What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus' Birth

by Marcus Borg & John Dominic Crossan

Borg and Crossan give an esoteric and exhaustive exegesis of the birth of Jesus in the New Testament. The following quote summarizes their conclusion:
It is not accurate to distinguish the imperial kingdom of Rome from the eschatological kingdom of God by claiming one is earthly the other heavenly, one is evil the other holy, or one is demonic the other sublime. That is simply name-calling. Both come to us with divine credentials for the good of humanity. They are two alternative transcendental visions. Empire promises peace through violent force. Eschaton promises peace through nonviolent justice.…That clash of visionary programs for our earth is the context and matrix for those Christmas stories, and they proclaim God’s peace through justice over against Rome’s peace through victory. (p.75)

They point out, for example, that Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem symbolically says that he is the “son of David,” the ideal king. According to Borg and Crossan, the divine conception of Jesus was a parable intended to counteract the claims that the Roman emperors were divine. That Jesus chose twelve apostles symbolizes a reuniting of the tribes of Israel and shows Jesus was concerned about peace and justice on earth.

In my opinion, this is the beginning of a historical sign that the eschaton is a heavenly one promising hope for eternal life. This sign is not a single historical event, like the resurrection of Jesus, but includes current events because it includes the universal recognition that capitalism and democracy realizes for mankind “peace through justice.” Evidence of this new worldwide understanding is the demise of communism, the welfare reform movement, and the movement towards free trade between nations.

The end of communism in the Soviet Union and China proves there is no alternative to a market economy based on private ownership and control of businesses. Welfare reform in the United States reached its apex with the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996. This legislation came from the realization that well-intentioned government programs, such as the War on Poverty in the United States, can have negative consequences. The fight against tariffs, quotas, and subsidies is based on the principle that a business should expand when it is profitable and contract when it is not.

The historical path from the birth of Jesus to peace and justice on earth has been long and circuitous, but it has arrived. We have peace because one Western nation will never again go to war against another Western nation. We have justice too, in the sense of just government, not because there is an ideal king, but because the lack of justice is due to the sinfulness, malice, ignorance, and apathy of individuals.

A sign is an event, such as a miracle, that is a reason to believe a prophet was sent by God. A sign the authors discuss concerns the messianic hopes of Israel. Referrring to Matthew’s quoting of the Old Testament, the authors say:

It is the basis for what is sometimes called “the argument from prophecy”; namely, the fulfillment of prophecy proves that Jesus is the Messiah, the promised one of Israel. (p. 201)

Faith is a gift from God as well as a decision to believe. Christians give reasons for believing in Jesus of Nazareth and are summoning everyone to believe. But this summons should not cause anyone to think they will be criticized if they don’t decide to believe.

All the signs considered together accounts for a positive response to revelation. That the Old Testament predicts the coming of an anointed one from God is one of the signs that Jesus was an authentic prophet.

Another sign is that the Hebrew Bible is mankind’s first narrative history. Herodotus (484–425 BCE) is called the Father of History because he gave a narrative account of the Greco-Persian Wars, which started in 498 BCE. Since the Bible gives vivid accounts of historical events going back to 10,000 BCE, Jewish people were historiographically hundreds of years ahead of the Greeks.

Another sign is that the Hebrew authors, though not as philosophically advanced as the Greeks, gave God a philosophically profound name in Exodus 3.14. The name Yahweh (“I am he who is.”) summarizes the existential proof of God’s existence: God is a pure act of existence whereas a human being is a composition of principles called essence and existence. In other words, since there are finite beings whose essence limits their existence, there must be a supernatural being, analogous to human beings, whose essence is to exist.

It is clear something wonderful has happened in the West (United States and other former English colonies, the European Union, and Japan) by comparing the standard of living and health care available to everyone in these constitutional democracies with conditions in nineteenth century England, the richest country in the world by far at that time. Democracy in the West is not a sham, but means individuals participate in government decisions that affect their lives. The recent arrival of justice and peace on earth is a sign because of the connection between the West, the Roman Catholic Church, and Jesus. The Roman Catholic Church claims to be founded by Jesus and achieved with Pope Innocent III (1160–1216) the height of its political power. The Roman Catholic Church is a forerunner of Western governments and faith in Jesus is the reason mankind has peace and justice.

According to the doctrine of original sin, God gave Adam and Eve, or the first human beings, sanctifying grace. Accompanying this gift was the absence of death and concupiscence, as we know it. Their sin deprived them and all of their descendants of a paradisal existence and gave rise to the possibility of injustice and violence. Christians believed that sanctifying grace was only available to members of the church founded by the twelve apostles.

We can speculate about justice and peace when Adam and Eve found themselves on our island of scarcity and danger. Did they fight over the results of their hunting and gathering? Did they cooperate with each other to get the most out of nature? Was one the slave of the other?

