By the middle of the 4th century Christians were celebrating the nativity of Jesus on December 25 (the birth of Mithras), and as early as the end of the 5th century they were celebrating an Advent Season. In America today Advent is a month-long period of celebration leading up to the Nativity (birth of Jesus Christ). The birth of Jesus marks the beginning of the liturgical year in Western Christianity, and includes, among other things, the lighting of four Advent candles through the four weeks of the season. The candles emphasize the four themes of Christmas: hope, peace, love, and joy.
Oddly, two of the canonical gospels, Mark and John, do not even acknowledge a birth of Jesus. Mark begins the narrative with Jesus as an adult disciple of John the Baptizer (1:9-14), and simply assumes that he was born—after all he had a mother, brothers, and sisters (6:3). There is no mention of a father or stepfather. The life of Jesus before his association with John the Baptist is cloaked in obscurity, with the exception that Mark describes him as a carpenter (6:3); presumably it was his occupation before joining John’s movement. He was assumed to be a human being of anonymous birth on whom the Spirit of God descended at his baptism by John (1:9-11). If there was going to be any subsequent Christian celebration based on Mark’s narrative about Jesus, one would have expected that it would have focused on his baptism, death, and resurrection, since that is what Mark himself stresses (1:9-11; 14:22-28; 16:1-7; 8:31; 9:31; 10:32-34).
The Gospel of John also is out of step with the contemporary Christian celebration of Advent. There is no mention of a birth of Jesus in the Gospel of John. Instead John begins with a poetic section (1:1-18): “the Word,” who was pre-existing with the Father (1:1-5). In this Word was Life (1:4) and this Life was the “Light” of human beings. It shines unextinguished in the darkness (1:5). The Light was “True Light,” coming into the world and enlightening all people (1:5). The Word/Life/Light in the world (1:5) became enfleshed and dwelled among us (1:14). Whatever the poet may have had in mind, this is clearly not a nativity story. This poetically described “figure” has no point of beginning and comes from beyond an earthen vale. He only temporarily pitched his tent amongst us (1:14)—that is (if one may borrow a line from Paul), he was not human but came in human likeness by taking the form of a slave (Phil 2:6-7). More prosaically, John recognized that Jesus was the son of Joseph (1:45; 6:42) by an unnamed mother (2:1; 19:25) and he had brothers, also unnamed (2:12; 7:5). Nevertheless, he was not one of us but came “from above, from heaven” (3:31; 8:23). The family attachments were merely part of his human disguise. From John’s perspective one should celebrate his “lifting up” (3:14; 8:28; 12:32-34) and his “rising up” (2:22; 20:9; 21:14).
The birth and infancy narratives in Matthew (1:1-2:23 and Luke (1:5-2:52) are completely different, with the exception that they feature the same main characters (Jesus, Mary, and Joseph).1 The principal disagreements are as follows: the announcement of Jesus’ birth is made to Joseph in a dream in Matthew (1:20-24), but to Mary while awake in Luke (1:26-37); In Matthew Joseph plays a major role in events (1:18-25; 2:13-14, 19-23), but in Luke a minor role (named, 2:4, 16; alluded to,2:5, 22, 27, 33, 39, 41, 43, 48); Matthew has the story of the Magi (2:1-12) but Luke does not. Luke has the story of the shepherds in the field (2:8-20), but Matthew does not. In Matthew Jesus was apparently born in a house (2:11), but in Luke he was born in a stable (2:7, 12, 16). Matthew has the massacre of the children (2:16-18) with the House of Herod playing a prominent role, but this account plays no role in Luke; In Matthew Bethlehem in Judea is the home of Mary and Joseph, they flee to Egypt and do not return to Bethlehem (2:1, 19-23), but in Luke Nazareth in Galilee is the home of Mary and Joseph, they travel to Bethlehem because of the Roman census, they return to Jerusalem and return home to Nazareth (1:26; 2:4-6, 22-24, 39-40).2
The actual conception of Jesus in Matthew and Luke is more like that in John than what one might infer from Mark. In Matthew Mary conceived “like this”: before Mary and Joseph “came together,” she was impregnated “by the Holy Spirit” (1:18, 20). Luke is very similar: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God” (1:35). He was not the issue of human sperm but in both cases, conception occurred by divine insemination (Matt 1:24-25; Luke 1:34-35). The child to be born will be “the Son of the Most High (Luke 1:32), or “God with us” (Matt 1:23). In other words, he is not human but divine.
This trajectory in the gospels of the nature of Jesus/Christ from a human being of anonymous birth (Mark), to a figure conceived by divine insemination (Matthew and Luke) to a figure “from above, from heaven” who is enfleshed for the purposes of an earthly career reveals a fundamental confusion in early Christianity as to how explain the nature of Jesus/Christ. The trajectory anticipates the Christological debates of the 4th/5th centuries and raises the question of which model of Jesus’ coming-to-be in the world should Christians be celebrating during Advent.
Missouri State University
1See Hedrick, When History and Faith Collide. Studying Jesus (Wipf & Stock, 1999), 22-63.
2Ibid, pages 61-62.