Growing up, my favorite superhero was definitely Superman. Hands down, no one else captured my childhood imagination more completely than he did. I was also taught to idolize Jesus growing up, and it always delighted me that my boyhood idol so closely mirrored the object of my religious devotion as well.*
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Both of them were, in a sense, born “from above” but came to earth to be our savior. Both somehow had ongoing relationships with their real fathers through a kind of communication that was indirect and atypical, and both struggled with their identity to some degree as hybrids living in a world that didn’t fully understand what they were about.
The Lost Years
Curiously, they also disappear after their earliest years only to reappear again as fully grown adults, ready to dive into their life’s calling as saviors of the world, leaving the rest of us wondering what happened to them during all those lost years? Stories have been written (and shows have been produced) exploring the adventures of young Clark Kent, but none of those are, strictly speaking, canonical; or at least they weren’t to me. The Superman I grew up with was played by Christopher Reeve, and his boyhood history remained a mystery to all of us.
Same thing is true for Jesus. He shows up as a baby in a story we celebrate year after year with pageants and sales, then he disappears for nearly thirty years, save for a single story of a trip to Jerusalem when he was twelve years old. It always bugged me that we didn’t know more about his childhood, especially since I was taught that children are to emulate Jesus as much as adults are supposed to, yet we are never told what Jesus was like as a child.
How are we supposed to know how we are to act as children? Doesn’t that strike you as a significant oversight on the part of the Holy Spirit, who was supposed to be the Author of the Bible? If the kingdom of heaven belongs to little ones such as these, why does the New Testament do so little to address the spiritual lives of children?
Incidentally, there were stories written about the younger Jesus, they just didn’t make it into the Bible, perhaps because they portrayed him as a mischievous imp. One story tells of him breaking the Sabbath by fashioning pigeons out of clay (you weren’t supposed to make clay on the Sabbath because that’s too much like “work”), but then he claps his hands and makes them real and they fly away so that he doesn’t get in trouble. Other stories tell of people teasing him or correcting him only to have him slay them with a single word. Some of the stories have him bringing them back to life, but at that point I figure the damage is done, so the creators of the canon decided those really ought to stay out of the official collection.
A Man From Nowhere
As a grown-up who has formally studied the Bible, I know now why there isn’t anything at all in the Bible about the boyhood of Jesus: It’s because he didn’t do anything noteworthy prior to declaring himself a spokesman for God in his early 30s. Before he began his ministry as an itinerant preacher in Galilee, no one looked at him as an unusual person, worthy of any extraordinary attention. I’m guessing he was always a bit of a mystic, maybe even prone to absorbing and articulating thoughtful maxims with passion and clarity. But certainly no one declared him the virgin born Son of God. That story doesn’t seem to have come along until much later.
I should probably add here, as I always feel I must, that I don’t subscribe to the mythicist camp which so many of my fellow agnostic/atheist friends seem to have joined. I have to say that because a number of my readers will have already pushed back from what I’ve said thus far, protesting that any treatment of the life of Jesus which doesn’t discount his entire existence is of no use to them. I don’t have the time or energy to fight them on this. But I will say that where the birth narratives (a.k.a. “The Nativity”) are concerned, I’m as thorough a mythicist as they come.
Even the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, once admitted he was persuaded against believing that the nativity stories were true the way they were being told. The details of wise men coming “from the east” following a star that moved across the sky finally to hover above the place where Jesus was born just didn’t add up, even to this learned man of faith. He admitted it was most likely “a legend,” and insisted instead that people of faith can still find deeper meaning in the stories without having to believe that they actually happened the way they were recorded.
Related: “Big Fish and the Resurrection of Jesus“
I would go several steps further and note that the earliest gospel we have on hand, the Gospel of Mark, says nothing at all about being born of a virgin, nor does it say anything about his birth being special. It would seem that whichever community produced the collection of stories we now call Mark had no awareness of a birth narrative attached to the object of their affections. Growing up, I always assumed it wasn’t included simply because that particular author didn’t see it as his job to include that part. Now that I’m older, however, I’m noticing a few more things that earlier escaped my attention.
Some Key Problems
It’s odd enough that Matthew’s gospel tells one story while Luke’s tells a completely different one. Granted, they get a few key details in common, like being born of a virgin and having a surrogate father named Joseph. They even both detail that angelic emissaries were needed to deliver a message from God to the lucky parents, although they each report a different recipient for the divine message. But even the most important detail that they agree on stands out as an historical problem because it is based on a mistranslation of a verse from the Old Testament:
In Isaiah 7:14, it says that “The young woman (Hebrew: almah, הָעַלְמָ) will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” But the Greek translation of that verse in the Septuagint rendered the word “virgin.” To be clear, it’s not that you can’t possible interpret that word “almah” to mean virgin, it’s just that it’s a really odd way to translate the word.
There were much better Hebrew words to use for virgin, and the original context of the passage in Isaiah didn’t indicate that there was any hidden message within the text which was intended to point to a future miraculous birth. If anything was miraculously conceived here, it was the legend that a woman who had never “been touched” by a man was going to give birth to a biological child of God.
What’s more, Matthew’s gospel makes it sound like Joseph and Mary were from Bethlehem (it records no census trip, and two years later when the wise men show up, Bethlehem seems to be their permanent residence) while Luke’s insists that they were really from Nazareth and were only in Bethlehem because of a “worldwide” census. Never mind that we have no extant record of such a census ever being taken, nor would it even make practical sense to demand that everyone return back to the original place of their ancestors’ births.
Luke doesn’t even get the right name of the governor for the region, and that while selling himself as the one whose gospel will give us the most thoroughly detailed and accurate account of the events depicted therein. It should have caught my attention as a young Bible student that Luke even felt that need, which would indicate he felt there already were untrustworthy gospels floating around out there (Could he have meant Matthew’s, for example? We have good reasons to believe it predates Luke’s writing, yet he includes nothing of Matthew’s nativity story in his own).
