At the end of the twelve days of Christmas — running from 25 December to 5 January — stands the day known as Epiphany. That’s from a Greek word which means “the revealing” or “the shining forth”.
On this day, we focus our thinking on that part of the Christmas story which was told by Matthew, in his Gospel, about the moment of epiphany, or revealing, of the infant Jesus, to the whole world, represented in Matthew’s story by travellers who had journeyed from afar to see him (Matt 2:1-12).
Here, we encounter an infant (not necessarily a newborn) with his mother and father, some travellers from the East (no mention of how many, actually), the gifts which they bring to the infant (specified as three in number), and the bright star in the sky which, it is said, guided them to the child with his parents. And the notion that this was history — real, accurate history — is alive and well as people sing of these characters.
Indeed, what we understand as “history”, today, varies quite significantly from the way that “historia” was understood by Josephus (who did write historical works about the Jews) or by Lucian (who wrote a whole treatise on the nature of “historia”), or even Luke or Matthew, for that matter.
As Luke begins his work, he says quite clearly that he is providing an account (“diegesis”) of “the things that have come to fulfillment amongst us”, written to supplement what Theophilus had already been instructed (“katechesis”). This is history in first century terms, but not quite history as we know it today.
And Matthew offers us a book of the origins (“genesis”) of Jesus, outlining the scope of his teachings and narrating the key moments in his life. But this work is written from faith for faith; not to document events or substantiate historical occurrences. Matthew crafts a story from Jewish midrashic techniques of story-telling that link story with text in all manner of creative ways. His purpose is more to explain the significance of Jesus and his teachings than it is simply to state what Jesus did or said.
In particular, in the opening chapters (where we encounter the pregnant Mary, the newborn infant Jesus, his father Joseph, a bright star in the sky, visitors from the east, the tyrannical rule of Herod, and slaughtered infant boys), Matthew is working hard to place Jesus alongside the great prophet of Israel, Moses. The early years of Jesus unfold in striking parallel to the early years of Moses. The parallel patterns are striking.
Both Matthew and Luke produce works which are a far cry from the craft of the modern day historian. History is far from their minds, at least as we know it in the modern conception of “history”.
As we head into Epiphany, we need to ponder the story for what it is. It is a tale told with creative power, a story that locates plausible characters within an inviting storyline, in order to point to some deep aspects of our human existence. There is the mystery of exploration, a journey to a destination far off, respectful encounter with foreigners, as well as the fear induced by tyrannical rule, and the hurried journey away from repression, seeking the safety of refuge in an unknown, but hopefully welcoming, distant place. All of these elements are realities in our life today. The story from long ago is a story for us, today.
As we sing songs of this story, let us not reify the story (that is, turn the narrative into “a thing”, like history) … let us not collapse the story into a surface “real history”, but let us allow the story to speak in a deep way of who we are as humans, and of the reality of our lives today. That is how the story functions, as myth. (Not in the sense of myth being “not true”, but rather, in the sense of myth plumbing the depths of human existence.)
Myths are the stories we tell that convey deep-seated and fundamental insights about life. Whether they “actually happened” is not the point. More fundamental is that they help us to make sense of our lives. They draw us out of the mundane routines of daily life and offer us glimpses of a greater picture. May that be what happens for us as we hear the story of the magi, this Epiphany.
Of course, Matthew tells a very different version of how this news was conveyed: a scene in which an angel explains Mary’s pregnancy to Joseph, completely omitting any communication with Mary herself (Matthew 1:20–25). How did Joseph inform Mary of this news? Perhaps Matthew hints at a very early example of mansplaining?
There is more that we want to know, to fill in the gaps, in the accounts that both evangelists provide. And we are not alone in that desire to know more than what is in these Gospels. From early in the Christian movement, there were people whose curiosity led them to construct narratives which provided “more information” than what the earliest Gospels offer.
We find this, for example, in second century text, the Protoevangelium of James (also known as the Proto-Gospel of James, or the Infancy Gospel of James). This work weaves a long tale, commencing with Joachim and Anna, the parents of Mary, incorporating distinctive versions of the various events reported by both Luke and Matthew in their first two chapters—Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph, the census, Herod and the Magi—and it runs through until the mention of Simeon in the temple (towards the end of Luke 2).
In a later chapter, it describes a test that Mary had to take, when her pregnancy was discovered by the local authorities. The test follows the biblical prescription set out in Numbers 5:11-31, in which “if any man’s wife goes astray and is unfaithful to him … the man shall bring his wife to the priest; and he shall bring the offering required for her”.
After this, the priest shall make a mixture of “holy water that is in an earthen vessel … and some the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle”, to form “the water of bitterness that brings the curse”. The priest is then instructed to make the woman take the oath of the curse, and say to the woman: “The LORD make you an execration and an oath among your people, when the LORD makes your uterus drop, your womb discharge; now may this water that brings the curse enter your bowels and make your womb discharge, your uterus drop!” The woman is then expected to reply, “Amen. Amen.”
In the Protoevangelium of James, both Mary AND Joseph are made to drink a potion in accordance with this test, to reveal whether they have committed adultery. If they have, it is anticipated that they will develop all sorts of physical ailments, to signal that they have, indeed, sinned by committing adultery. Chapter 16 reads:
16. And the priest said: “Give up the virgin whom you received out of the temple of the Lord.” And Joseph burst into tears. And the priest said: “I will give you to drink of the water of the ordeal of the Lord, and He shall make manifest your sins in in your eyes.” And the priest took the water, and gave Joseph to drink and sent him away to the hill-country; and he returned unhurt.
And he gave to Mary also to drink, and sent her away to the hill-country; and she returned unhurt. And all the people wondered that sin did not appear in them. And the priest said: “If the Lord God has not made manifest your sins, neither do I judge you.” And he sent them away. And Joseph took Mary, and went away to his own house, rejoicing and glorifying the God of Israel.
So Joseph and Mary return unscathed, and their examiner believes their story. They have survived the ordeal of the water of bitterness! But the story of miracles continues. This work provides a detailed description of events surrounding the birth of Jesus.
With no proper birthing room, let alone an epidural, one might think Mary had a tough time during labour. Matthew and Luke skip over the birth, mentioning it only off-handedly (Matthew 2:1; Luke 2:6–7), but some Christians were curious about the labour. As opposed to Luke’s account of the new-born Jesus lying in a Jesus manger (2:7), the Protoevangelium of James describes how Mary gives birth in a cave.
