The Christmas Story: Good News Or Fake News?

Detail Of Madonna & Child (the earliest depiction of them), From A Fresco In The Catacombs of Priscilla, Rome, Italy ca 200 CE (for a discussion of possible visual echoes of Sappho’s poetry in it click here).

It is once again the time of year when it is difficult, regardless of your belief(s), not to at least think about Christianity. Is the story of the conception and birth of Christ as found in the Gospel of Luke 1:27–2:20 (the “Christmas Story”) true? Most people are familiar with the fact that ‘Gospel’ is an archaic English word for ‘Good News,’ and that it implies, as does the underlying Greek term it translates (euaggelion, cf. Latinized ‘evangelical’), that what it refers to is not fake news.

Yet, what the Greek term originally also referred to was how such news was reported: what was said was expected to be well (eu-) said (or announced — the meaning of the root from which -aggelion (cf. angel) derives). One way that was done was by incorporating poetry or poetic elements. This was primarily a legacy of pre-literate culture when it was vital for important (good) news to be well said in order fully to be understood and remembered, since it often would be heard only once.

The Christmas Story: Something Initially Told And Not Written Or Read

Why this is relevant to the Christmas Story requires a bit more historical context than provided by delving into the etymology of ‘Gospel.’ Although the information technology of writing had been widely adopted throughout the Mediterranean by roughly the fifth century BCE, it is apparent that the spread of Christianity in the first century CE relied primarily upon oral transmission. Evidence of such reliance is the fact that there are four canonical Gospels — not one — (and other non-canonical ones such as the Gospel of Thomas) — and that the earliest one dates from about two decades after the death of Christ.

One reason for this surely relates to the very real risk of persecution. In this regard oral transmission has (and had) two advantages over writing: it does not provide physical evidence of a particular belief or practice and yet it necessarily does provide context — the where, when and how — often vital to avoid misunderstanding what is being said. For example, if you tweet “I have cast fire upon the world . . . I am guarding it until it blazes” (Gospel of Thomas, Saying 10), but do not provide any context, you might well be suspected of being a terrorist. Imagine if a manuscript with that Saying was brought before Nero shortly after the fire that devastated Rome in 64 CE.

Oral Transmission Of Christianity Among Hellenized Mediterranean Women

There was another reason, however, for the initial reliance by Christians on oral transmission. With the exception of wealthy women and female slaves (who were expected to teach the children of their masters), most women in the first century CE were illiterate. This is because men ‘owned’ the information technology of writing almost from the moment of its adoption until well into the 20th century. Yet, the Christmas Story is above all else a story of conception and birth, a domain that women in general had (and have) reason to consider uniquely theirs.

Before going into why this was particularly true with respect to women in ancient Greek culture it is worth briefly noting the most prominent evidence of the involvement of Hellenized Mediterranean women in early Christianity. Not only did Paul entrust a woman (Phoebe) to deliver to Rome his famous letter to Roman Christians, he refers to more women (eight) than men (five) among the Roman Christians he characterizes as contributing to the promotion of Christianity (see Romans 16:1ff). Surely Phoebe knew Greek and was literate, but how many other Roman Christian women knew Greek and were literate is not known — it is likely that a majority were not.

There is evidence from a late source that the empress of Rome at the time, Poppaea Sabina, was interested in Christianity and may have even met Paul. Because Poppaea is known to have been Jewish from an account of an eyewitness uniquely qualified to judge her on that issue — the Jewish historian Josephus . Therefore, the suggestion that she may have been Christian can hardly be dismissed, notwithstanding that it comes from a late Christian source of the sort that many scholars dismiss as ‘fake news.’ It is, among other things, anachronistic to distinguish sharply between who was Jewish and who was Christian when Poppaea was alive.

Of the many implications of this, one that at a minimum deserves attention is that Poppaea’s wealth and power would have helped enormously in how she might have influenced early Christianity, notwithstanding that she was only empress for a brief time. She surely knew and influenced wealthy Roman women. The fact that a ‘Priscilla’ of the mid to late 2nd century owned, or sponsored the use of, an extensive network of catacombs by Christians — where the first portrayal of the ‘Madonna & Child’ has been discovered — may well be a legacy of Poppaea’s influence.

