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The Birth of Jesus

The news was unwelcome, baffling, frightening; nothing about it was expected or explicable. Roughly 2,000 years ago, according to the Gospel of Luke, in Nazareth of Galilee, a young woman found herself in the presence of Gabriel, the angelic messenger of the Lord whose name was known to Jews of the day as the mysterious figure who had granted Daniel his prophetic visions. The woman, Luke writes, was "a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David," and her name was Mary, Luke's Greek form of the Hebrew Miriam, the sister of Moses and the first great prophetess of Israel. "Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee," Gabriel said, "blessed art thou amongst women"--terrifying Mary, who "was troubled at his saying." Stunned and confused, Mary made no reply, her face apparently betraying anxiety and awe. Sensing her confusion and fear, Gabriel was reassuring: "Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God."

Then the angel said: "And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest... and of his kingdom there shall be no end." In other words, Mary was to bear the Messiah, the fabled and long-promised figure who, in the words of the prophet Jeremiah, would "reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land." Mary was silent, then finally found her voice: "How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?"

Gabriel's reply--that "the Holy Ghost shall come upon thee"--raised more questions than it answered, not only for Mary but for Joseph, for the early Christians and, two millennia later, for us. In Luke's account, Mary absorbed the tidings of her child's miraculous origin and mission and "pondered them in her heart," still puzzled, still overwhelmed. In the Gospel of Matthew, Joseph, knowing nothing about Gabriel's appearance, is humiliated by the news that his future wife is pregnant, and "was minded to put her away privily." In later years Christians had to contend with charges that their Lord was illegitimate, perhaps the illicit offspring of Mary and a Roman soldier. Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, some scholars treat the Christmas narratives as first-century inventions designed to strengthen the seemingly tenuous claim that Jesus was the Messiah.

And so the story of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth is, fittingly, as riven with complexity and controversy as Christianity itself. This month more than a billion Christians will commemorate their Lord's Nativity. Amid candlelight, carols and the commingled smells of cedar and incense, the old tale will unfold again: Gabriel's visitation, the journey to Bethlehem, the arrival of the baby in a stable, the glorious announcement to the shepherds in the night, the star in the East, the mission of the Magi.

Yet, as with so many other elements of faith, the Nativity narratives are the subject of ongoing scholarly debate over their historical accuracy, their theological meaning and whether some of the central images and words of the Christian religion owe as much to the pagan culture of the Roman Empire as they do to apostolic revelation.

The clash between literalism and a more historical view of faith is also playing out in theaters and bookstores. This year Mel Gibson's hugely successful movie "The Passion of the Christ" provoked a national conversation about Jesus' last days. With 9 million hardcover copies in print, Dan Brown's thriller "The Da Vinci Code," one of the most widely read books of our time, is partly built around the assertion that the early church covered up important facts about Jesus in order to manufacture Christian creeds. (A Ron Howard movie starring Tom Hanks is in the works.)

Like the Victorians, we live in an age of great belief and great doubt, and sometimes it seems as though we must choose between two extremes, the evangelical and the secular. "I don't want to be too simplistic, but our faith is somewhat childlike," says the Rev. H. B. London, a vice president of James Dobson's conservative Focus on the Family organization in Colorado Springs. "Though other people may question the historical validity of the virgin birth, and the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we don't." London's view has vast public support. A NEWSWEEK Poll found that 84 percent of American adults consider themselves Christians, and 82 percent see Jesus as God or the son of God. Seventy-nine percent say they believe in the virgin birth, and 67 percent think the Christmas story--from the angels' appearance to the Star of Bethlehem--is historically accurate.

Others, though perhaps fewer in number, are equally passionate about their critical understanding of the faith. The Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars devoted to recovering the Jesus of history, is a battalion in this long-running culture war. One of its members, Robert J. Miller, a professor of religion at Juniata College, wrote "Born Divine: Jesus and Other Sons of God," a 2003 book which argues that the Nativity narratives can be seen as Christian responses to the birth stories of pagan heroes like Alexander the Great and Caesar Augustus--literary efforts depicting Jesus as a divine figure in a way Greco-Roman listeners and readers would understand and appreciate.

