John Bennison Words and Ways | 2013 | December

The Holy Nativity of a Human Jesus

De-mystifying the deification of a human birth, and restoring the full humanity of a remarkable life

[A pdf version to print/read is here.]

One of thousands of depictions of the Nativity of Jesus. The full cast of characters, some winged, some with haloes. But does it portray an event any more miraculous than one every parent of every newborn has experienced?

One of thousands of depictions of the Nativity of Jesus. The full cast of characters, some winged, some with haloes. But does it portray an event any more miraculous than one every parent of every newborn has experienced?

Preface

 

On the First Sunday of the Advent season this year – for those Christian faith communities that observe a liturgical calendar — the traditional four weeks of waiting on the tiptoe of expectation only lasted until 1:37 PM that afternoon for our family; when my own daughter gave birth to her first-born child.

To my knowledge and best guess, it was neither a virgin birth, nor did a halo appear around the head of the child, who was given the name Aurelia, the “golden one.”   But it was just as miraculous and sacred a moment as any could have been; including, I would contend, the birth a Jewish male child once born to peasant parents, and given what was the most common of names, Jesus.

This brief commentary poses the question why the birth of a human Jesus — with the teachings he gave us, and the life he exemplified for us — wasn’t sufficiently holy, and something sacred enough to be joyfully welcomed?  And how elevating Jesus to godlike status not only denies him his full humanity, but convolutes our greater capacity to embrace the fuller meaning of the man, as well.

Why historic Christianity had to make this remarkable human being out to be something more – like all the other competing dying-and-rising gods vying for allegiance and subservience to secure some compensatory notion of salvation – is a weightier topic for another time.

 

The Holy Birth of a Human Jesus

 

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them.  Isaiah 11:6

 

The holiday shopping season had barely begun last month when a giant warehouse retailer that sells everything from tires to tortellini, caskets to fine cabernets, scrambled to do damage control at their Simi Valley location; when some of the Bibles they were selling to holiday shoppers in their book section were mistakenly labeled as “fiction.”  Costco immediately repented of their venial sin, but blamed the distributor for the unintentional faux pas, as well.

“Of course it’s fiction!” was my spontaneous retort to the onscreen newscaster delivering the retail disaster on the morning news. “Well, at least part of it is pure fiction,” I muttered to myself, since the reporter didn’t seem to be listening.

The compilation of hundreds of numerous and variant texts deemed sacred to various folks and bound together as the Holy Bible is part fiction, part poetry, part prophecy, part myth and legend, part history or historical narrative, with a little mail correspondence thrown in. And all with plenty of redactive and editorial license taken by those entrusted over the centuries such writings were collected, in order to pass along some vestige of what might have been anything close to “original.”    And, nowhere is there more pure fiction than the multiple and varied imaginative accounts of Jesus’ birth.

If we remember that gospels are neither intended to be biographies of an historical figure, nor even a dependable historical record, we can readily label the multiple accounts of the “first” Christmas as fanciful fiction.  Then we can instead proceed to ask what the gospel writers may have had in mind when conjuring up such wonderful tales.

Mark, the earliest known of the canonical gospels, either had no source material, or interest, in creating and “retrojecting” a nativity story. By the time Matthew and Luke composed their birth narratives, curiosity and speculation over the lost years of Jesus childhood and youth provided the perfect opportunity to reestablish Jesus’ Davidic lineage for Matthew; as well as the upside-down gospel of Luke, where the babe in the feedbox comes to the powerless and marginalized, and the high and mighty are brought low.

And in his “Christmas” story, of course, John’s late gospel introductory text has the divine Word becoming flesh.  But then curiously enough, the vast majority of the actual words uttered by the Jesus of John’s gospel are generally considered to be the least likely of all sayings attributed to the historical figure who once was born, lived and died the same way as any other human being.

It is not difficult to understand the multiple reasons why early second and third generation followers of “the Way” – those who, like us, knew of the historical Jesus only by the redacted stories that had been passed along – would have wanted to make the human Jesus out to be something more. Those resurrection and post-resurrection stories are most often pointed to as that “something more.” But it begins retrospectively with the nativity narratives, where it’s helpful to remember the contention of a virgin birth arranged between the gods and one of their human vassals was a common plotline.

Various biblical scholars have pointed to the Hebrew text in the Jewish scriptures that prophesied the coming of the messiah (I Isaiah 7:10-16); how the word for “a young woman of marriageable age” got conveniently translated in Greek Septuagint (and subsequently used by Matthew and Luke when writing their Christmas stories) into the word for a “virgin.” [See Harry Cook’s succinct exegetical commentary.]

But anyone who has ever struggled to translate a foreign language knows what can happen. And anyone who’s ever taken Biology 101 can quibble over the credibility of Mary’s virginity, and miss the larger point that there was something afoot with the advent of someone who was to come and change the course of our human story with what a Jewish peasant sage, born of Mary, would one day say and do.

But when you start to make a human being out to be more than a human being, there’s little room for anything other than something that claims to be divine, eternal, superhuman. And human beings aren’t perfect, spotless, and immortal. Otherwise, an entire apologetic then needs to be constructed, and the construction project never ends.

When you start to make a human being out to be more than a human being, there’s little room for anything other than something that claims to be divine, eternal, superhuman. And human beings aren’t perfect, spotless, and immortal.  Otherwise, an entire apologetic then needs to be constructed, and the construction project never ends.

If the mother of Jesus was required to be a virgin impregnated by a divine spirit so Jesus could be more than a human being, then proof of Mary’s own immaculate conception must be assured and held intact from the moment of her own birth. So, within 120 years or so of Jesus execution, an apocryphal “nativity” gospel, the Protoevangelium of James, appears out of nowhere to concoct the tale of Mary’s birth, as well.

In this tale, Mary’s aged mother Anna is barren, and subsequently regards herself as accursed. She resents the birds of the air who nest in the laurel tree and bear their young so easily. But then,

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