The writers of the New Testament demonstrate that it’s possible to be in communion as Christians whether or not we all agree on Jesus’ birth. The truth of all four gospels is that the story of Jesus can work fine without the Nativity, but like Matthew and Luke believed, can truly benefit and be enlarged with it. However, our faith as Christians does not ride or die on this story, but it does on Jesus who is at the center of it.
Every time Christmas comes around, inevitably a slew of articles usually pop up which discuss in detail the many problems that can be found within the Nativity story. For some reading this, that is already old news.
For others, this might be the first time you’ve learned of it.
The usual problems are this (a quick re-cap, for those unfamiliar):
- The two versions of the birth of Jesus found in the New Testament contradict each other (or do not work together) in most cases (when read each separately) except for the major claims that Mary gave birth as a virgin girl and that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
- The history recorded in the accounts does not appear to perfectly match up to either known world history or to each other (for example in their genealogies).
- Both accounts were written by people who were not there to see any of it happen (so its literally all based on traditions).
- For some, the idea of a virgin giving birth is so miraculous and supernatural, that it disturbs some Christians who believe that their faith is more rational. To them, the virgin birth is like a myth that tarnishes the historical reality of Jesus.
This article however is not interested in addressing these problems. Many have attempted to do so and they are to be commended.
Instead, I wish to address another problem: the fact that by raising these issues, Christians often become divided and turn on each other.
If one Christian admits to another that they are not certain that they think the virgin birth truly happened, it’s very likely that the other Christian (more than likely conservative in orientation) will come to believe that because of this, the other Christian really isn’t Christian at all.
Belief in the virgin birth has become a defacto test of orthodoxy for some Christians. But this isn’t new, even the Apostles Creed, one of the earliest lists of Christian affirmations outside the Bible, lists the virgin birth (if not by implication the Nativity) as undeniable and essential doctrine.
Yet, is that really correct? Is the story of Jesus’ birth and the specific supernatural claims within it actually essential for Christian faith? In other words, is it really true that the Church would be lost without it?
I want to tackle this question specifically because I am not a rationalist and as such, I am perfectly fine believing in the virgin birth.
Miracles, demons and the like do not bother my modern sensibilities. I can accept that there are mysteries beyond my comprehension and while I expect God to work within the laws he creates to govern the world, I do not bind him in my mind to them. I do not assume that whatever I assume about Him will change what He has or will do.
Yet, I also know that the Bible does not support the status we’ve given to the Nativity. It is not what we think it is. Let me explain why.
THE STORY IS NOT ESSENTIAL THEOLOGY
The story (or rather, stories) of Jesus’ birth is not essential theology, not because I say so, but because two of the Gospel writers say as much (and by implication, so too does the Holy Spirit).
Although the gospels of Matthew and Luke wrote down each, uncoordinated, two different versions of the Nativity story, what is often overlooked is that the gospel accounts of Mark and John did not.
At first that may seem like a minor fact, but it’s not.
Think about this: when the Gospel of Mark wrote down the first account of the gospel, he was doing something remarkable.
He was creating a life story.
Before Mark did this, to the best of our knowledge, Christians did not talk about the story of Jesus in such a way. Instead, they spoke of individual stories and teachings (take for example the Q source or the Gospel of Thomas as examples).
One Christian would turn to another, asking: “Do you remember the time when Jesus did…”
Or they would repeat the teachings Jesus had been reported to have taught.
But what they apparently did not do widely was to weave all those small parts and put it into the perspective of a larger whole.
That’s where Mark stepped in, weaving a story of Jesus in which Paul’s favorite theme, the sacrifice of Christ, not only was made the central focus, but the nature of the Gospel was outlined.
Yet something curious happened. In the first account of the Gospel, the birth of Jesus plays no role. It is simply not mentioned.
Jesus is introduced at his baptism.
What that means is that Mark did not believe that the birth of Jesus was essential. While he may not have rejected it’s validity (he shows possible knowledge of it in Mark 6:3), he did not deem it even worthy of inclusion.
The salvation narrative, as he saw it, would not be affected by its exclusion.
Now, one can imagine that perhaps this was just the shortsightedness of Mark, which was enlarged wisely by Matthew and Luke who both clearly felt that it was necessary to add the story to Mark’s earlier account.
Yet, then you run into the problem of John.
JOHN AND THE NON-ESSENTIAL NATIVITY
In John’s gospel, the last written gospel account, we find the story of the birth of Jesus missing.
In it’s place, is a poem about the eternal nature of the logos (John 1).
While there is a reference to Jesus’ being thought to have an illegitimate birth (possibly a reference to the Nativity), the claim is never expanded (John 8:41).
Again, we do not know that this means that John rejected the story, only that he did not find it essential.
