Jesus has died. His body has been handed over to followers, placed in a tomb, and left for the Sabbath. By tradition, the body would next be anointed with spices. Normally, the role of anointing a body of a deceased person is undertaken by women. Perhaps the reference to washing the body of Tabitha after her death (Acts 9:37) refers to this?
Josephus describes the rites relating to the body of the young Jonathan III Aristobulus, a High Priest who was murdered in 35 BCE. After his death, there was “great preparation for a sepulchre to lay his body in; and providing a great quantity of spices; and burying many ornaments together with him (Antiquities 15.4). This was a lavish provision for a high status person; we can deduce, by analogy, that similar funeral rites were offered to the bodies others of lesser status on their death.
Indeed, two of the Synoptics note this practice: when the women came to the tomb, they “bought spices, so that they might go anoint him” (Mark 16:1); they came, “taking the spices that they had prepared” (Luke 24:1; see also 23:55–56). Matthew, by contrast, simply states that the women “went to see the tomb” (Matt 28:1); there is no mention of spices in this version, where the focus is more on the claim that the disciples stole the body (Matt 27:64–66; 28:13–15).
This anointing of the body was to be done, at the first possible opportunity, after the Sabbath. Yet, although the women come to the tomb, prepared to anoint the body (Mark 16:1–2), they are curiously unprepared with any plan to roll away the stone that had been placed over the mouth of the tomb (Mark 16:3; perhaps this inferred at Luke 24:1–2 ?).
Matthew, of course, tells of the exact moment that “an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it” (Matt 28:2). This is one of two dramatic apocalyptic events that Matthew recounts. When the curtain in the temple is torn in two, the scene evokes the apocalypse: the earth shook, the rocks were split, the tombs were opened, the saints were raised (27:51–53).
So, when the women arrive at the tomb, and the angel rolls back the stone, there is another such moment; “his appearance was like lightning, his clothing white as snow” (28:3); the guards at the tomb “shook and became like dead men” (28:4). Both scenes evoke the apocalyptic scenario that Matthew has had Jesus point to before his arrest (24:29–31, referencing Isa 13:10–13).
In John’s Gospel, by contrast, there is an interesting twist. John reports that the anointing of the body was undertaken immediately by the two men who had taken custody of the body of Jesus—Joseph of Arimathea, “who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the [Jewish authorities]” (John 19:38), and Nicodemus, “who had at first come to Jesus by night” (19:39).
The two men had a large amount of “myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds”, which they wrapped “in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews” (19:40). I can’t find a specific reference that substantiates what those burial customs were in the first century (the relative dearth of historical sources for this time is a regular problem encountered in biblical studies). There are laws relating to this from later centuries. Did they apply in the first century?
James McGrath, in his book on “The Burial of Jesus: History and Faith”, 2008 (see https://www.amazon.com/Burial-Jesus-History-Faith/dp/1439210179) argues that “the account in Mark’s Gospel itself seems to suggest that some of the concerns of later Jewish laws preserved in rabbinic sources existed at the time of Jesus”—laws such as not leaving the body exposed overnight, not giving the body of the deceased to the family immediately, and placing the body in a nearby tomb used for the bodies of those executed. He thinks that later changes to the story reflect the discomfort and embarrassment of the earliest followers of Jesus regarding the burial of Jesus; an hypothesis that has much merit.
The story of the anointing of the body of Jesus this grows over time; the respect accorded to Jesus has been overlaid across the bare narrative of the earliest account. The notion that the body of Jesus could be left out for the vultures, or thrown into a communal grave, is anathema to the faithful Jewish followers of Jesus.
Powerful figures step into the story, to request the body and deal reverently with the body. The story grows in each telling, with another small element being added, to ensure that the holiness of the body of Jesus is maintained. Even in the despair of death, the story claims the importance of Jesus. Such is the power of the storytelling amongst the earliest followers of Jesus.
There are many scenes, and much close description, of the events that took place in Jerusalem in the days leading up to the death of Jesus, in the year 33CE) by most scholarly reckoning). We have already seen some differences in the way that the very last moments of Jesus, on the cross, are reported. But what happened after Jesus died?
By contrast, the Gospel of Peter (a second century document, written to counter some emerging “heresies”) claims that “the Lord screamed out, saying: ‘My power, O power, you have forsaken me.’ And having said this, he was taken up.” (Gosp. Peter 19). This was presumably his soul departing into heaven, for the body of Jesus was given to Joseph and placed in a tomb (Gosp. Peter 23–24). For the text of this Gospel, see http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/gospelpeter-brown.html
The earliest account of the actions of Joseph is found in Mark’s account. “Then Joseph bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock; he then rolled a stone against the door of the tomb” (Mark 15:46).
