The combined collection of traditional carols that we sing each Christmas demonstrate a very strange dichotomy.
On the one hand, there are those carols, or verses in carols, which go goo-gah at ten news of the cute little bay by, ruddy-cheeked and gurgling enticingly (or sleeping silently, making not a hint of baby noise).
On the other hand, there are those carols that really want us to focus on Jesus the exalted Lord, resplendent in glory, coming to earth from heaven, bring peace and joy, salvation and redemption, to the whole world. They move us quickly away from the vulnerable infant, and especially from the grim political and social realities of the time, into an ethereal heavenly realm.
Aotearoa/New Zealand hymn writer Colin Gibson has written a fine hymn, We who love Jesus, that offers a realistic take on what Christmas might/should/must mean for people of faith:
We who love Jesus asleep in the hay, for all those children who wander today, homeless and hungry and driven, we pray. Et te Ariki, whakarongo ki a matou.*
We who see Jesus on Mary’s sweet breast pray for the children who are nobody’s guest, walking to nowhere, with nowhere to rest. Et te Ariki, whakarongo ki a matou.
We who praise Jesus, the gentle and kind, pray for all children unseen, out of mind, beaten, abused or in conflict entwined. Et te Ariki, whakarongo ki a matou.
We who in Jesus know God come to earth pray for all children, wherever their birth; may they find shelter, beloved, given worth. Et te Ariki, whakarongo ki a matou.
*New Zealand Maori for ‘Lord, hear our prayer’; it is pronounced ay tay areekee, fockarongo kee a ma-toe.
Another much more realistic offering comes in one of my favourites, to the tune of Away in a Manger, in which Rebecca Dudley (of Shine on Star of Bethlehem, Christian Aid, UK) has reworked the unrealistic saccharine lyrics of the traditional Carol into a reflection on the story in a far more realistic mode:
How ancient and lovely this news of a star, a baby, a mother, the kings from afar. Come close now, Lord Jesus, we ask you to stay and show us your face in your people today.
What star shall we follow but one that leads here to a baby born homeless and a family in fear? What heaven shall we long for but one that starts there for all the world’s children in your tender care?
We thank you, Lord Jesus, for coming to earth; for the light in the darkness that shone at your birth, for life in its fullness that you promise today, and the hope of a baby asleep in the hay.
Today is the feast day of John, remembered in the Catholic tradition as Saint John the Apostle and Evangelist, and included in the Uniting Church’s list of commemorations as John, Witness to Jesus.
The fourth Gospel in the New Testament has long been accredited to the disciple named in the three Synoptic Gospels as the fisherman who was the brother of James and the son of Zebedee, one of the earliest called to follow Jesus (Mark 1:19: 3:17; Matt 4:21; 10:2; Luke 5:10; 6:14). Ironically, however, this disciple is not specifically named in the fourth Gospel. (Apart from John the baptiser, the other John noted in this Gospel is the father of Simon Peter; John 1:52; 21:15–17).
In the early fourth century CE, Eusebius wrote in his EcclesiasticalHistory (6.14.7) that Clement of Alexandria had described this Gospel as the “spiritual” Gospel, written to complement the “physical” depictions of Jesus found in the other three Gospels. (Clement was Bishop of Alexandria at the end of the second century CE.)
This view has exercised a widespread influence throughout Christian history; in the twenty–first century, John’s Gospel is often cited as the easiest way for new converts to understand the “spiritual truths” of the Christian faith. It is frequently said that it contains the most direct expression of the simple Gospel message: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son …” (John 3:16).
More recent scholarly study of this Gospel, however, has indicated that it is a complex and intricate piece of literature. The literary style of this Gospel is distinctive amongst the Gospels found in the New Testament. Jesus speaks at far greater length than the succinct sayings and compressed argumentation reported of the Synoptic Jesus. Some of the key images included in these speeches are ripe with symbolic significance.
There are multiple layers of meaning to be explored in the fourth Gospel. A number of key words contain ironic references or wry puns. Some scenes tell of misunderstandings which arise because of the different meanings built into the text. A hint of secrecy runs through the narrative—secrecy regarding the deeper, hidden meaning of Jesus and his story. The work is a complex literary creation.
An anonymous figure among the disciples—“the disciple whom Jesus loved”—lays claim to be the author of this work (John 21:20, 24). Who is this figure? Over time, the evangelist came to be equated with the disciple John, son of Zebedee, brother of James. Nothing in the text itself explicitly supports this, however.
Over the past few decades, a different understanding about the origins of this work have developed from scholars who have explored the authorship of this Gospel and the context in which it was written. There is widespread agreement that this work was not written, in the form that we have it, by this John who was one of the earliest followers of Jesus.
Some scholars developed the notion that this figure of “the beloved disciple” was a symbol embedded within the narrative, representing an earlier authority for the evolving traditions about Jesus. The Gospel itself, they consider, came to be written down many decades after this authority figure had first begun to recount the story of Jesus. The shape of the Gospel was heavily influenced by the nature of the community of faith through which these stories were passed, over a number of decades.
This has led to a detailed hypothesis concerning the origins and development of the community of believers which gave birth to this Gospel in written form. (The North American scholars most often associated with this line of interpretation are Raymond Brown and J. Louis Martyn.) This hypothesis makes two central claims.
