The First Christmas

The-First-ChristmasSubtitled “What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Birth,” this book by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan takes a close look at the Christmas stories in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. They consider the differences and similarities between the two accounts and offer ideas regarding why the authors might have crafted these stories as they did.

If you’re familiar with the work of Borg and Crossan, you’ll probably know that they do not necessarily consider biblical stories to be literally true, and this is certainly the case with the birth narratives. They explain their approach in the preface:

We are not concerned with the factuality of the birth stories. Though we comment on this issue and controversy in Chapter 2, our concern is neither to defend them as factual nor to trash them as nonfactual. Rather, we focus on their meanings. What did and do these stories mean?

In Chapter 2, they explain that the issue of the stories’ literal truth is a relatively recent development and that for earlier Christians it was simply not an issue. I found their argument here to be a little confused. They say that premodern Christians simply saw them as stories of the way things happened and that it didn’t take faith to believe in them. It was only after the enlightenment that the factual truth of the stories came into question because our ways of knowing and understanding of truth changed at that time. A lot of what Borg and Crossan have to say about the problems with the insistence that something must be factual to be true makes good sense, but their explanation of the premodern view is not adequate or nuanced enough. They seem to treat premodern Christians as naive and unquestioning people who didn’t understand enough to question, rather than as people with different understandings of truth—and for whom questions of factuality and historicity just didn’t matter.

Despite the authors’ statement that they aren’t interested in “trashing the stories as nonfactual,” those who care deeply about the stories’ historical truth will probably be annoyed by their tendency to say things like “of course, these are fictional characters” of the shepherds and the wise men. That’s a shame because I think that readers who do believe in the literal truth of the stories would find a lot of the material in this book to be of value. (For myself, I’m indifferent to the question. The stories may be literally true, and they may not. I care more about what they mean.)

The really interesting parts of this book have to do with how Matthew and Luke’s narratives interact with the Old Testament, with Jewish midrash and other traditions, and with Greco-Roman culture. One of my favorite parts compared a reference to Jesus’s birth in Revelation 12 with the story of the birth of Apollo. The Revelation account appears to be subverting the Apollo story, turning Apollo into Python and Jesus in Apollo. They also look at traditional stories surrounding the birth of Moses and show how Matthew’s birth narrative is clearly setting Jesus up as the new Moses. These are the kinds of connections that are pretty obvious once you see them, but without knowledge of these traditions, you’d have no way of seeing it. This is why biblical and historical scholarship is so valuable.

The book reads pretty quickly and easily, especially if you’re already familiar with the gospel stories. At times, the authors’ extensive use of quotes makes for tedious reading, but when trying to show parallels between texts, it’s important to include quotes from those texts, so I can’t fault them for doing that. Some readers will be frustrated with the lack of notes. Normally, that’s something that would bother me, but the nature of the work here makes it less troubling than it otherwise would be. Borg and Crossan are themselves widely acknowledged as experts, and many of their points come from direct observations of the texts themselves.

What Borg and Crossan offer in this book doesn’t necessarily change my understanding of the birth stories, but it certainly enriches it. Their readings of what the stories mean is, I think, pretty evident even without the additional background knowledge. It’s clear, for example, that Jesus is born to subvert the usual power structures and to bring peace to the world. But it’s impressive to see the many ways the gospel authors wove these ideas into their narratives.

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10 Responses to The First Christmas

  1. boardinginmyforties says:

    Sounds like a compelling read. My son has become very interested in books like these so I will definitely tell him about this one.

    • Teresa says:

      They’ve written a couple of other books together–one on the last week of Jesus’s life and another on Paul, so he might be interested in those as well.

  2. Jenny says:

    Sounds wonderful! I’m a fan of both Borg and JD Crossan (I’m calling him by his initials in order to appear insouciantly (a word whose existence my web browser does not acknowledge) friendly with him and his work).

    • Teresa says:

      Believe it or not, I’ve never read anything by Crossan and the only other of Borg’s books that I’ve read is the one on Jesus that he wrote with NT Wright (and it was great). I find Borg’s thinking interesting even when I don’t agree with it, so I do want to read more from him.

  3. Lisa says:

    I’m not familiar with their work, but I’m always interested to learn more about the context in which the Scriptures were written – especially the historical. And it sounds like perfect Advent reading!

    • Teresa says:

      They’re key figures in historical Jesus scholarship, but as I said to Jenny, I’ve not read much of their work (though I’ve read about their work a fair bit). This was great for Advent because even with their skeptical take on the literal truth of the stories, they really get at why the stories matter and what we can take from them about the kind of world God has in mind for us. What are we preparing for, in this time of preparation?

  4. Deb says:

    I’m a Christian and attend church regularly, but I’ve never had a problem with regarding the Bible as an instrument of symbolic, deeper truths rather than literal “truth.” I think one of the reasons that “pre-modern” Christians were, by and large, unbothered by the contradictions of the Bible was that they saw there were ways something could be true and yet not literal at the same time. In some ways, those pre-modern types could teach our modern world a thing or two about symbolic thinking (I’m looking at you, Mark Rubio).

    • Teresa says:

      I totally agree that the symbolic truths are often more significant than the “literal” ones. I’ve long felt that way about the creation stories, and this book shows how the same is true for the birth stories. In a lot of cases, focusing on the literal truth misses the point. Borg and Crossan explain the pre-modern disinterest in these questions rather clumsily because they end up saying they did believe in the literal truth, when I *think* it might be more accurate to say many of them just didn’t consider the question enough to take a position. Metaphorical, symbolic readings go as far back as Origen, and that’s not made clear enough in this book, which leaves readers with the impression that premodern people were unsophisticated in their thinking.

  5. russell1200 says:

    I find both of them interesting. But they both tend to try very hard to force the “evidence” into a storyline that fits their own world view. Borg in particular is so blinker-vissioned as to be almost head spinning. Crossan at least offers enough details to make is books interesting regardless of whether you with his overall take on matters. At one point Crossan was making a very hard arguement that Jesuis was a rural Sceptic. He seems to have dropped that idea under general ridicule, but while the idea was highly unlikely to be literally true, it did make for some interesting comparisons.

    • Teresa says:

      I think sometimes the most outrageous ideas can be useful to toss around, just because they can help me see things in the Bible I hadn’t noticed. But in the case of this book, I didn’t feel they were stretching too much.

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