I always enjoy reading a pair of books back to back that happen to compliment each other rather well. Recently I read two book I thought complimented each other so well I was tempted to treat them as if they were one book. But of course that wouldn’t be appropriate so instead I will review them together in one posting.
Both books, The Nativity: History and Legend by Geza Vermes (a Jew) and The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Birth by Marcus Borg (a Protestant) and John Dominic Crossan(a Catholic) examine the miraculous birth and early childhood of Jesus as told in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Analyzing the birth and infancy narratives through the lens of modern, secular scholarship, the three biblical scholars interpret the above mentioned Gospel passages in the religious and political context of the first century eastern Mediterranean.
According to Borg and Crossan’s book, due to the narratives’ conflicting recollection of events and repackaging of pagan virgin birth claims, it is key to understand that the Gospels contain not literal truth but religious truth, since the miraculous stories are really “parables” proclaiming deeper truths regarding the oppressive and unjust Roman occupation as well as the future kingdom of Israel. The two scholars also briefly expound upon the meaning these truths have in the context of today’s fractured and hurting world.
Vermes, a renowned Dead Sea Scrolls scholar, take a similar approach with his analysis of the Gospel birth and infancy narratives. Finding parallels in Hebrew Bible with the births of both Moses, Samuel as well as the little known Nephalim passage in the book of Genesis, in addition to material from the ancient Jewish Midrash scriptures as well as the countless pagan virgin birth legends, Vermes also puts the miraculous narratives in their larger first century context. According to Vermes, the narratives as they are presented in the New Testament, at their core are essentially Jewish but are infused with pagan elements, probably as a result of the Jesus movement leaving the confines of Judaism and entering the greater Hellenistic world of the ancient eastern Mediterranean.