Symmetry in the Legends Surrounding Jesus’ Birth and Death

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by Tim Widowfield

[Note: I’m offering the following as a diversion to get our minds off this terrible timeline. –taw]

William Blake, (1757-1827), The Resurrection, c. 1805

A few years back, I published a post concerning the date of Jesus’ birth (Why Is Christmas on the 25th of December?), in which we briefly touched on the idea of symmetry between Jesus’ birth and death. I quoted Augustine, who noted the belief, current at the time, that Christ’s conception occurred on March 25.

For He is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also He suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which He was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which He was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before nor since. But He was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th. (Augustine, On the Trinity, Book IV, Chapter 5)

Over time, I’ve become convinced that we can gain more insight into the history of the legends applied to Jesus by examining the symmetry between the incarnation and death legends. Here are a few points to mull over.

  1. Virgin birth/virgin tomb. Mark (Mk 15:46) merely says that the body was laid in a tomb hewn out of rock. Later evangelists felt compelled to explain that the tomb had never been used. See Mt 27:60, Lk 23:53, Jn 19:41.
  2. The first Joseph married the virgin (Mt & Lk). The second owned the virgin tomb. Only Matthew insists that it was Joseph of Arimathea’s own tomb.
  3. The wrapping of the body. Shortly after his birth, Luke (and only Luke) tells us Jesus was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. All four evangelists tell us Joseph wrapped the corpse of Jesus before burial. Mark and Matthew refer to a single cloth that covered his entire body (Mk 15:46, Mt 27:59), while John describes “cloths” (Jn 19:40). Luke, curiously, describes the burial with a single cloth (Lk 23:53), but writes about plural “cloths” after the resurrection (Lk 24:12).

What do you think? What other points of symmetry can you find? Do you think the resurrection legends came first? Or was it the birth legends? Or did they arise simultaneously? Or did they inform one another and evolve over time?

Something else to mull over: Did the later birth-in-a-cave narrative come about because of the earlier rock-hewn-tomb narrative?

Happy Easter, everyone, and keep your distance!

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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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5 thoughts on “Symmetry in the Legends Surrounding Jesus’ Birth and Death”

  1. Herod sought to kill the infant Jesus; in the Gospel of Peter another Herod crucifies Jesus. (Luke gives the second Herod a cameo appearance in the Passion events.)

  2. I do think the birth and resurrection are related. Resurrection was often seen as a re-birth or second birth. Initiation rituals were considered to be a second birth. The first birth is of the flesh and the second birth is of the spirit.

    “There Is Hope for a Tree”: Job’s Hope for the Afterlife in the Light of Egyptian Tree Imagery(Catholic Biblical Quarterly 77, 2015), Christopher Hays

    Job’s return to his mother’s womb has consistently attracted special attention from interpreters of the book; it has been seen as a “bump” in the text requiring smoothing. Fifty years ago, Giuseppe Ricciotti argued with elegant brevity that the archaeological remains of ancient Near Eastern burials could shed light on this problem; the fetal positioning of many such burials could explain the image of “returning naked to [the mother’s womb].” “If this womb was not materially identical to that of the mother,” Ricciotti wrote, “it was so symbolically.”

    A number of significant commentaries have followed Ricciotti in treating the imagery as a poetic reference to burial,
    but as far as I can see, no one has pointed out that there are very clear Egyptian precedents for such imagery, in which the sarcophagus and/or tomb are described as the womb of the goddess in which the deceased undergoes a rebirth into the blessed afterlife. The fact that Job is already acknowledged as demonstrating awareness of
    Egyptian beliefs about the afterlife such as the judgment of the dead supports the idea of Egyptian influence in 1:21.

    In Egyptian funerary texts, there is “an astonishing consistency” to the imagery of death as a return to a goddess’ womb, from the Old Kingdom through the Hellenistic period. The image of the goddess Nut as the one who gives birth to the deceased king as her son—causing him to “revive and live”—is pervasive in the Old Kingdom Pyramid Texts… Assmann calls this an “entirely typical” image, “that of a mother goddess who embodies the coffin and welcomes the deceased, as he enters her, as her son.”…Job 1:21a makes better sense when understood in light of the Egyptian idea of death as a return to the womb of the mother goddess; that mythology provides a much more likely context than the idea of “Mother Earth,” which is attested only in texts that are (or are likely to be) quite late…

    As a final example, in 14:7-9 Job entertains the idea that he might experience rebirth, like a tree (“there is hope for a tree, if it is cut down, that it will sprout again”), but in the next moment he draws back from that hope (14:12: “Mortals lie down and do not rise again”).

    I also suspect this is part of the reason why the women play such an important role in the death/resurrection narrative. I think there may be some ‘remnant’ of the goddess in the women of the Gospel stories. There may also be a connection with “…whom ye slewed and hung on a tree”. Trees(nature in general) being associated with rebirth/resurrection.

    There’s also a tradition of deities having two births or a normal birth and then a rebirth/resurrection.

    Inter-Actions: Relationships of Religion and Drama(University Press of America, 2009), Nelvin Vos

    The dithyramb represented more than a chant to drive the sacred animal. The song also celebrated the new birth of the god, Dionysus. However, Dionysus was not represented as an infant, but as a young man. Therefore, the emphasis is as the etymology of the word, Dithyrambos, indicates, on the second birth of Dionysus, his adoption by Zeus. He was twice-born, once of his mother, like all men, once of his father’s thigh, like no man. This aspect of the dithyramb is shown clearly in a paean to Dionysus discovered at Delphi. … Therefore, one can see that the birth of Dionysus and
    the coming of spring are intimately connected. As Jane Harrison summarizes: “The Dithyramb … is not only a song of human rebirth: it is the song of the rebirth of all nature, all living things; it is a Spring song ‘for the Year-Feast.’”

    The Many-Headed Muse: Tradition and Innovation in Late Classical Greek Lyric Poetry(Cambridge University Press,2014), Pauline A. LeVen

    As Bacchylides and Plutarch attest, dithyrambs were sung at Delphi in honor of Dionysus only during the winter months, when Apollo visits the Hyperboreans. The song subverts this traditional association by linking from the outset Dionysus Dithyrambus not with winter but with spring … the poet might be referring to the problematic double birth of Dionysus Di-thyrambus.

    Interesting that one birth is celebrated in the winter and the other in the spring.

  3. I think Luke placing Jesus’ birth in a manger among livestock arguably provides foreshadowing of his death, where he replaces/supersedes the Yom Kippur sacrifice. He was born among livestock to be sacrificed as such.

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