It is beginning to look a lot like Christmas at our house. We’ve acquired a tree, but it’s still in the garage waiting our unearthing the stand. A smaller artificial tree is up and now has lights, and there is candle lights in each of the front windows. Ribbons are beginning to festoon light fixtures. And we’ve made our first two batches of Christmas cookies. Much more to come in preparing the house for the season, but we’re well begun.

To prepare my heart for the season, I’ve been reading the Christmas story, trying to see it afresh, and not in the highly decorated and embellished way I’ve taken in the Christmas story from so many re-tellings and children’s pageants.

For me, and perhaps for you, the Christmas story is a smooshed together version of bits from various gospels. It includes Mary and Joseph, wise men and shepherds, angels and stars, Bethlehem and Nazareth, and a host of other people: Herod and inn keepers, Elizabeth, Caesar Augustus and more. It’s a crowded crèche we erect in our minds. This Christmas I’m trying to look at the gospels one by one to see what story is being told. I’m struck at how different they are.

The Christmas story in Matthew (Matthew 1-2) is a version that includes just the holy family, some angels, the wise men, and Herod.

It begins with a long genealogy to show that the lineage of Jesus from Abraham through David. “Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob…” it begins. And this passage concludes (1:17) “So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations.” It is a litany all of men, except in the middle (1:5) we have “… and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth,” and then at the end (1:16) we have “Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ.” I know why Mary is mentioned, but I have no idea why Rahab and Ruth are mentioned. (Because Ruth is one of my favorite people in the Bible, I’m always delighted when she makes an appearance.)

Of course what is remarkable is that Matthew immediately goes on to say that Joseph was in no way biologically responsible for Jesus’s birth. “When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit; and he husband, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly (1:18-19).” Might that not completely undermine the lineage back through David to Abraham: that long line of patrimonial responsibility? Perhaps the point of the genealogy is to insist that even with the Holy Spirit’s intervention, the line of male descent is important in making Jesus the Christ.

An angel intervenes at this point in Matthew’s story speaking to Joseph in a dream, assuring him that Mary’s pregnancy is a good thing, and that he should proceed with the marriage. “He took his wife, but knew her not until she had borne a son; and he called his name Jesus (1:24-25).” Notice the focus on Joseph, not Mary in the telling.

The second chapter of Matthew’s version is the story of “wise men from the East.” They come first to Jerusalem, saying (2:2) “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.” Herod, the (political, Roman-appointed) king hears of Jesus’s birth apparently from these wise men and is troubled, but (I’d never noticed this) Matthew says “he was troubled and all Jerusalem with him.” All Jerusalem!

Herod’s advisors tell Herod that the prophecy (Micah 5:2) tells that the Christ was to be born in Bethlehem. He tells the wise men, secretly, to go to Bethlehem, and let him know what they find, “that I too may come and worship him” (2:8). The wise men set off again, “and lo the star they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was” (2:9).  They rejoice, worship the young child, and offer their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. They do not tell Herod, however, what they have seen and done. “And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way. (Given how often Bible stories mention place names, it is striking that the country of origin of these wise men is never mentioned.)

A second time an angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream, saying “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him” (2:13). Joseph, Mary and Jesus do go to Egypt and remain there until Herod’s death. Again a prophecy is fulfilled: (Hosea 11:1): “Out of Egypt have I called my son.” Meanwhile, Herod, “in a furious rage” having been “tricked by the wise men,” kills all the male children in Bethlehem who are less than two years of age.

A third time in this telling an angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream saying (2:20) “Rise, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” But, the story tells us, Joseph learns that Herod’s son Archelaus is now on the throne in Judea and he is afraid to return there to Bethlehem, and “being warned in a dream” (a fourth visitation) he took his family instead to Galilee (in the north of Israel), to Nazareth, that “what was spoken by the prophets (Isaiah 11:1) might be fulfilled, ‘He shall be called a Nazarene.’ (2:23).

From here, Matthew’s gospel leaps to John the Baptist (3:1): "In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judea." We’ve abruptly leapt three decades in time and leapt geographically back to the south. The Christmas story is far behind us, and Jesus’s ministry is beginning.

Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus is very focused upon Joseph. It is his lineage that is established; of Mary we learn next to nothing. The angel of the Lord appears to Joseph, not Mary, and not once but four times. This angel of the Lord appears each time in a dream

There is a pronounced emphasis in Matthew’s telling on the fulfilling of prophecy. The suggestion is not that the birth of Christ is a striking turn in the story of God’s effort to call His people to righteousness, but rather that the birth is all according to a plan that has been foreshadowed by prophets well in advance – if we were paying attention.

There is a pronounced emphasis on the threat that Jesus’s birth posed to established political figures, not just Herod but “all of Jerusalem.” It is wise men from another country – presumably people of some stature, power and wealth –who tip off the political establishment to the fact of Jesus’s birth. It is only in Matthew that we hear of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents of Bethlehem.  The wise men and Herod are the supporting cast; not shepherds or domestic animals. 

One more thing to note: the story begins in Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph live there as the story opens. Jesus is born there, but no mention is made of a stable or any other temporary shelter. The story proceeds from Bethlehem to Nazareth, with a long detour to Egypt. Nazareth becomes their home only after Jesus has become a boy a few years old.

There is a great deal here that is quite different from the other gospels, even from the account in Luke, the only other gospel to tell the story of Jesus’s birth. But that is for another day.

also published on River View Friend

Views: 265

Comment by Forrest Curo on 12th mo. 9, 2013 at 12:04pm

[My 'Old Testament' prof had it that these were Persian nobles who would have traveled into this contested region with a large, well armed retinue that would have represented a serious potential threat to the Roman garrison. This would be very much a political visit, and supporters of the Roman's client ruler would have been quite nervous.]