Why do we know this? Only be implication? No, he actually said as much:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:30–31)
John is explicitly clear: if it’s not explored in his book, it’s not necessary in his mind for salvation or correct theology.¹
PAUL AND ISAIAH
Paul, the earliest writer of the New Testament (and the author of a large part of it) never references or alludes to Mary’s virginity, which although not indicating he rejected the story (if he knew of it at all), does indicate that at the very least, it was not essential to the Gospel he preached.²
Moreover, the very idea of the virgin birth is not necessary in and of itself.
That may sound quite crazy for some to hear (since tradition has drilled its’ necessity into us), but biblically speaking, its true that Mary’s virginity is not required.
Many people assume that Isaiah predicted Jesus’ birth by a virgin, requiring that it come to pass. Any attempt to question that would be an attempt to question prophecy.
Isaiah did not (at least knowingly) predict anything about Jesus’ birth.
Here’s the text:
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted. (Isaiah 7:14–16)
The context, that very few Christians are aware of, is that Isaiah is prophesying to King Ahaz about a political situation in his specific day and time. Isaiah’s prophesy is not about the future and Jesus, but about Ahaz and his present time.
Likewise, the child Immanuel spoken of by Isaiah was not predicted by him to be a messiah and the child’s intended role for Ahaz would be complete by around the age of 12 years.
The book of Isaiah is clear about this. Moreover, Isaiah’s prophecy comes true and is fulfilled in Isaiah’s own lifetime.
So then, you might naturally wonder, why do we usually apply this text to Jesus? Because Matthew and Luke did.
They each, independently, believed that Jesus’ birth (at least as much as each of them knew about it) was so similar to Isaiah’s prophesy, that they foresaw a possible dual application.
This basically in short means that both gospel writers agreed that Isaiah had not intended to predict Jesus, but had delivered a prophecy that had a secret fulfillment that even Isaiah himself would not be aware of.
Why is that important to note? Because even if Matthew and Luke are right in applying the prophecy to Jesus, they did not believe anyone would have been able to know beforehand that the previously completed prophecy would be partially fulfilled a second time.
In other words: no one expected it and so it was not technically required to be fulfilled.
Instead, it was a surprise. A gift, so to speak.
WHAT ABOUT INSPIRATION?
The other aspect of this to take into consideration is the Holy Spirit.
As believing Christians, we understand that God was ultimately guiding the creation of these gospel accounts (even as he allowed the evangelists their freedom to use their own minds in shaping it, like artisans). What that means in this context is that the Holy Spirit allowed for Mark and John to skip the story of the Nativity.
This is quite significant since we know that in the beginning, many churches only had one gospel account. That means that a number of early Christian churches in the first and second century only had Mark and John.
For those communities, they could have gone their whole Christian journey without being required to believe in the virgin birth.
If the Holy Spirit was accepting of this situation, why does anyone find a problem with it now?
THE STORY MAY NOT BE ESSENTIAL, BUT JESUS IS
However, while all of the above is true, there is another issue that could be overlooked: the Holy Spirit did inspire Matthew and Luke’s accounts and moreover, brought all four gospels together as part of Scripture (in spite of Luke’s assertion that his account was better than the others [Luke 1:1]).
Keep this thought in mind: how interesting is it that both Matthew and Luke, writing in different areas at the same time (yet unaware that either was writing), each set out to update Mark’s Gospel and each decided that the Nativity story was essential to understand the Gospel?
That’s not only interesting, it’s pretty incredible.
While each of them produced a different version of the Nativity story and while neither may be completely correct in historicity (since some aspects of each contradict the other), they both tell the same story of a virgin mother, a newborn savior and an incarnation that was to culminate in a shameful death on the cross (followed by a surprising and victorious resurrection).
This cannot simply be overlooked or dismissed, even if John did so.
Moreover, the story grows even more fascinating when one realizes that the Spirit-led community of early Christians preserved all four gospels, not merely the updated or alternative versions to Mark’s.
What we can learn from this is that while some conservative Christians are wrong to argue that the virgin birth is a doctrine that must be accepted in order to be Christian, some liberal or mainline Christians are also at fault for dismissing the Nativity story entirely as fictional and allegorical.
The truth of all four canonical gospels is that the story of Jesus’ life can work fine without the Nativity, but like Matthew and Luke believed, can truly benefit and be enlarged with it.
Mark accepts Jesus as the Son of God, but does not explain how that mystery could be. John accepts Jesus as a being who existed prior to his birth, and yet he does not dwell on the mystery of how that could be.
In neither case are Mark and John attempting to dismiss the mystery of Jesus’ birth, they are simply content to leave it a mystery, whereas Matthew and Luke are not.
HOW TO APPROACH THESE STORIES THIS CHRISTMAS
I think an apt example of how to approach the story of the Nativity is to compare it with the story of the prophet Jonah.
Many Christians find themselves divided as to whether or not the book of Jonah is a prophetic parable or a historical account of Jonah’s ministry.