To many minds conditioned by the Enlightenment, shaped by science and all too aware of the Crusades and corruptions of the church, Christmas is a fairy tale. But faith and reason need not be constantly at war; they are, John Paul II once wrote, "like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth"--and the spirit cannot take flight without both. This is why modern, grounded, discerning people do make leaps of faith, accepting that, as the Gospel of John put it, "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us."

Just how he became flesh is the business of Christmas. If we dissect the stories with care, we can see that the Nativity saga is neither fully fanciful nor fully factual but a layered narrative of early tradition and enduring theology, one whose meaning was captured in the words of the fourth-century Nicene Creed: that "for us men and for our salvation," Jesus "came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Ghost and of the Virgin Mary and was made man."

For Jesus' contemporaries, the explosive story of his life and its cosmic significance did not begin with his birth but with his Passion and resurrection. Jesus of Nazareth was executed by Pontius Pilate at Passover in about A.D. 30 for the crime of sedition. After dying a terrible, humiliating death on Golgotha, Jesus, his followers believed, had risen from the dead, turning the world upside down. Working backward from the Easter miracle, the early Christians--almost all of whom were Jews and thought of themselves as such--told stories of their Lord's last days, of his ministry and, eventually, it seems, of his birth.

The first followers, we should always remember, believed that the Risen Lord was going to return and usher in a new apocalyptic age at any moment. "Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who shall not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power," Jesus tells his disciples in Mark, and in the Epistle to the Romans--a very early writing--Paul says: "The night is far spent, the day is at hand."

As the years rolled by and the world endured, however, the Apostles and the first generations of church fathers realized they were not witnesses about to be swept up into heaven but earthly stewards of a message that had to be written down, explained and defended. The construction of Christianity, the early believers gradually discovered, required preserving the stories and sayings of Jesus, shaping that gospel ("good news" in Greek) and spreading it to fellow Jews and to Gentiles.

The evangelists believed the salvation of the world was in the balance. They strove to convince other Jews, to convert pagans and to control rival Christian factions whose views of Jesus differed from their own. To lose on any of these fronts would set back the cause, so when we read and hear the story now, we are reading and hearing some of the original Christian attempts to ensure the survival and success of a religion that began as little more than one sect within first-century Judaism, a milieu of great religious ferment.

To make their case in this congested theological universe, the Gospel writers collected traditions in circulation and told Jesus' story--not in a clinical way but, as John put it, so "that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name." The origins of the Nativity stories are much murkier than the accounts of Jesus' adulthood. Where did the details--of miraculous conception, of birth in Bethlehem, of stars in the sky, shepherds in the night and wise men on a journey--come from? Apparently not from Jesus. John P. Meier, a Roman Catholic priest and professor at Notre Dame, the author of a monumental series, "A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus," points out that there is no convincing evidence Jesus himself ever spoke of his birth, and neither Mary nor Joseph (who is not a figure in the years of Jesus' public life) appears to have been a direct source. "The traditions behind the Infancy Narratives," Meier writes, "differ essentially from those of the public ministry and the passion," which were the result of firsthand testimony.

The Gospel authors were thus confronted with a literary problem that had to be solved. They wanted to tell the story of Jesus' birth, but apparently had little to work with. Here, then, is --where tradition and theology came in. In 1965, the Second Vatican Council held that while the Scriptures are ultimately "true," they are not necessarily to be taken as accurate in the sense we might take an Associated Press wire report about what happened at a school-board meeting as accurate. The council focused on the importance of paying attention to "literary forms" in Scripture. The Gospels are such a "literary form," and the accounts of Jesus in the canon are not history or biography in the way we use the terms. Classical biography, however, was a different genre. Writers like Plutarch invented details or embellished traditions when they were reconstructing the lives of the famous, and the Christmas saga features miraculous births, supernatural signs and harbingers of ultimate greatness similar to those found in pagan works. If we examine the Nativity narratives as classical biography, then the evangelists' means and mission--to convey theological truths about salvation, not to record just-the-facts history--become much clearer.

The earliest and sparest Gospel, Mark's (circa A.D. 60), begins at Jesus' baptism by John as an adult, skipping the Nativity altogether. The latest and most philosophical, John's (circa 90), links Jesus with God at the very birth of the universe ("In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and Word was God") with a grandeur and force that renders the details of Jesus' earthly arrival irrelevant. Though Paul writes that Jesus was "born of a woman, born under the Law," the rest of the New Testament is silent about the Nativity. So we are left with Matthew and Luke, Gospels composed between A.D. 60 and 90. The central events in both Nativity accounts are Mary's virginal conception, which renders her child a truly unique figure, and Jesus' birth in Bethlehem, which makes him the long-expected Davidic Messiah.