The first claim is that, in its earliest stages, the community which produced this Gospel had been essentially Jewish. That community received and retold stories which may well have come from the John who was a follower of Jesus. The second claim is that, by the time the body of the Gospel was written in the form that we know it, this community found itself in an antagonistic relationship to the dominant form of Judaism. This opened the way for Gentile ideas, so that they are found mixed with Jewish ideas in the final form of the Gospel.
So if this Gospel was indeed stimulated by the teachings of one of the first followers of Jesus, a Jewish man in Galilee, known as John, it reflects a remarkable trajectory in the first century of the movement initiated by Jesus, tracing its development from a Jewish renewal movement towards a global religion. The stories from the Apostle have presumably been reworked and reshaped over decades as that trajectory develops.
The “disciple whom Jesus loved” certainly occupies a prominent place in the narrative of the fourth Gospel. He reclines on the breast of Jesus at the final meal in Jerusalem (John 13:23) and stands at the foot of the cross with Mary, the mother of Jesus (19:26–27).
After Mary Magdalene announced that the stone at the entrance of the tomb where the crucified Jesus had been laid had been removed (20:1–2), he runs to the tomb, with Simon Peter (20:3), arrives first, and sees that the tomb is empty (20:4–5)—but leaves it to Peter to see the inside first (20:6–7), before himself entering and attesting to the empty tomb with his own eyes (20:8).
Later, when seven of the disciples are fishing on the Sea of Galilee, this same beloved disciple is the first to recognise Jesus standing on the beach next to their fire; this time, he announces the identity of Jesus to Peter (21:7). A little later, Peter draws from Jesus the words about this disciple remaining with him (21:20–23). Finally, the same beloved disciple has the last word in the later-added Appendix to the Gospel, affirming his role as eyewitness and evangelist (21:24).
This is the figure that, in the tradition, is linked with John, the fisherman brother of James, the son of Zebedee, one of the earliest followers of Jesus, accorded a place as one of The Twelve Apostles.
In the book of Acts, the disciple John visits Samaria with Peter, in order to authorise and sanction what Philip had been teaching and doing in that region (Acts 8:14–17). That episode indicates the respect and authority that John was held to have as the movement developed—although the author of Luke and Acts writes some decades after the events he describes, at the end of the first century, and his material is filtered through various intermediaries (see Luke 1:2).
However, in one of his early letters from the 50s, Paul himself acknowledges this important position of John, along with James (brother of Jesus) and Peter, the “acknowledged pillars” of the church. Paul relates how he went, with Barnabas and Titus, to Jerusalem (Gal 2:1), in order to receive the approval from the mother church for his activity amongst the Gentiles. Accordingly, “James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised” (Gal 2:9).
This corroborates the view we find in Acts, that John had a position of importance in the early church. It doesn’t demonstrate, however, that this John wrote the book of signs, the work we know as the Gospel of John.
The scholar Jerome, born in Dalmatia (now Albania), lived for some time in Palestine in the late 300s. Jerome recounts an anecdote still being told at that time about John the Evangelist. When John was old and feeble and no longer able to walk or preach, he would be carried among the faithful in church and would repeat only one thing over and over again: “My little children, love one another.”
This, of course, is the central mantra in the first of the three letters that bear the name of John (see 1 John 3:11-17; 3:23; 4:7–12; also 2 John 5; 3 John 6). The legend explains how these anonymous letters were attributed to the apostle John.
Polycarp, through Saint Irenaeus, tells us that the Apostle John lived a long life, which ended peacefully in Ephesus around the year 100 CE. If that was so, then John was the only Apostle not to die a martyr. That may then equate him with the John who claims authorship of the book of Revelation, exiled on the island of Patmos (Rev 1:9). However, the style and language of this last book of the New Testament differs significantly from the style of the Johannine gospel and letters.
The Encyclopedia Britannica reports that two rival sites at Ephesus initially claimed the honour of being the grave of John. One eventually achieved official church recognition, becoming a shrine in the 4th century. By the 6th century the healing power of dust from John’s tomb was famous, and the church of Ephesus claimed to possess the autograph of the Fourth Gospel. We don’t have that manuscript today, however.
John was said to have written the Acts of John, a domestic work that was known in the second century; but it was condemned as heretical at the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 CE. And so the traditions about John continued to grow.
Indeed, in some Medieval and Renaissance works of painting, sculpture and literature, John is often presented in an androgynous or feminized manner, perhaps reflecting the ambiguous identity of “the disciple whom Jesus loved”.
All of which demonstrates the maxim that I hold for early Christian writings: the further away from the first century we get, the more information is known about the writers of the Gospels!!
It was not a silent night. The stables were full with extra animals from the visitors. All the animals were restless, sounding their calls with a sense of unease. They could sniff the stress of their human masters. Extra bodies meant extra chores, so there was extra stress all round.
It was not a silent night. The visitors in town made settling down well nigh impossible. Family reunions, catching up on gossip, calling around to see friends from long ago; the streets were abuzz with good-natured banter. None of the humans were silent for very long.
It was not a silent night. There was blood on the ground; you could hear the young woman streets away, her cry stabbing into the night, as the new baby made his way into the world of his family.
It was not a silent night.
Still, in our time, it is not a silent night. Yes, babies are rocked to sleep, and tired visitors bunk down to rest … but still, the sighs and groans of people in distress fill our nights, invade our minds, unsettle our lives.
