Thursday, July 04, 2013

The Birth of Jesus, Part XV. The Journey to Bethlehem

By John Shelby Spong

The creators of the birth narratives, Matthew and Luke, used two motifs in interpreting the life of Jesus of Nazareth. First, each was historically aware that Jesus hailed from Galilee, indeed from the village of Nazareth. Too often the gospels report that there was debate about his origins for this not to be true. Galilee was the rustic, poor, non-cultural part of the Jewish nation. Nazareth was an insignificant town in a looked-down-upon region. Yet, they could never escape the fact that Jesus was called “Jesus of Nazareth” and referred to as a Galilean. The claim of Jesus’ disciples that he was the messiah was thus ridiculed because of these historical facts of his origin. “Search the scriptures,” his critics invited the crowds to do, “and nowhere will you find the suggestion that the messiah will come out of Galilee.” It was thought even more impossible for the messiah to grow up in Nazareth. “Nothing good can come out of Nazareth,” they declared. History is sometimes quite inconvenient when myth-making is going on. This was the first motif of the birth narratives.

The place of Jesus’ origins seems not to have been an issue for Paul. Mark, the first gospel writer, assumes that Jesus was born in Nazareth and that he grew up there. When his place of origin began to be a problem for those eager to assert the messianic claim, the pressure began to build to locate his place of birth in a more noble setting. That was when the second motif around his birth appeared and had to be served.

There were many messianic images in Jewish history, but a major and consistent one was that the messiah had to restore the throne of King David. In time this meant that the messiah himself had to have a claim to be a descendent and thus an heir to the royal line of King David. That throne had been lost to the Jews since 586 BCE. In that year the Babylonian conquerors had destroyed Judah in warfare. In that war’s aftermath the Babylonians rounded up and murdered all the heirs to the final Davidic king, a man named Zedekiah, and they imprisoned him after putting out his eyes.

When Zedekiah finally died in prison, the royal throne of the House of David was thus thought to be vacant. That was when the idea of messiah began to grow both in Jewish thought and in Jewish mythology. Messiah was part of the national dream of restoration. The royal line of King David was an important symbol in all the hopes expressed for “the coming kingdom.” One aspect of that hope was that the messiah would reflect his Davidic roots by being born in Bethlehem, the city of David. This hope was read into a text in the prophet Micah that extolled the little town of Bethlehem as the birthplace of Judah’s kings. Slowly, this town with its royal connections and its location in the land of Judah about six miles from Jerusalem, began to rise in the messianic dreams. Messiah must be of the house of David and he must be born in Bethlehem.

Matthew was the first to make this claim, but it was easy for him. He assumed that both Mary and Joseph lived in a house in Bethlehem. For this baby to be born there seemed quite natural. Matthew’s problem was that he then had to find a way to deal with history and with the fact that this baby, though born in Bethlehem, would grow up in Nazareth of Galilee.

Luke, who accepts Mark’s frame of reference involving Jesus’ Galilean roots, had the opposite problem. How could it be arranged for a couple who lived in Galilee actually to be in Bethlehem when the child was born? Luke hit upon a scheme that probably has some semblance of history to it and he used it to tell his magnificent story that is familiar to most of us today. There went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world was to be enrolled. Was this a census? Was it for the purpose of taxation? Periodically we learn from the Old Testament that the Jews wanted to count their citizens.

There are historical hints of a census ordered within a decade after the death of King Herod or around 6 to 7 CE. The idea that an empire-wide census, however, was ever undertaken stretches credibility to the breaking point. There were no records, no birth certificates, no marriage certificates, no death certificates. Travel was hard and slow. Records were stored nowhere. Luke, however, needed to have a hook on which to create his story of the Bethlehem birth of a child whose parents were citizens of Nazareth. So he used the presumed census to account for the fact that Joseph and Mary had to go to Bethlehem.

