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Monday, December 18, 2017

History in the Christmas Stories?

It's conventional wisdom among many biblical scholars that Christmas stories contain more theology than history. They believe this largely because of the differences between Matthew's and Luke's stories. For example, in Matthew Mary and Joseph live in Bethlehem and Jesus is born at home, whereas in Luke they live in Nazareth and travel to Bethlehem for a census where Jesus is born in a stable. And while in Matthew, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus flee to Egypt after Herod orders that all male infants two and under be killed and then settle in Nazareth after all is safe, 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. Nevertheless, Matthew and Luke do agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, grew up in Nazareth, and descended from King David although they trace the lineage through different genealogies.

These differences lead most mainline scholars to conclude that what we find in Matthew and Luke is mostly fiction. For example, most believe that Matthew and Luke say that Jesus was born in Bethlehem 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. However, this strikes me as a bit of stretch since most (but not all) first century "messiahs" didn't come from Bethlehem:
  • 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 may help explain why the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar, hardly the bastion of theological conservatism, didn't entirely write-off the claim that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. In fact, they voted the passage in Matthew, which states that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, as gray, not black, and although gray passages can be interpreted in different ways, they essentially indicate that although something has been lost in the transmission, they still contain a trace of history. 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.

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