A mythicist ponders the origins and allegorical meaning of Luke’s Nativity.
I am sure you have all seen the traditional Nativity Scene. Mary and Joseph shelter in a stable, flanked by an ox and an ass and with Baby Jesus lying between them in a manger. Three kings kneel on one side of the manger offering gold and jewel encrusted gifts to the infant, their camels in the background. On the other side humble shepherds bow their heads, offering fluffy lambs, and perhaps a little shepherd boy plays on a drum. The sky above is filled with floating angels, sometimes holding up a scroll that reads ‘Gloria in Excelsis Deo’ and above them is a dazzling star.
As we saw in Part One of this essay, this touching scene is a conflation of the only two birth narratives in the four gospels, those of Matthew and Luke. However, despite what the traditional nativity scene attempts to convey, these two narratives barely overlap and are in fact so different as to be virtually mutually exclusive. Furthermore, not only do they contradict each other, neither story has any basis in historical fact. The only way to reconcile the two stories to each other and to history, is to accept them both as total fictions written as allegories but for different didactic purposes.
In Part Two of this essay, we examined Matthew’s Nativity. In this part we’ll examine Luke’s Nativity. We’ll ask, ‘Where does Luke’s story come from?’, ‘What is the meaning behind his story?’ and ‘What is its purpose?’ (For a summary of Luke’s Nativity, see Part One)
Two Miraculous Births
Luke’s Nativity gives us not just one miraculous birth, but two – that of John the Baptist and that of Jesus. In the first, a menopausal woman who has never given birth miraculously conceives after God’s intervention. In the second, a young virgin is miraculously impregnated by God himself.
The Hebrew Bible gives us many stories in which God intervenes to allow barren women to conceive and bear sons, sons who will go on to be Jewish patriarchs or heroes. Isaac prays to God, and his wife Rebekah bears the twins Esau and Jacob after twenty years of marriage [Genesis 25:19–26]. Jacob marries the sisters Leah and Rachel, but because Jacob does not love her, God allows Leah to bear seven children before He finally remembers Rachel and lets her bear one son, Joseph [Genesis 29:31–30:24]. Hannah endures taunts from her husband’s other, fertile, wife for years until God answers her prayers and lets her conceive Samuel [1 Samuel 1:1–20].
However, the story of the birth of John the Baptist is most likely based on that of Samson. His (unnamed) mother, who has long been declared barren, is visited by an angel who tells her that she will bear a son who will be ‘a Nazirite, dedicated to God from the womb. He will take the lead in delivering Israel from the hands of the Philistines.’ [Judges 13:2–5] Elizabeth’s story also recalls that of Abraham’s wife, Sarah. When she is ‘past the age of childbearing’ she and Abraham are visited by three mysterious strangers. Their leader tells them that within a year Sarah will bear a son. Despite Sarah’s doubts, a year later she gives birth to Isaac. [Genesis 18:1–15, 21:1–7]
In all these stories, however, it is clear that these women are not virgins and that the fathers of these long-desired sons are their husbands. The idea that God himself would father a child on a virgin might be new to Jewish Christians, but it would be familiar to gentile Christians who would have grown up with Greco-Roman mythology. Those gods often visited mortal woman in a range of disguises to seduce and impregnate them with children who would be semi-divine heroes.
Zeus himself seduces the Spartan queen Leda in the form of a swan. She later bears two sets of twins, Helen (of Troy) and Clytemnestra, and Castor and Pollux. He disguises himself as Alcmene’s husband, Amphitryon, to seduce her and she bears him Heracles. However, the story that most closely resembles Mary’s is that of Danaë.
Warned by an oracle that he will be killed by his grandson, Danaë’s father locks his virgin daughter away to ensure she will never get pregnant. Zeus comes to her in the form of a shower of golden rain that streams through the roof of her prison and impregnates her. Danaë bears Perseus, the slayer of the Gorgon Medusa.
Biblical scholars agree that Luke’s gospel is aimed at reconciling Jewish and gentile Christians. In giving us these two stories of miraculous births, Luke is demonstrating to his readers that the Christian God has all the powers and attributes of both the Jewish God and the Greco-Roman pantheon.
