The Nativity Narratives: A talk by Peter Keenan.

The First Christmas 

18th. December – Cork Unitarian Church – 18th. December

introductory comments

The late Rabbi Lionel Blue, who gently awakened me from my dogmatic slumbering, once told me a great story.

When Franco Zeffirelli was directing the acclaimed Jesus of Nazareth (starring Robert Powell), he had a problem. The child playing the boy Jesus kept stumbling through the words of his bar mitzvah (“Confirmation” for Christians).

Zefirelli had obviously read St. Luke’s account of the boy Jesus in the Temple (2:41-52), and, for understandable but mistaken reasons, he deduced this was a common first century practice, presumably mirroring the director’s own experience when a Catholic adolescent.

As a Jewish practice, there is no evidence for it prior to the fifteenth century of our era, a fact conveniently ignored by the renowned director.  

The film was made in Tunisia and, despite the efforts of a rabbi there, the boy was still having difficulties. One of Zefirelli’s assistants suggested that Lionel could succeed where others had failed, and he was duly flown to Tunisia. 

Much to Zefirelli’s annoyance, Lionel had no more success than had the first rabbi. Exasperated, Lionel said, ‘Franco, every little Jewish boy stumbles through his bar mitzvah; besides which, there was no such ceremony when Jesus was alive’, to which Zefirelli replied: ‘Lionel, every little Jewish boy may stumble through his bar mitzvah, but not the Son of God

This charming story illustrates how religious practices and beliefs seldom conform to some idealised notion of historical events, an observation that applies to our annual celebration of that First Christmas

The truth, of course, is that there was no First Christmas in the manner described by Matthew and Luke, whose narratives provide us with no biographical, astronomical or biological information about the historical Jesus.  

They are instances of Haggadic Midrash, that is, a literary-theological genre wherebypast events and stories are related to later occurrences and stories. Three examples will suffice by way of illustration: 

• The story of The Massacre of the Innocents (Mt. 2: 16-18) derives from the account in Exodus of pharaoh’s attempt to kill the baby Moses by ordering the slaughter of all Hebrew male infants (1: 8-22), thereby exonerating Herod the Great from theone ‘crime’ he did not commit.

• Jesus was born almost certainly in Nazareth. In this regard, he shares an odd distinction with King Charles III, who has twobirthdays: his actual one and a second, official, one known as Trooping the Colour. Bethlehem is the birthplace of the Christ, situated there by the evangelists as a midrashic device for the claiming of royal descent for Jesus through King David’s ancestral line.

• Our third example comes from one of the New Testament’s most famous (and controversial) verses: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’ (Mt. 1:23). Once again, this is an instance of midrash at work. In the preceding verse, Matthew tells us that this conception had been prophesised in the ‘Old Testament’, which has now achieved its fulfilment in Jesus, meaning that “God is with us” (Emmanuel, v. 23). This ‘prophecy’ was sourced from the Greek translation of the ‘Old Testament’, known as the Septuagint (LXX), and it is a mistranslation of the original Hebrew: ‘Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel’ (Is. 7:14). The purpose of the Greek version, as used by Matthew, is to claim that Mary’s conception was predestined by God, but the Hebrew rendering meant no such thing. It was about the birth, after the fact, of an heir (Hezekiah) to King Ahaz of Judah who had survived a threat to his kingdom from its northern neighbours: Israel and Syria. ‘Emmanuel’, in this context, meant simply that God had protected Judah. It nonetheless motivated the unknown author of St. Matthew’s Gospel, using Greek Isaiah, to portray Jesus’ conception as ‘from the Holy Spirit’, the words spoken by the angel to Joseph in a dream (Mt. 1:20; cf. Lk. 1: 26-36).

The two infancy narratives are late additions to Matthew and Luke. Without them, no gaps would be noticed in these gospels, for a simple reason: ‘There is no trace in biblical or post-biblical tradition that would anticipate a pregnancy with no male contribution. Virginal conception is never contemplated in Judaism, not even in the case of the King Messiah.’  

