Friday, December 18, 2009

The ancient language of story (Sunday Reflections for December 20, 2009)

This time of year the various educational networks (History Channel, PBS, National Geographic) often show programs dealing with “what really happened” when Jesus was born. These types of shows have been popular for the last twenty years or so because it’s now almost universally recognized that the biblical stories of Jesus’ birth need some explaining. They can’t be taken at face value.

Here are a few of the more obvious issues. While there are four gospels only two of them, Matthew and Luke, tell what we would call “Christmas stories.” Mark, the earliest gospel, says nothing at all about Jesus’ birth. Both Jesus and John the Baptist appear as adults right off the bat. John, the last gospel written, follows Mark’s example. It does, however, begin with its famous prologue, a theological and even poetic reflection on Jesus’ coming into the world (“In the beginning was the word . . . “).

Chronologically, Matthew and Luke were written between Mark and John at about the same time, though in different places and for different communities. When comparing their stories of Jesus’ birth, what becomes most noticeable is that they have almost nothing in common with each other. Here are just a few examples.

In Luke, Mary gets the news of Jesus’ impending birth from an angel, while in Matthew it’s Joseph that is told. In Luke, Mary and Joseph live in Nazareth and travel to Bethlehem. In Matthew, they live in Bethlehem and later move to Nazareth. Luke has a fairly long section about the actual birth, focusing on the angelic announcement to the shepherds. Matthew, however, simply reports the event (no shepherds) but then tells of a visit by foreign astrologers “led by a star, “ with the implication it may have occurred as much as two years after Jesus’ birth. The bottom line is that, while involving the same three primary characters and set in the same location, these are two very different stories.

Then there are the parts of the stories that raise eyebrows. Not all of these involve the miraculous. Historians agree, for instance, that the census as Luke reports it is preposterous. Ordering everyone to their ancestral home to be counted would accomplish nothing except total chaos. Imperial “head counts” did happen but not like that. For Luke this is obviously a “plot device.”

In the miracle department, there is Matthew’s howler of the moving star. Stars, of course, don’t move, not as Matthew implies. Very likely the natural phenomenon in mind here is a comet. It does “appear” for a relatively short time (weeks) and gradually changes position in the night sky until it’s no longer visible. The notion that such an object could be “followed” to a particular town is fantastic. Again, we have a plot devise for moving characters in a story.

Then, of course, there is the most controversial part of the story, the virgin birth. Matthew and Luke are the only ones that mention this (including Paul, who wrote earlier than the gospels and says almost nothing biographically about Jesus’ life). The Isaiah passage Matthew quotes to explain this event is now recognized as a mistranslation of a Hebrew word which actually means “young woman” (the gospel writers all seemed to use the Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint).

Jesus’ “virgin birth” is a good example, however, for understanding part of what the gospel writers are up to. The literature of the ancient world was filled with stories of virgin births. They were not everyday occurrences, however, but always involved special people like great heroes and rulers. Ancient people knew virgins didn’t give birth except in stories.

When Matthew and Luke announce that Mary is a virgin, this would have been an immediate signal to their readers and listeners of what kind of person this Jesus is going to be. These writers probably thought this was important to include because in most other respects Jesus is remarkably ordinary: not royalty, not a victorious general, but an itinerant peasant preacher. Especially for gentiles unfamiliar with Jewish tradition, this detail would have provided a bridge into a literary world they understood very well. In an empire of multiple nationalities and cultures, stories were a universal language.

Our obsession with the “fantastic” aspects of these stories—whether they occurred and how they could have occurred—would have puzzled ancient people. For them this would have been missing the forest for the trees. The purpose of stories was to convey cultural (which always included religious) values, meaning and traditions. They shaped people’s identity, made sense of the world in which they lived, and guided them in their choices and decisions. Stories rarely, if ever, were about telling “what happened” in our modern historical sense. Frankly, ancient people just didn’t care.

Matthew’s and Luke’s Christmas stories, like much of the Bible, invite us into a special world. It is not the world in which we live, yet that was also true for these stories' original ancient hearers. In the daily lives of people of the Roman world, virgins did not give birth, angels did not appear, stars did not move, animals did not speak, a loaf of bread did not feed thousands. Ancient people did hear about such things in stories though. They listened carefully and pondered, like Mary, what these things might mean.

Today our scientific knowledge can confuse us when we try to apply it to everything, thinking it’s the only lens through which to see the world and our lives. The Bible’s stories ask us to put our scientific rationality on hold for a moment, but not because science is wrong. Rather these stories speak to us in a different language, opening our ears and eyes to a different world, to a different kind of truth and value. They use extraordinary events to help us see the love of God hidden in the ordinariness of our daily lives.


Ray Graumlich said...

Doug, really nice choice of illustrations!

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Mary Tabata said...

Hi Doug,

I love this post. I was a TA for "Introduction to the World of the New Testament" which was more world than the New Testament, and we used a lot of ancient texts that would have been contemporaries of the gospel stories, and predecessors of them. It always blew the minds of the inerrancy kids and we got a lot of negative feedback over how we taught the nativity stories, which during the fall was always before finals and before Christmas. I appreciate your lifting this up for all of us.

In my family, we've explained to the kids that the Wise Men shouldn't start out in the Nativity scene. They get there later. :)