This brief essay is a reprise in three ways: it looks back a few days ago to Christmas 2014; it is a revision of an essay I published in the Springfield News-Leader on December 24th 1986; and it also appeared in 2009 in a collection of my editorials, House of Faith or Enchanted Forest (Wipf and Stock). Here it is again somewhat revised:
The Christmas story has endured for slightly under 2,000 years; it has survived translation from ancient into modern culture, the attacks of hostile rationalists, the naiveté of biblical literalists, its crass commercialism in the marketplace, the self-serving interests of overzealous pietists, the secularizing of western society, and its amalgamation with other competitive non-Christian holiday traditions through the centuries.
The story of the birth of Jesus continues to capture the imagination of the most creative and able talent of western culture. Under its influence artists have produced many of the masterpieces of our Judeo-Christian heritage in art, music, and literature. And today in the early twenty-first century, we are still influenced by the message we find in the Christmas story. Motivated by that ancient story, we moderns have been led to acts of altruism, self-sacrifice, and charity that surprise even us upon looking back at our behavior. When we are bombarded with so much Christmas "magic" during the festive season, it is difficult for the Scrooges of the world to react with a "bah! Humbug." There is a grandeur, a nobility, associated with Christmas that stirs the slumbering chords of the highest human ideals. For that reason, the Christmas story is authentic in a way that historical criticism cannot confirm, or even investigate.
Why should these narratives describing the birth of Jesus still speak to modern human beings educated in a secularized west? It is not because of their unity, philosophical sophistication, or technical excellence. For example, there are in the New Testament actually two completely different stories describing how the first "Christmas" happened, one by Matthew (1:18-23) and the better known story by Luke (2:1-21). Mark either did not know a narrative of the birth of Jesus, or simply did not think it important enough to report. John did not need a birth story, since Jesus was not actually "born" in the Gospel of John (1:1-18). The many miraculous elements in the birth narratives—virgin birth, angels, star leading the "wise men," etc., are simply no longer credible to twenty-first century human beings (except the "true believers"), and constitute serious obstacles to the religious faith of many of us. The "true believer," on the other hand, makes believing the miraculous the test of what it means to have "true faith." Such miraculous elements are common in the literature of antiquity, where they are used to validate the careers of great men by ascribing to them the trappings of divinity; compare, for example, the birth stories about Asclepius, Hercules, and Alexander the Great. It seems to me, however, that the real "miracle" of Christmas does not lie in the miraculous features of the stories; the miracle lies in the existential influence of the story upon those of us who celebrate Christmas; that is, it lies in what the season does to us and in how it inspires us to treat one another.
The Christmas narratives still remain surprisingly relevant in our day, in spite of their legendary and mythical character. Behind each of the birth narratives lies a deep longing and noble aspiration of the human spirit. The vision afforded by the narratives rises above the horizon of those ultimately insignificant narrow borders separating religions and the different versions of Christianity. The narratives address a basic issue that concerns our common humanity regardless of heritage or creed; they speak to our consciousness of human finitude—our terrible dread of the infinite, however we label it (death, eternity, a divine infinite, inability to control destiny, etc.); and they address a very deep desire for peace in the world at all levels of human existence.
Matthew and Luke proclaim that in the humanity of a particular Jewish lad, born in a remote village of the Roman Empire, in a naive and pre-scientific age—that in this lad, in some way, a divine infinity has intersected the finite human (Matt 1:20-23; Luke 1:35): that is to say, the message of both stories is that infinity need not be feared, but rather embraced! Luke holds forth the birth of this child as a promise of "peace on earth" (Luke 1:76-79; 2:11-14). The possibility of being free from the terror of our own finitude and of finding peace in a turbulent and frequently brutal world is "good news" indeed. Such hope holds forth a promise of comfort for every human heart, and is worthy of celebration by all of us.
And so I still think today.
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
Missouri State University
Reference: Robert J. Miller, Born Divine. The Births of Jesus and Other Sons of God (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 2003).
Amen, brotha. Beautifully written. Peace
Thanks, Charlie. Well said.
Charles and I are continually enlightened and inspired by your Wry Thoughts About Religion. You truly speak to us, "loud and clear," and we thank you very much. This one is especially meaningful.
Absolutely, the best sermon by a scholar that I've ever read.
