Hello, and welcome to a BOOK podcast supplement. I’m Josh Way. Today: it’s our first Christmas Special! Now, what could a non-denominational podcast like this one have to say about this quasi-Christian-pagan holiday celebration? Well, we’re interested in the text of the Judeo-Christian bible, and that’s where we’ll be interacting with Christmas. And first let me just say on a personal note that I am a big fan of Christmas, that it has always been a big part of my life experience as both a religious observance and a secular tradition. I say that now so that some of the points I’m going to put forth today won’t be taken in the wrong spirit.
So: where is Christmas in the bible? Well, the simple answer is that it’s not there. The events of Jesus’ birth are there, of course. But it’s quite surprising given the church’s intense focus on the Christmas “season” how little physical space the Christmas events occupy in the gospels, and how completely absent is any evidence that the early church celebrated the birth of Jesus. Jump cut to our day, when most American Christians regard Christmas as a central and load-bearing pillar of their faith. The history of the Christmas holiday is (thankfully) outside the scope of this podcast, so instead I’d like to take a brief survey of the Christmas material in the bible, and then highlight a few peculiarities which open up some interesting discussions.
Again, it might surprise you just how light the “Christmas” material in the gospels is. All in all, we get eight short verses in Matthew’s gospel, and a chapter and a half in Luke’s. That’s it! The gospels of Mark and John begin with an adult Jesus launching his prophetic campaign. The birth of Jesus is not mentioned anywhere else in the gospels OR in the epistles which comprise the rest of the Greek New Testament. You would think the virgin birth of the holy infant would be an important piece of the theological argument put forth by Paul and the other authors of scripture, but it’s just not there. All of this is kind of shocking when you consider the cultural repercussions of Christmas in our time.
Of course, we’ll discuss the four gospels in great detail on future podcasts, but in terms of today’s topic, we can see why and how Matthew and Luke incorporated the nativity material into their writings. Luke is the most “investigative” of the four gospel writers, and he presents material culled from interviews with the surviving witnesses to Jesus’ life, including Mary his mother. This probably explains why Luke offers the most detailed account of the Christmas story, and why so much of that story is about the experience and reaction of Mary. Meanwhile, Matthew’s gospel is a Jewish work through and through, and every word of it is part of a program to prove Jesus of Nazareth as the Jewish moshiach, messiah, in Greek the “christ.” And so that is his only thought in presenting his very brief account of the virgin birth. This is where we engage in a rather delicate discussion. But first, here is the entirety of Matthew’s nativity account:
 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.  And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.  But as he considered these things, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”  All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel”
(which means, God with us).  When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife,  but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.
(Matthew 1:18-25 ESV)
We’ll have more to say about the format and argument of Matthew’s gospel later on, but today I want to focus on his use of the Hebrew Bible, specifically his quotation of Isaiah Chapter 7: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel.” There is no mistake that Matthew is claiming that Jesus’ birth was miraculous. What is frequently called into question is whether or not the Isaiah passage constitutes a prediction of that miracle.
This is a debate that won’t go away, and it is typically reduced down to a debate about a single word: the word translated “virgin” in the Isaiah text. “Liberal” interpreters on one side indicating that the Hebrew word almah can be translated “young woman” as easily as “virgin,” and “conservatives” on the other side insisting it MUST mean “virgin.” What drives me bonkers about the whole discussion is that both sides act as if the broader context of Isaiah (and for that matter Matthew) was unavailable or irrelevant. It is both available AND relevant. So let’s do some homework!
The very LEAST we can do is take a serious look at what is really going on in Isaiah chapter 7. And so, we shall. In Isaiah 7, the prophet confronts Ahaz, a wicked king of Judah who is about to make a very foolish alliance. The full details of this can be found in 2 Kings 16, but the bottom line is that the kingdom of Israel is split in two, and Israel to the north has joined forces with Syria against the southern kingdom of Judah. Frightened and impatient, Ahaz looks to pay a protection tribute to the massive empire of Assyria. Assyria was a formidable force which was becoming a superpower. Isaiah warns Ahaz against this cowardly alliance which betrayed a lack of trust in Israel’s God, and which would surely make political trouble for Judah down the road.