If the utilities of goods can be measured on a cardinal scale, a master-slave economy might increase utilities. This would happen if the increase in utility of goods used by the master is greater than the decrease in utility of goods used by the slave(s). If utilities can only be measured on an ordinal scale, voluntary cooperation maximizes utilities.

However, utility theory, as well as moral laws and human rights, should not be followed blindly without considering the existing circumstances. Suppose Adam and Eve were unable to agree on where and how to get food and shelter, or who would do the most burdensome and dangerous tasks? Wouldn’t one or the other be justified in using force to guarantee their survival? Might not the injured party at some point see the error of being uncooperative?

In 325 CE, Constantine the Great, possibly collaborating with the Bishop of Rome, invited all the bishops of Christendom to a legislative session, the First Council of Nicaea, to resolve a controversy between homoiousians (Arians) and homoousians about who Jesus was. The difference between the two doctrines is more subtle than the difference between Aristotelian and Newtonian inertia, however, the participants agreed that the homoousians were right. Fifty-five years later, Theodosius the Great made Roman Catholicism the only legal religion in the Roman Empire:

It is Our will that all the peoples who are ruled by the administration of Our Clemency shall practice that religion which the divine Peter the Apostle transmitted to the Romans,… The rest, however, whom We adjudge demented and insane, shall sustain the infamy of heretical dogmas, their meeting places shall not receive the name of churches, and they shall be smitten first by divine vengeance and secondly by the retribution of Our own initiative,…(The Theodosian Code, XVI.1.2)

The edict shows that Theodosius was zealous about his religious faith. The massacre at Thessalonica in 390 indicates he also took his imperial duties seriously. What happened after the massacre shows the political power the Roman Catholic Church wielded even in those early days.

Theodosius ordered the massacre in a fit of anger when a riot over a false arrest caused the death of an officer in the Roman army. Theodosius’s Gothic troops surrounded an amphitheater, filled because of a circus, and killed a predetermined number of the hapless spectators. In addition to the hooligans rounded up and executed by the local authorities after the riot, seven thousand were said to have been killed in the amphitheater. The bishop of the capital of the Western Roman Empire at that time (Saint Ambrose of Milan) denounced Theodosius publicly and excommunicated him for what he did. After performing public penance for eight months, Theodosius humbly went to Ambrose for the sacrament of Holy Communion.

In his letter of excommunication, Ambrose quoted the prophet Nathan chastising King David for killing Bathsheba’s husband. In the following verses David accepts responsibility for his actions and acknowledges that his freedom is before God. This is the foundation of the morality of Jews, Christians, and Muslims:

David said to Nathan, ‘I have sinned against Yahweh.’ Nathan then said to David, ‘Yahweh, for his part, forgives your sin; you are not to die. But, since you have outraged Yahweh by doing this, the child born to you will die.’ (2 Samuel 12.13–14)

Theodosius’s entire life shows he believed in God, tried to serve God, and hoped for salvation in the world to come. The following quotes from two famous nonbelievers shows what a lack of faith can mean. Sigmund Freud could be someone trying to justify betraying a friend and Jean-Paul Sartre could be someone contemplating suicide. Since self-centered atheists have ruled many an empire, the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity is a sign that God communicated himself to mankind through Moses, Jesus, and Mohammad:

When I ask myself why I have always behaved honorably, ready to spare others and to be kind whenever possible, and when I did not give up being so when I observed that in that way one harms oneself and becomes an anvil because other people are brutal and untrustworthy, then it is true, I have no answer. (Ernest Jones, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, New York: Basic Books, Inc., Vol. II, p. 418)
Every human reality is a passion in that it projects losing itself so as to found being and by the same stroke to constitute the In-itself which escapes contingency by being its own foundation, the Ens causa sui, which religions call God. Thus the passion of man is the reverse of that of Christ, for man loses himself as man in order that God may be born. But the idea of God is contradictory and we lose ourselves in vain. Man is a useless passion. (Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness: A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology, New York: Washington Square Press, p. 784 )

In 496, the founder of the Frankish kingdom (Clovis I) converted to Catholicism, under the influence of his wife, Saint Clotilda, and the bishops of Gaul. The Catholic bishops supported Clovis’s territorial conquests and the resulting kingdom was non-Arian, unlike some of the other Germanic kingdoms.

In 649, a council called by Pope Saint Martin I excommunicated certain bishops of the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) for Monothelitism, the doctrine that Christ had only one will. The Byzantine emperor supported the heresy and, after a failed plan to assassinate the pope, arrested Martin and transported him to Constantinople. There he was found guilty of failing to subscribe to the heresy and died in 655 after much suffering and public humiliation.

