One of the learning activities I sometimes used when discussing the nature of Jesus in my New Testament undergraduate classes was a “forced choice” exercise. We moved the chairs to the sides of the room and all the students stood in the middle facing me at the front. Then I offered a series of statements and required the students to choose between two opposing opinions.
For example, “If you believe the boy Jesus had to learn just like all other children, move to the left wall. Or, if you believe Jesus was born already knowing everything, move to the right.”
The choice seems obvious, especially in light of Luke 2:52, but the subsequent pairs of alternatives became increasingly challenging. In each case, after students had made their choice and moved to one side or the other, I asked a couple of representatives from each group to explain their position. The forced choices provided an engaging way to stimulate thought and enhance understanding.
When it comes to the features of the Christmas stories of Matthew and Luke, however, there are not simply two options from which we, as thinking persons, must select. So, I did not require my class members, many of them 18- to 20-year-olds encountering differing views about Scripture for the first time, to choose between only two alternative perspectives regarding the often familiar and beloved aspects of these narratives.
I never offered a scenario like this: “If you believe it is a historical fact that there was an actual Star of Bethlehem that led the magi to Bethlehem and stopped in the sky over the place where Jesus was born, go to the right. If you think it is scientifically impossible for such an astronomical event to occur, and thus it is a fable, go to the left.”
Yet many contemporary people, some Christian and others not, consider only these two ways of understanding the well-known story elements of the Christmas season. The choice is to accept them as literally true or reject them as absolutely false.
In their co-authored book, The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus’ Birth, John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg describe the fallacious fact-or-fable dichotomy often associated with the birth narratives of Jesus. They say many people believe “either these stories report events that happened, or they are no better than fables.” And, they add, “For most people today, fables do not matter much. They might be entertaining for children but need not be taken seriously.”
“We would be wise to reject these false choices forced upon us by our worldview shaped by the Enlightenment, the Scientific Age that led to modernity, and postmodernity.”
As we move through the season toward Christmas Day, we would be wise to reject these false choices forced upon us by our worldview shaped by the Enlightenment, the Scientific Age that led to modernity, and postmodernity.
Crossan and Borg explain the 17th-century Enlightenment engendered a scientific way of knowing. They write: “In the minds of many people, this has led to the notion that truth is what can be verified — and what can be verified, of course, are ‘facts.’ The (late) scholar of religion Huston Smith calls this notion ‘fact fundamentalism,’ even as he rejects it. According to this way of thinking, if something isn’t factual, it isn’t true.”
In this view, truth and factuality are the same. An element of the Christmas story is either true (fact) or false (fable). Many Christians hold on tightly to the “truthfulness” (factuality or literalness) of biblical storylines. They feel forced to choose between only two alternatives and they gladly move to the side of the room where, along with others, they affirm what they always have believed to be “the way things are.”
This perspective might be termed “precritical naivete.” This does not mean these Christians are naïve or incapable of critical thought. When I was a child, I certainly never questioned the amazing elements of the Christmas stories. I loved the wonder of the season, I knew the story by heart (although I wasn’t aware that Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts were quite different), sang the carols with joy, excitedly portrayed a shepherd in “bathrobe” pageants alongside my friends dressed as kings and angels and never questioned what had become the very spiritual air I breathed in my Christian home and church at Christmas time.
Many people in our culture have a similar experience. But when they grow up, they put away childish things. Their changing context causes them to question events in the nativity stories — elements such as “supernatural interventions, virgin births, special stars, (and) angelic visitations,” because “truth became identified with factuality, (thus) the factuality of the birth stories was called into question by the modern worldview.”
‘Soft biblical literalism’
Borg, however, addresses this very conundrum in another book, Convictions: How I Learned what Matters Most. He writes about “the journey from precritical naivete through critical thinking to postcritical conviction.”
It was a journey he himself made, having grown up in what he called “a soft form of biblical literalism.” As he matured, Borg says, he began to understand “the truth of religious stories — including the stories in the Bible — does not depend upon their factuality.”
He writes: “This does not mean that religions in general, or Christianity in particular, are based on fable or fantasy (often seen as the alternative to factuality in modern Western culture). Rather, it means that the truth of the Bible is its ‘more than literal’ meanings, its ‘more than factual’ meanings. The more-than-literal meanings of religious texts are their metaphorical meanings. ‘Metaphorical meaning’ refers to ‘the surplus of meaning’ that stories can carry.”
“A biblical story can be ahistorical or nonfactual and still be profoundly true.”
For this dedicated Christian scholar, a biblical story can be ahistorical or nonfactual and still be profoundly true. This is because its more-than-literal meaning, or surplus meaning, is its symbolic, metaphorical or parabolic meaning. The central question is not, “Is the Star of Bethlehem (or any other element of a Christmas story) true or false — fact or fable — but rather what does it mean?
To illustrate, the parables of Jesus represent his favorite way of teaching truth. We do not question the truthfulness of either the situations or settings in his parables, or of the life lessons they teach us. But we need not consider the parables to be literal, factual reports of something that actually happened. They are parabolic, metaphorical, symbolic stories.
Metaphorical stories with truth?
In yet another of his books — Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary — Borg clarifies that “the vast majority of mainstream biblical scholars judge these nativity stories to be metaphorical narratives rather than history remembered.”
