Last week, the Gospel passage we heard came from the orderly account of the things that have been fulfilled among us—the work we know as a Luke’s Gospel. We heard the story of the announcement to Mary that she would bear a child (Luke 1:26-38).
This week, we turn to the Gospel story set each year for Christmas (Luke 2:1-14), in which that birth is narrated. This, quite obviously, is the only account of the circumstances surrounding the actual birth of Jesus found in our Gospels. No other equivalent account is to be found amongst the earliest accounts of Jesus.
Certainly, the book of origins tells of the announcement of Mary’s pregnancy, but then it jumps to the visit of the wise ones from the east many months later (Matt 1:18-2:12). The book of signs begins its account of Jesus with a grand cosmic scenario “in the beginning” (John 1:1-18), but provides no specific accounting of his birth as a human being apart from a note that he “became flesh and dwelt among us”.
Two other Gospels which are dated relatively early simply ignore anything to do with his conception, birth, and childhood: the beginning of the good news, the Gospel of Mark, and the hidden words that the living Jesus spoke, the Gospel of Thomas.
From the second century onwards, however, Christians produced a number of Gospels which alleged to recount the birth and early life of Jesus: the Infancy Gospel of James (perhaps mid-2nd century), the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (its dating is disputed), the iLife of John the Baptist (written in 390), and the History of Joseph the Carpenter, as well as a work known as the Gospel,of Pseudo-Matthew (both dating from the 7th century). These accounts are quite obviously “mythological”, including numerous elements that we would consider to be non-historical.
The orderly account that we know as the Gospel of Luke, however, provides us with lots of details: the time, the location, the parents, the specifics of the birthplace, and the first visitors to the family of the newborn. It looks like it comes from a writer who draws on historical data to construct the story. It has the feel of an eyewitness account. But this is not the case.
The author of this Gospel is writing eight decades after the time of the events which he narrates, in the period immediately after the end of Second Temple Judaism (which ended with the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70CE, during the Roman-Jewish War of 66-74CE.)
He acknowledges that others before him have created accounts of Jesus, but he insists that he has scrutinised and assessed those sources (Luke 1:1-4). There is no claim, explicit or implicit, that the account of the newborn child is based on any eyewitness account. That the author himself “worked over” his source material cannot be doubted.
So the scene recounting the birth of Jesus (Luke 2:1-7) forms part of a long introductory section with a series of scenes, each of which are shaped by the influences of Jewish storytelling that existed for centuries prior to the first century (1:5-2:38).
We have seen that the scene of the Annunciation drew heavily on Jewish prototypes and has strong resonances with Hebrew Scriptures (see https://johntsquires.com/2020/12/14/advent-four-the-scriptural-resonances-in-the-annunciation-luke-1/) The same can be seen in the passage which provides the basis for “the Christmas story”.
Luke 2:1-14 has clear scriptural resonances: angels, shepherds, the city of David, the message of peace and goodwill, each reflect scriptural motifs. Yet the story also reflects the wider Hellenistic world, of which Second Temple Judaism was an integral part. This is evident in two specific ways: in the way that angels bring communications from God, and in the claim that Mary fell pregnant whilst a virgin.
The role of angels in the story
Angels are messengers sent from God. The Greek word, angelos, means messenger. The Hebrew word, malakh, also means messenger; it is related to the name of the prophet, Malachi, which literally means “my messenger”. So the Hebrew Scriptures regularly report that angels visit human beings, bearing announcements from the divine realm.
When these angels appear to human beings, they manifest a phenomenon known as an epiphany—from a Greek word meaning “shining forth”. An epiphany is a shining forth, a way of making clear the presence of God, through an angel, a messenger.
Such phenomena ware not unique to Judaism, and to the religions that grew from this source, Christianity and Islam. Angelic appearances, epiphanies of the gods, were also known in ancient times beyond Judaism. Such epiphanies are recounted in a range of literature of the period.
Often the angel appears in a dream; sometimes, it is manifested in a vision. The phenomenon was widely known and easily accepted at a popular level by people who happily believed that divine beings could readily communicate with human beings through such means.
In his treatise On divination, Cicero attests to a more learned, or philosophical, understanding of the basis of such epiphanies, when he defines dreams (somniorum) and prophecy (vaticinationum praedictione) as two forms of natural divination—that is, two means by which human beings might know, or divine, the will of the gods (On divination 1.6.12).
