The Jewish Nativity

When you look at all the nativity stories in the gospels it is clear that the significance of Jesus’ birth concerns the destiny of Israel. If the New Testament writers are clear that Jesus’ birth was for Israel then for the subsequent generations of believers who created a tradition of marking the day of his birth should also recognise that. However, this intensely Jewish focus is often missing among contemporary believers celebrating Christ’s birth. There are number of reasons for this strange understanding of the meaning of Christ’s birth but it strongly indicates our basic lack of fluency in the Hebrew Bible.

I have said so many times the New Testament fundamentally depends on Israel’s scriptures to meaningful. This is because Jesus’ own self-understanding and mission depended on the Hebrew Scriptures. The New Testament is unapologetically Jewish but perhaps this most apparent in the nativity stories. If you do not recognise the litany of citations, allusions, echoes and general references to Israel and its sacred scriptures densely packed into those stories, it literally says that Christ’s birth is about Israel. For example, Mary concludes the Magnificat thanking God for the miraculous conception of her son saying,

He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” – Luke 1:54-55 ESV

After his birth Simeon tells Mary,

“Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” – Luke 2:34-35 ESV

His prophetic declaration was that Jesus’ birth meant portentous things for Israel, that he would be the great reckoning of his people. You can hardly get any more explicit than that about Jesus significance to his own people. The specific reason why Jesus’s birth is about Israel is that he was born the Messiah, the title of king of Israel and the end time saviour of the nation. So in Matthew the wise men ask,

“Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” – Matthew 2:1-2 ESV

Both Matthew and Luke in very different ways go to great lengths to show that Jesus was born the long anticipated, royal Messiah. This makes Jesus birth a political event which meant it concerned the state and direction of a particular nation at a particular point in time. We must remember religion and politics were deeply intertwined in Jesus’ time. Therefore Jesus’ birth was a matter of current affairs in Roman Judaea.

Perhaps what it makes it so hard for even devout Christians to appreciate this is because most Christians are not Jewish, let alone second Temple Jews. It is therefore hard to be deeply invested in such a specifically Jewish story happening at a specific period in Jewish history. So we spiritualise and universalize the narrative by glossing over the Jewish specifics of it. We therefore say things like Jesus was born to save the world. While that is a true statement in itself, it is not true for the reasons most Christians think it is. The angel says to Joseph,

She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” – Matthew 1:21 ESV

“His people” are the Jewish people so in Matthew Jesus came to save Israel. This is not a unique statement either because in John’s Gospel Jesus plainly says “Salvation is from the Jesus” (John 4:22.) Paul in Galatians writes,

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law… Galatians 4:4-5 ESV

“The Law” here is the law of Moses which was given to only Jewish people. If Jesus was born as the leader and saviour of the Jewish people, why does that matter to non-Jewish people? The calling of Abraham was for the world. The scripture says of him “in you all of the families of the world will be blessed” (Genesis 12:3.) It is through the Jewish people, specifically the Jewish messiah, that God wants to rescue the world. That is the way salvation works. The logic of redemption simply does not work if you skip over Israel. So Paul says,

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.Romans 1:16 ESV

So going back to Simeon he says,

Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel. – Luke 2:29-32 ESV

The first Christmas was about God, through the birth of his Son, fulfilling his promises to his people Israel and through that bringing salvation to the world. As believers we should use this period to reflect on the Jewish core and structure of our Faith that form the very story of Jesus

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