June 7, 2020

The Resurrected Christ at Christmas

Nativity, Strozzi/Angelico

Nativity, Strozzi/Angelico

At this season of the year, when we consider Jesus’ birth and infancy narratives in the New Testament Gospels of Matthew and Luke, and are confronted once more with the fact that they differ from one another, and that the other Gospels do not include any material at all from Jesus’ early life, we invariably must deal with questions of their historicity and nature.

I am no expert on Gospel studies, though I try to keep in touch with trends as much as I can. So anything I write here is designed to be general, an outline of what I consider to be a reasonable way to think about these things. I heartily encourage you to go to the true scholars for detailed theories and arguments.

One person who taught me a great deal about these matters is the late Raymond E. Brown. His biography notes, “In an oft-quoted article, Time magazine named Brown “probably the premier Catholic Scripture scholar in the U.S.,” and the Catholic Theological Society of America named him “the outstanding American Catholic theologian of the year’ (1971). Brown’s primary contributions to N.T. studies were in the Johannine writings, and his two-volume Anchor Bible commentary on John remains my favorite resource for study of the Gospel. He also wrote in detail on the birth and infancy narratives and the passion accounts in the New Testament.

The Gospels: History and Theology

First, let’s consider Raymond Brown’s overall conception of the process by which the Gospels were composed.

Fr. Brown was involved in Vatican II, and with regard to this subject he refers readers to the Instruction on the Historical Truth of the Gospels (Roman Pontifical Biblical Commission, 1964), which was incorporated into the Council’s documents. In his final book, Christ in the Gospels of the Liturgical Year, he affirms the Instruction’s encouragement for Bible students to pay attention to the three stages of tradition by which the story of the life and teachings of Jesus have come to us.

Stage One: The public ministry of Jesus — During Jesus’ ministry with his disciples, they and others witnessed his teachings and acts. The records that have come to us show that their witness was selective — they concentrate on those aspects of his life that involved his proclamation of God and kingdom, and do not include the kinds of ordinary details about his life and personality that we have come to expect in a modern biography. Brown also warns us that we must hear Jesus in the context of his own culture and background and refrain from reading our contemporary questions and issues back into his words and actions.

Nativity, Angelico

Nativity, Angelico

Stage Two: The Apostolic preaching about Jesus — After Jesus’ resurrection and the coming of the Spirit, his disciples came to understand Jesus in a new light. This “post-resurrectional faith…involved a perception of what was already there but had not previously been recognized.” Another factor that affected the development of the tradition was the fact that the message was going out to new audiences. It was being translated into different languages and cultures. It was being spoken in settings in which the audiences faced different issues than those with which Palestinian Jews were familiar. Brown gives specific examples of such “translation” in the Gospels themselves, showing how the Gospel writers adapted Jesus’ message to communicate to new constituencies. As Brown puts it:

While staying substantially faithful to ‘what was really said and done by Jesus” and in that sense remaining historical, it moved away from exact literal retention and reproduction and thus kept the Jesus tradition alive, meaningful, and salvific, even as it was in Stage One when it originated.

Stage Three: The Written Gospels — Identifying this era roughly as 65-100 AD, Brown first notes that the “authors” who are named may not represent those who actually put pen to papyrus but rather those who were “responsible for the tradition enshrined” in the four Gospels. He then points out that each Gospel demonstrates that their “authors” had freedom in how they organized and arranged the materials.

Each evangelist has ordered the material according to his understanding of Jesus and his desire to portray Jesus in a way that would meet the spiritual needs of the community to which he was addressing the Gospel. Thus the evangelists emerge as full authors of the Gospels, shaping, developing, and pruning the transmitted Jesus tradition, and as full theologians, orienting that tradition to a particular goal.

What does this mean for those of us who read, study, and preach and teach the Gospels?

First, we should accept the fact that what we have in the Gospels is the result of a process. Our reception and preaching of the Gospels should be based on the “Stage Three” documents we have, not on trying to “get behind” the final form of the Gospels to harmonize or explain differences in what happened in the eyewitness stage.

The Gospels are what was inspired by the Holy Spirit, and Christians believe that the Holy Spirit guided the process of Gospel formation, guaranteeing that the end-product Gospels reflect the truth that God sent Jesus to proclaim.

Second, we must evaluate the Gospels according to their intended purpose, not according to our desire that they be strict reporting or the kind of biography with which we are familiar. As one of my seminary professors insisted, the Gospels are preaching — creative combinations of history and theology to address the needs of particular audiences.