The action of Joseph would accord with the instruction in the Hebrew Torah: “When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse. You must not defile the land that the LORD your God is giving you for possession.” (Deut 21:22-23). Joseph, by requesting the body, demonstrates his fidelity to Torah.
I am indebted to James McGrath for drawing this text to my attention; he has canvassed many of these issues in his book on “The Burial of Jesus: History and Faith”, 2008; see https://www.amazon.com/Burial-Jesus-History-Faith/dp/1439210179. Dr McGrath notes that Mark’s account tells us that “Jesus’ disciples were not in a position to accord Jesus an honourable burial … a pious Jewish leader named Joseph of Arimathea made sure that Jewish law was observed”. He cites a note in Josephus’ Jewish War that indicates this was a practice known elsewhere. As Josephus puts it, “the Jews are so careful about burial rites that even malefactors who have been sentenced to crucifixion are taken down and buried before sunset” (Jewish War, 4.317).
Whether the governor, Pilate, would have been amenable to this specific request, is dubious—given that the bodies of criminals who died by crucifixion were regularly cast into a communal pit outside the city, or there bodies were left out in the open for vultures to pick over. There was no honouring of the lives of criminals for the Romans. However, as the Torah prescribes an early burial of a dead body, it may well be that Joseph, a righteous man, and Nicodemus, a member of the Sanhedrin, would have been pressing Pilate to ensure that they were able to adhere to that commandment (Deut 21:22–23, cited above).
The first thing that we know about the tomb, in Mark’s earliest account, is that it was a tomb hewn out of rock (Mark 15:46). When Matthew takes this account and retells it, he adds two striking details: first, the tomb belonged to Joseph; and second, it had not yet been used. Matthew reports that “Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock; he then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away” (Matt 27:59–60).
That Joseph owned the tomb may well have been inferred in Mark’s account, but Matthew makes it explicit. That it was a previously unused tomb is new information. Again, James McGrath argues that this added detail was an apologetic argument added because of difficulties with the story; the addition is “an attempt by later followers of Jesus to honour Jesus in their depiction of the burial, in a way his disciples had been unable to in historical reality”. The tomb, he maintains, in contradiction to the explicit claim in the text, was actually not owned by Joseph.
Luke includes this detail in his account: when Pilate permits Joseph to claim the body of Jesus, “he took it down wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid” (Luke 23:53). Luke, like Mark, makes no direct statement as to whether Joseph owned the tomb. It is the pristine, unused character of the tomb that he highlights. Could this be a reference to the significance of Jesus? He is accorded an honour, as God’s holy one, of being interred in a pure, unused tomb. Matthew makes sure we know that he was wrapped in a clean linen cloth and placed in a new tomb; both details undergird this apologetic claim about Jesus.
Luke does not indicate that Joseph was doing this because he was a disciple of Jesus; he is simply “a good and righteous man” (Luke 23:50), perhaps in the same way that Elizabeth and Mary “were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord” (Luke 1 6)—that is, a faithful and devout Jew.
Of course, in the Apostles Creed (shaped not by the original apostles but in a later time), there is a statement that Jesus “was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead”.
This affirmation was presumably included on the basis of the claim in the first letter attributed to Peter, that Jesus, as a spirit, “went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison” (1 Pet 3:19), the later statement that “the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead” (1 Pet 4:6), and the reference in Ephesians, a later circular letter attributed to Paul, that Jesus “descended into the lower parts of the earth” (Eph 4:6).
There is, however, no reference to this journey to the underworld (the so-called Harrowing of Hell) in any of the Gospel narratives. The symbolism that these anonymous apostles develop is not evident in any way in the Gospels. The implication is, rather, that the spirit of Jesus goes to be with God in a heavenly realm, even as his body is dealt with in the earthly sphere.
There are many scenes, and much close description, of the events that took place in Jerusalem in the days leading up to the death of Jesus, in the year 33CE (by most scholarly reckoning). The scene of his death is portrayed by all four evangelists.
Mark reports that, when Jesus was drawing near to his death, “darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon” (Mark 15:33) and, after he had uttered his last words, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (15:38).
Luke repeats this, bringing the two happenings together into one moment of time, before Jesus utters his final words: “darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two” (Luke 23:44–45). For both evangelists, the death of Jesus was a moment of high drama, underlined by these unnatural happenings.
