Birth of the Messiah: Early Christian Tradition

The final article of this Christmas-season series will examine traditions related to the Birth of Jesus in the late-first and second centuries, insofar as they may reflect earlier or established Jewish tradition regarding the Messiah. This short study will be divided into three sections:

    • Revelation 12 and Early Christian Eschatology
    • The Protevangelium and other early Infancy narratives
    • Justin Martyr & Origen: Second Century Debates with Judaism

Revelation 12 and Early Christian Eschatology

There are only three passages in the New Testament that refer to Jesus’ birth, outside of the Infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke. Two of these have already been discussed (Rom 1:3-4 and Gal 4:4-5); the third is the vision of the Woman giving birth in Revelation 12:1-6. I have dealt with this passage in my (ongoing) notes on the book of Revelation (cf. the earlier note). There can be no doubt that, within the context of the visionary narrative, verse 5 refers to the birth, life, and ultimate exaltation to heaven. However, the story-pattern of the vision is wider than this narrow (historical) application. It has legendary, fabulous details common to a number of myths of the time, most notably the tale involving the the Python-serpent, opponent of the god Apollo, which sought to kill his mother Leto (Hyginus, Fabulae 140; Koester, p. 545). Moreover, the brief notice of the child being taken up to heaven does not entirely fit the historical situation of Jesus’ life, which here is compressed to include only the birth and ascension (cp. Justin Martyr First Apology 54.8). This raises the likelihood that an earlier story-pattern has been applied to Jesus, relating to it only those elements of his life which fit the pattern. It is worth considering whether this story-pattern, as adopted in the vision, originally related to the Messiah.

Certainly, Rev 12:1-6 is not simply a story about the birth of Jesus, but of his identity as the Messiah—that is, the Anointed Davidic ruler figure-type. This is especially clear from the wording in verse 5:

“And she produced [e&teken] a male son, who is about to shepherd the nations in [i.e. with] an iron staff. And her offspring [te/knon] was seized/taken (up) toward God and toward His ruling-seat [i.e. throne].”

The words in italics, of course, derive from Psalm 2:9, blended with the Messianic shepherd-imagery taken from passages such as Ezek 34:23. It is possible that Micah 5:2-4 is specifically in mind here, with its combination of elements:

    • The coming forth of God’s chosen ruler (v. 2)
    • The motif of a woman in labor (v. 3)
    • The ruler as a Shepherd who will be great over all the earth (v. 4)

The use of Mic 5:2ff in the Matthean Infancy narrative (Matt 2), with its description of Herod’s attempts to kill off a new-born Messiah, certainly seems relevant as well. However, it is by no means clear that a reference to this specific Gospel tradition is intended. The narrative motif of the wicked ruler seeking to kill a chosen (male) child as soon as he is born, is found in many traditional tales and legends worldwide. It is perhaps enough to view the motif here as indicating that the ‘dragon’ wishes to destroy the child before he can exercise his chosen position of rule; the implication being that the ‘dragon’ is already (currently) exercising rule over the nations, or may have the opportunity to do so.

Is it possible that there was a tradition in existence that the Messiah, following his birth, was taken up into heaven, to be kept hidden away until the moment when he should appear at the end-time? There are, in fact, Jewish traditions suggestive of this idea, however their existence as early as the first century A.D. is quite uncertain. The work known as 2 Enoch (or Slavonic Enoch) has been dated to the late-1st century A.D. by some scholars, based on internal considerations; if correct, it would be roughly contemporary with the book of Revelation. Chapters 71-72 describe the birth of Melchizedek—a miraculous (virgin) birth from the wife of Noah’s brother. To save him from the Flood, he is taken up into God’s heavenly paradise by the angel Gabriel; eventually Melchizedek will return to become the head of all priests that are to come, and will return again (in a second form?) at the end-time. While not referred to by the title “Anointed One” (Messiah), Melchizedek certainly has Messianic characteristics and features, as he does in several of the Qumran texts (cf. the article on 11QMelchizedek), blending elements of the Priest-Messiah and Heavenly Deliverer figure-types (cp. his application to Jesus in Hebrews 5-7).

