The Christmas Story and History
In this episode, Mikel Del Rosario and Drs. Darrell Bock and Joe Fantin discuss the historical background of the Christmas story, answering common questions that are asked about the Christmas story in light of historical concerns.
- When did individuals arrive at the nativity?
- Who are the Magi?
- Was the star an angel?
- Was there an inn in Bethlehem?
- What is a manger?
- Why was Herod so paranoid?
- How were leaders deified in the ancient world?
- Did other virgin birth stories exist at this time?
- Why did the Apostles not emphasize the virgin birth?
- Why is the infancy material important?
Mikel Del Rosario: Welcome to the table where we discuss issues of God and culture. I'm Mikel Del Rosario, Cultural Engagement Manager here at the Hendricks Center at Dallas Theological Seminary. And we have a special show for you today. As it's Christmastime, we want to talk about history and the Christmas story. We'll be talking about some of the most common questions that people have about the traditional Christmas story. And I have two guests coming to us via Zoom today. First guest is Dr. Darrell Bock, Executive Director of Cultural Engagement at the Hendricks Center, and Senior Research Professor of New Testament here at DTS. Welcome, Darrell.
Darrell Bock: My pleasure. And you've got that introduction down, Mikel. I just want you to know that.
Mikel Del Rosario: I can say that in my sleep, unfortunately. And my second guest coming to us also via Zoom is Joe Fantin, Professor of New Testament Studies here at DTS. Welcome, Joe.
Joe Fantin: Thank you. Good to be here.
Mikel Del Rosario: Well, it's a wonderful time of the year that we're talking about today. I want to begin just by thinking about the traditional nativity scene. So many of us have these in our homes, or we see them at our churches around Christmastime. And it's just so iconic. But back in the day, around 1223, St. Francis of Assisi put together what we now know as the traditional nativity scene. And it was never meant to be a historical security camera footage version of what happened when Jesus was born. Instead, we have this collection of characters, different scenes in the story, like a movie poster that just pulls a number of these characters and scenes together. So let's think through the traditional nativity scene and get a handle on what we're looking at when we see these famous iconic scenes around Christmastime.
And Darrell, I want to start with you. If you could just help us understand the kind of time compression that's going on here when we, on the one hand we've got the shepherds who are linked with the angels. And on the other hand we've got the wise men who are linked with the star, and they're all there together. But when did each group actually come on the scene?
Darrell Bock: Well, to be honest, I'm not sure we know the chronology with that kind of precision. We know in general terms what's likely to have happened. And most creches that I see have sheep present, though they were in the field. They weren't with Jesus when he was born. So that's relocation number one. The sense is that the shepherds did visit pretty close to the birth, but the Magi may have been later. And we don't know how much later. We do know that Herod tried to slay all the children age 2 and under after he figured out the Magi weren't coming back to tell him where the Messiah had been born.
And so we know there's a delay because the Magi have to visit, find out where the location is, go to that location, and then leave that location, and leave that location long enough for Herod to become suspicious, they're not coming back to tell me where he's located. So this is after. We just don't know how much after. So, when you do the creche scene, at least the normal way that it's seen, you want to biblical, I think what you have to do is, the shepherds could be there, Joseph and Mary could be there with the baby. The sheep need to go back to the field. And the Magi are somewhere. We just don't know where. They're not in the room at the time as the shepherds are.
Mikel Del Rosario: Now what was the social status of shepherds? Why was their visit important.
Darrell Bock: Well that's actually debated. Some people think that shepherds have a very negative connotation. But most of the evidence we have for that is later than the first century. So we can't be sure that actually goes back into the first century. And as a result, some of the points that are made off of the shepherds' background, et cetera, that you sometimes hear in association with the Christmas story may actually not reflect the point of the narrative.
Mikel Del Rosario: Why do you think their visit was important?