It is not a silent night, for the woman battered by her partner.
It is not a silent night, for the old man grieving his loss.
It is not a silent night, for the young woman and her starving children, fleeing violence, seeking safety, hoping for a second chance.
It is not a silent night, for the indigenous young man in the lockup.
If we listen with care, we will realise: it is not a silent night.
It is not a silent night in our time … and yet, still, the baby makes his way into our lives. Not to whisk us away from all the noise and distress; but to be with us, to sit with us, to grow with us, to feel with us, and to share with us.
The baby becomes the man, the one who offers acceptance to everyone; the one who reassures us we are loved; the one who holds out the gift of grace and yearns to share all of life with us.
A couple of days ago, NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet has defended his refusal to reinstate COVID-19 health restrictions ahead of Christmas, saying it’s a matter of “personal responsibility”.
“When it comes to face masks”, he said, “we recommend face masks in areas where you can’t socially distance. It is the time for personal responsibility for our state. We are treating the people of our state like adults. If we need to tailor our responses from time to time, we will.”
The next day, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that “Australia must embrace a ‘culture of responsibility’ that places the onus on individuals to take protective actions against COVID-19 rather than a ‘culture of control and mandates’ by government.”
“Personal responsibility” is the latest mantra, to be placed alongside the repeated admonition that “we need to live with the virus”.
Is this a reasonable position to advocate?
We have lived through the first and second waves of the pandemic throughout 2020, and learnt much about how to handle the pandemic. We have demonstrated during those months that we could, indeed, pivot and change, as a society.
Then, the third wave in mid-2021 hit hard, as Delta ran riot through the community; but we made our way through that surge, as well, and rejoiced as we saw case numbers decline, hospital staff breath a little more freely, and ICU units step back from high, high stress moments.
And now, we are on the edge of a “fourth wave”—the Omicron wave. It is a wave that threatens to wreak more damage than the previous three have done. The numbers that are being projected by responsible medical researchers and national medical associations are deeply troubling.
We know the potential for, not just scores or hundreds of people to become ill, but thousands, tens of thousands, perhaps even more than this to become ill, and for a significant number of them to die. The deepening grief that is being spread by this virus is a third pandemic, alongside that of deaths and the second pandemic of mental ill-health.
The political leadership of our day is now standing outside the praetorium, side by side with Pontius Pilate, dipping their hands into that same bowl of water, washing their hands as they declare in lip-synch with him: “we are innocent of these consequences … it is a matter of personal responsibility”.
We, in the church, say often, that the zeitgeist of our time is one of rampant individualism – an individualism that has given up on the age-old tradition of corporate responsibility, communal care, extended-family responsibility for the wellbeing of each and every one of us.
The political mantra of “individual responsibility” is a crystal-clear manifestation of that abdication of communal responsibility for one another. It is the starkest instance, in our modern times, of the ancient problem that plagued Israel in its formational period: when every person did what was right in their own eyes. The utterly fraught nature of that period is attested in scripture, even in the airbrushed and polished accounts we have inherited in Judges.
So the place that I see for the church, now, at this time, is this: we are called to stand against the dominant culture of rampant individualism. We are called to bear witness to our concern that we have for the whole of society, not just for our own individual and localised part of that society.
We are called to work for the welfare of the city [and the whole state, or territory], not just to ensure that our local manifestation of the body of Church is able to continue with ‘business as usual’ whilst infections spread, hospitals once again overflow, ICU staff become hyper-stressed, people die, families grieve, and communities fracture under this heavy weight.
We are called to live out that love for the world which so fundamentally encapsulates who God is, how God acts, who were are as God’s people, what we are called to do in our daily lives. Love our neighbours. Love those around us. Love those far from us. Act in love.
Paul wrote wisely that if one member [of the body] suffers, all suffer together with it. That is surely a mantra for our current time. There is suffering, and the potential for greater and more widespread suffering. The call we have is to stand with those who suffer; to act in ways that ensure that we do not occasion any further suffering; to behave responsibly so that we minimise the spread of COVID, to act in ways that demonstrate, not just “individual responsibility”, but communal care, corporate responsibility, in appropriate ways.
We know that the most vulnerable are most exposed to the risks that COVID infections bring—serious illness, ongoing ‘Long COVID’, and death. We know, also, that we are in pastoral relationship with, and bear pastoral responsibility for, many such vulnerable people. How do we best care for them?
Wearing a mask indoors (and outdoors in crowds), using the QR check-in code, sanitising, maintaining social distancing, bumping elbows rather than shaking hands—all of this is now commonplace, and ought to be the usual practice for all of us. We can take personal responsibility for this, indeed.
It seems to me that there is a more important step that we can take, by encouraging our Congregations to move back to online worship. To make the bold declaration that, simply wearing a mask and being careful about not hugging or shaking hands, is not an adequate response in the situation that we find ourselves. Not being together in person—especially not being together indoors (even if we open all the windows and turn up all the fans)—this is what is most responsible at this time. To make this decision irrespective of any official government advice is an important step to take.
Yes, individuals taking responsibility is important. But collective responsibility, acting corporately, with a care for all of us, is very important, at this time.
