All things all people, the world
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What Was Christmas Actually Like?

Jeremy Jenkins (Founder of All Things All People) talks with interesting Christians about interesting things. All this to see generations of Christian thinkers raised up to reach the world around them with the transformative message of the gospel!

In this episode, Dr. Kostenberger talks with Jeremy about our misconceptions regarding Christmas, what the world would have actually looked like at this time, and how much sweeter Christmas is once we have a biblical view of it.


Jeremy Jenkins: Welcome to the All Things for All People podcast. I’m your host, Jeremy Jenkins, and we have a great Christian thinker to finish out our year. Today, we have on the show Dr. Andreas Kostenberger. Dr. Kostenberger means a lot to me, because, even though I’ve never studied under him, his work in the Gospel of John was one of the first pieces of biblical scholarship that really jumped out at me. I was taking a class on the Gospel of John in undergrad, and using one of his textbooks, he is a world-renowned scholar on the Gospel of John. In fact, if you own an ESV Study Bible, and open up to the Gospel of John, he is the person who wrote the notes in your ESV Study Bible. And he has done a bunch of work elsewhere.

And I remember picking up this textbook on the Gospel of John, and it was like, I could read through it like a book. And it’s so interesting, and it taught me so much. And I remember thinking, at the time, Dr. Kostenberger was teaching at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. I decided I’m going to write him an email. Hey, I really enjoy this book. I think I probably had a question about the Gospel of John. And I said, thank you for what you did. You know, I guess I never thought he’d email me back. But he emailed me back, and was extremely warm and generous, and was encouraged by my thanks, and then, of course, answered my question. And I remember being so excited about that.

Here was a guy who could easily have brushed me off and said, some kid at a different school, who, you know, he is not paying tuition, and he is not paying my salary. I don’t need to pay attention to him, but he sat down and wrote me an email, and it was so nice of him, and all these years later, when I started thinking about people who I wanted to represent academia, and we’ve had some really good ones on the show, I thought, well, I’d better send Dr. Kostenberger another email, and just as quickly and just as generously, he shot right back and said, “Yeah, let’s do it.” And, in fact, he recommended that we talk about what we talk about today, which is perfect.

And it’s based off of his book, The Final Days of Jesus. And Dr. Kostenberger and I talk about the actual early days of Jesus and what Christmas might have actually looked like. And so I hope that at the beginning of this week, whenever you’re listening to this episode, and if you’re listening in or around Christmas, whether that be 2020 or in some year to come, I pray that this conversation blesses you. I hope that you are encouraged and excited to learn more about the birth narrative of our baby Savior, because it really is a tremendously amazing story.

So, make sure to check out Dr. Köstenberger’s work in the show notes, make sure to check out his latest book, Signs of the Messiah: An Introduction to John’s Gospel. He has written so many books, if you bought one a week, you wouldn’t be done for a year. And all of them are good. And so, I hope that you enjoy this episode, and I’m excited to listen back to it every year for Christmas as we think about what did Christmas actually look like? So, let’s get to it today, our Christian thinker, Dr. Andreas Kostenberger.


My next guest is Research Professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology and Director of the Center for Biblical Studies at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also the founder of Biblical Foundations, an organization devoted to encouraging a return to the biblical foundations in the home, the church, and society. He is a leading evangelical scholar and prolific author. He has authored, edited, or translated close to fifty books, including God, Marriage, and Family, A Theology of John’s Gospel. And most notably, for the lay Christian who is listening, he wrote the study notes for the ESV Study Bible on the Gospel of John and other John works. He also serves as editor currently of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, which is truly a hallmark of evangelical scholarship at the moment. It is my honor, my personal honor even, to have on the show today Dr. Andreas Kostenberger. Dr. Kostenberger, thank you so much for giving some of your time today, sir.

Dr. Kostenberger: You’re welcome, Jeremy. Great to be with you.

Journey of Discovery

Jeremy Jenkins: To the listener, I often get to have pre-show conversations with the guests, and let them know kind of where their work is in my life, and a big part of the reason why I have even reached out to you, sir, to have you on the show was because you’ve been a big part of my life. The reason was the impact you had on my life through your scholarship. I’m not a biblical scholar; my Masters is in Intercultural Studies, so I was a little bit of a traitor to the biblical studies name. When I was an undergraduate, your work really impacted me. And so, all these books you’ve written, like I said, more than fifty books, I’d imagine that now you’re beginning to see a little bit of your imprint perhaps on New Testament studies in the evangelical world. What’s that been like to experience in the last twenty years or so?

