Stu Epperson’s new book First Words of Jesus is mashup of Scripture, song lyrics, and sermonizing. Each chapter focuses on the first words of various characters in the nativity story including Jesus, Mary, the Shepherds, Herod, the Wise Men, etc. Throughout each chapter, Epperson skillfully compares and contrasts a variety of characters and circumstances (it’s like reading a Venn Diagram of the Nativity) while weaving in relevant lyrics from a number of beloved Christmas Carols.
This book would make a great gift for a person of peace or a pastor. A person of peace is someone who is open to learning more about the Christian faith and who Jesus is. The stories and songs are meshed in such a way that a person who is unfamiliar with the Scriptures will both gain understanding and have an opportunity to choose a relationship with the One who changed the world. Pastors will also enjoy owning this book as a reference, as it contains many comparison lists which could prove beneficial during sermon preparation.
With that said, I must admit that I have truly struggled with writing this book review. How can I not wholeheartedly recommend a book entitled First Words of Jesus with a foreword written by Dr. David Jeremiah?! How could I have any issues with a book that takes us “from the Cradle to the Cross”? I love Jesus and Christmas! His sacrifice and His presence. But here it is: I do not personally care for this book.
I have three major concerns with First Words of Jesus. Not only does the author favor popular tradition over facts, he also sacrifices proper Scriptural interpretation on the altar of reader inspiration. His desire to motivate readers in their daily lives has led to his reading into Scripture concepts which are not actually mentioned. Finally, Epperson exaggerates the magnitude of certain events in order to make his point dramatically profound. Each of these is a legitimate concern for any serious student of the Scriptures.
Concern #1: Tradition Trumps Truth
First of all, the cover (and the first page of every chapter) features an image montage of a rustic wooden manger filled with and surrounded by hay with the silhouette of a perfectly proportional cross behind it. I find it interesting that this image is used throughout the book when the second footnote of the “Introduction” states,
Though the facts are not conclusive, many scholars believe the manger may have been made of stone, possibly carved into the wall of the building.
Yes, that is true. Most scholars DO believe the manger was made of stone and carved into a wall. Why? Mangers were often part of first century homes, and the inside manger both matches Scripture and has been documented archaeologically. Tim Chaffey, in his article, “Born in a Barn (Stable): Clearing up Misconceptions” explains:
The Bible states that there was no room for them in the kataluma, which would be better translated as “guest room”… Archaeologists have excavated first century homes from the Judean hill country. They have discovered that the upper level served as a guest chamber while the lower level served as the living and dining rooms…
Chaffey goes on to explain that families would often bring smaller animals in at night for their protection, and he offers Biblical support for this practice. Chaffey concludes,
Mary likely gave birth to Jesus in the lower level of a crowded house, in which some of the animals had been brought in for the night.
So, why continue with the image of a stand-alone, straw-filled, wooden manger? Because it makes a nice comparison/contrast with the wooden cross. This point alone illustrates one of the major issues I have with this book: It promulgates the “popular” traditions of Christmas rather than sticking straight to the Scriptural story of the birth of Christ. Epperson ignores the modern consensus in favor of wood, because it helps complete an analogy that is important to Him. But this is extremely unnecessary. Jesus’ sacrifice was monumental and special whether or not the physical materials at His birth and death both came from trees.
Concern #2: Inspiration Induces Eisegesis
Secondly, in the chapter expounding the first words of the shepherds, Epperson writes, “Luke tells us that they spread the good news widely to the marvel of everyone (Luke 2:20).” He goes on to refer to them as “divine ambassadors” and “first missionaries of Jesus Christ.” He describes the shepherds as “fully committed to His mission.” He continues,
Illiterate and with no theological training, Jesus’s first missionaries were changed by His glory…When they found Jesus, they found peace and a whole new purpose—His mission…Their life took on a whole new meaning, because of the life they encountered in the stable. (pp.43-44)
Um…really? I did not recall this from Scripture, so I pulled out my Bible to re-read this part of the story for myself. Here is what Luke 2:17 and 20 says:
And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child… And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.