In the Jerusalem Talmud, there is a tradition regarding the birth of the Messiah (in Berakot 5a, cf. also Midrash Rabbah on Lamentations 1.51 [on Lam 1:16]), which I have previously noted. In this story, a Jewish farmer, at the time the Temple is destroyed, learns that the Messiah (Menahem ben Hezekiah) has been born in the “royal city” Bethlehem. He finds the child’s mother, who expresses her wish to kill the infant, blaming him for the suffering that has come on her people. Eventually, the child is rescued from this threat, by “strong winds” (implying a divine/heavenly source , cp. 2 Kings 2:11) that snatched him from his mother’s arms. The implication is that he will be kept (in heaven) until the time he is to be revealed. There is no way of knowing how old this tradition is. To be sure, the setting of the story is the first century (70 A.D.), but whether it is an authentic tradition from this time is doubtful.

The setting of the Talmudic story (the destruction of the Temple) for the birth of the Messiah likely has some bearing on the traditional expression “birth-pains of the Messiah” (j^yv!M*h^ yl@b=j#), referring to the period of suffering and distress which immediately precedes the Messiah’s appearance. The background for this expression is ancient, as the pain of women in childbirth often was used to symbolize suffering, typically in relation to God’s Judgment—Psalm 48:6; Mic 4:9-10; Isa 13:8; 21:3; 26:17; 42:14; Jer 4:31; 6:24; 13:21; 22:23; 30:6; 48:41; 49:22, 24; 50:43; Rom 8:22; 1 Thess 5:3. It is used notably in the Eschatological Discourse of Jesus, in the context of the destruction of the Temple, for the period of distress that precedes Jesus’ end-time appearance and the coming Judgment (Mark 13:8 par; cf. also Luke 23:28-29). The same image of childbirth can also emphasize deliverance from pain/suffering—Mic 4:10; 5:3; Isa 65:23ff; 66:7-9; cf. also John 16:21. Cf. also the childbirth motifs in Isa 7:14 and 66:7, both passages which have been given a Messianic interpretation.

Even more uncertain is the theory that chapters 11-13 of the book of Revelation were influenced by an apocalyptic writing called the Oracle of Hystaspes. This work, in existence by at least the early 2nd century A.D., is Persian—or, at least, it has a Persian setting and provenance—but also appears to contain elements of Jewish apocalyptic. Unfortunately, its contents are only known from the Institutes of Lactantius (book 7) in the early 4th century, and even then only sketchily presented. The similarities between chapters 11 & 13 of Revelation and what Lactantius provides of the Oracle are clear and striking. Like the book of Revelation, it was a fiercely anti-Roman work, directed against the Roman Empire, and expressing the people’s hopes that God would deliver them from its evil control. It is conceivable that the birth of the “great King” who is to come was part of this Oracle, corresponding to Rev 12:1-6, though no mention is made of it by Lactantius, and the connection remains highly speculative.

The Protevangelium and other early Infancy narratives

Following the composition of the Matthean and Lukan Infancy Narratives (c. 70-80 A.D.), similar works narrating the birth (and childhood) of Jesus came to be produced. For the most part, these are imaginative expansions of the earlier (canonical) Gospel narratives, but they also can include separate traditions which have come down from an early period. It is worth considering whether some of these may reflect Jewish traditions regarding the Messiah.

By far, the oldest and most important extra-canonical Infancy Narrative is that of the so-called “Proto-Gospel” (Protevangelium) of James. Composed sometime during the early 2nd century, it contains at least one significant early tradition—that the birth of Jesus took place in a cave on the desolate outskirts of Bethlehem (17:3-18:1). This detail is attested independently by Justin Martyr in the mid-2nd century (Dialogue with Trypho 78.5, cf. also Origen Against Celsus 1.51). The main additions to the Matthean/Lukan narratives in the Protevangelium involve the role of Mary as the virgin who gives birth to Jesus. Indeed, much of what relates to Jesus as the chosen one (and Messiah) of God extends to include the person of Mary as well. Her birth and childhood (chaps. 1-16), in many ways, parallels that of Jesus himself. This tendency within early Christianity is best described as a strengthening or enhancing of the Messianic and Christological traditions. The following points of emphasis may be noted:

