Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor
11024 S. Bell Avenue
Chicago, IL 60643
Reflection December 10, 2017
"The First Christmas" by Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
In this week’s edition of The Advance, I’d like to present material from Professors Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan’s The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Birth (2007).
As we probably know, the accounts of Jesus’ birth are found in the two Gospels of Matthew and Luke. These two accounts, as I have preached numerous times, are very different one from the other.
“Without the genealogy, the whole of Matthew’s birth story takes only 31 verses. Luke’s story, with 132 (verses), is about four times as long ... And Mary’s role is much greater (in Luke) than in Matthew, where she is a completely passive figure, neither speaking nor receiving any revelation. For much of Luke’s birth story, Mary is the central character. Indeed, Joseph is almost invisible in Luke, in sharp contrast to Matthew.” (Sometime during Advent, it might be helpful for each of us to read both accounts: Matthew, chapters 1 and 2; Luke, chapter 1 up to chapter 2, verse 40.)
“Where was the home of Mary and Joseph before Jesus was born? Where did they live? Most people would answer Nazareth. In Luke’s story Mary and Joseph live in Nazareth in Galilee, where Mary has become pregnant by the Spirit. When it is almost time for her to give birth, she and Joseph journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem in Judea, where there is no room in the inn, and so Jesus is born in a stable and placed in a manger.
“But in Matthew, Mary and Joseph live not in Nazareth, but in Bethlehem, where Jesus is born at home. Nazareth becomes their home only after they return from Egypt after Herod’s death. They move to Nazareth because the new ruler of Judea, Herod’s son Archelaus, is as dangerous as his father was.” (Note: I point out these differences because they are what the Gospels actually say. I do not point this out to trouble anyone’s faith or joy at Christmas. As Borg and Crossan write: “Read the texts - and pay attention.)
“Because Luke’s nativity story is the longer one, replete with colorful details, most people are familiar with the Nazareth to Bethlehem to Nazareth pattern. The Bethlehem to Egypt to Nazareth pattern in Matthew is largely ignored.”
“The imperial kingdom of Rome … (under whose power Jesus was born) had as its program peace through victory. The eschatological kingdom of God (proclaimed throughout the Bible) has as its program peace through justice. Both intend peace - one by violence, the other by nonviolence.”
“In scholarship’s best reconstruction, Jesus was born just before the death of Herod the Great in 4 BCE. But upon that death, there were uprisings all over the Jewish homeland, and some of them had clearly messianic overtones - violent attempts to replace an unjust and Rome-appointed tyrant with a just and God-appointed ruler.”
(At the time of Jesus’ birth - there was an uprising in the city of Sepphoris - about 4 miles from Nazareth. The Romans sent in a massive army to destroy the city and all who had risen up against Rome. Nazareth would not have been spared.)
“For Nazareth, in 4 BCE, either there was a timely flight to hiding places well known to the local peasantry, or its males were murdered, its females raped, and its children enslaved. If they (the inhabitants of Nazareth) escaped, the little they had would be gone when they returned because, as one rebel said, when you had nothing, the Romans took even that. ‘They make a desert and call it peace.’”
(We cannot have a deep appreciation of the Biblical birth accounts of Jesus without some understanding of what was happening in that troubled land. Jesus was born into an occupied territory - ruled over by cruel and terrible tyrants.)
“Matthew and Luke agree that Jesus was the new David … (throughout much of the Hebrew Scriptures we see promises) of the new David - the new Anointed One - ‘Messiah’ in Hebrew, ‘Christ’ in Greek - who would establish justice and righteousness, peace and security for his people (as did King David).”
“The Roman vision incarnated in the divine Augustus (toted as a god) was peace through victory (brought by the sword). The Christian vision incarnated in the divine Jesus was peace through justice.”
“Nobody knows the day, the month, or the season of the year of Jesus’ birth. The date of December 25 was not decided until the middle of the 300s. Before then, Christians celebrated his birth at different times - including March, April, May, and November. But around the year 350 Pope Julius in Rome declared December 25 as the date, thereby integrating it with a Roman winter solstice festival celebrating the ‘Birthday of the Unconquered Sun.’ The Roman birthday of the sun became the Christian birthday of the Son.”
“Jesus is, according to Matthew and Luke (and the rest of the New Testament) the completion of the Law and the Prophets. He is their crystallization, their expression in an embodied life … the anointed one of God, the decisive disclosure of God - of what can be seen of God in a human life, the fulfillment of Israel’s deepest yearnings, the one who reveals God’s dream for this world. This is what it means to call him Emmanuel and to affirm that Emmanuel has come.”