Miraculous conceptions have deep roots in Jewish tradition: the aged Sarah bearing Isaac, the barren wife of Manoah bearing Samson, the barren Hannah bearing Samuel (and, according to Luke, Mary's kinswoman Elizabeth, both aged and barren, bearing John the Baptist just before Mary conceived Jesus). What is distinctive about Mary is the Gospels' emphasis on her sexual virtue. The other Biblical examples of God's granting children to the aged or the barren do not involve virgins but ordinary married women living with their husbands.

This is no small difference. By asserting Mary's virginity, Matthew and Luke are taking the device of the miraculous conception farther than any other Jewish writer had before. Why? The simplest explanation is that it happened. As uncongenial as that opinion may be to modern audiences, Shakespeare was right when he had Hamlet say, "There are more things in heaven and earth... than are dreamt of in your philosophy." The miraculous may strike some as fantastical, but countless people have believed, and believe now, that God intervened in the temporal world in just this way. If the virginal conception were a historical fact, however, it is somewhat odd that there is no memory of it recorded in the Gospel accounts of Jesus' ministry or in the Acts of the Apostles or in the rest of the New Testament. It is also striking that in parts of the Gospels Mary herself appears unaware of her son's provenance and destiny. (In Mark, when Jesus is casting out devils at the beginning of his ministry, "his friends"--the sense of the Greek is "family," or "household," which would presumably include his mother--thought he was mentally disturbed and tried to stop him, saying, "He is beside himself." If Mary had received Gabriel's message, then she should have known her son was not mad, but the Messiah. And even if she were not around in this story in Mark, had Jesus been born in such extraordinary circumstances, it is logical to assume that those closest to him would have known at least something of it--enough, anyway, to see Jesus as someone with a special role or destiny of which the exorcisms were a likely part.)

If we assume, for the sake of argument, that the virginal conception is not a fact but an article of faith, there are other explanations for Matthew's and Luke's Nativity accounts. Theology (that Jesus was not merely another prophet-king figure like Moses or David, but something more) and narrative symmetry both argued for a unique birth. "The early church insisted on the virginal conception as the logical beginning to a story that climaxed with the physical resurrection," says Deirdre Good, a professor of New Testament at the General Theological Seminary in New York. "The two separate miracles form a theologically perfect whole. It simply would not have been enough for Jesus to have been 'chosen' by God in his lifetime. Through divine intervention, Jesus was seen to be both divine and human from the start."

The virginity detail did not particularly help the cause early on. To non-Christian Jews and pagans, the first Christians were superstitious and backward, a group of marginal people on the fringes of empire preaching an outlandish message. According to the Yale historian Jaroslav Pelikan, Celsus, a fierce Platonic critic of Christianity who wrote between A.D. 175 and 180, attacked the idea that God had come into the world in "some corner of Judea somewhere," and one Roman emperor, Pelikan writes, dismissed the Jewish and Christian God as "essentially the deity of a primitive and uncivilized folk."

Defensive about such charges, educated Christians fought back. The apologist Origen of Alexandria answered Celsus, arguing that "we tell no incredible tales when we explain the doctrines about Jesus." The last thing the Christians wanted was to appear to be yet another mythological cult, worshiping some kind of demi-god; their deep Jewish faith in the commandment to have "no other gods before me" foreclosed that possibility. "Incredible tales" were for the idolatrous.

And there were scandalous tales in circulation, too: was the story of the virginal conception told to hide Jesus' illegitimacy? As startling as the allegation is for many, it dates from at least the second century, and maybe as early as Jesus' lifetime. "It was Jesus himself who fabricated the story that he had been born of a virgin," Celsus wrote in A.D. 180. "In fact, however, his mother was a poor country woman who earned her living by spinning. She had been driven out by her carpenter-husband when she was convicted of adultery with a soldier named Panthera. She then wandered about and secretly gave birth to Jesus. Later, because he was poor, he hired himself out in Egypt where he became adept in magical powers. Puffed up by these, he claimed for himself the title of God." Second- and third-century Christian writers alleged that some Jews also suggested Jesus' birth was illicit.