As soon as Mary enters the cave, it shines with bright light—reminiscent of the scene of the Transfiguration in our canonical Gospels. A midwife, arriving too late to help, is shocked when she sees the minutes-old Jesus walking over to Mary and suckling at her breast. Mary is said to have experienced no pain at all during the birth. The midwife then verifies that Mary retained her virginity even after giving birth.
Chapters 19-20 tell of the scene of the birth of the child in the cave.
19. And behold a luminous cloud overshadowed the cave. And the midwife said: “My soul has been magnified this day, because my eyes have seen strange things — because salvation has been brought forth to Israel.”
And immediately the cloud disappeared out of the cave, and a great light shone in the cave, so that the eyes could not bear it. And in a little that light gradually decreased, until the infant appeared, and went and took the breast from His mother Mary. And the midwife cried out, and said: “This is a great day to me, because I have seen this strange sight.”
And the midwife went forth out of the cave, and Salome met her. And she said to her: “Salome, Salome, I have a strange sight to relate to you: a virgin has brought forth — a thing which her nature admits not of.” Then said Salome: “As the Lord my God lives, unless I thrust in my finger, and search the parts, I will not believe that a virgin has brought forth.”
20. And the midwife went in, and said to Mary: “Show yourself; for no small controversy has arisen about you.” And Salome put in her finger, and cried out, and said: “Woe is me for mine iniquity and mine unbelief, because I have tempted the living God; and, behold, my hand is dropping off as if burned with fire.”
Of course, this offers us sooooo much information—too much information! There are intimate personal details, known in so much detail, that are recounted. At one level, it piques the interest and satisfies the curiosity of the human reader. But we should note that this comes from a writer who, according to scholarly consensus, was writing at a later time, many decades after the events reported. How did he have access to such detailed information, so many personal elements, so much later in time? We rightly adopt a scepticism about such a piece of literature. The “hermeneutic of suspicion” is clearly warranted in this instance.
(The author self-identifies as writing very soon after the events recounted: “I James that wrote this history in Jerusalem, a commotion having arisen when Herod died, withdrew myself to the wilderness until the commotion in Jerusalem ceased, glorifying the Lord God, who had given me the gift and the wisdom to write this history.” Nevertheless, contemporary scholars are unanimous in the view that the work was written by a person unknown, at least a century and a half, if not more, after the death of Herod in 4 BCE.)
It is worth noting, also, the way the story is written, throughout all 24 chapters. The book adopts a style that clearly and self-consciously imitates a scriptural way of writing. The author ensures that as many scriptural events and incidents are referred to in this work as is possible. The style is reminiscent of biblical passages which self-consciously evoke earlier writings, as a technique designed to bolster their validity. The method is a standard one, that nestles the later work into the stream of the earlier works. Some key sections of our canonical Gospels clearly adopt this technique—including Luke 1–2 and Matthew 1–2. Perhaps that is part of the reason why they were canonised?
Furthermore, the author, who calls himself James, seems to have enjoyed the tasks of harmonising the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke, and adding in much more detail than is offered in either of these works. It feels to me that the author is working incredibly hard to establish his credentials as valuable and authoritative—perhaps too hard?
We know that the process of harmonising the Gospels became an industry in later centuries, as church fathers grappled with apparent discrepancies between the Gospels; witness the 2nd century Diatessaron by Tatian, the Gospel of the Ebionites from the same period (which unfortunately we don’t have in a full extant form), the Ammonian Sections, the EusebianCanons, Augustine’s Harmony of the Gospels, and then a series of manuscripts from late antiquity and the Middle Ages. The Protoevangelium sits in this company, as it works exclusively to harmonise the infancy narratives. It is a later enterprise, from beyond the first century.
I wonder whether, as we lay aside our curiosity to know more, and adopt a rigorously critical approach to this particular text (and others like it, from later centuries, presenting themselves in the mode of earlier documents), we might also consider the value of the “hermeneutics of suspicion” and the historical-critical approach taken, when we read our canonical texts? It seems easier to be critical of works that have not been incorporated into our canon of scripture. Why can we then not take the same approach to the works that have been deemed to be canonical?
The Protoevangelium of James provides the earliest assertion of the perpetual virginity of Mary (meaning she continued as a virgin during the birth of Jesus and afterwards). In this it is practically unique in the first four centuries. The only other place this view is expressed is by Origen, in his Commentary on John 1, 4, and also in his Commentary on Matthew 10, 17.
An edited version of the Protoevangelium, along with a set of letters alleged to have been exchanged between the scholar, Jerome, and two Bishops, Comatius and Heliodorus, forms the first part of a seventh or eighth century document entitled The Infancy Gospel of Matthew, also known in antiquity as The Book About theOrigin of the Blessed Mary and the Childhood of theSaviour. It is followed by an expanded account of the Flight into Egypt (it is not known on what this is based), and an edited reproduction of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.
The Infancy Gospel of Matthew, of course, is the basis for developing Catholic traditions about Mary which still hold sway in popular piety. It provides the first known mention that an ox and a donkey were present at the birth of Jesus. The work also helped popularize the image of a very young Mary and relatively old Joseph. We see both of these features in the classic “nativity scene” which was first created by Francis of Assisi.
Finally, the Infancy Gospel of Matthew tells of how Mary, Joseph, and a two-year-old Jesus are surrounded by dragons. Jesus, unafraid, walks over and stands in front of them. The dragons worship him and then leave in peace. This event is linked to the prophecy of Psalm 148:7: “Praise the Lord from the earth, O dragons and all the places of the abyss.”
The Gospel for the first Sunday in the season of Christmas (Luke 2:22-40) includes stories relating to two striking Jewish figures: Simeon the righteous, who is guided by the Spirit (2:27), and Anna the prophet (2:36). Anna praises God because of what she sees happening in the birth of the child, Jesus, while Simeon speaks of salvation for all people now being offered by God through this child. Both express clear Lukan themes.
Jesus is intensely Jewish in Luke’s Gospel. The story about Jesus that we find in the orderly account of the things fulfilled among us is set in the heart of Jewish piety. The very opening scene of the Gospel, set in Jerusalem in the Temple precincts, reveals a pair of righteous Jews who faithfully keep the commandments of God (Luke 1:5–6). What follows in the ensuing two chapters reinforces, over and over, that Jewish context.
