This is a copy of a paper given by The Revd Canon Dr Peter Shepherd to the Modern Church Forum on the 6.12.21. Forum is the regular discussion based meeting of Modern Church members – email email@example.com for more.
This paper is not exhaustive, although it has ended up being rather longer than I had anticipated! Apologies. My main intention is to provide sufficient information to raise issues for discussion, but I will begin by setting out my own Christological position, as it obviously impacts the ensuing argument. It is clear that how we understand the ‘Christmas stories’ will affect, to a greater or lesser extent, how we perceive and seek to understand the person of Christ. If we believe that the ‘Virginal Conception’ (better than ‘Virgin Birth’, I think) is a ‘biological’(!) ‘fact’(!) i.e. Jesus was conceived without a human father (the ‘how’ is somewhat opaque), then our Christology will inevitably be very different from that of those who do not share that view. A Christ whose conception and birth are supernatural will be totally unlike a Christ whose conception and birth are entirely natural. Just how different and how unlike is moot; but it is the essence of Christology.
My training has been in both history and theology (with a special interest in Christian doctrine) and, after many years studying and reflecting on the relevant texts, beginning with A Level Biblical Studies in the late 60s (my 6th form teacher was member of the Plymouth Brethren, against whose fundamentalist views I rebelled strongly; he later, sadly, lost his faith entirely), I have concluded that there is no historical core to be found in any of the nativity stories, save that Jesus was born, probably in Nazareth (the Evangelists refer to him as ‘Jesus of/from Nazareth’, never ‘Jesus of Bethlehem’; Bethlehem, ‘Royal David’s City’, is clearly a symbolic location, resonating with political and religious meaning), and that his mother was almost certainly named Mary.
I believe that Jesus had a human father (how could he be genuinely human, as the Church has always affirmed, or even male, if his chromosomal/genetic make-up were entirely female in origin?), but that his identity has been lost to history. Joseph may have been Jesus’ father, although he was always bound to ‘play second fiddle’ to God in the Christian narrative. Tradition emphasises that Joseph was ‘an old man’, even though old age is no barrier to fathering a child. That tradition was clearly aimed at ensuring that Joseph remained an unlikely candidate for fatherhood. The NT names several brothers and has unnamed sisters of Jesus who, again for theological reasons (the perpetual virginity of Mary), are assumed to be Joseph’s children from an earlier marriage, although that is never made explicit in the texts. In fact, in Matthew 1: 25 we read: “But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son”. In other words, Mary and Joseph did (eventually) engage in sexual intercourse: if she had been a virgin before, she wasn’t afterwards. Both Luke and John call Jesus ‘son of Joseph’ (Mark doesn’t mention Joseph at all). Luke, in his genealogy, 3: 23, qualifies Joseph’s fatherhood with “so it was thought”, whilst still affirming that Jesus is a descendent of David, via Joseph. Matthew 1: 16 makes the link not via Joseph but via Mary. Some will claim that Joseph’s role extends only to bringing Jesus up as an ‘adoptive’ father. Other commentators have found value in the idea that a young Mary was raped by a Roman soldier (cf. Life of Brian); others, still, have argued that Zechariah impregnated Mary on God’s instructions (what, after all, was Luke’s purpose in having Mary go to Elizabeth’s, and why did he have her spend so long there?). But all of the above is pure speculation: there is no evidence that enables us to reach any particular conclusion on the issue of Jesus’ paternity at all.
We can even invoke Paul as an indirect witness to Jesus’ entirely normal conception and birth, even though he otherwise shows little interest in Jesus’ life. Writing to the Churches in Galatia (late 40s/early 50s?), he tells them that Jesus was “born of a woman, born under the law” (Gal 4: 4). Whilst not particularly informative, it certainly implies that Jesus was born as any other Jewish baby, and doesn’t hint of anything unusual having occurred. Indeed, earlier in that same letter, Paul had described meeting James, Jesus’ brother (Gal 1: 19) whilst visiting Jerusalem. It seems likely, even probable, that had Jesus’ conception and birth been at all out of the ordinary, James would have known that and would surely have informed Paul: it would have been superb corroboration of Jesus’ special nature and role. It seems clear to me that the traditions of a virginal conception and supernatural context for Jesus’ birth arose some considerable time after Paul (the author of Mark, writing later than Paul, around 70, shows no knowledge of them) and, in the absence of any other evidence, were created by Luke and Matthew.