Dr. Kostenberger: It all started out with my converting to Christ at the end of my time in college, in my early twenties, and just really falling in love with God’s word. And I’d never read the Bible till I was about twenty-three years old. And I just felt really thirsty and hungry for spiritual nourishment, and so I started voraciously, you know, reading the Bible, and just taking it all in. And then just felt that real desire to study it in depth and then also to share with others what I had discovered in God’s word. And so, in the end, the Lord just gave opportunities and opened doors to write and to teach. And so it’s been a joy just to be on this journey of discovery and to have others join me in it.

Jeremy Jenkins: Yeah. Well, a journey of discovery is certainly an appropriate way to describe it, and even reading your work. Your work is very interesting. So for somebody listening who might think that because they are not a Bible scholar or even a student, that work like yours is inaccessible, it seems like you’ve always made an attempt, in my opinion, to make at least a large portion of your work accessible to either the lay Christian reader or even just somebody who might want to do a little bit of the work. Like the book I referenced in the Encountering series from Baker, which you wrote about the Gospel of John, I think anybody could pick up and learn, double or triple their knowledge of John. So has that been sort of a conviction of yours to make your work accessible to more Christians than what biblical scholarship is?

Dr. Kostenberger: Absolutely. I’ve had some really good mentors. I’ve studied with D. A. Carson and Wayne Grudem and others at Trinity. They modeled, you know, that approach, because they really have a heart to equip people in their thinking and in their ministry to others and to make the Bible accessible and understandable, and so I kind of tried to follow in their footsteps as best as I could.

Jeremy Jenkins: Well, few people have the range that you do, in my opinion, doing the lay work, the work that is more accessible. But then also, I’m a member of ETS, and I get the Journal, and some of the work in there is of the highest level, and so I’d imagine that it can be difficult for you to go sometimes to go from a book that’s for the freshman Bible student to, you know, editing or at least interacting with some of the highest biblical scholarship in the world today.

Dr. Kostenberger: It’s true. I think, you know, more recently, what really motivated me in my writing is my own children. They are anywhere from high school to college to grad school and to married. The questions they asked me led to The Jesus of the Gospels. I wrote literally with them in mind, thinking, you know, I want to make sure they can use it in maybe leading Bible studies with some of their peers, and so I developed a little bit more of you might even say apologetic thrust to some of my writing. I know people have questions about their faith. Sometimes people argue there is contradictions in Scripture, and you try to resolve those as best as you can and to equip people to defend their faith. Because, as you know, especially in college, sometimes that’s when challenges come.

The Commercialization of Christmas

Jeremy Jenkins: Absolutely. In my opinion, sometimes, like you said, apologetics are necessary, but I think sometimes what gets left out is scholarship, is just somebody who seriously interacts with the text and the things of the faith in a way that’s hard to argue with. I’ve always appreciated that about you, and some of the other scholars in the New Testament world and the Old Testament as well.

And today, you and I are specifically going to talk about Christmas. And you wrote a book just a few years ago, really, The First Days of Jesus. And I read it, it was tremendous, and I loved the idea when you and I first started talking about what was the first Christmas really like, or what were the first days of Jesus really like?

And in the book, in discussing that sentiment, you right away said, if Jesus were to be completely removed from the question, Americans specifically could continue to celebrate Christmas with hardly an interruption. And I think that that’s of course timely and very accurate, unfortunately. Why do you think it is that Christians, and it’s not just Christians, of course, because we live in a society that’s heavily Christianized, have become comfortable with a Christless Christmas?

Dr. Kostenberger: Yeah, I think as so much in life, corporate America has done a great job in commercializing Christmas, and it’s a big deal. You know, even for churches it’s a big deal for, you know, year-end giving, to make the budget for the year. So, it’s just a piece of American culture. And yet, like you said, as we say in the book, if Jesus were removed somehow, Christmas would continue unabated, and nobody would probably even notice, or very few would.

My wife and I just got away last week for an anniversary, and did a low-key kind of a local trip. We went to Asheville and went to a Christmas store there, an expensive store, two levels and everything. And I looked around, and, you know, there was virtually nothing I found there that really has anything to do with, as you mentioned, the biblical, historical Christmas, the story of Jesus’ birth. It reminded me all over again of the difference between Christmas traditions that we all have and the nativity story, the way the birth narratives are told in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

Jeremy Jenkins: Yeah, it is amazing. I think I know exactly what store you’re talking about. I don’t live very far from Asheville at all. And that’s probably one of the best examples of a heavily commercialized Christmas. So is Walmart, and so are unfortunately most American homes right now. And of course we know it’s good that people are spending a season of joy. Another thing you wrote in the book that stuck out to me is that for me perhaps even this conversation we’re going to have today will burden people today this sentiment where you said, “The lives of the rich, powerful, famous, or influential are memorialized for future generations in autobiographies while the poor often die in anonymity.”