Matthew repeats the words and the order found in Mark (Matt 27:45, 51) but adds a graphic happening—“the earth shook, and the rocks were split; the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised” (27:51–52).
The narrator continues, breathlessly, jumping ahead in the story: “after his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many” (27:53). It’s a striking element, more noteworthy because it is neither explicitly told nor hinted at by any other canonical evangelist. But for Matthew, the moment of death brought to the fore the apocalyptic turmoil of God’s direct intervention in history, signalled by the earthquake, the seismic fissure, and a premature resurrection of saints.
Quite by contrast, the Johannine version reports no darkness over the land, no tearing of the temple curtain, no earthquake, and certainly no opening of to,bs and no resurrected saints walking the streets! John simply reports that Jesus, thirsting, was given wine, and “when Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” (John 19:30). It is a most serene ending.
Each writer indicates that Jesus spoke words moments before his death; just as there are differences relating to the way Jesus died, so there are three rather different versions of the last words spoken by Jesus just before he died. Mark says that Jesus “cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”” (Mark 15:34); soon after this, he “gave a loud cry and breathed his last” (15:37).
The words on the lips of Jesus come from Psalm 22, which is one of a group known as the psalms of the righteous sufferer (a group often identified as also including Psalms 27, 67, and 109). Jesu, in his pain and anguish, is drawing on his religious tradition; the psalm he quotes is most apposite for what he is experiencing at that moment.
The version of Jesus’ last words, reported by Mark, is followed almost exactly by Matthew, writing his book of origins some years after Mark had completed his writing. (One relatively minor difference is that Mark quotes the psalm in Hebrew, the formal language of scripture, whereas Matthew renders it in Aramaic, the vernacular of Jesus.)
Luke also has Jesus quoting a psalm, but it has a very different tone. “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46, quoting Ps 31:5) has a very different feel—it depicts a man going to his death with certainty, knowing his fate, assured that he will be received by God. It has a heroic feel, with the key figure almost choosing his time of death at the climactic moment in the story.
Indeed, Luke portrays this scene as a moment of theatre (the NRSV refers to “the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle”, 23:48). Immediately after Jesus utters his last words, says Luke, “having said this, he breathed his last” (23:46). His manner of dying evokes praise to God from the centurion standing watch by his cross (23:47).
John places just one solitary Greek word on the lips of Jesus at his last moment; it needs three words to render it in English (“it is finished”, or “it is completed”, or “it is fulfilled”; John 19:30). This, too, has a sense of acceptance, a recognition by Jesus that all the he had been undertaking had now been completed.
“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:24); it was “his hour … to depart from this world and go to the Father” (13:1), the hour when the Father would “glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you … by finishing the work that you gave me to do”, as Jesus prays just before his arrest (17:1, 4). The hour had come; the work was done; all was complete. The moment was calm and serene; Jesus “bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (19:30).
Three different perspectives on the significance of the work of Jesus, placed into his mouth at the moment of death, by three different authors, providing their own accounts of his life and importance.
“So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified” (Mark 15:15). Each of the four canonical Gospels report that there was a chance that Jesus of Nazareth might have been released, and not sent to his death on the cross; and that Barabbas was released in his place.
Is this factual reporting? Did this actually happen in real historical time? Or was it a fable, a myth, a story “made up” in the telling? Barabbas appears in all four Gospels (Matt 27:15–26; Mark 15:6–15; Luke 23:13–25; John 18:39–40). What are we to make of him?
Certainly the actual death of Jesus was an event that happened in real historical time. Although some critics have disputed this, the evidence is clear that Jesus did exist, and that he did actually die. The year 33 is the year that is normally identified as the year of his death. See https://www.patheos.com/blogs/keithgiles/2022/04/did-jesus-even-exist/
In thinking about this story, there are a number of elements to consider. The name Barabbas is the first of these. It is an Aramaic name, combining two nouns: bar, meaning son, and abba, meaning father. So he is “the son of the father”—a name replete with symbolism, especially when he is placed alongside Jesus of Nazareth, son of God.
Indeed, the third century writer, Origen, in his Commentary on Matthew (ch 27, para 17), indicates that he had access to versions of Matthew’s Gospel that identified Barabbas as “Jesus Barabbas”. This strengthens the symbolic power of this figure and suggests that he might have functioned as an “alternative Jesus”, a literary device, to invite the reader to see the choice available to the crowd, and by extension, to consider their own choice in relation to Jesus: a kind of ancient altar call, “whom do you choose: Jesus, son of the father, or Jesus, the Son of God?”