The particular doctrine of a virginal conception is a clear expression of theological, non-univocal, language, possibly based (at least in part) on the LXX’s translation (used by the Evangelists) of the Hebrew ‘almah’ (young woman) in Isaiah 7: 14 as the Greek ‘parthenos’ (‘virgin’). Whilst ‘parthenos’ is a perfectly adequate translation of ‘almah’, its meaning is much narrower in focus: ‘almah’ normally means ‘young woman’ in a broad sense (all women who are young), but can also mean ‘virgin’; ‘parthenos’ normally means ‘virgin’ in a narrow sense, but can also mean ‘young woman’ (not all young women are virgins, but virgins are, in the main, young women). It is interesting that many, if not most, modern English translations of the Bible have ‘virgin’ in Is 7: 14, while also providing a footnote with the alternative, ‘young woman’. Clearly the translation decision has been primarily driven by Christian theology. Hebrew actually has a separate word for ‘virgin’: ‘betulah’, if that had been what First Isaiah had in mind although, in the context of the whole passage, he clearly didn’t (as in English, ‘betulah’ is capable of a metaphorical usage e.g. “virgin Israel” in Amos 5: 2). The idea of special conception and/or birth is claimed in many stories in the ancient world (such as Romulus and Remus, founders of Rome, born of the virgin Rhea Silvia) and in other religions, aimed at demonstrating the importance of certain individuals. What, for example, is the fundamental difference between the Christian idea of ‘virginal conception’ and stories prevalent in the ancient world which assert that some, like Hercules, were progeny of a god-mortal relationship (except, of course, that in Mary’s case the story is far more subtle: there is no suggestion of a divine-mortal sexual liaison, as appears in some Greek and Roman myths)? We might, however, consider the image represented by Luke 1: 35: “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (my italics) as compared with that found in an ancient Egyptian Temple relief describing how Pharoah, the ‘only begotten son’ of the sun god Re (Ra), was conceived not through intercourse, but through Re spreading his aroma over the king’s mother.
Krishna, one of the avatars of Vishnu in the Hindu pantheon, was said to have caused his own birth, thus being his own father, in that the god was both the agent of conception and also the offspring. By descending into the womb of his mother, Devaki, Vishnu was born as Krishna. From the Hindu Vishnu Purana (highly contested dating, but possibly early 1st millennium BCE): “Devaki bore in her womb the lotus-eyed deity….before the birth of Krishna no one could bear to gaze upon Devaki, from the light that invested her, and those who contemplated her radiance felt their minds disturbed”. In the Gospel of James and the Gospel of the Infancy (to be considered below) we read: “Accompanied by the midwife, Joseph returned to the cave where a cloud of brilliant light shone from inside…At that instant, the brilliant cloud moved outside the cave; inside, even more intense light illuminated everything so brightly that they could hardly stand it” (James); “…. the old woman, accompanied by Joseph, entered the cave. They were amazed to discover that it was filled with lights that were more lovely than the lights of oil lamps or of candles and they seemed to be even brighter than the sun itself” (Infancy).
Many Christians would likely consider the story of Krishna false: a fable or myth, but treat the Jesus story as historical fact. Yet if Jesus is ‘really’ God (as, perhaps, those same Christians simplistically claim), then it is difficult to see any fundamental difference between the two alleged supernatural births. In both the god/God makes a woman pregnant; in both the offspring is divine; in both the mother is highly honoured. But whatever one may think of Vishnu/Krishna, to claim that Jesus was (somehow) literally God’s son, on the grounds that it was God who (somehow) made Mary pregnant, leads us into all kinds of sticky doctrinal messes.
It seems, for instance, to imply a form of social trinitarianism which imperils one of the two basic ‘rules’ of the Athanasian Creed: not ‘dividing the essence/substance’ i.e. one of the Trinitarian ‘persons’ is, in effect, the father/progenitor of another: the Son. If, further, the Holy Spirit made Mary pregnant, what was the process by which this occurred? There surely must have been some kind of biological cause to create a biological effect (somehow inserting the Y chromosome would seem an obvious example)? Otherwise, we fall into the Docetic heresy (from the Greek ‘dokein’ ‘to appear’: Jesus only appeared to be human, but wasn’t really). In other words, it is not an entirely spiritual matter (whatever that may mean), as Luke, for one, implies. Furthermore, the view that, somehow, God was ‘really’ Jesus’ father because it was God who, somehow, made Mary pregnant, also ignores the complexities implicit in the title, ‘Son of God’, and the fact that many, in various Biblical texts, shared that title, but had perfectly normal conceptions and births. In Biblical terms, ‘Son of God’ never suggests that God is literally father of that son (even Psalm 2: 7b where the person “begotten” is not named, but is probably meant to be identified as David, the ‘begetting’ is clearly adoptive rather than biological).