Geza Vermes, the doyen of Jesus scholarship until his death in 2013, has made the very important observation, with particular regard to Matthew, that had the story of Jesus’ birth been written in Aramaic or Hebrew it could never have given rise to the interpretation that Jesus was born of a virgin. In Greek, however, combined with a literal reading of ‘Emmanuel’, God with Us, ‘it became the source out of which arose the concept of the divine son of a virgin mother’, which achieved its apotheosis at the Council of Chalcedon (451). 

Vermes’ analysis of the Hellenistic (Graeco-Roman) context in which the birth narratives took shape reminds us that, from the late first century onwards, the process whereby nascent Christianity began to spread, despite its origins within Judaism, meant that Gentiles responsible for this development ‘were only superficially acquainted with the religion of Jesus’.  

For my own part, echoing Vermes, I think that by no later than c. 100 Jesus would have failed to recognise this emerging new religion as his own. He was, and always remained, a faithful son of the Abrahamic covenant. The religion about Jesus is Christianity, and he no more founded a Church than did St. Paul intend the abrogation of Judaism.  

Jesus knew that he was not born in Bethlehem that First Christmas. The moving stories of his birth, featuring chiefly Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus and explored by Mike on the three Sundays preceding this last one of Advent, are set there because of the manner of his death and the claim subsequent to it that Jesus appeared alive to some of his disciples. There would have been no ‘Bethlehem’ had there not first been Golgotha.  

Without the crucifixion, no one would have heard the heavenly chorus on that Silent Night 2,000 years ago: ‘I bring you good news of great joy for all the people; to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour – he is Christ, the Lord.’ 

No husband waits anxiously in a maternity unit knowing that the son or daughter his wife is carrying will one day become a major historical figure. In the unlikely event, however, of such an outcome, stories about wondrous signs accompanying the child’s birth and later life often circulate and come to “define” the protagonist’s identity. 

In the case of the Buddha, for example, he reputedly assumed the form of a white elephant and went to where his soon-to-be mother was protected by guardian angels. The elephant struck her side with its trunk, thereby entering her womb. It is noteworthy that soon thereafter the ‘heavenly chorus’ rejoiced at the birth of the Buddha. 

A different version of the legend has the Buddha’s mother, Queen Maya, dreaming about an elephant and, with the help of a lotus flower, she gives birth and four angels receive the baby Buddha in a golden net. 

Every December, most primary school teachers organise nativity plays. These brave and imaginative undertakings invite us ‘to encounter the better angels of our nature’, to quote from Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address. 

With due respect to elephants and the Buddha, it is a mercy the teachers can get awaywith a donkey, sheep, ‘wise men’ and a manger without having to include elephants in their creative pastiches. 

The Buddha’s earliest followers looked for allegorical and symbolic meanings in the elephant story. They did not interpret it literally, and it is noteworthy that later biographies of the Buddha include mythical stories about the ‘earth shaking’ and the ‘opening of gates’, echoing some events in the later New Testament (see Mt. 27:51 and Acts 12: 6-19). 

With regard to its nativity stories, there should be no requirement to force them into the straitjackets of fact and history, let alone biology, and no one should be denied the appellation ‘Christian’ because they do not accept the doctrine of the virginal conception.  

After all, the two other gospels and the letters of St. Paul have provided us with the essentials of the nascent Christian faith without recourse to it. They had no need for the First Christmas. 

Matthew and Luke started out with a set of beliefs about Jesus and they structured their respective narratives in light of those convictions, by which I mean – strange though it may seem – that their experiences came first and then later they discovered the promises validating those experiences. 

This month, all over the world, audiences will be enthralled by Handel’s majestic oratorio, Messiah. He provides us with a portrait of Jesus derived in the main from ‘Old Testament’ sources – that is, passages such as (Greek) Isaiah 7:14, addressed earlier.  

Messiah is illustrative of how Christians tend to assume that, in first-century Palestine, there were clear expectations about a future Messiah, but this is not the case. There were many hopes and theories, of course, but there was no consensus of opinion.  

The infancy gospels of Matthew and Luke reflect this reality and their anonymous authors selected ‘Old Testament’ prophecies to serve a particular interpretation of messianic fulfilment, one that was a minority view. 

