Levellers

Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

So, This is Christmas: Theological Emphases in the Gospel Infancy Narratives

The Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke are, in my view, interwoven mixtures of historical accounts (“history remembered” in Marcus Borg’s terms) and mythical or metaphorical interpretations of those events. The Virgin Birth aside, it is not easy to separate out historical fact from what we might, with Robert Gundry, call the Evangelists’ midrash on these events. The visit of the Magi seems very unlikely historically, for instance, but King Herod the Great’s slaughter of the innocents (all boy children two and under in Bethlehem) is completely in character: he killed several of his own sons and Bethlehem was small enough that such a slaughter could have totalled 10-15 kids, small enough to keep from imperial records. But if the slaughter of the innocents is “history remembered,” it needs a motivator and the visit of of the Magi is the only option given in our sources.

Or take Luke’s narrative: Empires, ancient and modern, conduct censuses of their occupied territories in order to more efficiently tax and oppress them. But, as E. P. Sanders points out, a census in which each man was sent back to his ancestral home town would disrupt the entire empire and surely be a source of controversy–and therefore likely to have been mentioned in secular histories of the day. But there is no such census mentioned, throwing doubt on the historical accuracy of Luke’s account. Further, why would Mary, so late in her pregnancy, accompany Joseph back to Bethlehem? Wouldn’t staying in Nazareth with relatives and midwives while Joseph took care of the census have made more sense? Yet, as Richard Cassidy, S.J. writes in his Jesus, Politics and Society, Luke’s knowledge of “Empire history” is extensive. He gives dates and times that he expects his, largely Gentile, audience to know and if his narrative were wildly inaccurate or implausible, it would undermine his apologetic/evangelistic purposes. A modern historian who is open to the miraculous, but is not pre-committed to historical inerrancy, must make difficult judgment calls–hemmed about with many a “maybe.”\

Fortunately, our task is easier. The strong theological themes of these stories are much easier to detect–and these themes are where the Evangelists themselves place their emphases.

Matthew’s Account (Chaps. 1-2): Written to a largely Jewish-Christian audience (perhaps in Syria?), throughout the Gospel, Matthew presents Jesus as the fulfillment of all of Israel’s hopes–now amazingly open to Gentiles, too. The book of the genealogy of Jesus Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham (1:1). More than any other New Testament writing, Matthew refers to Jesus as “Son of David,” a Messianic claim–and specifically a claim that Jesus is a King-Messiah and not the “priestly Messiah” of some Jewish hopes. Although Matthew’s account will re-define “Messiah” in ways that are nonviolent rather than military, there is no escaping the challenge in such claims to Roman rule–or the rule of client kings like the Herods. The opening line is revolutionary. (The Gospel will also present Jesus as a “new Moses” giving new Torah. Matthew’s narrative, as almost all commentaries mention, is structured around 5 major teaching blocks, paralleling the 5 Books of Moses.)
Next, Matthew uses a carefully crafted genealogy to prove his opening claim. Using some “fuzzy math,” Matthew concludes in 1:16-17, And Jacob begat Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Messiah. So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to the Messiah fourteen generations. 14–twice the holy number 7, shows completeness–even if Matthew has to skip some people and move others to get his numbers right. The point is that Jesus was born with the right lineage and just the right time to be the Messiah.
Now, anyone who has spent any time reading biblical genealogies knows that they seldom mention women. In that very patriarchal society women were seldom mentioned at all–men were seen as the actors in society and history. But Matthew’s genealogy includes 4 women (in addition to Jesus’ mother, Mary) who each played pivotal roles in Israel’s history. Why are these women named? There have been 4 major reasons given in church history and each has something to recommend it, in my view.

