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How to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

Christmas now and then

The true meaning of Christmas—as a Christian rather than a pagan celebration—is represented in the popular imagination most commonly by the serene tableau of the radiant baby Jesus in a manger, surrounded by his parents, a few inquisitive cherubs, rustic shepherds, and resplendent wise men, proffering their fabled gifts. Children’s nativity plays introduce a slight blur of movement and some noisy singing, but otherwise it is an overwhelmingly static moment—an ensemble of devout medieval personages, a clumsy arrangement of wooden figures—fixing the presence of the incarnate God. Static and comforting. The fact that representations of the biblical scene are often now banned from public places ought to release a whiff of subversion into the festive air, but even that caustic and disturbing smell is likely to be masked by the heady, sweet traditional scents of Christmas—mulled wine, chestnuts roasting on an open fire, sage and onion stuffing oozing from the end of the turkey.

But the Christmas story as it is told in Matthew and Luke is not static. Nor is it particularly comforting. It is a critical episode in a larger tragicomic narrative about the fate of first century Israel. It entertains no salvation for the nations. They feature either as the enemy from which Israel must be delivered or as amazed onlookers who can only glorify God for what he has done on behalf of his people. The Christmas story has very little to do directly with the modern “mythology” of a personal Lord and Saviour. That may seem a mean-spirited, Scrooge-like thing to say, but it has to be said.

Let me hurriedly summarize the evidence…

Zechariah is told by Gabriel that John “will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God” (Lk. 1:16). The quotation from Malachi 4:6 that follows makes it clear that John’s purpose is to call Israel to repentance before the “great and awesome day” of God’s judgment against his people comes—a day of fire, when the arrogant and evildoers will be burnt like stubble (Mal. 4:1). The imagery is picked up in the account of John’s ministry (Lk. 3:9, 16-17).

When the angel tells Joseph in a dream that Mary’s son will “save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21), he means that he will save Israel from the same sins that Malachi catalogues and from the same destruction of which he warns. There is no reference to Gentiles here.

Jesus is wrapped in “swaddling cloths” (Lk. 2:7) because he represented righteous Israel—in contrast to Ezekiel’s description of sinful Jerusalem: “And as for your birth, on the day you were born your cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor wrapped in swaddling cloths” (Ezek. 16:4).

The child “Immanuel” in Isaiah is a sign that God will be with his people to deliver them when the Assyrians invade (Is. 7:10-8:10; cf. Matt. 1:23). This is the significance of Jesus’ conception by the Holy Spirit: it is not a means of incarnation but a sign of the presence of YHWH in the midst of his people at a time of eschatological crisis.

The calling of God’s “son” out of Egypt invokes the exodus narrative (Matt. 2:15). Jesus embodies in himself the narrative of Israel’s journey from slavery under pagan rule to a new creation existence in fulfilment of the promise to Abraham.

When Jesus is taken to be presented before the Lord in the temple, the narrative of Israel’s salvation is reinforced, first by Simeon, who announces that the coming salvation will be seen by the nations and will result in “glory to your people Israel”; and then by the prophetess Anna, who speaks of Jesus to “all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Lk. 2:22-38). No personal salvation here, I’m afraid. It may be an eventual implication, but it’s not what the story is about.

Jesus will be king over Israel, in the line of David: “And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Lk. 1:32-33). The magi come looking for a new born king of the Jews, whose star they had seen—perhaps a timely conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation of Pisces (Matt. 2:2).

When many nations are assembled against Jerusalem, a “ruler in Israel” will come from Bethlehem, who will “gather the rest of his brothers” and deliver his people from the invader, and the “remnant of Jacob” will be established amongst the nations (Mic. 4:11-5:9; cf. Matt. 2:6). Herod had the male infants of Bethlehem slaughtered not because he feared the arrival of a personal saviour but because he believed his rule over Israel was threatened.

Mary celebrates the God who saves Israel, who brings down the rich and powerful (in Israel) and raises up the humble and poor (in Israel); he has “helped his servant Israel” out of faithfulness to his promise to Abraham (Lk. 1:46-55). Likewise, Zechariah prophesies following the birth of John, saying that the God of Israel “has visited and redeemed his people” because of his covenant commitments to the descendants of Abraham. Israel will be delivered from the hand of its enemies in order to “serve him without fear” (Lk. 1:68-75).

