Monday, December 13, 2021

Theologies of Christmas [UPDATED]


A post at Psephizo, entitled "Why do Matthew and Luke offer different birth narratives?" is well written and names a number of important issues in the reconciliation (if possible) and differentiation of the two accounts.

Overall, it makes an excellent case for each writer composing a story to express a viewpoint; and its weakness is that it offers no grounds for thinking that either account is anchored in history = what actually happened.

A specific weakness, in all accounting for the historiography of Matthew and Luke's early chapters, are their difficult-to-reconcile accounts of the reason why Nazareth becomes the place of Jesus' upbringing: in Matthew, Nazareth is a refuge from Herod in Judea; in Luke, Nazareth is the home already for the holy family, who only leave it for the purpose of the census and its requirement that they respond to it in Bethlehem itself. And that matter is scarcely touched on in this particular account at Psephizo.


The other day my association with Academia (a kind of mega academic articles repository, here is one you might like because we spotted your interest in that subject, store and alert thingy) led to an email promoting "The Birth of Jesus: The Evolution of Jesus in the Infancy Narratives" by William S Abruzzi. It is quite a long article but its thesis is simple: 

"Numerous stories about the birth of Jesus were written during the first several centuries. When considered as a group, they tell us more about the evolution of early Christian beliefs about Jesus than they do about his actual birth."

The opening sentences set out an approach unlikely to be found in many pulpits this Christmas, or in books published by, say, IVP or Paternoster Press:

"Every year at Christmastime, millions of Christians throughout the world hear these words from Luke's gospel. They also hear stories of three Wise Men traveling from the East to pay homage to the newborn "King of the Jews;" of shepherds "tending their flocks in the field;" of a star shining over the place of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem; of visits by angels; of warnings given in dreams; of the massacre of innocent children by the evil King Herod in his attempt to kill the infant Jesus; and of Joseph, Jesus' earthly father, taking his family to Egypt in order to escape Herod's wrath. While these tales provide a beautiful prelude to opening gifts under the Christmas tree, none of them is true. They are all fables. Indeed, the modern version of the Christmas tale is a synthesis of several independent stories merged into two distinct and contradictory infancy narratives presented in the opening chapters of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Most Christians are completely unaware of the inherent contradictions presented by the two infancy narratives."

I certainly agree that in many churches in Aotearoa New Zealand, an annual "Christmas pageant" service (perhaps held yesterday, the Sunday nearest the middle of December) will have been a "synthesis" of Matthew and Luke: wise kings and shepherds appearing on the same night before the Infant King.

I am not so sure about boldly declaring of Matthew's and Luke's accounts (included along with other Infancy Narratives), "They are all fables." Such a declaration assumes we know what didn't happen as well as not knowing what did happen.

Matthew and Luke agree on certain things: Joseph and Mary are the earthly parents of Jesus; Jesus is conceived in the womb of Mary without human sexual intercourse taking place; the birth takes place in Bethlehem, when Herod the Great is (local) ruler of Palestine/Israel, and the upbringing of Jesus takes place in Nazareth.

Matthew and Luke tell different stories from one another: as we all know, there are wise kings in Matthew and not in Luke; shepherds in Luke and not in Matthew; a threat from Herod which drives the Holy Family to temporary refuge in Egypt according to Matthew and unmentioned in Luke. Notably, Matthew gives us Joseph's encounters with God's divine messages whereas Luke gives us Mary's encounters with God's divine messages. None of these differences are necessarily contradictory.

The most obvious contradiction (in my view) between Matthew and Luke is how they report the Holy Family arriving in Nazareth. 

Luke has  a natural sequence, with not a hint of a shadow of a threat of persecution by Herod, in which birth is followed by circumcision, followed by presentation in the Temple, followed by return to Nazareth, warranted because "they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord" (Luke 2:39). Further Nazareth has been Jospeh and Mary's home and so the journey to Nazareth is a return home.

