Jesus – his birth


For AO1 you need to know:

  • Consistency and credibility of the birth narratives
  • Harmonisation and redaction
  • Interpretation and application of the birth narratives to the incarnation. Substantial presence and kenotic model.

For AO2 you need to be able to debate:

  • The extent to which the birth narratives provide insight into the doctrine of the incarnation
  • The relative importance of redaction criticism for understanding the biblical birth narratives

AO1 – Consistency and credibility of the birth narratives

The events surrounding the birth of Jesus are only mentioned in two of the Gospels; Matthew and Luke. These two birth narratives contain some similarities and some differences. There is debate over whether they can be considered historically valid, whether they can be harmonised and what we should conclude on the basis of them about the who Jesus was and the nature of the incarnation.

Luke 1:26-2:40. Matthew 1:18-2:23.
1. Annunciation to Mary in Nazareth. 1. Annunciation to Joseph.
2. Census of Quirinius (6-7 CE). Not mentioned
3. Joseph and Mary travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Not mentioned
4. Birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. 2. Birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.
5. Annunciation to the shepherds in the fields. 3. Magi visit Herod in Jerusalem.
6. Adoration of the shepherds in Bethlehem. 4. Adoration of the Magi in Bethlehem.
7 Presentation of Jesus at the Temple in Jerusalem. Not mentioned
Not mentioned 5. Joseph, Mary and Jesus’ flight to Egypt.
Not mentioned 6. Massacre of the Innocents in Bethlehem.
Not mentioned 7. Death of Herod (4 BCE).
Not mentioned 8. Joseph, Mary and Jesus return to Israel.
8. Joseph, Mary and Jesus return home to Nazareth 9. Joseph, Mary and Jesus relocate to Nazareth.

Cross-over topics:

  • Mathew writes from Joseph’s viewpoint whereas Luke writes from Mary’s.
  • In Matthew, an un-named angel announces Mary’s pregnancy, whereas in Luke the angel is named as Gabriel.
  • Matthew writes that Jesus is born in a house in Bethlehem, Luke that there was no room at the inn, so Jesus was born in a manger.

Mathew alone writes of:

  • Joseph and Mary’s marriage.
  • The visit of the non-Jewish wise men who followed a star in the East. We are not told how many there were, but we assume three because there were three gifts. It does not say they are kings, but tradition supposes they are based on Psalm saying that ‘kings will fall down before him’.
  • Herod’s slaughter of infants and the flight to Egypt. The wise men duped Herod, so Herod killed all the male children in Bethlehem under 2. Joseph is warned in a dream so he takes Mary and Jesus and flees to Egypt. After Herod death they return to Nazareth.
  • Mathew has extensive quotes from the Old Testament

Luke alone writes of:

  • Mary visited Elizabeth & the birth of John the Baptist. Visit to cousin Elizabeth who is pregnant with John the Baptist, joy through the Magnificat. Her husband Zechariah makes prophecy known as the Benedictus.
  • visit of the shepherds. Shepherds informed of Jesus’ birth by angels
  • presentation of Christ in the temple and the three hymns. 8 days later Jesus is presented in the temple in Jerusalem and is recognised as the Messiah by Simeon and Anna- hymn Nunc Dmittis.
  • Census called by Caesar Augustus – Joseph and Mary had to travel to Bethlehem for this
  • Return home to Nazareth

The Historical validity of the accounts.

Supernatural events in the accounts. Many Historians doubt the historicity of the accounts because of the supernatural events around Jesus’ birth.

Mathew mentions Herod’s massacre of the children, however the massacre is not reported in historical sources of the time. Even Josephus, who did write about many of Herod’s bad actions, didn’t mention it. Mathew may have made it up to show a parallel between Jesus and Moses, who faced a similar threat as a baby, however we do know from history that Herod murdered three of his own sons.

The census in Luke. According to Luke, there was a census initiated by Caesar Augustus. Luke claims that Joseph was in the lineage of King David, who was from Bethlehem, and to register for the census everybody has to go to the home of their ancestry. So that’s why Joseph went to Bethlehem, where Mary goes into labour and gives birth to Jesus. Luke claims this takes place when Quirinius was the governor of Syria.

Bart Ehrman claims that since David lived a thousand years before Joseph, it is absurd to think that Joseph could trace his ancestory back that far, and also absurd to think that everyone went to the place their ancestors lived a thousand years ago for the sake of a census. That isn’t how Romans did thing. Finally, Ehrman claims there is no mention of this census in any other sources than Luke and Christian authors who read Luke. Ehrman concludes that this census didn’t happen and that the author of Luke invented it to fit the Jewish belief that the saviour has to come from Bethlehem. This casts doubt on the historical credibility of Luke.

