Book review: The First Christmas

by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan


Borg and Crossan collaborate again, this time to discuss the beginning of the Gospel story. I think this is a great partnership, as Borg softens and adds richness to Crossan’s scholarship. The two play off each others’ strengths. Nevertheless, I don’t think this is their best effort; I enjoyed both The Last Week and The First Paul a bit more.

The Christmas Story, formed by splicing together two of the Bible’s birth narratives, is a story of joy. (We all rightfully eschew the Bible’s third birth story, the one in Revelation of a dragon waiting to devour the child of a heavenly woman.) Borg and Crossan want the joy within these parables to ring as you read. The Messiah is born! Behold God’s glory!

Yes, they call them parables, or midrash, or anything but history, and point out the many contributing Hebrew themes and eschatological expectations behind the stories. The authors admit up front that “We are not concerned with the factuality of the birth stories. … Our concern is neither to defend them as factual nor to trash them as nonfactual. Rather, we focus on their meanings.”

While I thoroughly enjoyed reading its uplifting message, if the book had presented more new material, I would have been more pleased; as it was, I found it to be a bit of a rehash. There was one discussion, however, that I particularly enjoyed: how the issue of the factuality of the birth stories is recent, the product of just the last few hundred years. In earlier centuries, their factuality was not a concern for Christians. Rather, the truth of these stories, and the truth of the Bible as a whole (including factual truth) was taken for granted. It was simply “what everybody knew,” and didn’t require “belief.” The authors help us step out of our enlightened age to understand Biblical thinking in a manner more helpful than I’ve encountered in this topic before.

This is a scholar’s beach read. It was probably a quick write, and it’s a quick read for those of you used to Crossan’s detailed tomes, but I think you’ll enjoy it.

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