11 How many wise men came to visit the newborn Jesus?
None, according to Luke. The wise men appear only in Matthew’s account. The whole birth of Jesus is mentioned very quickly by Matthew (1:18, 25). By contrast, the dark story of the slaughter of boys aged two and under dominates Matthew’s narrative (Matt 2:1–12). It is in connection with that part of the story that the wise men appear.
We are not told their names, nor how many they were. They are described as magi, probably meaning that they were astrologers. Only in later church tradition would they be identified as the three men, Caspar, Balthasar, and Melchior. Although Matthew’s gospel does not include the names or number of the magi, many believe that the number of the gifts he notes is what led to the tradition of the Three Wise Men—and, of course, they then needed to gain names (as do many anonymous biblical figures in the evolving church tradition over subsequent centuries).
These magi appear to have come from Gentile lands. They could be seen as exemplars of faithful obedience, travelling far to “adore the child”. But they are very mysterious figures in Matthew’s account. The gifts they bring were valuable items—reflecting a standard of gifts that might be offered to honour a king or deity in the ancient world: gold as a precious metal, frankincense (incense) as perfume, and myrrh as anointing oil.
It is claimed that these same three items were among the gifts that the Seleucid ruler, Seleucus II Callinicus, who ruled for 20 years (246–225 BCE), offered to the god Apollo at the temple in Miletus in 243 BCE. (I found this claim often in online articles, but I can’t trace any of them back to the actual historical source.) More significant, in Matthew’s mind, would be the fact that two of the gifts resonate with a Hebrew Scripture passage, late in the book of Isaiah. Jerusalem’s restoration is portrayed as a time when nations and kings will “bring gold and frankincense and proclaim the praise of the Lord” (Isaiah 60:6).
Matthew, who portrays Jesus as the new Moses throughout his Gospel, considers that his mission was solely to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 10:6; 15:24)—and to them alone. The visit of the magi from the East represents a Gentile acknowledgement of the high role that Jesus will play, bringing to fulfilment the intentions of God for the covenant people. So this element, told very early in the narrative, is simply a literary technique to introduce a key theme which will reach fulfilment in the time beyond the tale that the narrative offers.
12 Were the baby boys in Bethlehem really slaughtered by Herod’s troops?
In the opening chapters of this Gospel, we encounter the pregnant Mary, the newborn infant Jesus, his father Joseph, a bright star in the sky, visitors from the east, the tyrannical rule of Herod, and slaughtered infant boys. Many of these characters and events are “types”, imitations of an earlier story—for in his narrative, Matthew is working hard to place Jesus alongside the great prophet of Israel, Moses. The early years of Jesus unfold in striking parallel to the early years of Moses. The parallel patterns are striking—deliberately shaped that way by the author of this Gospel, I would maintain.
Moses, for instance, was in danger of being killed as a small boy, as the Pharaoh instructed the midwives, “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live” (Exod 1:16). The child Moses was rescued by midwives who “feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live” (Exod 1:17).
Matthew’s account of “the Slaughter of the Innocents” is generated by his Moses typology. This grounds the story of Jesus in the historical, political, and cultural life of the day, when tyrants exercised immense power. But it raises our suspicions about whether this event actually took place. There is no other evidence for it in any ancient writing, apart from Matthew’s Gospel. Can we be sure that it took place? Not by any standard of historical assessment.
(I recognise that some claim that a report by Josephus in book 2 of his account of the Jewish War, about an uprising related to a certain shepherd named Athrongeus, might be telling of consequences that flowed from a presumed slaughter of children under Herod. However, this event took place after the death of Herod, not while he was alive, and it took place in Jerusalem, not in Bethlehem, as Matthew’s account maintains. And, of course, Matthew has no shepherds in the story, so the connection is even more diffuse. The search for a parallel account in another ancient source is undertaken in vain.)
So we recognise Matthew is not reporting an actual historical event; yet his narrative provides a dreadful realism to a story which, all too often in the developing Christian Tradition, became etherealised, spiritualised, and romanticised.
13 Did the family flee to Egypt with a newborn child?
There is no other evidence for this journey outside of Matthew’s book of origins, so the evidence is scant and biased. The Moses typology we have noted is also relevant here. Matthew emphasises the many ways in which events in the early years of Jesus fulfilled the prophecies found in Hebrew Scripture (see Matt 1:22–23; 2:5–6, 15, 17, 23; and for the adult Jesus, see 3:3; 4:12–16; 12:15–21; 13:14–15, 35).
So many parts of the early life of Jesus as Matthew recounts it are presented in a way that makes them consistent with these prophecies—although one of them (2:23) cannot actually be found in the Bible! It is most likely that Matthew has constructed his story so that it fits with these scriptural prophecies. They provide him with a familiar framework for telling the story.
Only Matthew tells about Herod and his slaughter of the innocents. Such an event is unknown from any other ancient literature. Had it actually taken place, it is likely that it would have been reported elsewhere. This event, and others in Matthew’s version of Jesus’ early life, mirror the pattern of events at the start of Moses’ life. There is the slaughter of infant males under 2 years by a tyrannical ruler, and the flight into another country by the boy’s parents, so that the boy is saved. In this way, Matthew presents Jesus as “the new Moses”.
14 If we can’t be sure about so many parts of the story, why do we still tell it each year?
The Christmas story is a myth. That is what gives it an incredible narrative power. Myths are the stories we tell that convey deep-seated and fundamental insights about life. Whether they “actually happened” is not the point. More fundamental is that they help us to make sense of our lives. They draw us out of our comfort and preoccupations, and challenge us to see a different reality, to live a different life.
