[Review] The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Birth

The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Birth by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked up this book because it was Advent and I wanted something thematically appropriate, I recognized Crossan’s name from countless NatGeo and History documentaries, and it was on sale. It turned out to be a better book than I thought it’d be, although I have a feeling it may be a bit controversial to some Christians.

Borg and Crossan’s basic premise for the book is that people know the story of the first Christmas mostly from hearsay and popular culture, rather than from the actual biblical text. Their goal is to look at Scripture, specifically Matthew and Luke, to see what the text actually says about the birth of Jesus, and seek to understand what it says in terms of life in the first century in Rome-occupied Israel, and for us today. To do this, the authors open with what I think is the most controversial part of their work: they explain that they do not see the gospels as literal and historical documents, but rather as parables, or to use a Jewish term, a midrash (commonly translated as legend), a literary form that tells of the stories behind the biblical stories in highly symbolic and metaphorical language. The authors argue that the writers of Matthew and Luke, being Jews, would have been familiar with this style of writing, and adapted it to tell their story of Jesus.

Whether you agree with their position or not, the analysis of the elements of the Christmas story is excellent, and brings to light a number of important points, such as the language of rebellion against imperialism (or very specifically, Rome), the reason why the titles given to Jesus are basically slaps in the face of Rome’s Caesar, and how utterly brand new is the idea of a religion that embraces the masses, the poor, the outcasts. By their analysis of Matthew and Luke, Borg and Crossan show what an amazing paradigm shift the arrival of Jesus, and thus Christianity, are. Borg and Crossan succeed in making the narrative alive, and getting our collective attention, so used to the nativity story, to marvel anew at it all.

The English Lit graduate in me, and the new Christian in me, (and hey, even the former-Jewish guy in me) all enjoyed this book for its complex literary-meets-theological analysis. I will definitely check out the author’s companion book on the Easter stories, The Final Week, later this year.