The subservience of bishops in Byzantium to secular rulers, in contrast to Martin’s steadfastness, is shown in the controversy over religious images. In 726 Emperor Leo III, under the influence of several Eastern bishops and Caliph Umar II, published an edict saying religious images were idols forbidden by Exodus 20.4–5 and commanding that they be destroyed. The patriarch of Constantinople protested, but Leo replaced him with one Anastasius. Because of the unpopularity of iconoclasm, Leo’s son-in-law was able to temporarily depose Leo’s son and successor, Constantine V. Constantine regained power and continued the fight against images by blinding and publicly flogging Anastasius, who had changed his mind about iconoclasm when Constantine was out of power. In 754 Constantine convoked an ecumenical council to condemn the worship of images. Bishops from Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem refused to attend, but over 340 bishops from Byzantine sees condemned image-worshipers. Iconoclasm was abandoned for good in 842.

In 732 at Poitiers in west central France, Charles Martel defeated an army of Caliph Hisham. In 754 at the Abbey of St. Denis near Paris, Pope Stephen II personally anointed Martel’s son (Pepin the Short) King of the Franks. In return, the Franks sent an army into Italy to force the King of the Lombards to donate land to the pope, beginning a thousand-year reign over the Papal States.

Charlemagne (Pepin’s son) was protective of Pope Adrian I and Pope Saint Leo III. When the Roman clergy and people elected Leo to succeed Adrian in 795, the family of Adrian, out of spite and jealousy, plotted to have Leo removed from office and attacked him viciously on the street in broad daylight. Leo was rescued and reinstated to his office by Charlemagne in 799. In 800, Charlemagne was crowned Imperator Augustus by Leo.

In 1073, Pope Saint Gregory VII was elected by the cardinal-bishops of Rome and confirmed in the office by Henry IV, German King and Roman Emperor, in accordance with an election law voted on by 113 bishops at a synod in Rome in 1059. In 1075 Gregory called a synod that banned the appointment of bishops by layman, making bishops dependent on the papacy rather than kings and other lords. This was especially threatening to civil authorities in Germany because the bishops there were feudal lords over vast territories in addition to being ecclesiastical authorities. At one point in the so-called investiture conflict, Henry lost so much support from rivals and bishops loyal to Gregory that he humbly submitted to Gregory at the Castle of Canossa to remove an excommunication. Gregory also made plans to raise an army to oppose the Seljukian Turks, but it was Pope Urban II who sent four crusading armies into the Holy Land in 1097.

Pope Alexander III was a professor at the University of Bologna, one of the first degree granting institutions in the world. He was the author of a commentary on Decretum Gratiani, a 1400 page treatise on ecclesiastical law (canon law) written in 1040 by a Bolognese monk. Canon law is the positive law of the Roman Catholic Church and stood along side imperial, tribal, feudal, urban, mercantile, manorial, and customary law. It was a constitutional body of law because it recognized limitations on the Church’s authority, set forth processes for selecting officials, and allocated legislative, administrative, and judicial powers.

In a famous case, Alexander added to the general theory of self-defense by ruling that two monks committed criminal sins by tying up two robbers, who ended up dead. Alexander incurred the enmity of Frederick I (Barbarossa) when he was Papal Chancellor by asserting at the Diet of Besançon in 1157 that the imperial crown is bestowed upon the German King by the pope. This caused a long schism that ended when Frederick reconciled with Alexander after his defeat at the Battle of Legnano in 1177.

Pope Innocent III, through excommunications and force of arms, wrested control over most of Italy from German knights and Norman barons. Educated at the University of Paris and the University of Bologna, Innocent wrote a number of decretals that became part of canon law. One decretal denied a request from a feudal lord in France to legitimatize two sons from a second marriage while his first marriage was canonically valid. Another decretal claimed the pope’s right to settle the war going on between France and England. This decretal admitted the pope had no competence in purely feudal disputes, but said in matters where sins were being committed the papacy had jurisdiction. A third decretal addressed a civil war in Germany caused by the election of two rival kings and said the pope has the authority to decide between the two kings and whether a king of Germany is fit to be emperor. In another case, Innocent excommunicated the entire country of France, with the exception of unbaptized infants, to pressure its king (Philip II Augustus) to reconcile with his lawful wife who he abandoned for another woman.

In 1212, Innocent deposed King John of England because of a disagreement about who should be the Archbishop of Canterbury, leaving it to Philip II Augustus to enforce the order. After being threatened by Philip, the English king followed the pope’s advice. In a further attempt to placate the pope, King John entered into a feudal arrangement with Innocent in which the Roman Catholic Church would get 1000 marks per year and King John would get to rule England. This added to the grievances the English barons had against John and they forced him to sign the Magna Carta in 1215. Innocent opposed this important document in the development of constitutional law, not because of the rights it bestowed, but because it was enacted without his consent.

