Busted: John Dominic Crossan

Why The First Christmas is not like any Nativity story you've ever heard before

Two years ago, biblical scholars John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg published The Last Week, a fascinating day-by-day account, based on Mark’s gospel, of how Jesus spent his final week in Jerusalem. Now, they’ve teamed up again to explore the beginning of Jesus’ life, unraveling what the news of his birth meant 2,000 years ago, so we can better understand its significance today.

In The First Christmas, Crossan and Borg argue that the nativity story is far richer and more challenging than familiar sentimentalized versions allow. Not simply tidings of comfort and joy, the gospel stories of Jesus’ birth are also edgy visions of another way of life, confronting the status quo and demanding personal and political transformation.

The author of more than 20 books, Crossan is professor emeritus of De Paul University and is widely considered one of the foremost historical Jesus scholars. In 1985, he co-founded the controversial Jesus Seminar—

a group of biblical experts who meet twice a year to debate the authenticity of the words and deeds ascribed to Jesus in the gospels. Born in Tipperary, Ireland, in 1934, Crossan entered the Servites, a Roman Catholic order in 1950. He was ordained a priest in 1957 but left the priesthood in 1969 to get married and pursue an academic life.

Recently, I spoke with Crossan about “the reason for the season,” as the old saying goes. Our conversation ranged from virgin births and Roman censuses to how you became a god in the ancient world, and why it was a bad idea to mess with shepherds. We also discussed Hollywood portrayals of Jesus—from Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ to The Nativity Story and Basic Instinct director Paul Verhoeven’s curious idea for a Christ flick (hint: think Jesus as Harrison Ford in The Fugitive).

BustedHalo: There’s a traditional nativity story most of us know, and it involves a manger in Bethlehem, a star, and adoring shepherds. But what do the gospels tell us about Jesus’ birth?

John Dominic Crossan: First of all, there are four gospels, and they all begin with what I call an overture. As in musical plays, an overture gives us the whole in miniature form, a sample of the themes and melodies that you are going to find in the drama that follows. Now what’s special about Matthew and Luke is that they start with what we call in the book a “parabolic overture.” In plain language, they make up a story. It’s fiction.

The proper title for Matthew 1 and 2 and Luke 1 and 2, which are stories about the birth of Jesus, would be “parable.” A parable is a deliberately made up story that packs a theological punch. So you’re listening to the story, engrossed in what’s happening, and then there’s a twist, a “gotcha.” For example, someone hearing Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan would think, “Yeah, that’s a dangerous road. That could happen—someone could get beat up on it, sure, yeah, yeah.” And then, “Wait a minute! Did he just say that our ethnic enemies, the Samaritans, might help a Jew if they found him lying in a ditch?” That notion turned their world upside down. It would be like, today, telling a story about a Good Terrorist. So the point of a parable is to trap you in the story, and then lure you into action. Jesus ends his parable by saying, “Now, go and do likewise.” And of course, no one thought Jesus was telling people literally to do likewise—become a Samaritan and look for a Jew in a ditch.

So the birth stories of Jesus in Matthew and Luke, neither of which has data, are prologues, or summaries, of everything that is going to follow in the gospels. And because Matthew and Luke are very different gospels—they were written unaware of each other—they also have very different overtures.

BH: In other words, Matthew and Luke give two different accounts of Jesus’ birth?

JDC: Exactly. It’s what any of us do when we write a book. We write the prologue last. A prologue announces exactly what you’re going to do in the book, and then isn’t it miraculous when you do exactly that? So now imagine Matthew. He’s written his gospel, the major point of which is that Jesus is the new Moses. He begins his story, in the gospel now, by having Jesus going up and delivering what we call the Sermon on the Mount, but which he would have called the New Law From the New Mount Sinai.

So when Matthew sits down to write his prologue, he says, “OK. So Jesus is the new Moses. I know, I’ll write about the birth of Jesus, making it parallel the birth of Moses in such a way that anyone with a Jewish background will get that immediately.” The biggest thing about the birth of Moses is that the pharaoh tries to slay all the kids, almost killing Moses. Everyone knows that. So as Matthew makes up his story, he has the king try to kill all the male children of Bethlehem in order to kill Jesus. Any Jew hearing that would say, “Oh, Herod is the new pharaoh? That means the Jewish homeland under Herod, who is collaborating with the Romans, is like the new Egypt? And Jesus flees to Egypt for safety—but in the wrong direction? Moses left Egypt, heading north. Jesus is going the other way, heading south!”

So the details of Matthew’s birth account are very deliberate, and that’s why we insist on the story’s anti-imperial edge. Herod is the new pharaoh—but the official title Rome gave him is King of the Jews. Mark Antony and Octavian brought Herod into the senate and gave him the title, King of the Jews. So for Matthew to proclaim a newborn “King of the Jews” is, well, basically, high treason.

