I trust it will come as news to very few that the canonical gospels offer us two Christmas stories, and to those who have actually read the accounts it is clear that the two bear little resemblance to one another. To be sure, the names of the infant, his mother, his nominal father, and the place of birth are the same; but nearly all the other details stand in striking and irreconcilable conflict. Does this mean that Matthew’s narrative or Luke’s—or both—are simply to be rejected as wildly unreliable? Not if we adopt the strategy of understanding the two tales not as failed attempts at history, but as brilliantly conceived and wonderfully effective parables.
First off, no one familiar with the scriptures should be unsettled by encountering differing versions of the same event; after all, we have two mutually contradictory creation accounts, two conflicting but conflated flood stories, and three variations on the Goliath legend. Or move forward a millennium and a half: no one seems to feel it necessary to assail Malory for employing successive passages in Le Mort d’Arthur to report the hero-king’s pagan death rites arranged by the Lady of the Lake and his Christian funeral mass celebrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury. One need only make the simple assumption that after sailing off to Avalon he ascended into Heaven.
Nor should we view with dismay the use of parable by the gospel writers. To do so we should have to overlook the scholarly consensus that in his brief but brilliant career devoted to elucidating the mysteries of God’s reign, Jesus’ favorite and most effective pedagogical strategy involved the inherent challenge of the parable—no doubt because of the stimulus to new vision that these often puzzling tales prompted. If the method so well served the publisher, shall we deny it to his reporters?
And parables these two birth stories almost certainly are. One bit of indirect evidence for this assertion is the total lack of any parallel narratives in the gospels attributed to Mark and John. In the case of Mark, who wrote fifteen or twenty years before Matthew and Luke created their shepherds, wise men, and angels, it is difficult to imagine that he would have omitted an account of Jesus’ birth if one existed in either the oral or written traditions he followed. A reasonable deduction is that one did not then exist. After all, it is highly unlikely that an unwed teenage girl from the very bottom of the socio-economic ladder—and one of those proverbially contemptible Galileans at that—would attract much attention by becoming a mother. Unless, of course, a star should achieve geosynchronous orbit, or a winged choral group should fly in for the occasion. But in that case Mark would surely have heard the story; and always eager to cite miraculous evidence, he could hardly have passed up such a golden opportunity to attest his hero’s divine origin.
John, writing a decade or two after Matthew and Luke, has a quite different reason for omitting a birth story. His portrait of a radically transcendent Jesus would be spoiled by an all-too-human origin. Indeed, John deploys theological countermeasures by identifying his protagonist as the divine Logos, the all-but-ineffable Spirit of Wisdom, and as such present with the Creator even before creation. What an anti-climax it would be to have a trio of foreign astrologers or a gaggle of smelly shepherds show up!
Now comes the crunch. For even if I may be so sanguine as to suppose that you have been thus far persuaded, it is now necessary to try to convince you by direct evidence that we are indeed dealing with stories that have at least the appearance of parables. To do that, I must provide at least a credible purpose for each of the two, and way of understanding each that suits well with both its narrative content and the overall thematic thrust of the gospel it introduces.
Let’s begin with Matthew’s parable, which is a distinctly theological one. Most readers, I expect, are aware of the all-but-unanimous consensus that Matthew is the most Jewish of the evangelists, and that his proclamation is addressed to a primarily Jewish community. How best could he persuade such an audience to transfer their spiritual allegiance from the Torah, on which was based the faith of their fathers, to the Kingdom of God proclaimed by this latter-day prophet-messiah? No forensic premise could better undergird that appeal than to portray him as the new and improved version of Moses, the very prophet of old through whom the Torah had originally been revealed.
We today see only an outline sketch of Matthew’s dual portrait. The parallels become striking when we examine the Moses of Targum and Midrash, the Moses of the popular tradition familiar to first-century Jews: as pharaoh ordered the death of the Hebrew children to get rid of Moses, so Herod’s slaughter of the innocents was aimed at eliminating Jesus; as Moses’ father responded to his daughter’s vision by re-marrying the wife he had divorced, so Joseph followed divine guidance in marrying Mary rather than casting her aside; as Moses was hidden amongst bulrushes and taken to be raised in pharaoh’s court, so Jesus is concealed by his family’s flight into pharaoh’s domain—surely a deft, ironic twist.