Some interpreters suggest that perhaps there might be an allusion to the Israelite ritual of the scapegoat, in which one sacrificial goat is released whilst another bears the weight of sin as an atoning substitute (Lev 16:8-10; 23:27–32). In the Gospels, one son is released on behalf of the people; but this person is not the true “son of the [F]ather”; rather, the true son of God is forced to his death, which is later interpreted as a death that does carry the weight of Israel’s sin, in the manner of the scapegoat. It’s an ironic, dramatic depiction of the scapegoat process. Perhaps.
The status of Barabbas is a second factor to consider. Mark describes him as “a man [who] was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection” (Mark 15:7). The word used to describe this “insurrection”, stasis, has the sense of a violent uprising. A word from the same root is used to describe those in prison with Barabbas—“rebels”.
The word stasis had long been used to describe the civil wars that broke out within the Greek city-states, often because of economic inequalities, social conflicts, and class struggle. Barabbas, it would seem, had been implicated in such an uprising; he was imprisoned with others (rebels) who had taken part in such an uprising, and he had committed murder in the course of this insurrection.
Matthew describes him, more succinctly, as “a notorious prisoner” (Matt 27:16); the word used here, desmion, has a less dramatic force, for it is the usual term for a prisoner, with no sense of political agitation attached (for instance, it is applied to Paul when he is in prison at Acts 16:25, 27; 23:8; 25:14, 27; 28:17; Phlmn 1:1, 9; Eph 3:1; 4:1; 2 Tim 1:8). Matthew has reduced the tension and removed the dimension of political agitation in his version.
John is similarly succinct, describing Barabbas as “a bandit” (John 18:40). However, the word used here, lēstēs, is loaded with political weight. It can refer to a robber, or a bandit; or it can have a more focussed sense of a rebel, a revolutionary. The former meaning is conveyed by the word in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30, 36) and in the words of denunciation that Jesus speaks to the money changers and buyers and sellers in the temple forecourt (Mark 11:17; Matt 21:13; Luke 19:46). Such people are robbers who steal by surprise attack or by their unscrupulous practices.
It is, however, the more political sense of the word lēstēs that is more clearly in view in John’s narrative. Josephus, writing his account of the war that took place between the Romans and the Jews in 66–74 CE, uses this word forty two times; most of these instances describe either men who lay in wait beside the roadside to rob passing travellers (like in the familiar parable), or, more often, individuals who took part in the counter-insurgency against the Romans.
Their actions are violent and threatening; such men would work in groups, attack individuals (often in a crowd, which gave a protective cover to the perpetrator), acting with brutal violence. A number of times, in the reports of Josephus, these are violent actions undertaken for political purposes, by members of the group known collectively as the Zealots. The political overtones of the word are strong.
In such company, then, we find Barabbas (John 18:40) and, by implication, Jesus; certainly, the inscription that is placed over Jesus on the cross (Mark 15:26; Matt 27:37; Luke 23:38; John 19:19) refers to him as “King of the Jews”, a political attribution without doubt. Even when (as John reports) the chief priests questioned this wording, Pilate insisted: “what I have written, I have written” (John 19:20–22).
Indeed, those crucified alongside Jesus are described with the same term for the political insurgents described by Josephus, lēstēs, in two Gospel accounts: “with him they crucified two bandits (lēstas), one on his right and one on his left” (Mark 15:27; so also Matt 27:38, repeated at 27:44). Luke modifies his description of these two (Luke 23:23:33, 39; they are kakourgoi (literally, those who do wrong). Nevertheless, the NRSV and NIV both render this as “criminals”.
In fact, Jesus had already opened the door to a politicised interpretation of his mission, when he was approached by Temple soldiers in the garden, kissed in betrayal by Judas, and handed over to be taken to the authorities. Seeing the soldiers arrive, he said, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit (lēstēn) ? (Mark 14:48; the same word is also used at Matt 26:55; Luke 22:52). Jesus had already indicated that he knew that the Roman and Jewish authorities were perceiving that he was a political agitator.
Luke intensifies the negative portrayal of Barabbas, alongside of the way that he strengthens the innocence of Jesus. He depicts Barabbas as “a man who had been put in prison for an insurrection that had taken place in the city, and for murder” (Luke 23:19, repeated in 25). The word translated as insurrection is the Greek term stasis, already noted above as referring to a political uprising. Barabbas, in this account, is clearly a political agitator, prepared to commit murder in the course of his violent activism.
