Talk Considers the Jewish Context of the Christmas Story in the New Testament
A talk delivered by a scholar recently considered the origins of Christmas. Dr. Amy-Jill Levine delivered the final talk of the fall semester for the monthly speaker series of the Jewish Studies Program at California State University, Long Beach. In her talk two weeks ago, entitled “Christmas for Jews: The Jewish Context of Jesus’ Birth”, Dr. Levine began with Christmas carols and common conceptions of Christmas in popular culture, eventually giving way to explorations of the Christmas texts in Luke and Matthew, pointing out a lot of common tropes/models that were borrowed from the Old Testament. Her frequent humorous injections and playfulness of inclusion of Christmas carols kept the audience amusingly engaged while also delivering quality content.
Dr. Levine appropriately provided a reason for Jews to want to know more about this topic. “Jews typically know about Christmas because of shops and television shows with Christmas,” Dr. Levine said. “If we jews want our Christian neighbors to know more about us Jews than Hanukah, the Shoah, something about the State of Israel and, maybe, a production of “Fiddler on the Roof”, then we owe our Christian neighbors a little about the New Testament.”
Having provided the justification, Dr. Levine went further: “We think we know the text, but we don’t read it carefully.” Why were the original audience told these stories in the ways in which they were? It was told initially to a Jewish audience. As a professor at Vanderbilt University with primarily Christian students, her students know the text of the stories, but not the historical context for them. So, it’s important for her to lay that out for them. She also pointed out that it’s very difficult in the first century to know where Judaism ends and Christianity starts; it takes a good couple hundred of years for it to become properly clear. Dr. Levine said that “we are recovering Jewish stories” – while they are not authoritative for Jews, they are still educational about Jewish history. Dr. Levine advised the audience to “look at these as really wonderful stories with wonderful things to say.”
Moving to the New Testament, Dr. Levine said that there are only discussions of Christmas in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. The story of Christmas that is probably best known in popular culture is that from the gospel of Luke, primarily because of the Peanuts Christmas Special, in which Linus reads from it. In the story, there is no room for Mary at the inn to have a baby – so she went to the stable and put Jesus in the manger. It was more likely that there was no room in the inn for a woman to deliver a baby than the innkeeper refused them flatout. Also, what is a manger? Dr. Levine pointed out that manger comes from French – it’s a feeding trough. This is important imagery, since later on in the gospel of Luke and in other gospels, Jesus gets identified as food/bread for the world as the eucharist. So, where do you put the child who is supposed to be the food for the world? In the feeding trough.
Why is Christmas celebrated when it is? Dr. Levine pointed out that the date of December 25th is not in the New Testament; in fact, people are not sure where it came from. However, she mentioned two possibilities. One is that, in the 270s, a Roman emperor decided to implement a new holiday, Sol Invictus, to celebrate the sun, in the dark of winter to indicate that the sun would be returning. It may well be that the Christian church took that special date on the calendar and decided to turn it into a holiday. Another possibility is that the early church knew that Jesus died during passover, so they concluded he died on March 25; and since they wanted him to have died on the same day he was conceived, then he must have been born on December 25th. However, the eastern churches, starting with the Armenian Church, celebrate Christmas on January 6th, since that was the day that the magi delivered the gifts. (Also, the twelve days of Christmas are December 25th-January 6th.)
There is nothing in the New Testament about midnight, pointed out Dr. Levine. However, in the proevangelion of James, we see it. One peculiar thing about the story is to read about shepherd in the middle of night in the middle of winter with sheep – it’s cold! Also, shepherds are usually poor and marginal – usually just day-laborers and hired hands, so it’s strange they would be out there then.
Amongst the many further insights Dr. Levine provided the audience with were concerning words and names. Tidings of great joy in Greek – euangelion – good news – in Latin as evangelc – the term was a secular term in Greek. Good news in Greek society meant good news from the emperor – the rest of the Gospel of Luke plays out this good news. The only time we see the magi visiting is in the Gospel of Matthew. Magi, Dr. Levine pointed out, are Persian astrologers. From the word magi, we get magic, but these were not magicians, nor were they kings. Nevertheless, the early church made them kings, somehow referencing Ps72. Why does Jesus get his name? Apparently, Jesus is supposed to be called Immanuel (‘God will be with us’), referencing Isaiah. The name Jesus comes from the root ‘salvation’ (yeshua). Jesus was not an uncommon name in antiquity and it did not have a messianic connotation to it.
Amongst the many other assorted facts Dr. Levine shared with the audience was there was no census in reality. Rome was very good with paperwork and we know that when Rome took a census, they did it regionally rather than empire-wise and primarily for taxation purposes. In the year 6CE, there was a tax revolt in the Galilee by Judas the Galilean because Rome set up a census in the Galilee and Judea. Luke must have known this. Jesus and Mary are good members of the empire and not revolutionaries.
Dr. Levine inquired: what are the messages that we are getting from Matthew and Luke? It’s not about overthrowing the government violently. At the same time, the text is saying, who do you want ruling over you? Herod, Roman emperor? Or do you want somebody who will rule over you according to the Torah? Do you want Rome to rule over you? Or a Jew born here? What the church is doing here, since it was Jews telling the story is that the story of Jesus is a Jewish story.
One of the things the Christmas story shows is how close the two traditions are, Dr. Levine observed. “You can’t fully appreciate the Christmas story without the Jewish background.” She said that she doesn’t “take these texts as scripture, but I think they’re splendid forms of midrash.” She continued, “I think these stories can give us insight into politics, mobility, how we understand our own history, and how we tell our own stories.”