And you are talking about the nature of this birth narrative. You’re talking about the nature of the events surrounding the birth of Jesus. And it seems to me one thing that get lost a lot in Western Christianity, at least, is the disenfranchised nature of Jesus, the disenfranchised nature of the most important figures in the Gospels. Do you think that ultimately part of the identity of Christmas that we’ve lost is this is an event where over and over again, Herod, the inn, the disenfranchised holiday, so to speak, do you think that this is part of the fabric we lost hold of?

Dr. Kostenberger: I agree. This is why it’s so important for us to read the birth narratives, especially the one in Luke. Because Luke has this burning desire to point out that Jesus was born in very humble circumstances. And, again, like you said, we’ll explore that maybe more in depth later in the conversation, the idea that the only witnesses were shepherds in the field.

The note of rejection even, that you see very early on already. You know, Jesus was not part of the mainstream or even the establishment. He was an outsider, you know. He was a king, he was the royal Messiah, but he was born in very inconspicuous circumstances, and in many ways was just a very ordinary baby whom Mary kept warm with some swaddling cloths and so forth. So, you’re right, I mean, talking about the journey of discovery, right, if you’re reading the biblical account of Christmas, you know, the biblical writers tell a very different story from the Christmas that you find in our culture.

Old Testament Buildup

Jeremy Jenkins: Yeah, absolutely. And, in the book, you do a tremendous job of kind of walking people through that. And you start in Matthew and then move to Luke and then, toward the end, even talk about John, which I’m very excited to talk to you about, some John stuff today. But, really, like you said, the heart of the matter, as you said, is in Luke. One of the first things when talking about Mary and Joseph, of course, the integral people in this story, you bring out a point that I don’t think I’ve ever thought of, and I don’t think most Christians have either. When you say that in talking about the virgin birth, and, of course, that’s a topic that many Christians are very familiar with, and don’t need to be convinced of necessarily.

But you bring out a theme, a thematic element in the virgin birth that I thought was tremendous, because you said, “We see that barrenness and other obstacles constantly threaten the progression of the messianic seed and that God often intervenes supernaturally to ensure its survival.” And, of course, you’re reminding the reader of, you know, the promise to Abraham. And so often in the Old Testament where it seemed that the messianic line would not continue but yet it did. And so it seems like reading that, there is a greater story to Christmas that we never share, which is that before Mary ever conceived, it was already very unlikely it would ever get to that without God’s intervention.

And as you draw out, the four women in Jesus’ genealogy being a great example of this unlikely nature of the messianic line. So do you see Christmas, too often Christians treat Christmas and the birth narrative as the beginning of the story. Do you really see Christmas as the beginning of the story, do you see Christmas as more of a crescendo in a sense, he has been directing them toward this point for quite a while? How do you see that thematic element when you include this unlikely nature of the Old Testament?

Dr. Kostenberger: I think you’re raising some great questions. Both the specific mention in Matthew of the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that the virgin will be with child, Isaiah chapter 7, verse 14, but also the fact that in Matthew, the birth narrative and the account of the virgin birth come right on the heels of the genealogy at the beginning that probably most people skip, but it’s there for a reason. Because, like you said, you know, Matthew tries to show that the story doesn’t begin in a Bethlehem manger. And, of course, John, in his own way, as we’ll see later, makes that same point as well.

So, yeah, in the book, the first chapter is basically just devoted to setting the stage or kind of giving the context of the birth of Jesus. And so we kind of backtrack and show that, really, it all started in about 2000 BC with God choosing a family, choosing Abraham, and then about 500-600 years later, in 1400, God makes a nation, the nation of Israel, at the exodus.

And then, in about 1000 BC, so in about half-a-millennium intervals, God chooses a king. He chooses David, and now it gets a little closer to home already and he promises him to have a lasting dynasty, even though God’s people are taken to exile, that messianic hope continues, and even though then the prophetic voice ceases, Malachi, right, there is several hundred years where the voice of God is not heard, the waiting for the Messiah continues. And you see that all the Gospels open with the air rife with messianic expectation and speculation, and so then, in that context come some unusual events such as a virgin giving birth to a child, or angelic visitations, the angel Gabriel showing up repeatedly, you know, people like John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah, having dreams while performing his priestly service and so forth.