There is a host of further questions. For example, is it the Father or the Holy Spirit who was Jesus’ ‘actual’ ‘father’? After all, we are told that Jesus was the Son of (Father) God (we are only heirs by adoption: Romans 8: 17, so implying a direct filial relationship between Jesus and God that is fundamentally different from our own relationship), but the impregnator was, according to Luke, the Holy Spirit (and I’m fully aware that part of the Trinitarian narrative is that the action of one Person is the action of all, even though that sits rather awkwardly with the notion that each Person has his/her own agenda). The unilateral ‘filioque’ addition to the Nicene Creed by the Western Church seems to make matters worse. The idea that the Holy Spirit was now (at least in the West) said to “proceed” (whatever that was supposed to mean), not only from the Father, but also from the Son, sounds just a little odd when set against the idea that the Holy Spirit was the means of the Son being born. Yes. I know. It’s far more subtle than that: the Spirit presumably proceeds from Father and Son in eternity; the Son is born into this world, via the Holy Spirit, in history. Nevertheless, among the most obvious philosophical and theological problems is the question: just how do we know that? Combining different doctrines at different times often leads to a mish-mash of confusing and often contradictory ideas, which some then seek to resolve by playing the mystery card. ‘Only God knows!’
My Christological tongue is now firmly in my Theological cheek. The above demonstrates that when we follow through some of the implications of statements seeking to justify the claim that Jesus is both human and divine, we inevitably tie ourselves up in theological and philosophical knots. That’s even if we can come up with adequate analyses of the meanings of ‘human’ and ‘divine’, let alone a ‘divine human’ (or even human God?), a God who ‘assumes’ humanity (whatever ‘assumes’ means in this context: like playing a part/role?).
Yet if Jesus were literally both human and divine, what kind of evidence would we seek to confirm that? More to the point: what kind of human being can also be divine and still retain his ‘true humanity’, and on what basis might such an assertion be considered meaningful? Specifically, as to the affirmation of Christ’s divinity which the Church gradually came to proclaim (arguably, such an idea is to be found only in John, among the canonical writings), along with his ‘genuine’ humanity, particularly in the form of the (completely unverifiable and itself hugely speculative) concept of an hypostatic union of two natures, human and divine (it is arguable that had Emperor Theodosius II not been killed falling from his horse, then a Monophysite Christology, the notion that Christ possessed one combined human/divine nature as advocated by Cyril of Alexandria, would have become orthodoxy as opposed to the dyophysite, two-nature ‘solution’ of Chalcedon), I simply ask what meaning is contained in either concept (for meaning precedes truth: something meaningless can be neither true nor false: it is literally nonsense). Doctrine, here, seems to rely on the contingencies of political events (and gopher activity), rather more than on either ‘revealed truths’ or evidence-based conclusions. What was to become Christological orthodoxy in many but certainly not all, the Churches raised even more questions than it answered, as with the later disputes between mono- and dyo-thelites (whether Christ had one will or two). Inevitably, of course, all these discussions were based on an uncritical reading of the Biblical texts. Today we use many different critical tools which weren’t available to the Early Church Fathers, in order to seek to understand the Biblical text. We should allow our findings to inform our Christology, rather than just relying on Conciliar declarations, understood as literal (Jesus really had two natures), from over 1500 years ago.
If, for example, there were two natures and/or wills in Christ, how did they interact? It tended to be most often assumed that the divine nature/will must necessarily have had precedence: what then of Christ’s ‘true humanity’ if the divine Logos is really running the show, and how is this not a reworking of the Apollinarian heresy (Jesus’ human mind/soul was replaced by a divine mind) or the Eutychian heresy (Jesus’ humanity is absorbed by and transmuted into divinity)? Much of the Christological problem had to do with use of language: for example, some theologians understood the Greek ‘phusis’ (nature) as approximating the Latin ‘persona’, whilst others interpreted it as ‘natura’. A wonderful recipe for confusion, and it is of particular interest that, in recent years, the Monophysite (or better) non-Chalcedonian Churches (who actually preferred to call themselves Miaphysite) have resolved most of the historic Christological issues with the other mainstream Churches. It makes me wonder exactly how they came to fall out in the first place: no doubt the obsession with splitting theological hairs (two natures apparently operating together or one combined nature: what is the real difference? somewhat reminiscent of the modern mind-brain identity debate, not least in the fact that both problems are insoluble), matched with a good dose of ‘my truth is better than your truth’ (Cyril of Alexandria was, it has been said, a very unpleasant and vindictive controversialist; and at the Second Council of Ephesus in 449, four years after Cyril’s death, a pro-monophysite mob attacked Flavian of Constantinople at the altar; he died three days later).
