If you or someone you love likes books for Christmas, and
if you are a non-professional but enjoy reading scholarship of the Bible, and
if you have always wondered about how to read the stories of Jesus' birth,
then...the perfect gift is Robert J. Miller's Born Divine: The Births of Jesus and Other Sons of God. Miller is Associate Professor of Religion at Juniata College and a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar. He is author of The Jesus Seminar and Its Critics and is the editor of The Complete Gospels.
In the preface he writes:
This book is designed for the general reader. Since it is neither short nor easy, it demands a high level of interest in the subject matter; yet it does not presuppose any specialized knowledge. While I hope this book will make its contribution to the field of biblical studies, and while I hope that my academic colleagues find this book helpful, I have not written it for them. Rather, my goal has been to share the benefits of scholarly work on the infancy narratives with non-specialists.
He succeeds. The book is provocative, engaging, well-written, and accessible. Miller writes that his deepest debt is to John Dominic Crossan:
Although he has not written extensively on the infancy narratives, it is from him that I have learned the most important concept that informs the present book. According to Crossan, the Christian claim that Jesus was the son of God was originally put forth primarily to counter Roman propaganda about the divinity of Caesar. This insight is for me the key that unlocks the basic message of the infancy narratives and the original meaning of the belief in the virgin birth.
Crossan's 1994 book, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, introduced the world to that concept. I remember and have oft repeated his statement that the scandal was not that
Jesus was Son of God
Jesus was Son of God.
Jesus was Son of God.
In other words, the uniqueness of early Christianity was not that a human being could become divine, afterall many claimed that, including Caesar. The scandal, the insult, and threat to the powers of the world (including Caeser) was that this nobody, a peasant, was called son of God.
Miller's book is divided into six sections:
- The Biblical Infancy Narratives (an analysis of Luke and Matthew's narratives and the Moses Haggadah)
- Pagan Sons of God (a comparison with other Hellenistic infancy narratives)
- Historical and Theological Questions (Did Jesus fulfill prophecy? Are the infancy narratives historical?)
- Born of a Virgin (What is a virgin? Is there a virgin birth in Matthew? Is the virgin birth historical? Was Jesus illegitimate?)
- Understanding the Virgin Birth (an analysis of other "sons of God" in the Bible as well as a study of the virgin birth in context and its meaning)
- Infancy Gospels (analysis of other infancy gospels including, The Infancy Gospel of James, The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, two Docetic birth stories, the History of Joseph the Carpenter, the Arabic Infancy Gospel, and The Gosepl of Pseudo-Matthew)
It is also a good book for a class. You can download a study guide.
Read an excerpt here.
Here is an interview with Miller in the Juniata College newspaper, "Jesus' Birth: Did We Get the Story Straight?"