Photo: Church of St. Gabriel
Nazareth, Israel 1996
Symbolism in Jesus’ Birth Narratives
In a small village distant in time and space, a Jewish woman became pregnant. Her son would change many lives. Although no one knows exactly when he was born, Christians celebrate the birth of this Jewish boy according to their culture. Those celebrations vary widely with symbols like trees and lights along with various stories laden with metaphors count down the days to Christmas Eve. Interspersed amongst the trappings are snippets of a very old narrative filled with ancient symbolism known best to Greeks, Romans, and Jews who lived very different lives in very different places some 2,000 years ago.
Christians are divided over how much of the two biblical birth narratives should be read literally; however, they need not be divided over the symbolism found in the stories. This post takes a look at the symbolism. I will leave the considerable historical debate to Bible scholars (1). Following are ten people, places, or objects that are symbols pointing to someone or something else beyond the two short stories in Matthew and Luke. At the end of each entry, I add a comment about human nature.
1. Contemporary sons of divine origin: Jesus, Caesar
2. Virgin conception and purity
3. Signs in the heavens
4. The Shining Light.
5. Shepherds and humility.
7. Three Mega-gifts
8. The King of the Jews
9. Out of Egypt
1. Contemporary sons of divine origin: Jesus, Caesar
Luke tells of Jesus’ divine origin in chapters one and two. An angel visits Mary at Nazareth and explains that she will become pregnant as a result of God’s Holy Spirit and her child will be called the Son of God. Then Luke introduces Caesar Augustus, known throughout the Roman Empire as the son of god. Thus, in the context of the powerful Roman Empire, Luke presents his readers with an alternative kingdom to be ruled by a Jewish man from a small village—not at all like the city of Rome. The parallels between the divinity of Jesus and of Augustus pit the Jewish King against the Roman emperor. Which Lord will be the savior of human kind and bring peace?
As a matter of historical context, the Roman religion recognized Julius Caesar as a god. Julius adopted his nephew, who became Augustus Caesar. According to BBC history, emperor worship began in 29 BC outside the city of Rome. After his death, Julius Caesar was declared a god. The Imperial Cult with deified Roman emperors lasted for more than three centuries, with some exceptions, until it was abolished by Constantine I in the early 300s.
Burton (1912) makes the point that the emperors were well aware of the connection between religion and political power. Burton also asserts that the Roman view of god was associated with power and not like the broad and almighty characteristics of God Christians speak about today. An interesting quote sounds like words we hear by contemporary Christians. Germanicus told his soldiers:
“Augustus looks down upon them from his abode in the heavens (p.88).”
Marcus Borg’s comments on Luke’s birth narrative are worth quoting (1998):
Much of this language was also used about Caesar, the emperor of Rome. In an inscription from 9 C.E. found in Asia Minor, Caesar is spoken of as "our God" and as a "savior" who brought "peace" throughout the earth, and whose birth was "good news" to the world. In other texts, he is also spoken of as divine and as descended from a divine/human conception. By echoing language used about the Roman emperor, Luke affirms that Jesus, not Caesar, is the Good News, the true Savior and Son of God who brings peace.
In a related note, Craig Keener (2019) informs us that unusual events, including dreams, were expected in Greek and Roman culture when leaders were born.
Comment. People need to identify with greatness, which bolsters self-importance and self-esteem. Politicians and religious leaders continue to claim a relationship to God or to spiritual leaders. Name-dropping is an old phenomenon. Christians often share the divine guidance they get from God in dreams, during prayer, and while reading the Bible on social media and in their blogs. It’s useless to question the veracity of a person’s spiritual experiences. Perhaps a reasonable test of their godly guidance is the degree of passion they demonstrate by the way they follow Jesus self-declared mission to the poor and marginalized found in Luke 4.
2. The Virgin Conception / Value / Purity / Sin
For Jews like Mary and Joseph, a woman’s virginity was a valuable status evidenced by the monetary fine due to her father if she was the victim of sexual assault. Virginity was and is a commodity and a status symbol in many cultures.