The man in the opening scene, Zechariah the priest, is devoted to the service of God in the Temple (1:8–9). His wife, Elizabeth, expresses an attitude of deep faith in God, accepting her surprise pregnancy as “what the Lord has done for me” (1:25). They are both described as “righteous before God” (1:6). Elizabeth’s relative, Mary, demonstrates a similar faith as she submits to a similar fate, bearing a child, with the words, “here am I, the servant of the Lord” (1:38).
In turn, the traditional hopes and expectations of the people are articulated in spirit-inspired hymns sung by Mary (1:46–55, known as the Magnificat), Zechariah (1:67–79, known as the Benedictus), and Simeon the righteous (2:29–32, known as the Nunc dimittis, or the Song of Simeon). Mary is “overshadowed” by the Spirit (1:35), Zechariah and Elizabeth are both “filled” with the Spirit (1:41, 1:67). Simeon is “righteous and devout” (2:25); the Spirit “rested on him” (2:25), then “revealed to him” the words he then speaks (2:26) before “guiding him … into the temple” (2:27).
The words of Anna, although unreported in detail by Luke (2:38), are likewise spirit-inspired (as are all prophetic utterances). The children who are born—Jesus and John—bear the weight of these traditional hopes and expectations as they come into being. They, too, are “filled with the Spirit” (John, 1:15; Jesus, 4:1, 14). This is the same Spirit which, according to old traditions in the Hebrew Scriptures, has been active since the time of creation (Gen 1:2) and which is still at work in the creation of every living creature (Ps 104:30).
The sense of deeply devoted and strongly conventional Jewish piety continues in the reports of the early years of Jesus. It is only in Luke’s Gospel that we find the information that Jesus was circumcised after eight days (2:21), that his mother was subsequently purified and brought offerings to the Temple (2:22–24), that the family made Passover pilgrimage to Jerusalem (2:41) and that Jesus showed an early interest in discussing matters of the Law (2:42-51).
These all reflect typical Jewish activities, mandated by the Law: circumcision at Gen 17:9-14; purification and offerings at Lev 12:1-8; the Passover pilgrimage at Exodus 23:17 and 34:23; and learning the matters of the Law at Deut 6:1-7. Luke ensures that we are aware of this, by noting “it was the time for …” (2:21, 22) and “as usual” (2:41), and by twice referring to the requirement of the Law (2:23, 39).
This continues as the narrative of the orderly account continues, recounting the events of the adult years of Jesus. He regularly attended the synagogue (4:16, 44; 6:6), where he was accorded the status of a teacher (4:20–27; 4:31–33; 13:10). Jesus regularly prayed to God (3:21; 5:16; 6:12; etc.). He knew the importance of the daily prayer, the Shema (10:25–28) and the Ten Commandments (18:18–21).
Jesus engaged in halakhic debates with the scribes of Pharisees, touching on various matters of the Law (5:21-24; 6:6-10; 7:36-50; 11:37-54; 14:1-6; 15:1-32; 16:14-18; 17:20-21; 20:1-47). Like other Jewish teachers of the day, Jesus taught in parables (5:36-38; 6:39-42; 8:4–8; 13:6-9; 13:18-21; 19:11-27; 20:9-19; 21:29-30). Luke alone reports a number of the especially well-known parables of Jesus (10:29–37; 12:13–21; 14:7-24; 15:3–32; 16:1-13; 16:19–31; 18:1-8; 18:9-14). Jesus was thoroughly Jewish in his teaching style.
Indeed, as Luke narrates the early sequence of events leading to the birth of Jesus, he indicates that Jesus will seek the renewal of the ancient promises which God made to Israel (1:46–55; 1:67–79; 2:29–35). Thus, the Lukan Jesus insists that the purpose of his mission is to fulfil the hopes once spoken by the prophets (4:18–21; 7:18–23; 24:18–27; 24:44–47).
Jesus begins to fulfil that prophetic vocation in his sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth (4:16-30), where he explicitly reads from the scroll of Isaiah (4:17-19) and clearly affirms that “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (4:21).
In his teachings, Jesus is clear that what he has to offer is a grand vision of the kingdom in which all are invited to share in the Messianic Banquet (13:29; 14:15–24). This was a vision which came to expression within Second Temple Judaism, after the return of many of the people,from their Exile in Babylon.
This vision was not shared by all, but it is clear that it was drawn firmly from Jewish traditions, especially as articulated in the latter sections of the book of Isaiah (Isa 42:1–6; 52:7–10; 55:1–5; 60:1–7; 66:18–24). So the Lukan Jesus functions as a prophetic voice in Israel, holding the people to this inclusive vision.
Luke does not play Jesus off, over against ‘the Jews’, in the way that we find happening in the work of his near-contemporary, in the Gospel according to John. Rather, the Lukan Jesus is immersed in the midst of his religion; he is one of the people of Israel at his birth, and he remains so even up to his death and beyond.
Luke’s Gospel—and its sequel, the Acts of the Apostles—provide no basis for a rejection of Judaism as no longer in keeping with God’s will. Not even the occasions when Paul encounters rejection at the hands of his fellow Jews, and he leaves saying “we are turning to the Gentiles” (Acts 13:46) or “from now on I will go to the Gentiles” (18:6) are definitive rejections of the Jews—Paul always returned to them! (Paul is back in the synagogue at 14:1, 17:1, 17:10, 18:19, 19:8, and note also Paul’s farewell speech at 20:21.)
Even the final scenes of Acts offer the possibility of wider Jewish acceptance of the Gospel: the possibility that they might “listen with their ears and understand with their heart and turn—and [God] would heal them” (Acts 28:27, citing Isaiah 6:10).
(For a more detailed argument along these lines, see the discussions in my commentary on Acts in the Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, 2000.)
So the overall story which Luke tells is that the hopes of Jewish faith are brought to fruition in the life of Jesus, and in those who follow The Way set forth by Jesus—and how this renewed vision spreads across the Mediterranean basin, through many nations. This is already in view as he shapes the beginning of his narrative, with those faithful Jewish characters—Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and (very briefly) Joseph, Simeon and Anna.
