Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Birth of Jesus, Conclusions

By John Shelby Spong

Luke concludes his birth story with a series of episodes designed to point to the story of the adult Jesus. First, in Luke’s story, the shepherds depart, while Mary “ponders,” then the “Holy Family” goes through the initiation rites of Judaism to root Jesus deeply inside of the faith of his people. He is circumcised, Luke says, on the eighth day and given the name Jesus (Joshua or Yeshuah in Hebrew/Aramaic). Then he is presented at the Temple on the 40th day, at which time a prophetess named Anna, later to be viewed in mythology as the mother of Mary, and an old priest named Simeon are introduced in brief cameo appearances. Simeon proclaims that in this baby he has seen the promised salvation that will bring light to the Gentiles and glory to Israel. Next, and in contrast to Matthew, who has the Holy Family flee into Egypt to avoid the wrath of Herod, Luke has them make a rather leisurely journey back to their home in Nazareth. This episode of Luke’s birth narrative is then closed with a summary statement informing his readers that “the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was with him.” This infancy narrative is thus completed.

Luke then describes an episode that turns out to be the only story in the entire New Testament that purports to inform us about Jesus’ childhood. It is the narrative of the twelve-year-old Jesus being taken up to Jerusalem at the time of the Passover. It is a puberty rite story couched in religious terms, a kind of primitive bar mitzvah filled with familiar mythological content. It was designed to show just how remarkable the child Jesus really was long before his introduction to the wider public as an adult figure. It also has deep roots in the Hebrew Scriptures that we need to identify. Those familiar with these scriptures would also be familiar with the life of the prophet Samuel.

He, like Jesus, was said to have had something of a miraculous birth. His mother Hannah was childless; she had been unable to conceive. In that patriarchal world, the woman was blamed for this condition and so she was called “barren.” She was one of two wives married to a man named Elkanah. His second wife, Peninnah, had children and was honored by her husband because of that. Hannah, however, felt shame at her inability to have a child and was even ridiculed by Peninnah because, as she said, “the Lord had closed her womb.” Hannah went up regularly to a “holy place,” the shrine at Shiloh. On one of those occasions, she was at the gate of the shrine weeping and praying for a child. In her prayers she stated her willingness to dedicate her child to God if her prayers were answered. In the emotional power of this prayer, she came to the attention of an old priest named Eli who thought at first that she was drunk.

“How long will you be drunken?” he asks her as the conversation began. Hannah responded, “No, my Lord, I am a woman sorely troubled. I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord.” Hearing the content of her prayer, Eli promised her that her prayer would be answered. So he said to her: “Go in peace and may the God of Israel grant your petition.” Hannah then returned home and her barrenness was overcome; Samuel was born. It is a touching story.

Luke is clearly familiar with the story of Hannah. When Hannah’s child, Samuel, was born, she sang a song of praise that began with the words: “My heart exults in the Lord.” Luke uses Hannah’s song as the model for the song he puts in the mouth of Mary that we call The Magnificat. The Magnificat begins with the words: “My soul magnifies the Lord.”

I believe there is one other oblique reference to the story of Samuel in Luke’s birth narrative. In his genealogy of Jesus in Chapter 3, Luke lists a person named Heli as the father of Joseph and thus the grandfather of Jesus. Heli is simply the Greek spelling of Eli. The old priest in the book of Samuel is thus related, Luke says, to the life of Jesus. Finally, when Mary and Joseph take the boy Jesus to present him in the Temple when he was 12 years old, Luke appears to base this story on the account of Hannah taking the boy Samuel “when he was weaned” to the shrine at Shiloh, where he would serve the priest Eli as the fulfillment of Hannah’s vow to dedicate her son, if she became pregnant with a boy, to the service of God. The visit to the Temple completed the cycle of Jewish initiatory liturgies. Jesus was, says Luke, circumcised on the eighth day, presented on the fortieth day and dedicated at the age of 12 in the Temple at Jerusalem. The child Jesus was thus born with the destiny to serve God in all aspects of the Jewish tradition.