Furthermore, in attributing a virgin birth to Jesus, Luke is invoking a concept that had sacred resonance in the Greco-Roman world. In a society where girls married as soon as they reached puberty, virginity was rare. Virgins would be dedicated to the gods, especially to goddesses, as were the Vestal Virgins, and the goddesses they worshipped were also virgins, such as Vesta, Artemis and Athena. If these virgins were to conceive by the gods, their sons would have semi-divine, even divine status.
As such, powerful and ambitious men would claim divine birth or ancestry. Julius Caesar claimed descent from Venus, while Caesar Augustus allowed people to believe that his mother conceived him when she spent the night in the temple of Apollo. Virgin births have also been attributed to other religious leaders such as Buddha and Plato.
In this story, Luke also creates a familial relationship between Jesus and another influential religious leader of the time, John the Baptist. Why he may have done this must be the subject for another day.
Shepherds in the Fields
One of the stark contrasts between Matthew’s and Luke’s Nativities is that, while Matthew’s Jesus is visited by priestly Wise Men from the faraway East, Luke’s Jesus is visited by humble shepherds from a nearby field. While the Magi are somehow informed of Jesus’ birth by a star in the sky, the shepherds are told directly by an angel surrounded by a brilliant light. While the Magi return home without informing Herod of Jesus’ whereabouts, the shepherds tell everyone they come across about Jesus. In fact, Luke seems to be deliberately reversing the message of Matthew’s Nativity.
One reason Luke might be doing so is to make the point that Jesus did not come just for the religious elite, that his message is not an esoteric one that can only be understood by the highly educated. He might also be countering the narrative that the gospels are purely allegorical and that Jesus’ story plays out on the mythical plane, and instead be advocating that Jesus’ story is an entirely human one that can be understood as such by its most humble believers.
Luke might also be making the change because the Magi would be Persian, and as such represent the Roman Empire’s great adversary, the Parthian Empire. Luke would not have wanted to associate his Jesus with the Greco-Roman world’s greatest Nemesis.
According to the Law
As we saw in Part Two, in his gospel, Matthew’s refrain is ‘according to scripture’, stressing that Jesus is the Messiah prophesised in Hebrew scripture. Meanwhile, in his gospel, Luke’s refrain is ‘according to the law.’ In Luke’s Nativity we see the following examples:
- Zechariah and Elizabeth ‘observ[e] all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly.’ [Luke 1: 6]
- Mary tells the angel Gabriel that ‘I am the Lord’s servant.’ [Luke 1:38]
- Joseph and Mary obey Caesar’s decree to participate in the census. [Luke 2:1–5]
- Mary and Joseph have Jesus circumcised, undergo ritual purification and present Jesus at the Temple ‘as it is written in the Law of the Lord.’ [Luke 2:21–25]
Unlike Matthew’s Mary and Joseph, Luke’s Mary and Joseph are not fleeing to Egypt as fugitives from the law, but staying in Israel and abiding by both the Law of Moses and the law of the Roman Empire.
This difference in emphasis can again be understood in terms of the audience the evangelist is writing for. While Matthew is writing for a Jewish audience, Luke is writing for a Roman audience. Luke understood that, to most Romans, Christianity was just another Jewish sect, and the Jews were known for their constant state of rebellion against the Romans over matters of religion. In fact, at the time Luke was writing, the Romans would be in the midst of three wars against the Jews (66–136 CE). Even the census of 6 CE that inspired Luke’s story sparked a rebellion by Jewish Zealots for whom census-taking and paying Roman taxes were anathema.
Luke therefore had to reassure his Roman audience that, unlike Judaism, Christianity was a peaceful, law-abiding sect that would offer the Romans no opposition.
The Boy Jesus in the Temple
While Matthew jumps directly from Jesus’ birth to his manhood, Luke digresses to tell a story of Jesus’ adolescence.
Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover. When he was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom. After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. Thinking he was in their company, they travelled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him.
After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, ‘Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.’ ‘Why were you searching for me?’ he asked. ‘Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?’ But they did not understand what he was saying to them. [Luke 2:41–52]
This story, while heart-warming, presents two interesting questions.
The first is, why do Jesus’ parents not know what he means when he refers to God as his father? Have they forgotten the miraculous events surrounding his conception and birth? This anomaly has led some biblical scholars to wonder if Luke’s Nativity story was not part of the original text, but added later.