The Birth and Infancy Narratives: The Resurrected Christ at Christmas

Now, let’s focus especially on how Raymond Brown sees the development of the stories in Matthew and Luke that record the conception, birth, and infancy of Jesus. He notes that scholarship about these narratives has also gone through three stages.

Stage One: Different Sources — Scholars first sought to know where these stories came from. The witness about the events of Jesus’ ministry came from apostolic testimony, but the fact remains that we know little regarding the sources of the birth and infancy narratives.

Stage Two: Historical Criticism — Scholars then sought to test the historicity of these narratives. The stories in Matthew and Luke are very different. It is sometimes unclear how to harmonize their details. They record some rather spectacular events (such as the “star”) that are difficult to substantiate historically. And the birth and infancy narratives also “echo OT stories to an extent unparalleled in the rest of the Gospels.” Are these real, historical events or perhaps evidence of methods of teaching such as midrash?

Stage Three: Theological Purpose — Scholars then moved into a more positive and fruitful area of inquiry. Regardless of where these stories came from, and whatever their relation to “history,” why did the writers choose to include them in their Gospels? What are they trying to teach? What Good News of salvation do they communicate? How do they fit with the rest of the Gospel accounts to which they have been attached?

In the end, this should be the focus of the Bible student. Why did Matthew and Luke include these stories?

Was it for the sake of biographical completeness? Brown rejects this, reminding us that the Gospels stem from apostolic preaching about the salvation of the world in Jesus Christ. The narrative focus of that preaching was, of course, Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Passion narratives were the oldest parts of the gospel tradition. Through a process that worked backwards chronologically, collections of the acts and teachings of Jesus were then added to those Passion stories. The earliest Gospel, Mark, represents this — it begins with John introducing and baptizing Jesus, launches into his ministry, and concentrates the bulk of its material on the Passion. No birth and infancy narratives.

Matthew and Luke, however, then added these early stories. Apparently, in them they found additional revelation of the person of Christ whom they preached as the One who died and rose again.

  • So, the earliest recognition of Christ came through his resurrection and the Passion event.
  • This led to further reflection on his ministry — his teachings and acts — which the Gospel writers now saw with new understanding in light of the risen Lord.
  • That ministry, which began at his baptism when Jesus was declared “Son of God,” led to further reflection on stories that were told about Jesus’ birth and infancy. These stories were now read with new insight. For example, they show that Jesus did not “become” Son of God” at his baptism but was declared to be so from the beginning.

Raymond Brown therefore called his little book on the birth and infancy narratives, An Adult Christ at Christmas The Gospel writers started with the resurrection and what it taught them about Jesus the Christ and worked their way backwards, eventually understanding all the stories about Jesus as Good News of salvation in the One God had sent.


  1. Adam Tauno Williams says

    >Are these real, historical events or perhaps evidence of methods of teaching such as midrash?

    I’ve read some texts about Jewish culture and exposition, and I’ve slogged my way through sections of the Babylonian Talmud [tough going, but in the end I think the Talmud is an under appreciated text by the Christian tradition]… but there seems to be a vast and quite different world-view within [at least older] Jewish thought that colors scripture in quite a different light than the Baptist ministers of my youth cast on it [at least it is becomes very difficult to picture a rabbi using the term “literal”, sometimes it seems the authors delight in quadruple entendre].

    For a 21st century engineer and technocrat what text would provide a unbiased and fairly comprehensive overview of the Hebrew approach to teaching and scripture? I fear that by just consuming encountered scraps and essentially random selections that my perceptions may be slewed or queer.

    • I’ve always wondered just how much – lets say interpretive power – I should give to Jewish tradition and thought. Because I agree with you, I find Jewish thought pre-Jesus and contemporaneous with Jesus to be… fascinating. But fascinatingly foreign to how I was taught. And yet… it is how Jesus would have been taught. Right?

      I’ve been reading Diarmaid MacCulloch’s “A History of Christianity”, and he often highlights just how differently historical Jewish thought was from current thought. What am I to make of the probability that Jews “believed in” multiple gods, but believed that their YHWH was most powerful. At least that thought had shifted by the time of Christ. What am I to make of his claims that Jews had no afterlife / heaven until about the time of Christ, and no concept of a “Hell” we would recognize?

      I think it was Hitchens who once said (paraphrasing) that if the world started fresh today, same universe but no knowledge before this moment, humans would rediscover exactly the same Math, Logic, and Astronomy as this world, but the religions would be completely different – that Newtonian Physics were “discovered”, while religion was “invented”.