I have argued in detail elsewhere that the key to understanding not only the Biblical texts, but also the conciliar utterances, can only be found in focused linguistic analysis: the myriad ways in which language can express meaning, together with an appropriate philosophical framework. All theology relies on some kind of philosophical undergirding: Platonism in the early church and Aristotelianism in the Medieval Church (the latter providing the philosophy upon which was based the doctrine of Transubstantiation).
Neither, finally, should we ignore the fact that there were many Christians in the second century, and beyond, who denied that Jesus was born at all. Those whom we might place under the umbrella term, ‘Gnostic’, made a radical distinction and discontinuity between flesh and spirit: the first was ‘evil’, and only the latter ‘good’. Jesus was spirit, and so was not actually a being of flesh at all: the Docetic heresy, again. The Second Century Marcion of Sinope was not technically a Gnostic, although he shared the view that Jesus arrived, fully grown, so to speak, sent by God (not, for Marcion, the OT God). This Jesus was not flesh, nor was he part of any human family. Marcion’s Canon rejected the OT and consisted of Paul’s letters (he considered Paul to be the only true apostle) and a heavily edited version of Luke, which likely began with the combination of Lk 3: 1 and 4: 3: it was in the reign of Tiberius when Jesus came down from heaven and appeared in Capernaum. Marcion was denounced as a heretic. It is difficult to imagine any orthodox Christology which doesn’t at the same time tip us into some kind of heresy.
Over some 50 years of study, therefore, I have come to the view that Jesus was “fully human in every way” (Hebrews 2: 17), conceived and born in the same way as we are.
The Canonical Texts
There are two canonical Nativity/Infancy Narratives: that of Luke (2: 1 – 40, with 1: 26 – 56 forming a prelude); and that of Matthew (2). Each narrative is independent and with differing theological aims. Both accounts were probably written during the last 20 years of the first century, or just possibly into the 2nd. It is both interesting and illuminating that neither the earlier Mark (a source for both Matthew and Luke?) nor the (presumably) later John, provide anything like these stories.
If considered in any way historical, they are clearly incompatible:
We are all aware of the modern propensity to conflate the two canonical nativity stories, as in Christmas Carol Services and many of the carols they contain, into a single narrative, with many carollers completely unaware of what is going on and, left to many clergy (some of whom still cling to the old adage that telling the laity too much will endanger their faith), will continue in that ignorance. Even supplementing the narratives: cattle lowing, ‘little’ donkeys, and suchlike. So far as story-telling is concerned, there is nothing wrong with that, except that they once again take folk away from the original narratives, while adding sentiment to a fundamentally non-sentimental story: a rejected (‘no room’) baby born in very unhygienic and potentially health-threatening conditions. Of course, it is not possible to be sure why Luke had Jesus placed in a manger at all, although he was clearly (if one prioritises theology over history) making some kind of point. It may not be a reference to squalor, as many kept animals in the house; some have suggested that mangers were used to place new-born – and ‘swaddled’ – lambs reserved for sacrifice, thus providing a clear piece of symbolic theology; it may also enable folk to reflect on Jesus as spiritual food being born in a place where animals literally fed.
In fact, such conflation is not only modern. In the latter part of the Second Century, Tatian produced his ‘Diatessaron’ (the Fourfold), a single Gospel constructed by harmonising the four not-then-canonical Gospels. Tatian’s editorialization is quite canny: beginning with a version of John 1: 1 – 5 (as we know, the great conclusion to modern carol services, although perhaps logically it should have its place at the beginning), following immediately with Luke 1: 5. Tatian then follows the Lukan narrative to the end of Chapter 1, moving directly to Matthew, minus the genealogy. The Lukan and Matthaean birth and post-birth narratives are then set alongside each other, so that the Magoi (Magi) visit the child, following the family’s (unexplained) return to Bethlehem from Nazareth sometime later. I have heard preachers setting out exactly this scenario as a ‘solution’ to reconciling the narratives. The trouble is, of course, that is not what the canonical narratives tell us. Taking the two canonical nativity narratives by themselves, there seems to be no obvious evidence that either Luke or Matthew was aware of the other’s accounts. If either had been, then utilising, say, the L/M (or Farrer) hypothesis (as opposed to the Q hypothesis) that Luke used Matthew as a source, surely Luke would have included something specific from the Matthaean nativity story in his account: particularly the dramatic Magoi-Herod encounter?
It is, incidentally, interesting to reflect on how the nature of NT studies might have changed had the Diatessaron caught on, and eventually replaced what we now have as the Four Gospels. Instead of there being a ‘Synoptic Problem’, would there have been a ‘Four Sources’ problem, as scholars dug beneath the layers of tradition?
