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The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus's Birth Paperback – October 6, 2009
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“With meticulous scholarship and accessible language, “The first Christmas”... uncover(s) the genuine meaning of...the Birth of Jesus.” (The Progressive Christian)
From the Back Cover
In The First Christmas, two of today's top Jesus scholars, Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, join forces to show how history has biased our reading of the nativity story as it appears in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. As they did for Easter in their previous book, The Last Week, here they explore the beginning of the life of Christ, peeling away the sentimentalism that has built up over the last two thousand years around this most well known of all stories to reveal the truth of what the gospels actually say. Borg and Crossan help us to see this well-known narrative afresh by answering the question, "What do these stories mean?" in the context of both the first century and the twenty-first century. They successfully show that the Christmas story, read in its original context, is far richer and more challenging than people imagine.
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For those not familiar with the authors, this book may contain some challenging perspectives. They gently debunk common popular approaches to the story as factual history in favour of pointing to the biblical authors' theological intentions. The writing is clear and concise; it is scholarly but not expressed in deeply academic language.
Why only four stars? While I recognise that this isn't designed to be an academic textbook, the authors are serious scholars; I'd have appreciated an appendix of references so I could explore their conclusions in a bit more depth. There are more than a few times that they make a point that could use some more backup than this book's format allowed for.
I don't always agree with Borg, especially on his opinion on the factual nature of events described in the New Testament. But that is his opinion, and I respect his deep insight into the layers of meaning behind the stories, and he is the best at putting the stories into their historical context. I don't feel like I have to agree with a writer's every theological point in order to learn something, nor do I fear that reading "heresy" is somehow going to banish me to the flames of hell. What I do learn from Borg is insight into what the authors of Matthew and Luke were trying to communicate about Jesus, the Son of God. If you side-step the happened-or-not argument and instead dive into the deeper spiritual truths of the stories, you will come out with a better understanding of not only the New Testament, but also how first century Christians viewed Jesus through their cultural and historical lenses.
At times I wished that Borg would just get to the point, but I think it's because I'm well-acquainted with his approach and reasons behind it, having read several of his books, including the excellent Two Visions of Jesus that he co-wrote with N.T. Wright. Those new to Borg's writings will need to read those passages to understand the foundation of his interpretation.
As you read the vicious reviews here, keep in mind that they are probably written by the inerrant, literal, dictated-word-for-word-by-God crowd. They can't fathom a Bible that might actually contain metaphor and allegory, which was a very common form of communicating spiritual truth in ancient times.
The author does not consider the historical factuality of any aspect of the Christmas texts of Matthew and Luke. “Rather, we focus on their meanings. What did and do these stories mean?” (Introduction). He places the stories in their first century context, and then comments on how Christians should understand the stories today (also from the introduction).
One reasonably assumes that most Christians, deep down, believe that some form of a blended nativity story is literally and historically true. A functional Christian faith would lose something special if this were not the case. By declining to address textual issues, Marcus Borg, by default, is admitting that the stories do not have a basis in fact. His follow-up focus on an interpretation of the “meaning” of those stories in today’s context is an unwarranted stretch, in my opinion. The stories make the most valid sense when considered in the temporal and cultural context in which they were written. This, Borg does very well. The obvious historical errors in the stories and the contradictions between the stories simply cannot be resolved. Neither can the meanings of the stories be honestly interpreted if removed from their original context.
Nevertheless, an understanding of the historical context of these stories does enrich one’s perspective on them. Linking the virgin birth to the contemporary virgin birth stories of Roman emperors, is an example. Jesus is shown to be as phenomenal as Roman emperors. His status is as high as theirs, even though the surroundings of his birth are mean. The book offers many such links to the context of the times. In other publications, these kinds of cultural links have also been demonstrated for non-nativity stories within the Gospels. The explanations of the First Century cultural contexts, as a means of showing WHY the nativity stories were written AS THEY WERE, is the most valuable contribution of this book.
I strongly recommend the first half of the book, the half that places the nativity stories in their original temporal, cultural and historical context. You will then view the nativity stories from a much richer perspective. You will become aware of the meanings that the ancient authors of the stories intended to convey. Those are the only meanings that have any validity. Taking the nativity texts out of their original context and dropping it into the modern context leaves behind those intended meanings.
As for the second half of the book: Borg adds nothing to what is readily available from the pulpit today, or from good modern interpretations by today’s theologians. These are abundantly available.