The First Narration Of The Christmas Story: Mary’s

The interest of wealthy, well educated Hellenized women in Christianity may explain why Luke focused so much attention on Mary and in doing so drew upon an aspect of the ancient Greek female spiritual tradition with which such women would have been quite familiar. Notable among the Roman Christians mentioned by name by Paul is ‘Mary’ (Romans 16:6). Although she would not have been the mother of Christ, it is possible she was named after her. This suggests such Christians knew about the Mary and acknowledged her importance to Christianity (unlike Paul, who curiously (tellingly) never mentions her in all of his letters).

There is no direct evidence Mary, the mother of Christ, was herself a Hellenized Jew (specifically, whether she knew Greek and Greek literature). Nevertheless, it is probable that she at least knew Hellenized Jews. The inclusion of Song of Songs in the Old Testament appears to be an artifact of the influence of Hellenized Jewish women, absorbing and celebrating aspects of Greek culture, in what is now Israel several centuries before Christ. This seems to have been a matter of oral transmission: Song of Songs appears to be a compilation of orally transmitted poetry, composed in Hebrew, but modeled on Greek poetry (or translated from an anthology of such poetry?), specifically the wedding songs of Sappho.

It is not unduly speculative to assume that Mary knew Song of Songs and thus probably had far more context about it and the dance performances associated with it than is known today. That Luke narrates her singing a song (Luke 1:46–55) supports that assumption (I will return to consider this in more detail in the conclusion below). For Luke, therefore, Mary must have seemed sophisticated. To understand why that is consistent with the fact that he also knew her to be a virgin (a detail that many non-Christians readily ridicule as ‘fake news’) it is necessary to consider the implications of the fact that Luke was a physician at a time of significant change in ancient Greek medicine, and gynecology in particular.

The Relevance Of Luke’s Greek Education, Including His Medical Training

Relative to what can reasonably be inferred about Mary, there is much more that can be said about Luke, albeit with the qualification that it too is a matter of inference. Most agree that he is the physician referred to at Colossians 4:14. Based on the professional, journalistic quality of his Greek prose (which belies the common characterization of all early Christian Greek usage as bastardized relative to Classical Greek), it is clear he was not only well educated in Greek but familiar with its rich literary tradition (as most Greek physicians would have been expected to be). Though Luke does not specify exactly what sources he used, because of his commitment to historical methodology (Luke 1:1–4), as well as the fact that as a physician he would have valued empirical (diagnostic) data above all else (note his reference to ‘eyewitnesses’ at Luke 1:2), he would have sought out if not Mary, who probably was not alive when he wrote, at least someone who had heard from her directly, or knew of a written account based on what she said. This explains his references to the amount of months both Elizabeth and Mary had been pregnant and his reporting Elizabeth’s statement regarding the movement of her own baby in her womb (Luke 1:41)(hardly something a man of that time other than perhaps a male physician would have found remarkable (indeed, it would seem this detail proves Luke had a female source for his account)).

Therefore, it is exceedingly unlikely, especially considering that Luke was a physician and that the Christmas Story is about conception and birth, that he would have included the Christmas Story if he did not have access to such a source. Arguably anybody — man or woman — could make up the Christmas Story. Only if it derived directly from Mary could it have commanded the attention Luke manifestly felt it deserved. But precisely because it derived from her, Luke would have been respectful of what was in it and what was not in it: that is, he would not have embellished it by indulging in speculation.

Women In Ancient Greek Medicine & The Special Meaning Of Virginity

Though intuitively it makes sense that as a physician Luke would have sought out the record of what Mary said about the conception and birth of Christ, the specific historical context is particularly vital to appreciating why he would have. Greek women at least a century and more before Plato had exclusive authority with respect to the practice of all aspects of family medicine. This is evidenced by the account Socrates provides of his own mother’s practice as an obstetrician and pharmacist. Both the fact that women had such authority, as well as the sophistication of their practice, were unprecedented at the time and unparalleled anywhere in the world until the late 20th century.