He notes two reasons why this is the case:
- Both Matthew and Luke are quite late, having been written during the last two decades of the first Christian century. Neither Mark, the first biblical Gospel produced, nor the writings of Paul, which predate Mark, mention anything about Jesus’ birth.
- What happens in the Matthean and Lukan birth narratives differs significantly. Matthew recounts a star, magi from the East seeking the child and bringing their gifts, Herod’s slaughter of children under the age of 2, and the flight of Joseph, Mary and Jesus to Egypt. Moreover, Joseph is the main character in the story while Mary is silent, and elements of the infancy story of Jesus and aspects of his life portray him as a new “Moses.” Luke, on the other hand, tells of Elizabeth and the birth of John the baptizer, an angel chorus in the night alerting shepherds, who come to see the newborn child in the stable and manger. Additionally, Mary is the main character while Joseph is silent, and elements of the story point to Luke’s later portrayal of an adult Jesus who values women, lifts up the poor and marginalized and is guided by the Spirit.
These stories — as different in content and late in time as they were written — both are metaphorical narratives incorporating meaningful truths.
First, “light imagery runs through both stories.” As Borg explains, “Light is an archetypal religious image, found in all of the world’s enduring religions.” Like the star in the night sky, Jesus lights the world and the human heart.
Second, “Jesus is the fulfillment of ancient Israel’s deepest yearnings and hopes.” Matthew’s way of showing this is “by quoting five passages from the Jewish Bible that he correlates with events in his story … (while Luke) includes in his hymns (of Mary, Zechariah and Simeon) language that echoes the Jewish Bible.” This baby is the answer to centuries of prayers.
Third, there is “a conception brought about by God when it is humanly impossible.” In the stories of Israel’s ancestors, God promises descendants as numerous as the stars. “And yet Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel (the wives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) are all barren … until God opens their wombs. Later, Samson and Samuel, both deliverers of Israel in a time of peril, are born to barren women.” God can and does make possible the otherwise impossible.
Fourth, “Jesus is the Son of God.” Borg notes, “In the birth stories, Jesus as Son of God and divine conception are linked … implicit in Matthew and explicit in Luke. … Like the previous theme of conceptions made possible by God when humanly impossible, this theme affirms that what happened in Jesus was ‘of God,’ ‘of the Spirit.’” This baby will grow up to embody and exhibit a remarkable relationship with the Divine.
“The birth stories directly challenge a central claim of Roman imperial theology.”
Fifth, “the birth stories directly challenge a central claim of Roman imperial theology.” Beginning with Julius Caesar, and especially with Caesar Augustus at the time of Jesus’ birth, the emperor was considered divine. Augustus “was the savior who had brought peace on earth by bringing the great civil war to an end. Throughout the empire, coins, inscriptions and temples … heralded him as “Son of God.” The birth narratives that proclaim this baby to be the Savior, Prince of Peace and Son of God are thus politically subversive.
There is another reason to understand the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke as metaphorical although richly meaningful. Bart Ehrman writes about the “backward movement of Christology” in the New Testament.
By this term, he refers to those narrative moments in the New Testament when Jesus is identified as the Son of God. In Romans (written around 57-58 CE) Jesus is declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection. In Mark (written about 66-70 CE), Jesus is affirmed by a voice from heaven declaring him as God’s “beloved Son.”
In Matthew (written in the 80s CE) and in Luke (written between 85-90 CE) Jesus is identified as Son of God at his conception and birth.
Finally, John (written from 95 to 100 CE) identifies Jesus as the divine Word, preexistent with God in the beginning and present in this world as God in human flesh. The fascinating observation Ehrman is making is that as the years and decades passed after the death and resurrection of Jesus, the points in scriptural texts where he was recognized as divine kept being earlier and earlier in his life.
In Paul, written the soonest after the earthly life of Jesus, this recognition was declared at his resurrection. Then in Mark, Jesus was affirmed as God’s Son at his baptism. In Matthew and Luke, this identification occurred at his conception and birth; while in John, his nature was divine from the very beginning of time. The later in history the texts were written, the earlier in their story Jesus was understood as God’s Son. Ehrman and other scholars such as Borg and Crossan speak of this increasing exaltation of Jesus by his chroniclers as time progressed.
“The important question is what these passages meant in the context in which they were written and what they mean today.”
Rather than getting bogged down by questions about which of these accounts is the most valid, believable or true explanation of the nature of Jesus, it is better to consider what these declarations mean. The same insight Borg, Crossan and Ehrman bring to their discussion of the birth narratives applies to these other stories as well. The important question is what these passages meant in the context in which they were written and what they mean today.
Let us not be forced into a false choice between fact and fable concerning our beloved Christmas narratives in Matthew and Luke. Stories can be true even when they may not be factual. The Prodigal Son and Good Samaritan, in this sense, are true stories that help us understand Christian identity and behavior. These birth stories are amazingly true also.
They have stimulated my thinking, warmed my heart, deepened my faith and trust in God, comforted my spirit and prodded my hands to good deeds since I was a boy. And they will continue to do so for as long as I have breath and the ability to ponder their magnificent implications. I hope for you they are equally meaningful.
Rob Sellers is professor of theology and missions emeritus at Hardin-Simmons University’s Logsdon Seminary in Abilene, Texas. He is a past chair of the board of the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago. He and his wife, Janie, served a quarter century as missionary teachers in Indonesia. They have two children and five grandchildren.