Some are scandalized by the idea that Joseph was swallowed by a “big fish,” others amazed. Some are concerned that Nineveh’s repentance goes against both Nahum’s prophecies and history, while others are okay with assuming some missing ‘middle’ timeline.
In the end, it doesn’t change anything. One interpretation is not more essential than another. Whether one believes its a parable of what Assyria could have done to change its fate or history of what it did, the book was written to teach a message: God loves even your worst enemies.
As mentioned earlier, I am not a rationalist. I believe Jesus rose from the dead and so I have no qualms with accepting something like a fish swallowing a man. Yet, I realize that perhaps the story is not history at all (and that realization does not bother me). Either way, the message that the book attempts to give me is not affected (only my interpretation or understanding of it).
The story of the Nativity, in at least part, is the story of God revealing to man that he loves us so much that he joined us. Instead of ordaining for a human to be swallowed in the belly of a fish, he shared Jonah’s fate and entered willingly the belly of this world as a human.
Instead of endlessly debating whether the story of Jesus’ birth happened or didn’t exactly according to Matthew and Luke (and whether you’re a heretic or intellectual for questioning it), churches should spend their time elaborating on what the stories actually mean and symbolize in the greater context of the Gospel.
Remember this: when Matthew and Luke wrote their two different versions of Jesus’ story, there is no proof that they didn’t know of some of the details of the other’s story that they didn’t include.
Yet, in spite of the possibility that they may have rejected or ignored alternative details for the Nativity story, neither Luke or Matthew waste their opportunity to tell the story by spending their time arguing about it.
Likewise, neither Mark or John attempt to deny the nativity as much as they merely accept it as a mystery too great to explore.
THE ADVENT MYSTERY
As a Seventh-day Adventist, I can’t help but bring some of my own unique Protestant heritage to this subject.
Ellen White, one of the three founders of my denomination (and arguably the most well known), spoke often about Christmas and Jesus’ birth. Yet, oddly, she spent almost no attention on the mystery of the virgin birth. In fact, it appears that she actively avoids discussing it throughout her long ministry.
It’s clear that she did not reject it (for she makes references that imply it), but its also clear that she didn’t emphasize it.
When she discusses the “miracle of Christmas,” she appears content to describe it simply as “his mysterious birth.”³
Nearing the end of her ministry, she offered this advice on dwelling too deeply on the mystery of Jesus’ divine birth:
His birth was a miracle of God… It is a mystery that is left unexplained to mortals… The incarnation of Christ has ever been, and will ever remain, a mystery… The exact time when humanity blended with divinity, it is not necessary for us to know. We are to keep our feet on the Rock, Christ Jesus, as God revealed in humanity… There are many questions treated upon that are not necessary for the perfection of the faith… Many things are above finite comprehension. (Letter 8, 1895)
In short, it’s okay to notice the differences in the stories and to realize that there are historical questions at play, but in the end, this is not why we have the story.
It’s okay to feel reservations about the rational nature of a story that sounds like a myth, but I’d caution you to be careful not to place God in your own box and control what he could or could not do (sort of defeats the point of Him being God, no?)
The writers of the New Testament demonstrate to us that it is possible to be in communion as Christians whether or not we all agree on the Nativity.
While I myself have no trouble affirming the miraculous birth of Jesus, I certainly do not think any less of a fellow friend who may indeed wrestle with it. And hopefully, after reading this, you can better understand why.
Our faith as Christians does not ride or die on this story, but it does on Jesus who is at the center of it. And anything with Jesus at the center of it should not and cannot be dismissed or overlooked.
So this Christmas, feel free to explore and question, to relax and listen, but most importantly, to marvel at what Christmas truly represents: the solidarity and harmony of God and Man; the union of God and the oppressed; the transfusion of divine and human.
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is born (by implication), lives (by narration) and is the Son of God (by affirmation), all without a Nativity story provided.
He is presented as both Human and the reflection of the eternal God whether or not wise men come to him or shepherds see Angels in the fields.
Whether you as a Christian have reservations about a virgin birth or the exact historical details found in the stories of the Nativity, will not change those early Christian affirmations about Jesus, nor where his life ultimately led to.
In the end, at least so far as the New Testament writers were concerned, the story of Jesus’ birth is essential only in so far as it underscores the meaning of his life.
Jesus was not simply born into humanity… humanity was re-born through Him!
¹ A slightly interesting footnote: John’s statement about stating nothing but was essential is slightly amusing/comical when you realize that his gospel repeats almost none of the parables or miracle stories of the first three gospels. The implication then might be that he’s basically saying that most of what they wrote isn’t necessary. But again, we have little knowledge of how much John knew and when, so its best not to assume too much on that point.
² Although Paul never references the issue of virginity, he does oddly refer to Jesus as “born of a woman” (Gal 4:4). This odd phrase may show possibly that Paul was aware of some sort of unusual claims on behalf of Jesus (or a disputed paternal parentage).
³ 4Red 92.2; BEcho December 15, 1892