Empires, Prophets, and Babies: Jesus birth and the Gospel according to Luke

Vier HeiligeLast week, I wrote that we trivialize the birth narratives and that we don’t take them seriously enough. Well, I want to try to remedy some of that this Advent and Christmas season. Because this is a blog and not a Biblical commentary, I won’t cover the topic exhaustively. (All though you will be the judge of how exhausting it is to read this!) I do hope what I write here will enrich your reading of Luke’s version of the birth of Jesus.

For Christians, the Nativity stories are some of the best known and best loved Bible stories. But at the same time, they take us into an unfamiliar world of angelic pronouncements, a wandering star, and virgin birth. How should we understand this odd world of the gospel?

Some Christians may not recognize that the infancy stories have an origin and historical quality that is different from the rest of the Gospels. For them, angelic appearances, a special star, mysterious visitors from the East, and the virgin birth have the same historical value as stories about Jesus’ ministry.

For other Christians the angels, the magi, the star and the virgin birth  are so removed from our experiences that the nativity story is the stuff of legend or folklore. A story fine for children but not something thinking adults can take seriously.

 Which is it? Historical fact or sentimental legend? Neither? Or both? 

I want to suggest that there is a middle way. A way that takes the historical context seriously, without insisting that every detail happened exactly as described. A way that at the same time, takes the entire story, angels, wondering star and virgin birth very seriously. 
The fondness  Christians feel for the Christmas stories may be as much about childhood memory and the comfort of re- reading a familiar text as it is about our faith. But on a much deeper level it reflects a recognition that these stories matter and that they have something important to say, even if we are not quite sure what that is.
Before we begin thinking about Luke’s nativity story in particular, it is useful to think about nativity stories and gospels in general. Biblical scholars can debate quite a long time about what a “gospel” is. But when the discussion is over, most end up somewhere near the position that the canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) are very similar to ancient biography but with enough differences that the Gospels may deserve to be considered a unique genre.
There are some of  “big picture” ideas we need if we are going to read the Gospels and particularly the Nativity stories well and faithfully. Ancient biographers and their audience had different expectations than we do about biography. We are concerned with dates  and historical accuracy. We’re concerned about one’s inner life and motives. We expect to see persons change and grow.
 Biographers in the ancient world were more concerned to present a life worth emulating. They focused on the public life, what a person said and did. The public life shows us, the reader, how to follow in the famous persons footsteps. Ancient biographers didn’t concern themselves with their subject’s interior life, their motives and feelings. They did present a central characteristic or quality of the person’s life. They thought a person’s important qualities and characteristics were present throughout their entire life.They didn’t think that qualities or characteristics developed over the course of one’s life and so, stories of a person’s birth and childhood were not necessarily considered important. Some ancient biographies, like two of the four Gospels, omit the person’s birth and childhood altogether.

Ancient biographers and audiences were not as concerned with chronological accuarcy as we are. Sometimes they organized their work thematically. All though it seems odd to us, it was acceptable in the ancient world to rearrainge events to help tell the story. They would also add speeches to help insure the reader understood the main themes of the biography. Often the biographers finished the story of the person’s adult life and then went back and wrote about their birth and infancy. 

Biblical scholars think that the gospels were written “backwards”. That is the passion narratives were preserved first. Then overtime the stories about Jesus life and ministry were collected. The infancy narratives were probably the last stories to be collected and written down. The infancy stories don’t fit smoothly with the rest of the gospel. The transition is abrupt. No one in the rest of the gospel ever refers to the quite unusual and very public events of Jesus’ birth. People periodically bust into song.

 The gospels were not intended to be unbiased historical records for the general public. They were works with a point and with a point of view. They were written for particular small and marginalized Christian communities. They were intended to strengthen and support the faithful. The gospels are meant to shape lives and nurture believers.

Borg and Crossan in their work, The First Christmas,offer two helpful ways of thinking about the infancy narratives. They compare the role of the infancy narrative to a musical overture.  An overture serves as a summary, a synthesis, a symbol of the whole. Ancient biographers would use infancy narratives in a similar way.

Borg and Crossan also suggest that the infancy narratives may function in a way similar to parables. Christians believe parables are true and full of meaning. But no one goes looking for the place where the good Samaritan parable occurred. The historical factuality of a parable is not the most important thing about it.

I’m not suggesting that the infancy narratives are parables with no historical basis. We can take the historical circumstances seriously without having to claim every aspect is historically accurate. We can acknowledge and appreciate the first century context and how that shapes the story.

The question we should bring to the infancy narratives is not, “Did all this happen historically?” but rather, “What did this mean for the first audience?” and “What does this story mean for us?”

I’d like to know, what do you think?


There are many great resources available when we study the infancy narratives. In a day or two, I will post the ones I have used, but that certainly won’t be an exhaustive list. I encourage you to share the resources, in print or on line, that you find helpful with the rest of us. That way we can all learn.


Looking Ahead: Over the next weeks we will take a brief look at what life was like in the Roman empire in the first century. We will also explore how the author of Luke carefully and skillfully shaped his infancy narrative. Then we will see how this impacts our reading of Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth.


And finally:  Too often when we study Scripture, we forget to read the text. I encourage you to read and re read the first two chapters of Luke. For me, the more I read it, the more richness and depth I find. If you would like to read it on line, click here.





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