At the end of the twelve days of Christmas — running from 25 December to 5 January — stands the day known as Epiphany. That’s from a Greek word which means “the revealing” or “the shining forth”.
On this day, we focus our thinking on that part of the Christmas story which was told by Matthew, in his Gospel, about the moment of epiphany, or revealing, of the infant Jesus, to the whole world, represented in Matthew’s story by travellers who had journeyed from afar to see him (Matt 2:1-12).
Here, we encounter an infant (not necessarily a newborn) with his mother and father, some travellers from the East (no mention of how many, actually), the gifts which they bring to the infant (specified as three in number), and the bright star in the sky which, it is said, guided them to the child with his parents. And the notion that this was history — real, accurate history — is alive and well as people sing of these characters.
Indeed, what we understand as “history”, today, varies quite significantly from the way that “historia” was understood by Josephus (who did write historical works about the Jews) or by Lucian (who wrote a whole treatise on the nature of “historia”), or even Luke or Matthew, for that matter.
As Luke begins his work, he says quite clearly that he is providing an account (“diegesis”) of “the things that have come to fulfillment amongst us”, written to supplement what Theophilus had already been instructed (“katechesis”). This is history in first century terms, but not quite history as we know it today.
And Matthew offers us a book of the origins (“genesis”) of Jesus, outlining the scope of his teachings and narrating the key moments in his life. But this work is written from faith for faith; not to document events or substantiate historical occurrences. Matthew crafts a story from Jewish midrashic techniques of story-telling that link story with text in all manner of creative ways. His purpose is more to explain the significance of Jesus and his teachings than it is simply to state what Jesus did or said.
In particular, in the opening chapters (where 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), 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.
Both Matthew and Luke produce works which are a far cry from the craft of the modern day historian. History is far from their minds, at least as we know it in the modern conception of “history”.
As we head into Epiphany, we need to ponder the story for what it is. It is a tale told with creative power, a story that locates plausible characters within an inviting storyline, in order to point to some deep aspects of our human existence. There is the mystery of exploration, a journey to a destination far off, respectful encounter with foreigners, as well as the fear induced by tyrannical rule, and the hurried journey away from repression, seeking the safety of refuge in an unknown, but hopefully welcoming, distant place. All of these elements are realities in our life today. The story from long ago is a story for us, today.
As we sing songs of this story, let us not reify the story (that is, turn the narrative into “a thing”, like history) … let us not collapse the story into a surface “real history”, but let us allow the story to speak in a deep way of who we are as humans, and of the reality of our lives today. That is how the story functions, as myth. (Not in the sense of myth being “not true”, but rather, in the sense of myth plumbing the depths of human existence.)
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 the mundane routines of daily life and offer us glimpses of a greater picture. May that be what happens for us as we hear the story of the magi, this Epiphany.
Soon we will celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, and remember the story that Matthew tells, of wise men travelling from the east, with gifts to bring to the infant Jesus (Matt 2:1-12).
Matthew doesn’t record how many Magi made this trip; this Gospel indicates only that there were more than one, by using the plural form of the noun magus. It is likely that the mention of three specific gifts (gold, frankincense, myrrh, at Matt 2:11) led the tradition to settle on three as an appropriate number.
The Magi don’t have names in Matthew, either. They are given names, and places of origin, in a document written in Greek around 500 CE, although this survives only in a Latin translation from the 9th century with the title Excerpta Latina Barbari . Because of this document, the Western churches identify the Magi as Melchior, from Persia; Caspar, from India; and Balthazar, from Arabia. But in many early churches, especially in Syria, there were actually twelve magi visiting Jesus and bringing him gifts.
In amongst the documents from antiquity that are explicitly Christian, but not included in our canonical collection, there is a work called The Revelation of the Magi. The text is found, along with other works, in a Syriac manuscript known as the Chronicle of Zuqnin.
The story is told from the perspective of the Magi, who certainly number more than three in this document—perhaps even more than twelve. They are described quite differently from how they appear in the canonical account. Brent Landau completed a Harvard ThD dissertation on this document in 2008, and has since published Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men’s Journey to Bethlehem (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2010), based on his dissertation. He summarises the work:
The Magi hail from a mythological eastern land named Shir, and the name “Magi,” it is said, derives etymologically from their practice of praying in silence. They knew to follow the star to Bethlehem because they are descendants of Seth, the third child of Adam and Eve, who passed on to them a prophecy told to him by his father Adam.
The star appears to the Magi in the Cave of Treasures on the Mountain of Victories. There it transforms into a small, luminous being (clearly Christ, but his precise identity is never explicitly revealed) and instructs them about its origins and their mission.