Matthew has a different natural sequence which takes the Holy Family to Nazareth, and that journey is not a "return home" but the making of a new home: fear of Herod's persecution leads to the journey to Egypt; Herod's death leads to the possibility of return to Judea; but a new Herod ruling over Judea leads to a decision to head to Galilee, in which district lies Nazareth where the new home is made (Matthew 2:19-23).

We can only speculate what sources (if any!) Matthew and Luke each have in order to arrive at such differences in the telling of the birth and infancy of Jesus. 

Here I am interested in the theological considerations which drive Matthew and Luke, as well as Mrk and John to their respective versions of the beginnings of Jesus' life, whatever their sources may have been.

Matthew, to begin with the first of our canonical gospels, tells a story of Jesus as a new Moses. The first Moses was threatened with infanticide at the decree of a king, though the king was Pharoah and the location of the threat was Egypt and not Judea (Exodus 1-2). Moses is protected through refuge in a basket and then a hidden life in the court of Pharoah himself. The second Moses is protected through refuge in Egypt. But Matthew is also telling the story of Jesus as a new Abraham (see the genealogy in Matthew 1) and a new David (so the prophecy from Micah associated with Bethlehem as the place of Jesus' birth, Matthew 2:6). Through story, Matthew sets out the theological (or christological) significance of the baby Jesus in relation to the story of the people of God known as Israel: fathered by Abraham, taught by Moses and ruled by David.

Mark, most likely written before Matthew and Luke, doesn't bother with any details about Jesus' birth (though he tells his story as the story of a man with a family, since they appear at certain points). Theologically, he sees no need to underline Abrahamic, Mosaic or Davidic qualities of Jesus. Everything Mark wants us to know about Jesus is found and emphasised in Jesus' preaching and miracle working or in his encounters with religious authorities. There is no back story to Mark's Jesus: just the front story of Jesus the preacher, power worker and provocateur.

Luke, whether he knows of Matthew's Gospel or not, seems disinterested in Jesus as the new Moses, but he is very interested in Jesus in relation to the Roman Empire (so the big driver in his story of Jesus' birth, Luke 2, is an imperial census which draws the Holy Family from Nazareth to Bethlehem; later, in Luke 3, the beginning of Jesus' adult ministry is set very precisely in terms of "the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius"). For Luke, the kingdom of God is both an alternative to the kingdom of Rome and not a rival to the kingdom of Rome (a theme in Acts). Theologically, Luke's Jesus is a new and greater Caesar/Lord, who also fulfils a number of Israelite prophecies - hopes and aspirations for a new and better day. Thus, the presentation in the Temple, at the end of Luke's story of the young infant Jesus, is less about fulfilling legal requirements and much more about Anna and Simeon's joy at seeing the fulfilment of their hopes and aspirations. Fittingly, for Luke's Jesus as an ideal human ruler of a world kingdom of gentleness and compassion, his version of Jesus' genealogy goes past Abraham to Adam himself.

John, whatever his knowledge of Matthew, Mark and Luke, is, like Mark, disinterested in details of Jesus' conception, birth and infancy. But somewhat like Matthew and Luke, John is interested in the ultimate origins of Jesus. A new Moses? Descended from Abraham? Adam? Ok, says John, but let's go further and deeper: Jesus is the Word present before time began; Jesus is the only Begotten Son who comes from the Father's heart. Christmas is all very well as a festival of birth but why have such a limited celebration when we could celebrate Jesus as the agent of creation itself? (So, John 1:1-18).

Wonderfully, each of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John is agreed on one thing: Jesus is the Son of God!

And each says that in quite different ways: Matthew 2:15; Mark 1:1; Luke 1:35; 2:49; 3:38; John 1:18, 34.

Theology by narration!


Father Ron said...

At least there is one encouraging message from the Bishop of Rome on the purpose of the Messianic Mission - JUSTICE: Unless we are intent on bringing Justice to the places where we are, we may not measure up to what Christ is calling us to do and to be.