The Non-Canonical Texts
There are three main non-canonical infancy narratives (other infancy Gospels include the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, the Arabic Infancy Gospel, and the History of Joseph the Carpenter, but these are much later and often dependent on the two main 2nd Century texts), clearly intended to plug gaps in the canonical narratives, because the Faithful wanted to know more about Jesus’ boyhood, about Mary and her forebears, about how Joseph and Mary met, and so on. The first two such narratives are mid to late 2nd Century documents.
The Gospel (Protoevangelion) of James: tells of Joachim and Anne, Mary’s parents (not even mentioned in the canonical gospels), the birth and childhood of Mary who, until the age of 12 lived in the Temple, at which point, because her incipient pubescence would make her ritually impure, she was taken in by Joseph (after a kind of competition to find the best ward). It is while she is in Joseph’s household that she become pregnant (here the annunciation and visit to Elizabeth are similar to, but not the same as, Luke.) There is a curious chronological muddle here, as she appears to be around 12 when impregnated, but 16 when she gives birth (different mss provide different ages). The temple authorities are scandalised and force both Mary and Joseph undertake the ordeal of bitter (poisoned) water – which they pass. Luke’s notion of an imperial registration is repeated here, but the journey is from Jerusalem (the context for the whole story) to Bethlehem. Mary goes into labour en route to Bethlehem and gives birth in a cave: a woman called Salome is asked to check her hymen as, according to the author, Mary remained a virgin before, during and after her pregnancy. The Magoi visit the cave. Herod becomes paranoid and, in the process, kills Zechariah (J the B father), who is taken bodily to heaven. There is a curious situation here, perhaps due to interpolations into the text by those who had continued to follow the Baptist rather than Jesus, even into the Second Century: it would appear that Herod has lost interest in Jesus, and is now hunting for John (who God hides inside a mountain). Zechariah is said to be High Priest, and his replacement is Luke’s Simeon. Here the story ends.
The Infancy Gospel of Thomas: tells several stories of Jesus’ boyhood and ends with a version of Luke’s story of the 12 year old Jesus teaching in the Temple. Stories include: Jesus making sparrows out of clay and giving them life; Jesus in conflict with local adults and children, leading him to maim and kill them (only at the harassed Joseph’s bidding does he undo the evil actions); Jesus making fools of his teachers; Jesus helping Joseph by ‘magic’; Jesus brings a dead baby back to life. Some of these stories are also found in the Qur’an.
The Gospel of the Infancy, possibly late 4th Century: begins with the imperial taxation (dated 27 BCE, the beginning of Augustus’ reign), and Mary is named Joseph’s wife. Here the nativity itself follows James rather more than Matthew or Luke, although shepherds visit the cave. Then the Lukan pattern takes over with circumcision (Jesus’ foreskin is placed in the alabaster jar of perfume that “sinful Mary” uses to anoint Jesus prior to his death), visit to Temple, Simeon and (H)anna(h). With the visit of the explicitly Zoroastrian Magoi, Matthew’s narrative is followed, with considerable detail added about what happened in Egypt, including the destruction of Egyptian idols, exorcisms, healings and the transformation of a mule back into a man by the baby/toddler (?) Jesus. A particularly interesting cameo has Jesus meeting the two thieves (named Titus and Dumachus) with whom he was later crucified. After three years the family returns first to Bethlehem, then to Nazareth. In Bethlehem there is an incident in which Jesus miraculously rescues Cleopas, who he later meets post-resurrection, and meets the young Judas Iscariot, even then possessed by Satan. The Gospel ends with a couple of boyhood stories in the same vein as those found in Thomas.
Some theological issues
I take the view that all the infancy stories are told in order to make theological points. None is historical in any sense, and many of the non-canonical stories are akin to folk tales, reflecting the coarse and simplistic understanding of many ‘ordinary’ Christians, perhaps both then and today.
Matthew’s theology of the nativity
It seems clear that Matthew was a Jewish Christian, perhaps writing in Syria, seeking to persuade more orthodox Jews that Jesus was the Messiah. His whole Gospel is predicated on this overall aim. As a subsection of this, Matthew’s nativity presents Jesus as a new and even better Moses.
