Tuesday, December 19, 2017

The earliest “Christmas Story”

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
Professor Emeritus
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.


Anonymous said...

Hi Charlie,

The crucifixion is a perhaps more indirect way to look at the possible time of designation as son. "The inscription of the charge against him (Jesus)read, 'King of the Jews.'" (Mark 15:26, Matt 27:37, Luke 23:38, John 19:19).

Psalm 2 speaks to the definition of King of the Jews:
"Why do the nations conspire...against Yahweh (the Lord) and his messiach (anointed one)...Yahweh has them in derision...saying, 'I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.' (and the king replies) 'I will tell of the decree of Yahweh: He said to me, "You are my son, today I have begotten you...I will make the nations your heritage...You shall break them with a rod of iron."' (Psalm 2:1-9) Israel's king/anointed, upon ascending the throne and its glory, was apparently declared God's son.

In Jesus' case the throne appears to be the cross and its suffering, rather than a throne and military glory. Interestingly, according to Paul, when the Spirit reveals to us our adoption as sons/daughters by recognizing God as Father, we become "glorified as joint heirs with Christ," but apparently only, consistent with the cross, "if we suffer with him."(Romans 8:16-17)

cf. however, Galatians 4:4-7, a similar passage, where there is no mention of suffering required to be God's child and heir.

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa.

Elizabeth said...

Good evening Charlie,

If Jesus had no earthly father- how could he have been born of David's seed? How did the clergy in your church that issue to you? In other words, how could David's seed been found in Jesus since his earthly mother was a virgin?

I was taught that he was born the son of God, but that no one knew it except Mary and Joseph. The question that I always wondered about was this: When did Jesus himself "discover" that he was the son of God? Did someone tell him or did he figure it out on his own?

Since the phrase "sons of God" is mentioned several times in Job and Genesis- could it be that many followers of God thought of themselves as one of his sons? I wonder if the exclusivity of God only having ONE son developed at a later time in church history.

Thank you, Elizabeth

Charles Hedrick said...

Merry Christmas, Gene!
Thanks for the reference to Romans 8! Do you make anything of the fact that Paul considered the "believer in Christ" an adopted son (Romans 8:15) while in what I have dubbed the earliest Christmas story Christ is only an "appointed" son of God?

Charles Hedrick said...

Merry Christmas, Elizabeth!
It is your assumption that Jesus had no natural father (that is, that the man Jesus was not a product of a natural birth), but that is clearly not the assumption of what I have dubbed the first Christmas Story.
See Robert Miller, "Born Divine. The Births of Jesus & Other Sons of God" (Polebridge Press, 2003). Bob covers all the bases and answers all questions.
"Virgin" (parthenos) in Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) designates a young unmarried woman of marriageable age--whom one would assume had not had sexual intercourse. But of course she could have had intercourse.
The question in your second paragraph is unanswerable if you are talking about historical data. One text (The Infancy Gospel of Thomas) has stories of the exploits of the young child Jesus that show him to be a very unusual child.

Anonymous said...

Merry Christmas, Charlie!

Not sure how to reply. It seems that the "believer" and "Christ" both have the status of "heir," but perhaps the heir condition was thought to be natural to Christ who then passed the opportunity along to the believer.

This interpretation is supported by the phrase "appointed/declared/determined son of God WITH POWER." In other words, Jesus was son of God all along but the resurrection added the attribute of "with power." With this power Jesus could now offer "son of God status" to any who would believe.

The whole rationale has a strange sound to it since the progressive modern mind tends to think of every human being as a child of God beginning at conception.

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa.

Elizabeth said...

Merry Christmas to you and yours Charlie!!

Even though you and I don’t assume Jesus had no earthly father, you surely must be aware that millions upon millions of people sitting in churches right now do... People sitting next to you, across the table from you at family gatherings, neighbors, friends, etc... It’s so widely believed and displayed all over that I had to openly wonder why so few of them ever noticed the obvious question that I posed about David’s seed. I certainly never noticed until a rabbi pointed it out to me. I just don’t understand why more people haven’t asked that question or noticed the discrepancy.

Blessings from snowy St. Louis,
Elizabeth Craig and CJ

Charles Hedrick said...

Merry Christmas Gene,
Romans 1:1-4 presents a problem to everyone who reads the Bible from the perspective of contemporary faith--that Jesus was always Gods son. Whoever originated the statement (Rom 1:4) seems to regard the advancement of Jesus to the status of son of God as occurring some time after his natural generation ("born of the seed of David"), no matter how one reasons the significance of the expression "with power."

Charles Hedrick said...

Merry Christmas, Elizabeth,
I think the answer to your question as to why hasn't Romans 1:1-4 been noticed before is because the general public does not read critically and closely the biblical texts. And even if they were the translations obscure the problem. I doubt that my own pastor would notice the impact of the statement (not to be critical, for pastors have a lot of stuff on their plates) and most don't read their texts in Greek and ponder what is going on in the text.

Charles Hedrick said...

Hi Elizabeth,
I published my comment to this question out of order. See the comment just above your posting.