Finally, the birth of Jesus in the city of David coincided with a registration of the whole empire ordered by Caesar Augustus (Lk. 2:1-7). The good news of Jesus’ birth as “Saviour” and “Lord”, of peace for those in Israel with whom God is pleased (Lk. 2:10-14), clashes with pronouncements concerning the birth of the divine Augustus, who was Son of God, Saviour, Lord, who had brought peace and prosperity to the empire.

So what’s the birth of Jesus all about? I would say this: the numerous interpretive details, mostly drawn from the scriptures, anticipate the destructive war against Rome of AD 66-70 and the extraordinary deliverance of an alternative community of Jews who confess that the true king over God’s people was neither Herod nor Caesar but Jesus.

Merry Christmas, everybody.

Comments

Andrew,

Fantastic!  Once again you demonstrate, well, the historical (and covenantal) context of the O&NT.  It is about Israel!  I believe this is one of the foremost issues facing Christianity.  The Church has completely lost the context of the Scriptures resulting in a complete distortion of its message, which continues to be fueled along by evangelicalism and futurism.  This distortion has affected every area of doctrine ranging from creation (YE and OE Creationism) in Genesis to NT eschatology (futurism) ending in the Revelation.

Merry Christmas to you too.

Andrew,

one critical comment

“So what’s the birth of Jesus all about? I would say this: the numerous interpretive details, mostly drawn from the scriptures, anticipate the destructive war against Rome of AD 66-70 and the extraordinary deliverance of an alternative community of Jews who confess that the true king over God’s people was neither Herod nor Caesar but Jesus.”

I would reword this as follows:

So what’s the birth of Jesus all about? I would say this: the numerous interpretive details, mostly drawn from the scriptures, anticipate the judgment against OC fleshly Israel by God via the Roman army in AD 66-70 and the extraordinary deliverance of an alternative community of Jews (spiritual Israel - Paul’s remnant) who confess that the true king over God’s people was neither Herod nor Caesar but Jesus.

:)

I tend to avoid the fleshly/spiritual distinction because it’s easily misunderstood as a material/immaterial distinction. The church is not less earthly or worldly or material than Israel. It is just as much a historical community called to be new creation, with the living God actively present at its heart. The difference is that it is subject to a law of the Spirit which gives life rather than a Law that condemns humanity’s fleshly—that is, sinful—existence. At least, that’s how I see it. To be a Spirit-filled people is not quite the same as being a “spiritual” people.

Andrew,

I agree 100%!  I, like you (and Paul), do not use “flesh” as a reference to the physical.   Good clarifiication.

The same is true with Paul’s usage of “natural” in 1 Cor. 15:44

“It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.”

1 Cor. 15 is not a contrast of spiritual vs physical either.  Those who try to make 1 Cor.15 about a physical bodily resurrection merely import that same misunderstanding into this text, which seems strange because one merely needs to move back 13 chapters to chapter 2 of 1 Cor. where Paul defines the ”natural”, and he does’t connect it to the physical.

What I don’t understand is since you understand the distinction is not material/immaterial but the ”subject to a law of the Spirit which gives life rather than a Law that condemns humanity’s fleshly—that is, sinful—existence”, why do you then turn around and make the resurrection (and the new heaven and earth etc) physical?

May I suggest this article to you?  It’s a bit long, but well worth the read.

http://www.newcreationministries.tv/Articles/languageofcreation.htm

Good stuff, thanks.  So did the gospel authors write these interpretive details, drawn from the Scriptures, into the story because they sensed a war on the horizon?  Were the gospels written to Israel as a sort of last call?  If so, and we’ve identified parts of the birth narrative story written as interpretive details/clues left by the authors to Jews with ears to hear, then which parts of the story were real history, i.e. that actually happened.

This is obviously difficult and really needs to be considered on a case by case basis. The fact that Matthew and Luke highlighted these interpretive links to the Old Testament does not in itself mean that the events did not happen. There is a whole spectrum of literary possibilities between factual narration and fiction—it does not have to be simply one or the other.

Nor should we assume that Matthew and Luke were solely responsible for the interpretative links. Conceivably they go back to Mary or Zechariah. Perhaps the tradition would have shown a much more fluid relation between event and scriptural interpretation that only gets fixed definitively by the evangelists.

We also tend to overread the miraculous details. For example, it was not the star that guided the wise men to Bethlehem but Herod and his scribes. The magi had seen a star that they interpreted to mean the birth of a king in Judah and went to the obvioius place to look for him—Jerusalem. Here they made enquiries and were directed to Bethlehem.