His most obvious tool, sharing the belief of many (particularly Jewish) Christians that if Jesus really were the Messiah, then there must be evidence to be found in the Hebrew Scriptures, is to search those Scriptures (most likely in their Greek form) in order to find it. He provides five examples, although the 5th: ‘he shall be called a Nazarene’ is not found in that form anywhere in the Hebrew Bible; it is obviously a misreading, deliberate or otherwise, of the concept of Nazirite (such as Samson), intended to show how it was prophesied that Jesus would end up in Nazareth (incidentally, where Luke began). The most egregious stretching of a text is the quotation from Hosea: “Out of Egypt I called my son” which forces Matthew to take the Holy Family into Egypt, simply so they could come out of it. In its proper context, ‘son’ refers to Israel, and ‘coming out of Egypt’ refers to the Exodus. All five ‘quotations’ are meant to demonstrate that Jesus’ coming is forecast by the Prophets (later examples are found in all 4 Passion Narratives, which I believe, similarly, to be more theological than historical). Jesus, like Moses, was rescued from the despot Pharoah/Herod; Jesus like Moses came out of Egypt, and just as Moses gave the law so, later, in Matthew’s Gospel does Jesus (in a similar five-fold pentateuchal format).
It is clear that Matthew’s intention particularly, but not only, in his birth narrative, is part of his overall aim of commending Jesus to the synagogues. That may be why he sits relatively lightly (more so than Luke) to an explicit doctrine of the virginal conception, which would be more foreign to a Jewish than a Gentile audience.
Luke’s theology of the nativity.
Luke’s theology is more nuanced, and not so ‘in your face’ as Matthew’s. The key is to be found in asking why he used the particular themes he did. Why Nazareth to Bethlehem? Why a virginal conception (explicit in Luke, but arguably only implied in Matthew: how could a Jew conceive of such a thing)? Why shepherds? Why the Temple story?
Let’s just take the shepherds as one example (we can discuss the others). Many of the great characters (such as David) in the Hebrew Bible were practising shepherds, where ‘shepherd’ is also a prolific metaphor, often used to distinguish between good and bad leaders. God himself is the model Shepherd, just as in John, Jesus is the Good Shepherd. Whilst Judaism had both positive and negative images of shepherds many regarded them as ‘bad’ Jews, on the basis that the continual nature of their work prevented them from attendance at and involvement with the synagogue. One reason Luke had the angelic announcement made to shepherds is that it echoes his particular interest in the disadvantaged and marginalised: the great announcement was not made to religious leaders but to common-as-muck shepherds.
It might be expected that as James (and the others) are later texts, the theology might be more sophisticated than that of Matthew and Luke. In fact, it is often far more primitive. This can be explained by the nature of the stories told, each trying to out-fantasticise the other, because in the ancient world divinity is often seen to be fantastical and marvellous, and subtlety is neither the point or purpose. This will have been driven by the idea that: ‘if Jesus was born as in Luke and Matthew say, then these other, even more marvellous things must have occurred, for that is the nature of divinity’, particularly in the latest text by which time Jesus’ divinity has been formally affirmed by the Church, and developed in the doctrine of the Trinity. It is surely beyond doubt that the authors of the non-canonical accounts knew Matthew and Luke, so an interesting question is: when they vary from the canonical accounts (for example, in placing the birth in a cave somewhere between Jerusalem and Bethlehem) why do they do so? This exactly the same principle we apply when asking why Matthew and Luke have altered particular Marcan pericopes.
Recapitulation: I use the term to refer to the process by which certain stories in the NT replicate stories from the OT (it is a term also used in atonement modelling, where Christ is seen as a new Adam), and share the same themes. Barrenness is a recurring theme in the OT and provides the opportunity of showing the power of God (Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel, Hannah, the mother of Samson and the Shunammite woman), and the obedient response of the parent (as Mary in Luke, although not an old barren woman). The broader issue is of a previously barren woman who is especially blessed by God and the child is then charged with a divine mission. Hannah is a particularly important exemplar, being both the model for Elizabeth in canonical Luke, and for Anne in non-canonical James. Anne derives from the Greek Anna, which derives from Hannah. Anne, Mary’s mother, is Hannah. Hannah gave Samuel to God; Anne gives Mary to God. The basic, shared theology is clear, providing a more detailed theological rationale for what is only implicit in the Lukan story. Nevertheless, the recapitulations are free-flowing: on the one hand a direct comparison is made between Hannah and Anne, both of whom are insulted by maid/sister-wife (barrenness was seen as preventing women to fulfil their main purpose in life), on the other Anne explicitly asks God to help her as he helped Sarah (the foundational mother).