And that’s the history behind the exchange in question. This is Isaiah 7 and verse 10:
 Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz,
That is, through the prophet Isaiah.
 “Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.”  But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test.”
Ahaz hides behind a mask of religious piety: “I wouldn’t dare put God to the test by asking him to protect us!”
 And [Isaiah] said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary God also?  Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name God-with-us [Immanuel].
This is the bit quoted by Matthew. Remember, this is in response to a very imminent crisis faced by Judah at this particular moment. Isaiah wants to convince Ahaz that he does not need to buy the protection of Assyria, that God will protect Judah. And how do we know he will protect us? Because a baby is going to be born. Not some far off future baby, but the next king. “The virgin” here likely refers to one of the virgins of the court – one of the young maidens designated to bear offspring for the king. Isaiah is talking about Hezekiah, the next king of Judah. As for the name “Immanuel,” this is a typical prophetic device employed repeatedly by Isaiah, who likes to give children meaningful names (eg. his own children “A Remnant Shall Return” and “The Child of the Sign.”).
 “By the time he has learned to reject bad and choose good, people will be feeding on curds and honey.  For before the boy knows how to refuse the bad and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted.  The LORD will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father’s house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim [that is, Israel] departed from Judah.”
“Before this kid can tie his shoelaces,” the prophet says, “the people will be feasting on the spoils of the land again.” By the time this kid grows up, your enemies will be defeated and God will restore our fortunes. Down to verse 20:
 In that day the Lord will shave with a razor that is hired beyond the River—with the king of Assyria—the head and the hair of the feet, and it will sweep away the beard also.
This is weird language, but basically Isaiah says that God is already planning to use Assyria’s treachery to wipe out Judah’s enemies, and Ahaz need only wait patiently and keep the faith. The remarkable thing about this entire prophecy is that it ALL CAME TO PASS. Hezekiah was born, he wasn’t cowardly like Ahaz, and in his lifetime Assyria destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel. Because he was faithful, says 2 Kings 18, King Sennacherib and the armies of Assyria were not able to defeat Judah, and were themselves defeated at the hands of Babylon.
Now let’s get something straight before we go any further: We’ll examine Isaiah in detail eventually on BOOK, and his writing is chock full of messianic prophecy, claims and expectations about a future king who would one day deliver all of Israel and usher in “God’s new age.” Chapters 9 and 53 are famous examples. However, in light of what we’ve just read, I don’t think we can call Isaiah 7 an explicitly “messianic” passage. It’s a word from a prophet about an urgent crisis, one that was fulfilled within its own time.
So now what do we do with Matthew? Is he a crackpot? A liar? is he twisting Hebrew scripture for his own agenda? I don’t think so. I think he’s smart. I think he knows exactly what’s going on in the Isaiah passage, and I think WE’RE the ones who’ve been missing the forest for the trees (or rather, for that one tree).
Remember earlier I said that Matthew’s gospel is all and only about Jesus being the messiah. It’s an argument. We’ll go into much more detail about what exactly a messiah is and isn’t in later shows, but for now here’s the thing: we (meaning, Christians and modern Westerners) have defined “messiah” backwards from Jesus, so we think it means one who is born miraculously of a virgin and who dies on a cross. But, working forward from the Hebrew Scriptures, we see that “messiah” meant neither of those things. “Messiah” meant “the coming king who will usher in God’s new age and save Israel and thus the world.”
If this is Matthew’s starting point, then what he’s doing with Isaiah becomes easier to decipher. “Virgin” is his entry point into the prophecy, but I don’t think it’s the sum of his argument. I think Matthew is saying this: As in the days of Isaiah, Judah lives in the shadow of great evil, from Rome and from within, and there’s a new king in the belly of a virgin who faces a choice – be a coward like Ahaz and get in bed with the bad guys, or be like Hezekiah and trust God to rescue us and deal with our so-called enemies. Says Matthew, not only will Jesus take the righteous path, he will be the true “Immanuel,” the true king who brings about God’s ultimate purposes.
