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Reflection on the Infancy Narratives by retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, in response to a concerned Christian who worried because wasn’t sure he could accept them literally.

There is no doubt that most people have literalized the images that Matthew and Luke have in their birth stories of Jesus (See Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2), but I do believe it is quite clear that neither Matthew nor Luke thought of them as literal events. The great majority of biblical scholars share that perspective. The facts are that stars do not travel across the sky so slowly that wise men can keep up with them; angels do not break through the midnight sky to sing to hillside shepherds; and human beings do not follow stars to pay homage to a newborn king of a foreign nation, especially when the same gospel that tells us that Jesus was the son of a carpenter. To continue this train of thought, no real head of state, including King Herod, would deputize eastern magi that he had never seen before to be his CIA to bring him a report of this threat to his throne. Virgins do not conceive except in mythology, of which there were many examples in the Mediterranean world. A man does not take his wife, who is “great with child,” on a 94-mile donkey ride from Nazareth to Bethlehem so that the expected messiah can be born in David’s city. One lay Roman Catholic woman theologian said of that account, “Only a man who had never had a baby could have written that story!” Kings do not order people to return to their ancestral home for enrolling for taxation. There were 1000 years between David and Joseph, or some 50 generations. David had multiple wives and concubines. In 50 generations, the descendants of David would number in the billions. If they had all returned to Bethlehem, there would be no wonder that there was no room at the inn! Certainly, both Matthew and Luke were aware that they were using these stories to try to interpret the power of God experienced in the adult life of Jesus of Nazareth. Matthew drew his wise men story out of Isaiah 60, I Kings 10 and Numbers 22-24. He wrapped his interpretation around the well-known story of Moses. That is why he repeated the story of Pharaoh killing the boy babies in Egypt at the time of Moses’ birth, transforming it to be a story of Herod killing the boy babies in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth. What these narratives were designed by the Gospel writers to proclaim are: • Human life could not have produced the presence of God that people believed they had met in Jesus. • The importance of his birth was symbolized by having it announced with heavenly signs, a star in Matthew and angels in Luke. • In the life of Jesus, they believed that heaven and earth had come together and that divinity and humanity had merged. • Messiah for the Jews had many facets. Messiah had to be both a new Moses and the heir to the throne of David. The heir to David was the reason his birth was located in David’s place of birth (Bethlehem) instead of in Nazareth, where Jesus was in all probability born. • This Jesus draws the whole world to himself, symbolized in the Gentile Magi as well as the humble lives of the shepherds. These are the interpretive details of the Christian story. All of them came into the Christian faith only in the 9th decade. None of them is original to the memory of Jesus. Neither Paul nor Mark (the earliest Gospel) had ever heard of them. John, the last gospel to be written, must have known of these birth traditions, but he doesn’t include them and, on two occasions, calls Jesus the son of Joseph (see John Chapters 1 and 6). Given these pieces of data, there is no way the authors of the Christmas stories in the Bible thought they were writing literal history. They were interpreting the meaning they found in Jesus. As long as we understand that, I see no reason why we can’t sing, “While shepherds watched their flocks by night” or “O, little town of Bethlehem”, and other Christmas hymns. Your faith can be robust without being literal. My suggestion is that you separate mystery from history and then enter into and enjoy the mystery of the season. Dream of Peace on Earth and good will among men and women, and then dedicate yourself to bringing that vision into being. In that way you will understand the intentions of the Gospel writers.

John Shelby Spong


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