      When I learn that the early Christians would radically disagree with me about theology, it worries me. If I could go back in time, and Paul wouldn’t recognize my faith as his own, then Christianity seems like a constant reinvention of God instead of a constant discovery of God.

      Sorry for the jumbled thoughts. I’m a little scattered at the moment.

      • Isaac (or possibly Obed) says

        One of the common errors that modern Christians and Jews often make about 1st Century Judaism is to assume that it was monolithic. It’s more accurate to speak of Judaisms rather than a single Judaism of the time. One of the challenges we have is that we really have almost no non-biblical historic data that’s much older than the Exile, which makes it difficult to determine how OT Hebrews *really* did things. And as for 1st Century stuff, the majority of information represents only the Pharisaic tradition and perspective. It can be challenging.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          > One of the common errors that modern Christians and Jews often make about 1st Century
          > Judaism is to assume that it was monolithic.

          Certainly that is true…. but we do this *all the time* about myriad groups. Today we talk about Conservatives, Liberals, Progressives, Muslims,…. all of which are enormous groups [Muslims describes roughly a B as in Billion people).

          Sometimes that is OK if what is inferred is very general and describes at least the majority of those under a given umbrella term; but there is danger in it to of wall-papering over substantive diversity. Time makes this even harder – the only thing I/we know about 1st century XYZ is from what scraps have survived.

          This doubles down the need to keep going back to credible sources and non-partisan historians.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        > What am I to make of the probability that Jews “believed in” multiple gods, but
        > believed that their YHWH was most powerful.

        Hmmm. I personally know modern Christians who functionally believe this same thing or some effective equivalent.

        If an Evangelical believes that Ba-al was a reference to demon worship is not that essentially the same thing? Demon / Daemon ~= god.

        One could even place C.S. Lewis in the camp of `believing in` lower-case-g gods who are lesser than YHWH.

        I do not feel a need to demand too much precision about such things [because, honestly, we are happily sloppy in our thinking about all kinds of things].

        > When I learn that the early Christians would radically disagree with me about theology,

        Do you have a specific citation/example of this in mind?

        • Recently it’s been atonement. I was reading a commentary on Peter Abelard, and it was noting that the Penal Substitution theory is relatively new (as in, Abelard would never had heard anything like it new). I didn’t even really know there were other available options, other than Christus Victor, which was always presented as something “mystical” and “eastern”.

          Maybe I just need to remind myself that I believe in good-faith disagreement 🙂

      • Richard Hershberger says

        ‘What am I to make of the probability that Jews “believed in” multiple gods, but believed that their YHWH was most powerful.’

        This comes through clearly in parts of the Old Testament. This is especially true in Genesis, but consider also the commandment to “have no other god before me.” This is very different from an exclusive claim to godhood.

  2. The statement that the Stage III infancy narratives reflect “an adult Christ at Christmas” made me think of one of the terms that the Spanish use for Christmas. A translation/explanation website explains it this way.

    “Felices pascuas” — Which has the same meaning as “Feliz Navidad.” The word “pascua” (pass – quah) can also be capitalized. It means “easter” and “passover,” although you may say “pascua judía” or “Jewish Easter” to be more precise. “Pascua” also means the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and any other solemn celebration in the Catholic Church. Thus, “felices pascuas” is an expression for Easter, Passover, and Christmas, and the Epiphany.

    Note that I would strongly disagree that the word pascua can be used for “any other solemn celebration in the Catholic Church.” But, catch that in Spanish, the four feasts mentioned are all considered to be related to the Passover (Pascua). For the Roman Catholic, each and every one of those feasts points to the fact that, “… on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks …”

    Every major feast of Christ is related to his death and resurrection, in Spanish thought. Christmas is just as much a part of Passover (Pascua) as is Easter Sunday. “… on the night he was betrayed …” points us to the Cross. Even the Resurrection points us to the Cross, insofar as he kept the wounds on his hands, feet, and side.

    So, I would agree. The adult crucified Christ is found in Christmas.

  3. “The Gospel writers started with the resurrection and what it taught them about Jesus the Christ and worked their way backwards…”

    This is basically the EOrthodox view. There are echoes of Pascha in the Nativity – really, in all the Feasts.