Bernard F. Batto (Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at DePauw University, Indiana), writes: “In everyday usage today, myth carries a meaning of something untrue, a fable, a fiction, or an illusion. Anthropologists and historians of religion, however, use the term ‘myth’ with a quite different meaning. For them myth refers to a traditional story, usually associated with the time of origins, that has paradigmatic significance for the society in which the story is operative.”
So, this Christmas, let’s rejoice that we have this foundational and paradigmatic story which is not history (ἱστορία), but which functions as myth (μῦθος). And as myth, this story stirs our imaginings and challenges our presuppositions, giving us a different perspective on the realities of life in this world, indicating to us how God engages with us and interacts with our world.
As myth, the story points to important truths. It orients us to the claim that God is involved in human history. It sets the foundations for hearing the narratives about Jesus as accounts which resonate with God’s intentions for humanity. So it is worth telling, and hearing, and singing, and acting out, year after year: because it touches the deep places of our lives, because it resonates with our hopes and aspirations. We don’t have to work to ensure people see it as history. It is myth. That is enough. That is its power.
Luke sets his story of the birth of Jesus “in the days of King Herod of Judea” (Luke 1:5). King Herod died soon after an eclipse of the moon soon before a Passover, according to the Jewish historian Josephus; that was most likely in March/April of 4BCE, by our reckoning. So Mary was pregnant, and gave birth, some years before the mythical “year zero”. (There was, of course, no “year zero”. The calendar flipped from 1BCE straight to 1 CE.)
Later, after the death of Herod, the region of Galilee came under the control of Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great and one of his wives, Malthace, from Samaria. Herod senior was the king who, according to Matthew, ordered the slaughter of all males born in Israel (Matt 2:16-18). Herod Antipas was, according to Mark, the ruler who, against his better judgement, ordered the beheading of John the baptiser (Mark 6:17-29). Herod Agrippa was another member of the family, a grandson of King Herod by another of his wives, Mariamne, who ruled as King of Judea from 41 to 44 CE.
9 Was Mary a pregnant virgin?
When Luke introduces Mary, he reports that the angel Gabriel appears to “a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; the virgin’s name was Mary” (Luke 1:27). After listening to what the angel says, Mary questions the announcement of her pregnancy and the promised birth of a son: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34).
The assertion that Mary is pregnant despite being a virgin is a part of the cluster of miraculous events taking place in the first two chapters of Luke’s orderly account—a young virgin conceives, a barren old woman conceives, a talkative father is struck dumb, and a number of angelic appearances occur. Luke never explains his claim that Mary is a virgin; he simply assert this.
Matthew explains that “the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way: when his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit” (Matt 1:18). The event is seen by Matthew also as a miraculous divine intervention. However, Matthew provides an explanation of the birth of Jesus as taking place “to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet” (Matt 1:22).
At this point, Matthew agrees with Luke; they each include the claim about Mary’s virginity. And from this, the statement made it into the Apostles Creed and later affirmations of faith.
However, these two writers are the only two amongst all the New Testament writers who know anything of Mary’s alleged virginity. Neither Mark nor John tell of the actual birth of Jesus, while Paul makes no reference to Mary’s virginity when he states that “God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law” (Gal 4:4). Other authors don’t refer to his birth at all.
So I don’t adhere to the “Virgin Mary” part of the story. I think she was pregnant to Joseph, pure and simple. The claim that Mary was a virgin was not historical; it was a later apologetic addition.
10 Why are the shepherds included in the story?
The story of the shepherds is not told in Matthew’s book of origins. It is told only in Luke’s orderly account. I think it likely that the shepherds who came in from the fields to pay homage to the newborn child would have been somewhat ambiguous visitors. On the one hand, they were really “essential services”. Sheep were common in Israel; they provided meat for food, milk for drink, wool for clothing, and the animal for the requisite daily sacrifice at the Temple.
On the other hand, they were considered akin to outcasts, impure and unclean, placed outside the circle of holiness within which good Jews were expected to live. In the Mishnah, a third century work which collects and discusses traditional Jewish laws, shepherds are classified amongst those who practice “the craft of robbers”. These are not highly valued guests!
Luke’s recounting of the visit of the outcast shepherds to the infant child and his family serves a theological purpose. The visit indicates that those on the edge were welcomed by Jesus, at the start of his life, as well as right throughout his ministry (Luke 5:12–13; 5:29–32; 6:30; 7:34, 37; 8:26–33; 9:37–43; 14:13, 21: 15:1–2). He grounds the message of the Gospel in the heart of the needs of the people of his day.
The role of the shepherds in the story also allows Luke to include another song of joy in these opening chapters: the song sung by the angels to the shepherds in the fields: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!” (Luke 2:14). This follows on from the songs of Mary (1:46–55) and Zechariah (1:68–79), and leads on to the song of Simeon (2:29–32). All four songs show that the birth of Jesus signals forgiveness, joy, peace, salvation, and redemption for Israel.
So whether these characters were actual historical events is almost by-the-by. What is most important is the role they play in the story that Luke has shaped—an ancient story which endures (albeit with elaborations and additions) into the present age.
