There can be only one…Christmas story.
Tis the season that a full one-third of the world celebrates the birth of their god to a virginal human. In the spirit of keeping Christ in Christmas (and brushing aside Hanukkah, Buddhists’ Bodhi Day, pagan solstice celebrations, and Festivus), it’s time to brush up on the Christmas story. Only, which Christmas story are we talking about? In the next week or so, I’ll be delving a lot deeper than your average holiday special.
Jesus, son of David, not really the son of Joseph
Of course I’m talking about the Christmas story where Joseph, descendant of King David, is essentially Jesus’ stepfather. But are we talking about Joseph, son of Jacob, son of Matthan, son of Eleazar, son of Eliud, son of Achim, etc.? (Matthew 1:15-16) Perhaps I should be thinking of Joseph, son of Heli, son of Matthat, son of Levi, son of Melchi, son of Janna…oy vey. (Luke 3:23-24) I guess it doesn’t matter, seeing as there couldn’t be a drop of David’s blood (via Joseph) in Jesus.
Surprisingly, the Catholic Church has no doctrinal objection to the idea that Jesus’ genealogy is contrived:
In an essay carrying the Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur (official declarations by the Catholic Church that a book is “free of doctrinal or moral error”), [Father Raymond E.] Brown admits that the apparent contradiction in records of the post-resurrectional appearances is real.
…Brown observes that “the lists of Jesus’ ancestors that they [the Gospels] give are very different, and neither one is plausible.” Brown takes the surprising position that “because the early Christians confessed Jesus as Messiah, for which ‘Son of David’ was an alternative title, they historicized their faith by creating for him Davidic genealogies and by claiming that Joseph was a Davidide.”
(Emphases are mine.)
Jesus, born of a virgin, like all the others
Moving on, one big piece of the Christmas story is that Mary conceived Jesus while a virgin, by God’s power. The angel Gabriel explains it beforehand to Mary in Luke 1:26-38. But Luke doesn’t tell us whether Mary told Joseph. Matthew doesn’t even mention the revelation to Mary, but says that Joseph found out Mary was pregnant, and intended to leave her (Matthew 1:18-21). Granted, Matthew says Mary was “found with child of the Holy Spirit.” However, the text doesn’t read like Joseph didn’t believe her, but that she didn’t even explain the nature of her pregnancy to Joseph. An angel had to tell him in a dream that it was God at work. I can only imagine what he thought about Mary keeping the virgin conception a secret, especially knowing that God made sure he believed it.
Mary’s virginity is a pretty important part of the Christmas story, particularly to the Catholic Church (which I’m focusing on because I was raised in that church, and half of all Christians belong to it). When a Catholic mentions Mary, half the time they call her the Virgin Mary; and her virgin status seems to inform the whole complex that Catholics have as regards human sexuality. Virginity’s (bogus) association with purity of being, to a lot of people, means it’s essential that the pure Jesus was born of a pure woman. And early writers may have added the virginity story to bring more people to the[ir] truth, because supernatural births were sure to impress:
- The Egyptian mother-goddess Isis impregnated herself to birth the sky-god Horus.
- Perseus was born after Zeus impregnated the human Danae via a shower of gold.
- Hercules was born to mortal Alcmene thanks to Zeus (who kind of got around).’
The “virginity as a plot device” explanation makes the most sense to Fr. Brown, too:
“Virginal conception was a well-known religious symbol for divine origins,” explains Brown, citing such stories in Buddhist, Hindu, Zoroastrian, Greco-Roman and ancient Egyptian theologies. He proposes that early Christians “used an imagery of virginal conception whose symbolic origins were forgotten as it was disseminated among various Christian communities and recorded by evangelists.”
Alternatively, Brown also considers the possibility that Christianity’s founders intended to create the impression that an actual virginal conception took place. Early Christians needed just such a myth, Brown notes, since Mary was widely known to have delivered Jesus too early: “Unfortunately, the historical alternative to the virginal conception has not been a conception in wedlock; it has been illegitimacy.”
Illustrating that even the oldest and biggest Christian denomination finds it hard to be internally consistent, the above excerpt was also written under a Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur, even though the virgin birth is one of the biggest “love it or leave it” sticking points for Catholics. This article affirming the virgin birth also has official clearance, calling as evidence a non-canonical gospel written in the 2nd century, “when memories of her [Mary’s] life were still vivid in the minds of many.” Because we all know how reliable human memory is about a person who died decades earlier, and what her mother said, too.
To begin with, the Protoevangelium [or Gospel of James] records that when Mary’s birth was prophesied, her mother, St. Anne, vowed that she would devote the child to the service of the Lord, as Samuel had been by his mother (1 Sam. 1:11). Mary would thus serve the Lord at the Temple, as women had for centuries (1 Sam. 2:22), and as Anna the prophetess did at the time of Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:36–37). A life of continual, devoted service to the Lord at the Temple meant that Mary would not be able to live the ordinary life of a child-rearing mother. Rather, she was vowed to a life of perpetual virginity.
The fact-finding mission becomes more futile the further we go back. At least we only have to reconcile two accounts of the virgin birth story. Neither Mark, nor John, nor Paul in his letters, thought that Jesus’ being born of a virgin was important (or realistic, or convincing?) enough to mention it somewhere in their works. But come on, guys, what’s a hero without an origin story?
The story of Jesus Christ, Superhero is to be continued… In the meantime, feel free to read ahead: My inspiration this week comes from Paul Carlson’s New Testament Contradictions over in the Secular Web Library.