The Magi follow the star to Bethlehem, where it transforms into the infant Jesus. Upon returning to their land, the Magi instruct their people about the star-child. In an epilogue likely secondary to the text, Judas Thomas arrives in Shir, baptizes the Magi and commissions them to preach throughout the world.
Of course, we recognise this to be pure fantasy—a story developed from the shorter, more modest account that we find in the Gospel of Matthew. And even that canonical account, when we read it with care, can be recognised as an elaboration of a story derived from various “prophecies” in the Hebrew Scriptures—which is the way that the author of Matthew’s Gospel shapes all of his first two chapters (see Matt 1:22; 2:5,15,17,23).
The rising of the star in the east, for instance, correlates with the prophet Balaam’s prediction in Num 24:17 that “a star shall come out of Jacob and a scepter shall rise out of Israel”. The identification of the star as being “in the east” comes because, in Greek, the word for “east” is the same as “rising”. The Greek translation thus is ambiguous about whether the star simply “rises up out of Israel” or whether it is “to the east” of Israel.
We can see this ambiguity if we compare how different recent translations of the Bible render this phrase in Matt 2:9 — “a star they saw in the east” (KJV), “the star they had seen when it rose” (NIV and ESV), “the star they had seen at its rising” (NRSV), “the star they had seen in the east” (NLT)
The story reflects a verse in an oracle in Third Isaiah, addressed to the nation of Israel, which foresees a time when “nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (Isa 60:3).
Two of the three gifts draw from later in this oracle (Isa 60:6), reflecting gold and frankincense being brought to Jerusalem by visitors from Sheba (a kingdom in South Arabia). The gifts, it is claimed, are symbolic of what is to come. The gold is considered to symbolise the royal status of the child, as he is of the line of David. The frankincense is connected with the Temple cult, and thus considered a symbol of the priestly role eventually to be played by the child.
And the myrrh, in Christian tradition, is linked with the death that will be experienced by the infant when he has grown to maturity—death at the hands of a Romans, who offered him wine mixed with myrrh as he hung dying on a cross (Mark 15:23). This symbolism reveals the reasons for adopting and expanding the earlier oracle.
And the notion that was developed later in Christian writings, that the three Magi were kings in their respective kingdoms (as in, “we three kings of orient are”), derives from the application of Isaiah 60:3 , noted above, and Psalm 72:10-11, as the psalmist praises the King of Israel and prays, “may the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute; may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts; may all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service.”
It is more likely that the Magi were astronomers, rather than kings. The word magi is the plural of the Latin word magus, borrowed from the Greek magos. This, in turn, is derived from the Old Persian maguŝ from the Avestan term magâunô, which signified the religious caste into which Zoroaster was born. This was the Persian priestly caste of Zoroastrianism.
As part of their religion, these priests paid particular attention to the stars and gained a reputation for astrology, which was at that time highly regarded as a science. Their religious practices and use of astrology has since led to a development from Magi to the English term magic. It is in this sense, of magician, that Luke uses the word magus to describe both Simon, in Samaria (Acts 8:9-13) and Elymas, on the island of Paphos (Acts 13:6-11).
Landau makes further observations about the Revelation of the Magi.
The “Cave of Treasures” is mentioned also in the Syriac version of the Testament of Adam (a Christian work from the fifth or sixth century) and from there is taken up in a work which itself is entitled “The Cave of Treasures” (dated to the sixth century) and another entitled “The Book of the Bee” (from the thirteenth century). Several elements of the story of the Revelation of the Magi are found also in the Liber de nativitate salvatoris, an expansion of the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew with curious features that may have originated in a very early infancy gospel.
Some aspects of the Revelation of the Magi were also passed on in summary by the anonymous author of a fifth-century commentary on the Gospel of Matthew known as the Opus Imperfectum in Matthaeum. From here some elements found their way into chapter 6 of the 13th century collection of stories of the saints, known as the Golden Legend. The traditions found in the Revelation of the Magi are thus surprisingly widespread for a text that, were it not for that one manuscript, would have been lost to history.
The book of signs, which we know as the Gospel according to John, begins with a beautifully poetic Prologue (1:1–18). As well as being a piece of poetry, it is a piece of theology; it sets out many of the key themes of the whole work. The Prologue is the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday, the second Sunday in the season of Christmas. It offers a rich array of ideas for consideration. Only some of them are in focus in what follows.
