Scripture and Setting

1And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.

(And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)

And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)

To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.

And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.

And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,

14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

15 And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.

16 And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.

17 And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.

18 And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.

19 But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.

20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.

The oldest Christian preaching about Jesus concerned his death and resurrection, as may be seen in the formulas of Acts 2:23,32; 3:14-15; 4:10; 10:39-40; and I Cor 15:3-4.

Note the following texts:

“This Jesus God raised up. . . . God has made him both Lord and Mes­siah, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:32,36).

“God exalted him at His right hand as Leader and Savior” (Acts 5:31).

“What God promised to the fathers, He has fulfilled for us their children by raising Jesus, as it is written in Psalm 2: ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you'” (Acts 13:32-33).

“Born of the seed of David according to the flesh; designated Son of God in power according to the Holy Spirit [Spirit of Holiness] as of resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:3-4).

“[Jesus] became obedient unto death, even death on the cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name [Le., ‘Lord’] which is above every name” (Philip 2:8-9).

As can be seen from some of these texts, the resurrection was originally contrasted with a ministry of lowliness, so that through the resurrection Jesus became greater than he had been in the ministry.

The earlier one goes back, the less emphasis one finds on the birth and family of Jesus. There is no reference at all to the birth in the sermons of Acts, and only one specific reference to it in the main Pauline letters.

But such a view became inadequate as Christians reflected further upon the mystery of Jesus’ identity; and by the time the Gospels were written (beginning in the 60s), a more developed view was dominant whereby Jesus was seen already to have been the Messiah and Son of God during his ministry, so that the resurrection simply revealed more publicly what was there all the time. Mark tells the reader that already at the baptism Jesus was the Son of God (1:11).  It represented a growing awareness that what Jesus was at  the resurrection he had earlier.

Our written Gospels emerged from the prefixing of the ministry material to the passion accounts. They are not literal records of ministry of Jesus. Biographical interest was not primary.

The oldest example, the Gospel of Mark, starts with the encounter of Jesus and John the Baptist at the Jordan as “the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ” (1:1), and it terminates with the angelic proclamation of the resurrection at the empty tomb (16:1-8). Mark tells the reader nothing about Jesus’ birth or youth, not even the name of his father (Joseph).

What we know

1. The origin and historical accuracy of the birth stories are unknown. All gospel material was colored by the faith and experience of the Church of the first century.

2. The stories in Matthew and Luke agree in only a few details contradict each other in other details.

3. There is no good historical record of public events mentioned in the birth stories (a new star, a worldwide census).

4.  Unlike what Jesus said and did during his ministry, no one claims apostolic witness to the events at Bethlehem. 

Why the infancy stories were created ?

1.   The story of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem was intended as a response to a Judaism skeptical about a Messiah who came from Galilee (John 7:41-42,52). If Judaism was already beginning to charge that Jesus was illegitimate,  the virginal conception offered an explanation.

2.  To make the declaration that Jesus was God at his birth.   Appearances to the contrary, Jesus’ birth means God’s rule on earth is gathering strength.

3. Jesus was a fulfillment of the Old Testament development of a pre-Matthean story that drew a parallel between Joseph the legal father of Jesus and Joseph the patriarch who dreamed dreams and went to Egypt.

Matthew’s fulfillment passages provide an excellent example of how the scriptures of ancient Israel were being read in the earliest churches. The Jewish believers in the Crucified-and-Raised One read their scriptures with new eyes. By interpreting those texts through the lens of their resurrection faith in Jesus, new meanings and applications developed that had not arisen before.

Such Old Testament parallels and reminiscences would have served well in a arguments against Jewish positions; they would have served even more fruitfully in developing a Christian understanding that Jesus the Messiah relived the history of his own people = a Christian memory of events that happened.

One example – Luke’s description of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist, is taken, at times almost verbatim, from the Old Testament description of Abraham and Sarah.

Luke has taken over this Isaiah’s birth announcement of the heir to the throne of David Jesus was born in a stable in Bethlehem among shepherds because God chose David from a sheepfold to rule (Psalm 78:70-71). The miraculous “sign” of the infant (Luke 2:12, 15-16) is a reenactment of God’s prophetic promise from another troubled time in Israel’s history (Isaiah 7:14: see a direct use of the Greek version of the Isaiah prophecy in Matthew 1:22-23).

In the context of Isaiah, this child is the heir to the throne of David, and his royal titles follow: Wonderful Counselor, Divine Hero, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

4. It served as an evangelistic tool with the growth of Christianity.

5. Curiosity. Christians wanted to know more about Jesus, his family, his ancestors, his birthplace. And, on the implicit principle that the child is the father of the man.

6. Changes in Christology – Jesus was gradually seen as the Messiah at birth-Church’s understanding of who Jesus was grew during the first century

Three Parts of this scripture.

In this narrative Luke sets forth the wonder of Christmas. The story unfolds in three parts.
This is similar to the threefold structure of John’s birth story. In many ancient and modern stories we might very well see the same structure: the birth; the announcement of the birth to others; and the circumcision and naming of boys, the naming of girls and uncircumcised males, dedication or infant baptism.

The first (vv. 1-7) locates the birth of Jesus. It happened when Augustus was Caesar, emperor of the Roman world (27B.C.-14 A.D) (1) It happened in Bethlehem, the city of David, where Joseph and Mary had gone to be enrolled for a census. It happened in a place where there was a manger. Then and there Jesus was born and wrapped in swaddling clothes.  ” Luke reminds his readers of the belief that Bethlehem was the place where a ruler like David, would be born.

The “good news” does not begin with the birthday of Augustus Caesar, but with the angels’ cry: “I announce to you the good news of a great joy which will be for the whole people. To you this day there is born in the city of David a Savior who is Messiah and Lord” (2:10-11).

The second part (vv. 8-14) interprets this birth. Using the form of an announcement story Luke tells of the appearance of an angel, of the fear of the shepherds, of the message they were given, and of the sign which confirmed it Added to the announcement is a canticle. A heavenly host joins the angels in offering praise to God for this event and proclaims peace to people with whom God is pleased.

The third part (vv. 15-20) describes responses made to the news of this event. The shepherds checked out the message, found the sign, the babe lying in a manger, and shared the interpretation which they had given. The people marvelled at their words. Mary kept them in her heart and wondered. The shepherds then returned to their work, glorifying and praising God for the event and its interpretation.


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