I’m not quite getting this Christmas Story … I’m a tad confused, can anybody help?

images (45)We all know the Christmas story right? But what do we actually find if we open up the alpha source, the bible, apparently it does not align with our pre-conceived modern understanding.

Where did Mary and Joseph actually live?

In Matthew we discover that Mary and Joseph lived in Bethlehem in their own house.

– There was no census, no stable, no inn, no shepherds

After the birth the family flee to Egypt, then later returned and settled in Nazareth, a town they had never lived in before.

Luke has quite a different story. Here we find that Mary and Joseph live in Nazareth and needed to travel to Bethlehem for a census.

– This time we find no astrologers visiting, and no flight to Egypt, that has all suddenly vanished

What is up with this census, the Roman Tax system was based on property and ownership of land, there was never any census based upon your ancestry, Roman taxation simply did not operate like that, this census is complete fiction, and as for where they lived, there is no (forgive my pun) consensus at all.

So what is going on here, why are these two accounts so different? Quite clearly both authors needed to contend with the fact that it was common knowledge that Jesus came from Galilee, yet if he was to be the messiah, then he needed to have been born in Bethlehem, the town of Kind David, so they each apparently contrived elaborate, but quite different stories that fitted in with their view of who they believed him to be.

So who do each of the Gospels say Jesus was, are they really different?

Mark’s Jesus is a misunderstood messiah, he works miracles, but people don’t understand who he is. We are also told that his family think he is crazy (3.v21), the Jewish leaders think he is Satan (3.v22), and even his own disciples don’t appear to understand who he is (4:41; 6:51-52; 8:28). When challenged, Peter declares that he is the Christ [that term literally translates as “the anointed one”, in other words, the Jewish Messiah], he quickly tells them not to tell anybody … keep it a secret. In fact, this is a reoccurring theme, he keeps telling people not to tell anybody after healing them or casting out demons. Why the secrecy? A couple of reasons have been suggested. Fox example, to explain the apparent discrepancy between the claim in the text that Jesus was the Messiah and that he worked miracles, but that he was generally known by locals not to have done so. What we have here is a story about a suffering misunderstood messiah.

So how does it all finish? Mark abruptly ends with his followers not telling anybody because they were too frightened. (16.v8). The modern ending that we have today, 16.v9-20, was a later addition and is not in the original text.

In Matthew, we find quite a different story. Here Jesus openly proclaims early on that he is the messiah, and his family don’t think he is crazy, instead they know he is special. We have angels proclaiming his birth, and astrologers seeing signs in the sky. Even his followers understand that he is the messiah, there is no confusion. We also find odd little snippets added in such as Pilate’s wife receiving a warning in a dream (27.v19). The theme is clear, not only is he is the messiah, but also the nation of Israel is accountable and nobody has the right to reject him. We find an emphases on his conflicts with Pharisees, they get slagged off about 32 times, so are clearly a sect that would have opposed accepting him as the messiah. There is also a deep emphases on his fulfilment of Old Testament law and also a repeating theme focusing on the imminent establishment of the Kingdom of heaven. Within its cultural context, this is a literal Kingdom, the restoration of rulership as promised to King David, by the one anointed by God.

This text has been clearly designed for a Jewish audience familiar with their history and messianic expectations, for we also find Jesus symbolically reliving parts of historical Jewish mythology and history. After his birth his family flee to Egypt and so he is exiled in a foreign land just as the Jews were exiled in Babylon and also enslaved in Egypt. The first main event after the nativity is that he passes through water (his baptism), just as the Israel passed through the red sea. Then he is off in the wilderness by himself for 40 days, just as Israel supposedly wandered in the wilderness for 40 years.

Quite clearly we have moved beyond Mark’s suffering servant to quite a different individual who is now clearly understood by all (in the authors mind) to be the Jewish Messiah.

Turn to Luke, and once again we find quite a different message. Here its the story, of an individual who is not just the messiah, but is also a prophet who has come for all of humanity. Everybody recognises him as a great prophet (7.v16), but he is also a rejected prophet (13.v33-34).

No longer is he just a Jewish messiah, he is now for the first time presented as universal, the emphases is quite different. While Matthew presents a Genealogy that establishes his messianic credentials with an ancestry that goes back through King David to Abraham, Luke has a different agenda, and so has a different ancestry that stretches all the way back to Adam as a means of underlying that he is not just the messiah for Israel, but is for all.

In Matthew its very much a message of “Now” being the end-times (Mat 16.v38), yet in Luke, this gets toned down (21.v7-32), because time is needed for the message to spread out across the world.

This is quite a new twist that is not in either Mark or Matthew, and is a distinctly different character with goals not seen in any of the other gospels.

John is the latest of the Gospels and came long after the others. Here we find, for the first time, a very clear description of a Jesus who is God. The language and layout is quite different, even when the stories are the same, the text has no similarities. This suggests that the author did not copy from any of the earlier Gospels, but instead drew upon a common oral tradition.

The text starts with the claim that Jesus created the universe and that he is God, none of the other earlier Gospels have this emphases. We also find that changes have been made to accommodate this new emphases. Within the earlier gospels, the last supper is the passover meal, here it changes and now his death takes place at passover, the last supper becomes the night prior to passover so that Jesus can now be presented as the passover lamb.

The text itself is very poetical and has a narrative within which we find many uses of the term “I am …” that are reflected by actions. “I am the bread of life” (6.v35) and he feeds thousands (6.v5-10), “I am the light of the world” (8.v12) and he causes the blind to see (9.v6-7), “I am the true vine” (15.v1) and he turns water into wine (2.v2-10).

Missing from this story is the temptation in the wilderness. This is God, so he cannot be tempted. There are also no demons being cast out, most of the parables are also missing and there is no declarations about bread and wine at the last supper. Instead we have God as a man declaring that you must be born again.

So who is Our Modern Jesus?

Our modern Jesus is a blending of all four distinctly different narratives. Once you harmonise it all, you are incorrectly assuming it is the same message. By doing so you then miss the fact that we have four very distinctly different portrayals of who he was and what he was about, so in effect, modern believers are following their own idea and are not following any of these.

When asked if you believe in Jesus and his message, the most accurate and factually correct response would be … “Which Jesus and which message?”, because there are lots to choose from.

The differences are significant and should not be downplayed as if Mark and Luke were portraying Jesus in precisely the same way. When modern readers act as if they were…they take neither account seriously, but rather create their own account.” – Bart Eherman : NewTestament scholar

1 thought on “I’m not quite getting this Christmas Story … I’m a tad confused, can anybody help?”

  1. I don’t want to start a massive debate here, but I’m not sure you’re onto much here. Four people telling a story about one person are bound to have their own versions of things, because they all have different viewpoints. If I had biographies written by my wife, my parents and my siblings, the chances are that they’d all portray different parts of my character, talk about different events…there aren’t multiple ‘me’s, but the combination of all of them would give the fullest picture of who I am and what I did.


Leave a Reply