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Interpreting the nativity accounts

A book written last year by Marcus Borg (the professor of religion at Oregon State) and John Dominic Crossan (whose work on the “historical Jesus” has long been controversial), The First Christmas:  What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Birth (New York:  Harper Collins, 2007) starts with a premise likely to be rejected by most mainstream Christians.  I’ve been reading it today – appropriately, I received it as a Christmas gift.

What if, ask Borg and Crossan, we set aside for a moment the impulse to read the nativity accounts in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke as either historically true or false, and work to read them either as parables or overtures?  Doing so, they suggest, produces interesting readings that can help explain how first century believers would have understood the birth accounts.  They argue that such an approach is warranted, at least in part, because only the later gospels deal extensively with the birth of Jesus (Mark’s gospel, believed to be the first, includes no account of extraordinary birth, and Paul’s letters, which may predate all the gospels, do not dwell on anything exceptional about his birth).  Thus, “the reason that references to a special birth do not appear in the earliest Christian writings is either because the stories did not yet exist or because they were still in the process of formation.  In either case, these stories are relatively late, not part of the earliest Christian tradition about Jesus” (26).

Reading the birth accounts as parables, Borg and Crossan insist, “does not require denying their factuality.  It simply sets that question aside.  A parabolic approach means, ‘Believe whatever you want about whether the stories are factual – now, let’s talk about what these stories mean” (35).  And reading them as overtures, where “Matthew 1-2 is a miniature version of the succeeding Matthew 3-28, and Luke 1-2 is a miniature version of Luke 3-24” (38), makes each a “summary, synthesis, metaphor, or symbol of the whole” (39) gospel that follows.

Reading Luke’s account as purposely constructed for certain persuasive ends (as opposed to a diary-like review of day-by-day chronology) reveals it more plainly as an anti-imperial story whose details enact an antithetical narrative set in diametric opposition to stories then circulating about Caesar Augustus as Savior of the World and Son of God and Bringer of Peace.  Every detail situates Jesus-as-not-Caesar.  Every specific feature of Jesus’ miraculous birth is made more spectacular than the mythologized birth of Caesar Augustus then in public circulation.  And the details dwell on the powerless and marginalized – women and shepherds and the poor are given pride of place, but all within a narrative structure that would have been readily recognizable to any Roman/pagan cosmopolitan.  In patterns that continue in Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, the story places the marginalized at the heart of empire and positioned to speak truth to power, challenging Roman rule at every turn in a contrast that makes ever-present the difference between the Roman Way (peace through victory) and the Jesus Way (peace through justice).

The parallels between the world view of the Romans and the Judeo/Christian eschatology include the then-common theory that Rome was the fifth of five world historical empires (following Assyria, Medes, Persians, Macedonia, as recounted in Caius Velleius Paterculus’ Compendium of Roman History, written around 30CE), and Daniel’s Old Testament description of four empires (Babylon, Medean, Persian, and Macedonian) that would be superceded by a kingdom of God.  Borg/Crossan:  “It is not accurate to distinguish the imperial kingdom of Rome from the eschatological kingdom of God by claiming that one is earthly the other heavenly, one is evil the other holy, or one demonic the other sublime.  That is simply name-calling.  Both come to us with divine credentials for the good of humanity.  There are two alternative transcendental visions.  Empire promises peace through violent force.  Eschaton promises peace through nonviolent justice” (75).

Matthew’s birth account, which barely focuses on Jesus as a character and mainly on Joseph and the wider efforts made by the regional prefect, Herod, to murder him, emerges as a parable of Jesus-as-Moses.  “It would scream to those Jews as it should to us Christians as loudly as a giant newspaper headline:  EVIL RULER SLAUGHTERS MALE INFANTS.  PREDESTINED CHILD ESCAPES” (42).  The pattern fixed in the account of Moses’ birth (elaborated both in Exodus chapters 1 and 2 and in later accounts written by Philo and under the titles Targum Pseudo-Jonathan and the Book of Memoirs) lays out a detailed chronology of royal decree, necessary divorce (marriages were abandoned to avoid the risk that sex would result in the birth of a child condemned to death), a divine prophesy, and remarriage.  This, in turn, lays the predicate for a New Testament account where Herod commands infant death, Joseph is made to threaten divorce (this time fearing Mary’s infidelity), but the New Moses is born and survives, ironically finding safety in the country of Egypt from which the original Moses had to flee.

