birth narratives overview: theological, political, historical (part one)

This will be a two part series. The first post will concern the New Testament writers who are not Luke or Matthew because they actually have birth narratives. Paul, Mark, and John are the other writers who even mention that Jesus was born or at least has a particular town that he was from. Since the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are sandwiched in the Christian Testament timeline then these writers will give us insight to what communities of believers thought before and after 80-90CE. 

7th century Sinai Nativity Icon

During the Advent season, I read the birth narratives at least twenty times. I read them in preparation for Sunday School and re-read them to be clued into something new. This is me attempting to read with fresh eyes, which is a struggle for me. Instead,  I come back time and again to these glorious texts using a political and historical approach. In other words, I read them as historical theological documents influenced by the community of the writer. In the next post, much more of the political and theological interpretation will spill forth, but for now here are the other writers of the New Testament on Jesus’ birth.

St. Paul

The earliest writer in the Christian Testament was St. Paul. His canonical writings date from the late 40s to early 60s CE. Paul’s letters were believed to be holy script by the early 100s. In his letters, he was not correcting the early church’s assumption about the historical Jesus, but theologically explained Jesus’ relation with God. In addition, Paul demonstrated that it doesn’t matter whether you are Gentile or Jew, God’s redeeming all through Jesus. In Paul’s earliest letter to the Galatians, he had to confront some confusion as to whether Jesus was a historical figure or a god who floated down from the heavens. St. Paul responds Jesus was “born of a woman”(4:4). In other words, St. Paul believed that Jesus was born a historical person, lived in a particular time, and had a body.

Mark

The first Gospel written was Mark. This Gospel begins with Jesus’ adult ministry and makes no mention of Bethlehem. For Mark, Jesus was from Nazareth only (1.9;1.24; 10.47; 14.67; 16.6). Mark believed that Jesus was a historical person, since he was a child of Mary (6:3). No virgin birth, no census, no wise persons, just an adult Jesus who told parables, overran the Temple, and killed by the State.

John

John’s Gospel written around 90 CE was the last canonical Gospel to be written (many other Gospels were written after). It breaks with the Synoptic Gospels in many aspects. Bypassing the fact that all the major events in Jesus life do not occur (Baptism, Last Supper, Parables); John clearly denies that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. In John 7:40-44, it reads

When they heard these words, some in the crowd said, ‘This is really the prophet.’ Others said, ‘This is the Messiah.’ But some asked, ‘Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee, does he? Has not the scripture said that the Messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?’ So there was a division in the crowd because of him. Some of them wanted to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him.

This text pointedly shows that Jesus was not born in Bethlehem instead Galilee. Usually, the author of John explains theologically why s/he wrote such things, but not this time. Scholars believe that John had access to the Synoptic Gospels while writing the text, yet s/he blatantly ignores the Bethlehem birth narratives. My best guess is that Johannine community had divisions among themselves as to where Jesus was born and no one knew it for certain.

Nativity Scene Icon

These Christian Testament writers had no affiliation with the birth narratives. They either left them out or ignored them. The Christian Tradition still holds onto the Matthean and Lukan birth narratives and celebrate them every year by acting them out in churches, displaying nativity scenes and reading them aloud in church. For the next post we will closely look at those narratives and learn of their political, social, and historical situations.