Why do we have the infancy narratives?
As we get closer to Christmas, the church turns to Advent, that time of year where we wait the birth of a child. Jesus’ birth, celebrated on 25 December, is perhaps the high point of the Christian calendar (apart from possibly Easter).
Jesus’ birth occupies an interesting space in Christian consciousness, not all of it associated with the eating of too much ham and turkey. For scripture, it occupies an interesting space. While it marks the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, other texts in the New Testament make scant reference to Jesus’ infancy. Mark’s gospel, widely regarded as the earliest, omits it altogether Paul only makes reference to it once, noting in Galatians 4 that Jesus was “born of a woman, born under the law.”
And yet, for how celebrated it is, the birth of Jesus is something of a puzzle for the church. Some preachers on Christmas Day seem to struggle with what to do with the event that we have anticipated throughout Advent, preaching an Easter sermon that focuses on the sacrificial death of Christ, the other end of the Christ event. The birth of Jesus, in these instances, seems like an ecclesial means to an end: the church marks the birth of baby Jesus so it can usher in the real main event, His death and resurrection. Jesus’ birth at Bethlehem is overshadowed by his execution in Golgotha.
Jesus’ birth, however, is so much more for many Christians, and has its own theological significance, independent of the Atonement.
The infancy narratives say much about the nature of Jesus’ gospel itself.
This much is evident from the very beginning: both Mark and Luke record long lists of Jesus’ forebears, establishing his place in the story of Israel. And yet, this genealogy is not that of a king.
Luke’s gospel is particularly keen to observe that Jesus has some unexpected characters in there: prostitutes, and very flawed men stand alongside more ‘important’ figures from Israel’s life.
Another objection to the infancy narratives is one of historicity. For instance, much like scripture’s other miraculous events, skeptics cast doubt over the fantastic events described: angels appear, a virgin gives birth, a king conducts a census, and a tyrant murders all firstborn children while Mary and Joseph flee with Jesus in tow. The stories seem too far-fetched to have happened, and curiously wrapped in symbolism, repeating as they do key details from the Old Testament.
Earlier this year, shock jock Kyle Sandilands sparked calls for his resignation by calling details of the narratives into question, namely the virgin birth.
In what he later said was an attempt at humour, Sandilands said that Mary had claimed to have become “pregnant by a magical ghost.”
“The mother lied, obviously,” he said.
Sandilands went on to suggest that anyone who believed in the virgin birth was an idiot. While he apologised for the comments, Christians and Muslims called for him to be removed from the airwaves. The episode highlights the sensitive place that the virgin birth holds within the Christian faith, as well as how poorly understood the narrative so often is in popular culture. Sandilands’ claim rests on the premise that the virgin birth was either a lie Mary told or a literal truth. There are, of course, a number of other possibilities, all of which go to exactly how we approach the infancy narrative.
Rev. Dr John Squires was previously the principal of Perth Theological Hall and is now the presbytery minister for Canberra Goulburn Presbytery. Rev. Dr Squires contends that the point of the infancy narratives lies in their construction of a theological picture of Jesus rather than in conveying history (as we know it in a contemporary sense).
In a piece called ‘What Can We Know About The Birth of Jesus?’, Rev. Dr Squires observes that the Gospel writers’ visions of Jesus’ birth are contradictory in their details. For example, he notes that the writers place the year of the event at different points. Where Matthew’s gospel says that Jesus was born when Herod was king of Judah, Luke’s gospel suggests that Quirinius was the governor of Syria at the time. Herod died in the year 4 BCE and Quirinius became governor two years later.
(Against this approach, some Christians have suggested Quirinius may have been governor twice, an appointment that has precedent).
As Rev. Dr Squires goes on to write, however, these details are not themselves the key point for the writers, their early church communities they wrote for, or for us today.
Once again, the details appear to be quite unimportant. The concern to report the precise details of his birth is not relevant for most of the New Testament writers.
It is only Matthew and Luke who felt the need to account for Jesus’ origins. So each of them narrates a story in which they are compelled to provide many more details than what they actually knew about the birth of Jesus. And each of them is writing for specific purposes relating to the context of the time and the place when they are living.
Taking this in mind, and approaching the infancy
narratives for what wider points they can make about Jesus, a theological
picture starts to emerge. From his very birth, The Son of God was surrounded
not by the influential or the attractive, but by the poor and the marginalised.
There is a very direct and very real demonstration of God’s grace in this
Merry Christmas from the Insights team.
Jonathan Foye is Insights’ Editor