How exactly were the shepherds “fully committed to His mission”? This is such a stretch, I can’t imagine what the author is thinking here (except that it is very inspirational and uplifting). Luke tells us that they “made known abroad” what the angels said and that they were “glorifying and praising God” for this experience. He mentions nothing about their “finding peace” or “a whole new purpose.” Neither does he state how their lives took on “a whole new meaning.” Ascribing this experience as life-altering for the shepherds is an example of irresponsible Bible scholarship called “eisegesis.”
Eisegesis [the polar opposite of exegesis] is when a person interprets and reads information into the text that is not there. (CARM Online Dictionary)
The fact is, we know nothing about who these shepherds were prior to this experience. Were they devout Jews? Were they children, as some scholars speculate? Were they raising sheep for the Temple sacrifices? We honestly don’t know. Scripture is SILENT on this, and it’s a major stretch to extrapolate these inspirational conclusions from the two verses in Luke that record the shepherds’ experience. The fact is that we never see or hear from those shepherds again in ANY of the Gospels.
Concern #3: Dramatization Diminishes Dependability
Finally, one of the most difficult topics within the birth narrative of Jesus is the Slaughter of the Innocents. Matthew 2:16 says that Herod ordered the murder of all male children under the age of two in Bethlehem thereby fulfilling Jeremiah’s prophecy about Rachel weeping for her children. What the Scripture does not record, however, is the number of children who were murdered.
** This is not meant in any way to minimize a madman’s murderous massacre or the tragic loss of life experienced in Bethlehem under his reign; it is simply intended to place it into a more Scripturally accurate setting. **
On page 82, Epperson asks the reader, “Can you imagine what it must have been like for the little town of Bethlehem, and its surrounding districts, devastated by all of this bloodshed?” He continues his description of this “horrendous” event painting the picture of “young mothers having their sons ripped from their arms” and “savagely slain by Herod’s soldiers.” He continues painting the picture of horror by mentioning the Holocaust, the killing fields of Cambodia, and alluding to the terror attacks of 9/11—as if Herod’s rampage in Bethlehem was anywhere near the scale of those events. Once again, this is Hollywood dramatization taking precedence over the silence of Scripture and thereby diminishes the dependability of the facts presented in the book.
Josephus, the famous and widely-read historian from the first century, has no record of this event in any of his writings. In fact, there are no records outside the Bible attesting to this massacre. While some purport this lack of record in external sources means it is more myth than truth, it is clearly recorded in Matthew’s Gospel as the fulfillment of a prophecy, and we have no reason to doubt its validity. What we must question, though, is the scale of the event as commonly portrayed in media and books like the one I am reviewing.
Anyone can google what the population of Bethlehem was at the time of Christ and come up with the following answer: 300-1000 people. To make the case that the population was swollen due to the census would be short-sighted, because by the time the wise men arrived, it had been an estimated two years since Jesus’ birth (and the accompanying census). So, if we take the high estimate of one thousand residents of Bethlehem (and that is a very generous estimate), how many male children ages two and under would have been killed? I am not a statistician, and we have no numerical reference. What we can be pretty sure of, though, is that it was way less than one thousand. Probably less than 300. Possibly less than 100. Maybe even less than ten. We. Do. Not. Know. What we do know, however, is that it was not significant enough to be recorded in extra-biblical sources. (Herod had a reputation of murder, and this was not out of character for him at all—especially if he felt his powerful position were in peril.)
The loss of one baby or toddler is enough to break the heart of any community, and this was definitely a tragic event no matter how many children were murdered. But to place yet another Hollywood image into readers’ minds making this appear much worse and more widespread than it was is irresponsible scholarship, and I take issue with that.
I am not going to continue providing examples, because if you’ve read this far, you get the point. This book is more concerned with romantic Christmas traditions than Scriptural accuracy in certain areas. I found this completely SHOCKING! Although it is stuffed with Bible verses and laced with lyrics to a wide variety of old and new Christmas carols, First Words of Jesus is hermeneutically irresponsible. I cannot recommend it.
I think my folks would love it, except for all the eisegesis. The book itself is an amalgamation of pontification, alliteration, contradiction, and composition. There was definitely a lot of effort put into incorporating lyrics of Christmas carols throughout the book, but we cannot—nor should we ever—base our theology or Christology on lyrics or trumped up analogies that stretch the Scripture to say something upon which it is otherwise silent. Our views about God and His plan must be filtered through Scripture properly exegeted.
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