Luke provides this description in the context of the accusation that the chief priests made to Pilate against Jesus, that “he stirs up the people by teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began even to this place” (23:5), and the later indication by Pilate, that they had presented him as “one who was perverting the people” (23:14). This sounds clearly political; Jesus was being accused of being an activist, an agitator, at the very least.
Both times that this claim is raised, Pilate declares Jesus innocent; yet the same declaration is never made in relation to Barabbas. Luke’s apologetic intent is to lessen the blame placed on the Romans for the the death of Jesus, and to divert attention towards the Jews, as the prime instigator of this action against Jesus. This is yet another indication of political intent in the way that Jesus is perceived.
Did this incident involving Barabbas actually take place? The historical implausibility of this incident is a third important factor. The fact is that there is no evidence of such a custom in other ancient sources. Certainly, some conservative scholars have searched carefully and drawn from other texts incidents that they claim provide an analogy to the Barabbas incident.
An incident retold by Josephus is cited to indicate that the liberation of a prisoner did once take place (Antiquities 20.9.3); but this one-off occurrence did not reflect an annual custom. There are far too many dissimilarities to the Gospel narrative. It fails to support the Barabbas story. Another incident recounted by Livy (History of Rome 5.13) does tell of a temporary release of prisoners from their manacles; but this was done, under difficult conditions, in an attempt to appease the gods, to bring a change in the weather. It’s quite different from the Barabbas situation.
A third alleged parallel, from Roman law, is in the Papyrus Florentinus (61, 59ff). However, the prisoner who is released in this scene, after pleas from the crowd, had not yet been declared guilty (as Barabbas had), and it was not at a Jewish festival or even a Roman feast day (as Barabbas was). The parallels are feeble. There is also a complex argument mounted in relation to a single phrase in the tractate of the Mishnah dealing with Passover (Pesahim 8:6), but the parallels claimed and the way in which the text needs to be treated both mitigate against there being any relevance to the Barabbas story.
So I think that the ways that these incidents are claimed to provide a demonstration of the existence of a Paschal pardon such as the Gospels report are not at all clear. The more such scholars trawl the evidence and mount their arguments to say that this could really have happened, the more I recall the famous words, “methinks they doth protest too much” (adapted from Shakespeare’s Hamlet).
There is a clear political improbability to the account found in all four Gospels. Pilate was a ferocious and fearless leader whose strength of character is made clear by the numerous times that, according to Josephus, he sent in his troops to quell an uprising, to scatter a crowd, to squash a rebellion.
Pilate would not have been cowed by the crowd in Jerusalem for Passover; had he wanted to act, he would simply have ordered his troops to attack, scatter the crowd, and disperse the built-up tension. The Gospel accounts of Pilate, across all four narratives, are improbable; the apologetic purpose (to show the Romans in a better light, to avoid being seen as an agitator or rebel, and to place the blame on the Jewish authorities) becomes clear, when we read in this way. We need to bear all of this in mind, as we read and listen to the familiar narrative this Easter, and each Easter.
“You must be perfect”, Jesus instructs (Matt 5:48). Or, in the version Luke reports, “you must be merciful” (Luke 6:36). Whatever versions you prefer, both of them cite, as the model to be followed and aspired towards, “your Father” (meaning, of course, God).
How can we aspire to be precisely as God is? Well, that’s what Jesus instructs his earliest followers (and through them, us, today). So, what is God like? Perfect? Or Merciful?
Jesus, according to the tradition reflected in the Gospels, chose a group of his followers to form a core group of inner disciples (Luke 6:1–4; compare Mark 3:14–19, Matt 10:1–4, and Acts 1:23–14; and see also the reference to “the twelve”, unnamed, in John 6:66–71).
Admittedly, those named are all males (although the precise names vary a little between the various listings), which in itself contradicts the clear indication that women were at the very centre of those who followed Jesus from the start (Mark 15:40–41; Matt 27:55–56; Luke 23:49) and, indeed, that a group of women provided material support for Jesus from early on (Luke 8:1–3). But in a strongly patriarchal context, what else (sigh) might we expect?
It was, perhaps, to this inner group that Jesus spoke—although the setting for the teaching provided in Matt 5:48 is simply “his disciples” atop the mountain (Matt 5:1). “The twelve” were yet to be identified by name in Matthew; and besides, by the end of this lengthy discourse of teachings which Matthew has collated together (and which we now call The Sermon on the Mount), “the crowds” had gathered, listening in; for Matthew affirms that “the crowds were astounded at his teaching” (Matt 7:28).