We are at a critical moment in Australia, as we watch the beginnings of the Omicron phase of the global pandemic here. And we are being told to
Prime Minister Morrison says that we need to “keep our nerve, keep calm and carry on”, and that “we want to stay safely open so the economy can continue to grow and people can get jobs”. NSW Premier Perrottet advises that we must “move away from fear” and “take on more hope and confidence”. Again and again, day after day, we hear advice that we must now “learn to live with COVID”.
“Living with COVID” is a sly, misleading, devious slogan. It belies the fact that whilst many are “living with COVID”, there is a regular stream of deaths each day, as the chart below shows (Victoria on the left, NSW on the right). Think about those 74 deaths from COVID in NSW and Victoria that are tabled on that chart, from the last 12 days.
Think about those 2,146 deaths across the country that have been attributed to COVID since March 2020.
How many grieving spouses does this represent? How many children, siblings, parents, cousins are mourning? How many neighbours, lifetime friends, extended family members will be amongst those impacted? And how many medical and hospital staff are being hit emotionally by the persistent recurring patients deaths that they experience?
Many are living with COVID, but also many are dying from COVID or grieving because of COVID.
“Living with COVID” reminds me of the slogan that the prophet Jeremiah punctured: “peace, peace”. He says, “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. They acted shamefully, they committed abomination; yet they were not at all ashamed, they did not know how to blush … We look for peace, but find no good, for a time of healing, but there is terror instead” (Jer 8:11-12, 15).
Those words can apply to the Prime Minister, the Premiers, the “leaders” that bleat that this is just “personal responsibility”, the “leaders” that abdicate their responsibility to lead, to mandate sensible restrictions, to model good practice, to advocate for the most vulnerable and exposed in the communities they allegedly “serve”.
We can deal with the current situation in a much better way than abdicating everything to “personal responsibility”.
“See, I am letting snakes loose among you, adders that cannot be charmed, and they shall bite you, says the Lord” (Jer 8:17). As it was then, so it is now.
In the traditional Christmas story it is a dutiful donkey, a faithful beast of burden, which provides the means of transport for the pregnant Mary on its back. However, nowhere in any Gospel does it say that Mary rode a donkey on that journey. The whole journey is given in three short verses: “All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.” (Luke 2:3-5).
One of the main reasons why a donkey is associated with the Christmas story is because of the way the story is told in The Protoevangelium of James, an ancient account of Mary’s life that probably originated in the 2nd century, but was not included in the Bible. That text reads: “And there was an order from the Emperor Augustus, that all in Bethlehem of Judæa should be enrolled. And Joseph said: “I shall enroll my sons, but what shall I do with this maiden? How shall I enroll her? As my wife? I am ashamed. As my daughter then? But all the sons of Israel know that she is not my daughter.” “The day of the Lord shall itself bring it to pass as the Lord will.” And he saddled the ass, and set her upon it; and his son led it, and Joseph followed.”
So although this story is an early part of Catholic and Orthodox Church tradition, it does not have the same authority for Protestant believers because it is not in the Bible. Nevertheless, it is quite plausible that Joseph may have obtained a donkey to carry Mary. Donkeys were a common form of transportation (see Matt 21:1–8; John 12:14–15); there are many references to travelling by donkey in Hebrew Scriptures (such as Gen 22:3–5; 44:13; Num 22; Josh 15:17–19; Judges 1:14; 19:28; etc).
Perhaps the strongest influence might have been the story of Moses, travelling from Midian back to Egypt: “So Moses took his wife and sons, put them on a donkey, and went back to the land of Egypt; and Moses carried the staff of God in his hand” (Exod 4:20). So, did Mary travel on a donkey? Quite possibly.
However, most modern biblical scholars say that it is more likely that the Holy Family traveled in a caravan of people. Chris Mueller, in an article for Ascension Press, paints a much different picture. He writes: “Mary and Joseph were not the only ones taking the journey. More than likely, the routes between cities were crowded with travelers. Nobody would consider taking a trip like this alone. It would not have been safe, as the territory between towns was not policed and bandits would have been a real concern. The people probably traveled in great caravans for convenience and safety. Mary and Joseph would have been among the vast migration of people.”
6 Was there really no room left at the local motel?
Reading Matthew’s account, we have no clues at all about what happened when Jesus was born. Luke gives just a few details, informing us that Mary “laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7). But that, still, is a rather sparse account. We don’t have the length and weight of the baby and the precise time of birth, like so many proud parents today post on social media!
What was this “inn” that was the birthplace, as Luke maintains, for the infant Jesus? The Greek word used here, κατάλυμα (kataluma), is relatively rare in the New Testament, but appears in many places in ancient Greek literature. It refers usually to a guest chamber or lodging place in a private home. The same term appears in Luke 22:11 with the meaning “guest room,” and the verb derived from this noun appears in Luke 9:12 and Luke 19:7, where it means something like “find lodging” or “be a guest.”
Moreover, in the story of the Good Samaritan, when Jesus refers to the place where the injured traveller rests—clearly a commercial inn—a specific word meaning an inn frequented by travellers is used (pandokian; see Luke 10:34).
So Joseph and Mary were most likely hoping to find shelter with a family member in Bethlehem. That would make sense, given what we know of ancient life; in Jewish society (indeed, in all ancient Mediterranean societies), hospitality was very important. Travel to a town where members of the extended family lived would usually mean staying with them. Unfortunately for them, in the story, once they arrived, they found many other family members had arrived before them. So there was no room in the kataluma, the guest house in the family member’s home.
