The only Christmas story that most of us know is the popular modern blending of the two different stories found in Matt 1:18-23 and Luke 1:5-20. Our blended story, however, never did exist as a single ancient story. The different stories in Matthew and Luke date from the last third of the first century of the Common Era. A later and still different story is found in the Infancy Gospel of James in the second century. This latter story bears little resemblance to the stories found in Matthew and Luke, however.
Matthew and Luke at least agree that Mary, "a woman of marriageable age but as yet unmarried" (parthenos i.e., usually translated "virgin," Matt 1:18, 23, 25; Luke1:26-34), would bear a child who has a divine origin (Matt 1:20: "conceived by the holy spirit"; Luke 1:35: the holy spirit comes upon her and the power of the Most High overshadows her). These two narratives describe the birth of a child, who would be named Jesus (Matt 1:25; Luke 2:21). He is the Messiah (translated into Greek as the "Christ": Matt 1:17; Luke 1:11, 26), and the savior (Luke 2:11) with a divine commission to "save his people from their sins" (Matt 1:21).
The earliest "Christmas story," however, is not a story at all; that is, it is not a narrative, such as Matthew and Luke use in their gospels to explain how Jesus became divine at his birth—in Matthew and Luke Jesus was born divine. On the other hand, the earliest Christmas story is a brief comment, which explains how it was that a fully grown man of natural birth became God's son—the comment, an allusion only, states that Jesus was a human being who became divine at the end of his life.
Paul wrote the allusion in the salutation of his letter to the Jesus gathering at Rome somewhere around the middle first century—earlier than the stories in Matthew and Luke:
Paul, a slave of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, concerning his son born from David's seed according to the flesh, being appointed son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord. (Rom 1:1-4)
Although he was born a human being (born from David's seed), the above statement continues to assert that he was later appointed son of God, when he was raised from the dead. Hence he becomes God's son after he exits human life, rather than, as Matthew and Luke have it, when he enters into human life.
It is probable that these words (in italics above) do not represent Paul's personal view, for he also says: "God sent forth his son, born of a woman, born under the law to redeem those who were under the law" (Gal 4:4). This statement seems to suggest that the child was God's son before being born, such as it appears in John 1:1-4 where Jesus was always God's son.1
In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God…and the word became flesh and dwelt among us… (compare Phil 2:5-11).
There is another story explaining how Jesus became the son of God; in this story Jesus became God's son at his baptism. That story is not completely clear in your translation of the Bible, however. To Luke's version of the baptism of Jesus a later pious scribe has added a comment:
…the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form, as a dove, and a voice came from heaven, 'Thou art my beloved Son with thee I am well pleased.' (Luke 3:22)
The scribe appends a comment to Luke's statement to make it agree with Ps 2:7:
Thou art my beloved son. This day have I begotten thee.2
It is a late tradition, but it is enough to document that the baptism of Jesus early in the Christian era was regarded as the moment that Jesus became the son of God, and it is still so celebrated in the Orthodox Church as Epiphany, the Day of his manifestation to Israel as the son of God (celebrated January 6).
So what do you think: Did Jesus become the son of God at his resurrection, at his baptism, at his birth, or was he always the son of God? All four views are in the Bible and were believed by some early followers of Jesus.
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
1Paul's obscure statement ("even though we once regarded Christ from a human point of view, we regard him thus no longer," 1 Cor 5:16) most likely describes Paul's own change of mind about how he viewed Christ, rather than a comment upon the personal nature of the Christ.
2The reading appears in Codex Bezae (5th/6th centuries) and a few other Latin manuscripts.