Last week’s Bible Unbound was about the angel Gabriel announcing to Mary that she had conceived a son through the Holy Spirit. This week, I’m focusing on the Christmas story. I know there is a war on Christmas, but most people still know that, at one point in time anyway, the holiday was supposed to celebrate Jesus’ birth. The most widely-read passage about this event, and the one made famous in A Charlie Brown Christmas, is from the New Testament book of Luke. Don’t bother to dig out your Bible; here it is for your convenience.
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2:1-7)
It’s truly amazing that such a short paragraph could play such a prominent role in the production of a global holiday — even when given over two centuries to do so. What’s even more fascinating is that most Biblical scholars are pretty sure this story never happened. Quirinius was governor of Syria and there was a census, but it began in about 6 CE. Other Biblical accounts suggest that Jesus was born about a decade before that, during the reign of Herod the Great, who died in 4BCE. Unless there are additional miracles that we don’t know about, being born when Herod was alive and being born in 6 CE are mutually exclusive events. Also, the census of Quirinius applied to residents of Syria and Judea. If Joseph and Mary really did live in Nazareth, which was in Galilee, the census of Quirinius would not have applied to them. Furthermore, there is really no historical evidence to suggest that Romans would have required their citizens to travel back to their hometowns for census activities. It was the data-collectors/census-takers who traveled, much like today.
But historical accuracy may not have been the primary motivation for the author/s of the Gospel of Luke. The story practically screams “humility,” while simultaneously fulfilling two prominent Messianic prophecies found in the Hebrew texts. The first, from Jeremiah, states that the Messiah figure will be a descendant of David. The second, from Micah, predicts that this great ruler will hail from Bethlehem.
Jeremiah 23:5-6 (The Righteous Branch of David)
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”
Micah 5:2 (The Ruler from Bethlehem)
But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
from ancient days.
Less familiar to most Americans is the story of Jesus’ birth in the Islamic text, Qisas Al-Anbiya (Stories of the Prophets). These stories were written down by scholars and storytellers following the establishment of Islam. The writers apparently drew on the literature and historical evidence available at the time, and the stories provide background information on the lives of the prophets referenced in the poetry of the Qur’an. I have been able to buy only one English translation of these stories, Tales of the Prophets, translated by Wheeler M. Thackston, Jr. (If you know of others, please let me know.) It is based on the writings of Kisa’i, an Islamic author who apparently penned the narratives at some point in the centuries following Muhammad’s death. The tales are told in “chronological order,” which means the creation stories are first, followed by the lives of Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, and David. Tales of the Prophets culminates in a few stories about Jesus, including his birth. Because it is chronological in nature, the text is much more similar to the Bible than the Qur’an. Here is the story of Jesus’ birth in the version I have. Italicized portions relate directly to verses in the Qur’an.
When her days were accomplished, [Mary] went out into the wilderness by night and sat under a dry tree, which became verdant for her time. God also brought forth for her a spring of clear, running water. Yet when her pains became great, she said, “Would to God I had died before this and had become a thing forgotten, and lost in oblivion.”
And he who was beneath her called to her, saying, “Be not grieved: now hath God provided a rivulet under thee.”
She was told, “If thou see any man and he question thee, say, ‘Verily I have vowed a fast unto the Merciful: wherefore I will by no means speak to a man this day.’”
Zacharias’ wife gave birth that very night to a male child, and Zacharias rejoiced over him.
He went to Mary but could not find her, wherefore he called for Joseph, and together they set out in search of her. They found her seated beneath a tree. He spoke to her, but she did not speak to him. Jesus, however, spoke and said, “O Joseph, I bring glad tidings that I have emerged from the darkness of the womb into the light of the world. I have come to the children of Israel as a messenger.” Mary carried her child on her breast and looked down on the children of Israel.
Aaron, a brother from her father, called her and said, “Thy father was not a bad man, neither was they mother a harlot.” Where did you get this child?”
Jesus spoke to him from the cradle and said, “Verily I am the servant of God; he hath given me the book of the gospel, and hath appointed me a prophet. And peace be on me the day whereon I was born, and the day whereon I shall die, and the day whereon I shall be raised to life.” (Tales of the Prophets, Chapter 86, Jesus son of Mary, sections 5 and 7)
No manger, but a tree. Joseph is there, but so is Zechariah. There are no shepherds, but there is a declaration, by Jesus himself, that he is the light of the world. The Bible isn’t big on talking infants, but other ancient texts are. It is said that the Buddha’s mother conceived by way of a white elephant who entered her side in a dream. She gave birth in a grove of trees where she and the Buddha were showered with streams of water and beautiful blossoms. Then, immediately after his birth, the Buddha stood up, took 7 steps, and spoke.
On the surface, both the Christian and Islamic passages about Jesus’ birth contain notable differences. At a deeper level, however, they seem to be saying something similar: Jesus was special. Many people, like myself, believe these stories morphed over the centuries. Base realities were transformed into wondrous legends about human characters who displayed spiritual qualities in mythic proportions. But that doesn’t alter the fact that Jesus of Nazareth, a Jewish rabbi crucified under Pontius Pilate, spent some amount of time walking on this earth. For some Christians, he is the savior of all mankind who died on the cross to save us from our sins. For others, he is a great religious leader – one whose message is still read, debated, contemplated, and studied thousands of years after his death. Either way, that’s pretty special.
The Bible Unbound is a weekly column connecting Biblical themes, passages, and stories with ancient texts from other religions. It is representative of our middle school Sunday School curriculum, and to a certain extent, our upper elementary Sunday School curriculum.
Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. San Francisco, CA: Harper One, 2007. Print.
al-Kisai, Muhammad ibn Abd Allah. Tales of the Prophets (Qisas al-anbiya). Trans. Wheeler M. Thackston, Jr. Chicago, IL: Great Books of the Islamic World, 1997. Print.
[In our Multifaith Mashup columns, we explore a topic from a variety of faith traditions and sacred texts. To see other columns, search our blog using the Multifaith Mashup tag. These columns are representative of the middle school Sunday School curriculum, and to a certain extent, the upper elementary Sunday School curriculum we developed at Jubilee! Community Church in Asheville, NC.]