That’s the setting for the admonition to “be perfect”. Jesus seems to be advocating that his inner group of followers demonstrate their scrupulous adherence to the Jewish Torah—indeed, he has advocated this a little earlier (at 5:17–20), with the implication (as we read this in English) that he is seeking absolutely perfect adherence to every single tiny detail of the Torah. That’s a large demand!
However, the basic sense of the word translated as “perfect” (teleios) is not so much scrupulous adherence to minute details, but rather that of moving to a state of fulfilment, completion, or wholeness. It is used five times in Matthew’s book of origins to indicate that Jesus has completed a discrete section of teaching (Matt 7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; 26:1). It is used in other Gospels to signal ways in which Jesus brings scriptural texts to fulfilment (Luke 18:31; 22:37; John 19:28; and see Luke 1:45).
In Matthew’s narrative, it even has the sense of the present age coming to an end (Matt 10:22; 24:6, 14)—a completion, or fulfilment, not simply in the ending of the present age, but in the ushering in of the new age. That may well be the force intended by the authorities of the fourth Gospel, when the dying Jesus utters the phrase tetelestai, “it is finished”, or better, “it is now fully accomplished” (John 19:30).
Perhaps its most controversial occurrence is at Rom 10:4, where Paul indicates that Christ is the telos of the law: does this infer “end as as abolition” (an unsatisfactory supercessionist reading), or (as I prefer) “end as in bringing to the height of fulfilment”? This accords with the use of the term in Pauline texts, where teleioi is used to refer to those with spiritual maturity (1 Cor 14:20; Phil 3:12, 15; Col 1:28; Eph 4:13). It is perhaps similar to the meaning in Hebrews, in the claim that Jesus is the means of offering a perfect sacrifice (Heb 2:10; 5:9) through which we are perfected (teteleiōken, Heb 10:14).
Thus, by using this rich theological term at 5:48, Matthew has Jesus indicate that those who follow him should be oriented towards being wholly and completely fulfilled as his followers, in the way that God is complete and whole in God’s own being.
Indeed, the clearest indication of what this state would look like, for his followers, is given in the conversation that Jesus later has with a young man who claims that he has, most assuredly, kept the commandments (19:16–20). What more does he need to do? he wonders. Jesus replies, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (19:21). Understandably, we are told that “when the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions” (19:22).
In Luke’s orderly account, by contrast, Jesus delivers his instruction to “be merciful” on “a level place”, amidst a crowd of people “from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon” (6:17) who are desperately seeking some measure of that mercy from Jesus himself, as they “were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them” (6:19).
The time that Jesus had recently spent on top of a mountain in Luke’s narrative had been personal, perhaps even private, devoted to all-night prayer (Luke 6:12) and the designation of those twelve disciples “whom he also named apostles” (6:13). These teachings, “on a level place”, were given amidst the curiosity and noise and anxious pressings to be healed of “a great multitude … all trying to touch him” (6:17, 19).
Jesus confronts this crowd with a series of provocative instructions in a section known as the sermon on the plain. After asserting that God blesses the poor, those who hunger and grieve, and brings woe upon the rich, those who are filled with food and laughter (6:20–26), he goes on to instruct them, not just to “love your neighbour” (as he later states, at 10:27, clearly drawing on Lev 19:18), but more than that, to “love your enemies” (6:27, 35).
Luke’s account stands in contrast to his teaching in the Gospel we attribute to Matthew, where Jesus exhorts his disciples to “be perfect, as your father in heaven is perfect” (Matt 5:48). The instruction to keep every one of “the least of these commandments”, following every letter, indeed every stroke of every letter (5:18–19) is completely absent in Luke’s narrative. (The isolated saying of Luke 16:16–17 perhaps comes close to this perspective.)
By contrast, the Lukan account has Jesus instructing the crowds to “be merciful, just as your father is merciful” (Luke 6:36, in the NRSV translation). What does he mean by this instruction? I believe that he wants the crowds to “show deep, empathic compassion, just as your father shows this deep, empathic compassion” (my own translation). For the Greek word employed at 6:36 is an unusual word.
The Lukan Jesus does not use the regular word for “mercy”, eleos, which appears 26 times in the New Testament (along with 29 occurrences of its cognate verb, eleeō). This is the usual NT translation for the Hebrew word for “mercy” (see Matt 9:13, quoting Hosea 6:6). It’s a word that has a sense of care for the other, as reflected in the Torah provisions of Lev 19:33-34, for instance.