    Ch Mike, if you have the opportunity, some day visit an Orthodox Church for the service of the Eve of Theophany (Jan 5) or Great Blessing of the Waters (Jan 6). This feast is not about the arrival of the Magi, but rather the Baptism of Christ. The echoes of light – and of Pascha – are dizzying. Fr Stephen Freeman could probably recommend a church in your area; you can contact him through St Anne’s Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge TN. He has written about Theophany here: http://glory2godforallthings.com/2013/01/05/theophany-and-the-gates-of-hades/


    • I love these insights from EO liturgy and theology! It is little wonder that Luther and Lutherans have been attracted to EO thinking.

    • Richard Hershberger says

      ‘There are echoes of Pascha in the Nativity’

      This is true in the western tradition as well. There is a reason that Christmas and Easter are both liturgically white seasons, and Advent and Lent are both purple.

  4. Mt. 1:23 quotes Isaiah to say that the name of the new son will be Emmanuel, which in Hebrew means God with us. God is with this young family through the heavenly Spirit and angel. And at the end of this Gospel, the risen Christ will fulfill the meaning of Emmanuel by continuing to be with his disciples always (28:20). Thus Emmanuel and its meaning bracket the beginning (the birth of Jesus) and the ending (the resurrection of Jesus) of this Gospel.

  5. David Cornwell says

    I think many times we tend to think of the resurrection of Jesus as being the terminal event, when it fact it is the beginning focus of the Christian faith. Everything else, including the events portrayed in the gospels are proclamations of this event.

    The different gospel accounts are in fact the proclamation expressions of this faith. Claude Geffre, in the “The Risk of Interpretation,” talking about the resurrection says the following:

    “when we say that our faith in the resurrection of Christ is based on the historical testimony of the apostles, who were witnesses of the appearances, it is less concerned with the character of the facts reported as events than with the person of the risen Jesus who is revealed via those facts. …. In other words, faith bears within itself its own testimony, even though it is founded on a testimony that goes back to an historical inquiry.”

    And then another quotation from Luke Timothy Johnson who is speaking of the diversity of the gospel accounts:
    “The first is that the reality of Jesus, not only as risen Lord, but also in his hidden human manifestation of the divine presence, is richer and more complex than can be contained in any single version. … each of them, the church declares, is true in its fashion, and yet none of them captures all the truth.”

    The Bible itself it the work of the Church. The Church over a period of time agreed, for various reasons, that certain writings were to become the New Testament canon. The final settlement was reached at the Council of Carthage in 397. And based on tradition, the Holy Spirit was informative in this decision.

    In the past I assumed that scripture was primary in consideration of the quadrilateral of reason, scripture, tradition, and experience. However my evolving understanding seems to say that tradition is primary, for tradition is the work of the Church, and the Bible the book of the Church, flowing from its understanding and work.

    • Excellent remarks, David. As always.

    • Was the Council of Carthage an ecumenical council? If not, then it could not define the canon of the Bible for the universal church, could it?

      My understanding, sketchy as it is, is that the canon of the Bible was first defined universally by a council after the Great Schism, when the Roman Catholic Church, claiming the authority to define the canon, did so unilaterally.

      Is this incorrect?

      • Note of explanation: I’m not disagreeing that the canon of the Bible, specifically, of the NT, is the authoritative scriptural canon of the Christian church. What I’m saying is that the canonical status of the Bible, the NT, did not depend on being defined by an ecumenical council because the canon, over time, established itself in the various provinces of the church in such an authoritative way that it was unnecessary.

        When local councils defined the canon for their provinces, they were ratifying what was already happening, or later what had happened, in the universal life of the church. But the canon did not depend on any council for its authority in the universal church.

        Is this incorrect?

        If so, would someone tell me which Ecumenical Council, before the Great Schism, defined the canon of the NT that we have today?

      • In connection with my other comments, I want to say that I think it is historically unjustified to use tradition as a prophylaxis for protecting the integrity of those elements of traditional Christian faith, like the virgin birth, that scholarship tells us cannot be historically grounded in New Testament evidence.

        Which means that as much as I may agree with Brown’s or any other scholar’s analysis of the NT documents, I cannot agree with him or any other scholar when they protect traditional doctrines by appeal to extra-biblical tradition, even after they’ve dismantled the authenticity of the Biblical accounts.

        As a Protestant, I believe the main stream of tradition is the Bible itself; if the Bible is unable to discipline tradition, what is? What is to stop tradition from developing in ways that are unfaithful to the truth of Jesus Christ? And how would I ever choose between the varying accounts of tradition, even if, as some might assert, there are only two real choices: the Eastern Orthodox Church, or the Roman Catholic Church?

