The last ten years we have witnessed a phenomenon called “the new atheists.” These are individuals like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins who not only do not believe in God. They are quite militant in their disbelief to the extent that they try to proselyte believers to their “un-faith.”
Accompanying this trend is also the rise of what some call “mythicism,” whose proponents argue that Jesus himself was not truly a historical figure, but only a legendary invention. No responsible historian will ever come to this last conclusion. You have to want to come up with this idea to argue for it.
If mythicists can question Jesus’ very existence, we can imagine what they and neo-atheists question about the Christmas stories of Matthew and Luke. One should not be troubled by such arguments for several reasons. But if we are to play the historian’s game, one key feature of both Matthew and Luke stands out. Despite the differences between the two accounts, they both have at their core one key claim: Mary conceived Jesus before she was married to Joseph.
No matter what a neo-atheist might say–no matter how many stories of Zeus and women they might mention–no Jew is likely to have made up such a story. No hypothetical Jewish story-teller would think Jesus gained anything from a story that involved the potential scandal of sexual immorality. So I would argue that the open-minded historian will conclude that Jesus was born amid scandal, just as Matthew and Luke say. This fact was not lost on Matthew and Luke. It is there in their gospels for us to notice and from which to learn.
In Matthew we hear overtones of the scandal in Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew 1. Four women are singled out: Tamar (1:3), Rahab and Ruth (1:5), Uriah’s wife, or Bathsheba (1:6), and Mary (1:16). All of them except for Mary are foreigners, which suggests God’s willingness to incorporate outsiders into his people. Many of them further suggest God’s willingness to use those in potentially scandalous circumstances to bring about his will. Tamar dresses up as a prostitute to get Judah to fulfill his duty (e.g., Gen. 38). Rahab runs a house of prostitution on the wall of Jericho (Josh. 2:1). David of course has an affair with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 11).
The theme of God’s love for the marginal and dis-empowered is a major theme of Luke-Acts as a whole. Jesus’ “inaugural address” in Luke 4 sets the tone for his ministry in the gospel, drawing from Isaiah 61: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me… to bring good news to the poor” (4:18, NRSV). Only Luke has the parables of the Rich Man and Lazarus and the Persistent Widow, which focus on God’s care for the marginal of society. And Acts highlights the earliest church selling their excess property to give to those in need.
I suspect if any of us were planning God’s entrance to earth, we might have seriously questioned this way. As my grandfather used to preach, we might rather want to “avoid the very appearance of evil.” But instead, Jesus came with people whispering about him. He came with his earthly father wondering if he should put Mary away privately. In a Christian world where “these sorts of people” are often shunned, we are shocked back to see that everyone is important to God. The specific types of people we consider unworthy and disreputable may change from decade to decade, but the principle of God’s affection remains. God himself came to earth not in royal robes, even if Matthew’s presentation emphasizes that he truly was king of the Jews. He came amid “no good” shepherds, without a room to stay in.