EDIT: The link to Stephen Carlson’s article has now been fixed.
I can remember as a teenager the first time one of my “know everything about the Bible” friends whispered to me during a church service, “Hey, you know there weren’t actually THREE wise men, don’t you?” And I was, like, “What are you talking about? Of course there were. We see it every year in the Nativity play.”
That single remark from a friend sent me on a teenage quest to discover how many other places our church’s Nativity play had screwed up. At the time, I really couldn’t find much. Fast forward a few years (and by “years,” I mean “decades”) and things are different.
The Christmas season is a time for biblical scholars to show off as they wield the tools of careful exegesis and knowledge of first-century Palestine, or that other handy tool known as “dehistoricizing.” This has resulted in many questions related to Matthew and Luke’s Nativity stories, some more controversial than others: Was Jesus born in a stable? Was there really no “room in the inn” for Mary and Joseph? Was Jesus even born in Bethlehem? Did Herod really order the killing of all the young boys in the area around Bethlehem? And so forth.
There are three publications from the past couple years that I would recommend as great resources for promoting serious reflection on topics related to the stories of Jesus’ birth, regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with the views presented:
1. Stephen Carlson’s article, “The Accommodations of Joseph and Mary
in Bethlehem: Κατάλυμα in Luke 2.7,” published in NTS and available in its entirety here. I find his arguments to be very convincing. Here is the abstract:
The identity of the κατάλυμα in Luke has been debated among Western scholars for over five hundred years. Proposals have ranged from an inn to a guest room. This article argues that the term κατάλυμα has a generic sense of ‘place to stay’ and that the final clause of Luke should be rendered ‘because they had no space in their place to stay’. Moreover, three clues in the context—Joseph’s compliance with the census order, the betrothal of Mary, and the manger—suggest that the accommodations presupposed by Luke are a marital chamber too small for giving birth.
2. Steve Moyise’s short book, Was the Birth of Jesus According to Scripture? (Wipf and Stock, 2013). The link allows you to preview a significant portion of the book.
Each Christmas, the birth of Jesus is celebrated through carols, Bible readings, and nativity plays. The angelic announcements to Mary and Elizabeth, Jesus’ birth in a manger, and the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh are some of the best-known stories in the Bible. But did they really happen? And were they predicted by Israel’s prophets, as the Bible claims? Steve Moyise suggests that the clue to answering these questions is to understand how Israel’s Scriptures were being interpreted in Jesus’ day. Was Isaiah thinking of a virgin birth when he uttered his famous prophecy (Isa 7:14), or is that a later Christian interpretation? Was there a star that led the magi to Bethlehem or should the story be taken symbolically? These and other questions are fully explored and the results are sometimes surprising.
3. Andrew Lincoln’s brand new book, Born of a Virgin?: Reconceiving Jesus in the Bible, Tradition, and Theology (Eerdmans, 2013). Of my three recommendations, this will certainly be the most controversial to those with a conservative background. But that’s what makes it so good – it is sure to be thought provoking on a number of fronts.
This engaging book enables ordinary Christians to understand and give honest expression to the problems surrounding the virgin birth — a concept that many Christians are not sure how to handle.
Andrew Lincoln’s Born of a Virgin? begins by discussing why the virgin birth is such a difficult and divisive topic. The book then deals with a whole range of issues — literary, historical, and hermeneutical — from a critical yet positive perspective that takes seriously creedal confessions and theological concerns.
As part of his exegetical investigation of the New Testament texts, Lincoln considers the literary genre and distinctive characteristics of the birth narratives as ancient biography. Further, he delineates how changes in our views of history and biography decisively affect any traditional understanding of the significance of an actual virgin birth. He also explores what that means for the authority of Scripture and creed, along with implications for Christology and for preaching and teaching from the birth narratives.
What other recommendations would you add?