Is the story about a baby named Jesus born to a virgin named Mary on the 25th December in a manger in Bethlehem literally true?
Even the Bible provides plainly conflicting nativity narratives. In the Gospel of Matthew we have a magnificent star and three wise men bearing gifts. Yet, nowhere in that text do we encounter a manger. For that we require the story as told in the Gospel of Luke. But there, unfortunately, the gift-bearing wise men have been replaced by shepherds and that magnificent star morphed into an angel. Although some gloss over this inconsistency, academically minded theologians do not. They have always accepted that where these stories conflict, then at least one of them cannot be literally true.
Realising that understanding the Word of God requires more than the literality of the texts, early and medieval Christian scholars developed the allegorical method of reading scripture.
By the time of Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, the four levels of hermeneutic, by which scripture is still interpreted had become widely accepted:
- The letter teaches you the facts,
- Allegory what you should believe,
- Morality how you should act,
- Anagoge what to hope for.
The idea was to bring the Old and New Laws (Testaments) into unity through a double structure of prophecy.
Since the events of the Old Testament prefigure the mission of Christ, the Old Law is a prophecy of the New (allegory). In turn, the New Law is a prophecy of the Kingdom of Heaven upon Earth at the Second Coming (anagoge). Understanding the allegories of the Bible is also the gateway to the moral meaning of the various stories and a guide to Christian conduct (tropological or moral image of the ‘Truth’). For ordinary priests, who might find the four levels hermeneutic unduly challenging, standard interpretations of Bible stories were devised to aid with the anagogic (mystery interpretations).
But this was does not mean that you need to accept these standard stories as the ‘gospel truth’.
For example, the facts pertaining to the life of Jesus as we know them could be interpreted as a patchwork of events in the lives of those who came before him: born to a carpenter and a virgin, like Krishna; born on the 25th December, like Mithras: announced by a star in the East, like Horus: walking on water and feeding five thousand from a small basket, like Buddha; performing miracles, like Pythagoras; raising the dead, like Elisha; executed on a tree, like Adonis; and ascending to Heaven like Hercules, Enoch, and Elijah.
Looking at the Nativity through a similar lens, then in Mary we might sense the presence of Isis; in Joseph, we might see Osiris, the patriarch with the crooked staff. How about finding the luminous babe in the manger to be like Krishna? We can even find the ox in the zodiac sign of Taurus and the ass in the zodiac sign of Aires, both ages leading to the, then, new Age of Pisces.
What if the guiding star of the wise men is the spirit of Zarathustra or the angel announcing the birth, the spirit of the Buddha? What if one of the wise men was Pythagoras reincarnated? What if the wise men had been initiated by the prophet, Daniel? What if instead of one Jesus, there were two as depicted in the Leonardo Cartoon in London’s National Gallery as well as on the north portal at Chartres?
What if…, well, I think that you get the idea.
May peace be with you this holiday season and may hermeneutics take you as far as you’re willing to go.