Was Jesus' Birth Unique?: Jesus' Birth In Context, Pt. 4

In my previous post on this series (A Miraculous Conception?), I raised a number of questions that Christians must ask and attempt to answer when thinking about Jesus' birth in its ancient context. I also showed a number of ancient accounts of the births of prominent persons in antiquity. Those narratives had many elements in them that were similar to the story of Jesus' birth (dreams, visions, natural phenomena [stars, etc.], deities impregnating women, persons called 'son of god', etc.). *Note: If you have not read that post, please click the above link and do so, it will really, really help you draw out a fuller meaning from this post.

So, I should remind us here that in Jesus' day (both before, concurrent and after His time on earth), there were birth narratives of others that were considered "miraculous". Historically, we are not in a position to really ask whether any of these things "really" happened. Nobody in antiquity probably would have asked that question or one similar to it, so, maybe we shouldn't focus on it either. They knew that the "signs" or "miracles" in the stories were at the very least, narrative markers, meant to point to things beyond the supposed event itself. All of this should lead us to ponder whether or not and how or how not, Jesus' birth might be considered unique. This question, in my view, takes us beyond debating whether or not Jesus was born (let's just say, for the sake of argument, that He was and so were the others...e.g. Plato, Augustus, etc.) and gets us talking about what the first Christians understood His birth to be about and to mean!

In other words, I am asking here: If we move beyond the issues of historicity to theology, what, to the first Christians, was theologically significant about Jesus' birth? What were they attempting to say by mentioning the traveling star, the magi, the singing angels, the attendant shepherds, etc.? And I would want to ask another question here too: If Jesus was still conceived of a virgin but the Gospel accounts of Matthew and Luke were embellished (perhaps, like the accounts of Plato, Heracles, Alexander the Great, etc.), does this affect your view of the importance of Jesus' birth at all? Also, just how central is a "virgin conception" to having a healthy Christian theology? Though Paul's (and other NT letter writers') correspondences were / are highly audience-contextualized, comprising 2/3 of the NT, why do they never ever mention this birth? It seems to me that if it were so central, they could have surely drew some theo-ethical principles from it.

I want to do two things at this point: 1) share a very short personal story, and 2) point you to a modern story book. The personal story comes from an encounter with the book I'm going to mention in a moment. I stumbled across this book last Christmas and after reading it was floored. For the last year, I have thought repeatedly about this text and what it might suggest about Jesus' birth narrative. Now, the text I'm referring to is a children's book by Nancy Tillman titled On the Night You Were Born.

Last year, during Christmas, I found myself reading this book to my daughter, who had just been born a few months earlier. As I read it to her, there arose a tension inside of me. On the one hand, I felt like I was lying but on the other hand, I felt like I was conveying to my daughter, with broken language and images, just how wonderful I thought she was. If you do not own this book, order or buy it. If you do own it, read it again. Either way, I want to supply you with some of the text here. And as you read this, please, put yourself in my shoes and imagine reading this to your newly born child:

"On the night you were born, the moon smiled with such wonder that hte stars peeked up to see you and the night whispered, 'Life will never be the same.' Because there had never been anyone like you...ever in the world. So enchanted with you were the wind and the rain that they whispered the sound of your wonderful name. The sound of your name is a magical one, let's say it before we go on (you are the one and only ever you). It sailed through the farmland high on the breeze (Who in the world is exactly like you, who, who, who), over the ocean (you are a miracle), and through the trees until everyone heard it and everyone knew of the one and only ever you. Not once had there been such eyes, such a nose, such silly, wiggly, wonderful toes...When the polar bears heard they danced until dawn. From faraway places the geese flew home. The moon stayed up until the morning the next day and none of the ladybugs flew away..."

Now, there's more to this great story but I will not reproduce it here (again, go buy it!!!). If you were sitting next to me while I was reading that to my daughter, what would you think, do or say? Would you call me a liar? Would you think less of me? Would you say I was ridiculous? Probably not! Why? Because you know that the story is not meant to have every single detail read wooden literally!!! Because your know that nature and animals do not actually react like that when a child is born. But because the birth of a child is so special, you know that using these images and metaphors to express it is not wrong! It is merely one way to convey to your child that they are of the utmost significance. This type of poetic licensing isn't a problem and it isn't "untrue". It is simply one way to talk about a great moment in time or the wonderful experience of childbirth.

In light of the fact that scores of ancient birth accounts from antiquity exist, accounts full of natural phenomena, miracles, grand imagery, etc., I don't think we have to debate over whether Jesus was born or whether or not certain events transpired "wooden literally" as they are spoken of. In fact, I wonder if we could read an account like Luke's, in a fashion similar to the way we read Tillman's book? The truth is, Jesus' birth account isn't all that unique; indeed, the Gospel writers' accounts are strikingly similar to those I mentioned above and in the previous post of this series. The other truth is, the Gospel writers (Mt. and Lk.) did think Jesus' birth has something unique about it. That's what we should focus on!!!

So, what did they think was so unique? It might well be the case that when it comes to Jesus' birth, we can't quite say. It seems to me that the point of the birth accounts are there mainly to, at the very least, put Jesus on par with, in the category of, or to surpass the births of other prominent people. In other words, all they are meant to do, from a literary standpoint, is to make it clear that Jesus is signficant, important and unique. Yet, where the significance comes to the fore and where it is found to be unique is not in the birth but rather, in the resurrection and ascension. Perhaps this is why the first Christians didn't really focus on Jesus' birth like we do during Christmastime or Advent but rather, on Him being buried, raised and ascended! To be sure, those are the things that, in the eyes of the Early Church, made Jesus unique. And those are the things that make Him unique still today!

Other Posts (to date) In This Series:
* A Miraculous Conception?: Jesus' Birth In Context, Pt. 3
* Jesus & Prophecy: Jesus' Birth In Context, Pt. 2
* Born Of A Virgin?: Jesus' Birth In Context, Pt. 1

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