Yes,Luke as you say has a whole different story, ie Mary and Joseph already live in Nazareth and they're just visiting.

Common ground alluded to throughout the gospels: There is definitely something 'scandalous' about this birth that needs to be explained (and I don't think we're allowed much more than guesses about what that is. Even in John, 'the Jews' are quoted hinting that Jesus is a mamser.) But again as you say, we're getting a story with women whom we know mainly via stories of not-necessarily-properly-Jewish-womanly behavior (and how else does a woman make it into the Hebrew Bible, hmm? What is it that women do that really interests male writers? Is that a rhetorical question?)

Anyway, if you want to take the story at face value, it looks like this: As part of God's plan, God produces a specific miracle which at most one or two people will ever be in a position to know about (or deny) via direct physical evidence. This miracle has exactly one public effect: This birth will be the subject of  suspicious public gossip -- not to mention the fact that Joseph himself is going to have to entirely rely on faith for this one.

Personally I think the circumstances were all-too-natural (ala the later Talmudic story [which is however also alluded to indirectly via an early Christian apologist]  of the Roman soldier. The fact that they didn't stone her probably means that she had no way to defend herself. If so, the real miracle is that Joseph is willing and able to go against public disapproval to say, Hey, however this happened she is my wife and he is my kid! And that makes, for all official purposes, that genealogy belong to Jesus, no matter what anyone said or thought in private. Family in this milieu is a social construct, not a genetic one...

John is not a leap: Once again, this tells us that all this belongs to The Big Story. Early Christians put the book of Malachi last in their Scriptures because it ends with two predictions: 1) The Day of the Lord is coming and 2) Before that happens, Elijah will return to reconcile parents and children so that God's coming judgment will not need to be a curse.

I've had no luck getting anyone to comment on that aspect on that languishing blog; would you venture a possibly-inspired guess as to what that Day of the Lord is all about? The clearly-implied message, as I see it: the coming of Jesus [or as you say, his "ministry"] is that Day of the Lord. Hmmmmm?

Comment by Clem Gerdelmann on 12th mo. 9, 2013 at 5:02pm

I would garner that the difference between Matthew's infancy narrative and Luke's is that Matthew's audience was predominantly Jewish whereas Luke's was Gentile. That explains why Matthew's is the "Teaching Gospel" whereas Luke's is the "Pastoral Gospel". It also explains why Matthew uses "Son of David" references so often and has Joseph(the step-father) predominate. In spite of the author's seeing Jesus' teaching as new wine, Matthew's Gospel tries to pour it into the old wineskin of Judaism. I think of it as trying to fit a square peg into a round hole - over and over, on and on, Matthew's attempt to make Judaism compatible with Christianity(not vice versa). Are there similar attempts in Quakerism to pour Fox's new wine into old Protestant/Evangelical/Eastern Religion wineskins?   

Comment by Forrest Curo on 12th mo. 9, 2013 at 7:23pm

Well, unless you can somehow think of Jesus and/or his adherents as Christian, at some point in Christian history Christianity must be compatible with Judaism (which includes a pretty wide range of beliefs at the time.) When Paul is writing (a little before these books according to just about everybody) he is preaching in synagogues (Where else will you find an audience with some idea What is a Messiah?) There continue to be strains within Christianity with what we would call a Pharisaic approach to religious practice, and rabbis whose understanding of how to apply commandments very much resembles Jesus' approach.

The big difference seems to be more  within religions than between them. Jesus spoke of his contemporary Pharisees (but probably not all) as ~standing in the door of the Kingdom, neither going in themselves nor letting anyone else through. But he does suggest they are sometimes very very close to that door. If somebody goes through that door, he acquires a much different perspective on religions and doctrines, and might have a difficult time squeezing himself back into anybody's wineskin.

Comment by Forrest Curo on 12th mo. 10, 2013 at 7:03pm

Matthew's references to 'prophecy' are often far-fetched, sometimes merely allusions to a misapplied scriptural quote. What they're meant to tell people is that Jesus' life belongs to 'Our Story' -- not to some human-constructed story,  but to the story that God set out to enact with the Jewish People. [Christianity and the Quaker flavor of that are supposed to be continuations of that same theme, at least as early Christians and early Friends saw matters.]

This man is accepted into the lineage of Abraham and the famous King David, with Persian astrologers intruding into Rome's claimed sphere of influence to say that he is destined to be himself King of the Jews. His parents are thereby forced to take him into hiding, into exile. He comes back from Egypt, not exactly to 'fulfill' what Ezekiel had said about the Jews ("My son" == "Israel" in that quote) but as a reenactment of their legendary history, adding emphasis to Jesus' connection to that history.

and there he meets John the Baptist, who is fulfilling Elijah's role [according to Matthew] by baptizing people to let them somehow escape 'the Wrath to come'. 

[This man Jesus doesn't seem like "Wrath" --  but the things he does in innocence prove to be a terror to formal religion and those who rely on it...]

John is later arrested and murdered by Herod (Antipas) for criticizing his political divorce and remarriage. So (according to Josephus) the public considered Herod's eventual fall, years later, to be divine retribution for that murder. Does that incident play a part in Jesus' not being immediately killed by Herod, merely warned off? -- to eventually die in Jerusalem? What does John and his baptism  have to do with all this?

It tells anyone 'with ears to hear' that God is powerfully at work in the subsequent events, that Jesus and his activities are somehow the equivalent of that Day of the Lord that Elijah was expected to announce.



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