Raymond Brown, a Roman Catholic scholar, thinks that the lack of ancient records means that the historicity of the nativity is impossible to fully determine. The important task, then, is understanding what the birth narratives meant to early Christians.

AO1 – Harmonisation.

Harmonisation is the attempt to show that the accounts to not contradict each other. Arguably the accounts do not involve any serious contradictions. It’s possible that Matthew and Luke had access to different information and/or different sources. For example, Luke may have received the story directly from Mary.

Joseph and Mary may have fled to Egypt after Jesus was presented at the Temple, so Matthew would be seen as carrying on where Luke left off.

Both Mathew and Luke agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem when Herod was king of Judea.

Mary was betrothed to Joseph, Mary was a virgin, Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit.

People travelled to visit the newborn baby.

Jesus was the fulfilment of the Old Testament prophecy and he came to save all mankind.

AO2 – Harmonisation

Bart Ehrman claims that it is “impossible” to reconcile the differences in the birth narratives. He points out that in Luke, Jesus is presented at the temple and the family then returns to Nazareth. However, in Matthew, the slaughter of the innocents causes the flight to Egypt until Herod dies in 4bc upon which the family returns to Nazareth. Ehrman says “If Matthew is right that they fled to Egypt, how can Luke be right that they went back to Nazareth a month later? The chronology doesn’t work.” Ehrman suggests that the Gospel authors each knew that Jesus was raised in Nazareth but wanted to place him in Bethlehem for his birth to fit Jewish prophecy about the birthplace of the Messiah. So each author invented different stories which served that purpose, as can be seen by their conflicting chronology.

            Some argue that Herod died later than 4bce, such as 1bce.

Some argue that the events in Matthew chapter 2 (from the Magi onward) took place around 2 years after the events in Luke. This would explain why, in Matthew, Herod wanted to kill all male babies under 2.

Luke’s dating of the census. Ehrman also points out if Jesus was in Mary’s womb during the census of Quirinius, then he could not have been born under the rulership of Herod, as Matthew says, since there is a 10-year gap between those events. Both Luke (1:5) and Matthew (2:1) state that Jesus was born during the rule of Herod. The census mentioned by Luke is claimed to occur during the governorship of Quirinius of Syria (Luke 2:1-2). However, according to the 1st century Jewish historian Josephus, Quirinius did not become the governor of Syria and conduct the census until 6 CE. This means the census could not have taken place during the reign of Herod because Herod died in 4BCE. Most scholars conclude that Luke’s account is in error due to this. It is possible that the scribe miscopied Quirinas for Saturninus (governor from 9BCE to 6CE).

It could be that Josephus was the one who made an error though. Arguably there is no reason to suppose that Luke must be the one who was wrong. It could be that they were both accurately describing similar but different events. Or it could be that there is information we don’t know that reconciles what appears to be a conflict. Currently there is insufficient data to justify the conclusion that Luke was wrong.

Arguably it is not a good principle to think that there could be information discovered one day which would justify your conclusion. It is more reasonable to judge based on the available evidence.

AO1 – Redaction criticism

Redaction criticism is the idea that gospel writers edited pre-existing material to suit their own purpose. It assumes that the original traditions about Jesus circulated as independent ideas in the Early Church. It began in Germany late 1940’s.

Redaction criticism makes the point that any narrative in the Gospels must have gone through three stages. Firstly, the actual life and teaching of the historical Jesus. Secondly, in the life of the early church. Thirdly, in the mind of the evangelists who wrote the Gospels.

The transition from the second to the third stage was going from an anonymous group of Christians keeping alive an oral tradition of Jesus’ teachings, to individual writers who might be in the context of a school or church. Redaction criticism is the view that we can learn how each writer of the gospel processed the oral tradition they received. This is done by studying the editorial comments, links and summaries the gospel writers made.  Also, when, for example, Matthew or Luke is compared with Mark, we can look at the choices the writers made regarding what to select, modify or expand on the material they used.

On this view, the gospel writers interpreted information about Jesus to address the particular needs of their time, such as to reach a particular audience. This meant they made significant alterations of the wording to make a theological point.

Redaction Criticism applied to the Birth Narratives.

According to redaction criticism, we should view the birth narratives in Luke and Matthew as stories which have been presented in a particular way for a particular purpose.

Redaction criticism begins with observation, in this case the differences between the two birth narratives. The next step is to decipher what the differences tell us.

Mathew’s Gospel was supposedly aimed at Jewish readers, as seen by it being from Joseph’s viewpoint and referencing 4 quotations from the Old Testament prophets. Matthew says the “scriptures are fulfilled”, which is a reference to the fulfilment of the Jewish prophecy of the Messiah. Isiah 53 prophesises one who will suffer and bare the sins of humanity who are like lost sheep. Matthew seems convinced that Jesus did not only come for the Jews but for all people, i.e. very first visitors were Gentile foreigners.