Given this context, it is notable that although as a medical term ‘virginity’ in ancient Greek does refer to the physical fact that sexual intercourse has not occurred, it did not, in reference to women, necessarily have an anatomical meaning in ancient Greek (as indeed it should not in any language). Though Mary’s question to Gabriel (Luke 1:34) would appear to give ‘virgin’ a purely physical meaning, it is only vaguely answered by reference to plainly non-physical (metaphysical) concepts. This is significant, since as an abstract noun ‘virginity’ is first attested in Sappho’s poetry. For her, virginity is a uniquely female spiritual quality that she associates with divinely bestowed grace. Proof that Luke is drawing upon Sappho in characterizing Mary is not hard to find: the first line of Gabriel’s annunciation (Luke 1:28) is an echo both in sound and meaning of a line from Sappho’s wedding song poetry (Fragment 108). Though detecting the echo requires knowledge of the ancient Greek of Luke and Sappho’s poetry — neither of which is common today — that would manifestly not have been a problem for educated Roman women: they would have heard the echo whether they read Luke out loud (as was common) or had it read to them if they were illiterate. If you would like to get a sense of the echo, you can use Google translate to ‘listen’ with modern Greek pronunciation to each of the two lines.

There is another indication that Luke is speaking metaphorically/mystically and is not concerned with reporting on the physical fact of conception. His Christmas Story is marked by ring composition, with the annunciation by Gabriel ‘echoed’ by the angel that appears to the shepherds (Luke 2:9). There are good reasons to read each angel as symbolic of a star, even though Luke does not refer to either as such. The most likely star would be the Morning/Evening Star = Venus. Each half of the cycle of Venus happens to correlate quite closely with the period of human gestation (it would seem this explains the name given to that planet). Luke probably knew of this. The ring formed by the reference to the angels would seem to ‘mirror’ the cycle of Venus: the mystical, symbolic conception of Christ is the annunciation; the appearance of the angel to the shepherds is the mystical, symbolic birth of Christ. For more on the cycle of Venus and its association with early Christianity and related symbolism see my post Visual ‘Echoes’ Of Sappho’s Poetry In The Earliest Depiction Of The Madonna & Child.

An Inexplicable Detour In The Development Of Greek Medicine

The emphasis Luke places on Mary and her virginity is especially remarkable in how it manifests his sensitivity to the validity of ancient Greek medicine relative to an inexplicable detour in its development from which it was beginning to recover during his lifetime. Within less than a century after the death of the mother of Socrates, in what constitutes an utter betrayal of her legacy, Plato conjured up an absurd theory of male superiority to females (see, e.g., Timaeus 42a-c). His student Aristotle followed up on that with a theory of human reproduction known as the ‘single seed theory’ that relegated women to the role of merely being passive receptacles of the man’s seed.

In promoting his single seed theory, Aristotle seems to have deliberately suppressed the otherwise valid ‘two seed theory’ of human reproduction (i.e., a theory consistent with modern biology) upon which the medical practice of the mother of Socrates was based. The prominence and authoritativeness of the two seed theory could not have been greater: it was in the poetry of Parmenides, the father of Western philosophy. That it was deliberately suppressed is indicated by the fact that the relevant passage of his poetry survives only in a late Latin translation of it quoted, significantly enough, in a gynecological work published around the time of Luke (see Parmenides, Fragment 18).

It is not clear how quickly or extensively medical practice recovered from the nonsense Plato and Aristotle instigated. Though it is impossible to determine what Luke’s medical theory or practice may have been, there is reason to infer that he would have known the original approach of Greek medicine was the right one and that Plato and Aristotle were wrong. Shortly after the death of Aristotle anatomical knowledge of the ovaries and their function improved dramatically. That knowledge established that the earlier two seed theory had been substantively correct. That it was deemed to invalidate Aristotle’s single seed theory is evident in works by Galen published no more than a half century after Luke, but it would seem widespread recognition of its invalidity probably predates that (indeed, regardless of what is reflected in medical literature, it is reasonable to assume Greek women since before the time of the mother of Socrates and at all times thereafter were well aware of their ovaries and their function).