BH: And yet Luke’s birth story is very different…

JDC: Basically, the Christmas story as we think of it is 95 percent Luke and five percent Matthew. Really, the only thing that comes from Matthew is the three wise men, and of course we call them “kings,” which is a terrible mistake. They’re not kings; the last thing on Earth they are is kings. They are magi, representing the wisdom of the east coming up against the power of the west. If you really want to cause trouble this Christmas, you might tell the truth and say they’re from Iran. They’re Persian wise men!

Luke is quite different from Matthew. The whole tone is not nearly as dark as Matthew. There’s no slaughter of the innocents in Luke. What happens in Luke is that the announcement is made to the shepherds, and the point here is that both groups that get the message are “outsiders.” It’s made to pagan magicians—that’s what magi means—and Jewish shepherds. And the shepherds are not the nice little guys we often think they were. Shepherds in the ancient world were tough guys who protected their sheep from wolves and thieves. They had weapons; they could take care of themselves. Shepherds were considered dangerous outsiders, and they knew whether the system was just or unjust. So then the angel comes to them and announces that the birth of the Messiah, the just king expected by Israel, and he gives Jesus some fancy titles—Lord, savior, and bringer of peace. Those titles belong to Caesar Augustus, the bringer of peace being the core title upon which the others depended. If Augustus hadn’t brought peace to the Roman Empire, he probably wouldn’t have survived very long.

BH: You’ve written that if you asked anyone in the Mediterranean world at the time of Jesus, “Who’s the Son of God, the Lord, the redeemer, the savior of the world?” everyone would’ve known immediately who you were talking about, and it sure wouldn’t have been Jesus.

JDC: That’s right—it would have been Caesar Augustus. It’s like the first question they ask on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”—the idiot question everyone is supposed to get right. So, if you applied those titles to Jesus at that time, you’re either dealing with a kind of low lampoon, a silly joke, or you’re committing high treason. You’re saying that the program incarnate in Augustus, which I call “peace through victory,” is not the program willed by God. God’s program, you’re saying, is the one incarnate through Jesus—”peace through justice.” So if you think of Caesar and Jesus as two people running for election, those central competing ideas would be their platforms.

BH: It’s striking that the Roman vision of the final kingdom is very similar to Jesus’ notion of the kingdom of God. They both extol a notion of equality, which erases distinctions between rich and poor, tyrant and slave, and yet the big difference between them is how you achieve that kingdom.

JDC: They really are similar. And it’s hard for us to imagine that what we today consider to be this distinctly “Christian language” was utterly comprehensible to people in the first century. They might not agree with that language, but they understood exactly what was being said. These titles of Son of God and savior, etc, meant that the human being you were talking about brought such transcendental gifts to the world that he had to be considered divine. And of course, the next question would be, “OK, we agree he could be divine because that’s part of our culture, but what has your guy done for the world? We can see what Augustus has done.”

So, the language they used, and it doesn’t matter whether we like it or not, always made certain content claims. It’d be the same for us today as asking, “Who do you like for president?” You’d know immediately what I was talking about. I don’t mean president of the local university, or the library. I’m talking about the 2008 campaign. And if I said, “What do you think of her?” You’d know I’m probably not referring to Obama’s wife. I mean Hillary. We know the language, so we can take shortcuts. Similarly, they all knew the language back then, and they took shortcuts, too. So all the terms that we think were invented by Christianity, and were sort of new and mysterious back then—not at all. They were all taken for granted in the first century. And when you applied those divine titles to Jesus, people thought, “We know what you mean, and therefore we’re going to kill you.”

BH: Was there a distinction between what the term “Son of God” meant to the ancient Israelites, the early Christians, and the Romans?

We call them “kings,” which is a terrible mistake. They’re not kings; the last thing on Earth they are is kings. They are magi, representing the wisdom of the east coming up against the power of the west. If you really want to cause trouble this Christmas, you might tell the truth and say they’re from Iran. They’re Persian wise men!

JDC: Well, the big distinction was what it meant to the Romans and to the Greeks. The Romans distinguished between a god, or deus, who was immortal and always has been a god, and a divus, or diva, a human being who had been elevated to divinity. So the Latin term applied to Octavian, before he was renamed Augustus, was divi filius. He was the “son of the divine one.” But the Greeks didn’t distinguish between immortal gods and human gods. Both were called theos, and the Greek equivalent for the Latin for a “son of god,” like Apollo, was the term theou huios. And when the Greeks refer to Augustus, they use the same term.

From the Hebrew point of view, one of the titles of God would be kurios, or Lord. And in the infancy gospel, there’s a deliberate oscillation between Lord, as God, and Lord, as Jesus. So they are making the claim that the God known in the Hebrew Scriptures as Lord is incarnate in Jesus. And that idea would not strike people in the first century as difficult to accept. They might not believe Jesus is that Lord incarnate, but it’s entirely within the realm of possibility for them that human beings can be elevated into divinity. A person was never elevated into divinity, however, until, like Augustus, they had done something major for the human race. And once they had done something extraordinary, their divinity was then retrojected back into stories about their conception and birth, as well as into their genealogies and stories about their coming of age. But they are always writing backwards, after the fact.