So banish thoughts of the local Best Western being overflowing, with its flashing neon “No Vacancy” sign. Luke’s story probably suggests that Joseph and Mary were planning to stay at the home of friends or relatives; but the home where they arrived was so full, even the guest room was overflowing, and so they had to be housed with the animals in a lower in the lower part of the house. That was the custom (to house animals in a special section of the house), and that, of course, would be where the manger was to be found.
7 Was Jesus really placed in an animal’s feeding trough?
If we continue to follow the story that Luke tells, then the newborn Jesus is placed into a manger, a trough normally used for feeding household animals. Joel Green believes that Mary and Joseph would have been the guests of family or friends, but because their home was so overcrowded, the baby was placed in a feeding trough. (Green, Luke, NITCNT, 128-29)
Sharon Ringe suggests that “others from a higher rung on the social ladder and in the hierarchy of obligations and honor that characterized Palestinian society had already claimed the space. Not even Mary’s obvious need could dislodge such a firmly implanted order of rights and privileges. Instead of having a guest room, then, Mary, Joseph, and the baby are left to spend their nights in Bethlehem in the manger area where the birth has taken place.” (Ringe, Luke: Westminster Bible Companion, 42)
There is even an old tradition going back to Justin Martyr (who lived 100–165CE), who says it occurred in a cave where animals were housed (Dialogue with Trypho 78). “But when the Child was born in Bethlehem, since Joseph could not find a lodging in that village, he took up his quarters in a certain cave near the village; and while they were there Mary brought forth the Christ and placed Him in a manger, and here the Magi who came from Arabia found Him. I have repeated to you what Isaiah foretold about the sign which foreshadowed the cave.”
Justin claims that by being born in a cave, Jesus fulfils the prophecy of Isaiah 33:16, “he shall dwell in the lofty cave of the strong rock; bread shall be given to him, and his water [shall be] sure”. However, although this verse refers to a cave, there is nothing at all about any birth in that cave.
Nevertheless, the story stuck; Origen refers to it in his work AgainstCelsus (“there is shown at Bethlehem the cave where He was born, and the manger in the cave where He was wrapped in swaddling-clothes. And this sight is greatly talked of in surrounding places”, 1.51). The cave as the place where Jesus was born is included in the narratives of the Protoevangelium of James (Joseph “found a cave there, and led her into it; and leaving his two sons beside her, he went out to seek a midwife in the district of Bethlehem”, 17–18) and the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (an angel “commanded the blessed Mary to come down off the animal, and go into a recess under a cavern, in which there never was light, but always darkness, because the light of day could not reach it”, ch.13).
Was the manger a feeding trough in a cave? or in an outhouse? Robert Tannehill returns to the story of the kataluma, noting that “moving to the manger might take only a few steps, if we assume a one-room farmhouse where the family quarters might be separated from the animal quarters only by being on a raised platform.” (Tannehill, Luke: Abingdon New Testament Commentaries, 65).
Darrell Bock writes that “in all likelihood, the manger is an animal’s feeding trough, which means the family is in a stable or in a cave where animals are housed.” (Bock, Luke: IVP New Testament Commentary, 55). Bock notes the rhetorical ploy of drawing a clear contrast between “the birth’s commonness and the child’s greatness”; perhaps this influenced Luke to provide this particular narrative detail?
So it is plausible that there were animals in near proximity when Jesus was born; the feeding trough suggests an animal shelter. The most commonly pictured animals in traditional nativities, the ox and donkey, are introduced in later apocryphal texts, and most likely draw from the statement by Isaiah that “the ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib” (Isa 1:3), even though this statement was spoken in a very different context.
1 Who was the first person to be told the news about the coming of the child Jesus? And where were they?
Was it Joseph? Or Mary? And were they in Nazareth? Or in Bethlehem?
According to Luke, it was in Nazareth, in the northern region of Galilee, that an angel named Gabriel appeared to Mary, to inform her that she would bear a child (Luke 1:26). That is different from the story told in Matthew’s Gospel, where an unnamed angel delivers the same message, not to Mary, but to Joseph, to whom she was engaged (Matt 1:18).
The location of the announcement in Matthew’s account is not specified, but it is reasonable to assume from the flow of the narrative that this took place in the southern region of Judah, in Bethlehem (Matt 2:1, 6). Matthew, having located the family initially in the southern city from the beginning, has no need of the story of a census and a forced trip from Nazareth to Galilee (Luke 2:1-4). The family is already in Bethlehem, another small village, but in the south, in Judea.
So we have two versions, with significant differences.
2 Were Joseph and Mary travelling while she was heavily pregnant?
The story told by Luke reports a widespread movement of the population that meant a pregnant Mary from Nazareth, accompanied by Joseph, had to travel afar and find lodging in the crowded town of Bethlehem just at the most inconvenient time—because “a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered” (Luke 2:1).
There are historical problems with this story. Identifying the census as an actual historical event, and locating it accurately in time, both present challenges. There is no other record of such a Roman census at that time. King Herod, noted as ruling at Luke 1:5, and also at Matt 2:1, died in 4BCE, but Quirinius, who ordered the census noted in Luke’s account, began as Governor in 6 CE.