Darrell Bock: Well, it's true, the entire scene from beginning to end, everything about it, it reflects a very humble set of origins for Jesus. I like to joke with my classes that if you were in the PR meeting planning the arrival of the Messiah, and you were saying, "What's the best, most effective way to do this?" That most of the planning that would involve the normal way we would think about public relations is it would happen with a lot of fanfare. It would happen in a capital city. Everyone would be aware that it's going on, et cetera. In fact, what you get is a little village, outside a capital, of the location that is very tangential in the totality of the Greco-Roman empire, tucked away in a little corner. My analogy is it would be like someone being born in Samoa in relationship to the United States. And then, of course, the people who are gathered, the Magi, obviously, have traveled a long way to come. But the shepherds and Joseph and Mary themselves, being in a room because there isn't room at the inn, everything about it is very, very humble, and reflects the fact that God has come, not for the elite, not for the powerful, but for anyone and everyone who is reflective of being made in the image of God.
Mikel Del Rosario: And these are Jewish shepherds, right?
Darrell Bock: I would assume so. Yeah. We're in Israel.
Mikel Del Rosario: And so we have the Jewish shepherds. And then we have these Magi who are coming from outside Israel. And Joe, let's talk about the Magi for a little bit. In Matthew 2:2, the Magi came to Jerusalem. They were asking, "Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews? We saw His star when it rose. We've come to worship Him." And then verse 9 says, "It went before the Magi and it came to rest over the place where the child was." Let's think about who the Magi were for a minute. Who are these guys?
Joe Fantin: Again, we're not 100 percent sure on who these guys are, but probably our best educated conclusion or guess is they were probably Persians. Persians were interested in astrology, they were interested in stars. The word Magi really only appears here, although we also see it later, in the Book of Acts, chapter 13. We're talking about a magician there. People who probably are not what we would normally think of as good Christian type people, even good Jewish people, interested in stars, interested in that, but would have nevertheless probably been important. They might have a history going back into Babylon and Persia, with even the Book of Daniel made mention individuals like this. So the best guess we would probably say would be these are astrologers interested in the stars, and saw significance in that type of phenomenon.
Mikel Del Rosario: How did ancient people view stars? Certainly differently than we think about stars today, but what was the idea that they had in terms of why they are watching the star, and what stars were?
Joe Fantin: The ancients watched the skies for lots of things, whether it be birds during the daylight, the stars at night. These could be deities, at that time. But they also, depending on how the stars were aligned, they depended on what type of life you'd have if you were born under those particular things. So they paid a lot of attention to these kinds of things. And, like I said, in some cases, when an important person died, they might look up to the sky and saw a new star, and they could have identified that individual with that. So, these were important. These were the types of things that the gods used, or the gods themselves were that could help direct us to get a connection to some information that we might not otherwise have access to.
Mikel Del Rosario: Philo, in Origin, saw stars as living kinds of beings. And in the Old Testament, some people saw them as angels. It's interesting, in 1993, Dale Allison had a piece in Bible Review Magazine, where he cited the Arabic gospel of the infancy. In chapter 7 it says that it was an angel in the form of a star. Is that a widely held idea that it was an angel?
Joe Fantin: I don't think it's a widely held view, but it's one of the potential supernatural explanations for the star. It could have been a star that God did outside of the normal course of creation, to lead the Magi there. And this notion that it could have been an angel makes sense. It could be a supernatural expression of God trying to use an angel to guide. And a star is just a way of doing that. So I don't think it's widely held, but it fits within that type of interpretation, a supernatural idea.
Mikel Del Rosario: That's interesting. I don't think I've ever seen a Christmas play where you dressed up a kid as an actual star and had them come on the stage. But that would be interesting.
Joe Fantin: You'd need a new play character there.
Mikel Del Rosario: Yeah.
Darrell Bock: So we've traded, I guess what we've traded the Magi for a star to be named later or earlier or something like that?
Joe Fantin: Yeah, yeah.
Mikel Del Rosario: So when we think about these Christmas plays, Darrell, sometimes we see these plays have an innkeeper, or a hotel with this no vacancy sign up. How likely was it that there was anything like a Holiday Inn, or anything like that in Bethlehem?
Darrell Bock: Yeah. Motel 6 wasn't leaving a light on for them. What this room is is basically an animal stall. It's attached to the edge of a building. It's the one place they could put the couple that would afford some limited shelter, that kind of thing, for someone bearing a child. But it wasn't anything close to a Holiday Inn, or a Motel 6, or anything like that. Again, it's part of this very basic picture of a very humble, basic beginning. There are no creaturely comforts being afforded to this couple, as they give birth to this figure who literally was history, and historically transforming in terms of the history of the world.