Perhaps the most intriguing possible hint of illegitimacy in the New Testament comes in the Gospel of John, in an exchange between Jesus and the Temple priests. The back-and-forth is sharp, even brutal, with Jesus accusing the priests of failing to live up to the example of their common father, Abraham. Their reply: "We be not born of fornication; we have but one Father, God Himself." In his exploration of this passage, the late Raymond E. Brown, a distinguished scholar and Roman Catholic priest who taught at Union Theological Seminary, wrote: "The Jews may be saying, 'We were not born illegitimate, but you were.' The emphatic use of the Greek pronoun 'We' allows that interpretation."

If Jesus had been conceived by a human father before Joseph and Mary had begun their lives together as husband and wife (either by Joseph himself, a soldier or someone else), then the Holy Ghost would have provided a convenient cover story for the early church. Such speculation can be only that: speculation, and even contemplating it is interesting chiefly for the window it opens on the ferocity of early debates over Jesus. To the first believers the virginal conception was not a fiction to hide an embarrassing truth but a way of understanding their Lord's uniqueness. He was not a prophet or a god but the son of God who, in the words of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, came to "share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of all."

Jesus was such a revolutionary force that both Matthew and Luke sought to make him comprehensible in the context of established Jewish imagery and prophecy. In Luke, Mary's indelible 138-word reaction to the incarnation ("My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour") is a powerful echo of Hannah's 264-word prayer of thanksgiving in I Samuel when she learns she is pregnant ("My heart rejoiceth in the Lord... I rejoice in thy salvation"). Jews hearing Mary's story were thus able to associate Jesus with past figures of deliverance.

Matthew makes an even more explicit connection with the Jewish past, stating outright that Jesus is answering ancient expectations. Citing Isaiah 7:14--"Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us"--the evangelist writes: "Now all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet."

A problem with this elegant passage from Isaiah is that it may have long been mistranslated and misinterpreted. In his magisterial work "The Birth of the Messiah," Raymond Brown calls the conflict over this single, consequential verse one of "the most famous debates" in the history of Biblical interpretation. He notes that the original Hebrew used by the prophet is more properly translated as "the young girl," not "the virgin," and the overall context of the Hebraic Isaiah passage "does not refer to a virginal conception in the distant future. The sign offered by the prophet was the imminent birth of a child, probably Davidic, but naturally conceived, who would illustrate God's providential care for his people." The Greek sense of the term--and Matthew was likely working from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible--suggests that "the virgin" will conceive, Brown writes, "by natural means, once she is united with her husband." It is one Biblical war without apparent end: in the early 1950s, when the translators of the Revised Standard Version rendered the King James "virgin" as "young woman"--a defensible textual decision--some literalist believers burned the new Bibles.

Geography, as Napoleon is said to have remarked, is destiny, hence the Gospels' emphasis on Jesus' birthplace. The expectation was that the Messiah--understood in the early first century as a David-like king who would end Roman occupation and rule over a new golden age for Israel and for the whole world--would come from Bethlehem, the village in which David had been born.

In the Gospels, some objected to the messianic claims made for Jesus by pointing out that he was a Nazarene. Matthew attacks that skepticism head-on, writing simply that Jesus was born "in Bethlehem of Judea" and that wise men from the East, guided by a star, went there in search of the baby who inspired this celestial sign. Could there have been such a star? Halley's comet is estimated to have made an appearance in 12 B.C., and Matthew may have appropriated the detail long afterward. He could also have been thinking of a line from the Book of Numbers: "There shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel."

What is clearer is that the visit of the Magi came to be seen as a fulfillment of Psalm 72. "The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents: the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts," reads the Scripture. "Yea, all kings shall fall down before him: all nations shall serve him." There is no historical evidence of such a visit, but the symbolic significance is obvious: even as a baby, Jesus is inverting the very order of things, with earthly potentates bowing before a child. Matthew's detail about the specific gifts comes from Isaiah: "... all they from Sheba shall come: they shall bring gold and incense; and they shall shew forth the praises of the Lord."