Luke’s Gospel is supposed by redaction theory to be aimed at the Gentiles. Luke was the only non- Jewish writer in the New Testament and believed Jesus had universal significance. Luke appeals less to the Old Testament than Mathew since he quotes from the Greek version of the old testament, (Septuagint) not the Hebrew. That Greek influence references a different culture than the Jewish culture.

Luke emphasises the work of the Holy Spirit more than Matthew. In Ezekiel, an age of the messiah to come is mentioned where God will “pour out my spirit upon all flesh”. Seeming to echo this, the Angel tells Mary “The Holy Spirit will come upon you” (Luke 1:35). Luke also tells us that Simeon became filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesised the coming on one who will be a “light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel”, (Luke 2:27).

A comparison of Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) and Hannah’s Song of Praise (1 Sam 2:1-10) shows similar themes. A powerful but merciful God saving his people and a new age of justice and plenty where the humble will be rewarded. This suggests that Luke emphasizes continuity between the old testament and the coming of the Messiah.

Mathew’s gospel is from Joseph’s viewpoint, and since Joseph was a descendent of King David that suggests Matthew was keen to emphasise the link between Jesus and Jewish heritage. However, Luke tells the story for Mary’s viewpoint, which could suggest he is less concerned with making that link.

  • Shows sympathy for those who were marginalised at the time- Jesus brought salvation to the poor and needy
  • News of Jesus’ birth was brought to the poor shepherds not the wealthy wise men
  • Joseph and Mary were poor people- the sacrifice they make is the sacrifice of the poor
  • The birth of John the Baptist emphasises Jesus’ connection with the Jewish
  • John the Baptist was the last prophet of the Old Testament but he is no match for Jesus

Interpretation and application of the birth narratives to the doctrine of the incarnation. Substantial presence and Kenotic model.

The incarnation is the coming of God to earth in the form of Jesus. Exactly how that worked and what the birth narratives and whole Bible actually claims is debated. Substantial presence and the Kenotic model are two theories of how the incarnation worked. The Substantial presence view is that God was fully present in Jesus, who was fully present in humanity. The Kenotic Model is that God’s presence was somehow lessened and not fully present in Jesus, because in some way Jesus lessened or ‘emptied’ himself of God’s divine attributes when on earth.

AO2 – Substantial Presence

in Matthew, Jesus is referred to as “Immanuel”, meaning “God is with us”. Also, why would the wise men want to worship Jesus if he was not divine?

It has been argued that Matthew uses a mistranslation of an Old Testament prophecy when referring to Jesus’ virgin birth (which implies his divinity). He quotes from Isaiah 7:14: “…, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” The original Hebrew text of Isaiah uses the word “almah” (a young woman of marriageable age), not the word “bethulah” (which means virgin). Matthew used the Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures) and not the original Hebrew version as his source material. As a result he used the Greek word “parthenos” meaning virgin (implying Jesus’ divinity).

Substantial presence is criticised by reform theologians for depending too much on Aristotle’s views on substance which are pagan philosophy and thus not Christian.

Luke specifically refers to Jesus as the ‘Son of God’ (Luke 1:35).

Hick argued that the historical Jesus did not teach nor ‘apparently believe that he was God, or God the Son, Second person of a Holy Trinity, incarnate, or the son of God in a unique sense.’ Hick points to the fact that the gospel writers wrote long after Jesus’ life so they were not eyewitnesses. Mark, the earliest gospel, begins with Jesus’ baptism making no mention of a divine birth and Jesus is depicted as a prophet. The gospels written last like John present Jesus as the son of God in a unique sense. Hick is suggesting that Jesus being the son of God in a unique sense was a later invention.

Furthermore, the label ‘son of God’ was a common title in Judaism when referring to a very special human chosen by God, not a truly unique divine person. For example, Adam was called the son of God. The incarnation was therefore metaphorical, conveying the idea of embodying a conviction in life. Jesus embodied ‘the goodness and love of God’. Hick argues the benefit is this avoids the paradoxes of the previous paragraph regarding the duality of Christ and the trinity.

The Trinity Is the doctrine that God has three forms; father, son and holy spirit. This means Jesus was the Son of God in a unique sense. The traditional Jewish view of a messiah was equivalent in meaning to ‘Son of God’ in the sense of someone chosen by God to perform certain deeds. However in Jesus’ time the meaning in Greek changed to a human who was elevated to the divine. The Church fused the two meanings in the Council of Chalcedon in 451 so that Jesus was thought of as both fully God and fully human.