So, part of it, there is something stirring. Like the biblical writers are saying, something really momentous is about to happen. So this is kind of like the biblical world that you enter when Matthew and Luke tell the story of the birth of Jesus.

First-century Messianic Expectations

Jeremy Jenkins: It is really amazing when you begin to look at it through that lens, as opposed to everything has stopped. And many Christians don’t even realize how volatile the Second Temple period was, and what the frame of mind would have been. The only hope they would have had was the Messiah at this point. So when you begin to look at it through that lens, Christmas becomes even sweeter, so when you sing, “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” you really transport yourself back to the pre-messianic period. So this God coming and being with us is really the only hope that we have, because it was just a horrible time. What do you think the expectation was? In sermons and Bible studies, we hear all the time what the Jews really did expect, and we hear they expected the Messiah to be like, a political leader, a military leader. What do you think the average messianic expectation was in first-century Israel?

Dr. Kostenberger: Yeah, I think that scholars have started to use the word “Judaism” in the plural and they now speak of “Judaism,” realizing there is not just the one messianic expectation. We see the different sects or parties in the New Testament, the Pharisees and Sadducees, and so forth. And now that we have the Dead Sea Scrolls, right, the Qumran community, we know that they expected actually not one, but two Messiahs.

A good place in the Bible that I would recommend for our listeners to go to if they’re interested in that question is John chapter 7, where John showcases a number of diverse messianic expectations, some of them actually contradictory. Some are saying, now wait a minute: Was Jesus from Nazareth? Didn’t it say the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem? Ironically, they didn’t realize that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Others are saying, We know where Jesus is from. But nobody will know where the Messiah is from! Well, what is it? Was he born in Bethlehem, was he of this mysterious origin, all of a sudden he shows up, nobody knows where he came from, and it became a stumbling block for some people. Hey, we know who he is, we know his family, we know his father. So I think John has some good-natured fun with people who can’t really make up their mind what Messiah is going to be.

Interestingly, to me, very few thought of Isaiah 53, you know, which you might think that that would have been a huge passage, the suffering servant. But for whatever reason, that didn’t seem to be, it should have been, and it wasn’t really, historically, who people thought of. People thought of him more as this triumphant, nationalistic leader, kind of like during the Maccabean period, hundreds of years earlier, Jewish leaders who liberated for a season, for about a century, the Jews from Roman dominion. But, of course, we see in the Gospels that Jesus steadfastly rejects being that kind of person and instead almost like keeps it a secret who he truly is, because he knows people just wouldn’t have had the capacity to really understand.

Jesus’ Ancestry and Legal Adoption by Joseph

Jeremy Jenkins: Yeah, and it’s amazing to think that Messiah was the son of a carpenter. As we reflect on Mary and Joseph and their part in this story, and we think about Joseph especially, we can’t even begin to imagine what his life must have been like, really throughout that whole period, especially in this birth narrative. Something I can remember on the topic of Joseph, something I can remember asking when I was just becoming familiar with the Bible was that if it was essential for Jesus’ role as Messiah that he be from the line of David, and if his lineage in that line came from Joseph but Joseph wasn’t actually his father, what do we do with this?

And I remember that, as a beginning Bible student, kind of pestering my professor and was saying, this is a problem. As a beginning Bible student, you think you’re the first person who ever thought of this. So, in the book, you suggest that Joseph’s obedience to the angelic calling was absolutely essential, because it allowed Jesus to be brought up in that Davidic lineage. And so we have some adoption themes here, and in adoption, as you know, probably a thousand times better than I do, adoption was an integral part of lineage in the ancient world. So, kind of paint a picture for somebody who is listening and they are not extremely familiar, what the adoption essentially of Jesus by Joseph really meant in this Christmas narrative?

Dr. Kostenberger: Yeah, I mean, you’re exactly right. Luke gives us more a biological genealogy, and Matthew follows more the legal line, as you mentioned, and so clearly, for Jesus to be part of the family, Joseph would have had to legally adopt him into the family, because, as you mentioned, he was not his biological father. You know, it’s interesting, because in the last few months I spent a little more time on my personal genealogy, my family tree. I got myself some software and just added some names, and you quickly realize things are not quite as simple. Sometimes you may have a divorce, sometimes the husband dying and remarriage, in some cases maybe it’s not even known who the true father is. So before people are too quick to say, look, there is a slight variation in the way Matthew and Luke tell the genealogy, if you’ve ever done your own genealogy, you realize that there is a certain amount complexity, and sometimes you have a choice to make and there is more than one legitimate way to trace the line, especially when you go by the legal, adopted line. And as you mention, it’s obviously essential that Jesus comes from the Davidic line, and so Joseph adopting him ensures that’s in fact the case.