Even though the combined story has entered the popular mindset as a real event and provides a clear and compelling picture of the holy family as travelling far when Mary was at term, because of decisions made by political authorities, whether Herod or Quirinius, we can’t say that it actually took place. So the answer is, a very hesitant, maybe.
3 Was it actually a “silent night”?
No: it is not the case that “all was calm, all was bright”, that it was a “silent night”, that the cattle were gently lowing and “the little Lord Jesus … no crying did make”. Lots of travellers and inns that were full would surely mean the town was abuzz? This was no irenic scene, such as we see on Christmas cards and sing of in Christmas carols.
Mary giving birth would surely have meant that it was not, in fact, a silent night. Labour without any modern medication would have been primal and harsh. The arrival of the child was surely signalled by that first hearty cry of a newborn, piercing the other sounds of the noisy night.
Although the Bible is silent on the matter, the Quran reports of Maryam (Mary), “The labor-pains came upon her, by the trunk of a palm-tree. She said, ‘I wish I had died before this, and been completely forgotten’” (19:23). The Bible does not mention any labour pains or any physical pain in the birth narratives. But let us not think that it was a silent night—in all probability, it was very noisy!
Matthew and Luke claim that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in Judaea. No other biblical reference agrees with this, however. In fact, in his adult life, Jesus was known as “Jesus of Nazareth”, a town in Galilee (Matt 21:11; Mark 14:67; Luke 24:19; John 1:46; Acts 2:22). He is identified as a Galilean (Matt 26:69; Luke 23:5–7). There is no mention of his birth in Bethlehem outside the accounts of Matthew and Luke. His home is in Nazareth, and he spends almost all of his life in Galilee. The answer to this question is No.
So why do two writers claim that he is a Judean? One clue can be found in John 7:40–43, which indicates that Jewish people expected the Messiah to be born in Bethlehem, of the line of David. This view is based on the prophetic word of Micah 5:2, “from you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, shall come forth one who is to be ruler in Israel”. This is precisely the way Matthew and Luke tell it. Jesus is born in Bethlehem. However, no other biblical writers know anything of this story.
It appears that Matthew and Luke have shaped their versions of Jesus’ birth so that it accords with traditional Jewish expectations. They do not recount precise historical information. Rather, they tell a story in such a way that it implicitly meets expectations about Jesus. And so, because he allegedly comes from Bethlehem in Judea, they can claim that he is the Messiah.
Throughout the year that is now drawing to a close, the Canberra Region Presbytery Co-Chairs and Presbytery Ministers have joined with leaders from Synod and the 12 other Presbyteries in our Synod, for a regular monthly online meeting.
These monthly meetings have been held since early in 2021 (in 2020, we were meeting weekly, then fortnightly, to deal with the unprecedented stress of COVID-19 and the restrictions that were brought in). These meetings have been invaluable for maintaining contact and support across the leadership of all Presbyteries during the challenging times of the COVID-19 pandemic.
We were asked to comment on three questions—and we thought we would share our responses with people across the Canberra Region Presbytery, as our final message for 2021. The three questions are: What are some things that have been celebrated in 2021? What are some things that have been learned in 2021? And What are some things that we are hopeful for 2022?
Here’s what we shared.
Some things we celebrated: We celebrated milestones in the lives of a number of Congregations: Goulburn 150 years, Weston Creek 50 years, Kippax 50 years, and Gungahlin 25 years; and we celebrated the establishment of two new congregations, Parkesbourne—Merrilla, and Woden Valley.
We celebrated the fact that Presbytery is drawing alongside Rise Ministries to support a fresh expression of church in a disused church building at St Aidan’s Narrabundah (now called Rise Sanctuary) In other words, we celebrated faithful worship, witness and service in a number of locations, each quite different, across the Presbytery.
Some things we learned: We had two online presbytery meetings that were theme-focussed—one on advocacy, one on chaplaincy—and one in-person meeting with consideration of mission. These meetings provided stimulus and resourced the thinking of Presbytery members, and we hope that this will flow on into the discipleship of individuals and the mission of Congregations.
We also learned about ways we included folk who are spread over a wide distance in ministry training, Code of Ethics and Code of Conduct workshops, Sacraments Refresher sessions, Bible studies, Presbytery meetings, and other sessions, via ZOOM. The changed circumstances with restrictions on moving around or even gathering have opened up such opportunities, making these offerings more accessible across a wider audience.
Some things we are hopeful for in 2022: We are hopeful about the mission planning process for the Presbytery that will take place in 2022. We are also hopeful about what might emerge as we develop our work on how we use property to resource mission.
We are hopeful for growing interconnection, mutual support, sharing of resources and talents. We are hopeful for the future because of a more educated laity taking on leadership and seeing new ways of doing and being. We also sense that there is a changing feeling about letting go; more of us are willing to let go and embrace change in what is coming in the future.
We are thankful that through the concerns and challenges of 2021, we have seen the continuing faithfulness and grace of God amongst us. We are thankful for all those in ministry and congregations who have expressed their discipleship in acts of encouragement, kindness, generosity and care for others.
As we move into the time of the year when things become hectic, pressures rise, and events multiply (as they do each and every year—not just during COVID!), may we know the abiding presence of the Spirit, the peace of the one whom God sent to proclaim peace, and the joy of the news that God is active and at work in our world!
Ross, Judy, Andrew, and John Canberra Region Presbytery December 2021