Middle Voices

Web Links
Things Jack Wrote
Things others wrote
Fun Stuff
About Jack
Jack's Blog

Stories of Jesus and the Character of God

Chapter 1. The Infancy Stories

At Christmas we celebrate an event in past history. The secular world joins us and adds a bit about the love we share in the present. (How's that for a positive spin on the commercialization of Christmas.) But for the Church the real nub of Christmas is future history. A new world is possible. What the new possibilities are is quite vague, but Christians have a way of making them seem more definite. Christ, the Prince of Peace, will return. Earth will know him. Christmas is about this second coming of Jesus even more than the first coming.

The hope is not just for the distant future. Christmas carols tell us to hush the noise and cease the strife right now and to remember how Jesus in the stable identified with all the poor of the world. These are things that right now can pierce through the dark night and, make a way for the glory that is not-yet to start becoming already-now.

Infancy stories as a kind of fiction

This is the Christmas story that I first loved. This and much more is what Jesus in the manger, angels, shepherds, and magi can mean. I can understand if Christians get nervous when a new story that scholars tell takes most of the incidents and characters in the traditional stories of the baby Jesus out of history.

Text Box: Scholars have developed criteria for judging the historical reliability of stories in the Bible. One of these is the “criterion of dissimilarity.” This says that when a story or a saying goes against the grain of what the author and the author’s community believed, then it is unlikely to have been made up. It’s probably an actual memory that a community might have liked to deny but just couldn’t. An example of such a “dissimilar” story is Jesus’ baptism by John. Christians would be unlikely to make up a story about John baptizing Jesus because it seems to make John superior to Jesus and it makes Jesus look like one in need of repentance. So the Baptism story is almost certainly not made up, at least in essentials.One of those scholars is Raymond Brown, a Catholic, who has done probably the most extensive study of the “infancy narratives” in Matthew and Luke. He concludes that the stories are some kind of fiction, perhaps historical fiction, but not history. The idea that some stories in the Bible may be made-up disturbs some Christians, but it shouldn’t. Fiction is a respectable, human way of communicating important ideas. Probably the community in which a gospel originated, unlike us, knew perfectly well what that author was doing.

Here I’ll take one part of the story from the Gospel of Matthew and show some of the evidence that leads scholars to conclude that this part is probably not historical.

The visit of the magi

It turns out that the story of the Magi fits all too well with what Matthew and his community believed and with what Matthew was trying to do in his Gospel. Matthew was a leader in a group of mainly Jewish followers of Jesus. This community believed that Jesus is the New Israel and the fulfillment of the Jewish Scriptures. This belief informs the whole structure of Matthew’s Gospel as well as some of the particular incidents in it. Here’s how the magi story echoes that belief:

  • Matthew shows us magi coming from far off to worship the new baby. One prominent Jewish vision was that in the last days other nations would come streaming to Jerusalem, to the temple, to worship the Jewish God.
  • After the Magi leave, the child Jesus needs to be rescued from jealous Herod’s command to kill all boys in Bethlehem under age two. This echoes the story of Moses’ rescue from evil pharaoh, who also, in the Exodus story, orders a massacre of Jewish male babies.
  • The Holy Family flees to Egypt in Matthew’s story. Later they return to Nazareth. That way Jesus repeats the story of the entire Hebrew people, who also go down from the Promised Land to Egypt in the time of the patriarchs and come back with Moses as leader.
  • Joseph has a dream that tells him to flee with the child and his mother (actually this is his second dream). Joseph’s dreams echo an earlier dreamer, Joseph of “Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” fame.

With all these parallels, scholars conclude that it’s much more likely that the author of Matthew would place such echoes in a story than that history would so faithfully echo itself. I think it’s a reasonable conclusion. Not all scholars go along. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, no second-rate or fundamentalist scholar, thinks the magi were real.

Joseph’s dilemma

Now I’ll switch from these methods of real scholars to my own intuition. I have a problem with the nativity stories if taken as literal history. I’m going to put the problem in the perspective of Joseph, as the story presents him. Here’s Joseph:

“I know this is a different kind of child (Joseph says to himself). He’s not even my child really, but God’s. I was told in a dream he would be the long-awaited savior, and an angel told Mary pretty much the same thing. Then there’s the prophecy we both heard in the temple—

This child is destined for the fall and the rise of many in Israel, and a sword of sorrow shall pierce your (my Mary’s) heart.

“What should I tell Jesus? Should I tell him about the babies that Herod slaughtered? Sooner or later he’s bound to wonder why we’re in Egypt when all our relatives are in Nazareth. And if we go back to Nazareth, I can just hear the gossip about Mary that’s bound to fly. What will I tell Jesus about that? If I tell him the truth, what kind of life will he have, knowing how different he is from everybody else? Knowing his own destiny? Knowing how much it will hurt his mother? Those three gifts of the magi weren’t just gifts. They were signs of kingship, divinity, and death. Is my son bound to live constantly under the shadow of these prophecies? Is it good for a person to know things about the future that normally we only guess at and fear and hope for?”

Such, I imagine, would have been Joseph’s questions, that is, the Joseph of the story. It’s hard to tell what answers he would have given, what he finally would have decided to tell Jesus. (Ann Rice centered the plot of her novel Jesus of Nazareth: Out of Egypt around this dilemma of Joseph’s and Jesus’ desire to discover his own history.)

I’ve tried to imagine the kind of parenting that would have gone on in the “Holy Family” if the stories of angels, shepherds, magi, and prophecies in the Temple were literally true. I don’t know how Mary and Joseph would have managed to avoid worshiping their own child. For sure, that’s not good parenting, and neither is tiptoeing around the delicate question of Jesus’ identity. And the Holy Family is supposed to be a model for all families. Just as surely the “facts” couldn’t be kept from Jesus indefinitely. Sooner or later he would get it out of Joseph or maybe his older half-brother James, or he’d meet up with one of the shepherds. From that point on—or earlier if by divine intelligence he knew all these things without being told—I think it would be impossible for Jesus to lead a genuinely human life, a life at all like mine. He just knows too much.

