This year, HarperOne published a book co-authored by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan with the same title as one authored several years ago by Paul Maier, The First Christmas. (Maier's is now available from Kregel Publications.) Both books purport to separate tradition from the facts of the Nativity. Maier reviewed Borg and Crossan's The First Christmas for CT.
Borg and Crossan, whose book on The First Christmas is subtitled, "What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus' Birth," find that the Gospel accounts are historically unreliable. This, of course, was quite predictable, since those two authors were also founding members of the Jesus Seminar (the original modifier here was "notorious," but, hey, Christmas is coming.)
The two seem to have become more moderate over the years, because this is no putdown of the Nativity account. Crossan in particular famed for his in-your-face attacks on traditional Christianity and saying that Jesus' body wasn't buried in Joseph's tomb but eaten by dogs does show some reverence for the story of Jesus' birth. The First Christmas drops no sensational bombshells on Bethlehem. Perhaps Crossan was curbed by Borg.
Still, theological conservatives will hardly cheer this publication. Borg and Crossan are proposing a third way to interpret the Nativity accounts. They do not treat the passages as historical as conservatives do or objects of scorn as critics of Christianity do. The basic thrust of the Borg-Crossan approach is, "In our judgment, there was no special star, no wise men, and no plot by Herod to kill Jesus. So is the story factually true? No. But as parable is it true? For us as Christians, the answer is a robust affirmative." And, earlier, "We see the Nativity stories as neither fact nor fable, but as parables and overtures" (27).
Overtures to the biographies of Jesus they certainly are, but the line between "parable" and "myth" is too faint for faith.
Early on, the Borg-Crossan methodology becomes clear: Shun every attempt at harmonizing Matthew and Luke, but dissect every difference in heroically minute detail. Argue that archetypes from the Old Testament for example, Jesus as the new Moses and new David rather than divine inspiration and fact informed Matthew. Highlight unproven premises as fact.
For example, the authors insist four or five times that Matthew has Joseph and Mary living in Bethlehem prior to Jesus' birth, whereas Luke has them in Nazareth. While the latter is certainly true, Matthew does not tell us that Joseph and Mary were living in Bethlehem prior to the birth of Jesus. Borg and Crossan assert that Jesus was probably born in Nazareth, not Bethlehem a claim that has become the virtual "union card" for critical scholarship on the Nativity, despite a total lack of any historical evidence supporting it. Similarly, the authors claim that the census under Quirinius in Luke's account is wrong, Joseph and Mary did not make a trip to Bethlehem, and the shepherds were fictional characters.
What, then, is left of the Christmas story for Christians? We still have, the authors say, much joy, light, and excitement over Matthew's and Luke's "parables"! One can only marvel at how much these authors find to celebrate in mere fiction.
Contrary to what the authors say, all geographical locations in both Matthew and Luke's Nativity accounts are fully corroborated. (in contrast to the many mythical locations cited in the holy books of other world religions). Similarly, all governing officials in Rome, Galilee, and Judea mentioned in the Christmas Gospels are also absolutely authentic, as I point out in my own First Christmas.
All episodes that transpired according to both of our sources on the Nativity are fully in accord with the culture and history of the times (except for angelic appearances, which leave some room for faith). Furthermore, both Nativity accounts are introductions not to parables but to sober narratives reporting historical events in the life of Jesus, with the parables Jesus told in a clearly separate mode. Why would Matthew and Luke switch literary genres in the same works?
While Borg and Crossan's "third way" may seem an attractive alternative to the scorn of critics, it will hardly instill the anticipation, hope, and joy for which the Christmas celebration is famous. Christians rejoice over fact, not fiction.
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Other articles on the first Christmas are available in our special section.
More articles on the Jesus Seminar and the historical Jesus include:
Who Do Your Books Say That I Am? | New volumes tell much about our Lordand our cultural moment. (June 25, 2007)
They Really Saw Him | Richard Bauckham argues that the Gospels are based on eyewitness testimony, not "anonymous community traditions." The key, he says, is in the names. (June 7, 2007)
Leading with Conclusions | Much of Jesus scholarship is about neither the historical Jesus nor good scholarship. (April 22, 2002)
Rightly Dividing Biblical History | A journalist makes a case for Scripture's reliability. (May 22, 2000)
Why We Believe in the Virgin Birth | Pundits with pebbles wander far from the historic gospel. (December 12, 1994)
The Jesus I'd Prefer to Know | Searching for the historical Jesus and finding oneself instead. (December 7, 1998)
Directions: Doubting Thomas's Gospel | "Jesus said, 'Damn the Pharisees, for they are like a dog sleeping in the cattle manger, for it neither eats nor [lets] the cattle eat.' Gospel of Thomas (June 15, 1998)
The War of the Scrolls, Part 3 | Fifty years after the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, evangelical scholars are using them to demonstrate the reliability of the Scriptures. (October 6, 1997)
The Jesus Seminar Unmasked | A review of The Real Jesus (April 29, 1996)