Jeremy Jenkins: And of course, as is so often the case, in any biblical studies, the listener may imagine modern-day adoption where you go before a judge. But in the first century, it’s essentially Joseph’s willingness to raise this child as his own which provided that adoption. What an amazing thought, too, that Joseph was faced with this choice, and we don’t know with what level he was operating on in Jesus’ life, and of course it’s a great mystery what happened to Joseph at the end of his life. But the social stigma surrounding the beginning of Jesus’ life and specifically of Mary and Joseph, paint a picture for our listeners, what kind of stigma would have surrounded Mary and Joseph as Joseph chose to be obedient to God’s calling on his life to raise this child as his own?

The Women in Matthew’s Genealogy

Dr. Kostenberger: Yeah, I mean, you know, I just recently heard a sermon where there was a lot of emphasis on Mary and Joseph’s lives being turned upside down. This was not the life they expected to live, and that’s true. I would also say that in, say, Matthew’s birth narrative that’s basically told from Joseph’s perspective, there is a couple of things that are going on. One is that Joseph is the recipient of dreams and angelic visitations, and so there is the idea that he has got some help, some nudging is going on, some extra revelation, which I’m sure was much needed. So it was not just him, in his mind thinking, but there was some divine revelation involved as well. And then, he is also talked about, he was a righteous man. He wanted to do the right thing, and yet be very discrete about it out of consideration for Mary, which is probably even more potentially compromising for her to find herself in that position.

You mentioned earlier the genealogy of Matthew and the four other women. That’s one thing scholars haven’t totally figured out. I surveyed that, and there is all kinds of theories why there are these four women, as diverse as Bathsheba, and Tamar, and then Ruth, and then Mary. And I’m pretty confident that part of what Matthew is doing here is that he shows that even earlier in Jesus’ line, in his family tree there was sometimes scandal involved, or at least the appearance of scandal. You know, in Bathsheba’s case, there was real scandal, right? But in Ruth’s case, there was maybe the appearance of scandal; we know that nothing really happened there that night on the threshing floor when Boaz and her stayed there overnight. But some people in the village probably rumored that something did happen there. So I think Matthew’s point is that, just because there is the appearance of scandal at the virgin birth, doesn’t mean that anything improper really happened; to the contrary, it was really the Holy Spirit who was the agent of the conception of Jesus in Mary’s womb.

Simeon and Anna

Jeremy Jenkins: Yeah, Mary and Joseph are really tremendously interesting people. And I think that oftentimes they really are just figurines in the nativity set and I wonder what their lives must have been like. As Mary sings in the Magnificat, it’s a great honor, but also at the same time, their lives, as you said, were certainly turned upside down. And it’s truly an amazing thing to reflect on. And in this story, though, one of the most amazing things to me in the Christmas narrative that doesn’t really get talked about enough is that there are so many peripheral characters, so many people on the outside looking in who really are very instrumental. And two that stand out the most are Simeon and Anna. And in the narrative, we know that after the recommended days, Joseph and Mary took Jesus to the temple, and there is a number of things they would have been doing there, but while they were there, they come cross Simeon and Anna.

Anna does not get attributed with words. Simeon is this extremely interesting person who had been told by God that he would not die till he saw the Messiah. He is doing his work in the temple, and in walks Mary and Joseph with this baby, and we don‘t know the nature of the interaction, how he knew, he took Jesus up in his arms and then prophesied. And then Anna similarly has an interaction with Joseph and Marry, too, that foretells sort of what is going to happen, and in the book you call Simeon and Anna watchmen to describe their role as almost those on the outside looking in, almost in a verification role. So why do you describe Simeon and Anna as watchmen, and what exactly was their function in being included by Luke in this story?

Dr. Kostenberger: Yeah, they serve, I think you might say, as representative characters. In the ancient world, in ancient Judaism, the whole idea of witnesses was very, very important; it still is today in our legal system, in jury trials and so on. So Luke has this dual witness theme, which is really fascinating, for our listeners if they want to study that, both in the Gospel and in the book of Acts.

Of course, the signature verse is Acts 1:8 is, “You shall be my witnesses to the ends of the earth,” and so you see, whether it’s Simeon and Anna, or later the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, or Lydia and the Philippian jailer, Luke seems to make a point, to show that there are multiple witnesses, at least two in keeping with the requirement for there to be at least two or three witnesses in the book of Deuteronomy, and often they are a man and a woman, like you have in this case.