Charlie, I wonder if you would comment on the probable level of Jesus' knowledge of the Jewish literature of his day.
In your Wisdom of Jesus, if we consider probable HJ sayings (40+), there are only a couple with possible OT or intertestimental allusions. If we consider probable HJ parables (20+), I count over 180 possible OT or intertestimental allusions covering all the parables (TWJ:103-118, 138-142).
Mostly I have heard that scholars consider HJ to have been illiterate but smart. Could oral circulation of the older stories account for what allusions we have, or are they significant enough to require some written knowledge?
It is my understanding also that the JS did not code pink or red any direct quotes of the OT put on Jesus lips, such as, "God made them male and female...the two shall become one flesh" (Mark 10:6-7), but pink/red was scored in the case of "by the finger of God" (Luke 11:19-20).
I don't have any research of my own to address the question asked.
Good Morning Gene,
It seems that you more often than not ask me questions that push me out of my comfort zone, and this is one of those times! In truth, I think we know very little about Jesus that stands up to critical inquiry, and what little we think we know with some confidence, should be introduced by "probably." With that said, let me try to answer your questions. There are very few sources that allow us to access the lives of peasants in the ancient Roman world (WOJ, p. 1), and virtually nothing for the still lower classes to which Jesus belonged (WOJ. pp. 182-83). I do not have confidence in the historical reliability of the early Christian gospels (WOJ, pp. 189-95), or in the images of Jesus they paint for the reader. Using the gospels as sources one can get almost any sort of portrayal of Jesus one wants (WOJ, pp. 164-79). That said, those sources in some few cases have made use of traditions from the earlier half of the first century, but these must be judiciously critically determined and the results are always debatable. That Jesus barely rises to the surface as a person in the view of Josephus suggests that even in his own day Jesus was simply a non-entity.
As to whether Jesus was literate, I would say the odds are against it (see the study by Harris, Ancient Literacy). As to the allusions to Hebrew Bible in the probable historical sayings and parables of Jesus: that information would have come to Jesus in the same way that most things happened in a family setting: by oral communication. That is, provided what I have thought is some kind of allusion to Hebrew Bible stories. Remember that what is or is not an allusion lies in the mind of the reader. In general, particularly for the lower classes in the ancient world literacy was low. But if there is an overlap between the sayings and stories of Jesus and the Hebrew Bible traditions it would have happened orally by word of mouth. Even the gospels describe Jesus as a talker rather than a writer.
Charlie, if you would reject the following verses as probably not original with Jesus, even in part, what would your reasoning be? I'm intrigued by their vision of Jesus' followers as "lawbreakers", a theme easily found in other Jesus material and the paulines.
Luke 16:16 “The law and prophets were in effect until John came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed, and everyone tries to enter it by force.” (NRSV)
“Right up to John’s time you have the law and the prophets, since then God’s domain has been proclaimed as good news and everyone is breaking into it violently.” (JS)
Matthew 11:12: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” (NRSV)
“From the time of John the ‘Baptist until now Heaven’s imperial rule has been breaking in violently, and violent men are attempting to gain it by force.” (JS)
In The Five Gospels (1993) the JS colored these passages gray, saying that no real sense can be made of their meaning, that the original saying has been lost. On the other hand I find them quite intriguing and quite consistent with Jesus’ more extreme images, such as castration and assassination.
A tough question and difficult to answer briefly. Here are a few random and schematic thoughts:
1. I am uncertain what Q read. Following Luke's order here are the words they have in common: "The law and the prophets. . . John from . . .the kingdom . . .and seizes it.
2. While scholars as a rule thinks Luke's version best represents Q, not all do. T. W. Manson, for example, thinks that Luke tried to clarify a difficult saying best represented in Matt 11:12-13.
3. Luke's version excludes John from the new dispensation of the proclamation of the kingdom, while Matthew's version includes John in the new dispensation. But in Acts 1:22 (written by Luke) John is included in the new dispensation.
4. This kind of periodizing of history is typical of Jewish and early Christian apocalyptic (cf. 2 Thess 2:1-12).
5. It seems to me that in Matt 11:12-13 and Luke 16:16 we have an early Christian debate on where John falls in the scheme of Christian salvation history. For that reason I do not regard it as a saying that originates with Jesus,
Charlie, thanks for the idea that "periodizing" might be the operating principle here.
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