Two Deutero-Canonical Texts on the Birth of Jesus

As a special note for Christmas Eve, I will be looking at two texts which reflect two different, but equally creative, traditional ways for interpreting the birth of Jesus.

The first is another example of the tendency of Christians to find types and prophecies of Christ (and his birth) in the most unlikeliest of Scriptures. I have already discussed a number of Old Testament passages (including detailed studies on Isaiah 7:14 and 9:6-7) in prior Advent season notes. Here I will be discussing a deutero-canonical (or “Apocryphal”) passage: Wisdom 8:14-15.

Wisdom 8:14-15:

14As all things had quiet silence (round) about them,
and night was (in) the middle in (its) own swiftness
15Your all-powerful logos from (the) heavens, out of (the) royal throne,
(as) a severe warrior leaped into the middle of the earth (set) for destruction

The book of Wisdom (sometimes known by its pseudepigraphic title “Wisdom of Solomon”) is, along with the book of Sirach (or “Ecclesiasticus”), the most valued and prestigious of the so-called “Apocryphal” (deutero-Canonical) books; virtually every Church Father who mentions or cites from it, treats it essentially as authoritative Scripture. It belongs to the category of Wisdom literature, and is a poetic philosophical discourse, a product of Hellenistic Judaism—combining Biblical and Jewish teaching with Greek philosophy (Stoic and Platonic), in a manner similar to that of Philo a century or so later. The second half of the book (chapters 11-19) comprises a lengthy treatment of the Exodus, contrasting the Israelites who (should) trust in God (thereby walking according to Divine Wisdom) with the Egyptian who rely upon vain idols. The section 18:5-25 covers the tenth plague (destruction of the firstborn); I would outline this section as follows:

a. The infant Moses is saved from the destruction of the Israelite children—in the middle of destruction—in accordance with revelation and the promises made to the Fathers; the juxtaposition of deliverance/punishment is reiterated as a theme (vv. 5-8)

b. Comparison of the children of the virtuous (devout Israel) with the children of Egypt: one united in blessing, the other in common death (vv. 9-12)

c. The people (of Israel) acknowledged to be God’s son (confirmed by the failure of pagan idolatry) (v. 13)

cæ. The Logos/Word of God comes out of heaven carrying the sword of His decree (v. 14-16a)

bæ. Death and destruction brought upon the land of Egypt (vv. 16b-19)

aæ. Death comes upon the Israelites in the wilderness, but Moses intercedes to bring salvation, according to the promises God made to the Fathers; juxtaposition of deliverance/punishment within the people of Israel itself (vv. 20-25)

Above I gave a rather literal translation of vv. 14-15; in order to provide some context for the central passage, I offer here a more fluid rendering of vv. 13-16, with 14-15 in italics (translation by David Winston from the Anchor Bible series, vol. 43, p. 313, [my gloss in square brackets]):

Wholly incredulous thanks to their [i.e. the Egyptians’] magical enchantments, at the destruction of their firstborn they acknowledged your [i.e. God’s] people to be God’s son. While all things were enveloped in peaceful silence and night was midway through her swift course, your all-powerful Logos, out of the heavens, from the royal throne, leaped like a relentless warrior into the midst of the land marked for destruction, bearing your unambiguous decree as a sharp sword. Standing it filled all things with death; it touched the heavens, yet stood poised upon the earth.

Clearly, vv. 14-15 refer to the ‘angel of Death’ that strikes the land of Egypt—a curious passage to apply to the birth of Jesus! Yet there are several factors which prompted Christians to interpret it in this manner:

  1. The reference to “God’s son” at the end of verse 13. Israel as God’s (firstborn) “son” appears in numerous ways throughout the Old Testament, with specific (early) references in Exodus 4:22-23 and Hosea 11:1 (“out of Egypt I called my son”)—this last verse is explicitly cited in the Matthean Infancy narrative (2:15).
  2. The occurrence of “Logos“: the concept of the Reason/Word (lo/go$) of God as a (secondary) Divine hypostasis or personification (sometimes identified with Divine Wisdom), with its role in creation, revelation, etc., took on prominence in Hellenistic Jewish philosophy (see especially the interpretive works of Philo). All studious and devout Christians are familiar with it from the famous opening of the Fourth Gospel (John 1:1ff), from whence the doctrine of Jesus Christ as the pre-existent Logos—along with a powerful Logos Christology—was established in Christian thought.
  3. The contextual parallel with Moses—both as the infant child saved from the “violent waters” of destruction (18:5), as as the savior/deliverer who intercedes with God for his people (18:21-22). The Matthean Infancy narrative (especially in chapter 2) clearly draws on the early Exodus story, I believe consciously and intentionally emphasizing a number of parallel details. We have: (a) the infant destined to be savior rescued from death, (b) the wicked king (c) who orders the destruction of newborn male children, (d) the setting of Egypt including an ‘exodus’ out of Egypt. Indeed, the Gospel writer (2:15) applies Hosea 11:1 in a way that similarly takes the original Old Testament passage “out of context”.

