While the Christmas season provides increased opportunities to hear the story of Jesus’ birth, few contemporary versions consider how first-century Gospel readers would have understood the message, according to a Vanderbilt University New Testament scholar.
“I believe that the more we know about the New Testament in its historical period, the more profound the text becomes,” said Amy-Jill Levine, co-editor of The Jewish Annotated New Testament (Oxford University Press, 2011). “Today’s readers often hear a personal message from the Scriptures, and those personal messages can be enhanced by hearing what the Gospels’ first audiences would have heard: political messages, laugh-out-loud stories and strong connections to the Jewish Scriptures.”
Jesus’ birth and the writing of the Gospels both occurred in the Roman Empire. Levine said that the New Testament writers ask their readers a political question: will they worship the Roman Emperor, who was regarded as divine but who ruled by military force and economic exploitation, or will they be loyal to a Jewish messiah who proclaims that the one who wants to be first must be a servant of all?
Levine said that the Star of Bethlehem, which in the Christmas story leads the Magi to Jesus, is one aspect of the nativity story that has been misunderstood through the years. “The first-century view of astronomy is quite different from ours,” she said. “People back then had no idea of how large or how hot stars are. A star perched directly over a house would incinerate the house, and the entire continent around it. Instead, stars were thought both to be relatively small and to be living beings, like angels.”
Levine, University Professor of New Testament Studies and professor of Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt, noted that Matthew injects humor into the story by describing the Magi. “Although people today think of the Magi as wise men, Matthew’s readers may not have thought this,” she said. “To ask about the one born ‘king of the Jews’ in Jerusalem, where King Herod is on the throne, is not a politically astute question. One first-century source, Philo of Alexandria, describes a figure from the Book of Numbers, Balaam, as a Magus (singular of Magi), and Balaam has a donkey who is smarter than he.”
Levine believes that part of the problem with the Christmas story is that it tends to get abstracted from the rest of the New Testament.
“It is read at Christmas and then put away with the holiday decorations until next year,” she said.
“People in the first century didn’t read the Gospels in snippets. They sat through an entire reading just as we sit through a movie, and they would remember earlier scenes. For example, when Jesus says, at the Last Supper, ‘This is my body, which is given for you,’ listeners would remember that the baby was placed in a manger, that is, a feeding trough. The symbolism of Jesus as food for his followers would be clear to them.”
Levine encourages people to read all sacred scripture with respect. “We study it with respect, not only for those who believe the words are divinely inspired, but also with respect for the authors and the audiences who first heard them.” She said that the Bible is meant to be read, to evoke strong emotions and to speak to readers today.
More insights into the first-century context of the Christmas story can be found in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, which covers all the books of the New Testament. The book’s co-editor is Marc Zvi Brettler of Brandeis University.