Saturday, 25 April 2009

The Nativity Re-Examined

The Nativity is one of the most iconic episodes in the Christian corpus. The Nativity depicted in the Gospels of Matthew & Luke feature dramatic elements; the fulfillment of prophecy & miraculous phenomena, this essay will examine those key aspects of the Nativity as contained in the canonical Gospels.

The Nativity account in the gospel of Matthew has an unnamed angel of the Lord announce to Joseph that his wife Mary has conceived by the Holy Spirit in culmination of the words of Isaiah 7:14:

"The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel" which means, "God with us."
Matthew 1:23 (NIV)

Matthew 1:23 quotes from the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures which uses the Greek noun parthenos (virgin) to translate the Hebrew noun`almah. However the Septuagint translation of Isaiah 7:14 is controversial as many scholars do not consider`almah to specifically mean virgin but rather young woman. The word `almah' occurs only seven times in the Old Testament, most Bible translations (including the KJV) do not consistently translate this word as virgin. With the exception of Isaiah 7:14 translators usually translate `almah as girl or maiden.

The list below shows a sample of translations & the number of times `almah is translated as virgin out of its seven occurrences:

KJV 4/7

ASB 1/7

NIV 2/7

NRSV 0/7

If the author's intention was to show that the mother of Immanuel would be a virgin he could have used the feminine noun bĕthuwlah, a word that occurs fifty times in the Old Testament such as Genesis 24:16 & Judges 21:12:

The girl was very beautiful, a virgin; no man had ever lain with her. She went down to the spring, filled her jar and came up again.

Genesis 24:16 (NIV)

They found among the people living in Jabesh Gilead four hundred young women who had never slept with a man, and they took them to the camp at Shiloh in Canaan

Judges 21:12 (NIV)

In the gospel of Luke the angel Gabriel, (who's only other canonical appearance is in the strangely non-Aramaic portions of Daniel chapters 8-12) announces to Mary that she will birth the son of David. Later in Luke 2:34-35 a devout man named Simeon utters a prophecy regarding the infant Jesus. Also after the boy Jesus is found in the temple teaching the teachers Luke 2:51 states that his mother treasured all these things in her heart. So the Nativity accounts present the mother of Jesus knowing that her son would later grow up to be the promised Messiah, yet the Gospel of Mark features the following curious incident:

Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, "He is out of his mind."

Then Jesus' mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, "Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you." "Who are my mother and my brothers?" he asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, "Here are my mother and my brothers!

Mark 3:20-21, 31-34 (NIV)

Mark 3:21 reports that Jesus own family thought he had gone out of his mind, it could be argued the text does not explicitly state that Jesus mother felt this way, but such reasoning is a stretch of logic when you consider that Mark 3 states his family ... went to take charge of him, for they said, He is out of his mind & only ten verses later Mark reports that Jesus' mother and brothers arrived. The idea that Jesus mother was ignorant of her son's messianic role casts huge doubt on the authenticity of the Nativity accounts found in Matthew & Luke, a situation confounded further still by the Wedding in Cana, an incident found only in the Gospel of John, at John 2:3-4 Jesus mother (who is unnamed in John's Gospel) seems to be asking her son to miraculously remedy the wine shortage, to which Jesus replies My time has not yet come.

So either the mother of Jesus knew her son to be the promised Messiah, or she did not.

Matthew presents Magi from the east who claim to have seen a star in the east symbolizing the arrival of the Messiah, King Herod secretly summons the Magi to find the Messiah so he can worship him, actually Herod wants the Messiah killed, after this the star they [the magi] had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. So who are the Magi? The word Magi is magos (magician) in the Greek text, aside from the three occurrences of the word in Matthew chapter 2, magos appears only two other times in the New Testament; namely at Acts 13:6 & Acts 13:8 where the word is usually translated sorcerer. The related verb mageuō (sorcery) occurs at Acts 8:9 in connection with Simon Magus. The references to magos in Matthew's Nativity are the only times the word is portrayed in anything other then a negative light (see also Leviticus 19:26 & Deuteronomy 18:10), neither do we find any scriptural reference that would imply that the inclusion of this incident in the Bible serves the function of prophetic fulfillment.

Matthew's Nativity is concerned with the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy such as at Matthew 2:6/Micah 5:2, Matthew 2:15/Hosea 11:1, & Matthew 2:18/Jeremiah 31:15. Matthew 2:23 claims that he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: "He will be called a Nazarene." yet nowhere in the Prophets or elsewhere in the Old Testament do we find the expression He will be called a Nazarene.