The parable becomes more pointedly religious when Matthew pulls Isaiah 7:14 from one pocket to provide a special birth and Micah 5:2 from the other to have it take place in Bethlehem. Both “proofs” work nicely on the mythic level, but very badly on the historical. As for the latter issue, Matthew has the happy couple living in Bethlehem and gets them to Nazareth (where everyone knew Jesus grew up) only by an incredible and very badly planned detour through Egypt. (It did, however, allow the author to insert one more proof-text: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” The fact that in Hosea 11:1 “my son” referred to the people of Israel was no problem in the good old days of flexible interpretation.) And as we shall soon see, Luke offers us a very different but equally dubious itinerary from Nazareth to Bethlehem and back again. And for the former claim, the most glaring “historical” problem posed by the story, I refer you to any modern biology text—or to cumulative human experience.
Of course we must not forget those Mesopotamian astrologers. Although one may question the wisdom of men who travel westward to follow a star they have seen in the eastern sky (don’t worry, it’s simply an inept translation), these magi, upon whom were bestowed not only royal status but names as the legend grew, play a vital role in the parable. They fulfill the ancient promises (Isaiah 55:3–5 is one of many examples) that one day all the nations of the world will come to Zion to learn God’s ways and follow his eternal law. Here we see it happen: the wisest of the wise have come to bow before a Wisdom greater than that of Moses; the nations of the world have come home to God in the person of his Son. The final consummation of the great covenant has begun.
Luke, on the other hand, chose to create a political parable; after all, his audience is the gentile population of the Roman Empire. At the surface level, he presents a highly stylized diptych, a comparative study of John the Baptist and Jesus with the former serving largely as a foil to emphasize the special nature and mission of the latter. We may embrace his judgment of their relative importance while yet entertaining serious doubts concerning the details. The reported kinship of Mary and Elizabeth, for instance, challenges our credence on several counts. More difficult yet is the trip from Nazareth (which everyone knew was Jesus’ hometown to the distant Bethlehem (where one had to be born to be in the running for the title of Messiah). Yes, a census for taxation was proclaimed, and it was carried out under Quirinius; but it occurred when Jesus was about ten years old. The reported method of registration lays an even greater tax on our credulity. Imagine trying to prove to a Roman official that King David was your direct ancestor twenty-eight generations back. Imagine a Roman official caring one way or the other. Imagine the Roman governor ordering all those desperately oppressed and historically rebellious people to leave home and travel about the countryside. Imagine a dirt-poor Galilean peasant with enough spare cash for a trip of about a week—and enough extra to take his wife along.
Naturally the angels have to be brought in to testify to God’s sponsorship of the event, and the shepherds are a nice touch to indicate divine concern for the bottom of the social order as well as the top. But Dom Crossan argues that just as with Matthew, the underlying point of Luke’s parable was as clear to first-century subjects of imperial Rome as it is all but invisible to us.
Julius Caesar having claimed descent from the hero Aeneas and the goddess Aphrodite, the whole dynasty down to Augustus and beyond can invoke divine antecedents—and of course they do. Surely our hero has to be as well or better provided. The only stumbling-block to the claim of virgin birth (many an ancient hero was so honored) was Mary’s distinct lack of social standing. What sort of god would consort with a peasant girl? Not to worry: Luke provides her with family ties to the temple priesthood and the inspired presence of mind to cobble together a lovely but appropriately humble acceptance speech using bits from the psalms and the prophets, with some material from the Torah and Job stirred in for good measure.
The key piece of evidence for Crossan, though admittedly its application is inferential, is much more solid. It is a commemorative pillar dating to 9 CE (possibly the very year Jesus made his bar mitzvah) that in its inscribed dedication to Augustus employs what sounds for all the world like a paraphrase of Luke 2:10–11, 14: “The birthday of our God [Augustus] signals good news for the world, for this our savior will bring us peace.” If any borrowing is indicated, it must have been Luke who did it, since he wrote some seventy years later. And thus we have material evidence to reinforce the textually based indications of a political theme inherent in Luke’s message. This motif can be seen not only in the administrative execution of John the Baptist and a time of birth fixed by reference to emperors, governors, and a taxation census, but most of all in its implicit but radical challenge to the existing order of this world: Where do you see God made manifest? In whom is the unseen order of things most meaningfully revealed? Is it the imperial Caesar or the peasant Jesus?
Or, as Matthew might have put it, “Will you live by Moses’ 613 statutes or by Jesus’ law of neighborly love?” Pick your parable. Each poses as powerful and disturbing a question today as it did then. Each cuts to the heart of the Christmas story and the Christian message. What kind of a world do you want for you and your children to live in? What are you willing to do—how will you give of yourself—to make that world come to pass?
What gift will you offer to Jesus?