1. The Prologue begins by introducing the main character of the story: the pre–existent Logos, the word made flesh, Jesus Christ, the one who “makes God known” (1:1, 14, 17-18). This motif of word runs consistently throughout the work: Jesus “speaks the words of God” (3:34; 8:47; 12:50; 14:8–10; 17:14), gives teaching which is “from God” (7:16–18; 14:24; 17:7–8), makes known “everything that I have heard from my Father” (15:15), utters words of “spirit and life” (6:63, 67). For the author of this Gospel, Jesus is, indeed, the Word who was always with God (1:1).
2. Already in the Prologue the narrator speaks of the rejection of the Word (1:10–11). This is played out in the body of the Gospel, especially in chapter 10, with references to the threat posed to the sheep by thieves and bandits (10:1, 8, 10), strangers (10:5), the hired hand (10:12–13), and wolves (10:12). The menace posed by these figures leads Jesus to infer that some of his sheep will be “snatched” out of his hand (10:28–29). At this, the Jews prepare to stone Jesus for the second time (10:31; the earlier instance was at 8:59). This enacts the revelation made by Jesus in an earlier discourse, that his fate is to be hated by the world (7:7).
A fuller and more explicit exposition of this theme of opposition is given in the second Farewell Discourse, under the rubric of “the world hates you” (15:18–25). Jesus here predicts that his fate will set the pattern for the fate of his followers; “if they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (15:20).
3. The words and ideas found in the Prologue to the gospel (1:1–18) have led to the hypothesis that Hellenistic Judaism had been influential in the context in which the gospel was shaped. The role of the Logos is akin to the role of Wisdom within Hellenistic Jewish literature —both as the agent by which God created the world, and as the means by which God reveals knowledge and truth to the world.
That Judaism had long been engaged with the dominant hellenistic culture, has been well proven by contemporary scholarship. Influences from the Greek–speaking world, and its hellenised culture, are reflected in numerous Jewish writings. In this gospel, the account of the Greeks who wish to see Jesus (12:20–22) is a clear indication of the interaction between the community of the gospel, and the wider hellenised world.
The issue is also raised by the question of the Pharisees at 7:35; “does he [Jesus] intend to go to the Dispersion among the Greeks and teach the Greeks?” The kind of Judaism which has influenced the gospel is not of the dominant, Pharisaic–rabbinic kind. It has become open to the wider hellenised world; perhaps the community which first received this Gospel had already become somewhat diversified in its composition.
4. An important motif running throughout this Gospel is that Jesus is to be regarded as the fulfilment of scripture. This feature is common to all four canonical Gospels. This interpretive stance is hinted at as early as the Prologue, in the comparison between Jesus and Moses (1:17). It is stated explicitly in the claim put on the mouth of Philip, “we have found him of whom Moses and the prophets wrote” (1:45), and in the words attributed to Jesus, “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me” (5:39).
There are fifteen clear quotations from Hebrew Scriptures in this Gospel. There are eight explicit references to scripture in the early chapters (1:23; 2:17; 6:31; 6:45; 7:38; 7:42; 10:34; 12:13–15), while a fulfilment formula is used in later chapters, to introduce seven such scriptural quotations (12:38–40; 13:18; 15:25; 18:9; 19:24, 28, 36–37). There is also a passing note that Judas died after betraying Jesus “so that the scripture might be fulfilled” (17:12).
However, the total significance of the Hebrew Scriptures in this Gospel is much greater than these sixteen occurrences, as the Gospel contains numerous allusions to specific scripture passages, such as references to Jacob’s ladder (1:51) and the sacrificial lamb (1:29, 36), as well as more generalised allusions to scripture. These allusions are much freer in their form and indicate that, for the author of this Gospel, the Hebrew Scriptures had become an integral part of his mind and heart, for he treats them with a freedom born from intimate familiarity.
5. In like fashion, a series of Jewish titles is embedded in the narrative as confessions by key characters of the significance of Jesus. The Prologue has introduced a key Johannine title for Jesus: the Word (1:1, 14).
In the extended preface that follows (1:19–51), Jesus is addressed as “Rabbi” (1:38, 49), “Messiah” (1:41), “King of Israel” (1:49), and “Son of God” (1:49). These claims about Jesus are all made also within the Synoptic traditions. The Johannine Jesus himself refers, in the allusive synoptic fashion, to the “Son of Man” (thirteen times, from 1:51 to 13:31), which we must presume to be a self–reference. In later scenes, Jesus is also called “prophet” (4:19), “Messiah” (4:29; 11:27), and “Rabbouni” (my teacher, 20:16). These are all Jewish titles.