"Let us remember – especially in this time of Advent – the words of the prophet Isaiah, referring to the Servant of the Lord – “He will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not fail or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth” (Isaiah 42: 3-4). The Messiah announced by the prophets has rights and justice at heart. And Jesus Christ, in his earthly mission, turned with all his might to the least, to heal them by announcing to them the good news of the Kingdom of God."

Pope Francis

Unknown said...

Christianity is our dialogue with Christ changing us.

Christmas is praying through the gospel accounts to the Christ they reveal.

Depending on who one is, one could do any of myriad things as a result. For instance, one might be a better blues guitarist.

Justice? Perhaps. Dialogue with God through the nativity accounts could change one's heart, and that change could unexpectedly make one less inclined to injustice.

But zeal for an abstract notion of justice formed outside the dialogue with God is not Christianity.


Unknown said...

"Be ye not hearers of the word only, but doers"


By "justice," Francis himself means precisely some changes of heart that praying through one's life-- that dialogue with Christ-- could bring about. For example, his beautiful view of justice as reparation may simply be unlivable outside a life quite radically in Christ. Which is quite alright to most praying believers.

But from that praying point of view, people with a host of opinions about justice, left or right, but no working discipline of prayer are not Christians in the way that those who do not meditate are not Buddhists, those who skip Vedic rituals are not Hindus, etc. In is in, out is out, and that's where the line is drawn.

God loves both the in and the out. And the Lukan thread through Christmas prayer usually reminds us of this. So the line is not about 'clusions, in- or ex-. It's a performative thing like playing guitar or not playing guitar.

If one likes hearing other people play music, good. Human beings have this innate capability to enjoy. And music ripples out and mixes with other sounds without discrimination.

But that taste for listening does not make one a musician. And musicians can only learn to play from other musicians. In fact, one can be frustrated or damaged by the guidance of musicians who do not yet know music well enough to teach it. Conversely, master classes taught by actual masters have been very helpful to serious musicians.

Imagine the mess that would result if a culture fell into the delusions that (a) absolutely everyone must join a band, (b) everyone conscripted into an approved band is therefore a musician, (c) it's wicked to point out that someone doesn't practice or play, (d) anyone can teach music since everyone is required to be a musician, (e) the very best teachers of practical musicianship are music historians. Some excellent players and singers would thrive on all the attention that Music would get. But most people would be perplexed: music would still sound good to them, but their daily experience of trying to be musicians would be confusing, frustrating, and occasionally injurious. Occasionally, rebellious musicians would meet in secret to foster an authentic musical culture.

This is the Body after Christendom. And it is why Francis saying perfectly prayerful things is more often misunderstood on the left or resisted on the right than understood by anyone.


Unknown said...

Speaking of Buddhism, a thread through both the gospels and + Peter's elegant summary sets up an interesting comparison.

Gautama Siddartha, called the Buddha (Enlightened), was born in a palace, lived an early life of regal bliss, and only as a young man discovered suffering. Jesus, called the Christ (Anointed), was born in a manger, and is by various motifs associated both with royalty and suffering from the start. Accounts of both men have some factual impetus, but meditating Buddhists and praying Christians have never thought that tidy timelines was the point of them. Rather, the stories situate the Buddha and Buddhists and the Christ and Christians in relation to suffering as something inextricable from humanity itself.

For the Buddha, the great problem was that the universality of suffering and its implications were hidden from him by palatial luxury. Meditation was for him, and is for Buddhists today, the way through delusion to a liberating insight.

As + Peter says, the birth and infancy narratives of the NT emphasize different things, partly to counter differing delusions. The ubiquity of human suffering makes us prey to them.


Father Ron said...

Disparity in the Gospel accounts of the birth and early life of Jesus has never worried me. One only has to look at journalism today to understand that the Gospels were not too different - with each author describing their own version of what was actually happening at the time. In fact not too different from today's theologians; offering their very own understanding of what was 'happening' at the birth of Christianity. The one constant we may all rely on is the FACT of our own meeting with Christ in the fabric of our personal lives. His-story and Her-story - in Christ - may have different impacts and aspirations. Perhaps this is why Jesus left us with the tanglible Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion, wherein the Holy Spirit could open up within each one of us an understanding of Emmanuel (God-with-us) by particicipation in the Sacred Mystery of Christ's Body and Blood - through which we have been promised Redemption.