Mikel Del Rosario: Yeah, it's interesting, the old 1984 NIV translates Luke 2:7, "And she gave birth to her first born son, she wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn." So this idea that there was no room for them in the inn is something we need to think about a little bit. Joe, what do we know about that word, the inn there, that's used?
Joe Fantin: The kataluma term? It most likely is some type of public shelter place that could … that existed in various towns. And given that this was census taking place, there were probably lots of people coming through. Might have been an area in which a town designated that people could gather. A place like that. We see it also used in the upper room. Prior to the Passover, Jesus tells a disciple to go find a person and tell him that I need to have the Passover meal, and that's the kind of room, in that case, that He is asking about. He uses the same type of a term there. So again, probably a public thing. Had nothing to do with, as Darrell said, a Holiday Inn, which I guess is the NIV translation is saying there… Holiday Inn is kind of implied.
Darrell Bock: The Judean Hills Hotel. Not that.
Mikel Del Rosario: Well there was something that interestingly in 2010, the NIV translated it, “There was no guest room available for them.” So there's, the English language has changed a little bit in the minds of some people when we see the word “inn.” In Luke 10:34, the good Samaritan took this man to a place, the pandocheion. Is that more … Darrell, is that more like what we think of as an inn?
Darrell Bock: Yeah. And there's obviously someone caring for that location, as well. He leaves money with him and says, if there's anything else that he owes you, I will pay you when I come back. So this is obviously a fairly traditional stopping place, if I can say it that way, where someone who is traveling, business person, something like that, could stay.
Joe Fantin: I was gonna just add, I often wonder. I'm not sure what type of evidence there is for this, but in light of the hospitality of the ancient world, in the first century, this was a very common thing for people to extend hospitality, have people come in. I'm wondering if towns, in light of big potential gatherings, set places like this aside, just for times like this, where you don't necessarily have to have that personal touch, to go live with a family or go stay with a family, but nevertheless the town can offer some type of hospitality. Gets the average person a little bit off the hook, but at the same time the town maintains a hospitality type of image, if you will. But again, we don't have enough evidence to discuss that one way or another. But it is a potential possibility.
Mikel Del Rosario: So the area where Jesus was born, then, Darrell, you were talking about it being an area where there were potentially animals. And what is a manger? 'Cause we hear this, we sing the song, "Away in an manger," and sometimes people aren't entirely sure. Was that a barn? Or what is that? Tell us what a manger is.
Darrell Bock: It's an animal trough, basically. So this room, however it was being used, also was a place where animals could be housed, in case of weather or something like that. Or if they needed an opportunity to just refresh themselves, this would be place where that could take place. Like I said, it's just a very, very common, maybe even rustic location. There's nothing special about it. There's no penthouse. This is on the opposite end of that scale.
Mikel Del Rosario: Were the feeding troughs made of stone? Or were they made of wood more commonly?
Darrell Bock: I actually don't know the answer to that question. And I wouldn't even know to surmise. I imagine it could be either, but I don't know that.
Mikel Del Rosario: Okay. There have been a couple … there's a picture in the Holman Bible Dictionary of one in stone. But then also we have a lot of our common pictures in wood. And I know there's, obviously there's trees around the area, but there's also a lot of stone there. But the point being it's super humble. This not like what you would make up. It also tells us that Luke resisted the temptation to make the physical location a grand kind of a place. The early church didn't invent this setup, even though Jesus was called the King of the Jews.
And, speaking of which, Joe, why was King Herod so concerned about the gentiles, or anybody calling a little baby the King of the Jews?
Joe Fantin: Well first and foremost, King Herod was the King of the Jews. So the other person … I guess it's like someone coming up to your wife and saying, "Hey. I'm Mikel's wife." Might not go over very well with your wife. It was a term, a title that King Herod held. And he held it rather loosely, if you will. He'd been trying to maintain some type of connection to the previous Jewish dynasty, the Hasmoneans. And if you go back to the Apocrypha, they basically give the Hasmonean dynasty the rule and high priesthood of Israel. But they always … they qualify it in 1 Maccabees 14. And they qualify it by saying, "You are basically the ruler and high priest until the rightful person comes back."
