The Nativity: History and Legend

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9780385522410: The Nativity: History and Legend

The Nativity is the very heart of the Christian tradition. For more than 2,000 years, the story of Jesus’ birth has been told and retold, mythologized and sentimentalized. In The Nativity, Geza Vermes untangles centuries of storytelling and places the birth and the events surrounding it within their historical context.

Vermes examines every aspect of the Christmas story: the prophetic star, the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, the miraculous birth in the stable, the arrival of the magi, and the murderous decree of Herod. Delving into all the available evidence—including the New Testament Infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke, Jewish documents of the period, and classical literary and historical sources—Vermes explains where actual history ends and legend begins.

A masterful work of biblical scholarship, The Nativity penetrates the deeper meaning of the New Testament. By clarifying what belongs to real history and what derives from man’s hopeful and creative religious imagination, it gives readers a new and more powerful understanding of the events celebrated every Christmas season.

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About the Author:

GEZA VERMES is one of the world’s leading authorities on Judaism in the age of Jesus. His pioneering work on the Dead Sea Scrolls and the historical Jesus led to his appointment as the first Professor of Jewish Studies at Oxford, where he is now Professor Emeritus. His Complete Dead Sea Scrolls—first published in 1962, since revised and edited, and now in its sixth printing—is widely considered a classic and foundational text. Since 1991, he has been the director of the Forum for Qumran Research at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, and he was elected Fellow of the British Academy in 1985 and of the European Academy in 2001.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1

The Nativity in Christian
Imagination and in the Gospels

THERE ARE THREE VERSIONS OF THE Nativity play. Churchgoers of all ages are familiar with the first. It is regularly sketched, Christmas after Christmas, in sermons preached from the pulpit. It can be found and admired on the great Nativity canvases lovingly created by Christian artists over the centuries. One sees a bearded old man walking beside a donkey on whose back a heavily pregnant young woman rides. The towers of Bethlehem are faintly visible in the distance. In the crowded city the inns are packed, and Joseph, after much toing and froing and searching, can discover only a modest shed in the neighborhood for Mary to give birth to her son. The newborn Jesus is laid by his mother in the manger between a cow and an ass. Old Joseph observes the scene with benevolent and detached admiration. Local shepherds are alerted by an angel and learn about the arrival in the world of the Savior of the Jews. Soon three kings approach, robed in glorious apparel. They have been led from the far–distant Orient via Jerusalem to Bethlehem by a mysterious star. At the royal palace they inquire where the recently born king of the Jews can be seen. First no one knows. So on the advice of experts summoned by Herod, the kings are sent to Bethlehem and with the help of the reappearing star they find the stable, greet and worship Jesus, and offer him regal presents. The curtain falls: end of act one.

Like a child’s fairy tale, the Christmas story consists of an admixture of the charming and the dreadful. In act two, generally not featured in Nativity plays, sweetness and joy suddenly vanish and disaster looms on the horizon when bloodthirsty Herod enters the fray. Realizing that the kings have tricked him and slipped out of the country, Herod lets loose his cruel soldiers on the infant boys of Bethlehem. They all perish—from newborn babes to toddlers—except the child who has made Herod so anxious.

Suddenly the scene changes again. Joseph falls asleep and dreams of an angel, who sounds the alarm: father, mother, and child must flee at once. Again we see the old man on the road, accompanied by his faithful donkey, but this time it carries the baby and his mother. Cleverly avoiding Herod's frontier guards, they escape from Judaea and reach the safe haven of Egypt, the land of the Nile.

In the last act the scenario gets slightly bogged down. The final phases of the drama become hazy. We are presented with the circumcision of Jesus and with his presentation in the Temple of Jerusalem, but we do not learn when these things happened in relation to the escape to Egypt. Nor are the reason and the time of Jesus’ move to peaceful Galilee and a happy childhood specified.

The Christian mind does not seem to be greatly bothered by these matters. Its perspective is compact and its chronological framework is foreshortened. For the ordinary faithful all the happenings are squeezed together between Christmas and Candlemas. According to the liturgy of the Church, Jesus was born on December 25. The innocents of Bethlehem were murdered three days later. Jesus was circumcised on January 1. In my Oxford University diary New Year’s Day is still designated as the feast of the circumcision, but sadly in the Roman Catholic missals, revised after the Second Vatican Council, a solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, has been substituted for the old Latin rite’s Circumcisio Domini (the circumcision of the Lord), and in consequence the Gospel reading “And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus” has disappeared from the day’s service. Jesus and Mary (and maybe Joseph) visited the Temple on February 2. So the Egyptian episode must have taken place between late December and the beginning of February, and the trip to Galilee immediately followed. Everything becomes neat and tidy except...most of this is legend or fiction.

