Christmas: The Origin Of The Nativity

It wasn’t uncommon in history to invent fantastic origin stories for famous individuals. Augustus Caesar’s birth was foretold by portents, according to the Roman historian Suetonius. I will be looking at Crossan’s argument for Caesar’s Pax Romana (Peace through Victory) vs Jesus’s Peace through Justice in later posts. For now, I’d like to consider the Christmas story.

Perhaps no one has called more attention to the fact that that the early Christian writers were using creative rewriting of Old Testament and Greek poetry sources to invent stories about Jesus than Robert M Price. Whether you agree with all of Price’s typologies or not, or with his conclusion that Jesus (such as with Paul’s writings) was originally seen as a mythical deity who was later placed in history by Mark, it’s fun to see how the various stories don’t record history, but rather legend and myth. Here are Price’s interpretation of the Christmas story as it appears in Matthew and Luke:

  • The Gospel of Matthew: The Nativity of Jesus

On the whole Matthew seems to have borrowed the birth story of Jesus from Josephus’ retelling of the nativity of Moses. Whereas Exodus had Pharaoh institute the systematic murder of Hebrew infants simply to prevent a strong Hebrew fifth column in case of future invasion, Josephus makes the planned pogrom a weapon aimed right at Moses, who in Josephus becomes a promised messiah in his own right. Amram and Jochabed, expecting baby Moses, are alarmed. What should they do? Abort the pregnancy? God speaks in a dream to reassure them. “One of those sacred scribes, who are very sagacious in foretelling future events truly, told the king that about this time there would a child be borne to the Israelites, who, if he were reared, would bring the Egyptian dominion low, and would raise the Israelites; that he would excel all men in virtue, and obtain a glory that would be remembered through the ages. Which was so feared by the king that, according to this man’s opinion, he commanded that they should cast every male child into the river, and destroy it… A man, whose name was Amram, … was very uneasy at it, his wife being then with child, and he knew not what to do… Accordingly God had mercy on him, and was moved by his supplication. He stood by him in his sleep, and exhorted him not to despair of his future favours… ‘For that child, out of dread for whose nativity the Egyptians have doomed the Israelites’ children to destruction, shall be this child of thine… he shall deliver the Hebrew nation from the distress they are under from the Egyptians. His memory shall be famous whole the world lasts.’” (Antiquities, II, IX, 2-3)

            It is evident that Matthew has had merely to change a few names. Herod the Great takes the role of the baby-killing Pharaoh, and he is warned by his own scribes (along with the Magi) of the impending birth of a savior, whereupon he resolves to kill every child he has to in order to eliminate the child of promise. Joseph takes the place of Amram, though the precise cause of his unease is different. Mary takes the place of Jochabed. A dream from God steels Joseph, like Amram, in his resolve to go through with things.

            The rest of Matthew’s birth story is woven from a series of formulaic scripture quotations. He makes Isaiah 7:14 LXX refer to the miraculous virginal conception of Jesus. It is likely that he has in this case found a scripture passage to provide a pedigree for a widespread hagiographical mytheme, the divine paternity of the hero, which had already passed into the Christian tradition, unless of course this is the very door through which it passed.

            It is revealing that Matthew’s Magi learn from scribal exegesis of Micah 5:2 that the messiah must be born in Bethlehem. This is the same way Matthew “knew” Jesus was born there–it had to be!

            The flight of the Holy Family into Egypt comes equally from exegesis, this time of Hosea 11:1, which allows Matthew to draw a parallel between his character Joseph and the Genesis patriarch Joseph, who also went to Egypt. Matthew also seems here to want to foreshadow the death and resurrection of Jesus. Note that Isaiah 52:9-10 makes the exodus from Egypt into a historical replay of God’s primordial victory over the sea dragon Rahab, equating Egypt with Rahab. Matthew also knew that Jonah was swallowed by a sea monster at God’s behest, and he saw this as a prefiguration of Jesus’ descent into the tomb (Matthew 12:40). The flight into Egypt has the child Jesus already going down into Rahab, the belly of the sea beast.