The apocryphal (non-canonical) Infancy Gospel of Thomas (not to be confused with the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas) & the Infancy Gospel of James also contain traditions related to the birth & boyhood of Jesus including the boy Jesus in the temple, found also in Luke's Gospel.

Compare Luke 2:41-52 with the following version given in Thomas 9:1-5:

And when he was twelve years old his parents went according to the custom unto Jerusalem to the feast of the passover with their company: and after the passover they returned to go unto their house. And as they returned the child Jesus went back to Jerusalem; but his parents supposed that he was in their company. And when they had gone a day's journey, they sought him among their kinsfolk, and when they found him not, they were troubled, and returned again to the city seeking him. And after the third day they found him in the temple sitting in the midst of the doctors and hearing and asking them questions. And all men paid heed to him and marvelled how that being a young child he put to silence the elders and teachers of the people, expounding the heads of the law and the parables of the prophets. And his mother Mary came near and said unto him: Child, wherefore hast thou so done unto us? behold we have sought thee sorrowing. And Jesus said unto them: Why seek ye me? know ye not that I must be in my Father's house? But the scribes and Pharisees said: Art thou the mother of this child? and she said: I am. And they said unto her: Blessed art thou among women because God hath blessed the fruit of thy womb. For such glory and such excellence and wisdom we have neither seen nor heard at any time. And Jesus arose and followed his mother and was subject unto his parents: but his mother kept in mind all that came to pass. And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature and grace. Unto him be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Infancy Gospel of Thomas 9:1-5 (M . R. James Translation)

The Wikipedia article: The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, has the following to say regarding the possible oral traditions from which Thomas was conceived:

Scholars generally agree on a date in the mid- to late-second century AD, since there are two second century documents, the Epistula Apostolorum [Letter of the Apostles] and Irenaeus' Adversus haereses [Against Heresies] , which refer to a story of Jesus' tutor telling him, "Say alpha," and him replying, "First tell me what beta is." It is generally agreed that there was at least some period of oral transmission of the text, either wholly or as several different stories before it was first redacted and transcribed, and it is thus entirely possible that both of these texts and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas all refer to the oral versions of this story.

The Infancy Gospel of Thomas
from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Marcion's Gospel of the Lord (144 -160 C.E?) was a version of Luke's Gospel that did not feature a Nativity, did the Gospel of the Lord reflect an earlier manuscript tradition that did not feature the Nativity? The Gospel of the Nazoraeans was the most widely known of the uncanonized gospels yet all copies of it have been lost or destroyed, we know of it via extensive quotations by the Church Fathers. Epiphanius (c 320 - 403 C.E) & others describe the work as a Hebrew version of Matthew's Gospel:

They too accept Matthew's Gospel and like the followers of Cerinthus and Merinthus, they use it alone. They call it the Gospel according to the Hebrews, for in truth Matthew alone in the New Testament expounded and declared the Gospel in Hebrew using Hebrew script.

Panarion Section 2 - 3:7

Yet, just like the Gospel of the Lord; the Gospel according to the Hebrews did not feature a Nativity, instead beginning with the words:

In the days of King Herod of Judea, a certain man named John came baptizing with a baptism of repentance in the river Jordan.

Panarion Section 2 -3:6


Since the earliest extant fragments of Luke & Matthew (P4, P64, P75) are dated to the late 2nd/early 3rd century we cannot be certain the original gospels included a Nativity at all. The Nativity & boyhood narratives in Matthew, Luke, & the apocrypha are testament to the diverse reactions that the ancient world had towards , something reflected by the reply of Peter at Mark 8:

Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, "Who do people say I am?" they replied, "Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets." "But what about you?" he asked. "Who do you say I am?" Peter answered, "You are the Christ."

Mark 8:27-29 (NIV)

With the recent proliferation of antichrist sentiment espoused by The Da Vinci Code (2003), Zeitgeist: The Movie (2007) & via the rising current of fundamentalist atheism; Jesus question "Who do you say I am?" is as vital today as it was two thousand years ago.

Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.

Luke 7:23 (NIV)

At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased."

Mark 1:9-11 (NIV)

1 comment:

nick_drake said...

The Gospel of Mark, the first gospel written has no virgin-birth narrative. It would be impossible to argue that it wasn't noteworthy enough for the anonymous author of Mark to not mention.

First followers of Jesus did not think he was divine, nor was he born of a virgin. Only later as the myth gets hashed out does Jesus go from adopted by god at his baptism, to son of god, to god. A nice upward career trajectory, no doubt.