Daily Meditations

The Third Day of Christmas Advent: Are the Stories of Jesus’ Birth True?

By Fr John Breck, January 1, 2005

The Christmas season inevitably leads people in the media to speculate on whether or not the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ conception and birth are historically accurate. The question they raise in the public mind is whether these cherished stories are really “true.”

A good, well-balanced example of this kind of reflection appeared in the December 13, 2004 edition of Newsweek. The article rehearsed a familiar array of parallels that have been shown to exist between the birth stories concerning Jesus, and those of pagan heroes or demigods. It also showed how the two Gospel narratives of Matthew and Luke (which differ significantly from one another) were structured according to the model of “Promise and Fulfillment.” In large part, elements in both accounts were drawn from the Old Testament. Jesus’ birth, for example, is patterned after that of Samuel; his descent into Egypt and return to Nazareth recapitulate the Hebrew Exodus tradition; the Magi and their gifts fulfill the prophecies of the Psalms and Isaiah, which declare that kings of the earth shall offer obeisance to the Messiah, sealed by gifts of gold and incense; and the massacre of the children of Bethlehem reflects the original Passover, when the first-born of the Egyptians succumbed to the angel of death, whereas the Hebrew children were spared by the blood of sacrifice (here Hebrew children are killed, while Jesus, who represents the people of the New Covenant and is himself the true sacrifice, is spared).

None of the most characteristic events surrounding Jesus’ birth—the enrollment under Quirinius, the appearance of the star, the birth from a virgin mother in a Bethlehem stable, the visit of the Magi, the massacre of the innocents, or the descent and return from Egypt—is found elsewhere in historical records. Nor is there any allusion to them in other parts of the New Testament. This leads many scholars to assume that the birth narratives were constructed to create a theological symmetry between the beginning and end of Jesus’ earthly existence: he who is finally raised from the dead began his life in an equally miraculously way as the offspring of a virgin mother.

The theological message of these accounts is clear. Jesus is the new and true Israel, the Son of God, who is also “Emmanuel,” “God with us.” He is no mere prophet, itinerant miracle-worker or firebrand revolutionary, as some have tried to depict him. Rather, he is the fulfillment of all prophecy and the source of all genuine healing. The question that seems to concern us most, however, is this: Are these accounts factually “true”; that is, did they “really happen”?

This is a classic example of a “false question.” To explain why, however, requires that we clear up some common misunderstandings.

In the first place, we tend in our day and age to identify truth with “fact.” If an event can hypothetically be recorded on tape or film, if it can be observed and subjected to objective scientific analysis, then we consider it to be “true.” Such a reality may indeed be factual. Truth, however, is situated on another level, both higher and deeper than the level of fact. Jon Meacham, author of the Newsweek article, expressed it very well: “If we dissect the [birth] stories with care, we can see that the Nativity saga is neither fully fanciful nor fully factual but a layered narrative of early tradition and enduring theology, one whose meaning was captured in the words of the fourth-century Nicene Creed: that ‘for us men and for our salvation,’ Jesus ‘came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Ghost and of the Virgin Mary and was made man.’”

“A layered narrative of early tradition and enduring theology.” There is no opposition between the two, since (holy) tradition is always shaped to convey theological truth: the significance for us of what God has done within the framework of time and space, to work out our salvation. This is why we insist that “the Gospels are not books of history but works of theology.”

Then again, we need to remember that what we regard as “historical facts” are never free of interpretation. We know of events such as the beginning of the universe, or the French Revolution or the first Gulf War only as those events have been presented to us by scientists, historians and “embedded” reporters. We assume their accounts are true, by which we mean factual. The “facts” that we believe we know, however, are for the most part interpretations we receive in the form of secular “tradition” through media such as news journals, television and books. But like gossip, these interpretations are always colored by the subjective viewpoint, experience and agenda of those who transmit them. We receive and transmit even our own personal experiences under the influence of our subjective interpretation of their significance. If I tell other people about some tragic or joyous occurrence I have known, my retelling is always shaped by the impact that experience has had upon me. To recount an event or convey a reality is always to interpret it, to pass it through the filter of my own experience and my own understanding. Accordingly, the very notion of “fact,” which we so cherish in our age of science and technology, may be little more than an illusion…

Yet the Truth will endure forever. However, we (or biblical scholars) may judge the “historicity” of various events, from the Genesis creation account to the narratives of Christ’s birth, the truth of those events, and of their interpretations, lies in God’s presence and activity in and through them. Genetic engineering has already produced parthenogenesis, “virgin births,” in a Petri dish. But this no more proves the tradition of the Virgin Birth of Jesus than the Shroud of Turin proves his resurrection. The biblical narratives, like the Shroud, are received and interpreted as articles of faith. “Proof,” by which we mean objective scientific verification, simply does not apply in their case.

Are the stories of Jesus’ birth, as recounted by the evangelists Matthew and Luke, really true? Yes—as affirmed by the faith, but also by the experience, of countless multitudes of people who know Jesus of Nazareth to be Lord and Savior, who pray to him as God and know their prayer is heard. Yes—because the Church’s spiritual elders have always recognized that truth is more than sheer fact, and that Scripture speaks more in the figurative language of poetry than in the analytical language of science. This is because truth is ultimately ineffable. If Scripture resorts to figures and analogies, if the Church Fathers rely so heavily on allegory, and if Jesus expresses some of his most profound teachings in the form of parables, it is because words are symbolic. They point forward to ultimate reality, and they even participate to some degree in that reality. But as human constructs, words are incapable of grasping that reality in all its fullness. This is why the deepest prayer must finally resolve into silence.

Yes, the stories of Jesus’ birth are true. They are so, because their purpose and their effect is to convey meaning more than fact. In the final analysis, no particular element of biblical tradition can be definitively proved or disproved. But that doesn’t matter. What does matter is the witness that tradition offers us, by means of both historical facts and poetic images, to the significance of the person of Jesus in the whole of God’s work to bring to the world salvation and eternal life.

In this light, with the whole of Christian Tradition, we can—indeed we must—declare that in the person of Jesus, the eternal Word of God took flesh and became man. He did so by the power of the Holy Spirit and in the womb of the Virgin Mary. As the “God-man” he suffered, he was crucified and he was buried. Then, on the third day, he rose from the dead in glory, to fulfill the work begun on the first Christmas eve, in a humble stable in the city of Bethlehem.

With this affirmation historical fact merges with transcendent meaning. To skeptical eyes, none of it can be proven beyond question. To eyes of faith, though, there is no greater reality than this, and no more compelling truth.

~Orthodox Church in America (OCA), https://www.oca.org/reflections/fr.-john-breck/are-the-stories-of-jesus-birth-true.


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