In Luke’s account of Jesus, then, he sets forth a vision of welcoming community, inclusive of both Jews and Gentiles. In reporting the preaching of John the baptiser, the prophetic vision was already in view: “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:6, citing Isa 40:5). Before this, at the moment when the spirit-inspired Simeon holds the infant Jesus in his arms, he speaks of God’s salvation as being “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (2:32).
This is surely what Anna perceives to be at work in the infant she sees being dedicated in the temple, and this is why she “praises God” and “speaks about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (2:38). Jesus was to fulfil this grand vision.
The universal implications of the Gospel are thus in view from the very earliest stages of Luke’s first volume of his orderly account. They continue through later scenes, as Gentiles come from Tyre and Sidon to listen to Jesus’ teachings (6:17), as Gentile centurions exhibit great faith (7:1–10) and show sympathy for the dying Jesus (23:47).
They come to full flourishing in the second volume of the orderly account, as the faithful followers of Jesus spread out from Jerusalem and Judea, even to “the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The Lukan Jesus has clearly set the course for the ultimate inclusion of Gentiles into the people of God. This is clear early on, right from the words of Simeon (2:29-32).
As we consider this passage in the days immediately after the remembering of the birth of Jesus at Christmas, we are given encouragement to hold to the inclusive vision for the whole world that commenced with the diligence and openness of faithful Jewish people, as they sensed the way that God was working in their world.
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).
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.
As I have written in two recent posts, the biblical accounts of the birth of Jesus are not actual history. They are stories told to indicate the special nature of Jesus. Which means, we shouldn’t read them as history (ἱστορία). The Christmas story isn’t history. The Christmas story is myth (μῦθος).
As myth, the story points to important truths. It orients us to the claim that God is involved in human history. It sets the foundations for hearing the narratives about Jesus as accounts which resonate with God’s intentions for humanity.
The stories told at Christmas are located in specific human situations, and point to specific human needs. Outsiders and outcasts are included in the story told by Luke. Shepherds, despised for their work and marginalised from society, appear front and centre in his story. Strangers travel from distant foreign lands in Matthew’s narrative, bearing gifts to pay homage to the infant Jesus.
Women, not men, play central roles in the opening chapters of Luke’s story. Elizabeth, cursed as barren, blossoms into pregnancy, and speaks where her husband is struck dumb. Mary, young and virginal, receives startling news from an angel; she holds her own stands up to the angel, commits to the task, and then sings powerful words of justice, signalling in advance the revolutionary message that will be spoken by the child whom she is bearing.
Both Luke and Matthew include the gritty reality of the refugee situation in their accounts. Luke has a pregnant Mary undertake an enforced journey with Joseph, from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the hometown of his family line, only to be forced to give birth in precarious circumstances. There is no historical evidence for the census that occasioned this journey, but the story provides a compelling vision of what refugees faced then, and still face today.
Matthew has Mary and Joseph, with Jesus now a two-year-old toddler, making an even longer forced trek, from Bethlehem into Egypt, because of the excessive reaction of the king of the time. There is also no historical evidence for the slaughter of all boys aged two and under in Bethlehem at that time, but the story in Matthew’s Gospel again highlights the tenuous situations faced by refugees, then as now.
Matthew’s Moses typology leads him to place the slaughter of the Innocents right at the heart of his narrative. He grounds the story of Jesus in the historical, political, and cultural life of the day, when a tyrant could exercise immense power, when the sensibilities we have about human life seem absent. It provides a dreadful realism to a story which, all too often in the developing Christian Tradition, became etherealised, spiritualised, and romanticised.
We need to remember the Christmas story as an important pointer to the counter-cultural, alternative-narrative impact of the person of Jesus. It is not history, but it offers a powerful myth. It grounds our faith in a revolutionary understanding of reality, and in actions that establish an alternative reality. The story is not to be domesticated and coated in syrup; its stark reality and honest grappling with life needs to be grasped and valued.
As we sing songs of this story, let us not reify the story (that is, turn the narrative into “a thing”, like history) … let us not collapse the story into a surface “real history”, but let us allow the story to speak in a deep way of who we are as humans, and of the reality of our lives today. That is how the story functions, as myth (μῦθος) — not in the sense of myth being “not true”, but rather, in the sense of myth plumbing the depths of human existence.
Myths are the stories we tell that convey deep-seated and fundamental insights about life. Whether they “actually happened” is not the point. More fundamental is that they help us to make sense of our lives. They draw us out of our comfort and preoccupations, and challenge us to see a different reality, to live a different life.
Bernard F. Batto (Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at DePauw University, Indiana), writes: “In everyday usage today, myth carries a meaning of something untrue, a fable, a fiction, or an illusion. Anthropologists and historians of religion, however, use the term ‘myth’ with a quite different meaning. For them myth refers to a traditional story, usually associated with the time of origins, that has paradigmatic significance for the society in which the story is operative.”
So, this Christmas, let’s rejoice that we have this foundational and paradigmatic story which is not history (ἱστορία), but which functions as myth (μῦθος). And as myth, this story stirs our imaginings and challenges our presuppositions, giving us a different perspective on the realities of life in this world, indicating to us how God engages with us and interacts with our world.
It’s a scene, set in a Jewish context, in the region of Galilee, in a town named Nazareth. We are not sure exactly when this scene took place; the only clue is that it was “in the sixth month” (Luke 1:26) after a previous announcement, about the birth of another child, to her cousin, Elizabeth, and her husband Zechariah (Luke 1:5).
The scene in Nazareth thus most likely occurred “in the days of King Herod of Judea” (Luke 1:5), which places it some years before the year in which we traditionally reckon that Jesus was born—the fictive “year zero”, or more accurately, the time when 1 BCE became 1 CE.
At that time Nazareth was but a tiny village, with no more than 50 residents. It was an insignificant, obscure place. Not the location that might have been presumed for this announcement about the imminent birth of the Messiah.
Now, King Herod died soon after an eclipse of the moon soon before a Passover, according to the Jewish historian Josephus; that was most likely in March/April of 4BCE, by our reckoning. So Mary was pregnant, and gave birth, some years before the mythical “year zero”.
Later, after the death of Herod, the region of Galilee came under the control of Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great and one of his wives, Malthace, from Samaria. Herod senior was the king who, according to Matthew, ordered the slaughter of all males born in Israel (Matt 2:16-18). Herod Antipas was, according to Mark, the ruler who, against his better judgement, ordered the beheading of John the baptiser (Mark 6:17-29). Herod Agrippa was another member of the family, a grandson of King Herod by another of his wives, Mariamne, who ruled as King of Judea from 41 to 44 CE.
