For Christians, Christmas time is one of the most sacred, most joyous celebrations of the year. What about for people who are thinking about it, but who aren't sure about the whole "reason for the season"? What do we really know about what happened in Judea, 2000 years ago?
We're going to try to approach this topic from a neutral standpoint, and see where that leads us.
It's well-established that Jesus existed. He was physically, historically real. There is voluminous evidence from Christian sources, of course. Jesus Christ was also mentioned in non-Christian historical documents that have survived from that period. He's referred to twice by Josephus, the Jewish historian, in his work "Antiquities of the Jews" published in 93-94 AD. Tacitus, the Roman historian, writing in around 116 AD, also refers to "Christus" being put to death by the Romans under Pontius Pilate.
Was Jesus special? Even skeptics would need to wonder why and how this man from a small village in Galilee could launch a religion which would become the biggest, most influential one for at least the next two millennia of human history.
One of the intriguing things about Jesus is that his birth and life seem to have fulfilled prophecies from the Old Testament, which date back to the time of Moses - at least 1500 years BC, and to far older stories in an oral tradition. Those prophecies existed in texts written long before the Christian Era started.
What were some of those prophecies? There are many of them! Swedenborg lists some here, Doctrine of the Lord 6. In this article, we're just going to focus on a few of them.
In this very early prophecy, it's indicated that the Messiah would be born as the son of a woman:
"And Jehovah God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, cursed art thou above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life, and I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed: he shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel. Genesis 3:14-15. This is confirmed in the story in Matthew 1:20.
In Micah, much later in the Bible, we read that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, in Judea:
"But thou, Beth-lehem Ephrathah, which art little to be among the thousands of Judah, out of thee shall one come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting."
Micah 5:2. This is confirmed in the story in Matthew 2:1, and Luke 2:4-6.
In Isaiah, we read that the Messiah would be born to a virgin:
"Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel." Isaiah 7:14. This is confirmed in the story in Matthew 1:22-23, and in Luke 1:26-31.
Lineage was an important factor, too. At least 5 forefathers of the promised Savior are named. First, he was prophesied to come from the line of Abraham, the progenitor of many of the peoples of the modern Middle East, including the Jews, the Arabs, the Lebanese, the Druze, and others. See Genesis 12:3, and Genesis 22:18. This prophecy is confirmed in Matthew 1:1, and Romans 9:5.
In the next generation, prophecy stated that the Savior would be descended from the line of Isaac, one of Abraham's two sons. See Genesis 17:19, and Genesis 21:12. This is confirmed in Luke 3:34.
For the third generation, the Word states that the Messiah would be a descendant of Jacob. It's prophesied in Numbers 24:17, and confirmed in Matthew 1:2.
For the fourth generation, attention focuses on the tribe of Judah, who was one of the twelve sons of Jacob (whose name was changed to Israel). See Genesis 49:10, and then Luke 3:33, and Hebrews 7:14.
Many generations later, in the second book of Samuel, and again in Isaiah, there are prophecies that the Messiah would be heir to King David's throne. Read 2 Samuel 7:12-13, and Isaiah 9:7. Then see Luke 1:32-33, and Romans 1:3.
There are many more prophecies, and we will look at more of them in a future article. But, to summarize these ones that we've just listed, what would Old Testament readers in the time of Caesar Augustus be expecting?
In Bethlehem, a virgin would bear a son. He would be descended from Abraham, through the line of Isaac, Jacob, Judah, and David. That's the way the story runs, in the Gospels.
It's clear that the Old Testament wasn't altered to suit the "facts on the ground". The prophecies are already there in pre-Christian scrolls. That leaves two possibilities:
1) Scenario A: The New Testament could have been written to twist the facts to match the old prophecies. Faithful Jews were awaiting the Messiah; they would have wanted to find matching stories. In this scenario, Jesus could have been just a regular man, but a standout leader and teacher and healer. He was so inspiring that his apostles endured hardship and death to spread what became a global religion. The stories about him were exaggerated or modified to help match the prophecies.
2) Scenario B: The Old Testament text contains deep inner meaning, and its prophecies were actually prophetic and true. The facts of Jesus' birth and life and ministry actually did match and fulfull the prophecies. In this scenario, Jesus was truly a miracle baby.
Which scenario is right? In both, there's a recognition that the teachings of Jesus contained wisdom, and that there is great value in them. In New Christian thought, the choice is for Scenario B -- that Jesus really was the Christ, the long-awaited Messiah, or Savior.
This of course requires some level of belief in miracles - prophecy, fulfillment, the virgin birth, angels bearing tidings, healings, feeding the multitudes. Can miracles really happen? Is it scientifically possible? Maybe they can... maybe as science advances, we will begin to understand those boundaries better.
At some level, don't most of us believe in miracles -- in the miracle of the very existence of the universe, and of living organisms that can reproduce, and of human life, and of love?
How to end this article? The whole subject of miracles needs more thought. And, here it is, December 22, and... instead of getting more analytical, I find that right now I just want to "be" in the holy days of Christmas.
If you're feeling skeptical, have a look at Arcana Coelestia 2568, and Arcana Coelestia 2588. They offer an interesting perspective!
One source for this article was "100 Prophecies Fulfilled by Jesus: Messianic Prophecies Made Before the Birth of Christ", by Rose Publishing.
(References: Teachings about the Lord 6)