But that aside, all historical records invalidate Luke’s naming of Quirinius as the governor of Syria during this time period, placing him at least a full decade later than the time of Herod’s death (the same Herod who appears, still very much alive, at the time of Jesus’s birth).
Something’s Not Right, Here
One more thing struck me as a grown-up that I never noticed as a child: It says in Luke 2:19 that, after a large choir of angels appeared in the sky proclaiming the birth of the savior of the world and telling a group of shepherds exactly where to find the baby, “Mary treasured these things, pondering them in her heart.” A few days later when she and Joseph made their way into Jerusalem for his circumcision, two old prophets independently approached them and declared that their child was a promised savior of mankind. Surely this all would have made a deep impression on the parents of Jesus, as would the later story of his debating the teachers in the Temple at age twelve.
But in Mark 3 we learn that as soon as Jesus had begun preaching publicly, his family—including his mother Mary—sought to take him away because, and I quote, “He is out of his mind” (see Mark 3:20-35, and note the inclusion of his mother at the end of the story). Does that even make sense? Would this woman, who was chosen precisely because of her receptivity to the leadership of the Spirit, and who was witness to all these awe-inspiring divinely inspired proclamations, decide when his chosen time had finally arrived that he had lost his mind and needed to be taken away?
What makes the most sense here is that Jesus broke away from his family and began preaching without the approval of his own mother, who up until this point knew nothing of his future fame. Perhaps the portions which tell of miracle healings originated later on in the story creation process, with the intimations of divine pedigree appearing only several years later?
I honestly don’t know what to think about that. I only know that this little detail tucked away in the gospel of Mark indicates to us today that Jesus’s family doesn’t seem to have believed he was something special sent from God, and that’s remarkable considering the stories contained in the first couple of chapters of Matthew and Luke. The most logical conclusion is that these stories only appeared many years after the death of Jesus.
Like the stories people tell about catching that One Big Fish, this tale just kept growing every time it got told until it became what it is today, inspiring my church to put on a Broadway-quality musical production every year drawing tens of thousands of people to the capitol city to see the show. The music is gorgeous, I have to say. I just can no longer get into the message because I’m pretty sure not a single bit of it ever really happened.
The Earliest Christians Didn’t Have Christmas
Students of the Bible know that the gospels weren’t the earliest Christian writings. That honor belongs to the Pauline epistles, the letters Paul wrote to the surviving churches in his care before he died in the mid-60s C.E. Turning to check his letters to see what he says about the first Christmas, we find an awkward silence on the matter.
Paul never says a word about a virgin birth, nor does he say anything about the events surrounding his miraculous entrance into the world, hailed by kings and angels alike. This is a pretty big deal, frankly, and it should have bothered me more that it did when I was younger.
Using this to establish that the nativity stories never really happened is called an “argument from silence,” and those are usually pretty weak. The only time they’re not is when the thing being claimed is so big, so noteworthy, and so important that the evidence for it happening should be everywhere.
For example, as I pointed out in one of my last posts in this series, two million Hebrews exiting Egypt at once should have left a mark, and their inhabiting of a region for 40 years should have left behind at least a trace of their presence. As it turns out, we find no evidence at all that they resided in the wilderness of the Arabian peninsula during the time the Bible places them there, and that’s significant because of the size of the crowd we are told should have been living there at the time. Evidence of their presence should be all over the place, but in reality we find none at all. This is one of those moments when the absence of evidence is truly evidence of absence.
The same principle applies here: A virgin birth is kind of a big deal. And if this was the fulfillment of a prophecy from hundreds of years before, someone else should have said at least something about it at some point. Either Paul, or Peter, or James, or John—somebody should have brought it up again at some point, but they don’t. They don’t repeat any of the stories that we find in the later gospels of Matthew and Luke, and the most likely reason for this is that those stories hadn’t yet been concocted by the pious imaginations of the communities which later created these stories.
In short, the earliest Christians just didn’t have Christmas. That tradition appears to be one of the last additions to make it into the canon, and it would appear that most of the earliest apostles (and their imitators) knew nothing of the stories that believers today accept with little question. They wouldn’t want to dispense with them because they’ve become too precious, too meaningful and too inspiring to the church after all these years.
What would modern Christianity be without making much ado about Christmas? Sure, they would still have Easter, and technically that one is the more important of the major holidays in the Christian calendar. Without the death and resurrection of Jesus, one is hard pressed to say what he has is Christianity at all. In a way Christmas is less important to the theological framework on which the Christian faith rests today.
But Christmas is still everyone’s favorite, because who wouldn’t love the swaddling baby cooing in the manger, surrounded by cute animals and adoring angels? Who doesn’t love the idea of rich men coming from out of nowhere to give expensive gifts to this poor child whom they’ve never even met, following a star that moves across the sky, guiding them across a desert to find this family tucked away in a cave? It’s a beautiful story, and the modern celebration of it has honored it elaborately. Like I said, the music is sublime.
I’m just pretty convinced it never actually happened. And for people like me, that overrides our ability to celebrate its significance, whether we’re theists or not.
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* By the way, I do know why Superman always felt so much like Jesus to me. The original creators of the character, who were Jewish, were consciously alluding to the story of Moses, who also shares a great many parallels with our Kryptonian hero. Even the basket he was placed into in order to escape his own imminent destruction was an obvious parallel. And we shouldn’t be too surprised to see the story of Jesus paralleling that of the (fictitious) prince of Egypt, given the tendency of religions to mix and mingle borrowed elements from earlier stories, repurposing them for their own heroes’ stories.