This story of the visit to the Temple is also filled with hints of things to come. The boy Jesus claims the Temple for himself in his childhood, just as he will do later as an adult. In this episode, Jesus acknowledges God as his Father, claiming this Temple “as my father’s house,” and stating that he must be about his “Father’s business.” He is also in this narrative, said to have been lost “for three days,” and when he was found, he was in the “my Father’s house,” revealing echoes of another three days in which Luke will say he was lost until raised by God into a new dimension of God’s presence. His body will then be referred to as the “New Temple.”

It is interesting to note that Luke then moves immediately to the story of Jesus’ baptism by John in the River Jordan and the inauguration of his messianic career. With this story the birth narratives have completed their purpose. The meaning of Jesus’ life has been introduced to his followers. With this story we also reach the end of this series of columns, so it is time to summarize.

There is nothing in the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke that was ever intended to be viewed as literal history. Both of these gospel authors knew that the birth narratives were designed to explain the source of power experienced in the adult Jesus of Nazareth. Both were trying to say that they had met a power and presence in the life of Jesus that human beings could not themselves have ever produced. Both picked symbols out of Hebrew history to flesh out their stories. Both knew that they were introducing a new idea into the developing Christian tradition. Both were surely aware that their stories of a miraculous birth for Jesus were unknown to Paul who portrayed Jesus as one who was “born of a woman,” as every human being is, and “born under the law,” as every Jew was. The only special claim Paul made for Jesus was that he “was descended from the House of David, according to the flesh.” Paul declared Jesus to be the son of God, not through a miraculous birth, but through “his resurrection from the dead.” (See Romans 1:1-4).

Matthew and Luke knew that Mark, whom both Matthew and Luke had incorporated into their gospel accounts, not only had no birth story, but he had also stated that God first entered Jesus at his baptism. Mark even portrayed Jesus’ mother as thinking that the adult Jesus was “beside himself” (see Mark 3), that is, “out of his mind,” when he came to his adult life. That is not the response of one who has been told in advance that her child will be holy, “the son of the highest.” No, both Matthew and Luke were not writing about the literal birth of Jesus. That will be the later agenda of the fundamentalists.

Then we saw how these two evangelists developed their stories out of the Hebrew Scriptures. Matthew borrowed from Isaiah, who wrote of kings coming to the “brightness of God’s rising” and bringing with them “gold and frankincense,” to get his narrative of wise men and their guiding star. He adapted for his narrative of Jesus a Moses story about a wicked king who tried to destroy God’s anointed one at birth. He has Jesus repeat the life cycle of the Jewish nation by coming “out of Egypt.” He creates the character of Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father, out of the account of Joseph the patriarch in the book of Genesis (37-50). The two Joseph’s are all but indistinguishable.

Luke also borrows images from the Old Testament to describe the birth of John the Baptist. He lifts a story from the book of Daniel to explain how John’s father, Zechariah, got the news that he was to be a father and why he could not speak. He lifts the account of John post-menopausal birth out of the Abraham and Sarah story in the book of Genesis. He populates Bethlehem with shepherds because it was the birthplace of David, the “Shepherd King.” He borrows a text from Isaiah to get his manger and a text from the Wisdom of Solomon to get his “swaddling cloths.” Both narratives are artfully crafted pieces of haggadic Midrash. No Jewish reader would fail to notice that. The two stories are deeply contradictory if one treats them literally, but both serve as overtures to the story of the life of Jesus, introducing themes that will be developed more fully in their later gospel accounts.

For most people the birth stories are probably the most familiar part of the New Testament. They are also the most misunderstood. They are victimized by the annual Christmas pageants held in most churches. They are distorted by hymns sung, oratorios heard and sermons preached each Christmas season. They are celebrated in lawn crèches, Christmas cards sent and store windows dressed during the holiday season. Once we break these stories out of their literal prison, they take on a new wonder, a new meaning and a new power. That is what these seventeen columns over the past two years have also been designed to do. I hope they have succeeded and that the next Christmas season can be entered with open minds and hearts and without the need to defend Jesus from those who think that the only way to be true to Jesus is to literalize the words of the New Testament.


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