        I’ll tell you how: I would have to trust that I, as an individual, can discern religious truth, God’s truth, well enough to make a choice outside the framework of either of those churches, that is, I would have to be a Protestant when making the choice. Once we’ve established that, then the alternatives open up to far more than just two.

        • Well, Robert, for the Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant are 2 sides of the same coin…

          In the O. view, the bible does not stand apart from or over against Tradition. Tradition is the whole expressed life of the Church that has been handed over/on (tradere in Lat, paradokein in Gk), and the bible is the first and most important element of that, and so for the Orthodox, Tradition could not possibly “develop in ways that are unfaithful to the truth of Jesus Christ.” We know little-t traditions arise, especially in unique localities, and not all of them are good, but they are differentiated from capital-T Tradition.) All of scripture is inspired in the O. view, but some of it “weighs” more than others. That’s why it is the book of the 4 gospels that sits on the altar in an O. church, not the whole bible. The Gospels “weigh” the most; it is in them we find the reason for worship in the first place, and it is through them, and in particular the Cross and Resurrection (“the Passion of Christ”), that we read and interpret the rest of scripture.

          As to the virginal conception, we believe that Luke interviewed Mary, among those he would have had to interview to set forth an “orderly account,” and he faithfully transmitted Mary’s experience. Mary was certainly there “from the beginning”… BTW, in Luke 1:1-2, when Luke writes of “the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word,” that “delivered to us” is paredosan. Forms of paradokein show up in a lot of places in the NT, including in 2Thess 2.15 and 2Tim 2.2. In those days before the printing press, and the Enlightenment project of encyclopedia-making, oral transmission was trusted more than written; see Ben Witherington, a good and faithful Methodist and very strong academic who, I believe, admires Brown.

          And on the bible: the bible as paper and ink cannot do anything. It is text, and text has to be interpreted. The good news was proclaimed for years before the agreed-upon text was established. When people make choices about religious truth, they are making them based on which particular interpretation makes the best sense to them. I understood this years before I had any notions about becoming Orthodox.

          Thank you for your good comments. Your struggle to keep faithful heart is an example for me. May you & your wife have a very merry Christmas.


          • Thank you, Dana, for your good wishes for a Merry Christmas. May you also have a wonderful Christmas.

          • Dana,

            Why do you believe that the words used to convey Tradition’s interpretation of Scripture possess a self-interpreting quality that Scripture does not possess? Doesn’t your position ascribe an irreducible self-interpreting quality to Traditional interpretation of Scripture that it does not ascribe to Scripture? How can this be justified? After all, isn’t Traditional interpretation of Scripture just text, or words, that need to be interpreted, as you say of Scripture itself?

          • I suppose you would consider Pope Pius IX statement, “….I am Tradition…,” to be an example of a little-t local tradition that was not good.

            I’d have to agree with that you on that.

          • I think the answer to your question is, “no” – if I understand you correctly

            When we had this discussion before, I think I remember that I said that “interpretation” stops somewhere; it’s not about continued reduction. Eventually, meaning is arrived at. Just as scripture emerged from the Church, the proper interpretation of scripture also belongs to the Church. This does not mean a Magisterium – we don’t have one! – but a living organism consisting of all its members. There have been plenty of holy lay theologians, academic and not, of both sexes, in Orthodoxy. The understanding is that the holier one’s life, the more likely one is to be able to interpret anything correctly.

            It was difficult at first for me to wrap my head around Tradition being the Whole Thing, and scripture being (the most important) part of that whole, rather than scripture being seen as over against tradition. The interpretation of scripture in Orthodoxy is not found in volumes of systematic theology, but the volumes of of the liturgical services, especially the Vigils (Vespers +Matins) of feasts. It’s the sung liturgical poetry for the Vigil of Christmas and Christmas Day that expresses the meaning of the birth narratives found in scripture. That poetry cannot be reduced any further. This is a very different way to find out “what a church believes” than I was used to.

            Fr T. Hopko’s explanation is likely better than mine:

            Fr Stephen might be helpful, too:
            …and the pull-down menu under “Scripture” among the topics along the bottom of the masthead on his blog.

            (Sorry for all the links, mods…)

            Here is some of that poetry:

            Today the Virgin comes to the cave
            to give birth to the Eternal Word.
            Hear the glad tidings and rejoice, O universe!
            Glorify with the Angels and the shepherds
            the Eternal God, Who is willing to appear as a little child!