Come Lord Jesus, Come!

Unknown said...

Amen, Father Ron! Preach it!


Unknown said...

The guild of biblical studies is so populous and eclectic that somebody somewhere must have written the obvious book exploring its poor fit with postmodern culture. In the distant days of our youth, they used to announce to the credulous peasants beyond the moat that we cannot expect the gospels to be as veridical as The New York Times. Today-- oh the irony-- Father Ron can explain that from our experience of news media no sensible person expects all accounts of an event to match, and that anyway they, unlike the gospels, cannot be confirmed from the heart.

The sort of scepticism institutionalized in the guild may not look as silly down under as it does here up yonder. Perhaps this will explain that succinctly.

In those tender years just mentioned, I was not permitted to take courses on the gospels without also taking others that treated say the Bhagavadgita. (American universities tend to have departments of Religion rather than Theology.) So I could and did walk from one lecture alerting us that the nativity accounts vary to another one exploring the meaning of the multiple birthplaces of the Hindu god Siva. Same department, different epistemology.

Nobody makes a living pronouncing upon the historical veracity of the Hindu scriptures, because everybody reads them to understand, if not reality, then the experience of being say a Hindu with a special devotion to Siva. An analogous presentation on the gospels' birth narratives might have situated them, not only in Second Temple Judaism, but also in Byzantine and Gregorian hymnography with at least a glance at St Bernard of Clairvaux's teaching on the *three advents*. Pity the poor Hindu who takes an introductory course on the NT to see the cosmos as Christians do, only to hear disquisitions on what scrupulous moderns should not see in it.

I do not at all suggest that anyone should be forbidden to explain why David Hume did not believe in biblical miracles, why narratives about Jesus multiplied, or how both texts and the copying of manuscripts have changed through time. But if the Bible were taught as religion, these ancillary matters would not be so central as to upstage the way believers have actually read them.

I have been discussing courses in universities. A fortiori, if they should situate sacred texts in their actual religions, then surely preachers of those faiths should do at least that. Just how they should do that is a topic here (eg + Peter on de Lubac, Bauckham, etc) from time to time.


Unknown said...

Field Report

On Monday, a meeting took up the question whether to permit an ornamented and lit evergreen to stand in a publicly accessible, privately owned, place of business. Most of + Peter's readers would call this putting a Christmas tree in a supermarket.

But not the proponents of the tree. These millennials are all ABC-- Anything But Christian-- so to them it's a Holiday tree that stands for every celebration in or near December. Hanukkah, Noel Baba, Kwanzaa, Yule, Winter Solstice, Christmas, Epiphany. It's spiritual, not religious.

Also, the days are getting shorter; the shadows are lengthening sooner; the air is perceptibly chilling. They want to be cheered up.

But older managers, who are both more senior and more scrupulously modern, worry that, in a town with 262 churches (not to mention Eerdmann's, Zondervan, and Baker) a decorated evergreen just *is* a Christmas tree no matter how many stars of david, African kintes, magick pentagrams, and nordic runes dangle from its branches. They fear that such a tree could appear to be endorsing one religion over others. Cuts of lamb, cans of beans, and sheaves of asparagus should remain neutral in the wars of religions.

But they do urge stocking up on poinsettias, fruit cake and egg nog. They encourage staff to wear Santa hats. The ambient music includes an occasional secular holiday tune.

Everyone agrees: no creche.

Is this a War on Christmas? Are Christians finally able to reclaim their tradition for their own practice?


Peter Carrell said...

Dear Bowman,

Re history and the nativity narratives and (e.g.) Hinduism ... we would need to account for the way in which Christian thought and history has influenced the historiography of the West (and Eastern Orthodoxy) so that we of the 20th and 21st century, both Christians and non-Christians, have historiographical expectations of our foundational texts which are different from expectations re (e.g.) Hindu scriptures.

Unknown said...

