For most Christians, the Christmas story without a virgin birth is like the Harry Potter series without magic, or Star Wars without the father-son reveal.
But for me it’s not really a big deal, because the magic isn’t the point of the story. The magic is all backstory, setting the scene for the first century readers. It’s parable, as biblical scholars would say.
Matthew and Luke weave two different Christmas stories, each a prologue to the bigger picture. A story of political subterfuge, progressive ideologies and a story that we still need to hear today. It says: ‘we can do better‘.
A Virgin Birth in a World of Turmoil
As we open gifts, indulge in feasts and celebrate with families, there are refugees in Libya being sold into slavery at this very moment. There are homeless families living on the street or out of a car. There are people struggling to mend broken relationships.
And it was the same for the first century writers of Matthew and Luke’s Christmas stories. Between 67 and 68 CE, Roman Emperor Vespasian led legions into Jerash (or Gerasa, Jordan) to quash a Jewish revolt. Thousands were slaughtered, women and children were imprisoned and property was destroyed (Borg and Crossan, p77). Then around 70 CE, the future emperor Titus led the siege of Jerusalem.
It was a brutal time for Jews under the Roman rule.
So when Matthew’s author was writing for a Jewish audience in approximately 80 to 90 CE for (Parkinson, p122), he knew these experiences had torn apart their homes and lives. Luke’s gospel (written around the same time), had a similar backdrop, but for a different audience. He wrote for the gentiles and the marginalised – the broken and forgotten members of society.
Matthew and Luke each tailor made their Christmas stories of a virgin birth to bring their audiences a story they could relate to. The story of Jesus would provide an alternative narrative to the brutality of the world they knew.
And it’s an alternative we need just as much today as those first century readers.
The Son of God: Caesar or Jesus?
Julius Caesar’s adopted son Octavian (later known as Emperor Augustus), defeated Marc Antony and Cleopatra around 43 BCE. After which he became known as ‘divi filius‘ or ‘son of the divine‘. To the non-latin speaking common folk, he simply became known as the ‘son of god’.
It was a catchy title and one the first century emperors Titus and Domitan were happy to adopt.
Imagine the writers of Matthew’s and Luke’s gospel at the time. They hear about or even experience the atrocities of war committed across Israel, Jordan and Syria, then Emperor Domitan calls himself ‘dominus et deus’: Master and God. What would you do?
Matthew and Luke pen a story about Jesus. A man they’ve heard so much about, probably through oral stories and through the earlier writings of Paul and Mark. This man stood in stark contrast to the Roman brutality of victory through war. Jesus provided an alternative: victory through justice, hope, love and a new vision for God.
And how do they both start this story of hope? With Christmas. With Jesus (not Caesar) as the Son of God, King of the Jews.
It’s political subterfuge on par with Dumbledore’s Army.
Peace Through Justice not War
In Matthew’s Christmas story, King Herod hears word that a Jewish king has been born. Disturbed by the birth of a rival, King Herod orders the death of all children two years and under.
If you’ve ever read a story or watched a movie about Moses (even that cliched Christian Bale movie, Gods of Egypt) then the infanticide should sound pretty familiar. It’s one of the plagues sent by God to help free the Hebrews from Egypt.
In the Old Testament it was God who killed the first born children. However, in the New Testament it is Herod who kills the first born children. God is being portrayed as the saviour for a world ruled by violence.
Matthew’s story of the virgin birth sets the tone for the New Testament. God is no longer bringing fire and brimstone to the world, but peace.
The God of the Old Testament might have fit right in with the Roman pursuit of peace through victory. The God of the New Testament however, stands in stark contrast to this. Bringing peace through love, justice, compassion and forgiveness.
Believing in Christmas without the Virgin Birth
Schindler’s List opens with a Jewish family lighting a candle for the Sabbath while a Hebrew prayer is said. It’s one of the few moments of colour in the primarily black and white movie.
It’s no coincidence that this scene is in colour, standing out from the rest of the film. The change draws the viewer in and prepares them for the seriousness of the story that is about to unfold.
The scene fades to the steam from a train, then the arrival of Jews into Krakow, Poland, to register. The movie then cuts to Schindler pouring a drink and getting dressed to go to a nightclub.
I don’t need to believe that every detail in those particular scenes is historically and factually accurate to believe the bigger picture about Oskar Schindler. I understand these scenes as parable. Contrasting the life of ethnic Germans and Jews and setting the tone for a story of violence, self discovery and bravery.
Similarly I don’t need to believe in a virgin birth to believe the New Testament has something to say about how I should live. I know the opening story sets the tone for the bigger picture.
Luke’s Jesus embraces the marginalised. Telling us to care for the poor and show compassion. Matthew sets aside the laws of the Old Testament. Forget the rules about divorce or an eye for an eye. Matthew’s Jesus challenges people to do even better: love your neighbour.
Loving your neighbour is not meant as a watered down version of the Old Testament rules. It’s meant to be harder. If only it was as simple as cutting out shellfish and cotton blends (as in Leviticus). No. This Son of God says you have to love your enemies. Jesus challenges us to do better.
The Real Meaning of Christmas
The people of Matthew and Luke’s time needed a compelling reason to believe that Jesus could offer a real alternative to the all powerful Romans. The virgin birth and the ‘Son of God’ label were essential to the story.
Thankfully today’s leaders are not in the habit of calling themselves ‘God’ (not out loud anyway). We don’t need to deify Jesus to know that there’s truth in the story.
The Christmas story and the gospels are an allegory. They reveal the true meaning of Christmas not to be the story of the son of a god, but one of social justice and integrity in the face of brutal power.
So regardless of your beliefs, this Christmas take inspiration from the true meaning of Christmas and do something for your family, your community and your world.
And if you need some inspiration on how to actually do something (and not just pray for change), then check out this post about things you can do right now to make a difference.