And I often think of The Lord of the Rings story. You have Gondor, and the guy who was the Steward of Gondor and wants to hold on to the power. And when the actual king shows up, there's some resistance to him. And I think this is what Herod was probably feeling. He realized that his whole claim to ruling the Jewish people, at least from the people's perspective, was that he had a connection to that dynasty. And then, all of a sudden, he hears, "Hey. The King of the Jews is here," or is being born, or however he might have heard it. To him, that would be a challenge.
Mikel Del Rosario: We also read …
Darrell Bock: And he's a little bit of a paranoid character, too. He killed his favorite wife. I'll never forget doing a tour with, I think it was with IFL in Israel, and we were talking about Herod at the time. And I told them the story about the number of family members he executed, the fact that he killed his favorite wife. And so my application to that talk was … and then he came to regret it. So, my application was, don't kill your favorite wife. Don't think about that too much. He had a reputation for holding ruthlessly on to his power. He changed his will multiple times, et cetera. So it was clear he held the title, and he was jealous of holding the title, if I can say it that way. And even acted out of that jealousy which, as background, actually helps us understand why the idea that he would slay the two year olds and unders makes sense and fits in the character of what we know about him.
Joe Fantin: He was a … he killed two of his kids, too, which is not the thing a sane person normally does, but for the same reasons, to maintain that power, concern that they would overtake him. I think the Emperor Augustus is quoted as saying, "It was safer to be a pig," the Greek word for pig looks an awful lot like the word for son. "It's safer to be a pig in Herod's castle and home, than it is to be a son." I don't know if Augustus really said that, but it's a play on words, the point that the pig is safe to run around in a Jewish home without fear of being eaten. And yet sons could be killed.
Mikel Del Rosario: Wow.
Darrell Bock: So Herod becomes the black widower is basically what happens. He's not a very … He's a brilliant character in the kind of building that he engaged in. But he is not a sympathetic character in terms of the way he treated people.
Mikel Del Rosario: And so when it says that Herod was disturbed and all the people with him, that's because they were … this dude's the paranoid king. Who's he gonna kill next? Who looked at him the wrong way?
Darrell Bock: Yeah. All that's in Josephus. We get that detail from what Josephus tells us about Herod.
Mikel Del Rosario: So we have the shepherds, we have the Magi, and we talked about King Herod who … of course, King Herod isn't in the nativity scene. That would be quite a thing. You’d have a kid stumble on there, ”You're not in this scene."
Darrell Bock: That's a creche on steroids.
Joe Fantin: We can add Herod too.
Mikel Del Rosario: But during Christmastime, when we begin to hear people questioning the historicity of the Christmas story, there are some of these cultural kinds of historical questions that people have. But some people go straight to the miraculous part, and their objection would be something like, Jesus' virgin birth seems to be patterned off of pagan myths in the Greco-Roman world. Joe, you've done a lot of work in this area of Greco-Roman religion. How does it work to deify somebody in this polytheistic kind of system?
Joe Fantin: The Romans worshiped men, generally speaking. Although they didn't until the Imperial period. But to deify a person … let me step back and say, for important people, they wanted to have miraculous type births… Stories that surrounded their birth, whether or not they were actually ultimately gonna be deified or not. And it just seemed to be one of the things on your resume if you wanted to be an important individual. You would have to find out birth, remarkable, and that would tick that particular box. So it was not uncommon, and it was probably expected of people who were claiming greatness one way or another. They would have had this, which again I think your question's leading towards how can we trust the Gospel ones? We know these ones probably aren't true in that respect.
Mikel Del Rosario: Okay. So somebody who was perceived to be a great heroic figure would have some kind of miraculous birth story or supernatural origin. Let's talk about this a little bit. Darrell, I know we've talked about this. We did a whole show on this with Mary Jo Sharp, couple years back. But what place would a deified person get in the pantheon?
Darrell Bock: Well, what you get, a deified person is a person who is treated as having lived a life, if I can say it this way, worthy of a god. And so it's a way of honoring someone, and giving them a status, and basically saying, he ruled us like a god. That would be one way to think about it. And when you think of a pantheon of gods, you gotta remember, the Romans had a ton of gods. You go to Pompeii, and you walk around, you're running across all kinds of temples to all kinds of gods as you roam the streets of Pompeii. And, in fact, I like to joke, there were a lot of religious holidays in the Roman calendar. I think there were about 150 Roman religious holidays a year that people were supposed to participate in. I like to joke that we ought to adopt that calendar. A holiday every three days isn't bad.