A Jewish father’s control over his daughter’s sexual activity allowed him to control her value in the eyes of her future husband. A guarantee of virginity meant in part that she would be exclusively the property of her husband. Her husband would then have control over the transfer of his property to his legitimate sons. Men, through their women, would have a sort of eternal life with a legacy as abundant as the grains of sand in the desert.
For Jews, virginity could be determined by either a vouchsafed history of not having sexual intercourse or evidence of an intact hymen documented by blood. The concept of virgin did not apply to men. The Hebrew word for virgin (betulah) has the same root as the word for hymen (betulim).
The symbolism of purity is hard to ignore given the sex-linked washing requirements in some ancient Jewish laws. But the idea or purity from sin is credited to the African Christian, Augustine, who wrote about original sin linked to transmission during sexual intercourse in the 400s. In 1854, the Catholic Pope Pius IX proclaimed the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception; thus, Mary, full of grace, was pure (“preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin”).
Many Christian parents continue to do what they can to prevent their daughters and sons from sexual activity until they are married; although the “purity movement” appears to have less influence than it did in the 1990s and early 2000s. The purity battle is quite different that it was in Israel 2000 years ago when girls could be matched to boys or men when they were yet children. Girls and boys didn’t need to wait a decade or two after sexual maturity to mate.
Comment. Psychologically, the narratives appear to reflect anxiety over Mary’s pregnancy and the need for Joseph to have divine reassurance that all is well. We cannot ignore the persistent link between virginity-purity-honor and lost virginity-impurity-shame felt by many Christian youth along with its attendant anxiety felt by those who desire to remain pure until they marry. May we be among those focused on forgiveness, redemption, and restoration rather than those obsessed with shame.
3. Signs in the heavens.
Religious people look to the heavens for divine inspiration. Some see Jesus in cloud formations. Some see God’s punishment in earthquakes and hurricanes. Many expect to see Jesus descend from the clouds to rescue them and others expect a second (or third) coming to rule on earth.
According to historians, Halley’s Comet appeared in the sky in the early years of Augustus Caesar’s reign, which Augustus conveniently interpreted as the spirit of Julius Caesar entering heaven. As Julius Caesar’s heir, Augustus was the son of god. When Jesus was a boy, Augustus made himself the chief priest (Pontifex Maximus). Upon his death, this Roman son of god was declared to be a god (for more see npr but also see Pandey, 2013).
It’s Mathew who tells the star story decades after Jesus’ life in chapter two of our modern Bibles. Some unknown number of Magi (who said it was three?) from the old Persian Empire are following a star. In perhaps a humorous and tension-building story, these men don’t seem so wise as they seek guidance from the notorious regional King Herod, which hardly seemed necessary as the gospel author tells us they followed the star until it stopped, thus marking the divine location like a GPS announcing, “you have arrived at your destination.” (2)
Comment. Even wise and intelligent people can be led astray. We may think we are wise and we may have good intentions. We may even consult those in authority for guidance only to discover that secular and spiritual leaders can have evil plans.
4. The Shining Light.
When I was 18, I heard a message from space on Christmas Eve. Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders read Genesis verses from flame-resistant paper as they circled the earth (24 December 1968):
In the beginning God created the
heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.
The Jewish celebration of Hanukkah (also Hanukka, Chanukah, Chanukkah) dates to 164 BCE and commemorates the revolt of the Maccabeans against Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Hanukkah is also known as the Festival of Lights (Feast of Dedication, Feast of the Maccabees). It is not known when Jews began the practice of lighting a menorah (a candelabra with nine candleholders).
When Judas Maccabeus entered the Temple, he found one jar with enough oil for a day but it miraculously burned for eight days. The center candle is "the servant candle (aka helper candle)," which lights the other eight candles (Source, Britannica). In addition to a military victory, there is the symbol of purification of the temple defiled by pagans.
Rabbi Brian Glusman observes:
“Fire, light and candles are the perfect symbols for Hanukkah, a holiday that takes place at the darkest time of the year. One of the many qualities of fire is that we can light other candles with our flame without diminishing the original source."