            Your Kingdom endures forever, O Christ our God.
            Your rule is from age to age.
            Made flesh by the Holy Spirit,
            made man of the ever-virgin Mary,
            You have filled all creation with joy.
            The light of Your coming has shone on us;
            every living creature praises You,
            the Image of the Father’s glory.
            Light of Light, the radiance of the Father,
            the same yesterday, today, and forever,
            You have shone forth from the Virgin.
            O God, have mercy on us!

            What shall we offer You, O Christ,
            Who for our sakes have appeared on earth as a man?
            Every creature made by You offers You thanks:
            the Angels offer a hymn; the heavens, a star;
            the Wise Men, gifts; the shepherds, their wonder;
            the earth, its cave; the wilderness, a manger,
            and we offer You a virgin Mother!
            O Pre-eternal God, have mercy on us!

            When Augustus ruled alone upon the earth,
            the many kingdoms of men came to an end,
            and when You were made man of the pure Virgin,
            the many gods of idolatry were destroyed.
            The cities of the world passed under one single rule,
            and the nations came to believe in one sovereign Godhead.
            The peoples were enrolled by the decree of Caesar,
            and we the faithful were enrolled in the name of the Godhead,
            When You, our God, were made man.
            Great is Your mercy, O Lord, glory to You!

            Your Nativity, O Christ our God,
            has shone to the world the light of wisdom!
            For by it, those who worshiped the stars
            were taught by a star to adore You,
            the Sun of righteousness,
            and to know You, the Dayspring from on high.
            O Lord, glory to You!

            and more here: http://oca.org/liturgics/service-texts
            Scroll down to December 25 and click on Matins, then read through the Canon beginning on page 4, and to the end on page 14.


          • Thank you, Dana…your eloquent explanation speaks for me as well, from the Roman side of the Church.

            @Robert…..the essential difference seems to be that Catholics, Orthodox, and a handful of others see the full Truth of Christ in the Church itself, with the written words being sacred and a basis for faith, but only insofar as they are understood alongside the matters that were NOT written down….either not in scripture, or not at all.

            Where you see tradition having the potential to corrupt the message of God in scripture, I see unguided or incompletely formed interpretation of scripture, itself translated multiple upon multiple of times, as a potential road to blurring God’s message in full context and depth.

            Clearly, such an intrinsic matter of faith will leave us continuing to agree to disagree…..but I thank you for your input in understanding the view from other mountains.

          • That Christianity is a faith that fundamentally involves encounter with God in the person ofJesus Christ, rather than assent to a list of beliefs that one must hold to truly have faith, is something with which I agree.

            You seem to be saying that in the Liturgies of the Orthodox Church, an irreducible encounter with Jesus Christ takes place, an encounter that requires no interpretation and is self-authenticating.

            I have had what I take to be irreducibly direct encounters with Jesus Christ, like the ones you are referring to, while reading Scripture alone and with others, at worship in liturgies of the Episcopal Church, in the depths of personal moments with my wife.

            These moments of encounter do not point to anything outside of themselves for meaning. They hold meaning within themselves, bottomless, deep meaning, analogous in some ways to the manner in which the play of children points to nothing outside of itself for meaning, but holds meaning in the depth of joy that play opens up to a child, and sometimes to adults.

            But I find such meaning in direct, uninterpreted encounter with Jesus as he is spoken to me in the New Testament; I find not only many of the words of Christ irreducibly meaningful in this way, but many of the things said about him in the New Testament as well.

            One of the things I love so much, and find so meaningful, about the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer 1979 is how rich with Scripture it is, and how the liturgies celebrated from the BCP turn back again and again to the Scriptures, and to Jesus Christ as he is found in the Scriptures.

          • Yes, that is what I am saying about encounter; you figured it out and expressed it better than I did… And that is actually what Orthodox believe. We also believe that your encounters with Jesus Christ are authentic, because God is gracious and loves mankind, and meets us where we are in accordance with what he knows of our hearts. The one (S/T) does not negate the other (T/S); it’s both/and – Orthodoxy accommodates lots of paradox without tension – and it’s all good.

            I appreciate the BCP very much. For more than 10 years I prayed daily with P. Tickle’s “Divine Hours,” which is mostly BCP. Everything you said about the BCP is what I find in the Orthodox Divine Liturgy and services.

            Glory to Jesus Christ, glory forever!


      • David Cornwell says

        Robert, I’m not an expert on history of the Church councils of the era. Someone else probably knows a lot more. But this Council seems to have one of a series in Carthage. And in part they were responding to certain heretical claims and questionable writings (I think). This may not have been the final or most authoritative council, but it was important in determining the fixing the what the Church should read.

