an exiled princess brought low.
Indeed, anthropologists and other such scholars have devised lists of elements that appear in mythic stories like those in the Gospels. One of these lists, the Rank-Raglan Mythotype, turns out to fit Jesus very well–in fact, the Gospels contain 18 of the 22 items on that list.
And the Big Kahuna of Problems.
Perseus sought justice for his mother and himself–and revenge. Herakles grew up to do a lot of stuff. Bellerophon, the son of Poseidon and a mortal queen, tamed Pegasus, conquered other tribes, and killed monsters.
These demigods performed great deeds, but their deeds benefited mostly their part of the world and their own kingdoms.
Moreover, people who don’t believe that Perseus, Heracles, or Bellerophon were semi-divine didn’t risk eternal punishment for disbelief. People who never even find out who those heroes were miss out on some fine storytelling, yes, but they don’t face condemnation for it.
But Jesus’ incarnation represents an event benefiting the whole world. More to the point, Christians consider this event one that must be believed as real by those who hear about it or else they will suffer for rejecting it.
Christians present to us Jesus’ anonymous birth and upbringing, ministry, and death in a backwater. And none of them consider how that biography squares with their simultaneous insistence that he’s a worldwide universal messiah.
Yeah, Judea. Big Deal. Scum Center of the World.
So an omnimax god decided to finally save humanity from himself. He incarnates into a human body. Of course, he created this body to both spread the word of that rescue and to die in service to that message. But nobody knows that yet.
The Gospels’ writers attribute to Jesus himself most of the cruel and inhumane doctrines about Hell. But as I said, many Christians aren’t literalist. Many don’t even believe in Hell. Those Christians perceive Jesus’ birth more as a physical manifestation of their god’s love instead–and a sign of the imminent defeat of injustice and suffering.
If this god wanted to accomplish any of those goals, he certainly decided to go about it in a weird way.
For centuries, ancient people thought of Judea as a total backwater. Until Christianity got imperial approval, that’s how Judea remained. Their Roman rulers considered them poor, insular, provincial, uneducated, superstitious, and “depraved.” Its people and rulers constantly caused or dealt with uprisings, takeovers, and other trouble. Here’s a paper dealing more with the topic of literacy, but even without it one gains a sense of Ancient Judea as largely completely illiterate.
And the place largely considered a remote, secluded, insular backwater is where this god decides to start his worldwide campaign for dominance?
It Must Be a Mystery!
Christianity abounds with paradoxes.
- the god of the world…life as a normal schmuck
- a heaven full of adoring angels…first resting-place is a manger in a borrowed room
- sinlessness…a fairly normal upbringing in a small town
- total innocence…a death reserved for criminals
- most important role in the world…happens in a total backwater
- one birth…conquers death
- one death…brings life to the world
- a free gift…that you’ll be tortured for refusing
Mystery religions’ adherents loved stuff like this as well.
Knowing that fact takes a lot of the wind out of the uniqueness claim Christians make, though. And it definitely doesn’t inspire me to believe any of it as truthful even on a metaphorical level.
All For Me, None for You.
Here’s where I land on the whole Christmas birth narrative.
We behold a desperate bunch of subjugated people, increasingly harried and frustrated by Roman rule over them. They evolve stories about a Messiah who’ll come to break Roman rule. At some point, someone gets a little traction with stories about one of these messianic figures.
At first, these stories speak of a savior serving only his own people–like almost all other demigods do. He performs wonders and miracles–like most other demigods do. The stories spread the word about his divine father and maybe some important events in the context of his people’s religion.
Then someone decides that this demigod’s message should apply to all humanity.
A lot of harmonizing has to happen to make that message make the least bit of sense. Even then, it’s not perfect. Whatever the earliest believers can’t quite massage into coherence becomes a divine mystery that can’t be questioned.
Then the story must be sold to people who occupy entirely different religious contexts than Judaism. They alter the narratives as necessary, shifting the birth celebration to the winter and using elements familiar to their own worldview.
Then the newbie religion struggles for a while until it lucks into some powerful new protectors and adherents.
And now here we are.
The Message Behind the Message.
What I see in the Gospel stories about Jesus’ birth are people. Real people wrote these stories. I don’t know if those writers were conjobs or sincere–or just messing around with poetry. Nor do I know if the earliest Christians really believed any of this nonsense or only saw opportunity in pretending they did.
In that sense, this narrative functions as a reflection of its writers and earliest believers. It’s not literally true. Don’t be ridiculous. Of course it’s not. What are we, six years old? I’m way more interested in how this story reflects the worldview and thinking of its time. We might not know (yet) who any of its authors or earliest believers even were, but we can see what they wanted how they felt through the wish-fulfillment stories they left behind.
And in the same fashion, we can tell a lot about today’s Christians by what they make of the myth of Jesus’ birth. It’s just not what they’d likely want us to learn about them.
NEXT UP: On Monday, look for a Lord Snow Presides! On Tuesday, we’ll feature a Christmas Super Special. And then we’ll take a look at conspicuous consumption–with help from Kirk Cameron. Time for a Semi-Drunk Movie Review! Break out the eggnog and the richest butter! See you next time!
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