To resolve the problem of Jesus' connection with both Bethlehem and Nazareth, Matthew portrays Mary and Joseph as residents of Bethlehem who were later forced to move north to Nazareth. With a keen dramatic sense, he also adds two stories evoking the memory of God's deliverance of his people from slavery in Egypt. The King of Judea, Herod, learns of the birth of this alleged messiah from the wise men, whom he asks to go find the child and return to him with the particulars. In a dream, God tells the Magi not to make their report, and then appears to Joseph. "Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt... for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him." Enraged and jealous, Herod orders a massacre of all the male children in Bethlehem--thus connecting Jesus' birth with the first Passover, when God spared Israel's sons from the same bloody decree by Pharaoh. (History records no such Herodian slaughter, though Herod was an undeniably cruel ruler.)

Luke does not mention a journey to Egypt, nor is there any other New Testament allusion to such an important event in the life of the young Jesus. Once Matthew has started this story, though, he makes the most of it, writing that Joseph's mission was undertaken "that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son." (The prophet was Hosea.) The Nazareth question is then resolved rather neatly, for Matthew has Joseph and Mary move to Galilee on their return from Egypt.

Luke's conundrum is just the opposite of Matthew's: how to get Mary and Joseph, who in his Gospel were living in Nazareth in the north, down to Bethlehem in the south. Summoning the weapons of history, apparently pinpointing time, place and circumstance with epic eloquence, Luke writes: "And it came to pass in those days that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph went up also from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child."

Yet almost nothing in Luke's story stands up to close historical scrutiny; Brown finds it "dubious on almost every score." Augustus conducted no global census, and no more local one makes sense in Luke's time frame. Setting Jesus' birth at a moment when the princes of this world are exerting temporal power over the people is a deft device, though, for the theological point of Jesus' arrival is that anyone who chooses to believe in him will ultimately be subject only to God. Evoking the prophet Joel in the Book of Acts, Peter says that "it shall come to pass that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved," and there is nothing any mortal emperor or governor can do to foreclose the promise of the kingdom Jesus said he was offering.

The power of the Nativity message--that a helpless child is in fact a heavenly king--lies in its consistent pattern of reversal, of making the weak strong, the humble mighty. The stable, the manger and the swaddling of Jesus are such theological touches. Since Matthew seems to assume that Mary and Joseph lived at Bethlehem, he is silent on these familiar details; it is Luke, the writer who put them on the road to answer the census, who adds the inn, the manger and the swaddling. The creche scene strikes three Old Testament notes. The inn could be traced to Jeremiah, who asks of the Savior: "Why are you like an alien in the land, like a traveler who stays in lodgings?" The manger's roots may lie in the very beginning of Isaiah, when he writes: "The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib, but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider." And Mary's tender care of the baby is similar to a remark of Solomon's in the Book of Wisdom: "I was carefully swaddled and nursed, for no king has any other way to begin at birth."

There is, of course, no way to know whether Luke's story of the heavenly host announcing Jesus' arrival to the shepherds really happened; one has to believe in angels, and explain away the fact that the Gospels fail to note any ensuing communal or individual recollection of this spectacular birth, one witnessed by the rustics (in Luke) and the Magi (in Matthew), in the years of Jesus' public life. Yet the language never fails to captivate. "For unto us a child is born," wrote Isaiah, "unto us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace." So it was that when Luke came to herald the birth of his hero to the shepherds, he struck the same notes: "For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord."

Such monotheistic theology--a Christian obedience to the Jewish commandment to "have no other gods before me"--was, however, automatically appealing to only a slice of the evangelists' ultimate audience. Christianity was to be preached, as Paul put it in his Epistle to the Romans, "to the Jew first, also to the Greek."

The basic features of the Nativity story were familiar to pagan ears. In Suetonius' second-century biography of Augustus, who ruled as emperor from 27 B.C. to A.D. 14, omens in the natural world had heralded Augustus' birth, which was itself the result of divine intervention. Atia, Augustus' mother, was said to have fallen asleep when Apollo, taking the form of a serpent, impregnated her. That there was physical contact is suggested by Suetonius' assertion that afterward Atia "purified herself, as usual after the embraces of her husband." The baby, Suetonius writes, "was thought to be the son of Apollo"; on the day of his birth a senator in Rome "declared that the world had got a master," and Atia's husband, Octavius, "dreamt that he saw his son under more than human appearance, with thunder and sceptre, and the other insignia of Jupiter... having on his head a radiant crown, mounted upon a chariot decked with laurel."

