It’s interesting how much fantasy we have when we tell stories.
It is Christmas today, and we all know the story: Mary and Josef come to Bethlehem where the inn keeper tells them that there is no room for them but in the stable, and so Jesus was put in a manger.
How many teachings have I heard about the world having no room for their saviour, but God breaking through anyway.
Well, the Bible tells us that they put Jesus in a crib or manger. There is no inn keeper. It does say that there was no room for them in the inn.
The word used for room is often translated space or place. Let me use my fantasy for a moment:
They were at the inn, with everybody else, quite comfortably, but there was nothing to lay Jesus in as a newborn, so somebody came up with the idea to use a manger.
Or they were at the inn in the upper room with everybody else, and to provide some privacy to Mary giving birth, they went down to the stable and used the crib to lay Jesus in.
Or there really was no room for them at any inn and they found a cave that was used for sheep and used the manger in there.
Or this story is archetypal and wants to show us that Jesus was the Messiah, which had to come from Bethlehem, and he was a king, recognized by the magi, and he came to the lowest of lowest, like the shepherds, symbolized by the manger. Archetypal stories want to portray a truth without necessarily being historically true. In the understanding of the time, this would have been true anyway because it showed who Jesus was.
Why am I telling you this? Do I want to diminish the birth of Jesus, call Luke a liar, or even tell you that Jesus never was born, certainly not the way Luke describes it, and maybe he never lived?
First, let me tell you clearly: I believe that Jesus lived, died and was resurrected.
But I want to sharpen our eyes for several misconceptions that we made and several decisions we took in the last few hundred years.
First, the power of story: The Christmas story is well known to many people, but usually in a form that is full of fantasy.
People collapse the two accounts into one story, have kings show up at the manger, three kings to be exact, a donkey that Mary rode on and that was in the stable with them, along with an ox. And of course this stable resembled one of the area that people are living in, so in northern Europe, this would be a wooden shed surrounded by pine trees, covered in snow, and baby Jesus would have blue eyes, fair skin, and soon blond hair.
This is wonderful. It carries on the aural tradition of the Bible. And it integrates Jesus into the culture of the storytellers
It is also disastrous if you take the Bible literal, because you are adding to the story, bending it, and taking away its historicity.
Now, let’s pretend that the Bible had never been canonized. We would have several accounts of Christmas in more than the four Gospels, and they would be living stories as they were before the Gospels were even penned.
Those Gospels were penned some 60 to 90 years after Christmas, based on the accounts of people that heard it from people who, in the best case, were there.
We can assume that Josef died early, as he does not occur in the Gospels except in the Christmas story. Husbands at that time were usually much older as their wives as well, and with an average life expectancy of about 30, it is plausible that Mary during the time of Jesus’ last years was a widow, as Josef by that time might even had reached his sixties.
Odds are that she was dead too when the Gospels were penned. Who else was there to ask? Jesus never told us about his birth, at least nothing about that is recorded. The magi went back to their lands, and they certainly had a certain age when they came to, well, the house in Bethlehem sometime in the two years after Jesus’ death. So they were no eye witnesses, and neither was their staff.
That leaves us with the shepherds. Some of them might have been kids. And for sure, the story will have been told at the camp fires. Illiterate shepherds with a low life expectancy in a culture of storytellers will most certainly tell the story historically correct and neither add nor take away anything. Especially since it was custom of the time to judge stories by their historicity and factual correctness.
Which it actually was not! Stories were measured by their impact and by the deeper concepts and truths they portrayed.
I at least would expect some one-upmanship with the shepherds, one telling the story a little more grandiose than the other. Just like fisherman that describe their last catch. It grows between retellings.
All that I am saying here is anathema to those that take the Bible literally. Worst case scenario, if there really were no eye-witnesses, the Holy Spirit will have either dictated the stories to Matthew and Luke, or protected it along the way. And I am sure she did.
But maybe she just protected the concepts and the deeper truths, not so much caring about historicity, but impact.
Let’s have another look at the story. Jesus’ conception is portrayed as immaculate. This at that time was a feature of the gods and kings, with many such stories floating around. Take Augustus, Romulus, and most of the Greek gods and demigods.
That does not say that it is not true for Jesus. But it could well have been constructed over time to give Jesus external proof of divinity.
Let’s see what happens if Jesus was born from sex before marriage. Does that take away anything from his story?
Of course it does, if we hold on to all the theology that was constructed on or depends on his immaculate conception.
Most of the church believes that we are born sinners because of original sin. In German, it is called Erbsünde, hereditary sin. It is believed that it is given from the father to the child at conception, and that Jesus had no earthly father so he was not under the curse of original sin. But then, the idea is constructed from Jesus obviously not having sin, and therefore original sin must be passed by the father. A circular closure.
This allows him to go on and die for us as the perfect, immaculate lamb. But it carries a few problems with it, most importantly the big difference it makes between Jesus and us.
Jesus had a head start. Not being sinful from birth, it must have been much easier for him to live a life without sin. So all the things he did in life at least were aided by the fact that he was not burdened with hereditary sin.
This at least gives us a cop-out when Jesus expects us to do greater things than he.
And it keeps us attached to the lie of the serpent in the garden. It told us that we do not measure up and had to do something in order to be accepted by God and be like him.
Because believing in hereditary or original sin, we need to make a decision for Jesus so he comes into our lives and frees us from the curse of original sin. We can then go on to do what he has done, under certain conditions of course, because our old nature still exists and wants to take dominance again.
What if we were never separated from God in the first place, just believed to be?
What if Jesus was born because of premarital sex by Mary and Josef. In his heritage, we find such behaviour in David. Jewish rabbis believe that David was an illegitimate child. Think of Rahab and Salomon, too.
What this story would show: Jesus comes into the worst of situation, into the lowest places there are. And since we have never been separated from God, there is no original sin apart from believing that we are separated from God.
But soon after Jesus’ death, within a generation or so, one could see that his followers would change the story to make it more palatable and in line with their recovery of Jesus’ kingship. What they had believed for so long, namely the messiah coming as king, had to be true and made believable to a degree to the Greeks and the Romans. Immaculate conception did the trick.
in addition, the Gospels were all written to a certain audience. While Matthew was written to the Jews in the Roman empire, Luke to the Romans, John to the Greek, and Mark to the church.
Hear me well. I am not saying that this is how things developed. I am just plotting a plausible, yet extreme alternative to the literal reading.
I do not believe in sin having a genetic cause. I believe that sin has a sociocultural cause. Our parents teach us that we have to live up to certain standards and do certain things to be good with God again. They instill original sin into us because of their own worldview and belief system.
What then is the Christmas story?
No matter how it developed, the Christmas story and his life show us the humanity of Jesus and his divinity, and in deduction, our own.
And that is all that matters.