  1. The women were notorious sinners and foreshadowed Jesus’ role as savior of sinners. This was proposed as early as St. Jerome’s commentary on Matthew. Some have even seen this as a rebuttal to the ancient Jewish anti-Christian polemic that claimed Mary was an adulteress and Jesus her bastard son. But although this cannot be ruled out, I am not certain Matthew’s readers would have instantly understood these women as sinners: Tamar seduces her father-in-law as a pretended prostitute, but this is because her father-in-law refuses to follow the levirate marriage custom of giving her to another of his sons. Genesis portrays her actions as acts of faith that perpetuated her deceased husband’s lineage. Rahab had been a prostitute, but the book of Joshua understands her as a convert whose actions in hiding the Jewish spies in Jericho–though treasonous from the viewpoint of Jericho–are considered righteous. Ruth, Moabite convert to Judaism and grandmother to King David, certainly seems to have acted irregularly in “uncovering Boaz’ feet” in the fields, but this led him to become kinsman redeemer for Ruth and Naomi. So, once more, Matt.’s readers likely would NOT have seen Ruth as a sinner. Even Bathsheba, whom Matthew refers to as “the wife of Uriah the Hittite,” was not always condemned in rabbinic literature since her adulterous actions led to the birth of Solomon. (Of course, from our contemporary standpoint, Bathsheba would be seen as David’s rape victim–refusing the king was a death sentence!–rather than a seductress at all!) So, while this first reason for the women’s inclusion cannot be entirely dismissed (as Raymond Brown seems to), I don’t think this is the major reason.
  2. The women represented foreigners, thus foreshadowing the gospel mission to the Gentiles. This view was first popularized by Martin Luther. The Bible does identify Rahab as a Canaanite and seems to imply this about Tamar as well. Ruth is a Moabite and Bathsheba is the wife of Uriah the Hittite, even if her own nationality is never mentioned. Thus, Matthew not only indicates that Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, has Gentiles in his ancestry, but shows that Gentiles are involved in the heart of Israel’s redemptive history.
  3. There was something unusual, even scandalous, involving each woman’s pregnancy. Tamar’s pregnancy by Judah was certainly scandalous, though Judah pronounces her “more righteous” than he was in securing her dead husband’s lineage.We are not told the circumstances of Rahab’s marriage to Salmon, but the fact that she was a former Canaanite prostitute makes that marriage and subsequent pregnancy scandalous. We have already noted the irregularity behind Ruth’s union with Boaz and Bathsheba’s pregnancy by David (and the subsequent royal murder of Uriah) was more than scandalous for the prophet Nathan and the authors/editors of 2 Samuel. It is therefore quite probable that Matthew is preparing his readers for the scandal that Joseph is not Jesus’ father. However, Jane Schaberg’s contention that Matthew is thereby hinting that Jesus is illegitimate and that the Virigin Birth story should not be understood literally, doesn’t really work. Why would Matthew try to subvert his own narrative?
  4. Each of these women took an active role in furthering redemptive history and was thus seen as an agent of the Holy Spirit. This has much to recommend it: Tamar schemed to get the offspring for her deceased husband that Judah owed her under levirate marriage. Rahab’s bold initiative in hiding the Israelite spies in Jericho enabled Israel to enter the Promised Land. Ruth’s initiatives kept Naomi from starving, led Boaz to become their “kinsman redeemer,” and secured the emergence of the Davidic line. Bathsheba’s manipulations at the time of David’s death led to the succession by Solomon–a move not seen as positive by all biblical writers, but seen as God-blessed by the dominant Jewish piety of Matthew’s era. However, the problem with this proposal is that Mary’s role in redemptive history in agreeing to birth the Messiah is related not by Matthew but by Luke! Mary is entirely passive in Matthew’s account–and the heroic role goes to Joseph for agreeing (after a dream) to wed Mary and bear the shame of the scandal that she was pregnant before their wedding (but not before their betrothal–binding as marriage in Jewish law).

In yesterday’s post, I already focused on the theological motifs of Messiahship in the angelic dream visitation to Joseph and in Matthew’s reworking of Isaiah’s prophecy. Originally the prophecy in Isaiah 7 was a sign to King Ahaz that he would soon not have to fear Assyrian invasion. Thus, the sign could not be the miracle birth of a far future Messiah. A young woman shall conceive and bear a son, named Immanuel, and before the kid is old enough to know right from wrong, he will “eat curds and honey” (i.e., have prosperity) because Assyria will be deserted. The young woman was most likely either Isaiah’s wife or the king’s. But Matthew deliberately uses the LXX Greek version of this story to make this a prediction of a future Virgin Birth. We would call this prooftexting. More generously, Matthew had a wider understanding of prophetic “fulfillment” than moderns and constantly saw Jesus’ life as mirroring previous patterns in Israel’s history.

For this same reason, Jesus must recreate Israel’s captivity in Egypt and subsequent Exodus. (“Out of Egypt have I called my son,” Hos. 11:1 was originally a reference to God’s calling of Israel from Egyptian captivity.) The Visit of the Magi doesn’t just set up this refugee flight, however, but also signals a major Matthean theme: Jesus the Jewish Messiah is recognized by Gentiles and rejected by many Jews. It is also not sentimental: The salvation Jesus brings is a threat to empire (including client kings like Herod) and they resist it with violence–including the brutal slaughter of the innocents. (Which, once again, Matthew sees echoed in biblical literature–Jeremiah’s lament over Babylon’s treatment of Ramah in Jer. 31:5.)

This is long enough for today’s post. In Matthew’s perspective, the major point of Christmas is not the Virgin Birth, though he indicates that Mary was a virgin and even “creatively reworks” a prophecy of Isaiah to justify it. But the emphases in Matthew are Jesus’ as the rightful Davidid Messiah, and fulfillment of Israel’s story and hopes–with surprising recognition by Gentiles and violent opposition by empire–Jewish and Gentile. The scandalous nature of Jesus’ birth is foreshadowed by other births in his ancestry (and Israel’s history) as is the Gentile mission. Tomorrow, we’ll see Luke’s even more revolutionary themes.

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December 25, 2006 - Posted by | Christmas, liberation, messiah

1 Comment

  1. I think the more important point is that the theological points are more important than the historical ones, which are not worth quibbling extensively over, though
    I’m puzzled why the magi would be so historically improbable and think that Mary’s going with Joseph may have been because she was not due, but rather it was the long journey that made her give birth prematurely.

    As for every person being made to go to their home, I’m guessing that that may have been some rhetorical convention whose precise literal referent is not important. What matters is that the authorities of the time were being manipulated by God so that ancient prophecy would become true.

    And I’m surprised you made no note that the no room for Mary and Joseph was likely due to them being rejected by family, not due to the inn being over-crowded.

    As for Isaiah, I’d follow Willis Beecher in pointing out that the prophets used literal concrete events as symbols or signal of the greater messianic promise. The NT then says that Jesus’ birth is the event that was foretold by Isaiah with the occurrence of his own wife. As such, I don’t think it is proper to call it prooftexting.

    Anyways, Merry Christmas!

    dlw

    Comment by DLW | December 28, 2006


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