Marcus Borg (1998) points out that light shining in darkness is an ancient symbolism found in many cultures. Matthew presents the light in the heavens as the glory of the Lord during the angels’ visit to the shepherds. Light is an image of life, salvation, that which makes a pathway visible, and the arrival of the warmth and brightness of a new day. The light images contrast with images of darkness as cold, gloomy, getting lost, and facing death.
Craig Keener (2019) mentions the story of a flame shining around a Roman boy’s head--thus the flame or light is symbolic for first century Romans as well.
Borg observes that the Hebrew creation story includes the imagery of light as does the well-known saying “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”
Comment. It's not surprising that the shepherds saw an angel at night with the glory of the Lord shining around them. A blazing light can be terrifying despite a comforting message (Luke 2: 8-20).
People need to see “the light at the end of the tunnel.” They need to see a pathway out of the darkness of distress or at least a vision of what a better future might be. We may not be oppressed by Romans but many of us struggle under difficult circumstances—deadly diseases, energy sapping treatments, contentious relatives, obnoxious supervisors, toxic work environments, political pollution, or even oppressive Christian manmade doctrines—to name a few that weigh upon so many. What a great reminder that acts of kindness and compassion are like lights in life's darkest moments.
Photo: A shepherd in Israel 1996
5. Shepherds and humility
Why shepherds? Shepherds weren’t ruling any cities or making decisions about laws that affected thousands. Perhaps they represent God’s interest in the humble workers in this world who don’t get a lot of recognition doing field work. Perhaps there’s a throwback to that famous shepherd who became king of Israel—King David the psalmist.
Comment. All people have a need for recognition and appreciation. Self-esteem is linked to wellbeing; low self-esteem is a marker of depression. In the gospel stories, God, as revealed in Jesus, recognizes the worth of the marginalized. An appearance to shepherds fits well with Jesus imagery, his passion, and his compassion.
We might wonder why Jesus was born in Bethlehem. We could take a look back at people connected to the village. There was Jacob and the loving couple, Ruth and Boaz. And then of course there is the oft quoted Micah 5:2 verse about the ruler who will come from this small hamlet just an 8K south of Jerusalem. If you head to the church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, a silver star conveniently marks the celebrated birthplace. What does Bethlehem symbolize?
Comment. Many Christians need to feel their lives tied to a spiritual project—a place or type of employment may feel right—God’s perfect will for their lives. Others have a penchant for creating sacred spaces like the builders of the church in Bethlehem. Evangelical young people can feel anxious about God’s will for their lives. Judging by Christian college chapel sermons, many clergy have an answer. Perhaps being in the “right place” is a metaphor for an attitude and spiritual orientation rather than a physical location or particular type of employment (or should I say vocation?).
7. Three Mega-gifts
Have you heard sermons about the significance of the three gifts? Gold and frankincense are understandable choices for a king. Myrrh was an antiseptic, an anointing oil, and an embalming fluid, according to Christianity Today (Hampshire, 2020, Dec 1).
Robert Hampshire tells us how the early church viewed these ancient Christmas gifts.
The gold points to Jesus’ royalty, the frankincense to his divinity, and the myrrh to his humanity.
In fact, you could argue that through their gift-giving, the Magi “preached” the gospel in a tangible way. Whether they fully knew it or not, their gifts told the story of how God himself, who came down from Heaven as our King (gold) to fulfill his priestly duties (frankincense) and eventually die for our sins (myrrh).
Comment. Perhaps the greatest gift the Magi could have given Jesus was a commitment to follow his path. I would not discount the value of finding Jesus nor the importance of giving meaningful gifts; yet I suggest that even those who do not know Jesus can be on the same path when they share his passion for those treated unjustly and without mercy.
8. The King of the Jews
The King Herod in Matthew’s birth story is known to history as Herod the Great who ruled Judea between about 74 to 4 BC. He was also the king who rebuilt the Jews’ temple in Jerusalem known as the Second Temple. With Roman support, Herod essentially became King of the Jews replacing the Jewish Hasmonean dynasty.