The second question is, what relationship does Luke’s story bear to another, similar story, from the autobiography of Flavius Josephus?
[W]hen I was a child, and about fourteen years of age, I was commended by all for the love I had to learning; on which account the high priests and principal men of the city came then frequently to me together, in order to know my opinion about the accurate understanding of points of the law. [The Life of Flavius Josephus, 2]
Is this further evidence that the works of Josephus are a source of Luke’s gospel, that rather than writing history, Luke has drawn on Josephus in constructing what is little more than historical fiction?
The Meaning of Luke’s Nativity
As we have seen, the main purpose of Luke’s gospel is to reconcile Jewish and gentile Christians, and to present Christianity as compatible with both Roman and Jewish beliefs, laws and values. Even if, because of the above anomaly and other stylistic differences, as some scholars suspect, the Nativity was added to Luke’s gospel later, it still makes a major contribution to fulfilling Luke’s purpose.
However, if the Nativity was added later, it raises several questions. Why was the nativity story not included in the original version of Luke’s gospel? If it was added later, why was it added and what does that lag in time tell us about the evolution of the Christian narrative?
Mark’s gospel does not include a birth narrative, as an allegory about a mythical Jesus does not need one. As an eternal celestial figure, Jesus was not born. Matthew, on the other hand, is drawing parallels between Jesus and Moses, and so includes a birth narrative that evokes Moses’ birth and miraculous salvation which marked him out as chosen by God to lead his people. Furthermore, Matthew’s original Nativity did not include a virgin birth as, if Jesus was to be recognised by the Jews as both King and Messiah, he was required to be descended from King David.
Once, however, the proto-orthodox began to preach that Jesus was both God and a man who walked the earth, a birth narrative was required for him which fulfilled both these aspects, one that made him semi-divine as well as human, just like the semi-divine heroes of Greco-Roman mythology.
Again, according to the church fathers, Irenaeus and Epiphanius, the Gospel of Luke was read by the Marcionites, although, their version, according to Epiphanius was ‘mutilated at the beginning because of the Saviour’s conception and his incarnation.’ [Panarion 42] In other words, it did not include the Nativity.
However, once again I doubt that Marcionites read the canonical Gospel of Luke, ‘mutilated’ or not. Their founder Marcion (c. 85 CE – c. 160 CE) rejected the wrathful Old Testament God and his Law, and preached that Jesus had been sent from heaven, not by the Jewish creator god, but by a God of love and mercy in order to save people from the Jewish God and displace his Laws. Furthermore, he taught that Jesus was not a man of flesh and blood, but essentially a divine spirit who only appeared to human beings in human form.
Biblical scholars have found that many sources have contributed to Luke’s Gospel. It is closely based on the gospels of Mark and Matthew, quoting verbatim from either as well as making changes and adding embellishments some of which can be traced to the works of Flavius Josephus and Homer. Another significant source is the Hebrew Bible, particularly the Elijah-Elisha narratives found in the books 1 and 2 Kings. However, these stories have been reworked to present a very different image of God. According to Thomas Brodie (as quoted by Carrier):
Whereas in the Old Testament text…God is a bothersome visitor who comes to punish with death, in the New Testament text … the [Lord] comes to heal, to save from the encroachment of death… a life-giving [Lord]…looking not on one’s unworthiness but on one’s faith.
Again I would argue that the gospel of the Marcionites – one in which the Jewish scriptures were re-written to overturn the Jewish Laws and depict a different God, one of love and compassion – was commandeered by the proto-orthodox, and rewritten in phases, the first, drawing on the gospels of Mark and Matthew, to bring it into line with Pauline Christianity as well as to reinstate the Jewish God, and a later phase, to counter the idea of an ethereal Jesus and replace him with one of flesh and blood, albeit semi-divine and conforming to both Jewish and Greco-Roman concepts of God.
© Pauline Montagna 2024
Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Christianities: The battles for scriptures and the faiths we never knew, Oxford University Press (2003)
Dr Richard Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt, Sheffield Phoenix Press (2014)
Kenneth Humphreys The Birthing of a Godman: Elaboration of a myth on his website Jesus Never Existed