The parallels to the Jesus story are clear: a deity chooses to send a son from the divine to the temporal world through a woman, the glorious news of the coming of a king is made known to others, and the woman's loyal husband, rather than recoiling, is included in the revelation. But Augustus was not the product of a Christ-like conception as portrayed in the Gospels: the evangelists hewed to the conviction that Mary had no sexual contact of any kind, and scholars of antiquity have yet to find another example that precisely mirrors the Annunciation.

Still, as the Christian Gospels spread through the early centuries of the first millennium, audiences familiar with Virgil would have been receptive to the rhythms and ideas of Matthew's and Luke's stories. In his "Fourth Eclogue," written in 40 B.C., the poet evokes an age of peace presided over by a baby in a cradle of flowers. "Upon the Child now to be born, under whom the race of iron will cease and a golden race will spring up over the whole world, do you, O chaste Lucina [the goddess of childbirth], smile favorably, for your own Apollo is now king." The baby's coming is then hailed with these words: "Behold the world trembles in homage... the expanse of earth and sea, and the reaches of the sky!" Virgil and the evangelists were working in essentially the same literary tradition, and the "Fourth Eclogue" is a sign of how pervasive such birth imagery was before, during and after Jesus' lifetime.

The collision of different factions and different traditions in the world of Christianity's first years was mirrored by civil wars between Jesus' followers. Then as now, Christians tended to disagree sharply with one another, but the essential creed is so familiar to modern ears that it is difficult to recall how many different views of Jesus were circulating among Christian groups during the first two centuries or so. A complex movement popularly known as Gnosticism (from the Greek "gnosis," meaning knowledge) offered an apparently compelling and appealing version of Christianity in which believers sought, in addition to received teaching, "inner knowledge" of God. "Insight, or gnosis, was the experience of searching for the divine, the source of our creation, within oneself," says Elaine Pagels, professor of religion at Princeton and the best-selling author of "The Gnostic Gospels" and, most recently, "Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas." "Such Christians claimed to go beyond the views of Jesus expressed in the New Testament to seek, in addition, personal perception and transformation."

In the eyes of competing (and ultimately victorious) Christians, this religious path put too much emphasis on the personal and not enough on Jesus as the incarnate son of God who was crucified for the sins of the world. It was, in other words, "heresy" (interestingly, in Greek "heresy" means "choice"), and the virginal conception was one of the battlefields on which the internecine conflict took place. In the gnostic "Gospel of Philip," Pagels points out, the Gospel author reinterprets Jesus' birth, suggesting that while Jesus was born biologically to Mary and Joseph, he was reborn spiritually as the son of God, his heavenly Father, through the Holy Ghost, who was functioning as a sort of heavenly Mother. To Philip, Jesus was a paradigmatic figure whose rebirth was available to others in the rite of baptism.

Such a view prompted a fierce counterattack from Irenaeus, a late-second-century church father who believed that Jesus was utterly unique that he had been born in a unique way and had been raised from the dead in a unique way. Writing about the virginal conception, Irenaeus said: "In the last times, not by the will of the flesh, nor by the will of man, but by the good pleasure of the Father, his hands formed a living man, in order that Adam might be created [again] after the image and likeness of God." By Nicea, this interpretation of the tradition of the Nativity had largely carried the day--for believers Jesus was in fact, in the reinterpretation of Isaiah by Matthew, Emmanuel, or "God with us."

A man with no human father, a king who died a criminal's death, a God who assures us of everlasting life in a world to come while the world he made is consumed by war and strife: Christianity is a religion of perplexing contradictions. To live an examined faith believers have to acknowledge those complexities and engage them, however frustrating it may be. "We are in a world of mystery, with one bright Light before us, sufficient for our proceeding forward through all difficulties," wrote John Henry Newman, the great Victorian cleric whose intellectual journey led him from the Anglican priesthood to the Roman Curia. "Take away this Light and we are utterly wretched--we know not where we are, how we are sustained, what will become of us, and of all that is dear to us, what we are to believe, and why we are in being." The Christmas star is just one such light; there are others. Whatever our backgrounds, whatever our creeds, many of us are in search of the kind of faith that will lead us through the darkness, toward home. In Luke, the angelic host hails the Lord and then says: "on earth peace, good will toward men"--a promise whose fulfillment is worth our prayers not only in this season, but always.