Jesus was the outcome of a special birth. So was Mary, because in order to bear Jesus she could not be just any woman (hence Luke’s very explicit annunciation). Catholic theology has formalised this in the notion of the Immaculate Conception, but the meaning of that is unclear. Does it mean that just as Jesus’ actual conception was miraculous, so was Mary’s? One might wonder just how far this needs to go back to secure a ‘pure’ line. Or does it mean, as is part of Marian dogma, that Mary was without the original sin associated with sex and conception, by which OS was thought to be passed on? Although the dogma of the Immaculate Conception was not promulgated until 1854, it was certainly held, in some form, by many Christians since the early Middle Ages, if not before. But is it taken from James? Certainly, some have argued that Anna became pregnant without sex (in which case Jesus’ was not the first or only virginal conception), but both the barrenness tradition and James do not require, and may even reject, that view (why else would James write: “Joachim stayed home for the next day”? ‘Nudge, nudge…’). The healings of barren women in the OT do not entail virginal conceptions: the women were impregnated by their (elderly) husbands. Similarly, James, although Anne’s ‘annunciation’ takes place whilst her husband is away, there is no direct reference to her becoming pregnant sans Joachim. The miracle is not so much in the conception, but in her being made fertile, as with the OT women. Clearly, the motive for the tradition, as with the other Marian doctrines (Theotokos, Assumption, Perpetual Virginity) is to express just how special and pre-ordained Mary’s role in the Incarnation was. They also add an element of femininity in an otherwise masculine-dominated divinity (a popular cult of Mary developed very early on, perhaps in order to redress the balance).
Changes from the canonical accounts (bear in mind that James is mainly about Mary, of whom Matthew and, to a lesser degree, Luke say relatively little):
The main problem with Thomas’ theology for the modern mind is an apparent celebration of what was actually a very unpleasant and amoral young Jesus, although there is a recognition that some of Jesus’ actions were open to criticism, and it was also emphasised that he underwent moral improvement as he became older. Clearly, the author was imagining what would happen when God’s powers are put in the hands of a child, who is not as perfect as some modern Christian sensibilities would have it, despite his apparently supernatural intellectual abilities. Indeed, some passages reflect Johannine motifs: “Now let the blind see that I have come from above both in order to curse and to bring heavenly things to your minds. I’m doing what the One who sent me told me to do”.
The main theological point arises from a suspension of morality in favour of the importance of proclaiming God’s power in Jesus’ life, even if that power sometimes caused pain or even death. It was the power which mattered, because it demonstrated who Jesus was, even if the subtext pointed out that the reason why it sometimes went wrong was because the wielder of the power was childish and immature. Yet this power was proclaimed very much as it was in the canonical gospels: Jesus has power over demons, he can raise the dead, and so on; the five-year-old clay bird maker was also accused of violating the Sabbath. I suppose that if we were minded to do so with our modern ecological hats on, we might criticise what happened to the Gadarene swine as recorded in the Synoptics as being unfair on innocent pigs. But in Thomas the victims were often children, whose ‘crimes’ were to disrespect Jesus, as well as those adults who were rude to him, or complained about him (perhaps for killing their child!). In fact, the parental complaints were so played down in the text, that they might have been about Jesus breaking windows, rather than injuring or even killing their children: “[to Joseph] ‘You’re at fault for having a child who does this sort of thing’……Joseph took little Jesus aside and scolded him,,,,, Instantly all who had accused Jesus were struck blind”. No doubt, it was assumed that you just cannot criticise God who, as is often said, moves in mysterious ways (one way some people use to explain apparently irrational divine actions). There were, of course, those like Marcion who couldn’t believe that the aggressive tyrant God of the OT could be the God of Jesus Christ, the loving Father. Thomas was clearly not of his number: for him God was a source of awesome power, and you were wise to be wary of him.
Nevertheless, Thomas has the young Jesus mature, but only gradually and intermittently. From scary killer, he becomes a welcome saviour, now called ‘Lord’ by the locals: the crowd say “The Spirit of God certainly lives in this child”, who is now 6, 7, 8….. He now begins to use his powers to help people, although there is the occasional slip back to type, cursing the teacher who clipped him on the head, such that Joseph says to Mary “Don’t let him go outside because if anyone makes him angry they might die”. Apart from causing the occasional death, whereas another child might kick someone, Jesus is a normal kid. Eventually, the boy reaches full maturity, so that people say: “Surely this boy is a God, or an angel of God, for everything he says comes true”. He is ready to teach the teachers.
Leading to the one canonical story shared by Thomas: the 12-year-old Jesus in the Temple, and here Thomas virtually replicates Luke.
The Gospel of the Infancy’s theology
From two narratives written in the 2nd Century, we reach one which may be late 4th Century. In Christological context, much has happened. The Council of Nicaea, in 325 declared that the Son was ‘homoousios’ (the same substance) with the Father, thus officially seeing off the Arian view, which actually continued to spread widely over the next 100 years or so. In other words, the nature of Christ continued to be a matter of contention. It was not until the 451 Council of Chalcedon that Christ was formally declared to be fully human and fully divine in the form of the doctrine of the hypostatic union (similar affirmations, with varying designations of the relationship of Christ’s humanity and divinity had been made at Constantinople in 381 and Ephesus in 431, with assorted synods). The broadly Monophysite non-Chalcedonian Churches, which refused to sign up to this Christology, continue to exist today. You would gain little hint of any of such theological activity from the Gospel of the Infancy (GI), but then the purpose of this text is not to present an up-to-date Christological philosophy but, as the other two non-canonical gospels, to provide supplementary stories about the divine birth of a divine child, for elucidation, pleasure, or simply amusement.