        Maybe someone else can give us a clearer history.

      • David Cornwell says

        I can’t find anything to that would state the the Third Synod of Carthage is not the most definitive Changes have been made from time to time, or efforts at making changes were made (ex Luther). In some ways the canon is always open to change if an authoritative ecumenical council should make such changes. But, considering the state of the Church in general, and the multitude of denominations, theologies, non-connected churches, etc, the practical chance of such an occurrence is nil.

        “The Development of the Canon of the New Testament” is the title of a page on the web site of ntcanon.org which lists various councils, etc.

        • But David, is there anything that suggests that the Third Synod of Carthage was defining the canon for the whole church, or that the whole church acknowledged that the Synod had done so? I think it was one local council among others at different times and in different places that recognized the self-asserting authority of the canon we now have. I do not believe the books in our canon of the New Testament required any official definition by a church wide council, and that’s why no church wide, ecumenical council defined the canon as part of their work, nor even undertook to do so.

          The canon disciplines the counsels, even the ecumenical councils, not vice versa.

  6. There is a billboard on Broadway by the American Atheists that asks, “Who needs Christ during Christmas?”.
    I have seen Christians get all bent out of shape about it. I have seen no one bring up the historical fighting that has gone on for more than a few years about the atheist group being mad about a Knights of Columbus sign that has hung over Broadway in Pittman, NJ, that has been put up for 50 years, that says “Keep Christ in Christmas”. My position here is nothing about the saying that Christmas without Christ would be similar to celebrating winter solstice without winter. Or that commercialization, greed, and shopping took Christ out of Christmas. Or that a “none” family can have a beautiful holiday without Christ.
    Actually I would like to touch on the fact that the writers of the Gospels in the birth of Christ had a theological purpose. We say Emmanuel only because we have a different historical perspective like them. Who knew it at Jesus birth? Because it has a theological purpose, and his birth in such a miraculous, humble, and Old Testament fulfilling story it is compelling to us believers. We think it should be compelling to others. To us Jesus birth illustrates a shift in theological understanding. Jesus birth, death, and resurrection give us a totally new perspective. But I think it doesn’t demonstrate the existence of God. Only direct perception does that. Once a person has some form of direct perception of the Gospel, then their theological perspective will be clearer by the New Testament witness and writings and perhaps the witness of others.
    I will try to illustrate by what believers know. Peter when first confronted by Jesus fell on his knees claiming himself a sinner. Even after knowing Him as the Messiah he denied. But after the resurrection, he had a meeting with Jesus on the road. I have no idea what happened. But I know when Jesus came to Peter fishing, he dove off the boat to be near him. That is what a fuller theological understanding will do.
    To me all this fighting over Jesus birth, keeping Christ in Christmas… is another way of making Christ the object of religion. Another way of us thinking that our religion is so important, we are the privileged. May the grace shown by our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love God has given us, and the sharing of life with all others given us by the Holy Spirit be with us all.
    It is my favorite time of year. I love Christmas music, especially classical. Many people have a nice time this time of year. Children are cute, even in the Saint Nick thing. I’m sensitive to those who are depressed. I think I have a certain radar for them, and can personally attest to being with some in good ways in the past. People decorate in some really classy and tacky ways. My town is tacky, which bugs me mostly because I have had zero impact. It’s just the best holiday of the year….you have to ask yourself why? There are many, many ways to keep Christ in an immature way. I want and pray to be like Peter( as his theological perspective matured) and run to him, because he is love. How to be a reflector of that takes less effort paradoxically as I get older. It’s really not religious to be born anew each day. And that to me is part of the Resurrected Christ at Christmas.

  7. I just finished “A Coming Christ in Advent” and I am halfway thought “An Adult Christ At Christmas” – both were a revelation for me (no pun intended) given how I was brought up with the gospels. Very insightful stuff from Fr. Brown.

  8. CM,

    Question: if, as Brown says, the NT accounts of Jesus’ birth are far less connected with actual historical occurrences than the passion narratives, doesn’t this have implications for the centrality of the places in the ecumenical creeds that speak of Jesus being born of a virgin? Why should we continue to vow belief in an event as historical when we have good reason to doubt that it actually was?

    Oh, I know that some would say that the creeds may be interpreted as a kind of religious poetry on this issue and others, but I don’t think that those who composed the creeds meant their reference to the virgin birth to be taken as poetry. I think they meant it to be taken as assertion of historical fact, and they made that assertion central to the confession of Christian faith.