Here, the word is oiktirmōn, a word which is rare in the NT but used regularly in the Septuagint to translate that quality of God which demonstrates deep, compassionate, empathic concern for the other. And this quality of relating in a way that attempts to “get right inside the skin” of the other person, is to behave in a way that is entirely and thoroughly counter-cultural.
People in the first century Mediterranean world were governed by the cultural patterns of patron-client relationships, where benefaction by the greater to the lesser was balanced by obligations that the lesser had towards the greater. Jesus assumes this way of operating in a number of his parables and teachings (such as Matt 18:23–35; Luke 11:11–12; 14:12; 19:11–27); it was the common cultural practice of ancient society (see a helpful discussion of this system at https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/ashland_theological_journal/31-1_032.pdf).
But not here, in the Lukan account of teachings spoken by Jesus (Luke 6:36). Here, the expectation is for giving without expectation of return. Acting without anticipation of the obligatory response. Compassionate care, offered and given wholly for the sake of the other, not with any expectation of gaining something in response. That is the focus for the Lukan Jesus.
And that is most surely just as deeply penetrating, just as all-consuming, and just as strongly confronting, as the Matthean demand to “be perfect”. Whichever version we prefer, we are facing a momentous challenge!
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.
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.
Events in Australian society over recent weeks have seen the emergence of a powerful hashtag: #IBelieveHer.
The announcement of Grace Tame as Australian of the Year for 2021 set in train a dramatic series of events. Grace’s testimony to the abuse she has suffered is powerful. Her appointment to this role validates the stories of countless survivors with similar stories.
Since Australia Day, it has been fascinating, and disturbing, to see how the announcement of this particular Australian of the Year has set in train a powerful and disturbing sequence of events in Australian public life. Sexual abuse, and especially male mistreatment of females, has been in the news each day since then.
The announcement about Grace Tame was soon followed by the testimony of Brittany Higgins, about being raped in Parliament House. This was another key catalyst in the public discussion of sexual abuse and misogyny in our society. In contrast to the shocking and shameful characterisation of her testimony by a Federal minister, her public words invited the clear response: #IBelieveHer.
The turmoil swirling around these revelations soon encompassed a matter that, apparently, had long been a widely-known secret in the corridors of Parliament House and amongst the media in the national capital. That secret started to leak into public awareness; rumour and supposition spread.
When the then Attorney General eventually spoke publicly, identifying himself as the subject of the rumours, we were offered the options: believe him, with his emotionally theatrical presentation of denial; or listen to the testimony of the sadly-deceased woman, as she grappled with her recollection of events in 1988, and attested to friends of her abuse by him at that time. The opportunity arose, once more, to consider our response; and many have responded with heightened intensity: #IBelieveHer.
And in the ensuing weeks, many other females: members of parliaments, parliamentary staffers, public figures, and private individuals, have borne testimony to their experiences of harassment, discrimination, and abuse. Each of them invites us to consider whether #IBelieveHer.
In this context, it is sobering for us to read and reflect on the Gospel texts which provide the underlying narrative for The Easter Story, which we remember and reflect on each year at this time.
The earliest of our Gospels affirms that women were involved with the movement started by Jesus. They were present, they experienced life on the road with him, they heard his words and saw his deeds; and they remained faithful until the very end.
In his beginning of the good news about Jesus, Mark reports:
There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem. (Mark 15:40–41)
The passage raises questions: how do we know about what happened to Jesus on the cross? Do we attend to, and give credence to, the testimony of the women? Do we respond, #IBelieveHer ?
Just a few verses later, Mark provides the first account of the scene at the tomb, where a group of female followers of Jesus were the first to discover that the tomb was empty. He ends the scene with the women fleeing, and the abrupt observation that “they said nothing to anyone” (Mark 16:8). Was that because they feared that nobody would believe them?
However, others who report this scene feels that this ending is quite inadequate—after all, we do have a story about that empty tomb encounter, so surely someone there must have spoken about it?
With that in mind, in his book oforigins, Matthew modifies the story, even as he repeats it: “So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.” (Matt 28:8) And the silence of the text about how this news was received, invites the unspoken question about their testimony: do #IBelieveHer ?
In narrating his orderly account of things being fulfilled, Luke provides a more nuanced account of the scene, more directly reflecting an awareness of the strong patriarchal context of his day. Why would men believe this report from the women? Would not the typical response be that this was simply women, gossiping, repeating hearsay, even causing trouble??
Luke notes: They remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. (Luke 24:10-11).
The male apostles (identified so by the same author at Acts 1:13) clearly did not believe the women. #IBelieveHer appears not to apply here.
