Margaret Barker sure knows how to set up an argument. She goes all out in introduction to Christmas: Original Story. Bump, set, spike, Barker:
The Christmas stories are not only beautiful; their meaning is at the heart of the Christian faith, and they show how the first generations expressed their understanding of Jesus as both God and man. The creeds are later statements of Christian belief, summarizing the essentials. The first to be set out formally was the Apostles’ Creed, the declaration made before baptism in the Western churches which was in use in Rome at the beginning of the third century. It says nothing about the life of Jesus as depicted in the four Gospels, nothing about his parables and miracles, about debates with the Jews of his time, or about his disciples. It records his birth, and then his death and resurrection: Christmas and Easter. The events in Bethlehem and Jerusalem were recognized as the essentials of the faith. Of Christmas the Apostles’ Creed says: “Jesus Christ His only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary.”
The other creed most familiar to Christians is the Nicene Creed, recited at the Eucharist in churches of both Eastern and Western traditions. It was probably developed from a baptismal creed used in Palestine, was adopted by the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, and expanded by the Council of Constantinople in 381 CE. The precise history of its development is complex. Like the Apostles’ Creed, it lists as essentials of the faith only the teachings about the birth and death of Jesus. Of Christmas it says: “One Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of His Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of very God, Begotten not made, Being of one substance with the Father, By whom all things were made: Who for us men and our salvation came down from heaven, And was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, And was made man …’. This is the theology of the Christmas story, but it is in two stages. There is the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of his Father before all worlds, and there is the Son of God who became incarnate of the Virgin Mary.
Christians have always been careful to remember and distinguish the ‘two births’. The Orthodox Church calls Christmas ‘the Nativity according to the flesh’, a constant reminder of the ‘other’ birth. Augustine, who died in 430 CE, summarized this in a Christmas sermon:
“Our LORD Jesus Christ, the Son of Man as well as the Son of God, born of the Father without a Mother, created all days. By his birth from a Mother without a Father, he consecrated this day. In his divine birth he was invisible; in his human birth, visible; in both births, awe-inspiring.”
Both births are found in the New Testament: the Son of God was born in eternity, beyond our understanding, as John wrote in the prologue to his Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word …” (John 1.1). The Son of God became incarnate with the Bethlehem birth – the Virgin birth, and of this birth John wrote: “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1.14). The Christmas story does not describe the birth of the Son of God; it describes the incarnation of the Son of God who was “born” in eternity. Throughout any exploration of the Christmas story there is the problem of words with a special meaning that differs from their normal use. If this mystical element is not recognized, the result can be a literalism that, far from being faithful to the fundamentals of the story, in fact distorts it.At the heart of Jerusalem today is the Muslim shrine of the Dome of the Rock, erected on what is popularly believed to be the site of the ancient temple of Solomon. The first Muslim structure there had been the simple wooden building erected when Omar conquered the city in 637 CE, but this was replaced in 691 CE by the magnificent shrine familiar today. Two domes then dominated Jerusalem: the dome of the great Church of the Resurrection, built by Constantine over the site of Jesus’ tomb, and the Dome of the Rock. On the inner and outer faces of the octagonal arcade of the Muslim shrine there is a huge inscription, some 240 metres long: excerpts from the Qur’an are set amidst invocations and other pious words.
The first quotation on the outer face is an early Meccan surah:
“Say: He is Allah, the One and Only: Allah the Eternal, Absolute; He begetteth not, Nor is he begotten; And there is none like unto Him’ (Surah 112, ‘Purity of Faith’). An explanatory note adds here: ‘This is to negative the Christian idea of the godhead, the Father, the only-begotten Son etc.”
The inscription continues with: “Praise to Allah who begets no son and has no partner in (His) dominion …” (Surah 17, ‘The Night Journey’, 111). The explanatory note says: “A first step towards the understanding of Allah’s nature is to clear our mind of superstitions, such as that Allah begot a son.”
On the inner face of the arcade there is:
“O people of the Book!/ Commit no excesses/ In your religion: nor say/ Of Allah aught but the truth./ Christ Jesus the son of Mary/ Was (no more than)/ A Messenger of Allah,/ and His Word,/ Which He bestowed on Mary,/ And a Spirit proceeding/ From Him: so believe/ In Allah and His messengers.” (Surah 4, ‘The Women’, 171–2)
The explanatory note says: “Here the Christian attitude is condemned, which raises Jesus to an equality with Allah; in some cases venerates Mary almost to idolatry; and attributes a physical son to Allah.” The next piece is a third-person form of words attributed to Jesus himself in Surah 19.33–5:
“Peace is on him, on the day of birth, on the day of death and on the day he is raised up again. This is Jesus son of Mary. It is a word of truth in which they doubt. It is not for God to take a son. Glory be to him when he decrees a thing. He only says ‘be’ and it is.”
Notes to this text explain:
“The disputations about the nature of Christ were vain, but also persistent and sanguinary. The modern Christian churches have thrown them into the background, but they would do well to abandon irrational dogmas altogether. Begetting a son is a physical act, depending on the needs of men’s animal nature. Allah Most High is independent of all needs, and it is derogatory to Him to attribute such an act to Him. It is merely a relic of pagan and anthropomorphic materialist superstitions.”
Here is the heart of the matter – the meaning of the Christmas stories. The inscription with its extracts from the Qur’an makes clear that the point at issue is the meaning of Sonship. Was it a question of physical begetting, or was there another meaning of ‘sonship’? In what sense was Jesus the Son of God, and how did the earliest Christian traditions record their beliefs? What was the original Christmas story?