Herod Antipas ruled as tetrarch of the region of Galilee and Perea from the time his father died (4 BCE by our reckoning—before the alleged birth of Jesus!) until sometime after 39 CE. He held power only by favour of the Romans, who were occupying the whole region. To keep in favour with his Roman overlords, Herod set in motion a number of major building projects.
One of those projects involved the creation of a whole new port city, to serve as the region’s capital. It was named Tiberius, in honour of the Emperor. Another building project was based in Sepphoris, a town about eight kilometres north of Nazareth. That probably meant that Nazareth, previously a tiny village of no more than 50 people, had grown to be a town of perhaps 2,000 people—a dormitory suburb for the grand building project underway in Sepphoris. That is most likely the context in which Jesus grew up.
According to Luke, it was in pre-building-boom Nazareth, in the northern region of Galilee, that an angel named Gabriel appeared to Mary, to inform her that she would bear a child (Luke 1:26). That is different from the story told in Matthew’s Gospel, where an unnamed angel delivers the same message, not to Mary, but to Joseph, to whom she was engaged (Matt 1:18). Who knew first? Joseph (according to Matthew)? Or Mary (according to Luke)?
The location of the announcement in Matthew’s account is not specified, but it is reasonable to assume from the flow of the narrative that this took place in the southern region of Judah, in Bethlehem (Matt 2:1, 6). Matthew, having located the family initially in the southern city from the beginning, has no need of the story of a census and a forced trip from Nazareth to Galilee (Luke 2:1-4). The family is already in Bethlehem, another small village, but in the south, in Judea.
Nor does Matthew feel the need to describe the place into which the new baby was born: in a manger, “because there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7). Indeed, even though Matthew declares that “the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way” (Matt 1:18), he then goes on to describe the announcement made to Joseph (1:18b-23), and the only detail about the actual birth that he offers is that Joseph “took her [Mary] as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son” (1:24-25). Too much information? Or not enough, maybe?
But Luke has a problem. He has located the announcement of the birth in Nazareth; yet the tradition is that Jesus was born, not in Galilee, but in Bethlehem (see John 7:41-42, and Matt 2:1). Matthew explains this birthplace in his typical style, as being a fulfilment of prophecy: he cites Micah 5:2 at Matt 2:5-6. That is just one of a number of elements in the story of the birth of Jesus that Matthew has crafted, which claim “fulfilment of prophecy” as their rationale (see Matt 1:22-23, 2:5-6, 2:15, 2:17-18, and 2:23).
Now, Luke needs to get the family from Nazareth, the place of the annunciation to Mary, to Bethlehem, the place of the birth of Jesus. So he calls on the census (Luke 2:1-2) as the means by which Joseph and Mary, heavily pregnant, had to travel. He even identifies the census as having taken place under Publius Sulpicius Quirinius, who was governor of the province of Roman Syria. Luke operates, not by the fulfilment of prophecies, but by noting the actions of Roman rulers.
Only problem is, Quirinius became governor in 6 CE, almost a decade after the announcement of the birth as Luke tells it (Luke 1:5, 26ff) and as Matthew reports it (Matt 2:1). And, to add insult to injury, other historical problems arise: this was just a local census, we know of no single census of the entire empire under Caesar Augustus, no Roman census ever required people to travel from their own homes to those of distant ancestors, and the census of Judea would not have affected Joseph and his family, as they were living in Galilee. So Luke’s account is problematic in terms of historical accuracy.
Not that Matthew is off the hook. In my view, it is highly unlikely that the events reported in Matthew 2 actually took place. (Other interpreters take a different view.) In particular, the slaughter of all male infants under two years, ordered by Herod, is problematic.
Why? Well, first of all, Matthew provides the only account of such an event in any piece of literature from that time. Surely an event with so many deaths would have been noted by other writers. Yes, it is true that Herod was a tyrannical ruler; but amongst the various accounts of his murderous deeds, there is nothing which correlates to the events reported in Matthew’s Gospel.
Second, the story is embedded in the opening section of the Gospel, which, as we have noticed, uses typical Jewish typology and scripture-fulfilment to present the story of Jesus as a re-enactment of the story of Moses. Just as Exodus tells of the slaughter of infants at the time of the birth of Moses, so Matthew replicates this with an account of the slaughter of infants at the time of the birth of Jesus. The later account simply fits the pattern of the earlier account. (And there is no evidence that the pogrom at the time of Moses took place, either.)
So both accounts of the birth of Jesus have problems if we want to read them as historical narratives. And one very peculiar aspect is that the wise men, supposedly coming to visit the young child, Jesus, during the time of Herod, made their trek from the east to Bethlehem a full decade before Joseph and the pregnant Mary made their trek from Galilee down south to Bethlehem, during the census!!
The biblical accounts of the birth of Jesus are not history. They are stories told to indicate the special nature of Jesus. Which means, we shouldn’t read them as history. The Christmas story isn’t history.
The orderly account of the things coming to fulfilment (which we know as the Gospel of Luke) tells us much more about the beginnings of Jesus (his conception, birth, and early days) than the other Gospels. The passage offered by the lectionary for this Sunday is one such text.
It’s a well-known and familiar passage, from the very beginning of the Christmas story (Luke 1:26-38). It is the scene that is often called The Annunciation. The announcement that is being made in this scene, is to Mary, informing her that she will bear a child.
Mary responds dramatically to this news. She is perplexed, amazed; she is a virgin. “How can this be?”, she asks. A messenger from God informs her, though, that impossibilities are now becoming realities. Indeed, her aged, barren cousin is now pregnant, and Mary will find herself bearing a child—but no ordinary a child; a child “who will be holy, who will he called Son of God”. Now that is really out of the ordinary!
We learn all of this through the “reporting” of a dialogue between the two characters, mother-to-be Mary, and the angel Gabriel. The dialogue isn’t an actual transcript of what took place—indeed, there is no way that the author of this Gospel could have been present to listen and remember.
Instead, the scene is based on the typical dialogue scene that we find at many places in Hebrew Scriptures. And it comes hard on the heels of a similar encounter, another dialogue scene, reported earlier in this chapter (Luke 1:5-22). The earlier dialogue involved an older man, Zechariah (although this dialogue ends up with Zechariah being completely mute); the next scene involves a young woman (who holds her own in the dialogue, as we shall see).