But it shows you how "spiritual," I'll put it in quotes, religious life was in the Greco-Roman world. And, in fact, Christians were even called atheists, because they only believed in one God. Look at all these gods you're leaving out, is that perspective. And so this elevation sometimes touched on rulers, and they would be basically at the bottom of the pantheon. They would make it in, but they would be on the back rows, if you want to think of it that way. One of the points I like to make about the Christology of the New Testament is, Jesus isn't in the back row of the pantheon. He's at the top layer. He's seated at the right hand of God. So that contrast is very important, culturally, in terms of what it's trying to say about the nature of Jesus' authority.
Mikel Del Rosario: So very different from how Christians began to give honors to Jesus as divine. No one ever thought that Alexander the Great was Adonai, maker of heaven and earth in that top spot that Jewish people would give to God, who created everything.
Darrell Bock: He's like the new Heisman Trophy winner. Welcome to the club. And I think of those commercials that I see where the last winner of the Heisman Trophy is cleaning the door for the other guys who live in the house. That's a way to think about it.
Joe Fantin: Mikel, it might be helpful to elaborate on what Darrell said there, is the way the Romans would have viewed gods would have been quite differently than we do. They didn't quite have this concept, as Darrell alluded to, of this all powerful creator type of a god. They had a much more limited type of deity. And when you lived in that particular context, and you honor an individual, you give them various honors, et cetera, et cetera, but at some point you honor somebody so highly that it actually becomes worship. Where the Romans … the difference between honor and worship of men and gods was probably a difference in degree. It just happened to be greater honor turned into worship. Whereas us, with Christianity, when we honor people, it's completely of different kind than when we consider worship, where we are worshiping God. It's not a difference in degree, like the Romans would have had. It would have been a different kind. And you could even say the same thing about their divine men. We think of us and God as completely different, for a lack of better term, species. Whereas, in the Roman concept, gods could simply be just great, great powerful individuals. And things like immortality were not necessarily a character only of gods. There were other beings in their concept that were immortal but they weren't necessarily deities. But yet you have these men, such as emperors, that would have been actually seen as gods.
And I think Darrell's alluding to those who'd actually become gods officially, put into the pantheon, if you will. And they would have gotten a name like divas. And that was generally reserved in the first century for emperors that did good things, like August, and then Claudius, and Vespasian, and people like that. But the individual them self, the man while he was alive, was also viewed as a god, whether or not he ultimately becomes an official divas, as they would have been called, was still up in the air. Nevertheless, when he was walking on that earth, he would have been considered by the Roman people a deity, in that respect.
Mikel Del Rosario: And they put that on the coins, too, didn't they?
Joe Fantin: Yeah.
Mikel Del Rosario: “The son of a god,” so that people would know.
Joe Fantin: If you're Tiberius, for example, and your adopted father is Augustus, and he is god, what better title to have than son of god? Think about our own political situation. If one of the candidates can actually ever say, "I am the son of God," he's gonna have a leg up on his competition. And it was just a matter of way which theses emperors were able to appeal to the masses. It's likely that the Emperor Nero had Claudius deified, who was not the most popular of emperors, in order that he could claim the title son of god. We don't know for sure, but it sure came out convenient for him.
Mikel Del Rosario: Well, there's a couple of people that want to mention quickly who are often cited as examples of these alleged parallels. And I'll just get each of you to respond to what you might think is going on here, as far as any similarities at all. The first one is Alexander the Great. And we could read in Plutarch around 336 B.C. He wrote that Alexander's mom dreamt that was this thunderbolt that hit her womb. His dad had a dream that he was closing up her womb. And then the strangest thing that he saw was, he saw this snake lying next to her in bed. He thought that she was having sex with some kind of higher being, that she was the consort of some kind of deity. Darrell, what strikes you as the strongest contrast one could possibly think about between this story, like the similarity and the contrast between this story and what the Bible tells us about Jesus' virgin birth?
