Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan have co-authored a wonderful little book entitled, The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus’s Birth (Harper Collins/Harper One, NY: 2007). This book is as much an antidote to fundamentalism (both religious and materialist) as it is a fascinating new survey of Matthew’s and Luke’s infancy narratives.
The authors state:
“…the Enlightenment led many people to think that truth and factuality are the same… 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 contemporary 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. Fact fundamentalism has impacted Christians as well as those who are skeptical of religion… Many in both groups agree that a statement or story is true only if it is factual… In their minds, if these stories aren’t factual, then they are not true, and the Bible itself is not true. Christian biblical literalism is about biblical factuality, and it is rooted in fact fundamentalism. As such, it is not ancient, but a product of the recent past.” [bold text added by blog author] That is, far from being the “one true ancient Christianity” so often claimed for it, fundamentalism is a modern, conscious, and deliberate choice: a choice for literalism as a perceived blow against science. But it is also, as we shall see, equally an attack against itself.
Borg and Crossan counter religious fact fundamentalism with the example of informed Christians – whose belief in biblical stories is not dependent on those stories’ factuality:
“But there are also many Christians who reject the notion that the truth of Christianity is dependent upon a factual understanding of these stories. Like the skeptics, they wonder whether virginal conceptions ever happen… But uncertainty about the stories does not lead to a skeptical rejection of the Bible and Christianity. For them, that is not at stake. Yet many…are unsure about what to make of the birth stories. If they’re not factual, what are they?”
The infancy narratives, the authors reply, are parables and overtures.
A parable is a story, a narration, wherein something happens. But what happens in a parable is not usually factual, nor does this matter, for the simple reason that a parable’s function is about meaning, not factuality: “The meaning of a parable – its parabolic truth – does not depend on its factuality.” The parable’s truth lies not in fact, but in meaning. The authors demonstrate their point by referring to Jesus’ example. Frequently, when Jesus wanted to convey a spiritual truth, he would make something up – an example, a metaphor, a story, a parable. And no Christian worries about the factuality of any particular parable.
“Imagine somebody wanting to argue that the parables of Jesus do report factual history and that their truth depends upon that. That person says there really had to have been a [“Good”] Samaritan…or else the story isn’t true and shouldn’t be taken seriously. If it’s not fact, it’s fable. Everybody would say, “No, that’s not the point… You’re just not getting it – you are debating historicity and avoiding the question of meaning,” or, much less politely, in language we would never use, ‘It’s a parable, dummy.'”
Matthew’s and Luke’s infancy narratives, according to Crossan and Borg, are just such parabolic narratives, never meant to be taken factually. Matthew and Luke were not writing history – and furthermore, they knew it. The infancy narratives are a specialized form of metaphoric narrative, recognized as such by the intended audience. It was only the application of the “truth equals fact” standard to these stories that they were scrutinized, judged, and rejected as historical reports – something that their authors never intended them to be in the first place.
But the parabolic infancy narratives are more than metaphors explicating Jesus’s meaning to Christians. Like Jesus’s own parables, the infancy narratives are subversive stories. They invert conventional wisdom, and their symbolic language contrasts Jesus’s claims over against Jewish-priestly, Herodian claims, and against Roman imperial claims… and they reveal Jesus’s claims as real and true, and the others spurious. They show how Jesus, not Herod or Tiberius, is the fitting “king of the Jews” and how the kingdom of God, not the Roman Imperium, is the authentic world polity. “The titles of the Roman emperor Ceasar Augustus were: Divine, son of God, God, God from God, Lord, Redeemer, Liberator, and Savior of the World. To use any of them of the newborn Jesus would be either low lampoon or high treason.”
The authors then describe the infancy narratives as overtures. In the way that the overture of an opera or a symphony introduces and capitulates motifs and musical thematic material at the very beginning of a performance, so too, the infancy narratives introduce major themes that will be found later on in the main body of Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels.
For example, Matthew’s infancy narrative recapitulates certain features of Moses’ infancy in the Torah, and this inclusion points forward to Matthew’s theme of Jesus as “the new Moses” in the main body of his Gospel. Luke’s “overture” focuses on Torah themes of God’s overcoming childlessness and barrenness in certain Torah heroines, the solicitude of the Prophets for the marginalized, and the Holy Spirit’s work in ancient Israel… all of which point forward to major themes that Luke will pick up again later in his Gospel.
Borg and Crossan cover much more material as well, from the real meaning of Jesus’s virginal conception and Mary’s role as perceived by Matthew and Luke, to the poignant meaning the Christmas story has for us in modern times. For anyone desiring a short but rich exploration of the meaning of the infancy narratives as intended by their authors Matthew and Luke, I cannot recommend The First Christmas strongly enough. For a much longer, detailed but equally rich study, the interested reader is invited to consult Raymond E. Brown’s monumental The Birth of the Messiah (NY: Doubleday, 1993), and Brown’s co-authored Mary in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press/Paulist Press, 1978).