This enrollment, Luke said, occurred when Quirinius was governor of Syria. That was an interesting addition. Luke has already related that the births of John the Baptist and Jesus had occurred when “Herod was the King of Judea.” We know from secular records, however, that Herod died in the year 4 BCE. On the other hand, we know that Quirinius did not become governor of Syria until the winter in which the year 6 CE turned into the year 7 CE. So, if Jesus was born when Herod was king, he would have been ten to eleven years old when this enrollment was ordered. The presumed history behind this birth narrative begins to wobble perceptibly.
Next we learn that Joseph, because he was of the house and lineage of David, must, as a pre-requisite of this census, return to his ancestral home to be enrolled. This, Luke asserted, was the key that resulted in a Bethlehem birthplace for Jesus.

Does this mean that all the direct heirs of King David had to make the journey to Bethlehem? David, who according to the Bible had many wives and many concubines, reigned in Judah from the year 1000 to 960 BCE. If we count a generation at 20 years, a rather generous number in a world where life expectancy was only in the thirties, there would be about 48 generations between David and Jesus. If David had only 50 children, a rather small number for a king with a large harem, his direct descendants in 48 generations would be well over a billion people! Suppose it was a fact, as Luke asserts, that all of David’s direct heirs had to return to Bethlehem to be enrolled? It is no wonder there was no room at the inn! Historicity is shattered.

One final note, Luke tells us that Joseph had to take Mary with him for this enrollment. Why this was necessary is not stated. In that patriarchal era, women were not enrolled, counted or taxed. They were thought of as property, part of the male’s wealth upon which taxes were paid. If this baby is to be born in Bethlehem, however, Mary, Jesus’ mother, must be in Bethlehem. So Luke tells us that Joseph took her with him even though she “was great with child,” to use the beautiful language of King James’ English. “Great with child” surely means near to term so we can assume that she was in her last month of pregnancy.

How many of us have ever stopped to realize that Bethlehem was 94 miles from Nazareth? Do we embrace that the two options for transportation open to them in the first century were walking or riding on a donkey? Do we understand that this was a seven to ten day journey that would have to average nine to twelve miles a day? Are we aware that in this era there were no restaurants or hotels along the way? Now ask yourself, what man in his right mind would take his nine-months pregnant wife on a 94 mile journey on a donkey or actually walking, when the literal reason for taking her does not hold any credibility? It was a Roman Catholic lay theologian, Rosemary Ruether, who after reading this birth narrative in Luke, remarked that “only a man who had never had a baby could have written this story.”

Religious art portrays this journey to Bethlehem with Mary riding sidesaddle on a donkey led by a walking Joseph. That is little more than romantic imagination. In the text there is no donkey. That should not surprise us. In Matthew’s story of the Wise Men, there are no camels. In Luke’s story, there is no stable. There are no animals around the Christ Child in the stable because there is no stable. There is only a feeding trough, called a manger. That feeding trough could be out in the fields as easily as it could be inside a structure. Be aware that pageants and human imagination have created images for us that are in fact not biblical.

Luke’s story, however, has achieved its agenda. The Nazareth-based family has managed to be located physically in Bethlehem when the child is born. The messianic connection has been established. Mythology has been enhanced. Luke does two more things that I have mentioned earlier in this series. I repeat them here, because we can see them now in context. He takes a text from the Wisdom of Solomon where the richest of all the Jewish kings says: “When I was born I was carefully swaddled, for there is no other way for a king to come to his people.” So Luke says that they wrapped the babe in swaddling cloths and this clue was given to the shepherds to help them find him. Second, he was placed into a manger, an image Luke borrowed from Isaiah 1. This one faithful Jew, unlike the history of his people in the time of Isaiah, would know from the moment of his birth who was his father and what largesse he received from the God he represented. There are many levels on which the stories of the birth of Jesus can be read. Literalism is not one of them.

So we will bring this study of the birth narratives to a conclusion next week. This is rich material, but it is not history and our analysis reveals that it was never understood by the authors of both Matthew and Luke to be history. It is a pity that the Gentiles who became both the majority and the dominant strain in the Christian Church after about 150 CE did not know the Jewish Scriptures well enough to understand what the original stories meant. Literalism is not only an expression of biblical ignorance, but it is a distortion of the gospel so dangerous as to be destructive of Christianity itself.


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