When Christmas finally arrives we have been anticipating the day for an entire year. Our experience is profoundly different from that of the people we encounter in the Matthean and Lucan Nativity narratives. In an earlier essay (“What is Really Real?: Ktisis as Ontology,” October 14, 2015) I noted the disjunction between the phenomenology of an infant in an feeding trough and the ontology of a divine invasion of the kosmos. The sovereign Lord of the universe could have imposed his will on a rebellious world in the form of crushing might; instead he brought judgement and salvation through the vulnerability of a baby born to a poor, simple couple. Luke was not alone in recognizing the incongruity of the elements of the Nativity. In a remarkably different (though compatible) account, Matthew reported the incredulity of Joseph and he described the fear and fury of Herod in the audience he granted to the magi.
In an attempt to assuage our enlightened discomfort with such incredible impossibilities, some exegetes have attempted to sweep the miraculous from the biblical texts by explaining that the people we encounter in the Bible lived in a prescientific culture. Living in a “demon-haunted world” (as Carl Sagan described such a primitive worldview), they could accept such indefensible claims as a virgin birth. As we engage the biblical texts, we must be cautious not to fall into this trap, thus demeaning the people we encounter there. Writing in approximately the time of the assassination of Julius Caesar (44 B.C.), Cicero explained lunar eclipses as the result of the Moon passing through the shadow cast by the Earth and solar eclipses as the result of the Moon blocking the light from the Sun (On Divination 2.6.17); in both instances his answers would satisfy Carl Sagan the astronomer. In the same century Vitruvius explained a method to confirm that a surface is level using a channel of water. After describing the procedure, he conceded that the surface of the water is not actually flat; rather that surface is a segment of a sphere whose center is at the center of the Earth (On Architecture 8.5.3). The world is not flat, and the ancients did not automatically attribute all wonders to the acts of gods or of demons. Cicero and Vitruvius (and, presumably, their readers) were not the simple primitives that we “enlightened” people might imagine them to be.
If we allow science to be the measure of all “genuine” truth and if we, in our ignorance, claim that the ancients were blind to that “obvious” fact, we will never comprehend the profound wonder of the Nativity. Joseph (betrothed husband of Mary) was not the simpleton modern skeptics have imagined him to be. He might not have been equipped to explain eclipses or the spherical shape of the Earth; nevertheless, he comprehended some of the basics of human reproduction. Confronted with the news of Mary’s condition, this “righteous man” who “did not want to expose her to public disgrace” decided “to divorce her quietly” (Matt 1:19 NIV 1984). Though Joseph could not have provided us with a scientifically accurate account of human conception, he was familiar enough with the process to know that a man was supposed to be involved intimately in the event (and that he was not that man). Even this carpenter residing in first-century Nazareth recognized the impossibility of a virgin birth. A nocturnal encounter with the Angel of the Lord allowed him to believe despite his unbelief. In our most honest moments we confess that we know this mélange of faith and doubt.
Herod’s wrath is notorious, but the Slaughter of the Innocents is undocumented outside of Matthew’s Gospel. Possessing such meager evidence, can we trust the veracity of this account? In the late decades of the first century A.D., under the patronage of Emperor Vespasian, Josephus composed a pair of histories intended to make his Jewish nation more comprehensible to a Roman audience. In both Antiquities (16.392-394) and Wars of the Jews (1.550-551) he narrated the tragic fate of a pair of brothers: Alexander and Aristobulus. Though they were sons of Herod, the king perceived them to be political threats. Their mother, Mariamne, was descended from the ruling family that had preceded the reign of Herod; therefore, these brothers had a more authentic royal genealogy than did their father. After an extended court intrigue, Herod had these two sons executed and buried next to their mother, who had herself been executed earlier on the order of Herod, her husband (Antiquities 15.231).
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him (Matthew 2:1-3 NIV 1984).
With their seemingly innocent question, unwittingly the magi had sealed the fate of the infant boys of Bethlehem. Alexander and Aristobulus had learned the destiny of those born with a better claim to the throne than that of Herod. The “one born king of the Jews,” though a child, was an intolerable threat to the one who wielded the weapons of this world. Only Matthew documented the horror that followed what might seem to be a simple inquiry by the visitors from the East, but his account matches what we know of the character of the Roman puppet who would slaughter anyone, including his own sons, whom he perceived to be a threat. Joseph and Mary would need a sturdy faith to endure the challenges ahead of them as parents of the Messiah.
Even a narrative as seemingly preposterous as the Nativity can endure careful scrutiny and critical examination. In fact, the depth of the narrative is revealed most clearly when such inspection is conducted. In the end, however, that analysis is incomplete if the learned study is not coupled with faith.
What child is this, who, laid to rest,
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing:
Haste, haste to bring Him laud,
The babe, the son of Mary.
. . .
So bring him incense, gold, and myrrh,
Come, peasant, king, to own him.
The King of kings salvation brings,
Let loving hearts enthrone him.
Raise, raise a song on high,
The virgin sings her lullaby
Joy, joy for Christ is born,
The babe, the Son of Mary. (William C. Dix, 1865)
The analysis is incomplete if the learned study is not coupled with faith . . . and worship.
Sagan, Carl. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Random House, 1996.