Yes, Peter, that would be much better than what is usually done. Where phenomenology is as welcome as philology, it probably is done.

Hindus do sense the oddness in making pilgrimages to a single avatar's several birthplaces (*tirthas*) scattered across India. They have a metaphysical workaround for that, just as we are untroubled that Jesus is present on myriad altars in as many places.


Unknown said...

Maybe by definition, religion is an imaginative, right-brained (diffuse-processed) business.

But our culture has favoured rationalizing, left-brained (focally-processed) thought.

So the thoughtful Western preacher of any religion tries to evade the horns of a dilemma:

either be true to the original imaginary, at the risk of sounding irrational or superstitious,

or else engage hearers in their accustomed rationalism, at the cost of leaving them imaginatively starved.

Traditionalists, seeing revelation as well suited to human nature (if not to modern culture), and imagination as a hunger of the soul, lean to the former. Some things can only be fully communicated in rumours of angels.

Modernists, preaching to a culture somewhat out of touch with human nature, have tried to reach those they can as they can by leaning to the latter. Every ladder needs a bottom rung. St John himself was sceptical of the knowledge that depended on miracles.

Whichever we may have preferred, the dilemma is real. The culture in which we try to evade its horns has changed.


Father Ron said...

One of the more beautiful thoughts about the Incarnation of Christ, for me, is this:

"The Almighty Word leapt down" (from word to meaning?)

Unknown said...

True Confession

When any argument about anything comes up anywhere, I ask myself, what is at stake? Life is short, and we account for how we spent it. If an argument does not matter much, I move on to another that does.

Some souls hold beliefs that require that the Bible upstream of them be a magic book or a perfect book. To them, almost any argument about the Bible can understandably seem threatening and so high stakes.

But since my own faith remains robust even if the Bible is mundane and imperfect, I am not so defensive and pugnacious. Which seems a better, even a more Christ-like, way to be. I rarely stick around for arguments that are trying much too hard to defend the Bible as such.


The alternative birth and infancy narratives of SS Matthew and Luke do have something interesting in common. The birth of the Messiah was entangled in three impositions of Octavian that cancelled the cosmic promise of the Promised Land: ordinary provincial administration, Roman taxes to pay for it, and a puppet king. For God's elect to lose all but ceremonial autonomy to a pagan empire of the West was a challenge to the nation's faith and a trauma to its psyche.

Since Jesus was born during this humiliation, later offered a breakthrough remedy for it, and was hailed by some as the Messiah, the gospels' first readers naturally wondered how his story fit into their national story. It is only when one does not identify with that story that gospel anecdotes about Jesus's nativity seem like inorganic fantasies.

Of course, as Tolkein said, history can become legend and legend myth. We see this in the exaggerations: Octavian's decree was only that Palestine should be taxed, and if Herod killed infants, it was probably only those with more plausible claims to his throne.

Or do we? I've spent time behind the Iron Curtain as it was lifted, in the Balkans before Yugoslavia disintegrated, and in the Middle East around the times of the Gulf Wars. In those apocalyptic days, ordinary people spoke of quotidian things in the same exaggerated way.

If Jesus had been born in Istanbul when I was first there, Turks I knew would have wondered where Joseph had hidden his son from the CIA. The actual CIA station chief there was more attentive to events north and east, but Turks (or Nicaraguans or Pakistanis...) then used "CIA," not to refer precisely to the bureaucracy on the right bank of the Potomac at Langley, but more loosely to the whole US influence on their government. This was mythology, but it arose, not from the passage of time nor from belief in the supernatural, but rather from the unavoidable use of rhetorical figures in speaking of power in the shadows.

Also, those Turks might well have said that Jesus had been born when Ronald Reagan was POTUS. In fact, George H. W. Bush had succeeded him, but to Turks those first months still seemed to be the Age of Reagan. Were they in error? From the perspective of universal history, they obviously were.

But that was not their perspective; they cared less for universal precision than for local accuracy. Perhaps SS Matthew and Luke, in narrating the birth and infancy of Jesus, were not so different.