With all due respect to Christian tradition, some of the essentials of the extended Christmas complex are a million miles away from fact and reality. For instance, the chances that Jesus was born on December 25 are 1 in 365 (or 366 in leap years). This date was invented by the Western church—as late as the fourth century under the emperor Constantine—as a way to replace the pagan festival of the Unvanquished Sun, and is first attested, to be precise, in a Roman calendar in ad 334. (1) Most Eastern Christians celebrate Jesus’ birth or manifestation to the world on the feast of Epiphany (January 6), while according to the second–century Church Father Clement of Alexandria, other oriental communities commemorated the event on April 21 or May 20 (Stromateis [Miscellanea] 1:21).

In our search for clarification, let us begin by eliminating the three features of the traditional depiction of Christmas which are without written antecedents in the New Testament. Try as you may, you will find nothing in the Gospels to suggest that Joseph, repeatedly referred to as the father of Jesus, was an old man. We know nothing about his age, when he was born, or even when he died. The idea of an elderly Joseph derives from an apocryphal Gospel, the Protoevangelium of James the Brother of the Lord. In it he is described as a widower of advanced years who had sons and daughters from a previous marriage. These are then the members of the household of Joseph and Mary, whom the New Testament designates as the brothers and sisters of Jesus.

Neither do the Gospels contain any allusion to the friendly beasts, the ox and the ass, sharing the stable with Jesus. The imagery of these animals is borrowed from the prophet Isaiah, “The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people does not understand” (Isa 1:3). The Church saw in this passage the prefiguration of the later rejection of Christ by the Jewish people.

Finally, the New Testament nowhere suggests that the oriental visitors who followed the star to Bethlehem were kings. The Greek text of Matthew designates them not as rulers or even “wise men,” but as magoi, “Magi” or magicians (see p. 99). The upgrading of these eastern astrologers to the royal dignity is due to another artificial association of an Old Testament text with this episode of the Infancy Gospel. A passage taken from the Book of Isaiah reads, “And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising” (Isa 60:3). It is completed by another verse a few lines further down in the same chapter of the same book, “They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord” (Isa 60:6). Nor is it anywhere written that there were three kings. This figure is no doubt deduced from the number of gifts listed in Matthew, “gold and frankincense and myrrh” (Mt 2:11), with the assumption that one present was offered by each visitor.

The two other Christmas pictures are inspired by the New Testament. The first, arising from Matthew’s Infancy narrative, begins with the genealogical table of Jesus (Mt 1:1–17) and is followed by Joseph's intention to divorce the pregnant Mary (Mt 1:18–19). His plan is altered when he is reassured by an angel in a dream that his fiancee's condition is due to the miraculous intervention of the Holy Spirit (Mt 1:20). Indeed, the virgin birth is the fulfillment of a prophecy of Isaiah (Mt 1:22–23). Joseph gives credence to this dream–revelation, marries Mary, and takes her to his home (Mt 1:24–25).

Jesus’ arrival in this world is marked by the apparition of a star on the eastern horizon which leads the “wise men” of the Orient to Jerusalem (Mt 2:1–2). They go to the royal palace to find out the whereabouts of the newly born king of the Jews (Mt 2:3). The astounded Herod consults the Jewish chief priests, who identify Bethlehem as the predicted birthplace of the expected Messiah in conformity with a prophecy by Micah 5:2 (Mt 2:4–6). Herod then extracts from the Magi the time of the first apparition of the star and cannily requires them to share with him whatever they learn about the child (Mt 2:7-8). With the help of the star, the Magi find Jesus and pay homage to him before, in accordance with the instruction they receive in a dream, they return home without retracing their steps to Jerusalem (Mt 2:9–12).

Once more Joseph is instructed by an angel in yet another dream to promptly take Jesus to Egypt in order to escape the massacre of the male children of Bethlehem, decreed by the jealous and enraged Herod, in fulfillment of the prophecy about Rachel, the wife of the Patriarch Jacob, lamenting the loss of her children in Jeremiah 31:15 (Mt 2:13–18). On the death of the king, the same angel, in a penultimate dream, orders Joseph to return to the land of Israel, thus bringing to realization another prediction (Hos 11:1), which announces that God will call his Son out of Egypt (Mt 2:19–21). However, when Joseph learns that Archelaus has succeeded Herod, his father, in Jerusalem, a final dream revises the previous instruction and directs him to take up residence in Galilee. An unidentified prophecy, “He shall be called a Nazarene,” is cited to explain Jesus’ association with Nazareth (Mt 2:22–23).

In the third version of the events of the Nativity, Luke has a substantially different story to tell. It contains two annunciations. In the first, the elderly priest Zechariah, resident in Judaea, is informed by the angel Gabriel that his aged and sterile wife, Elizabeth, will miraculously give birth to a son, John the Baptist (Lk 1:5–25). This is followed by a further message by the same Gabriel to Mary, an engaged virgin living in Nazareth, that she will conceive and bear Jesus, and that it is no more difficult for God to make her pregnant and keep her a virgin than to allow her kinswoman Elizabeth to give bi...

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