Christmas has distinction as the premier global festival, celebrated by nations around the world, except by the people who birthed the tradition – the Jews. Nations celebrate Christmas in diverse ways across the globe but music and song always form the core of its celebration. And Jews have been among those who have richly contributed to Christmas music. From Jewish composers Irving Berlin’s ‘A White Christmas’, Mel Torme’s ‘Chestnuts roasting on an open fire’ or Walter Kent’s “I’ll be home for Christmas”, Jewish musical genius has made its contribution to Christmas celebrations the world over.
The Jewish Birth Story – better than Santa
Beyond the music, the food, the decorations, and festivities, Christmas celebrates the birth of a boy – a Jewish boy. In fact, almost all the characters making up the drama of this boy’s birth are Jewish. One of the two writers who recorded the story was also Jewish – a Levite even.
And the intrigue, suspense and celebration surrounding the birth of this Jewish baby, recorded by a Jewish Levite, make the subordinate Christmas add-ons like Santa Claus, the North Pole, and elves in Santa’s workshop pale in comparison.
Levi, also known as Matthew, wanted us to know for certain that the baby boy he wrote about was Jewish. So he opened his narrative with this sentence, the first sentence in the Brit Chadasha.
This is an account of the origin of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of AbrahamMatthew 1:1
Not only a son of Abraham as are all Jews, but also a descendant of the legendary King David! What other theme could evoke greater expectancy? Certainly not Santa.
Jesus’ Birth Recounted
What were the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth? Matthew tells us in striking detail.
18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.Matthew 1:18-25
Luke’s Details of Jesus’ Birth
Luke, another Gospel writer, elaborates on the events of Jesus’ birth with this account:
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register.
4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.Luke 2:1-20
The Visit of the Wise Men to Bethlehem
Usually included in the Nativity story is the visit of the Wise Men, which Matthew picks up for us:
2 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
6 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
The Escape to Egypt
13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:
18 “A voice is heard in Ramah,Matthew 2:1-18
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”
Herod in the Christmas Plot
This Herod who ruthlessly tried to take the life of the baby Jesus is Herod the Great. He leaves his imprint in Israel still today, visible in the ruins at the Temple Mount, Masada and Caesarea. Christmas tells a tale of a tyrannical ruler determined to stamp out any challengers. It is a story of a desperate flight to save one’s life, a merciless killing of innocents. This parallels what so many Jews around the world today and through history have similarly experienced.
Messiah Controversies steal Christmas
But it is not so much the perils in the Christmas story that evoke Jewish resonance, but also the controversies. After all, the themes used by Matthew in recounting the Christmas Nativity Story are decidedly Jewish. Matthew reaches back to the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah to give meaning to the events he records. He uses the Jewish title ‘Messiah’ to describe the birth of the baby Jesus.
This brings us to the nub of the issue. Though Christmas has decidedly Jewish roots, the prevailing Jewish view is that the controversy surrounding the status of this Jew has been settled by his brethren to the negative. That is, Jews have decided that Jesus was not the Messiah – case closed. Perhaps Gentiles came to the opposite conclusion but Jews universally rejected the idea of Jesus as Messiah. Thus Jews also had to discard Christmas. As the Grinch stole Christmas the force of this logic has stolen Christmas from many.
But what if …?
But perhaps one can reverse the order of investigation. Leave aside Jesus’ Messiahship to simply explore questions arising from the Christmas story. Does Jewish tradition say anything about the Christmas themes of virgin birth and David’s line? In fact, accepted Jewish writings provide valuable insight to these Christmas story questions. As the (Jewish) shepherds decided to check for themselves when they heard the unbelievable angelic message of the baby’s birth in Bethlehem, so we too can examine for ourselves a Jewish perspective on these Jewish questions. If nothing else, perhaps with this understanding we can, like Mary, ‘ponder these things in our hearts’ and greet one another with a ‘Merry Christmas’.
We look at these sources, what they say, and what it means here.