Christmas time is coming, and I want to write about two fascinating books about the story of the conception and birth of Jesus. Both books are written by Christians, and both look closely at the scriptures to try to understand what the scriptures are saying, yet both come up with variations on the “first Christmas” that challenge the traditional assumptions.
The first book is called Closer to the Real Christmas Story, by Jared Burkholder and you can buy a copy of it at the Dorrance Publishing Company website (I got a copy through their now-defunct review program). The author of the book takes issue with several issues in the traditional Christmas story and he attempts to solve the issues by looking at the history and archeology of ancient Israel. He questions why Mary and Joseph would have money to stay at an inn, yet sacrifice two pigeons (the poorer person’s sacrifice) instead of a pigeon and a lamb. He argues that Mary and Joseph would have stayed with relatives. The Greek word kataluma, translated as inn in Luke 2:7 is translated elsewhere as a guest room, and that the guest room being occupied Mary and Joseph stayed in the main room of the house, which in its historical context could have easily been a split level building where the animals join the family during the night and a feeding trough (manger) is built into the floor.
The fact that the traditional Christmas story repaces this Middle Eastern commitment to family and hospitality with Western indivdiualism and isolationism illustrates how far the Christmas tradition has strayed from reality. Though the text does not explicitly mention the involvement of relatives, their involvement would be assumed by first century readers. Jesus’ birth in the home of a relative fits harmoniously with both the culture and the text as the story unfolds. (78)
Mr. Burkholder’s book is divided into two main parts. A large part of the book is written out as a children’s story with beautiful watercolor paintings. In his story the census is not an urgent requirement for everyone to travel (which would probably create no end of chaos) but a task that must be done. Mary and Joseph use the census as an reason to leave Nazareth and stay several months in Bethlehem so as to help obscure the irregularity in the timing of Mary’s pregnancy. At the end of each very short chapter there is a devotional section. Given the theme of the book the chapter names are bizarrely modern (such as “Star Trek” for the chapter about the wealth foreigners whose study of the stars led them). After all the chapters and their corresponding devotional sections comes the best part: the endnotes. This is where Mr. Burkholder really gets into looking at why he tells the story the way he does. Do not skip the endnotes!
Closer to the Real Christmas Story finds reasonable explanations for many of the troublesome details of the Christmas story. Yet it doesn’t question the idea of the virgin birth itself. For that, I turn to the book The Illegitimacy of Jesus: A Feminist Theological Interpretation of the Infancy Narrative by Jane Schaberg. I first borrowed that book from the library six or seven years ago but am lucky enough to now own my own copy. It is an academic book so it is laden with footnotes and side arguments and the names of Biblical scholars, but buried beneath all that and created out of all that is a truly beautiful story.
Jane Schaberg does not argue that the evangelists Luke and Matthew were wrong in saying that Jesus was born of a virgin. She argues something far more radical and wonderful than that. She argues that they never tried to say Jesus was born of a virgin. She argues that they as first century Palestinian men had a very limited ability to try to explain the rumors that Jesus was in fact illegitimate. Matthew hints at it through his inclusion of four women with irregular sexual histories in Jesus’ genealogy, and in his discussion of Joseph’s legal options – references Jane Schaberg says would hint at the likelihood that Mary was raped. Luke uses a step parallelism showing how Elizabeth was saved from barrenness, and Mary from an even greater humiliation. When Mary asks the angel how it will happen she has a child, he does not answer the question but assures her of God’s protection in what is to come. Ms. Schaberg draws a parallel between Mary’s consent to the angel’s message and Jesus’ consenting in the garden of Gethsemane.
Mary’s consent no more condones violence than Jesus’ consent condones the execution of the crucifiction. Consent is to God’s protection/salvation, not to the humiliation from which God protects/saves. Consent is to empowerment in the midst of humiliation. These passages depicts the two great moments in the New Testament of human acceptance of the divine will to covercome: in Jesus’ case, God’s will to covercome death; in Mary’s case, God’s will to overcome sexual humiliation. Jesus’ agony facing death was one that Luke could openly write about; Mary’s agony was one that he could not or would not. Luke’s dilemma here is that he cannot have Mary consent with foreknowledge precisely because in his understanding of the tradition he is trying to pass on, the conception occurs against her will, and she is innocent of complicity. In contrast, Jesus in his agony knowingly faces arrest and death, as Luke tells it. Jesus, of course, is also victimized against his will; his death is an execution, not a suicide. But it is easier to present the innocent martyr not resisting his death than to hand down the tradition about the innocent woman Mary and her illegitimate pregnancy. (122)
When I read these books, particularly Ms. Schaberg’s, I feel a sense of excitement, awe and relief. There is beauty and faith in the book. It is not about dismissing the Biblical writers as ignorant peasants but about viewing them as skilled writers communicating within the traditions of their milieu. It is not about doubting God’s word, but about believing in a form of Christianity that does not require us to embrace fairy tales, but positions God’s love in the real world. God was here with a desperate and humiliated woman. God was here with her son, inspiring and shaping him so that he reached out and transformed others. God was here with the followers of Jesus who took his story and asked what it could all mean.
You can read more about my thoughts on God and Christianity.