Christmas stories

Monthly Bible Study last night, on the Nativity stories in Matthew and Luke, which were printed out in parallel columns. Quite tense at times: some people become uncomfortable when questions are raised about whether it really matters if we can identify Bethlehem as the exact place of Jesus’ birth, or whether it is actually true that Joseph was obliged to go there to be registered, rather than be registered in Nazareth, in accordance with what seems to have been normal Roman practice.

It’s a heavy responsibility to appear to cast doubt on what some think of as historical supports for their faith, but the stories can be made incomparably richer if we read them in the light of the evangelists’ strategic aims: to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah. These aims are realised with different emphases: Matthew presents Jesus as the new Moses, Luke as the heir of David.

Anyone care to share experience of striking the right balance between encouraging people to cast out into the deep and comforting and affirming those who want to hug the shore?


6 responses to “Christmas stories

  1. A couple of years ago I started reading McLaren, Spong and Borg, amongst others. The direction of (post-)modern scholarly thought certainly can be scary for those of traditional background (and none more-so than me), but I now align myself with those undertaking honest research into scripture rather than those who would bury head in sand and set the book as their start-point for a twisted world-view.

    It does make going to christmas carol services difficult, though. Two Christmases back, we had a full-on set of readings including a nativity piece which unified the two stories such that there was the Census, the Inn, angel, shepherds and lots of angels, wise men and gifts, Herod and flight into Egypt etc, with a light-hearted spin for the sake of humour thrown in. All the while I was sitting there thinking “didn’t really happen like this at all!”, fidgeting uncomfortably in my seat (while folks around chuckled at the word-play).

    I suppose this is why I (deeply) appreciate exposition that caters for multiple positions of belief; that concentrates on the truths of mystery leaving the underlying myth as ambiguous as it really is. Perhaps that is the definitive feeling of Christmas: suspension of literalism as a vehicle to experiencing God?

  2. rosemaryhannah

    I don’t think I would start biblical criticism with the Christmas stories. Or, come to that, want to equate Spong with a good Biblical critic. I don’t hold the party line in the way Tom Wright does, but he is BY Far a better scholar than Spong.

    We’ve got a lot of things mixed here.

    There are the kind of critical comments that feed into history, such as the comments on Roman censuses. Luke’s census is not a good historical bet. And, interestingly, Luke’s OWN narrative shoots the ‘heir of David’ firmly in the foot. What we have is (IMHO) infinitely more complex in terms of history and of theology. IF I were writing a narrative and was willing to stretch the truth in order to make Davidic theology, I would most certainly have quietly suppressed the Annunciation.

    But then we have a heavily reported birth in Bethlehem – I cannot say that I buy the argument that because there was a Davidic link to Bethlehem both Matthew and Luke separately, and with no collusion, decided to shift Jesus’s birth there. It looks far more to me as though he WAS born there, for whatever reason. If it were any other historic document that is that I would conclude. Biblical scholars are not always very good historians.

    Angels? There is an overwhelming critical vote for Biblical angels. That is to say, there is no doubt that angels are reported in moderately reliable texts – unless you want to buy the line that anything which does not fit the modern scientific view is IPSO FACTO impossible. I have no reasonable doubt that many biblical characters were firmly convinced they had seen angels.

    Herod? Do I in the 21st C. have any problem in believing in an unreported slaughter of children by a paranoid dictator? Post Mugabe? Post the bloody mess after the break up of Yugoslavia in Europe for pity’s sake? No, I fear not. It is all too historically plausible.

    But none of this is where I would start with Biblical criticism, because it is too highly emotionally charged. I would start with the OT, which would free things up a lot.

    and at Christmas, I would seize on John 1 – and preach it where ever and whenever I got the chance and yes, children DO warm to it.

  3. Thank you for these thoughtful comments. I agree, Tim, that postmodernism can be scary, but it does offer a way of looking at scripture and theology which can be liberating. I don’t buy the extreme relativism of some postmodern approaches, but by making us aware of the limitations of language and the difficulty of being objective about very much, it can prepare us to read scripture provisionally, i.e., with humility before the mystery which language cannot encompass, and openness towards new insights.

    There was no need, however, to feel uncomfortable during that carol service. Story, symbol, image and metaphor and can still speak to us powerfully about the significance of the Nativity and the Incarnation. All to the good if we can underpin belief with historical evidence, but, as you rightly conclude, Rosemary, it is the Bible itself, with its fidelity to a promise and a vision, that frees us from anxieties about accuracy in detail.

  4. Rosemary: perhaps Spong wouldn’t be so bad if viewed as pop-theology with a tendency to ramble in an angry fashion. I wouldn’t claim to be much of a theologian but that much at least I can identify in his work.

    Have you read Crossan Jesus: a revolutionary biography? I recall an interesting thought in there: that rather than Mark omitting a birth narrative, it’s Matthew and Luke’s bothering to include anything that’s interesting. And as I recall, he says they exist to establish Jesus as “a successor to Moses” and “a better John than John the Baptist”.

    Eammon: yes there are gracious and charitable ways to recover from hard-hitting history to myth, indeed.

  5. Especially for Anglicans, Tim, if we agree with Bishop Chane of Washington about ‘respectful diversity and generous orthodoxy’, which seems to me to sum up perfectly the tone and spirit of the Anglican way.

  6. rosemaryhannah

    Well yes, and Crossan is respectable scholar. I fear I find Spong too, well, mushy – not clear thinking enough.

    The idea that there is no omission of birth narratives in Mark, and that their presence in Matthew and Luke is the oddity is not new (it was well established by the late 60s!) but new research calling attention to the fact that the gospels are, in fact, biographies like other ancient biographies should not be ignored.

    Let me, as a biographer, point out that telling a story, and deliberately telling it to bring out that one perceives as the truth, does not mean one is inventing the facts. It just means one is a biographer like other biographers.

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