    How can we continue to affirm that these parts of the creeds are essential to Christian faith if Brown is correct?

    (Btw, I think Brown probably is correct.)

  9. As I have been working (slowly) though Michael Spencer’s commentary on Mark, I have been surprised how negatively Jesus’ family is portrayed. As Mark was the first gospel written, I have wondered if the infancy narratives are actually written as a push back against Mark’s portrayal.

    • I know that the majority of scholars believe Mark was the first written, but what if the majority are wrong? It does happen that majorities are sometimes wrong. There is a sizable minority of responsible scholars who believe that Matthew was written first, and yet it is common to hear people state flatly that Mark was the first written, as if this hypothesis has more than just probably true, as if it were an established fact.

      And from this assumption of established fact about the chronological order of gospel composition all kinds of inferences are made and all kinds of exegesis is done, all kinds of theological nuances are developed…..that will turn out to have been completely inaccurate if the assumption is in fact wrong.

      And there is more than a slim possibility that it is in fact wrong.

      • Robert,

        There are no infancy narratives in Mark. Did you realize that Mary and Joseph are not not mentioned by name in Mark. Does it make any sense that Mark would systematically remove all reference to their names when writing his gospel? No.

        Look at the converse. We are told by very early sources that Mark was dependent on Peter as a source. Peter may not have even been aware of the infancy events. It makes much more sense that Mark’s gospel was written first and then Mary and others wanted to “set the record straight.”

        In this case the thoughts expressed support the Markan priority hypothesis, rather than being derived from it.

        • Michael,
          The Two-Gospel Hypothesis posits that two traditions of the gospels were written out of different concerns and for different audiences. True, it does not answer all your questions adequately. On the other hand, the Two-Source Hypothesis has the major defect of the complete absence of any document in the historical record even remotely resembling Q, and no mention of any document like Q in the documents of the early church.

          What is the likelihood that a document as significant as the Two-Source Hypothesis says Q was would go missing from the notice and mention of the early church, and leave no documentary evidence, but have to be postulated entirely on speculative evidence?

          Again, these are hypothesis; either may be wrong, and neither rises to the level of theory because not enough evidence can be found to support a theory in either case.

          I repeat, why then do we treat one as practically certain, and the other as practically non-existent? Further, what if the one we subscribe to with such certainty, and build our inferences around, is wrong?

          In that case, a lot of what we think the NT is saying to us is incorrect, and many of the subtle and not-so subtle nuances of theology we develop are missing the bus.

          What then?

  10. Is it possible for Stage Three to contradict Stage One? We can’t just assume continuity.

  11. Adam Tauno Williams says

    >Does it make any sense that Mark would systematically remove all reference to their names
    >when writing his gospel?

    ??? He did not “systematically remove” such references as they were never there to remove if [he] the author did not include them.

    > It makes much more sense that Mark’s gospel was written first and then Mary and others
    > wanted to “set the record straight.”

    Is there really enough verifiable evidence to infer *motives* of any sort into the authorship of the gospels? It seems hard enough to even pin down who exactly wrote them.

    • My point Adam was that we know that Matthew and Mark share a lot of material. If Robert is correct and Mark had access to the gospel of Matthew, then it becomes very hard to explain why Mark excludes the names of Jesus’ human parents if he had access to them from Matthew. Conversely if Mark was written first, and Matthew had access to it, it would be quite reasonable to think that Matthew would have chosen to add in the information about Jesus’ family.

      • Michael,
        It’s not a matter of Robert being correct. Robert doesn’t know, and as a result he’s agnostic about the subject of which gospel was written first.

        And for that matter, Robert doesn’t think the scholarly experts know either, because they don’t have evidence that adds up to knowing, one way or the other. What they do have is very highly educated guesses, conjectures, based on their interpretation of the NT texts, without any supporting evidence outside of the text for either major hypothesis.

        What ever happened to humility in the face of lack of evidence, and the humble reticence to resist reifying creative guesses into, if you’ll excuse the word, gospel?

    • Marcus Johnson says

      First, I’m assuming this was a response to Michael Bell’s comment?

      Second, I agree with Adam; it becomes problematic when we start designing motives for the Gospel writers when the evidence just isn’t there for us to examine. There may be evidence within the text of the Gospels, however, to indicate that the audiences for each of the Gospels was slightly different. In my opinion, that might have had more to do with the difference in details between each narrative.