Brown, the Catholic scholar, has a similar problem with the idea that Jesus knew too much:

A Jesus who walked through the world with unlimited knowledge, knowing exactly what the morrow would bring, knowing with certainty that three days after his death his Father would raise him up, would be a Jesus who could arouse our admiration, but a Jesus still far from us. He would be a Jesus far from a humankind that can only hope in the future and believe in God’s goodness, far from a humankind that must face the supreme uncertainty of death with faith but without knowledge of what is beyond. On the other hand, a Jesus for whom the detailed future had elements of mystery, dread, and hope as it has for us and yet, at the same time, a Jesus who would say, “Not my will but yours”—this would be a Jesus who could effectively teach us how to live, for this Jesus would have gone through life’s real trials.” (An Introduction to New Testament Christology, p. 151)”

I can’t resist an impious, or at least impish, addition to Brown’s eloquent statement. Imagine Jesus on the cross thinking, “Now they’re dividing my clothes among them. That’s straight out of Psalm 22.  Pretty soon somebody’ll come along with a sponge and some vinegar. By the sun it looks like I have less than an hour to go on this cross. Then three days in the tomb.” Clearly, with too much knowledge Jesus doesn’t really have a human experience of death. One thing Christian doctrine is really definite about, since the Council of Chalcedon in 425, is that Jesus is both truly divine and truly human.

To sum up, if the nativity stories are history, then Jesus becomes a problem. First of all, for Mary and Joseph—how would you parent such a child? Second, Jesus’ knowledge of himself and his future, coming as it does from “heaven” (dreams, or angels, or gifts from mysterious strangers, or prophets in the temple) without any effort on his part, makes him too different from the rest of us, too far off from what I can think of as human. But if infancy narratives are fictional creations in one sense or another, then we can think about what the stories meant for Matthew and Luke and their communities and what they can mean for us. That doesn’t have to exclude any of the rich meaning Christians have always found in these stories. But it can add new meanings.

The impossible becoming possible

I’m thinking the stories are not about some impossible things that happened once a couple thousand years ago. They are about the impossible becoming possible daily. That’s what the magi, whose impossible quest, guided only by a star, can mean. That’s what the shepherds, who don’t belong in any respectable company but, impossibly, are visited by angels, can mean. That’s what Joseph, a righteous man who finds a way to do what no righteous man of that age would have done—take a pregnant women into his home—can mean. That’s what the journey to Egypt and back, reliving the impossible (and probably mostly fictional as well) journey of the Hebrew people out of Egypt, can mean. And then there’s the impossibility of Jesus—a king born in such crowded conditions that they have to put him in a manger, a precocious youth who amazes the gray learned men and then, more amazingly, turns his back on an interesting career, fame, and the chance to accomplish something in the world only to live for another 18 years in obscurity, subject to his humble parents.

When I think of it as history, these impossibilities leave me completely out of the picture. God made them happen once, but God doesn’t do things like that anymore. But when I think of it as a story, then, like any good story, I have to think what it says about my own life. Is my future just an extension of my past? This story says something that just might be true about both Jesus, the real Jesus, and me—that a surprise, a genuine future, something radically new, and a completely unforeseen and unforeseeable way toward it are possible. That challenges me to hope and to believe.

The story also says all the things that a traditional imagination—complete with manger scenes and carols—finds: How God loves us even when we feel like the least in other people’s eyes, like the shepherds of the story and all the poor who really did crowd around Jesus during his later ministry; how God takes the side of the poor and the homeless because the story accurately symbolizes the way Jesus actually was both; how God loves it when we are seekers like the magi following their star; how God loves it when we are brave like Mary, saying little and accepting much, and when we are confused like Joseph but willing to risk all for the ones we love, and when we shout for joy like the angels or Anna in the temple, who just had to tell everybody about the baby Jesus, and when we are ready to depart the world like Simeon, who could say after seeing the baby, “Now, Lord, you can let me go. I’ve lived long enough.” All of these are perfectly accurate as symbols; they don’t have to be history.

A political reading of the infancy stories

Much more lies in these stories. Some scholars look at the political situation of the Jews under Roman rule. They find not so subtle political meaning in the nativity stories. The real Son of God is born in a stable in Luke’s Gospel. Caesar Augustus, born in the lap of luxury, called himself a "Son of God." There could hardy be a stronger contrast. Rome bragged of bringing a "Pax Romana" to the world by forceful repression of every possible dissent. The angels told of true "peace on earth." The prophet Micah says of Bethlehem, "Out of you shall come one who is to be ruler of my people Israel." In Micah's day that was surprising. Bethlehem was an insignificant village. But for early Christians to add this saying to their story about a humble savior just emphasizes how unlike “the way things are” Jesus’ revolution is. Among prosperous people today the political meaning is hardly noticed because they don't have much acquaintance with kings or oppression. But oppression has not gone away from our world; and the political meaning of the baby Jesus rings true for many.

If all the details in the infancy narratives were literally true, then I suppose you'd have proof (or at least Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and so on would have had) that Jesus is divine or very near to it. But divinity didn't enter that obviously into history. The infancy narratives tell us nothing remarkable about Jesus' start in life that a historian can rely on. History comes into the picture, but not very much yet. These stories and images point the reader forward to the real historical figure of Jesus, encountering whom radically revised the possibilities of at least some of the people of his day. Christians believe that encountering him fills our world with new possibilities today.

On to Chapter 2, The Miracles