The Birth of Jesus; from Mary to the Manger, How the Gospels Mix Faith and History to Tell the Christmas Story and Make the Case for Christ

Newsweek, December 13, 2004 | Go to article overview

The Birth of Jesus; from Mary to the Manger, How the Gospels Mix Faith and History to Tell the Christmas Story and Make the Case for Christ


Byline: Jon Meacham

The news was unwelcome, baffling, frightening; nothing about it was expected or explicable. Roughly 2,000 years ago, according to the Gospel of Luke, in Nazareth of Galilee, a young woman found herself in the presence of Gabriel, the angelic messenger of the Lord whose name was known to Jews of the day as the mysterious figure who had granted Daniel his prophetic visions. The woman, Luke writes, was "a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David," and her name was Mary, Luke's Greek form of the Hebrew Miriam, the sister of Moses and the first great prophetess of Israel. "Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee," Gabriel said, "blessed art thou amongst women"--terrifying Mary, who "was troubled at his saying." Stunned and confused, Mary made no reply, her face apparently betraying anxiety and awe. Sensing her confusion and fear, Gabriel was reassuring: "Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God."

Then the angel said: "And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest... and of his kingdom there shall be no end." In other words, Mary was to bear the Messiah, the fabled and long-promised figure who, in the words of the prophet Jeremiah, would "reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land." Mary was silent, then finally found her voice: "How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?"

Gabriel's reply--that "the Holy Ghost shall come upon thee"--raised more questions than it answered, not only for Mary but for Joseph, for the early Christians and, two millennia later, for us. In Luke's account, Mary absorbed the tidings of her child's miraculous origin and mission and "pondered them in her heart," still puzzled, still overwhelmed. In the Gospel of Matthew, Joseph, knowing nothing about Gabriel's appearance, is humiliated by the news that his future wife is pregnant, and "was minded to put her away privily." In later years Christians had to contend with charges that their Lord was illegitimate, perhaps the illicit offspring of Mary and a Roman soldier. Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, some scholars treat the Christmas narratives as first-century inventions designed to strengthen the seemingly tenuous claim that Jesus was the Messiah.

And so the story of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth is, fittingly, as riven with complexity and controversy as Christianity itself. This month more than a billion Christians will commemorate their Lord's Nativity. Amid candlelight, carols and the commingled smells of cedar and incense, the old tale will unfold again: Gabriel's visitation, the journey to Bethlehem, the arrival of the baby in a stable, the glorious announcement to the shepherds in the night, the star in the East, the mission of the Magi.

Yet, as with so many other elements of faith, the Nativity narratives are the subject of ongoing scholarly debate over their historical accuracy, their theological meaning and whether some of the central images and words of the Christian religion owe as much to the pagan culture of the Roman Empire as they do to apostolic revelation.

The clash between literalism and a more historical view of faith is also playing out in theaters and bookstores. This year Mel Gibson's hugely successful movie "The Passion of the Christ" provoked a national conversation about Jesus' last days. With 9 million hardcover copies in print, Dan Brown's thriller "The Da Vinci Code," one of the most widely read books of our time, is partly built around the assertion that the early church covered up important facts about Jesus in order to manufacture Christian creeds. (A Ron Howard movie starring Tom Hanks is in the works.)

Like the Victorians, we live in an age of great belief and great doubt, and sometimes it seems as though we must choose between two extremes, the evangelical and the secular.

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