The Bible. It’s a sacred, if not holy word for many, denoting the collection of books which comprise both the Old and New Testaments for Christian believers. Spanning thousands of years of religious history and ancient wisdom, it is the foundation for many whose lives are anchored in its words. And with Christmas Day upon us, one story in particular becomes more and more of a present reality for believers around the world: the birth of Christ. Though the event took place more than two thousand years before, billions across the globe continue as countless before have in the past, to feel and experience the Christmas Miracle each December.
As part of this yearly memorial and even before its invention, Christians from the earliest of times have sought to show where in the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) Jesus’ birth was prophesied. Popular verses such as Micah 5:2, Isaiah 7:14 and Jeremiah 23:5-6 are often cited, demonstrating what Christians have historically viewed as the unifying nature of the Bible and the bridge that connects Israel with the beginning of Christianity, the culmination of a desired hope for a Messiah.
But there are two other Biblical texts, just as important, if not even more so, which are often forgotten or ignored. One of them is from the pages of the Bible (but perhaps not yours) and the other at one time was within scripture, but has been neglected by Christian tradition for over a thousand years. Both texts date from prior to the birth of Jesus and the two at one time were well read by the early Christians in their formative years.
The first of these, beginning in the chronological order of when they were first penned, is the book of Tobit. For most Christians in America, this book’s name will sound quite foreign, while for most Christians outside of the States, the name will be as familiar as that of Esther. This is because for the majority of Christendom around the world, the book of Tobit represents one of the canonical works of the Old Testament. For a minority, Protestants, the book has historically been considered Apocryphal (not finalized as canonical) and was typically included in a separate section of the Bible that lay hidden between the Old and New Testaments. However, in the late 1820’s a certain controversy within a Bible society paved the road for today, the result being that Protestant Bibles do not typically include the Apocrypha at all. Unfortunately, as a consequence, the average Protestant is now generally unaware of the fact that millions of Christians read from books in the Old Testament that they as Protestants have no knowledge of.
The book of Tobit represents a fascinating work of ancient Jewish literature. Quoted and alluded to numerous times within the New Testament, it was clearly well read both by those who took its words as authoritative and those who did not (for example, the Sadducees: Mark 12:18-24). It was included in the Greek edition of the Hebrew Bible (the Septuagint) and multiple copies of the work were, this past century, discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls where it appears it was viewed as scripture by the Jewish Essenes at Qumran in the years leading up to the birth of Christianity.
Within the thirteenth chapter of the work, the main character Tobit prophesies of the coming future and glory of God’s eternal kingdom. Within this text is an often missed gem.
A bright light will shine to all the ends of the earth; many nations will come to you from far away, the inhabitants of the remotest parts of the earth to your holy name, bearing gifts in their hands for the King of heaven.” – Tobit 13:11 (NRSV)
The verse is reminiscent of another, no?
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men (magi) from the East came to Jerusalem…. They set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” – Matthew 2:1, 9-11 (NRSV)
In Tobit, a bright light is predicted to shine to the ends of the earth, and by implication, attract worldly kings to come and give gifts to the King of Heaven. In Matthew, a bright star attracts the attention of an unknown number of foreign magi (according to later tradition: kings) who bow before the newly born Jesus and present the young child with gifts.
It’s very hard not to see the incredible similarities between the two verses, and it is even more unlikely to imagine that the author of the Gospel of Matthew was not aware of the similarities when he wrote of Jesus’ birth, for on other occasions within his narrative he includes allusions to or quotes from other parts of Tobit (for example, compare Tobit 4:15 with a statement by Jesus in Matthew 7:12). As a Nativity prophecy in the Christian interpretation, though almost never spoken of, it stands as one of the most awe inspiring.
But this sort of interpretation of Tobit lends itself even more potent when one remembers how the book can be summarized: the story of a father who sends his only son to redeem his promised bride from the snare of the Devil. At the very outset the book sounds tantalizing familiar to a Christian reader, but the familiarity grows even more toward the end of the book where the Devil is banished by the power of blood and the newly married bridegroom and bride return in victory and celebration to the groom’s father, upon whose return sight is restored to the blind and an angel reveals his glory for all to see freely. The earliest Christians, as witnessed by their extensive use of the book, did not fail to catch sight of the potential for allegory.