We can see the same processes at work in the writing of many Christmas carols: when I was teaching ordinands, I used to set the task of identifying the docetic heresies, or other ways in which Jesus’ humanity is minimized or even vacated, in well-known carols, such as ‘When Joseph was an old man…’ (The Cherry Tree Carol is a theological folk tale), ‘I saw three ships….’ (in landlocked Bethlehem, around 2.5 thousand feet above sea level), even something as simple as ‘Away in a manger’, all of which introduce, for artistic purposes, non-canonical elements, such as cattle lowing and Jesus not crying (which we might compare, for similar but not precisely the same motives, with the [Gnostic] Valentinus’ claim that Jesus never needed to use the loo). So, for example, we learn from ‘The First Nowell/Noel’ that Jesus “….with his blood mankind has bought,,,,”. This is an unquestioned assertion of the doctrine of ‘penal substitution’ (or ‘substitutionary atonement’ as I believe some Evangelicals prefer), a doctrine which has been greatly criticised (on moral grounds), and is, these days, an identity marker of a particular Christian ‘brand’. See Appendix for a few more examples which you may like to ‘parse’.
I am, of course, well aware that carols and hymns are not intended to disseminate academic theology, and that they share much of the genre of poetry, using symbolic language, hyperbolic images, great imagination and the like. Nevertheless, they constitute one important way that theologically untrained Christians regularly receive their ideas about God and Jesus and, being untrained, may be led astray by the what they receive, ending up with ill-digested Christian imaginings which have little or nothing to do with anything that actually arises from the Biblical texts.
Much of GI is a reworking of James. Nevertheless, there is still evidence here of an element of ‘high’ Christology, particularly found in the opening verses, where the baby Jesus says to Mary, from his cradle: “I am Jesus the Son of God and the Word of God and you have given me birth just as the angel Gabriel told you. My Father sent me for the salvation of all the Earth”. The cave in which Christ was born “became like the Temple of God in Heaven”, and when presented to Simeon Jesus blazed “like a pillar of light [as the theophany of Yahweh in the OT] while angels singing praise surrounded him as royal guardians surround a king”.
Changes from the canonical accounts:
Matthew is pretty vague about the visitors from the East (later traditions identify them as Kings, and even give them names) and calls them Magoi: Wise Men. GI mentions the prophecy of Zartosht (Zoroaster), the Persian philosopher who postulated a dualist metaphysical framework with two ultimate powers: the good Ahura Mazda and the wicked Ahriman, and so identifies the Magoi as Zoroastrians who are following Persian prophecies about this Jewish baby. As the visit moves on the Star becomes an angel, thus explaining how it is able to hover over Jesus’ birthplace, as Matthew had claimed.
Egypt, only a contextual background for Matthew, is given far greater attention. The key theme is similar to that of Thomas: Jesus’ power, even as a baby. Here the main motive would seem to be the most obvious one: plugging the gaps, and using that to say increasingly fantastic things about Jesus. The paucity of detail in much of the canonical accounts provides a rich seed ground for those determined to show that there was much, much more to be said and who were willing to supply that more from active theological imaginations.
Many of the stories have echoes of the Synoptics: the demons (inhabiting the idols) recognise Jesus and call out; people are healed just by touching Jesus’ clothes (even his nappies); demons are exorcised, so that “out of Egypt…..” is fulfilled. However, whereas in the Synoptics the demons have independent, personal existence, here they are controlled by sorcerers and witches: malevolent human beings. Either way, they provide the ancient world’s aetiology of illness and disease. Interestingly, in these accounts Mary is sometimes elevated to a quasi-divine position, recognising the developing Marian cult (formalised in the title ‘Theotokos’ [‘Godbearer’] bestowed on Mary by the Council of Ephesus in 431, following the Nestorian controversy). In Thomas, men dominate the narrative; here in the GI it is the women.
I look forward to an interesting discussion. As a post-script, it might be useful to point out that the views I have expressed above have had no deleterious effects on my Christmas devotions: indeed, they have enhanced them. I don’t have to waste time, as the Red Queen advised Alice, trying to ‘believe six impossible things before breakfast’ and then seeking to justify them.
The Revd Canon Dr Peter Shepherd