Darrell Bock: Well, what's very interesting is the matter of detail we get about how the conception itself took place. Very vivid imagery in the case of the emperor, leaving no doubt really how this happened. No mystery to it whatsoever, really, in many ways. You contrast that to the New Testament, which it's simply the announcement that the Holy Spirit will overshadow you. And that's all that's said. There's no detail to the how and the when, and all that kind of stuff. Just the generic who's responsible kind of description. And that's all it is. It's a simple description without any detail. And that's in stark contrast to the vivid portrayal that you just mentioned, that is significant for a variety of reasons. Actually, I don't know if there's any symbolism attached to the snake, per se. But certainly there is this vividness that is associated with how this took place, to try and … I think the sense of credibility. Yeah, we know exactly when and how this happened.
Mikel Del Rosario: Joe, do you know anything about the snake theme? Because I'm about to mention Caesar August and the snake theme in his origin story, too.
Joe Fantin: Yeah, no I … again, I suspect it's the … They're both different deities, though, that are associated with the snake in this case. So, I'm not sure there might be something overly significant. I would like to mention, though, that when Phillip did see his wife … Alexander's father, Phillip … did see his wife with the snake, it says in Plutarch there that it cooled his passion for his wife.
Darrell Bock: I think it would have that effect on me, too. [Laughter]
Joe Fantin: I think that would be. But yeah, we see that snake theme in a couple of places. And it is just a mysterious type of thing. There might be something out there on that, but the snakes interesting. Like you say, it appears again with Augustus, but that's gonna be the god Apollo… the god Zeus.
Mikel Del Rosario: Let's talk about Caesar Augustus briefly. We can read about him in Suetonius. And Suetonius wrote the 12 Caesars in the early second century. And there he says that Augustus' mom was at this midnight worship service for Apollo, like you said. And then this snake, according to Suetonius, it says the snake went up inside her. And then she purified herself, just like she would have done after sex. And she was actually married at the time, too. But then she actually … she had a daughter before August was born. So right off the bat, no virgin birth there. But in the minds of ancient people, are there any important similarities between either of these stories and Jesus' virgin birth story?
Joe Fantin: There probably were in the minds of ancient people. Everybody wanted to be associated with Alexander one way or another. Everybody, whether it be Julius Caesar earlier, Augustus, he was just a great individual in the history books. Several of them wanted to do something that way. I'm sure there's something there, but as far as beyond that, a lot of these stories would have had … But Darrell mentioned the idea of virgin birth. Neither of these stories emphasize virginity at all, in these cases. So, that's probably another major contrast between these and your Gospel stories, which emphasize that notion.
Darrell Bock: And as Mikel noted, in the one case, we know we are definitely not dealing with a virgin birth. So yeah. The emphasis on the condition of Mary during the birth is tied, of course, to the Isaiah passage, and the idea that there's a promise of this unusual … I'll say it this way … it's, in the story as it's developed in the infancy material, there is this sense of there's something unusual and supernatural about this birth. And I think to that extent, it may share the backdrop of these other stories.
But, of course, the point here is is that this isn't just a way of portraying the Son of God, it's a way of saying this is the Son of God. And then in that full sense that we talked about earlier, this is not someone making it in in the pantheon with the back seat on the back row. This is someone who goes directly to the right hand of God. He does not pass go. He does not collect $200. He just goes straight to Park Place. And so that's a significant difference, in terms of the way the New Testament ends up portraying the role of what this represents ultimately.
Joe Fantin: I think also it's worth adding, the types of literature we're looking at. Plutarch is writing, probably close to 500 years or so after Alexander. Certainly he had other sources, and things like that. But Arian, for example, who wrote around the same time, maybe a little earlier, he doesn't have much of a remarkable birth for Alexander. He has has a decent one, but nothing like Plutarch. And Plutarch was a biography. Suetonius is notoriously … is known for having more gossipy type of things. He's more likely to put rumor and gossip in it. And that's important because it's what people probably believed. But as far as historicity was concerned, we're not entirely confident in things that you might find only in Suetonius, for example, that we won't find in other writings of the day. So you've got the date in both those cases. They're long after. There's nobody in the lifetime of Alexander or Augustus reading those particular texts that could validate what was actually said. And in the case of Suetonius, as I said, his historicity is gonna be a bit questioned anyway.
Darrell Bock: I think you're telling me, Joe, that Suetonius would write stuff that would belong in the 6:30 to 7:00 in the evening hour on television, the TMZ show.