So in our case, he covers all of humanity that way. And so he shows that both of them were representing Judaism as waiting in keeping with prophecy for the Messiah, and so they are those transitional figures, right, moving us from the Old Testament period of the spirit of prophetic prediction and messianic expectation, to transition us from that to the New Testament period, if you will, the actual birth of the Messiah and Jesus’ ministry and death and resurrection and so forth.

Jeremy Jenkins: Yeah. I’m preaching this Sunday in my church, and I can’t get away from Simeon. It seems to me, like, what must it have been like to be Simeon, being told, you won’t die till you see the Messiah, and to take salvation into his arms. In your study, I know scholarship for Christians is not just a theoretical exercise, are you impressed upon in your heart and in your mind to ask yourself, What must it have been feeling to be Simeon in that moment?

Dr. Kostenberger: To me, I just recently read that story, and I was struck by the fact that Anna was a window. She was married for just a fairly short time and then her husband died, and then she lived as a widow for, it’s like, a long, long time, for fifty, sixty years, just waiting for the Messiah, and I think it’s a way to appreciate the intensity of expectation, and we try to recreate that a little bit in our culture through advent, to recreate this expectation, but really, it fails by comparison. Talk about Abraham in 2100 BC, so we’re talking about two thousand years of buildup. You know, the Bible says with God a thousand years is like one day, and so for God, only two days passed since Abraham, right? But for humanity, two thousand years is a long time. And now the moment has come when those promises are about to be fulfilled.

Visit of the Magi

Jeremy Jenkins: It’s truly an amazing thing. And when we look at the New Testament, especially, and of course even more so the Old Testament, as a record of covenants with Israel and even with individuals. You begin to see with Simeon and Anna the fulfillment of covenants, the keeping of promises. And where this shows up most interesting and unfortunately in the way in which we typically observe Christmas, the magi or the wise men are very often an afterthought. And we just around the fact that they weren’t at the nativity, and of course they weren’t. But for the non-Jew, which is the overwhelming majority in the world, it’s the appearance of the wise men that perhaps should mean the most of us, because this is when Gentiles come on the scene and that’s when we see the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant that all the world will be blessed by your family and not just the nation of Israel. These magi show up.

And in the book, you make the case, as many New Testament scholars, they weren’t actually there, it may have been about two years or so after the events of the nativity. These men were likely astrologers, not many people look up in the sky and know where to go, and all these things, and so there is some debate as to who exactly they were, we know that they were not actually kings of the Orient as the song says. We know that there was not actually just three, there may have been but it never actually says that. They were maybe from Babylon, the Arabian peninsula, or Persia, which is most closely identified with Iran today.

So what role would they have had? It’s a strange thing, these men are astrologers. What role do you think they play in this narrative of the nativity and of course in the birth narrative of Jesus?

Dr. Kostenberger: Yeah, it’s a great question, and there is a lot of speculation, as you mentioned, and things that we really don’t know for sure, and then traditions who have clung to the mystique of these figures. But I think when you look at why did Matthew record it in Matthew 2? And I think what he is trying to show is that Jesus’ birth had worldwide impact. Regardless of whether they came from modern-day Iraq or Iran, or Arabia, they came from very far away, and somehow they were attracted to the birth of this king. From a biblical literacy standpoint, something that not everybody picks up on, but to me, I think it’s utterly compelling is parallels with the queen of Sheba in the Old Testament. And certainly I invite our listeners, if they’re interested, to look at 1 Kings 10, or there is a parallel in 2 Chronicles 9, you see the queen of Sheba coming from far away, bringing gifts very similar to the gifts of those wise men, to, of all people, the son of David, Solomon!

So I can’t help but think that Matthew expected his readers to draw a certain connection there. That now there are people coming from far away bringing gifts to the son of David. This foreshadows Matthew’s story, and his Gospel ends with the Great Commission, with a command to his followers to go and make disciples of all nations. And so here you see the first stirring of people from the nations coming to pay homage to the son of David. And so you see this what some scholars intertextuality where Matthew is alluding and echoing this earlier text in the biblical story, showing there is a certain escalation. As we know, Solomon was in many ways very flawed, but now the perfect, eternal son of David is making his appearance, and the world take notice, and worships.

