The Evangelical Universalist Forum

Who was born at the first Christmas?

A Christmas treat for the mind, from D. Tuggy:

Who is this baby who is born to Joseph and Mary on the first Christmas? Where did he come from, and what sort of baby is he?

The most popular Christian answers have been these:

    1. God (i.e. the one true God, Yahweh)
    • He had recently become a man, and now he enters his public career.
    1. The eternal Son of God.
    • Actually, this is his second birth. His first was his inconceivable, eternal generation by God (the Father). Now, this eternal Logos (Word) has assumed a complete human nature, body and rational soul, making him “man” but not “a man.” He is one person with two natures, divine (because of his first birth) and human (because of his assuming a human nature).
    1. The ancient Son of God.
    • Actually, this is his second birth. His first was when he was generated out of the Father before creation, so that he could be God’s agent of creation. Now, he has become a real human being, because this ancient Logos (Word) is the soul of a real human body. Having been produced not from nothing, but from God, he is divine, and now he is human as well.
    1. The virgin born, human Son of God.
    • Like other humans, he began to exist some time between conception and birth. But unlike other humans, he had a human Mother, but no human Father. Rather, by his power, God caused Mary to become pregnant with him.

Trinitarians are split between 1 and 2. Many are wont to smudge the difference between them, though they are contrary claims, ones that logically could both be false, but could not both be true. Many ancient catholics c. 150-350 held to 3, until it was pilloried and finally rejected as “Arian” heresy (325-381). 2 became the official catholic view c. 325-451. Through history, unitarian Christians have been split between 3 and 4 (and also something close to 2 – see below).

A few observations:

  • Only one of 1-4 can be true. No two of them can be true.
  • 2 & 3 assume the truth of mind-body substance dualism – the view that a living human is an immaterial soul inhabiting a body, or else is a combination of an immaterial soul and a body, with only the soul-part being essential. 4 is consistent with, but doesn’t require dualism about human beings. If you think dualism is false , 4 is the only of these four views you can consistently accept. (I assume you want to avoid views on which Jesus only appears to be human.) It is less clear how 1 relates to dualism, though surely most who accept 1 accept dualism too.
  • Much Christmas sermonizing these days suggests 1.
    • 1 fits the views of Oneness Pentecostals, “modalists,” and some ancient “monarchians.”
    • But 1 also fits one self trinitarians, who think there is but one self among the Trinity. In other words, they hold that Father and Son are different “Persons” (whatever that may mean) but the same self, the same who.
  • 1 is denied by “social” (three self) trinitarians , though they tend to keep this on the down low, using “God” ambiguously for any of: the Trinity, the Father, the Son, the Spirit. So for them “God [the eternal Son] became man” yet “God [the Father] sent his Son.” This habit allows three self trinitarians to co-exist with those holding to 1; both fly the flag of creedal orthodoxy, and usually sound like they’re saying the same things.
  • 1 seems ruled out by the explicit statements of all the gospels, even the ones which don’t have birth narratives. The one God didn’t come in person. Rather, he sent someone else, Jesus, his Son, the Messiah (aka the Son of God). For example,
    • “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1)
    • “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son… Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16-17)
      • Some treat 1 as a shorthand for 2 . But 1 is a lousy shorthand for 2. Given the New Testament and latter-day usages of “God,” 1 seems to say either that the Trinity or the Father or the one self who is Father, Son, and Spirit was born on Christmas. But 2 doesn’t say any of those.
  • 2 is at least officially on the books , as it were, in trinitarian churches. Although the statement usually elides some of the points stated above. And many elements of 2 are not much understood by the laity, especially groups which intend to base their views directly on the Bible.
  • 1-3 involve Incarnation , traditionally understood – a divine being in some sense becoming human.
    • 4 would involve “incarnation” in that the man Jesus is the unique and best expression of God’s eternal message, plan, or wisdom ( logos ). In 4, what is incarnated isn’t the same self as Jesus, whereas in 1-3 what is incarnated is the pre-human Jesus. 4 has no pre-human Jesus.
  • The so-called “Arians” affirmed 3. But they did not originate that sort of view. It was held by a number of mainstream catholic theologians long before them, such as Justin, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and all the logos theorists before Origen. It is, frankly, merely propaganda that portrays 3 as a wholly new invention of Arius, and which falsely asserts that the catholic mainstream always taught 2. The Jehovah’s Witnesses too hold to their own version of 3.
  • Not all bigshot Christian thinkers fit neatly into this scheme.
    • Origen’s view is like a less developed 2 – mostly a subset of those claims.
    • The views of people like Novatian, Samuel Clarke, and Athanasius straddle 2 and 3, as did a number of catholic theorists c. 250-451. These sorts of views were literally outlawed when 2 was accepted. (They were also mis-characterized as “Arian,” and as assaulting, robbing, denying, insulting, demoting, etc. Jesus, following the rough rhetoric of 325-381.)
    • Others, past and present, simply are too confused to clearly express any of 1-4, and use language which alternately suggests various of 1-4.
  • 1 & 3 & 4 affirm, but 2 denies that Jesus is a human being, a human self.
    • This is because theorists who came up with 2 didn’t want there to be two selves in Jesus (the Word, and the human self which consists of a human body and a human-type soul). They theorized that because of the “hypostatic union” which was the result of the Word “assuming” a complete human nature, the elements of that particular human nature don’t constitute a human self, as they do in a human being like you or me. If the Word hadn’t assumed them, they would have composed a human.
    • 3 gets rid of the human soul , leaving the ancient, divine Logos to take the place of a soul in the man Jesus. This avoids the difficult theory just described, but calls into question whether the resulting Jesus is really a man “like us in all things except sin.”
    • 4 has Jesus consisting of just whatever parts or components any human has; what’s different are his origin and role in God’s plan.
  • 4 is the view of the early modern Socinians and other unitarians since c. 1550-, and many present-day unitarians. It is unclear just how popular this view was in the first three centuries of Christianity. It is known that Ebionites, and some holding what came to be derided as “mere man” christology held to this view, and probably some of the so-called “monarchians” too. Thus, in the second and early third centuries it existed with within and outside of the catholic mainstream. It was sidelined when the Platonic “logos christology” became dominant, c. 150-250.

As you return to the stories of the first Christmas in Matthew 1:18-2:23 and Luke 1:1-2:40 , ask yourself: which of 1-4 best fits those stories? Are these stories of God becoming one of us and moving into our neighborhood (1), of the eternally generated, divine Word, now with a human soul and body too, so now “human” (2), of the ancient Word, a divine soul now in a human body (3), or of a virginally-conceived man, destined to be God’s Messiah (4)?

The first Christmas on Dec 25, occurred on A.D. 336. I have no idea who was born in that year.

There is no evidence that the birth of Christ was celebrated prior to the year A.D. 300.

Technically, of course you are correct. Technically, I should not have mentioned ‘Christmas’ at all and just went straight to the four ways that people understand what kind of baby that was, born of the Virgin Mary. But I took a bit of license since this is the ‘season’ for which Jesus is the ‘reason’.