December 28, 2013
This is the sixth and last of a series of posts on the Christmas story in the gospels. The first one concerned Matthew’s account, the second concerned Mark’s account, the third and fourth concerned Luke’s account, and the fifth concerned John’s account.
I want to share some afterthoughts on the four stories of the coming of Jesus told to us in the gospels. I have been reading them this Christmas season one by one, trying to avoid their collapsing into one story but instead noticing their individuality. Different they are, and not easily reconciled into one narrative.
(1) Only two of the accounts, Matthew and Luke, have Nativity stories. Both tell of the birth of a child to Mary, a virgin, in Bethlehem. In both, an angel appears to foretell of the birth. In one, however, the angel appears to Joseph in a dream. In the other, the angel, named as Gabriel, appears to Mary.
The geography is reversed in the two accounts. In Matthew, Mary and Joseph are residents of Bethlehem when the story opens. Mary gives birth there, presumably in her own home or in Joseph’s. There is no travel before the birth, no failure to find room at an inn, no stable, and no manger. After the birth they travel to Egypt, live there a few years, and return to Israel taking up residence in Nazareth to avoid notice: Nazareth may fulfill a Biblical prophecy, but it is their self-chosen version of a witness protection program.
In Luke, by contrast, Mary and Joseph are residents of Nazareth when the story opens. They travel to Bethlehem because there is the enrollment and taxation ordered by Caesar Augustus. In this account we do have no room at the inn, the stable and the manger. After the birth, Mary, Joseph and Jesus return to Nazareth, their home, to live. There is no sojourn in Egypt.
(2) The story in Luke is triumphant and celebratory – the happiest of birth days. Angels announce the birth. Shepherds – the humblest of souls — crowd round to celebrate it, along with farm animals. The story in Matthew, by contrast, is tinged with violence and fear. Wise men — foreign persons of status — attend the baby. Herod learns of the birth, and lays plans to kill the baby. When he is frustrated in early days because the wise men return by another route, he orders all the young male babies in Bethlehem to be slain.
In Jose Saramago’s retelling in The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (1991, translation 1994), Joseph is haunted the rest of his life by guilt at having failed to warn others in Bethlehem of what was to come while having rescued his son from the slaughter by escaping to Egypt. Perhaps we all pass too quickly over the slaughter of the innocents when we celebrate Jesus’s birthday. (Was this, too, part of God’s plan?)
(3) In neither Matthew nor Luke is there any mention of the miraculous birth in the story that follows. It is as if the miraculous birth (however and wherever it happened) never happened. No one seems to have any remembrance of the miracle birth. Jesus has to start over in establishing himself as the Messiah.
(4) The story of John the Baptist is the common element across the four gospels. It is the beginning of Jesus’s ministry in each of the four tellings. It is not just a common event, but an essential common event in a way that the miraculous birth is not. There are important differences among the four accounts of John the Baptist baptizing Jesus, but it is easier to combine these four stories into one, with different details supplied from each, than it is to combine the two nativity stories into one overarching narrative. For me, the most important difference concerns whether (as in the first three) Jesus first was driven into the wilderness to be tempted and then began gathering his disciples, or whether (as in John) he drew disciples first gathered by John when John tells them that Jesus is the Lamb of God.
(5) Most of us know just one story of a man who is born of a woman and a God. That man is Jesus, and we know that story from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Were we alive two thousand years ago (or more) we would know many such stories. In religions of the ancient world, there were often many gods, not just one, and those gods and goddesses frequently intruded into the affairs of human beings. There were many stories of special people who had one god and one human as parents. Such people often had special power or favor or both. One example: Achilles, the most feared warrior for the Greeks in the story of the Iliad, has Thetis the nymph for a mother; she dips him in the river Styx to make him invulnerable except for the heel by which she held him.
Nearly every Roman emperor came to have a story that accorded him god-status on the proclamation that he himself was descended from a god. Imagine how a story of Jesus having God for a father would have struck the powers that be. Imagine what a threat that would make Jesus. Here, certainly, was a pretender to the same earthly power as the emperor.
But Jesus came to proclaim another kind of kingdom.