Joe Fantin: I think of the National Enquirer, or The Sun paper in Britain. And again, there's nothing wrong with that material, and we just need to know how to actually incorporate it and use it. And, of course, they might have had sources we no longer have access to. But yes, they're much more likely to be… that period, yes.
Mikel Del Rosario: But the very idea that the virgin birth of Jesus was just a direct copy from some pagan story is dead in the water when you start taking a look at the actual texts that are supposedly copied off of. Nothing at all like what we see in the Bible. Like Darrell said, a very, very simple description in the Bible. The Holy Spirit will come on you and you will be with child. And then Mary says, let it be unto me just like you said. And we see this great, really of the model disciple I would say that we can all learn from, and how whatever comes we just say, may God's will be done.
And, Darrell, when we think about the earliest preaching of the apostles, we don't see a huge emphasis on the virgin birth, do we?
Darrell Bock: No, we don't. It's actually amazing how little it gets talked about in the New Testament, when you view it as a whole. And I think it may be because in many ways, if I can say it this way, the end of the story of Jesus' ministry is what the New Testament focuses on. It's interested in the crucifixion and the resurrection. And the resurrection is seen as a restoration of where Jesus originally came from. And so the idea, in John's gospel, about Jesus repeated … He repeatedly is described in John's gospel as the sent one. He's sent from heaven. Or you can think of the reverse parabola that you get in Philippians 2, where the picture is Jesus did not view deity as a thing to be held onto, grasped onto. But He emptied Himself to take on humanity. So this picture is of Jesus going back to where he has been. And the virgin birth is simply a transition point in that larger story that is being portrayed.
We tend to think of the virgin birth as the beginning. But it actually isn't, from the biblical point of view. It's a transition point, as opposed to being a beginning. So you don't see that much emphasis in the New Testament on it, not because it's not significant, but simply because it's actually a door through which the story moves, as opposed to being this central defining feature of what's going on. The more defining feature is the preexistence of Jesus in one sense or another, and also the return to what he becomes as a result of having done the work that He was sent to do.
Mikel Del Rosario: It also seems to speak to the credibility of the virgin birth story to me because, as I like to say, why wouldn't they talk it up if they made it up? If the whole point was to say, "Let's worship this guy, because He was born of a virgin," why didn't they go around saying that all the time? Sometimes people will say, "Well how come, if Jesus was born of a virgin, why doesn't Paul talk about it all the time? Or why don't the apostles talk about it all the time?" Well, that wasn't the major thrust of their preaching. Who was the only eye witness to the virgin birth? Mary?
Darrell Bock: Well it's clear Joseph struggled with it. You read Matthew and he goes … The scene that isn't in the infancy material that I would love to have seen how it would have played out was when Joseph and Mary told their parents what was going on. That would be an interesting … that would have been an interesting conversation to overhear. But it's clear that Joseph was bothered by the fact that his bride to be was pregnant. And he knew enough biology to know, "I wasn't responsible for this, so how'd this happen?" And so he goes to a default category, which would be I think the default category everyone would go to if they were in that situation. And it's only a revelatory moment that tells him, "No, no. This is a truly unusual birth." It's almost as heaven says, "I understand why you didn't have the category for this."
Mikel Del Rosario: Well, let's finish up the discussion on the nativity scene with Mary. And Joe, tell us if this is a standard situation of the first century. How old do you think Mary would have been?
Joe Fantin: Oh, she could have been probably 14 to 16. She would have been young.
Mikel Del Rosario: Wow. That's so …
Joe Fantin: That is just about the age when she just starts to be able to give birth.
Mikel Del Rosario: So that would play a role in who you would cast for your church play, as well, huh? Let's think about the meaning of all of this now, because we can get into conversations about the possibility of miracles and the historicity of the gospel accounts around Christmastime. But it's important that we don't get so distracted by historical or philosophical questions in our 21st century context that we just miss out on what the gospel authors are saying through the infancy narratives. So let's think about the Gospel of Luke, just as we warp up here. Luke tells us about a number of unusual things, as Darrell said, unusual things that happened. In the first chapter we have Elizabeth, who's an old woman, gets pregnant, even though she never had kids before. And then we have Mary, a young teen, gets pregnant, even though she never had sex before. What do these kinds of things signal to the people who heard the story as it’s in Luke, Darrell?
