Advent is here and once more we wait for the birth of Jesus. Last year, I wrote the first drafts of a series of nine essays on our received Christmas stories – I spoke of the three different nativity narratives. Yes, three. I argued that there are three – the one found in the Gospel of Matthew, the one found in the Gospel of Luke and the one captured in a variety of scripts for the yearly Christmas-eve pageants that we watch as our children “don their gay apparel,” that is their bath robes and act out a version of the story that picks and chooses from the first two to create what is truly a different narrative with a different but not unimportant meaning.
This year as I study, I am exploring some new (at least for me) resources that have come to my attention hoping to keep the discussion open – ready once more to see more of the rich meaning of our nativity stories.
Evangelical scholar and priest, N.T. Wright and “progressive” professor and lecturer Marcus Borg co-wrote a popular book on the historical Jesus back in 1999. The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions was re-issued in paperback in 2006. Last week, I finally got around to adding it to my library and for advent; I have been focusing on the complementary essays that deal with the question of the birth of Jesus.
The volume’s sub-sub title reads “The Leading Liberal and Conservative Jesus Scholars Present the Heart of the Historical Jesus Debate.” Ranging through questions of methodology to basic theological themes, they exchange short essays that deal with issues like the crucifixion, the resurrection, the second coming, and the divinity of Jesus. In this extended post, not surprisingly, I will focus on their takes on the two biblical nativity stories.
While the story found in Matthew and the story found in Luke significantly differ, both biblical authors argue that Mary was still a virgin at the time that Jesus was conceived. What then are we to make of such a report?
If you are familiar with Borg’s participation in the Living the Questions study series, one is not surprised by his conclusion. Borg writes, “I do not think they [the two reports] are historically factual, but I think they are profoundly true in another and more important sense.” Borg reaches his conclusion by arguing first about the relative lateness of the texts themselves in the early church writings and the absence of nativity themes in the earliest sources; secondly, he outlines the “striking differences” in the two stories, and finally, his sense emerges that in each case, the stories seem to function as “overtures” composed to introduce the themes that appear later in the narratives.
Borg and Wright generally sit on opposite sides of the table, but at least they are at the same table. Evangelical, Wright is no poster boy for right-wing religious extremists and he self-consciously opens his essay by rejecting hard core literalist views of the fundamentalists, Wright sees their misuse of the nativity stories as inappropriate “test cases” deciding who is in and who is out relative to notions of Christ’s divinity, the holiness of sexuality, and the uniqueness of Jesus.
Wright speaks of the nativity stories, not as “remembered history” (a category that Borg’s friend and partner John Dominic Crossan uses as well) but as “historicized metaphor.”. Reminding the reader that God in our biblical narrative in not seen as distant from the world, only periodically intervening in the course of history but one who is with God’s people. Wright therefore rejects the fundamentalist notion of miracle, if we are to understand a miracle as God jumping into history every once in a while from some transcendent perch.
Whether Wright is finally drawing a distinction that makes a difference remains an open question for me.
Both Borg and Wright speak of the Jewish and Pagan contexts of the stories and each do note the reality of similar birth stories from antiquity about Caesar, Plato, Buddha and others. Wright readily admits that if we are to take the virgin birth of Jesus as historically true, then we must hold open the option that the virgin birth of Caesar might be true as well.
Borg, less so in this essay, but more fully in his collaboration John Dominic Crossan in the recently published book, The First Christmas, argues that both Matthew and Luke are speaking to an audience wider than Jews as they use the pagan metaphors of the day when they talk of the virgin birth. In an interesting turn-a-round of some current discussions, Borg and Crossan reject the case made by scholars such as Morton Smith that the virgin birth tradition served as an apologetic refutation of rumors that Mary was raped by a Roman soldier. In a provocative reversal, they argue that the rumors discussed in texts like Against Celsius actually grew out of the earlier gospel tradition.
Wright is less convinced than Borg about our gospel writer’s metaphorical intentions. Given the relative late dating of our received stories, he argues that both Luke and Matthew (regardless of the historicity of the reports) believed that Jesus was literally conceived by the Holy Spirit. Wright suggests that neither Matthew nor Luke composed these references, but drew from an already existing tradition. And more particularly, given the Jewish context of the stories, Wright asks why our redactors (or the tradition before them) would take the risk of portraying Jesus as a “pagan demigod.”
Given such ambiguity as to the source of the materials, Wright finally holds open the question of their historicity.
Perhaps, the most stark and telling difference between Wright’s case and Borg’s case has to do with the essential importance of the nativity stories for the rest of the gospel narratives. Not surprisingly, they each reflect on the value of the stories from the core understandings that defines their faith. Theologically, Wright finds the nativity stories marginal when one considers the ministry and significance of Jesus life and activity in the Galilee and Judea. He writes:
Jesus’ birth usually gets far more attention than its role in the New Testament warrants. Christmas looms large in our culture, outshining even Easter in the popular mind. Yet without Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-32 we would know nothing about it. Paul’s gospel includes Jesus’ Davidic descent, but apart from that could exist without mention of his birth. One can be justified by faith with no knowledge of it. Likewise, John’s wonderful theological edifice has no need of it. God’s glory is revealed, not in the manger, but on the cross. Yes try to express any New Testament theology without Jesus’ death and resurrection, and you will find it cannot be done. “Man shall live for evermore,” says the song, “because of Christmas Day.” No, replies the New Testament. Because of Calvary, Easter and Pentecost.
Mentioned earlier, Borg speaks of these texts as overtures introducing key themes. Theologically, while he speaks about light/darkness and the activity of the Spirit, I believe for Borg, in all honesty, the core theme found in the nativity stories involves the presentation of a political choice. – in Matthew, a choice between the newborn King of the Jews and an illegitimate King Herod; and in Luke, a choice between Jesus or Caesar as the Son of God. In both cases the narratives proclaim that the powers of the day are made relative in the face of the coming Kingdom.
One of the questions that I am struggling with this advent season has to do with how the evangelical witness is made more rich discussed in the context of a social gospel. In turn, I believe that we should wrestle with how the evangelical call to individual repentance enriches our vision of that which is to come?
Cross Posted on Holy Leftovers