The dialogue proceeds, just as we would expect: he said, then she said; then he said, and so she said. He, of course, is the angel Gabriel. She is Mary, at this time identified simply as “a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph” (1:27).
Jews knew about the angel Gabriel from his appearances to Daniel (Dan 8:15-17, 9:21). He appeared to Daniel at the time of prayer (Dan 9:21)—presumably this is the same angel who had earlier appeared to Zechariah, in Jerusalem, at a time of prayer (1:10-11).
If this is indeed the same angelic person who appeared to Daniel (and to Zechariah, and Mary), then he was quite a sight; Daniel describes Gabriel as “a man clothed in linen, with a belt of gold from Uphaz around his waist. His body was like beryl, his face like lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and the sound of his words like the roar of a multitude.” (Dan 10:5-6).
Such an appearance would undoubtedly evoke fear. Indeed, before Gabriel even speaks to him, Zechariah is said to have been “terrified, and fear overwhelmed him” (Luke 1:12), as also was Daniel (Dan 8:17), who says that “my strength left me, and my complexion grew deathly pale, and I retained no strength”, before he fell in a trance to the ground (Dan 10:8-9).
So the words of the angel, in both scenes, seek to meet this understandable response. “Do not be afraid”, he says to Zechariah (1:13) and also to Mary (1:30). This is what angels do; this is how they greet people: “do not be afraid” (see Gen 15:1, 26:24; 2 Kings 1:15; Dan 10:9). Zechariah’s fear had gripped him before he spoke a word, but Mary had the presence of mind, before the angel spoke these words, to reflect on what she was experiencing.
The dialogue begins when Gabriel greets Mary (1:28) and informs her that she was favoured (the word comes from the Greek word charis, which means grace or favour, and becomes a key theological term in early Christianity). Mary is described as being “much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be” (1:29).
He then says, as we have noted, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God.” That is followed by a declaration of the name of the child: “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus” (1:31). This is parallel to the declaration made to Zechariah: “your prayer has been heard; your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John” (1:13).
This follows the same pattern in scriptural stories when divinely-favoured women are told they will give birth, and they name of their child: Hagar, mother of Ishmael (Gen 16:11), Sarah, mother of Isaac (Gen 17:19), Gomer, the wife of Hosea and mother of three children (Hosea 1:4,6,9); and see also the moment of naming for Leah, mother of Asher (Gen 30:13), the unnamed mother of Samson (Judges 13:24), and Hannah, mother of Samuel (1 Sam 1:20).
The angel continues: “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David; he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (1:32-33). The Davidic ancestry of Jesus was an important claim for the early Christians. It was cited in early literature as a key element (Luke 2:4; John 7:42; Rom 1:3; 2 Tim 2:8; Rev 5:5, 22:16; see more on this at https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/19/descended-from-david-according-to-the-flesh-rom-1/).
In response to this good comeback, Gabriel responds with a number of significant points. First, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.” This statement references three central scriptural elements.
The Holy Spirit is understood to be active throughout the story of Israel: at the moment of creation (Gen 1:1-2), bringing all creatures into being (Ps 104:30), in equipping specific leaders (Exod 31:2-3; Num 11:25, 26; Deut 34:9; Judges 3:9-10, 6:34, 11:29, 13:25; 1 Sam 10:6, 10, 11:6, 16:13, 2 Sam 23:2; 2 Kings 2:9, 15), by inspiring the prophets (Isa 61:1: Ezekiel 2:2; Joel 2:28-29), and in the servant of the Lord (Isa 42:1). Mary here stands with others early in Luke’s story who experience the Holy Spirit coming upon them (John, 1:15; Elizabeth, 1:41; Zechariah, 1:67; Simeon, 2:25-26); and, of course, Jesus himself is filled with the Spirit (3:22; 4:1).
Holiness was a central element of piety in ancient Israel; the holy God called a holy people to live in covenant with him, and exhibit holiness in every aspect of life (Lev 11:44-45, 19:2, 20:7-8; Exod 19:6; Deut 7:6, 14:2, 21, 28:9). Following from this prophetic word to his pregnant mother, the adult Jesus was indeed known as “the holy one” (Mark 1:24; Luke 4:34; John 6:69; Acts 3:14, 13:35).
“Son of God” was also a phrase derived from older traditions; the king was regarded as God’s son (Ps 2:7; 2 Sam 7:14), commencing with David (Ps 89:26-28), and Israel as a whole was regarded as God’s son (Exod 4:22: Jer 31:9, 20). It is applied to Jesus with regularity in his adult life (Luke 4:3,9,41; 8:28; 22:70; Acts 9:20; John 1:34,49; 11:4,27; 19:7; 20:31) as well as in early confessions of faith (Rom 1:4; 2 Cor 1:19; Gal 2:20; Eph 4:13; Heb 4:14; 6:6; 10:29; 1 John 3:8; 4:15; 5:5; Rev 2:18).
Then, Gabriel tells Mary, “your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren” (1:35). The Hebrew Scriptures offer accounts of women thought unable to bear a child, being visited by an angel and gifted a child by God, such as Sarah (Gen 11:30), Rebekah (Gen 25:21), and the woman who bore Samson (Judges 13:3). This blessing from God is celebrated by the psalmist (Ps 113:9) and the prophet (Isa 54:1).
Gabriel’s final words are “nothing will be impossible with God” (1:35-36). This also is a biblical phrase; see Zechariah 8:6, and note also Gen 18:14 and Job 42:2.
Finally, to end the conversation, Mary concludes, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (1:38). She accepts what is in store for her. Traditional Christianity has highlighted this element in the story; Mary becomes the humble, self-effacing, obediently submissive, thoroughly passive figure of traditional Catholic piety.
This overlooks the fact that “here am I” was a standard response to a commission from God, spoken by faithful and fearless prophets, Moses (Exod 3:4), Samuel (1 Sam 3:4), Isaiah (Isa 6:8), Trito-Isaiah (Isa 65:1), and Jeremiah (Jer 26:14), as well as the psalmist (Ps 40:7), and the patriarchs, Abraham (Gen 22:1), Esau (Gen 27:1), Jacob (Gen 31:11 and 46:2). It is also the response of Ananias in Damascus to a vision of the Lord (Acts 9:10). Mary is here accepting a challenging divine commission, and pledging her commitment to the task. It is an activist’s response!