    • The sanctification of Mary and her identity as one specially consecrated to God. This is established two ways:
      • Her association with the Temple (7:1-12:1)—this is an important emphasis in the Lukan narrative as well (1:8-11ff; 2:22-24, 25ff, 41-51)
      • Application to Mary of the traditions regarding the birth and childhood of Samuel (1 Sam 1-3), even as they are used to shape the Lukan narrative of Jesus’ birth and childhood; in the Protevangelium, Mary is raised in the Temple under the guardianship of priests, just as Samuel was.
    • Mary’s Davidic lineage—that she is a descendant of David is specified (chap. 10), leaving no question whatever as to Jesus’ Messianic pedigree as being truly from the line of David. There is no trace of this in the Matthean and Lukan narratives, where Jesus’ descent from David is legal, not biological; the genealogies (Matt 1:2-16; Lk 3:23-38) clearly belong to Joseph, not Mary (cf. also Matt 1:20; Lk 2:4). Indeed, the information in Luke 1:5, 36 indicates that Mary was from the tribe of Levi, not Judah. However, Paul’s wording in Romans 1:3 (compared with Gal 4:4), suggests a biological birth from David, and later Christian tradition followed the Protevangelium in making Mary unequivocally a descendant of David. If nothing else, Protevang. 10 shows how important the association with David remained, among early Christians, for confirming that Jesus was, indeed, the Messiah.
    • The virginal conception (and birth) of Jesus. The Protevangelium goes considerably further than the Matthean and Lukan narratives in emphasizing that Mary was a virgin (6:1; 7:2; 8:2ff; 9:1ff; 10; 11:2; 13:1-3; 15:2-3; 16; 19:3-20:4). By the time the Protevangelium was written, this had become more of a matter of Christian apologetic (cf. below), than of the (Messianic) interpretation of Isaiah 7:14 so vital to Matthew’s narrative (1:22-23). However, there are still strong echoes of Isa 7:14 as a Messianic prophecy (see esp. the wording in Protevang. 19:3)

Perhaps the most striking scene in the Protevangelium, for modern readers at least, is in 18:2, where Joseph, while walking outside in search of a midwife, sees all of nature momentarily come completely still. This supernatural intervention in the natural order corresponds with the moment of Jesus’ birth, when a theophanous cloud of glory enters the cave and fills it with light (19:2). Such phenomena are fitting to the traditional identification of Jesus as the Messiah, at his birth, following similar signs and wonders marking his Baptism and Resurrection/Exaltation as the moments when he was ‘born’ as the Messiah and Son of God (for more on this, cf. my recent notes).

Second Century Debates with Judaism

A number of the Christian authors from the second and early-third centuries, whose works have survived, are called “Apologists”, as they sought to provide a proper account or defense (a)pologi/a, “apology”) of the faith, in the face of increasing challenges from Judaism and Greco-Roman paganism alike. At least two of these works contain significant discussions regarding the birth of Jesus as the Messiah.

Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho

Justin’s Dialogue, written sometime after 155 A.D., is presented, as the title indicates, as a dialogue (that is, the literary format, used by Plato, etc) between Justin and a Jew named “Trypho”. To whatever extent this “Trypho” represents a real person, we may safely regard the words placed in his mouth as reflecting the view of Jews at the time—their objections to the Christian belief in Jesus as the Messiah, and the way that the Scriptures are interpreted in support of this belief. His Dialogue is a long and rambling work, awkward and unconvincing in detail, but valuable for the light it sheds on Christian thought (and apologetics) in this early period. The question of Jesus’ birth—and, in particular, the application of Isa 7:14 as a Messianic prophecy—is introduced in chapter/section §43, then after leaving it for a while, Justin picks up the subject again at §66. It remains the point of discussion, off and on, through to §78. The question of Isa 7:14 (and Jesus’ birth) is really part of a wider—and more important—debate regarding how the Old Testament Scriptures are to be interpreted, and whether the Christian approach, advocated by Justin, is reasonable and consistent.

Discussions of this sort, between Christians and Jews, had been going on since the original apostolic mission, as we can see from the numerous references in Luke-Acts regarding the importance of demonstrating from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Messiah (Lk 24:27, 45; Acts 5:42; 9:22; 17:2-3, 11; 18:5, 28; 26:22-23). For the earliest (Jewish) Christians, the main sticking point was the suffering and death of Jesus, since that did not at all fit the general portrait(s) regarding the Messiah, and was an obvious impediment for Jews in accepting Jesus. By Justin’s time, this had evolved into a more general apologetic, covering a wide range of Scriptures, adopted by Christians as referring to Jesus, in a way that many (if not most) Jews would find hard to accept. Isaiah 7:14, as a reference to the miraculous (virginal) birth of Jesus, was one such passage, and, here, the extended discussion about it demonstrates that it remained of considerable significance as a Messianic prophecy (about Jesus). In objecting to the Christian use of the passage, “Trypho” raises certain critical points, including how the Hebrew word hm*l=u^ is to be translated (cf. my earlier study), which Justin is not particularly well-equipped to address. Even so, the dialogue between the two remains interesting and enlightening to read, even today.

