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Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Christmas Stories

Mainline biblical scholars tend to regard the Christmas stories more as theology than history. This is largely because of the considerable differences between the narratives found in Matthew and Luke. For example, according to Matthew Mary and Joseph lived in Bethlehem and Jesus was born at home, whereas in Luke they lived in Nazareth and traveled to Bethlehem for a census and Jesus is born in a stable. Or again, in Matthew Joseph, Mary, and Jesus flee to Egypt because Herod the Great orders the killing of all male infants under the age of two in Bethlehem, and after all is safe, settle in Nazareth; by contrast, in Luke, Jesus and his family simply return home to Nazareth after his birth. Finally, in Luke Jesus is visited by shepherds, whereas in Matthew he is visited by the magi (i.e., the wise men).

That said, Matthew and Luke do not disagree on all of the facts. For example, they agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and grew up in Nazareth. They also agree that Mary and Joseph were engaged, not married, when Jesus was born. And they agree that Jesus was a descendant of King David, even though they trace the lineage through different genealogies.

Nevertheless, the differences between the two accounts have led most mainline scholars to argue that what we find in Matthew and Luke is mostly fiction. For example, they argue that Matthew and Luke have Jesus born in Bethlehem for theological reasons, not historical ones, in order that a prophecy in the book of Micah, which predicted that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, would be seen as fulfilled. In other words, Matthew and Luke didn't base their birth narratives on historical evidence but rather on a theological conviction that the Messiah had to be born in Bethlehem.

This argument, although widely held, strikes me as a case of special pleading, however. Why? Because most, if not all, first century "messiahs" didn't come from Bethlehem. In fact, most of their birthplaces are unknown:
  • Simon of Peraea (c. 4 BCE), a former slave of Herod the Great, who rebelled and was killed by the Romans (birthplace = unknown)
  • Athronges (c. 4–2? BCE), a shepherd turned leader of a rebellion with his four brothers against Herod Archelaus and the Romans after proclaiming himself the Messiah (birthplace = unknown)
  • Judas of Galilee (6 CE), Judas led a violent resistance to the census imposed for Roman tax purposes by Quirinius in Iudaea Province around 6 CE (birthplace = Gamala in Gaulonitis)
  • Menahem ben Judah (?), the son or grandson of Judas of Galilee, was a leader of the Sicarii (birthplace = unknown)
  • Theudas (?–46 CE), a Jewish rebel of the 1st century CE, at some point between 44 and 46 CE (birthplace = unknown)
  • John of Gischala (? after 70), was a leader of the Jewish revolt against the Romans in the First Jewish-Roman War, and played a part in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE (birthplace = Gush Halav)
  • Simon bar Kokhba (also: Bar Kosiba) (?– died c. 135) (birthplace = unknown)
This suggests that hailing from Bethlehem wasn't a necessary requirement for messiahship in the eyes of most first century Jews and, coupled with the fact that two independent sources (material unique to Matthew and material unique to Luke), may help explain why even the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar, hardly the bastion of conservatism, hesitate to entirely write-off the claim that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Indeed, they voted the passage in Matthew that indicates Jesus was born in Bethlehem as gray, not black:
Jesus was born at Bethlehem, Judea, when Herod was king (Matthew 2:1)
Although the narrative passages the Jesus Seminar colored gray can be interpreted in different ways, essentially they indicate that although something has probably been lost in the transmission, they still might contain a trace of history. With regards to Matthew 2:1, the "gray" vote indicates that some members of the Jesus Seminar thought it possible that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.

An explanation that is just as plausible and parsimonious is that, for whatever reason, Jesus was born in Bethlehem but raised in Nazareth, and this led Matthew and Luke construct infancy narratives that accounted for this. How they did so differed, but that doesn't mean there isn't some traces of history in their accounts. In fact, I also think it likely that Mary and Joseph were engaged, and not married, when Jesus was born. Of course, all this doesn't challenge the claim that the Christmas stories contain less history than they do theology, but it also doesn't mean they we have to throw the baby out with the bathwater either (or maybe the baby out with the straw in this case).

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