The secular power of the papacy declined after Innocent, but England and France became modern nation-states by emulating the Roman Catholic Church. The first legislatures in Europe, after the fall of Rome, were the ecclesiastical councils, the first modern legal system was canon law, and the first administrators were church officials. Since the Middle Ages, the West has become one nation-state unified by the knowledge that democracy and capitalism is what people desire and what makes people happy.

The West’s prosperity is due to mass production, technology, the division of labor, and the time-consuming and roundabout methods of production used. The West has been accumulating the means of production or capital for centuries.

According to Hernando de Soto, author of The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else, a cause of poverty outside of the West is the absence of a system of property rights that is available to all citizens. Such systems have courts of law, title deeds, articles of incorporation, contracts, liens, easements, and public registries. Property rights create a large network or market for capital that has the effect of maximizing the usefulness of all assets, something that doesn’t happen when ownership is informal and extralegal.

Another reason for the West’s prosperity is the value Christians attach to honesty and other civic virtues. The following quote from St. Paul supports civic virtue because it means that membership in families, clans, tribes, and ethnic groups is not as important as membership in the human race:

So the Law was serving as a slave to look after us, to lead us to Christ, so that we could be justified by faith. But now that faith has come we are no longer under a slave looking after us; for all of you are the children of God, through faith, in Christ Jesus, since every one of you that has been baptized has been clothed in Christ. There can be neither Jew nor Greek, there can be neither slave nor freeman, there can be neither male nor female—for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3.24–28)

The importance of having honest civil servants in a just government is supported by the following quotes from Polybius (203–120 BCE) and Thomas Macaulay (1800–1859):

But the quality in which the Roman commonwealth is most distinctly superior is in my opinion the nature of their religious convictions.… The consequence is that among the Greeks, apart from other things, members of the government, if they are entrusted with no more than a talent, though they have ten copyists and as many seals and twice as many witnesses, cannot keep their faith; whereas among the Romans those who as magistrates and legates are dealing with large sums of money maintain correct conduct just because they have pledged their faith by oath. (The Histories, Book VI, paragraph 56)
The mightiest princes of the East can scarcely, by the offer of enormous usury, draw forth any portion of the wealth which is concealed under the hearths of their subjects. The British government offers little more than four per cent.; and avarice hastens to bring forth tens of millions of rupees from its most secret repositories. (Miscellaneous Works of Lord Macaulay, Vol. III, New York: Harper and Brothers, Publishers, 1880, p. 51)

Modern science has progressed along with technology and productivity. Technology involves invention and innovation and the West’s success can be explained by the freedom citizens have to take risks and accumulate wealth.

But what drove Nicolaus Copernicus and Johannes Kepler to spend hours, days, and years analyzing the earth-based observations of the sky? They made this effort because they believed the universe is intelligible, orderly, and lawful. This conviction was based on the belief that the universe was created by a supernatural God, who has knowledge, free will, and reason analogous to the knowledge, free will, and reason of human beings. China in the Middle Ages was more advanced technologically than the West, but modern science did not develop in that civilization. The following quotes from Albert Einstein and the Bible support this thesis:

All science of a high order presupposes a kind of act of faith in the intelligibility of nature. And the wonder of all wonders is that in fact nature has shown itself to be intelligible. (quoted by N. Clarke, The One and the Many, University of Notre Dame Press, p. 17)
The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is its comprehensibility. (quoted by D. Overbye, “Einstein Letter of God Sells for $404,000,” New York Times, May 17, 2008)
The heavens declare the glory of God,
the vault of heaven proclaims his handiwork,
day discourses of it to day,
night to night hands on the knowledge.
No utterance at all, no speech,
not a sound to be heard,
but from the entire earth the design stands out,
this message reaches the whole world. (Psalms 19.1–4)

Modern science began when the Bishop of Paris wrote a letter condemning 219 heresies based on the science of Aristotle. The source of these heresies was the Islamic philosopher Ibn Rushd (1126–1198), known in the West as Averroes. The letter is called the Condemnation of 1277:

We excommunicate all those who shall have taught the said errors or any one of them, or shall have dared in any way to defend or uphold them, or even to listen to them, unless they choose to reveal themselves to us or to the chancery of Paris within seven days; in addition to which we shall proceed against them by inflicting such other penalties as the law requires according to the nature of the offense.…
25. That God has infinite power, not because He makes something out of nothing, but because He maintains infinite motion.…
66. That God could not move the heaven in a straight line, the reason being that He would then leave a vacuum.…

Heresy No. 25 is a single attack and Heresy No. 66 is a double attack on God’s omnipotence. The Bishop of Paris and his advisers from the faculty of theology at the University of Paris knew that vacuums did not exist in nature. However, they could see no reason why vacuums could not exist. They assumed that God thought the same way they did, and concluded that vacuums were possible. They also reasoned that God could move heaven, just as He could move everyone to believe in Him, if He wanted.