Origen’s Against Celsus

Origen’s extensive writing Against Celsus remains one of his most popular and widely-read works. Written in the early-mid 3rd century, toward the end of his life, it addresses the arguments of Celsus, who was perhaps the most formidable Greco-Roman intellectual opponent of Christianity in the second century. Origen’s lengthy apologetic response to Celsus’ book The True Account (a)lhqh\$ lo/go$) continues to be of considerable historical interest today, for several reasons. Most significant, for the purposes of this article, is the fact that The True Account, based on Origen’s references to it, was framed as a dialogue between a Christian and a Jew, and thus Celsus cleverly makes use of Jewish objections to Christianity as a starting-point for his own arguments. Some of these objections centered around Jesus’ birth, and the Christian identification of him as the Messiah (an identification which otherwise would have been of little interest to a pagan like Celsus).

Celsus’ work argued against the deity of Jesus, and made use of the (supposed) facts surrounding his birth and life as a bar against the Christian belief in Jesus’ identity as the incarnate (Son of) God. Celsus was relatively well-informed regarding Christian beliefs, and seems to have had some familiarity with Jewish traditions as well. He attacks the virgin birth as something invented by Christians (comparing it with similar details in Greek myths and legends), and the Jew in Celsus’ Dialogue brings up Jesus’ illegitimate birth (from the adulterous union between Mary and a soldier named Pantera), and his years as a lowly day-laborer in Egypt (where he also learned the magic arts), as all quite contrary to the Gospel record, and unworthy of a belief in Jesus’ deity (I. 28-29ff, 32-33, 69); the Gospel genealogies (including Jesus’ Davidic ancestry) are similarly disregarded as Christian inventions (II. 32).

As it happens, the tradition regarding Jesus’ adulterous birth (as the illegitimate son of the soldier Pantera, ben-Pantera) is known from later Jewish sources (Babylonian Talmud Sabbath 104b, Sanhedrin 67a; Tosephta Hullin 2.22-23; Jerusalem Talmud Aboda Zara 40d, Sabbath 14d, etc). Its inclusion in Celsus’ work (written sometime before 180 A.D.) demonstrates that the tradition was in circulation by the mid-2nd century A.D. Tertullian was similarly aware of the charge that Jesus was the son of a prostitute (De Spectaculis 30.6). Cf. Brown, Birth, pp. 535-6.

It is quite possible that this all traces back to the basic historical traditions, recorded in the Gospel Infancy narratives (Matt 1:18-20), of the unusual (and potentially scandalous) circumstances of Jesus’ conception and birth. Almost certainly, these rumors of illegitimacy, which coalesced in the Pantera-tradition, would have been used by Jews at the time as a strong argument against identifying Jesus as the Messiah. While Jewish sources in this period do not say much regarding how the Messiah’s birth might take place (cf. the earlier articles in this series), the details of Jesus’ birth, according to the Pantera tradition, certainly would not be considered worthy of the Messiah. Celsus develops this further to argue that it is also not worthy of one considered to be the Son of God.

In other references to Jesus’ birth, Celsus draws primarily from the Gospel narratives (i.e. the Infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke). Interestingly, though he attacks the virgin birth, Celsus apparently made no mention of the prophecy in Isa 7:14 (Matt 1:22-23), nor the Jewish critique of the Christian use of it (cf. above). Even so, Origen feels compelled to introduce the subject (I. 34), touching upon the critical question of translating the Hebrew word hm*l=u^ as parqe/no$ (“virgin”), as well as providing a rudimentary (for the time) historical-critical assessment of the passage (I. 35). While the main issue for Origen is a defense of the Christian belief in the virgin birth, his continued emphasis on Isa 7:14, following that of Justin Martyr decades earlier, illustrates the abiding force of that key Scripture as a Messianic prophecy. It also makes vividly clear the uniquely Christian development of the Messianic idea, whereby the birth of Jesus was regarded as, not only the birth of the Messiah, but also the birth of the Son of God.

“Brown, Birth” refers to Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL] (1977, 1993).
“Koester” above refers to Craig R. Koester, Revelation, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 38A (Yale: 2014).