Darrell Bock: Well, I think the key thing that I like to highlight when I talk about Luke's infancy material is the theme that often gets missed as we tell the story, particularly if we get … and I don't mean this negatively … but get distracted by the kinds of apologetics that often has to come in some ways, because of people's doubts about the virgin birth. The point that both, actually the infancy material in both Matthew and Luke make but in different ways is: God keeps His word. He made certain commitments and certain promises, and He will do what He says. He will do what He says if it takes unusual means to get there. And it's in His timing, and it's in His program. So there's a line in the Lukan infancy material of, in effect, that his may seem to be impossible, but nothing's impossible with the Lord. And so … And then everything is steeped in promise.
Now in Luke, it is portrayed in the language of the participants. In Matthew it is portrayed through the language of the narrator pointing out different passages along the way, that different actions represent fulfillment of in one way or another. So behind the backdrop of everything that's going with regard to Jesus and the program, is the fact God does have a plan and a program that He is executing. And He's promised certain things, He's made certain commitments. He said He would deliver His people. He has said where that would take place, and under what kinds of circumstances would this child be born, those kinds of things. So there's a program that's being mapped out in God's way and in God's timing. And we're called to believe that, so much so that when Mary does believe, she's presented as a model believer, someone who responds with trust, even though God is putting her in a very difficult situation personally, to bear this child with the reputation that it would have generated by having a child so early in the midst of betrothal. And so all of that is going on in the midst of what is happening.
Mikel Del Rosario: Well, our time has rapidly gone away from us, but I want to thank you both so much for being on the show. Looking at the historical background of the Christmas story, it just helps us to see, as we noted, the humility of Jesus' birth, the earmarks of historicity that are there, not the kind of thing you would make up. And so let's continue to ponder, as Darrell was saying, the message of the infancy material that God can get His will accomplished, and He will get His will accomplished, no matter what, no matter how odd or unusual the circumstances end up being. May we all take some time to ponder the good news of great joy for all people, and the birth of Christ the Lord.
Thank, Darrell, for being on the show.
Darrell Bock: My pleasure as always.
Mikel Del Rosario: Thank you, Joe, so much for being on the show, too.
Joe Fantin: My pleasure as well. Thank you.
Mikel Del Rosario: And we thank you for joining us on the table today. If you like this episode, please subscribe to the podcast and leave us a review on Apple or Google podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you tune into the show. I'm Mikel Del Rosario, and we hope to see you again next time on the table, where we discuss issues of God and culture.
About the Contributors
Dr. Bock has earned recognition as a Humboldt Scholar (Tübingen University in Germany), is the author of over 40 books, including well-regarded commentaries on Luke and Acts and studies of the historical Jesus, and work in cultural engagement as host of the seminary’s Table Podcasts. He was president of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) for 2000–2001, writes for the Christianity Today’s Places and Space series, and serves on the boards of Wheaton College, Chosen People Ministries, the Institute for Global Engagement, and Christians in Public Service (CIPS). His articles appear in leading publications. He is often an expert for the media on NT issues. Dr. Bock has been a New York Times best-selling author in nonfiction and is elder emeritus at Trinity Fellowship Church in Dallas. When traveling overseas, he will tune into the current game involving his favorite teams from Houston—live—even in the wee hours of the morning. Married for over 40 years to Sally, he is a proud father of two daughters and a son and is also a grandfather.
Dr. Fantin believes an accurate understanding of God’s Word will enable the believer to grow in his or her relationship with Christ, to love God and others, to bring Christ’s love to a lost world, to build up the church, and most importantly, to glorify God. He is committed to teaching exegetical method in order to help students understand, apply, and teach the Bible in order to achieve these goals. Dr. Fantin’s research interests include the first-century world, Greek language and linguistics, exegetical method, and exegesis of the prison epistles. He and his wife, Robin, have two children: Jillian and David.
Mikel Del Rosario is a PhD student in New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, Project Manager for Cultural Engagement at the Hendricks Center, and Adjunct Professor of Apologetics and World Religion at William Jessup University. Mikel co-authors The Table Briefing articles in Bibliotheca Sacra with Darrell Bock, manages the Table Podcast, and helps Christians defend the faith with courage and compassion through his apologetics speaking ministry. He holds a Master of Theology (ThM) from DTS and an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University.