Around this time of year we recount the Christmas story. Usually we speak of Jesus as if there is one story, one coherent person to remember — one history that we hold and retell.
In fact, there are more than six versions of Jesus we can talk about.
The first four versions are the four Gospels — each written by different authors for different audiences for different reasons. Some try to consolidate the four into one narrative, but that doesn’t make sense. While it’s interesting to compare the similarities and differences between the four, they should be read and understood within the books themselves. Distinct spiritual lessons can be drawn from the distinct natures of Jesus the authors portray.
The fifth version of Jesus is from the apostle Paul, who authored half the books in the New Testament. Interestingly, even though Paul wrote his letters before the Gospels were written — thus he lived chronologically closer to the life of Jesus — he writes very little about the actual life or actions of Jesus. He writes about theological takeaways, lived ethics and guidelines for a new Christian church splitting off from Judaism.
The sixth-plus versions are the so-called Gnostic Gospels, the many stories written about Jesus contemporaneously with (or shortly after) the canonical Gospels, but rejected by the powers of the church who decided, in the end, which books would be cemented in the Bible.
From a religious perspective, you can believe that God wanted these four books cemented as “scripture”, and the others banished.
From a historical perspective, the Gnostic Gospels — uncovered by archaeologists in 1945 — hold equal value for understanding who Jesus was and how he was understood by his early followers.
It’s important, also, to remember that the stories of Jesus we read and discuss flowed through the following channels:
- Actual life of Jesus
- Oral versions of the life of Jesus
- Written versions of the life of Jesus
- Translations of the written versions of the life of Jesus
Paul wrote his letters one generation after Jesus lived. The Gospels were written 50 – 100 years after Jesus lived.
This all brings us to the reason for the season. Christmas. The birth narratives. The incarnation.
Two of the four Gospels tell the birth story. Matthew traces Jesus’ lineage to Abraham. The flight into Egypt and the wrath of King Herod are clear parallels to the birth story of Moses. Luke traces Jesus’ lineage to Adam and Eve.
Scholars believe that Luke and Matthew were both written after the book of Mark, and both probably used Mark as a source in their writing. So the birth narratives show up late in the storytelling game.
Let’s view the birth stories from two lenses: Historical and Theological.
Some Christians do not separate these two, and what follows will be considered heresy:
Is it possible that a spirit from heaven miraculously impregnated a virgin? Sure.
But it’s a million times more probable that a birth story developed as myth, then later was written to emphasize the theological importance of this person Jesus Christ.
Such is the nature of the Gospels. Jesus performs miracles, and this is taken to be a sign of his divinity, but miracle working was a common literary device used in “fictive biographies” like the Gospels. In the book of Acts, an extension of the Gospel of Luke written by the same author, both Peter and Paul raise people from the dead (Acts 9:36-42; 20:7).
Call me Scrooge, but I don’t think demythologizing the story of Jesus minimizes the spirit of Christmas. In fact, I believe it can reconcile the faith to a 21st Century audience. Most Christians probably understand this cognitively, even if they “believe” in the immaculate conception and recite the Nicene Creed.
The story of the incarnation is powerful. God entering the world, taking human form. Emmanuel. God with us.
My favorite account of the incarnation comes from St. Ignatius of Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises, where he says to imagine the scene from the eyes of the Trinity.
Along with God, Jesus, and the Spirit, we sit in heaven and look down on the people of Earth: “some white and others black; some in peace and others in war; some weeping and others laughing; some well, others ill; some being born and others dying, etc.”
Here the Trinity looks down and decides, at this moment in history: “Let us work the redemption of the human race.”
And here we wait, the advent of another Christmas, badly in need of redemption.
The rest of the Jesus story unfolds … proclaiming the Kingdom, being misunderstood, being rejected.
Birth. Life. Death. Resurrection.
Always striving closer to a new realm of possibility — the brotherhood of humankind.