Matthew DOES insist that Jesus was born of a virgin who had miraculously conceived. That’s not in question. This is really an issue about the fulfillment of prophecy. And I think that allowing the Isaiah passage its full, original context takes us deeper into Matthew’s overall agenda than we might otherwise have wandered. I understand why Christians are resistant to this line of thinking. It’s much easier to deal with Isaiah as a sound bite and a proof text than as a living, breathing text with its own context and agenda. But given the choice I’d always rather dig deeper and let the text breathe than dash through it with my fingers in my ears.
OK, let’s put that can of worms back on the shelf and look at just a couple more items. These are not nearly as provocative, just some nativity-related factoids. I have to give credit on this first one to my seminary professor and mentor R. Bryan Widbin, who first presented it to me. We all know this familiar plot point from the nativity story (from Luke chapter 2):
And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
The image is ubiquitous: Mary and Joseph, weary from the long journey to Bethlehem and desperately in need of a place to deliver their baby, knock on the innkeeper’s door only to be told there’s no vacancy, and they are forced to stay out in back with the animals in the stable. That always struck me as a little strange, that a crowning woman would be denied a warm place to deliver her baby. Well, our interpretation of a verse may, in THIS CASE, boil down to a single word.
The Greek word kataluma, traditionally translated “inn” or “lodging place,” is actually a much more specific word, and is better translated “upper room.” This is the same word which describes the dining room where Jesus takes his disciples for a final Passover meal in Luke Chapter 22. This isn’t a public place to rent a room, it’s a room in a family home. A room for special meals and visiting guests.
Mary and Joseph are said to be visiting Joseph’s hometown of Bethlehem during a Roman census, and scholarship suggests that it was also the time of sukkot, the feast of tabernacles. This means that all of Joseph’s family would have been coming home for the holiday and government mandated headcount, and it makes sense that the kataluma would have been full of aunts and uncles who got there first. But surely their own kin wouldn’t have kicked them out into the cold to have their baby! So what’s up with the manger? Turns out, this word also has a more nuanced connotation.
A “manger” in this setting would likely have been a hewn stone trough INSIDE the house, where the “special” sacrificial animals were kept. Beasts of burden and flocks would have been tied up and penned outdoors, but spotless, consecrated animals set apart for sacrifice were kept close to the family. If this is correct, Mary and Joseph weren’t left out in the cold, they were actually invited into the first floor dwelling where the nuclear family lived with their special animals. And, of course, the placement of the newborn Jesus among these critters carries a certain theological weight…
One last topic. Another standard issue Christmas trope is the visit of the “wise men” from foreign lands. This account only appears in Matthew’s gospel, immediately following his short nativity text. Here it is from Matthew 2:
[2:1] Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem,  saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”  When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him;  and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.  They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:
 “‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared.  And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.”  After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was.  When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.  And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.  And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.
(Matthew 2:1-12 ESV)
This story is so familiar that we have lost sight of how completely WEIRD it is! The moshiach, promised of old is said to be born on Judean soil, but instead of throngs of Israelites coming to his crib to bow down and welcome him, he is visited by three pagan astronomers. The “wise men from the East” are not only foreigners from outside the covenant, they are – according to the covenant – practitioners of wickedness, reading the stars as they do. In this story, they are portrayed as the righteous ones, while Herod the king and the priests and scribes are plotting and scheming against the child.
I don’t have any real insight or a surprising revelation about this story. All we need to do is look at it and think about it to see what Matthew is doing. He is making his case against the current Judean administration, the Roman puppet-king Herod and the corrupt religious establishment, and saying something radical about the life of Jesus: If Israel won’t recognize him, says Matthew, pagan astronomers will get the job done. This is a story of sharp condemnation on the one hand, and subversive inclusivity on the other. Like Rahab and Ruth, another instance of the “righteous pagan” who swoops in to get the job done when Israel fails. We’ll see a whole lot more of this type of thing when we take a complete look at Matthew’s scroll later on.
And that’s our Christmas special, friends. I hope you enjoyed it. Thanks so much for listening to BOOK in 2012, and hope you’ll continue to join me in 2013. We have a lot more text to read, and a lot more to discover about history, literature, and the world and stuff.
Merry Christmas, Belated Happy Hanukkah, and Happy New Year to you all.
This has been BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody. Find more at book.joshway.com. See you soon, pals!