The interpretation of Mary as passive, humble, submissive and obedient also overlooks the feisty nature of Mary’s interchange with Gabriel, as we have traced it. And this feisty nature, with its prophetic focus and clarity, is made clear just a few verses later, as Mary sings in praise of God (1:39-45). In this song, she makes it clear that she is up for the task, that she has the vision of what God is doing in Jesus, that she is fully subscribed to working for the righteous-justice of God in the lives of her people!
The many scriptural resonances, both in that song (known as the Magnificat) and in the scene of the Annunciation, indicate that Mary is to be understand within the stream of prophetic figures in Hebrew Scripture. She was a force to be reckoned with!
The scene of the Annunciation closes with the brief note, “the angel departed from her” (1:38). The angel had left; but the consequences of this announcement would stay with Mary, through the coming months of her pregnancy and the birth of the child; and through the coming years, of his growth through childhood, his adulthood, and the tragic events of betrayal, trial, crucifixion and death.
Mary knew, from the start, of the significance of this child (at least as Luke tells in his orderly account). And what did Mary know, of the stories that were later told, that he proclaimed the kingdom, healed the sick, cast out demons, and had even been raised from the dead? And how did she speak of him, then?
Every Christmas, we are surrounded by images of the much-loved nativity scene: the infant Jesus, in a cradle, with his mother Mary sitting and his father Joseph standing nearby, surrounded by animals (cows, most often), with a group of shepherds (perhaps with their sheep) to one side, whilst on the other side three colourfully-dressed men stand with presents in hand: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
We see this image everywhere. But it is not an accurate portrayal of what was happening at the time when Jesus was born. For one thing, it is not a photograph of an actual event. Far from it. It is not even based on a written report from the first century, telling that this was what happened.
The traditional scene that we see today did not come into being until it was invented by the medieval friar, Francis of Assisi. Before that, it did not exist. And no Gospel account actually tells of cows mooing beside the newborn child, or of the newborn infant making no crying sounds, or of the sheep baaing alongside the cows, that we see in the traditional nativity scene.
Francis is the most popular Catholic saint in the world. He is the one who preached to the birds; blessed fish that had been caught, releasing them back into the water; and communicated with wolves, brokering an agreement between one famous ferocious wolf and the citizens of a town that were terrified of it. There is no surprise, then, that Francis used real animals when he created the very first, live, Christmas nativity scene. As a result of all these stories, Francis is the patron saint of animals and the environment. And he is the inventor of the familiar nativity scene.
Actually, this scene is a compilation of two quite discrete stories, told decades later, offering very different perspectives on the event, providing two somewhat different emphases in the story of the birth of this child. The nativity scene merges and blends the story found in the orderly account constructed by Luke, and the book of origins compiled by Matthew. Wise men and shepherds sit on each side of the family group, at the same time, in the same place, in this traditional scene. But not in our biblical accounts.
In the opening chapters of Matthew, we encounter the pregnant Mary, the newborn infant Jesus, his father Joseph, a bright star in the sky, visitors from the east, the tyrannical rule of Herod, and slaughtered infant boys. In this story, Matthew is working hard to place Jesus alongside the great prophet of Israel, Moses. The early years of Jesus unfold in striking parallel to the early years of Moses. The parallel patterns are striking.
Luke tells a more irenic version of the story than what is found in Matthew’s Gospel. The story told by Luke (usually represented through idyllic pastoral scenes and sweetly-singing angels), actually tells of a widespread movement of the population that meant a pregnant Mary, accompanied by Joseph, had to travel afar and find lodging in a crowded town just as the most inconvenient time.
There are historical problems with this story: identifying the census as an actual historical event, and locating it accurately in time, both present challenges; the fact that Herod, ruling in Matthew’s account, died in 4BCE, but Quirinius, who ordered the census noted in Luke’s account, began as Governor in 6 CE. However, the combined story has entered the popular mindset as a real event and provides a clear and compelling picture of the holy family as refugees, because of decisions made by political authorities, whether Herod or Quirinius.
We overlook, perhaps, that the shepherds who came in from the fields to pay homage to the newborn child would have been despised for carrying out a lowly and unworthy occupation. They were outcasts, considered impure and unclean, placed outside the circle of holiness within which good Jews were expected to live. In the Mishnah, a third century work which collects and discusses traditional Jewish laws, shepherds are classified amongst those who practice “the craft of robbers”. These are not highly valued guests!
Even though this is not an historical story, it is important for theological reasons. It is part of the foundational myth of the Christian faith. The writer of Matthew’s Gospel wants to make strong correlations between Jesus and Moses, not only in the mythological account found in the opening chapters, but also throughout the following chapters of the Gospel. The writer of Luke’s Gospel hints at his key themes in the opening chapter, and the develops a strong political and economic message throughout his Gospel: God reached out to the poor and powerless, and harshly judges the wealthy and powerful.
As myth, the tradition points to important truths. Matthew’s account of “the Slaughter of the Innocents”, for instance, although generated by his Moses typology, still grounds the story of Jesus in the historical, political, and cultural life of the day, when tyrants exercised immense power. Even though we recognise Matthew is not reporting an actual historical event, his narrative provides a dreadful realism to a story which, all too often in the developing Christian Tradition, became etherealised, spiritualised, and romanticised.
By the same token, Luke’s recounting of the visit of the outcast shepherds to the infant child and his family indicates that those on the edge were welcomed by Jesus throughout his ministry. He grounds the message of the Gospel in the heart of the needs of the people of his day.
So even as we recognise that the Christmas story is not history, we can appreciate the insights that it offers us as a mythological narrative. It is worth celebrating: not as an actual historical event, in the way it is traditionally portrayed, but as the foundation of the faith that we hold: in Jesus, God has come to be with us.
The Bible includes a significant number of texts which present very positive role models about women. Such texts can be found in the Gospels (reflecting the positive practices of Jesus) as well as in the letters of Paul and in Acts (reflecting the positive practices of Paul and the early church).
1 The positive practices of Jesus
Whilst the norm in Jewish society was that men did not speak to women in public, in John 4:5-9, 25-27 and other places we find that Jesus talked with women. Jesus encouraged women to be part of his inner group. Luke 8:1-3 indicates that the women ministered to Jesus as a part of his inner group of disciples. The word used to describe this support (diakoneo) is used as a technical term for a ministry role in the Gospels and the letters of Paul.