So Luke continues: Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened. (Luke 24:12)
Male authorisation of female claims was still needed, even in this Gospel where women appear to have a stronger voice. Those male leaders did not respond with #IBelieveHer, until they were able to see and experience for themselves. In the house where they gathered in Jerusalem, them men at last believe the women—because one of their own had validated their words.
The latest of the four canonical Gospels locates this response of disbelief at the empty tomb, rather than in the house in Jerusalem. In this Gospel, the book of signs, Mary has come by herself to the tomb, found it empty, and returned to tell Simon Peter and the beloved disciple of this news.
As a result, John notes:
Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in.
Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed. (John 20:3–8)
Yet again, the males were required to inspect and authorise the claims of the women. In this Gospel, “seeing is believing” (see John 1:39, 46, 50; 4:29; 4:48–53; 6:30: 7:3; 9:15–17, 25; 11:9; 11:34–40; 12:21; 20:25–27). #IBeliveHer was conditional on male affirmation. They saw; we believe. Yet we take the story of Mary, in the garden, seeing Jesus, as part of our “Gospel truth”. It is clear that believers affirm: #IBelieveHer—even when the early male leaders did not!
John recounts another, more personal, more profound story, focussed solely on Mary of Magdala, who later encounters a man in the garden. Uncertain of his identity, she thinks he is the gardener. It takes only one word from the man to persuade her that he is, indeed, Jesus:
Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). (John 20:16)
This story ends, as the earlier accounts do, with a woman testifying to the male (and presumably other female) followers of Jesus:
Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her. (John 20:18).
#IBelieveHer. This is the logical deduction to draw from each of these narratives—at times, in counterpoint to the males in the story, but eventually, in relation to each account, with assurance that the voice of the females is acceptable, trustworthy, believable. #IBelieveHer.
And other Gospel narratives contain stories in which women are placed alongside men as experiencing the ministry of Jesus (most notably, Luke 8:1–3; John 11:20–27; Mark 1:29–31; and many other scenes), as well as accounts where the word of a woman was heard and believed: for instance, the woman of the Samaritan village (John 4:39–42); the unnamed woman who anoints Jesus in Bethany (Mark 14:3–9 and parallels); and the Syrophoenician woman in the region of Tyre (Mark 7:24–30), whose pushback against Jesus convinces him! In these stories, also, our response is: #IBelieveHer!
Of course, the passages noted above with women as the key protagonists raise the question: who told the evangelists about these incidents? Are they based on eye-witness testimony? Are they historical narratives, attested from the very beginning? Or are they stories developed and expanded over time, imaginative recreations of what is assumed to have taken place, shaped as stories for later generations?
One of these criteria was “dissimilarity”: does the saying sit uneasily, both with Judaism of the time, and in terms of what we know about the early church? The same criteria can be used, by extension, to consider narrative accounts in the Gospels: they are more likely to have been authentic if they reflect “dissimilarity”. Why would an author create something that sat uneasily within the worldview of the day?
On this basis, placing weight on the testimony of women might be seen to be as close as we can get to an authentic account. There is an argument that women were not regarded as valid witnesses—a passage in the Talmud (Shavuot 30a) interprets Deut 19:17 as requiring males only to be witnesses.
And they shall stand the two men, who have them the conflict, before God. Before the priests, and the judges, that will be, in those days.
Deliberately casting doubt on the testimony of women (Mark 16:8; Luke 24:11; John 20:3–8) would be a counter-productive move, if that testimony was to serve as the earliest account of what happened to Jesus. More likely than not, this was a tradition received and valued as plausible, perhaps even historical.
Indeed, feminist theological reflection on these and other narratives moves away from the “kyriachal” nature of these male-generated criteria, and into a “hermeneutic of remembrance” in which the voices of women—present, but often diluted, softened, or hidden in the final,form of the biblical text—are valued and accorded primary significance.
(See a useful discussion of the hermeneutics of remembrance, focussed on the writings of Schüssler Fiorenza, at https://www.degruyter.com/document/doi/10.1515/opth-2020-0117/html) In this approach to the texts, we read carefully and listen attentively, to hear the voices of ancient women, and respond affirmatively: #IBelieveHer.
At any rate, however we assess these early narratives, the way they have been handled throughout the ensuing two millennia is clear: #IBelieveHer. That is how we deal with the narratives of cross and resurrection that we receive in the scriptures. #IBelieveHer. And that principle is surely valid and valuable to guide us in life today. #IBelieveHer.