Of course, it remains possible to argue that events such as the virgin conception or the journey into Egypt were fabricated in order to convince people that Jesus’ birth was predicted in scripture. We can probably pick at these arguments indefinitely, which is why I think the more important historical question is: What was the early community trying to say by means of these texts?

 

From our flash mob nativity play, performed on Sunday 18th December, unrehearsed. Age of cast: 3-4 years.  Number of actors - about 15. Joseph, Mary and Donkey await the appearance of baby Jesus (younger sister of Mary, about to be handed up to the stage). Artistic advisor - me;  Director - my wife, (I but couldn’t upload her image).

Immanuel - because Jesus was the word who became flesh and dwelt among us - John 1:14. Jesus is conceived of the Spirit and not by human means - Matthew 1:19-20. He will save his people from their sins - both Israel and Gentiles (in the light of the ensuing narrative) - Matthew 1:21.

The exodus narratiive is invoked because the story was being fulfilled in Jesus himself - Matthew 2:15, 26:18-28. Jesus is presented at the temple; don’t be afraid, you are included in this salvation - Luke 2:32. The old Jerusalem is redeemed for the new Jerusalem - Luke 2:38; Hebrews 12:22, Revelation 21:2 etc.

The rule of David is to extend through Jesus throughout the earth - Isaiah 55:3 -5. Mary celebrates, and Zechariah prophesies the redemption of his people (see above) - which includes the redemption of their story as it unwound from the promises of Abraham encompassing the whole earth -  the renewal of creation.

All these things are wonderfully presented and anticipated in the birth of Jesus - God’s provision for us all, which we remember in the nativity celebrations, and Jesus becomes a living reality today for all who (personally) believe in him.

 

 

 

Peter, if you tried uploading pictures, I’m afraid it doesn’t work for comments. Sorry.

If you really must read the rest of the New Testament and a good part of later Christian thought into the birth narratives, that’s up to you. I was just trying to read what was there.

It’s possible that Simeon has in mind the extension of salvation to the Gentiles, but we are told that he is waiting for the “consolation of Israel” (2:25), and what he actually says is that the salvation of Israel (that is all that has been mentioned so far in Luke) has been prepared in the “presence of all peoples” and is for “revelation to the nations”. That looks to me as though he is saying that the nations will see this salvation and it will result in glory for Israel. But you are welcome to differ. It’s Christmas after all.

I would also say that there is nothing in the synoptic Gospels that pushes us to find a universal frame of reference in the birth narratives. Jesus does not speak of the salvation of the Gentiles—the focus is almost entirely, if not entirely, on the question of Israel’s salvation. Even in the early chapters of Acts, as far as I recall, there is no recourse to passages in Isaiah that suggest that the nations might eventually be embraced in the worship of Israel’s God. That is a belated realization.

Of course, the inclusion of Gentiles in the covenant community is an eventual development in the story. My point—as I’ve said many times before—is simply that a narrative-historical reading ought to resist the temptation to read the end of the story back into its beginning. It’s understandable that the Gentile church wants to claim the whole New Testament for itself, but that is not how it works.

The real point of the contribution was the pictures - without which the comment lacks point. It was meant to be slightly less than serious. I think some of your textual associatons are far-fetched - eg non-swaddling clothes in Ezekiel, swaddling clothes in Matthew. All raise issues which are worth discussing.

I agree with your final paragraph, except its conclusion. I’m simply trying to illustrate how, on your terms, the story does not lead to your conclusions. You miss key points I have raised which, I realise from the many posts I have been reviewing, you tend to sidestep, or ignore altogether, or ridicule.

We are both reading into the story from a later vantage point. It’s disingenous to say that you are providing the only interpretation which is true to the intentions of the original texts and their writers or their communities.

I think the birth narratives have to be understood from the perspective of how the whole story developed - within the bible and beyond it. This includes the inclusion of the Gentiles as “his people”, and the precise meaning of the redemption of Jerusalem. (What exactly does that mean, in context?). 

Still, it’s quite interesting to read what you come up with. 

Never mind - have a happy Christmas anyway!

Peter, I appreciate the eirenic response. I would just point out, though, for the record, that I don’t think I am “providing the only interpretation which true to the intentions of the original texts and their writers or their communities” (my emphasis). There are different ways of reading the texts, to be sure, even within a narrative-historical approach. But I do think that much of what passes for biblical interpretation, particularly at the popular level, amounts to a conceptual mistranslation of the narratives; and I think that a church that claims to be biblical really needs to wrestle much more seriously with that critique.