Jesus also commended women when it seems that the Law would not explicitly support their actions. In Luke 8:42-48, he commended a woman (unnamed) who was (according to Leviticus 15:25-30) ceremoniously unclean. In Luke 10:38-42, although Mary was doing something not at all traditional for women, Jesus commended her for sitting at his feet to learn from him.
At the last supper, women as well as men were present. If it was a Passover meal (as the Synoptic Gospels claim), then it was a family affair, with women as well as men present at the table for the festive celebration. Australian artist Margaret Auckland has created a wonderful artwork that depicts what the scene might have been like.
The Gospels clearly signal the important role played by women in the ministry of Jesus. Women were disciples of Jesus – the use of Greek word akoloutheo (a technical term for being a disciple) is the basic term for being a disciple (Luke 9:23, Acts 1:21-22) and is the same whether applied to men or women (as in Luke 23:27,49,55).
Women recognised the significance of Jesus: in John 4:28-30,39, a Samaritan woman confessed Jesus as Messiah, whilst in John 11:27 Martha’s confession of Jesus as Messiah and Son of God is the same as Peter’s confession in Matt 16:16. Placing these high confessional statements on the lips of women is significant.
Furthermore, women were eyewitnesses to the passion of Jesus. In contrast to the men, who deserted him (Mark 14:50), the women remained present throughout the last events of the life of Jesus (Mark 15:40-41, 47, 16:1; Luke 23:27-28, 44-49, 23:55-24:1). They provided the line of tradition, the assurance that the same person was crucified, buried, and raised; and that they went to the tomb where the body of Jesus had been laid, to anoint him.
Finally, women were witnesses to the risen Jesus. The consistent note in each Gospel is that women were the first witnesses to the risen Jesus: Matt 28:10, Mark 16:7, John 20:17-18, Luke 24:9. It was women who first declared “We saw him! The Lord is risen! He is alive!”
In Luke’s Gospel, the motif of faithful men and faithful women is heightened. Luke’s distinctive beginning to the story of Jesus introduces us to two faithful pairs: Zechariah and Elizabeth (1:5–25, 57–80), and Simeon and Anna (2:25-38), as well as to Mary, “the servant of the Lord” (1:38).
The end of the Gospel has a similar tendency. The Markan portrayal of the last hours of Jesus is stark: the male disciples desert him (Mark 14:43–46, 50, 51–52) and Peter betrays him (Mark 14:66–72) whilst the women watch from afar (Mark 15:40–41).
In Luke’s version, Peter’s betrayal of Jesus is interpreted as having been forced by Satan (Luke 22:31); the Markan comment that the men deserted him is omitted; and those who watched from afar include both genders: “all his acquaintances, including the women” (Luke 23:49).
In his account of Jesus’ preaching and teaching, Luke intensifies the theme of the faithfulness of women which was available to him in his sources. To the Markan account in which Jesus blesses an ill woman for her faith (Mark 5:34; Luke 8:48), Luke adds a similar commendation of another woman (7:50).
In the Acts of the Apostles, this strand of female faithfulness continues. The spirit is poured out upon males and females alike (Acts 2:17-18). Amongst the significant women who are presented as positive models of faithfulness, we find Tabitha in Joppa, a woman “full of good works, acts of charity” (9:36) and Mary, in whose house the believers meet in Jerusalem (12:12)
As Paul travels, he encounters Lydia in Philippi, who likewise provides hospitality to Paul and his companions (16:15); Priscilla, who with her husband, Aquila, teaches Apollos in Ephesus (18:26); and the four female prophets in Caesarea (21:9). Each of these women, we must conclude, exercise a leadership role in the early church. Some additional faithful women are noted amongst the converts in Antioch (13:50), Thessalonica (17:4), Beroea (17:12) and Athens (17:34).
When Jesus, early in his public activity, refers to the anonymous widow from Zarephath in Sidon (Luke 4:26) and the named male from Syria (Luke 4:27), he offers prototypes of those who will become faithful followers of Jesus. Both males and females will become disciples of Jesus, and later, members of the early church communities
Discipleship is inclusive in gender terms. Of particular note is the fact that Luke has Jesus explicitly draw attention to a faithful woman in his synagogue sermon in Nazareth, which functions as a manifesto for the whole of the ministry of Jesus. This emphasises that women enjoy equal status within the group of Jesus’ followers.
Some years ago, I gave a series of lectures on this topic, which I have self-published as At Table with Luke: four studies in Luke-Acts, and I have copies available for sale ($10 including postage) if you are interested.
Paul put this fundamental principle into practice in his missionary strategy and in the churches which he helped establish. Overall, Paul named ninety individuals associated with his mission – and 20% of these are women. (By comparison, Seneca, in 100 of his letters, named only one woman – as was typical of writers in antiquity.)
In Romans 16, Paul sent greetings to 29 individuals (as well as associated groups such as families/congregations). Of these 29, 10 are clearly females who have leadership roles. Paul worked happily and co-operatively with each of them in his missionary activities.
One of these women was Junia (Rom 16:7). From the 12th century, Junia was considered to have been a male; but prior to this, she was always acknowledged as a female – indeed, as one “esteemed among the apostles” (not “esteemed by the apostles” as older translations usually said).
Another woman was Phoebe (Rom 16:1-2). Two terms are used to indicate her leadership role. The first word, diakonos, is a term used by Paul to describe his own preaching activity. The correct translation should be deacon (not deaconess). The second word, prostatis, can mean “helper” in the sense of a “Girl Friday” – but it can also mean “benefactor” in the sense of one who helps from a position of prestige and power – as can be inferred from its use at Rom 12:8 and 1 Thess 5:12.
A third woman he named was Prisca (Rom 16:3-4). She is described as a fellow worker of Jesus Christ (as is her husband Aquila). This term is found in reference to many other individuals (Rom 16:9,21; 1 Cor 3:9,8:23; Phil 2:25,4:3) – usually in connection with the role of preacher/teacher (Acts 18:26). Both males and females engaged in these activities.
The sum total of the above picture is that we can begin to see abundant evidence, both in the ministry of Jesus and within the early church, for practices which place men and women on an equal footing, carrying out the same functions with equal status and responsibility.
More detailed discussion of these three women can be found at these websites: