Tuesday, December 19, 2017

The earliest “Christmas Story”

The only Christmas story that most of us know is the popular modern blending of the two different stories found in Matt 1:18-23 and Luke 1:5-20. Our blended story, however, never did exist as a single ancient story. The different stories in Matthew and Luke date from the last third of the first century of the Common Era. A later and still different story is found in the Infancy Gospel of James in the second century. This latter story bears little resemblance to the stories found in Matthew and Luke, however.
            Matthew and Luke at least agree that Mary, "a woman of marriageable age but as yet unmarried" (parthenos i.e., usually translated "virgin," Matt 1:18, 23, 25; Luke1:26-34), would bear a child who has a divine origin (Matt 1:20: "conceived by the holy spirit"; Luke 1:35: the holy spirit comes upon her and the power of the Most High overshadows her). These two narratives describe the birth of a child, who would be named Jesus (Matt 1:25; Luke 2:21). He is the Messiah (translated into Greek as the "Christ": Matt 1:17; Luke 1:11, 26), and the savior (Luke 2:11) with a divine commission to "save his people from their sins" (Matt 1:21).
            The earliest "Christmas story," however, is not a story at all; that is, it is not a narrative, such as Matthew and Luke use in their gospels to explain how Jesus became divine at his birth—in Matthew and Luke Jesus was born divine. On the other hand, the earliest Christmas story is a brief comment, which explains how it was that a fully grown man of natural birth became God's son—the comment, an allusion only, states that Jesus was a human being who became divine at the end of his life.
            Paul wrote the allusion in the salutation of his letter to the Jesus gathering at Rome somewhere around the middle first century—earlier than the stories in Matthew and Luke:
Paul, a slave of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, concerning his son born from David's seed according to the flesh, being appointed son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord. (Rom 1:1-4)
Although he was born a human being (born from David's seed), the above statement continues to assert that he was later appointed son of God, when he was raised from the dead. Hence he becomes God's son after he exits human life, rather than, as Matthew and Luke have it, when he enters into human life.
            It is probable that these words (in italics above) do not represent Paul's personal view, for he also says: "God sent forth his son, born of a woman, born under the law to redeem those who were under the law" (Gal 4:4). This statement seems to suggest that the child was God's son before being born, such as it appears in John 1:1-4 where Jesus was always God's son.1
In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God…and the word became flesh and dwelt among us… (compare Phil 2:5-11).
There is another story explaining how Jesus became the son of God; in this story Jesus became God's son at his baptism. That story is not completely clear in your translation of the Bible, however. To Luke's version of the baptism of Jesus a later pious scribe has added a comment:
…the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form, as a dove, and a voice came from heaven, 'Thou art my beloved Son with thee I am well pleased.' (Luke 3:22)
The scribe appends a comment to Luke's statement to make it agree with Ps 2:7:
Thou art my beloved son. This day have I begotten thee.2
It is a late tradition, but it is enough to document that the baptism of Jesus early in the Christian era was regarded as the moment that Jesus became the son of God, and it is still so celebrated in the Orthodox Church as Epiphany, the Day of his manifestation to Israel as the son of God (celebrated January 6).
So what do you think: Did Jesus become the son of God at his resurrection, at his baptism, at his birth, or was he always the son of God? All four views are in the Bible and were believed by some early followers of Jesus.
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
1Paul's obscure statement ("even though we once regarded Christ from a human point of view, we regard him thus no longer," 1 Cor 5:16) most likely describes Paul's own change of mind about how he viewed Christ, rather than a comment upon the personal nature of the Christ.
2The reading appears in Codex Bezae (5th/6th centuries) and a few other Latin manuscripts.

Friday, December 8, 2017

What’s wrong with being Proud?

The Bible has little positive to say about pride, and vigorously condemns it in every instance or virtually every instance (it depends on whether you use the Protestant or Catholic Bible). In Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament) a usual synonym for pride is arrogance (Prov 8:13; Isa 9:9, 13:11; 16:6; Jer 48:2) or haughtiness (Jer 48:29; Zeph 3:11). Its opposite is humility (Job 22:29; Prov 3:34; 29:23; 2 Chron 32:26), which God honors (Prov 22:4; 2 Chron 7:14, 12:7). I only found two positive statements about pride in the Catholic Old Testament (Judith 15:9; Sirach 50:1).
            In the New Testament pride (alazoneia, 1 John 2:16)1 is condemned, as is its synonym (uperēphaneia, Mark 7:22), which is defined in the lexicon as "a state of undue sense of one's importance bordering on insolence, arrogance, haughtiness, pride."2 These two words in the New Testament describe completely negative character traits (Luke 1:51; Rom 1:30; 2 Tim 3:2; Jas 4:6; 1 Pet 5:5).
            A severely negative view of pride has persisted in Western culture—without doubt because of the influence of the Bible in Western culture. For example, near the end of the 14th century in the "Parson's Tale" Chaucer listed pride as the first of the seven deadly sins, and the root of all the others (pride, envy, wrath, sloth, greed, gluttony, and lust), noting that the only remedy for pride is humility or meekness, a virtue in which a person "considers himself worthy of no esteem nor dignity."3 In the 17th century Milton traced the beginning of the woes of humankind to the pride of Satan.
The infernal serpent, he it was, whose guile stirred up with envy and revenge, deceived the mother of mankind, what time his pride had cast him out from Heaven, with all his host of rebel angels, by whose aid aspiring to set himself in glory above his peers, he trusted to have equaled the Most High" ("Paradise Lost," Book One: lines 34-40; see lines 27-58).
Keeping the biblical attitude toward pride in mind, it is surprising to learn that self-respect is considered a synonym of pride. In fact, one definition of pride is "a sense of one's own worth and abhorrence of what is beneath or unworthy of oneself: lofty self-respect."4
            Here are a number of sayings that recognize pride's positive character (even Paul seems to acknowledge it in Gal 6:4, but without using the word "pride"):
Take pride in your work. A job well-done is a meaningful accomplishment/ Take pride in your appearance/ Civic pride should be encouraged/ Pride is a personal commitment—it is an attitude that separates excellence from mediocrity/ There are two kinds of pride, both good and bad. "Good pride" represents our dignity and self-respect/ Be proud of who you are instead of wishing you were someone else/ Pride is holding your head up when everyone around you has theirs bowed—courage is what makes you do it.
Viewed from the biblical perspective, pride is firmly condemned by God, but from a secular perspective pride may well be an essential positive trait of being human. If pride or being proud can often be positive, the biblical view of pride appears to be inadequate and misleading in that it masks the true nature of pride.
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
1In Classical Greek alazoneia is translated as pretension, imposture, boastfulness, a piece of humbug: Liddell and Scott, Greek-English Lexicon, 9th ed.), 59.
2F. W. Danker, Greek-English Lexicon (3rd ed.; University of Chicago, 2000), 1033.
4Webster's Third International Dictionary Unabridged (2002), 1799.