In another work, On the nature of the gods of the gods, Cicero reports the opinion of a Stoic philosopher (Lucilius Balbus), that the power of divination “has clearly been bestowed by the immortal gods on man, and on no other creature, for the ascertainment of future events” (On the nature of the gods 2.65.163). At another place in his discussion of divination, Cicero reports that the Stoic Chrysippus defined dreams as “visions sent by the gods” (On divination 2.63.130).
Such epiphanies, then, were understood to be a plausible and natural means through which communication could take place between the gods and humanity. The Jewish writer Josephus concurs with this assessment; as he recounts epiphanies from the early part of Jewish history, he notes that angels announce the will of God (History of the Jews 4.110) and speak according to divine providence (History of the Jews 5.277).
Luke’s angels, appearing to Zechariah (Luke 1:11), Mary (1:26), and then the shepherds in the fields (2:9-14), and Matthew’s angel who appears to Joseph (Matt 1:20), thus reflect a common understanding, widespread in the ancient world, of how the divine realm communicates with human beings. The information conveyed by angels is of importance, as it comes from God. As the angels appear to people, they call them to pay attention, as they declare what is to happen … and they call us, who hear the stories of Jesus, to look for the presence of God in the message, and in our lives.
The birth of a child to a virgin
Both New Testament accounts of the birth of Jesus refer to Mary being a virgin when she conceived. The book of origins explains this in terms of the fulfilment of a prophetic word (Isaiah 7:14, cited in Matt 1:23). The orderly account of things fulfilled has the angel Gabriel explain this to Mary as being possible because “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35). As a result, in both instances the narratives signal that the child to be born will be special: a sign of Immanuel, God-with-us, in Matthew, and a child known as holy, the Son of God, in Luke.
The notion that there are extraordinary circumstances related to the birth of a special person is something that was not unusual to people of the ancient world. Charles Talbert writes that “portents, prophecies and omens are widely used in biographical literature of Mediterranean antiquity for the period of a hero’s life before he enters upon his public career” (“Prophecies of Future Greatness”, p.134, in a 1980 Festschrift for Lou H. Silberman).
In the Life of Augustus, by Roman historian Suetonius, for instance, there are no less than fourteen omens associated with the infant Augustus (a miraculous conception, six portents and their interpretations, three dreams, two prophecies, and then two prodigies during his childhood).
As Plutarch recounts the lives of Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome, he reports not only that they were rescued by wolves at their birth, and raised by woodpeckers (Romulus 2). In the same account of the birth of Romulus, Plutarch notes that his mother was a virgin when she conceived.
In recounting the life of Alexander the Great, Plutarch has the announcement of the imminent birth of the child take place along with a crash of thunder, a great flash of lightening—and then a thunderbolt strikes the womb of Olympias (Life of Alexander 2). The father, Philip of Macedon, has a dream in which he “seals up the womb of Olympias”.
This is followed by another dream, in which he sees a serpent sleeping with Olympias—perhaps a sign that his wife would conceive, not by union with him, but by divine means. At any rate, it seems that Plutarch is covering his bets by providing a number of options by which Olympias falls pregnant with her baby, Alexander. Finally, on the day of the birth of Alexander, another omen takes place: the temple of Artemis was burnt to the ground.
All of these miraculous events are designed with the one purpose in mind: to indicate that the child to be born is special. The stories are found in lives of great figures (men, inevitably); the portentous happenings noted at their birth are not intended to be taken as historical events, but as symbolic pointers, indicating the grand importance of the tiny child. Which is the same function that is exercised in the Gospel stories by the claim that Mary was a virgin; the miraculous conception of Jesus served to point to his significance and greatness.
We should not consider either element on the story—the announcements of the angel, nor the declaration that Mary conceived when she was a virgin—to be an historical fact. They are both part of the way that stories were told, in the ancient world, about the origins of a person later seen and known to be a great person. And they both reflect typical elements in the piety and belief systems of people of the day. They are symbols which point to the importance of Jesus. They are not intended to be bare historical facts.
See further on the dangers of reading the Christmas story as history, at https://johntsquires.com/2020/12/11/why-the-christmas-story-is-not-history/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/12/17/why-the-christmas-story-is-not-history-2-luke-1-2-and-matthew-1-2/ along with https://johntsquires.com/2020/12/21/christmas-not-actual-history-but-powerful-myth/
And for an account of what we can know about the birth of Jesus, see https://johntsquires.com/2018/12/19/what-can-we-know-about-the-birth-of-jesus/