The incoherence of the trinity. The Unitarian liberal theologian Channing argued that the Trinitarian view of Jesus is one of “infinite confusion”. How could one being be both human and divine, weak and almighty, ignorant and omniscient? Something could be either human or divine, but not both. These are two different incompatible states. They are contradictory qualities which cannot inhere in the same being, or that being would have contradictory qualities. Divinity is infinite, humanity is finite; something cannot be both infinite and finite. John Hick agrees and illustrates this argument; to say Jesus is God is like saying that a circle is also a square. Hick goes on to conclude that Christ being a mere human solves the paradoxical implications of the trinity.

The trinity is a mystery to be taken on faith. Theologians like Augustine and Karl Barth admit that the trinity is a mystery which must be taken on faith and that all human attempts to fully understand the trinity through reason are misguided. Barth said he was ‘relieved’ that Augustine admitted that his word “person” was just a manner of speaking for the mystery of the trinity, and Barth claims “A really suitable term for it just does not exist”. The application of human reason to understanding God is not something Augustine or Barth would accept.

The success of Barth’s argument here depends on whether they are right that the Bible supports the trinitarian view and also on whether he is correct in his rejection of natural theology and the power of reason to provide us knowledge of God.

Kenotic model.

Kenosis means “self-emptying”, it comes from the Greek word Keno, meaning to make empty. The Kenotic model is an attempt to understand the incarnation. For example, in Luke, Jesus is presented as growing in knowledge, getting hungry and tired. Since God is omniscient and omnipotent, it shouldn’t be possible for God to be affected by such human weaknesses. How could Jesus have both a divine and a human nature? How could an omniscient God could be a baby?

The Kenotic model attempts to explain these things by drawing on Paul, in Philippians 2:5-11, who describes Jesus “humbling himself and taking he form of a servant” and “emptying himself and becoming obedient to death”.

This self-emptying is theorised to consist of a preincarnate self-limitation by Jesus, agreeing to take the form of a slave but maintaining that he was fully human whilst maintaining the divine presence. Self-emptying of his own will and submitting to the will of God. C Evans proposes that Jesus voluntarily gives up or just does not make use of divine attributes. This is why he appears in Luke a having human frailties, as he does not have or is not making use of omniscience and omnipotence.

In Luke, Mary’s response to the angel captures the themes of humility and obedience that are central to kenosis “Here am I the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

Mary relates a message where the rich are emptied and the poor filled with good things. It echoes the message Jesus himself is given, that he will give “recovery of sight to the blind” (Luke 4:18). There is a theme of reversal where the rich will be emptied and the poor filled, materially and spiritually, just as Jesus also reverses from the purely divine to the divine incarnate who is an obedient servant.

N. T. Wright argues that the idea that Jesus stopped being divine when he became human is a “misunderstanding” and “completely un-true to what Paul has in mind”. Wright claims that the point of Paul’s previous verse was that Jesus was already equal with God before he existed as a human being. Wright claims that “the decision to become human, and to go all the way along the road of obedience to the divine plan of salvation … was not a decision to stop being divine. It was a decision about what it really meant to be divine”. Wright concludes that the pre-existent Son did not think that being equal to God meant that he was excused from the task of redemptive suffering and death, but that he was actually uniquely qualified and apt for that task.

Jesus washes the feet of mere humans, even though he is God. He calls for humility as a virtue, even for himself. So, when God became flesh in the incarnation, he “emptied” himself in that he subjected himself to a mortal life involving suffering and death, but that was not emptying himself of divinity, it was exemplifying the character of what divinity is. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

In other words, Wright is arguing that if you think that God becoming human was a lessening of God, then you don’t understand what it means to be divine and what a divine being would do.

The Kenotic model is criticised by traditional orthodoxy as undermining the perfection and resultant immutability of God.

C Evans proposes a Kenotic model that claims God chooses to limit himself to live a finite human existence which amounts to a genuine change in God. Evans claims that this does not contradict the principle of divine perfection.

The Council of Chalcedon in 451 so that Jesus was thought of as both fully God and fully human. Evans’ Kenotic idea of self-limitation seems to contradict the Chalcedon characterisation of Christ as having two natures that co-exist “without change, without division, without separation”.

Pope Pius XII condemned the interpretation of kenosis that suggests Jesus’ divinity was taken away. He points out that there are bible quotes which suggest that the incarnation did not in any way make Jesus lesser: “I and the father are one” (John 10:30), “The word was made flesh” (John 1:14). Pope Pius XII concludes that the Kenotic model is “a wicked invention, equally to be condemned with the Docetism opposed to it”.

However, these quotes are from John, typically thought of by scholars as the latest written Gospel. Some like John Hick argue that since the earliest Gospel, Mark, makes no reference of Jesus’ divine birth, and that it is only in the final gospel of John that you get really clear statements by Jesus that he was divine, it looks like the divinity of Jesus was a later creation.