BH: As the gospel writers did with Jesus’ birth story.

JDC: They absolutely did that with Jesus. But let’s start with a Roman example. The historian Seutonius writes about the conception of Caesar Augustus at the very end of his biography. First he tells us all about Augustus’ life, up until the moment he’s going to die, describing the portents in the sky indicating that something terrible is about to happen. And then he writes, “Oh, by the way, this is the story of how he was conceived.” Meaning, “Now that you understand the greatness of Augustus’ life, you’re ready to believe the story of his birth. How could a guy this important simply have been conceived because his parents, Atia and Octavius, drank too much wine? There had to be a god involved.”

BH: And yet Matthew and Luke tell their birth stories of Jesus earlier in their gospels.

JDC: Yes, and that’s because they’re writing late in the game. Jesus died in about the year 30, and Matthew and Luke are writing in the late 80s, some 50 years later. And there’s not a hint anywhere of the existence of those birth stories in the intervening years. Of course, everyone knows about Mary and Joseph and Jesus. They know Jesus is from Nazareth. But there’s not a hint of those birth stories anywhere before the late 80s. So Matthew and Luke don’t put Jesus’ birth stories at the end of their gospels, because they’re writing them at the end of the first Christian century.

BH: Right, because Paul, who wrote in the 50s, doesn’t give a birth story of Jesus, nor does Mark, the earliest gospel, written in the late 60s.

JDC: That’s right, and when we finally do get birth stories, from Matthew and Luke, the general consensus among scholars is that the two writers don’t know each other’s accounts, which is exactly what we’d expect. Because you have two different gospels, which really have little data that they agree on, and these are not unimportant points, by the way. And the most important point is that Jesus is the Messiah they expected, the just king. Now, they both interpret that in very contemporary terms. Matthew experiences the Messiah as the king of the Jews, the same title that will appear on his cross. Luke, as we said, experiences the Messiah as the Lord, Savior, and bringer of peace. So they kind of update that message for their generations.

And they agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, because that’s the traditional site where King David was born. It doesn’t mean that if he wasn’t born in Bethlehem he couldn’t be the Messiah, but it would be like me saying, “My trouble with Barack Obama is that he thinks he was born in a log cabin.” And we’d know immediately that a connection between Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln is being made. “Born in a log cabin” equals “Abraham Lincoln.” Similarly, “born in Bethlehem” equals “David” equals “Messiah.”

BH: But if people could readily accept, as parable, the statement that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, why does Luke give us an elaborate story about a census ordered by Caesar that forces Joseph and Mary to leave Nazareth for Bethlehem? Why not skip the census story, as Matthew does, and simply tell us Joseph and Mary were already living in Bethlehem when Jesus was born?

JDC: Matthew and Luke both have a problem. What they both know, as did everyone who knew about Jesus back then, was that his name was Jesus of Nazareth. But they both want to have him born in Bethlehem, to correspond parabolically with the earlier tradition about David. I don’t think Jesus was actually born in Bethlehem. I think he was born in Nazareth. But as Matthew sees it, the holy family is living in Bethlehem. There’s nothing about Nazareth until they go there after the flight to Egypt. They go to Egypt to escape the slaughter of the innocents, after which then return, only to realize that Archelaus was just as bad [as his father, Herod the Great]. So they move on to Nazareth. That’s Matthew’s explanation of how Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem.

Luke starts the other way around. He presumes that the family was living in Nazareth, and he has to get them to Bethlehem. And his way of doing that is what I would call factually wrong, but symbolically right. He says that Caesar Augustus has proclaimed a census for the whole world. Factually, that’s so absurdly wrong that I don’t believe that Luke, who really knows the Roman world, means that literally. Because he would know that the Romans only conducted a census whenever they took over direct control of a new province, and they did that for taxation purposes. So in a sense, yes, Augustus is trying to count the whole world, and to tax the whole world, but nobody ever ran a census of the entire world at one time.

BH: And Rome’s censuses never required a mass migration in which everyone had to return to their ancestral home, as Luke claims…

JDC: No, in fact it was just the opposite. Not only did Rome not require mass migration, but we actually know from very good records that they had stern laws forbidding people from leaving where they currently lived and worked during a census. And everyone knew in advance when a census was going to take place; they never happened unexpectedly. So, say I lived in Oxyrhynchus but was visiting Alexandria when a census was about to happen. It would be my responsibility, as head of the household, to get back home to make sure everyone was counted properly, because they conducted censuses according to families. If for some reason I stayed in Alexandria, I could get in big trouble.

So Luke’s suggestion that people went back to their ancestral home—apart from the fact it would be impossible for most people to know where that was—would have created a bureaucratic nightmare. And on top that, Mary was a pregnant woman about to deliver. If they tried to go from Nazareth to Bethlehem on the back of a donkey, she probably would have given birth somewhere in Samaria.