In Jesus’ birth story, King Herod represents the oppression of the Roman Empire. He added Mariamne, a Jewish princess, to his other wives but later had her executed for adultery. He also killed two of her sons thus, it is easy to think of Herod as one who murders Jews. (4)
Comment. People need to make peace with those in authority but alliances can be dangerous when joining with those who have a track record for deceit and violence. Christian leaders still hitch themselves to renegades and destroyers. Today many ethnic groups find themselves struggling against national and local leaders and their laws to obtain just and fair treatment. Such unholy ties still raise the questions: Who is the King of the Christians? Who is Lord?
9. Out of Egypt
It doesn’t take a biblical scholar to see the parallels of Joseph and Mary with Jesus retreating to Egypt for safety until they could return to their homeland from exile. The story of exile and return is a very Jewish story. This story in the birth narrative links Jesus and his ministry closely to the history of ancient Israel’s leaders, including the revered Moses, the ongoing celebration of God’s Passover deliverance, and the laws that established a nation.
Comment. Many people have a need to find their roots and connect to their ancestors. When meeting new people, it’s common to ask where are you from? Sometimes it’s funny when strangers ask us if we know some friend of theirs who lived in our hometown when we hail from a megalopolis. Nowadays, ancestry searches are popular. People are thrilled to announce their connections to revered leaders or those in their nation’s military. Others may just feel the need to respect the traditions of their parents or grandparents. It’s human nature to connect our self-esteem to those esteemed by others. Connecting with people of integrity, whether in their biological or spiritual families, can provide a basis for launching their own path in life.
Angels are messengers from God in the Hebrew Bible. They are men—or manlike—not the white-robed little girls with blond hair, halos, and large wings. When big things happen, ancient Jews expected angels to herald the event. Christians still talk about seeing angels. Some believe they have a special guardian that helped them survive a tragedy. I’m not an expert in angelology, but the gospel writers surely would have expected Jesus’ birth to be worth angelic visitors.
Comment. Many Christians expect to experience a special calling on their life. Some report dramatic events that marked their salvation or another turning point in their spiritual journey. Yet those who follow The Way of Jesus need not seek an angelic moment. Instead, just using their gifts to further the Kingdom of God is enough. What is this kingdom so loudly announced? It’s seems to me that it’s creating a place on earth as it is in heaven—what life would be like if God were president instead of earth’s imperfect leaders.
Jesus mission statement is impressive—see Luke 4: 18-19.
God’s Spirit is on me;
he’s chosen me to preach the Message of good news to the poor,
Sent me to announce pardon to prisoners and
recovery of sight to the blind,
To set the burdened and battered free,
to announce, “This is God’s time to shine!”
1. It would take a book-length treatise, or at least a few chapters, to review the differences between Luke and Matthew concerning the birth of Jesus and what kinds of historical evidence and artefacts are relevant to discerning the parts of the narratives are created stories to present the message of Jesus in contrast to history in the sense of a recording of actual events that all could observe.
2. There is a debate about the Halley’s Comet story. See Pandy 2013 if interested. If you have learned some Roman history, you know Herod died in 4 BC—a date that’s difficult to reconcile with the biblical narrative. Jesus birth is estimated to have been around 4-6 BC. As an anachronous aside, the “wise men” asking Herod for advice may be the reason men don’t ask directions.
3. See the NASA video of Apollo 8 on YouTube https://youtu.be/ToHhQUhdyBY
4. See Owen Jarus for a historical sketch of King Herod. https://www.livescience.com/64962-king-herod.html
The village of Nazareth
The village of Bethlehem
Borg, M. J. (2006). Jesus: Uncovering the life, teachings, and surprising relevance of a spiritual revolutionary. HarperCollins.
Burton, H. F. (1912). The Worship of the Roman Emperors. The Biblical World, 40(2), 80–91. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3141986
Keener, C.S. (2019). Christobiography: Memory, history, and the reliability of the gospels. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. [Review link]
Pandey, Nandini. (2013). Caesar's Comet, the Julian Star, and the Invention of Augustus. Transactions of the American Philological Association. 143. 405-449. 10.1353/apa.2013.0010.
Photos by Geoffrey W. Sutton in Israel, 1996.
Post Written by Geoffrey W. Sutton December 2021Connections
My website www.suttong.com