Was Jesus Christ a figment, a minor rabble rouser, a sorcerer, or the historical progenitor of a religious belief that continues into the present day? The Review took on this subject every Christmas throughout its 50-year history (1948 - 1998).
Editorial Opinion: Jesus was one of Max Goodwin's favorite topics (Goodwin, the 34-year editor of the Review). He viewed Christ as historical fact and brooked no argument over virgin birth, transubstantiation or immortality. Goodwin's 1990s successor, Steve Saint, was and is a devout Christian, though his approach to Jesus involved investigations into history, genealogy, ancient texts and myth. In other words, questions.
The Two Christs: One is the historical man of humble birth and the other is the mythologized being of noble birth descended from King David.
The birth of Historical Jesus in the first century made no headlines because no news media and no widespread literacy. Roman historians Suetonius and Tacitus referenced Christians and their persecution by the caesars, but made only fleeting mention of "Christus," a rabble-rouser executed by Pontius Pilate.
The memoirs of Philo, a Jewish philosopher living in Egypt at the time of Christ, says not a word about him. But Josephus, a Jewish historian, mentions Jesus in his Antiquities of the Jews. Scholars generally believe that Josephus wrote this interesting observation:
He performed astonishing feats (and was a teacher of such people as are eager for novelties). He attracted many Jews and many of the Greeks. Upon indictment brought by leading members of our society, Pilate sentenced him to the cross, but those who had loved him from the very beginning did not cease to be attached to him. The brotherhood of the Christians, named after him, is still in existence.
Jesus is referred to as a "sorcerer" in the Talmud and one citation tells of "Yeshua ben Pantera" sending a disciple to cure a rabbi. "Pantera" also shows up in True Doctrine by Celsus, a second-century Greek philosopher who wrote that Jesus' mother was impregnated by a Roman soldier named Jesus and that her husband then abandoned her.
St. Paul, whose writings originated Christian literature, says of Jesus' birth only that he was "born of a woman" (Galatians 4:4). It is St. Mark (and, later, St. John) who notes the baptism of Jesus as an adult by John the Baptist. But the gospels of Matthew and Luke actually address Jesus' origins, albeit in disagreement with each other.
The Two Tales: Matthew links Jesus to the legendary King David from whose line the Jews looked for their messiah. He lists a genealogical tree of three groups of 14 names from Abraham to Jesus. He asserts Jesus' birth in Bethlehem, a village southeast of Jerusalem, during Herod the Great, who died in 4 B.C. Matthew also has the Holy Family living quietly in Bethlehem for two years after Jesus' birth. No fanfare, no notoriety, no starry, starry night.
By contrast, Luke ties Jesus' birth to 6 A.D., or 10 years after Herod's death. Luke cites Quirinius' term as governor of Syria, then a Roman province that encompassed Palestine, as historical background. Luke's genealogical tree is even longer than Matthew's, with 76 generations between Jesus and Adam and ending with the word "God."
Luke has the family moving to Nazareth eight days after Jesus' birth to be counted in the Roman census -- but also to be closer to Jerusalem, where the baby had to be circumcised and Mary purified according to Jewish law. While in Jerusalem, two holy visionaries in the Temple assert Baby Jesus' messianic calling.
It is Luke (2:7) who describes the famous scene in the stable in Nazareth with cattle lowing and Baby Jesus asleep on the hay: She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn. Luke also has Jewish shepherds -- not Gentile kings--arriving at the stable on instructions from angels.
Luke in 3:39 then says when the family had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. In other words, no permanent residence in Bethlehem, no magi, no threat, no flight to Egypt.
Stay with us, dear readers, as we journey through the bullrushes.
In Matthew's version a group of magi (wise men) arrive from Persia, searching for a new Jewish king and a panicked Herod asks astrologers to locate the kingly child. In 2:11, Matthew has the magi finding Mary's "house" and paying homage to Jesus--but a dream warns them to avoid meeting with Herod.
In Matthew, Herod orders the death of all boys in Bethlehem two years old or younger. Joseph is told by an angel in a dream to take the family to sanctuary in Egypt. They leave and live in Egypt until Herod dies. In another dream, Joseph is told to avoid Bethlehem and return to live in Nazareth (Matthew 2:22-23).
Mythological Jesus is a product of the textual conflict arising from Matthew and Luke that appears to make the New Testament little more than a fairy tale -- the writings of true believers who described what they wanted to see. But a journalist would ask that if Matthew and Luke recorded such different versions of Jesus' birth, why was any of it similar? What of the commonalities of Bethlehem's location, the concerned couple struggling to abide by the law in the face of an extraordinary pregnancy, the messianic predictions, Herod's paranoia…
Further to the problem, those ancient shepherds watched their flocks by night only in warm spring when new lambs were born, yet in the familiar story they're outside on a cold winter's night amid snow. No first century writers refer to angels, a special star, or the slaughter of hundreds of babies--only Matthew seems to know.
Yet, 2,000 years of tradition, faith and art have melded Matthew's and Luke's versions together into a European-style barn in Bethlehem full of kings, shepherds, donkeys and sheep, drummer boys, nutcrackers, wrapped gifts, glittering trees, snowy landscapes -- and, above all, Santa Claus in a sleigh pulled by reindeer.
The figure of the jolly, chubby Claus, part pagan, part Christian, as the symbol of generosity, cheer, goodness and reliability (he'll always arrive on Dec. 24 if you've been good) is not far from the message of Jesus' life. As Steve Saint wrote in 1995, "Maybe the gospels are exactly where we need to look." We'll do that in our next column.
And so it went in our little city 18 years ago when eternal questions and eternal faith attested to the significance of the Season of Light.
About this column: Compiled by Helen Ofield, president of the Lemon Grove Historical Society, from newspapers archived at the H. Lee House Cultural Center. Each week, we take a peek at the past with some news and advertising highlights from a randomly chosen edition of the Lemon Grove Review. Ofield was awarded first place in 2013 and second place in 2012 in non-daily column writing from the Society of Professional Journalists. In 2013 she received third place in the "History" category from the San Diego Press Club.