            The closest Matthew can come, via punning exegesis, to providing a prooftext for Jesus having become known as “the Nazarene” would seem to be Judges 13:7, “The boy shall be a Nazirite to God from birth.” He knew Jesus must be born in Bethlehem yet was called “Jesus of Nazareth,” so he cobbled together a story whereby Jesus was born in Mary and Joseph’s home in Bethlehem, only to relocate in Nazareth (after Egypt) to avoid the wrath of Archelaus (Matthew 2:22-23). Luke, on the other hand, working with the same two assumptions, contrived to have Mary and Joseph live in Nazareth but to be in Bethlehem for the census when the time came for Jesus to be born. In both cases, exegesis has produced narrative.

  • The Gospel of Luke: The Nativities of Jesus and John (1:1-2:52)

The fundamental source of Luke’s double nativity story is the nativity of Samuel. Eli becomes Simeon (and perhaps also Zachariah), while barren Hannah becomes old Elizabeth (and Mary, too, if we accept the majority of manuscripts’ attribution of the Magnificat to her instead of Elizabeth, 1:46-55). The Magnificat is clearly a paraphrase of Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 1-10. The repeated refrain of Jesus’ continuing growth in wisdom and favor with God and men (2:40, 52, cf., 1:80) comes directly from 1 Samuel 2:26, “Now the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the LORD and with men.”

            The birth annunciation to Mary recalls those of Isaac (Genesis 17:19, “Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name…”; 18:9-15) and Samson (Judges 13:2-5, “you shall conceive and bear a son… and he shall begin to deliver Israel…”). The story also borrows from the commissioning stories of Moses (Exodus 3:10-12) and Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:4-8), where the servant of God objects to the divine summons and his objection is overruled (see Luke 1:18, 34).

            A less familiar source for the Lukan nativity story is the nativity of Moses as told in Pseudo-Philo’s Biblical Antiquities, where we read that, during Pharaoh’s persecution of the Hebrew babies, Amram has determined to defy Pharaoh by having a son. God makes known his will by sending an angel to the virgin Miriam. “And the Spirit of God came upon Miriam one night, and she saw a dream and told it to her parents in the morning, saying, ‘I have seen this night, and behold a man in a linen garment stood and said to me, “Go, and say to your parents, ‘Behold, he who will be born from you will be cast forth into the water; likewise through him the water will be dried up. And I will work signs through him and save my people, and he will exercise leadership always’”’” (9:10).

            The angel Gabriel’s predictions in Luke 1:32-33, 35 derive from an Aramaic version of Daniel: “[And when the Spirit] came to rest up[on] him, he fell before the throne. [Then Daniel rose and said,] ‘O king, why are you angry; why do you [grind] your teeth? [The G]reat [God] has revealed to you [that which is to come.] … [Peoples will make war,] and battles shall multiply among the nations, until [the king of the people of God arises… [All the peoples will serve him,] and he shall become gre[at] upon the earth… He will be called [son of the Gr]eat [God;] by his Name shall he be designated. He will be called the son of God. They will call him son of the Most High… His kingdom will be an eternal kingdom, and he will be righteous in all his ways” (4Q246, The Son of God).

            When Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth, the latter’s unborn child, John the Baptizer, leaps in the womb in greeting to acknowledge the greater glory of the unborn Jesus. Here, as G.R. Driver pointed out, Luke refers to Genesis 25:22 LXX, where Rebecca is in pain because her two rival sons strive within her as a sign of fraternal discord to come: “And the babes leaped within her.” This precedent Luke seeks to reverse by having the older cousin, John, already deferring in the womb to his younger cousin. Here he has an eye on the rival John the Baptist sect whom he thus tries to conciliate and coopt.

  • Do check out Price’s essay here: , originally published in The Encyclopedia Of Midrash. The important scholar Dr. Alan Avery Peck says he agrees with most of the typologies Price identifies, and that The Jewish Annotated New Testament continues the analysis forward in a fruitful manner. Interpretively, a particular story may be borrowing in part or in whole, and so it becomes very difficult to sift out the historical core if, there is any …