Jeremy Jenkins: It’s so fascinating to me, the more you look at it, because it doesn’t meet any of our expectations of how this story should have gone. And when you include the narrative of what happened with Herod and of course the miserably sad massacre of the children and Herod’s attempt to get rid of this rival king. I spend a lot of time in comparative religions, that’s kind of my field academically. And so I think it’s so interesting that these men in all likelihood, even though they were from a part of the world where the idea of being a magi, as they’re often called, has them often in Persia, but they would not have cleanly fit into an Israeli Judaism by any means, and like you said, this is really the fulfillment of the Gentile world, and so, to me, it’s so amazing too, because this is one of the first instances where we begin to see people who don’t cleanly fit into the salvific narrative of Israel beginning to be involved, and, like you say, paying homage to the king. 

And like you said there is intertextuality, there are other parts of the Bible who point to this, it’s so interesting, but then it leads us to, as I said, one of the more dismal parts of the story, where Herod gets involved, the wise men clue him into it, we know that he massacred children in an attempt to get rid of Jesus, and then because of a vision Joseph and Mary flee with Jesus into Egypt, and we see, as you say, another, we would call it a typology, I guess, it’s pointing perhaps to the exodus of the Israelites in the wilderness with Moses, maybe even there was some foreshadowing there of the life of Jesus. So is there symbolism in the Egyptian exile or in your opinion does it simply serve to identify Jesus with the wandering Israelites?

New Exodus, Jewish Rejection of the Messiah

Dr. Kostenberger: Yeah, I think, again, the study of the use of the Old Testament in the New is a fascinating enterprise, and you see various ways in which people have drawn connections between the coming of Jesus and what you see in the Old Testament, whether it’s direct prediction, the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem, that’s easily verifiable or falsifiable: Where was Jesus born? But then there is other, slightly more subtle clues, and I think this would be one case where Jesus’ early life is set into the contest of the exodus, the quote there is from Hosea chapter 11, “Out of Egypt I called my son,” and of course literally Israel is sometimes called God’s son in the Old Testament, so the immediate point of reference is to Israel, God delivered Israel out of their bondage in Egypt, but then Matthew thinks that’s not all the potential for future meaning, it’s not exhausted.

There is also a sense when Jesus’ parents took him down to Egypt to protect him from Herod and then brought him back up, that in a sense God, the pattern repeats itself, if you will, in the life of Jesus. And so he’s almost like, living out Israel’s story all over again in his own life. Yeah, so the message is, there are some fascinating parallels between Jesus and Moses in the Bible, even at his birth. You know, when you look at how Moses’s life was threatened and miraculously preserved, and then prophets like Isaiah talk about a new exodus, that there will be a voice in the wilderness, saying, “Make straight the path of the Lord,” and then the Messiah would come. And so you see that Matthew here tells his readers to expect that Jesus would lead a new sort of spiritual exodus, he would deliver us not just from harsh labor, but literally from our bondage to sin and destruction. So, again, you see that Jesus continues and fulfills God’s story with his people.

Jeremy Jenkins: Right. If anything, our conversation thus far has shown listeners that the Christmas story isn’t just the nativity. There is so much surrounding this one particular event that really, not just adds to the story, but really defines it as this momentous event not just in the history of Israel but the history of humanity and the destiny and the eternity of humanity. But it is demonstrated by the nativity, and so in the book you sort of lay out a picture of what this would actually have looked like. We don’t really know, but we know that Bethlehem was not a large place, it was a village, and you make mention of the things that there were there, based off of the text, if there were the animals, the innkeeper the text makes no mention of, and you say the things that were there were the manger, the swaddling cloths, and the inn, and then the shepherds later.

Most people know what this would have looked like, but the theme that you suggested that in this unlikely event, that the Son of God, the Messiah, the suffering Servant, the lamb of God, being laid in a manger, which in some sense with a feeding trough, a watering trough, foreshadows the rejection that his life is going to behold, even towards the cross, with that thematic element, can you speak to that? I have a nativity scene in my living room, I’m sure you probably do. Perhaps when we look at that, we should walk our children through not just the nice features of this wonderful story, which it certainly is, but what it foreshadowed.

Dr. Kostenberger: Yeah, I mean, it’s so potent a lesson that we learn that the gospel is not going to be welcomed by everyone with open arms. We know that, and we see that in the story of Jesus’ birth. It’s fascinating to me that, you know, Luke and John, even though their birth narratives are vastly different, both strike that note of rejection, Luke, with a light touch, writes there was no room in the inn, and later there is a prediction that a sword will pierce Mary’s heart, and so forth. John says Jesus came into the world he made, and his own, the people he made, did not receive him.