Though Luke does not narrate the conception (perhaps because Mary herself did not specify when or how she became pregnant), it would seem that a two seed theory of reproduction is nonetheless implicit in the importance he places upon Mary in the Christmas Story. A coherent Christian theology depends upon it. Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, who it should be noted had a brother who was a physician, not only uses the same ‘mixture’ terminology found in Parmenides to articulate his theology, but does so in part using dactylic hexameter poetry — exactly what Parmenides used. In this regard Nazianzus differs substantially from Augustine, who was embarrassingly naive regarding sexual reproduction (he was ridiculed for this by one of his contemporaries) and who thus based his theology on Aristotle’s single seed theory, notwithstanding that it had been discredited long before his time and notwithstanding the precedent of Nazianzus, who predated him by only a few decades.

Possibly relevant to Luke’s interpretation of the Christmas Story as predicated on the two seed theory of reproduction is the appearance of the matrilineal principle of Judaism in the first century CE, that is, when Mary gave birth to Christ. Jewish scholars do not have an explanation for its appearance. It is hardly what one would expect given the predominantly patriarchal character of Judaism found in the Old Testament. Possibly related to this and the roughly contemporaneous recognition of the invalidity of Aristotle’s single seed theory is the influence of the Jewish Empress Poppaea. She is known to have taken an active interest in Jewish affairs in Jerusalem and, as an expectant mother when murdered by her husband Nero, would have, albeit briefly, had both the means and the motive to effect a change in official Jewish policy. She was, after all, unquestionably the wealthiest and most powerful woman in the world at that time (and arguably at any time before or since).

The Magnificat In A New Context

Christianity from the start has been, and still is, criticized or marginalized because it was deemed to fall short of the ideals set by Plato and Aristotle for what humans should aspire to achieve. Yet, implied in Luke’s Christmas Story is a legitimate refutation of a significant aspect of their thinking. Its legitimacy is grounded in a methodology that is fundamentally sound. Underlying Luke’s focus on Mary are principles of evidence consistent with those applied not only in modern legal procedure but also diagnostic assessments doctors perform with each of their respective patients.

Such a methodology meant that Luke felt it to be his duty to allow the Christmas Story as well as the other stories he tells (including those in Acts) to remain as he discovered them to be: at times frustratingly vague and mysterious (such as not providing more detail about the conception), but for precisely those reasons rich in meaning. He quotes, without editorializing upon it, Mary’s association of her pregnancy with her Savior’s ability to “pull the powerful down from their thrones” (Luke 1:52). He thus encourages an expansive interpretation of that line worthy of the Latin title the song to which it belongs came to have (the Magnificat (from the Latin verb meaning to ‘expand’ or ‘magnify’ — used in the Vulgate to translate the opening line of the Magnificat (Luke 1:46)).

Indeed, the Magnificat is hardly less provocative than Saying 10 of the Gospel of Thomas quoted earlier. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that when most people refer to Luke’s Christmas Story they are talking about the opening of the second chapter of his Gospel. For notwithstanding that the Magnificat, as poetry, fits one aspect of the definition of the Greek underlying ‘Gospel’ discussed at the outset (it is ‘well said’), whether it constitutes ‘good news’ very much depends on whether one could be identified as being ‘enthroned’ relative, for example, to a woman such as Mary. It could thus be taken to introduce a sense of apocalyptic foreboding that would not harmonize well with the all but mandatory happiness of Christmas celebrations. Appreciating the potential significance of the Magnificat also depends very much on whether it should be understood to refer to the past, present or future. When the Magnificat is considered in this way, it seems to be the centerpiece of the Christmas Story, and it becomes apparent that the issue of whether the Christmas Story is good news or fake news has yet to be decided.