The evangelists had no messianic check-list, ticking off items one by one: they began with Jesus and then looked for Old Testament promises to verify their conviction that he was ‘the Christ, the Son of the living God’ (Matthew 16:16). 

These observations matter because some Christians, implicitly or explicitly, insist upon promoting the belief that first-century Jews, and even those living now, have failed to recognise their Messiah, Jesus.

For one thing, Jesus did not meet the normative messianic expectations of his time and, for another, it is probable that he never made such a claim on his own behalf.

It is our Christian failure not to have recognised that the Jewish and Christian understandings of the term ‘Messiah’ have come to bear about as much similarity to each other as the use of ‘truth’ by reputable historians and those who espouse the disgraceful phenomenon of Holocaust Denial

I am convinced that the catastrophe of the Holocaust is also Christianity’s greatestcalamity, and it is a moral duty to remember it by revising the Christian narrative in the face of the Jewish history of suffering. 

Behind me, there glows The Chalice Flame, a part-symbol of that resolve, designed by Hans Deutsch during World War II.   

A factor contributing indirectly to the Nazis’ War Against the Jews was the centuries’ long practice of Christians taking out of context and misunderstanding New Testament texts such as Matthew 27:25 – ‘Let his blood be upon us, and upon our children’.

Similarly, there is an obligation to contextualise the infancy stories, acknowledgingthat their authors were not providing us with biographical data. They moulded their source, the ‘Old Testament’, with the purpose of persuading their hearers about Jesus’ messianic identity. King David had come from Bethlehem and therefore, as previously indicated, ‘Jesus had somehow to come from Bethlehem, too’. 

The evangelists proclaimed ‘gospel truth’ as they understood it, analogous to Zefirelli’s insistence that his production had to include a bar mitzvah scene, because ‘Christ, the Son of the living God’, must have had one, about twelve years after his birth in Bethlehem.  

Zefirelli had not known, of course, that ‘Bethlehem’ is a midrashic creation, developed to address an awkward problem: by, c. 80, Jesus, as expected, had not returned to accomplish God’s definitive reign. 

Hellenistic Jewish-Christians, pressured by the cognitive dissonance arising from this dilemma, took a momentous step and revised their notions of Jesus’ status during the ever-lengthening time between his resurrection and non-return.

To summarise a complex phenomenon, the birth narratives represent an intermediary phase between, on the one hand, the Palestinian Jewish-Christian understanding of Jesus and, on the other hand, the Gentile-Christian affirmation that, as the Logos, Christ had a divine pre-existence: ‘And the word became flesh and lived among us’ (John 1:14). 

It is this incarnational Christology which was to the forefront of Zefirelli’s mind when he wagged his finger at Lionel, and it has remained the dominant one since 451, when Christ was declared to be ‘true God and true man’. 

About 100 years earlier, Pope Julius I (d. 352) sanctioned 25th. December as a feastday marking the birth of Jesus. The canny Scots were having none of this, and Christmas Day did not become a public holiday in Scotland until 1958.  

Julius’ purpose was to replace a Pagan celebration honouring the birthday of Mithras, a Persian Sun-god. Legend has it that he was born in a cave and that ‘Mithras killed a sacred bull from whose blood the Earth and its creatures were formed’. 

After overcoming and sacrificing the bull, Mithras was said to have ascended to Heaven, where he guaranteed a blessed immortality to those who had been initiated into his religion.  

The emperor Commodus (d. 192, he of Gladiator fame) made Mithraism an imperial cult and, in the estimation of certain scholars, there was a chance in the fourth century that it, and not Christianity, could have become the official religion of the Roman Empire. 

It is interesting that there were striking resemblances between Mithraism and the Christian rites of Baptism and Eucharist.


Peter Keenan is the author of The Birth of Jesus the Jew: Midrash and the Infancy Gospels. (Columba Books). His The Death of Jesus the Jew: Midrash in the Shadow of the Holocaust (Columba Books) will be published in early 2023, and Peter is currently working on the third volume in the series, with the provisional title The Resurrection of Jesus the Jew; Midrash and the Empty Tomb Myth.