Beyond Tradition

My Logos is Better Than Yours

 by Sean D. Harmon

The gospel of John does not contain the Nativity story, nor does it mention Jesus' birth at all, and the reason he excludes it is evidence he thought it was an invented fable, thus his silent discrimination of it... or so some would actually argue. It hasn't been much of a mystery to me personally why John doesn't mention it, more than it has been a sheer mystery to me why anyone with an extensive amount of bible knowledge would even attempt to argue this. John's opening in his gospel, however, may undoubtedly have the clue…

John 1:1-14 "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being… And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth" (click here to read the whole passage).

Now bear with me for moment because the theology here is incredibly deep. The author is asserting that Jesus was actually "the Word" (or logos in the Greek) of God himself, which is somewhat of an abstract but very profound divine designation of Jesus, to say the least. In other words, John is claiming that before Jesus "was made flesh," he pre-existed with God and was essentially the most important element of God -- his very spoken word (suggesting that God's word was an entity in and of itself, which has possible allusions to the Wisdom concept we discussed here: The Christology of Paul), thus was a primary factor in the creation of the universe -- the belief being that God spoke everything into existence.

Now does that sound like a guy who excluded the virgin birth story because he thought it was an invented myth? Though the virgin birth story itself found in Matthew and Luke does not include anything about John's Logos theology per se, it does imply that God's Holy Spirit was the cause of Mary's conception of Jesus, as opposed to human conception, which obviously correlates with what John claimed of Jesus that he was, "the begotten son of the Father" (see John 1:14, 3:16, 18). What some seem to find puzzling is that the virgin story would have been a perfect canvas for John to use as a background to paint his Logos theology on, and there is very little question that the virgin birth tradition was known by the time John authored his gospel, yet oddly, he not only does not include the Nativity story, he doesn't even mention it anywhere in his gospel. So, there are basically two options we have here:


  1. John thought the virgin birth story was inspired by myth or too incredible to be true, thus the reasons for his silent exclusion of it.
  2. John took it for granted that it was a common and accepted tradition among first century Christians, thoroughly covered in both Matthew and Luke, and decided not to waste time or papyrus space repeating it.


If we argue #1, as some surprisingly do, this is really just another argument from silence, and quite frankly, not a very logical one. In face of John's profound Logos theology, which clearly asserts Jesus' deity and pre-existence with God, I doubt anyone could seriously argue John's discriminatory view towards the virgin birth because of its divine connotations with a straight face. Ironically, some of the same folks who argue this would undoubtedly also try and dismiss John as a latter first century work because of its "embellished Christology"... go figure.  Nonetheless, if John had doubts, there certainly would not have been this general acquiescence and lax silence about it with others in the church. There would unquestionably have been questions raised, notable debates and reverberations in the Christian community about the Nativity story, especially from church fathers who weren't known to hold back their views or the embarrassing contentions and issues between the early Christians that were raised in the first century. There are two scenes in John that skeptics cite to support their case…

John 6:41-42 "Therefore the Jews were grumbling about Him [Jesus], because He said, 'I am the bread that came down out of heaven.' They were saying, 'Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does He now say, I have come down out of heaven?'"

Jesus' audience became miffed at his audacious claims and expressed their belief that he was merely the mortal son of Joseph who was the husband of Mary. The argument is that since they believed he was a mortal being, son of Joseph and Mary, this proves that they and John understood that Joseph was indeed his true father. However, John was simply recording what the naysayers were saying, and this didn't necessarily reflect his own view (which once again attests to John's honesty here). In fact, if you note the passage above, his townsmen were obviously responding to Jesus' previous claim that he was "sent from heaven," using the argument that he was Joseph's son (or so they thought) to immediately debunk that fantastic claim. So, this clearly indicates that John was taking for granted that his readers were already familiar with at least Jesus'  divine origins, and was not only honest enough to record an incident regarding the naysayers and their refutations of his divinity, but left out any explanations or apologetics to clear up the potential ambiguity his readers could have gotten from reading this (or John simply gave more credit to his readers, who had the common sense to figure out the obvious).

In fact, as we will note in the proceeding passage, John records a time that the audience also doubted Jesus was a descendant of David, something John surely would not have doubted about Jesus and that was one of the earliest established Christian claims about Jesus in the Judeo-Christian church (discussed here: The Messiah Matrix Part IV; Known to the Gentiles worldwide). The incident is as follows…

John 7:41-44 "Others were saying, 'This is the Christ.' Still others were saying, 'Surely the Christ is not going to come from
Galilee, is He? Has not the Scripture said that the Christ comes from the descendants of David, and from Bethlehem, the village where David was?' So a division occurred in the crowd because of Him. Some of them wanted to seize Him, but no one laid hands on Him."

Those who further try and argue John's dismissal of the Nativity story point out that the crowd was perplexed, engaged in a heated dispute because they believed the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, expressing what they thought was a criterion Jesus did not fulfill, which critics use to argue that Jesus' birthplace was not common knowledge to them at the time, hence, John's recorded incident is more reason to believe that Jesus could not have actually been born there. In other words, once again, John's
blatant honesty is totally overlooked here.