Moving outside the realm of the traditional Protestant Apocrypha, the other text I wish to spread some light on this season hasn’t been included in a Bible for well over a thousand years. Written some 50-80 years before Jesus’ birth, the “Psalms of Solomon” consisted of anonymous Jewish psalms, contributed by numerous authors of an unknown community. The last two of the eighteen psalms appear to be the work of a late Second Temple prophet (perhaps in the same vein of Anna and Simeon in Luke 2) who viewed the then current Jewish Hasmonean dynasty as corrupting the Temple. The author predicts a soon coming judgment and, along with the usual words of doom, says something eye-catching for Christians.
There will be no unrighteousness among them in his days, for all shall be holy, and their king shall be Christ the Lord.” – Psalms of Solomon 17:32 (R. B. Wright)
It’s worth mentioning that the messianic title given here is odd since one actually expects it to read “the Lord’s Messiah (Greek: Christ).” But this unusual formulation states “Messiah the Lord.” This in fact happens to be quite important, as there is only one other time in history that we know of a text which uses this term “Christ the Lord.” And it just so happens to be found in one of the four canonical gospels.
When the angel tells the good news to the shepherds in the Gospel of Luke, the heavenly messenger announces:
…to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” – Luke 2:11 (NRSV, edited to retain Greek reading)
Could it be a coincidence that Luke repeats the phrase mentioned in the earlier prophecy or does the infancy narrative in Luke seek to affirm the prophecy found in the Psalms of Solomon as authentic and fulfilled within the birth of Jesus? It turns out that Luke, along with the Gospel of Matthew, shows another area of familiarity with the work that could help us confirm this possibility.
As (Jesus) approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging…. Then he shouted, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Those who were in front sternly ordered him to be quiet; but he shouted even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!'”- Luke 18:35, 38-39 (NRSV)
On numerous occasions in the Synoptic Gospels, the Jewish people call out to Jesus using the unique title “Son of David.” We see this in Mark 10:47-48; Matthew 9:27; 12:23; 15:22; 20:30-31 and 21:9. But where does this term come from? Why are suffering Jews in the first century calling out to Jesus using this title “Son of David” even when they know his name?
It turns out that the title appears to originate once again from the Psalms of Solomon, as it is found in no other document prior to the Gospels.
See, Lord, and raise up for them their king, the Son of David, to rule over your servant Israel in the time known to you….” – Psalms of Solomon 17:21 (R. B. Wright)
Thus, we can conclude two things: first, that the Jews of the first century are depicted in the Synoptic Gospels as being aware of this prophetic title of the Messiah and by implication, the book from which the title likely emerged; second, that this bolsters the view that the angel’s announcement of Jesus in Luke as “Christ the Lord” does indeed reflect an early desire of Christians to affirm that the Psalms of Solomon was successful in predicting Jesus’ coming.
Though the book was apparently well known to the early Christians and Jewish populace and regardless of attempts to include it as part of the Christian Bible (for example, it was included in the fifth century Codex Alexandrinus), it fell out of use among the Church in the ensuing centuries and became lost to history until its eventual rediscovery in the 17th century by Western scholars.
So what does all of this mean for Christians? What does any of this knowledge do to affect the Christmas narrative? That really all depends on the reader and the presuppositions he brings with him. It could ultimately mean as little as a side blurb in the Sunday Funnies or it could potentially launch a new dialogue in the churches regarding the Canon (a discussion that, for Protestants, has been silent for well over a century). But hopefully, for Christian believers, it should above all else reinforce the reality that God’s message, given in all of its varied forms to all its many recipients, has always carried the same promise: God’s love made manifest through salvation. And this Christmas, nothing epitomizes that promise better for Christianity than the newborn infant of Bethlehem.
Matthew Reeves is a Religious Studies and Archaeology double major at La Sierra University. He is on the editorial staff for the student journal “Theology in Practice” and is an editor for an upcoming edition in English of the Greek Old Testament.
Image: Schwetzingen Heilige drei Konige