Interestingly, a connection between Passover and the birth of Jesus (and so between his birth and death) developed in Christian tradition. This can be seen in dramatic fashion in the Nativity hymns of Ephrem the Syrian, cf. Hymn 4.31-34, 5.14, 27.18-22, etc. Jesus’ birth was thought to have taken place in the month of Conun (December-January), so his conception would have been in Nisan (April). In 5.14, Ephrem specifically identifies the conception with the 10th of Nisan, when the lambs designated for slaughter (four days later) are “closed up” (i.e. in the womb). The traditional imagery of Jesus as the Paschal Lamb, certainly made this a natural association.

By the end of the fourth century A.D. at the latest, Christians had come to understand Wisdom 18:14-15 in terms of the birth of Jesus—cf. Chrysostom’s 2nd Homily on the Gospel of Matthew (for the moment I have not found any earlier occurrence). Eventually the passage came to be used as a reading or lesson (lection) for Christmas, and was influential in establishing the tradition of Jesus’ birth taking place at midnight.

The second text, which I will mention only briefly, comes from the so-called Proto-gospel (Protevangelium) of James.

This is a pseudepigraphic work, which is presented has having been written by “James” (§25)—presumably meant as James the Just, brother of Jesus. Scholars of all stripes agree that the composition is actually considerably later than this, probably dating from the first half of the 2nd century (c. 125-150); as such, it is far less reliable historically than the Lukan and Matthean Infancy narratives, though it may still preserve a few pieces of authentic tradition. The book covers the birth and childhood of Mary (§§1-12), follows by a narrative of Jesus’ birth (§§1-22 + 23-24) which roughly corresponds to that of Matthew/Luke.

By the mid-second century, Gospel tradition had come to be expanded and embellished with many more legendary and/or fanciful details; in particular, there was a pious (albeit speculative) interest in “filling out” pieces of the narrative not found in Matthew/Luke, such as Mary’s background, the childhood years of Jesus, what happened in Egypt (cf. Matt 2:13-15, 19-23), and so forth. The Protevangelium was one of the earliest and most successful of these works; virtually all of the later surviving “Infancy Gospels” appear to be dependent on it in some way. Moreover, it proved to have an enormous (and lasting) influence on Christmas tradition, and in establishing the Catholic/Orthodox legend and traditions of Mary.

Perhaps the most beautiful and striking portion of the Protevangelium is in §18: after finding a cave in which Mary can give birth, Joseph goes out to locate a midwife in the area nearby. Vv. 2ff is written in first-person narrative:

Now I Joseph was walking, and I walked not. And I looked up to the air and saw the air in amazement. And I looked up unto the pole of the heaven and saw it standing still, and the fowls of the heaven without motion. And I looked upon the earth and saw a dish set, and workmen lying by it, and their hands were in the dish: and they that were chewing chewed not, and they that were lifting the food lifted it not, and they that put it to their mouth put it not thereto, but the faces of all of them were looking upward. And behold there were sheep being driven, and they went not forward but stood still; and the shepherd lifted his hand to smite them with his staff, and his hand remained up. And I looked upon the stream of the river and saw the mouths of the kids upon the water and they drank not. And of a sudden all things moved onward in their course. (transl. by M. R. James, The Apocryphal New Testament [Oxford:1924-]).

A rendering in more contemporary English:

But I, Joseph, was walking, and I was not walking. I looked up into the air, and I saw that it was greatly disturbed. I looked up to the vault of the sky, and I saw it standing still; and the birds of the sky were at rest. I looked back to the earth and saw a bowl laid out for some workers who were reclining to eat. There hands were in the bowl, but those who were chewing were not chewing; and those who were taking something from the bowl were not lifting it up; and those who were bringing their hands to their mouths were not bringing them to their mouths. Everyone was looking up. And I saw a flock of sheep being herded, but they were standing still. And the shepherd raised his hand to strike them, but his hand remained in the air. I looked down at the torrential stream, and I saw some goats whose mouths were over the water, but they were not drinking. Then suddenly everything returned to its normal course. (transl. by Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Scriptures [Oxford:2003], p. 69)

An imaginative description, to be sure; but also immensely creative! Even if not historical, in a concrete sense, the image of Jesus’ birth at midnight, when all of creation stands still, is beautiful and apt to touch the soul of believer and unbeliever alike.