Of course, the critical view is also under the assumption that everyone would have known his family intimately and would have had full knowledge whether Jesus was born in Bethlehem or not. Looking at this realistically, since Matthew and Luke indicate Jesus was born in Bethlehem not raised there, just because it was common knowledge that he was raised in Galilee most of his life doesn't mean that the other Galilean citizens knew Jesus' family intimately, so there was nothing unusual about their ignorance of his birth in Bethlehem until they had a chance to actually confirm it with his family themselves.

In fact, when putting this from another first century historical angle, it goes without saying that his Bethlehem origins, among other things, were most likely kept in total silence by the family. The Micah (5:2) prophecy about the Messiah born in Bethlehem was specifically about a "ruler of Israel" which had dangerous political connotations. These were extremely dangerous and precarious times, with religious and radical guerrilla factions like the zealots and the sicarii raising havoc throughout the region, a region where rumor, suspicion, mistrust, paranoid kings and emperors, apocalyptic finales and promised deliverers were the common topics of the day, making a Bethlehem proclamation exceptionally hazardous, and quite easy to misconstrue in many different ways. Assuming Matthew's (2:16-23) account about the Nativity story to be true, Herod indeed was driven to seek this child out who he thought had the potential to usurp his throne. We know with what we discussed in another article (here: The Messianic Matrix: The first century Judean Messiah) that Jesus often warned others not to proclaim him the Christ in public, and told others to keep certain miracles that were induced by him quiet, lest the extraordinary nature of it stir up an unnecessary and premature frenzy of anti-Roman and pro-messianic sentiments, with Jesus caught in the middle. Thus it's perfectly understandable under the circumstances why his family would have kept his birthplace under wraps had they in fact done so, and highly possible Joseph and Mary kept the whole miraculous annunciation of Jesus as Messiah even from their own siblings (could this be a possible explanation for his family's concern about him in Mark 3:28-32?).

In any event, it is completely illogical to suppose that John would include this incident if Joseph and Mary's trek to Bethlehem in the Nativity story recorded by Matthew and Luke was in contention with either him or others during the time he wrote this, since John's recorded incident clearly would have created an element of unnecessary friction and doubt towards Jesus' messiahship. Instead, John obviously took for granted what was common knowledge about a tradition that was already widely accepted by his Christian readers (not only about Jesus' birth in Bethlehem but the messianic prophecy about Bethlehem as well -- Micah 5:2). John was also honest enough to record this incident, in spite of the fact that the naysayers doubted he was born there, much like their doubts about Jesus as the Son of David in the same passage. John also took common knowledge of his readers for granted about Jesus' Nazareth residence in Galilee where he was raised (John 1:45), when he also recorded an incident of some doubting that the Messiah would even come from Galilee (John 7:52).

Unfortunately for some, very often in biblical scholarship common sense needs to be applied, especially when a view is based on an argument from silence, and this seems to be something that is far reaching for some. Not only do these references to Bethlehem and Jesus' Davidic decent attest to John's honesty, recording incidents that could have caused unnecessary friction, negativity or doubt about Jesus' messiahship, with no attempt of an explanation to prevent such a potential problem (in other words, recording an actual account as-is without explanation because it in fact happened that way), but John didn't see it necessary or a waste of time and space writing about a familiar tradition, a tradition that Matthew and Luke had already thoroughly covered before him.

Had Jesus' divine birth been in contention either with himself or others at the time John wrote his gospel, he either would have offered commentary about the incidents that raised issues of his birthplace and messiahship, or left out these incidents all together. In other words, the silence about the tradition in his gospel is the firmest proof that not only did he agree with it, but that there were no issues or contentions about it. This was something the church historian Eusebius certainly had enough common sense himself to figure out, who stated...

"And the genealogy of our Savior according to the flesh John quite naturally omitted, because it had been already given by Matthew and Luke, and began with the doctrine of his divinity, which had, as it were, been reserved for him, as their superior, by the divine Spirit."[1]

And like Paul (discussed here: The Christology of Paul), John took for granted that it was common knowledge and accepted, and used it as a ready canvas to expound deeper theology on. Had John not been a fan of the virgin birth tradition, or had the tradition been in contention by others, he obviously would not have recorded unnecessary incidents that had the potential to shed doubt on Jesus being the Messiah born in Bethlehem in order to refute it, and certainly would not have included an exotic story of Jesus' divine pre-existence, or claims from Jesus himself that he was divine and sent from heaven which only accentuated it. Moreover, had his audience not already been aware of the virgin birth tradition, they naturally would have been confused and curious about this rather abrupt Logos theology, and how this Logos deity, who was the "only begotten from the Father," actually came into human existence.

Okay, now that we got the trivial issues out of the way, let's get to the meat. Next article… the notorious virgin birth. Fact? Or obvious fiction?

Click here for that discussion, or here to go back home


Source References

1. Eusebius, Church History, book 3, chap. 24:13 (