You know, it’s just an incredible tragedy that the world did not recognize its Creator, and so, in many ways, I think, we’ve domesticated Jesus, and we’ve made him into this little baby in a Bethlehem manger, who is non-threatening, and we’ve reduced him to such a tiny stature that we can virtually ignore, and we celebrate a Christmas of our own making rather than pausing to listen to the biblical story, and trying to understand that, as Luke is at pains to show, that Jesus’ coming was very countercultural, as you mentioned earlier, that Jesus defied contemporary expectations. Jesus did not turn out to be the Messiah people expected, his birth was not what you’d expect of a king, you know, in posh circumstances.

His mom just wraps a cloth around him to keep him warm, because it was probably a little bit chilly there in Bethlehem, especially if this was a cold December night. It strikes you in many ways that this was just an ordinary birth, there is no fanfare, only the shepherds who happened to be awake and were in the fields nearby, and then later he mentions the wise men come.

Just one more thing to add about the wise men. Matthew shows that they had room for Jesus, while the Jewish authorities didn’t, even though they really should have known better, and so there is a little bit of a subtle rebuke there. The people for whom he primarily came rejected him. It was only people more on the outside who were in some ways more open. And isn’t it true even today that the people who need him, and who know that they need a Savior who come to him for salvation, and others are comfortable and affluent and sense little need for a Messiah.

John’s “Christmas Story”

Jeremy Jenkins: I hope that we can all look at our nativity scenes just even a little bit differently with that sentiment, whether it be the wise men and their acceptance of this king, or the unlikely nature of this story and the foreshadowing of the suffering of this Messiah. But Dr. Kostenberger, I can’t let you go, as I mentioned, you impacted me through my own studies of John, and you are, in my opinion at least, the leading evangelical scholar on Johannine works, and so when we talk about Christmas, we don’t really talk about John 1 very often, but I think we should. And so, we could do two or three episodes just on the first eighteen verses of John, so don’t feel that you need to unroll your dissertation.

What do you make of John the Christmas narrative, he is looking back at the pre-existent God. Luke is this doctor and analyst, but John is the disciple whom Jesus loved. So especially after talking about Matthew and Luke for forty-five minutes, how does John fit into all of this when we think of the beginning when Jesus came on the scene, and John says, “In the beginning was the Word?” So how do you synchronize all this with John?

Dr. Kostenberger: To put it very plainly, I think John knew some of the other Gospels, because they were written a generation earlier, and he wrote his Gospel not just to repeat what’s already been said, but very pointedly to complement the other Gospels and to add some depth of insight, so much so that, as you know, church fathers called called John “the spiritual Gospel,” not that the other Gospels were unspiritual, but that John had unusual insight into who Jesus was. So it would have been easy to overlook John completely and to write a book on Christmas just on the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke. That’s what commonly done, but, like, of course, as you said, in my love for John’s Gospel, a programmatic point meant including a chapter to begin with. 

The idea is, just like Matthew and Luke, trying to show that Jesus’ birth, even on a human level, he had a long pedigree of ancestors in the flesh, if you will, leading up to the son of David, his being born, John makes the point, not as one-upmanship, hey, let’s go even deeper. On a spiritual level, Jesus existed eternally with God. So he was already the agent of creation, as mind-boggling as that is. It’s hard for us to really wrap our brains around that, that Jesus was there when the universe was created. So when he was born as a baby, that’s when his human existence began, right? He was not the God-man prior to the incarnation, but he already was God prior to the incarnation.

So I think it’s just so vital, and John makes a powerful contribution to our understanding of the Christmas story by, you know, going back a lot farther than the immediate events of the virgin conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit in Mary’s womb, so you can have a broader context of just the momentous nature of God taking on flesh, “the Word became flesh,” John 1:14, and dwelt among us.


Jeremy Jenkins: Well, I’d better be careful, because I could sit and ask you questions about the Gospel of John all day, but really, for the listener, I just hope that this conversation, like we said a couple times, makes us look at our nativity scenes a little bit differently, makes us reflect this Sunday and the next Sundays to come, a little bit differently on this story and to see that it’s the story of an unlikely Messiah, a disenfranchised family that raised the Son of God, and just littered with people, not just characters, but people who are a part of foreshadowing of what is to come.

And like I tell my congregation, Christmas is the beginning of the Easter season, is that it begins of how this story ended when we begin to celebrate its beginning. So, Dr. Kostenberger, I’m so appreciative of you giving your time to me and the listeners, and I’ve already started reading The Final Days of Jesus, and so when Easter rolls around, we can have a similar conversation on the topic of the Easter narrative as well.

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