Modeled after the Five Books of the Pentateuch, Matthew’s gospel repeats the pattern:  five divine dreams, five scriptural fulfillments, five women in the genealogy, five mentions of Jesus as Messiah, and a subsequent five major discourses delivered by Jesus (starting with the Sermon on the Mount at chapters 5-7, then sermons delivered in chapters 10-11, 13, 18-19, and 24-25).

The genealogies that accompany each account, the discrepancies between which have long provoked theological debate and downright skepticism from non-believers, are also constructed for certain persuasive purposes.  Borg and Crossan “see those genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke as countergenealogies to that of Caesar Augustus” (96).

Borg and Crossan repeatedly insist that their thought experiment is not offered as an exercise in “pointing out ‘contradictions,’ as debunkers of the stories often due.  In their minds, the differences mean the stories are fabrications, made-up tales unworthy of serious attention.  This is not our point at all.  Rather, paying attention to the distinctiveness and details of the nativity stories is how we enter into the possibility of understanding what they meant in the first century” (23-24).  But the extent to which they press their case will still unnerve many believers, especially those persuaded that the two birth accounts can be easily harmonized.  An example is a brief detour that seems to imply a radical retelling of Jesus’ birth as inflected through the event of the Roman ransacking of the Sepphoris region in 4 BCE:

Jesus grew up in Nazareth after 4 BCE, so this is our claim.  The major event in his village’s life was the day the Romans came.  As he grew up toward Luke’s coming of age at twelve, he could not not have heard, again and again and again, about the day of the Romans – who had escaped and who had not, who had lived and who had died.  The Romans were not some distant mythological beings; they were soldiers who had devastated Nazareth’s backyard around the time of his birth.  So this is how we imagine, as close to history as possible, what his actual coming-of-age might have entailed.

One day, when he was old enough, Mary took Jesus up to the top of the Nazareth ridge.  It was springtime, the breeze had cleared the air, and the wildflowers were already everywhere.  Across the valley, Sepphoris gleamed white on its green hill.  “We knew they were coming,” Mary said, “but your father had not come home.  So we waited after the others were gone.  Then we heard the noise, and the earth trembled a little.  We did too, but your father had still not come home.  Finally, we saw the dust and we had to flee, but your father never came home.  I brought you up here today so you will always remember that day we lost him and what little else we had.  We lived, yes, but with these questions.  Why did God not defend those who defended God?  Where was God that day the Romans came?”  [pgs. 77-78]

The account is sure to infuriate, though in explaining away a virgin birth scenario at least Borg and Crossan do not slip into the more explosive accounts offered by the first opponents of Christianity (that Mary was raped by a Roman soldier or that Jesus was otherwise an illegitimate child, both stories insinuated by Celsus in his ancient anti-Christian polemic On the True Doctrine).

Others will rebel against the definitive refusal by Borg and Crossan to entertain the factual possibility of a Roman worldwide census – they categorically rule out that part of the Luke account as wildly improbable (there was a regional census organized by Quirinius, they agree, but the timing is wrong and it would have come ten years too late to anticipate Jesus’ birth, Joseph wouldn’t have been living in the right region, citizens were not typically required by Rome to return to their birthplaces but were taxed and counted where they lived and worked, and the way the census is made to get Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem doesn’t square with how a Roman census/taxation would have worked).  But, again, for B/C the issue of factual (in)accuracy is beside the point.  The real power of the census story is that “Jesus and earliest Christianity are… historically located, imperially dated, and cosmically significant events” (149).

The value of the thought experiment this little book performs arrives in the reading of the Christian creed it finally unfolds, which I find compelling.  Contrasting Rome and Christianity, the authors note:

The terrible truth is that our world has never established peace through victory.  Victory establishes not peace, but lull.  Thereafter, violence returns once again, and always worse than before.  And it is that escalator violence that then endangers our world.  The four-week period of Advent before Christmas… are times of penance and life change for Christians…  We [have] suggested that [the Easter-season] Lent was a penance time for having been in the wrong procession and a preparation time for moving over to the right one by Palm Sunday.  That day’s violent procession of the horse-mounted Pilate and his soldiers was contrasted with the nonviolent procession of the donkey-mounted Jesus and his companions.  We asked:  in which procession would we have walked then and in which do we walk now?  We face a similar choice each Christmas…  Do we think that peace on earth comes from Caesar or Christ?  Do we think it comes through violent victory or nonviolent justice?  Advent, like Lent, is about a choice of how to live personally and individually, nationally and internationally. [168]

Or, as they put it in closing the book:  “Both personal and political transformation… require our participation.  God will not change us as individuals without our participation, and God will not change the world without our participation” (242).


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