6. The ultimate Christological confession of the Gospel is uttered by Thomas, when he moves beyond this viewpoint in the phrase, “my Lord and my God” (20:28), echoing the perception of the Jews, that Jesus was “making himself equal to God” (5:18). Is this already alluded to in the conclusion of the Prologue, in the affirmation, “it is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (1:18)?
For the most part of this Gospel, Jesus is presented in terms drawn from within a Jewish context. Indeed, even the confession by Thomas can be understood within a particular stream of Jewish tradition, for the hellenisticJewish author Philo uses the terms “Lord” and “God” to designate the two major divine powers of creation (signified by “God”) and eschatological judgement (signified by “Lord”).
7. Another characteristic which dominates the Christology of this Gospel is the Father-Son relationship (3:35–36; 5:19–23, 26; 6:37–40; 8:34–38; 10:32–38; 14:8–13; 17:1–5). This relationship is hinted at in the Prologue in 1:18, where the “only-begotten son” is portrayed as being “next to the breast of the Father” (my literal translation), or “close to the father’s heart” (NRSV). In one of his disputes with the Jewish authorities, Jesus declares that he does his works “so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I am in the Father” (10:38).
This mutual interrelationship is brought to the pinnacle of its development in the lengthy prayer of chapter 17: “you, Father, are in me, and I am in you” (17:21). The purpose of describing this relationship in this way is to strengthen the claims made for Jesus, to validate him as authoritative, in the context of debates with the Jewish authorities.
8. Finally, Jesus is perceived as being “equal with God” (5:18). At the narrative level, this is a polemical view of Jesus, attributed to the Jews. However, the author of the Gospel clearly wants the readers to agree with the claim. This is supported by further comments such as: it is clear that he is the Messiah, for he is “doing the works of God” (10:24–25); he is “making himself a god” (10:33); “he has claimed to be the Son of God” (19:7); and he is acclaimed as “Lord and God” (20:28). It is also signalled in the closing verse of the Prologue: “it is God the only Son [or, the Father’s only son], who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made [God] known” (1:18).
This is the strongest claim made about Jesus; it lifts him above the realm of human debate and, as a consequence, it also lifts the claims made by his disciples, in his name, above that human realm. By this means, the community of his followers lay claim to a dominant, privileged position, vis–a–vis the Jewish authorities. The Christology which is proclaimed in the written Gospel has thus been developed and refined in the controversies and disputes of the community over the preceding decades.
9. Later Christian theology developed the doctrine of the Trinity, in which God, Jesus and the Spirit relate to one another as equals. Whilst the Gospel of John provides biblical warrant for the equality of Father and Son, the role of the Spirit is less prominent. Jesus is endowed with the Spirit at his baptism (1:32–33) and gives the Spirit to others through the words he speaks (3:34).
However, the Spirit is clearly subordinated to the Son in this Gospel. It is not until after Jesus is glorified that the Spirit is given (7:39; 20:22). The role of the Spirit is to be the Advocate of the Son (14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7), sent by the Son to testify on his behalf (15:26) and to represent what has already been spoken by Jesus (14:26; 16:13–15). As the Son testifies to the truth (1:14, 17; 8:32, 45–46; 14:6; 18:37), so the Spirit is “the spirit of truth” (14:17; 15:26; 16:13).
So the book of signs provides pointers towards this central Christian doctrine, but does not actually articulate it in the categories and using the terms from later debates amongst the Church Fathers and decisions made by the various Councils of the Church. We need to hear the message of this Gospel in its own terms, in its own context, in its own right.
The Gospel for the first Sunday in the season of Christmas (Luke 2:22-40) includes stories relating to two striking Jewish figures: Simeon the righteous, who is guided by the Spirit (2:27), and Anna the prophet (2:36). Anna praises God because of what she sees happening in the birth of the child, Jesus, while Simeon speaks of salvation for all people now being offered by God through this child. Both express clear Lukan themes.
Jesus is intensely Jewish in Luke’s Gospel. The story about Jesus that we find in the orderly account of the things fulfilled among us is set in the heart of Jewish piety. The very opening scene of the Gospel, set in Jerusalem in the Temple precincts, reveals a pair of righteous Jews who faithfully keep the commandments of God (Luke 1:5–6). What follows in the ensuing two chapters reinforces, over and over, that Jewish context.
The man in the opening scene, Zechariah the priest, is devoted to the service of God in the Temple (1:8–9). His wife, Elizabeth, expresses an attitude of deep faith in God, accepting her surprise pregnancy as “what the Lord has done for me” (1:25). They are both described as “righteous before God” (1:6). Elizabeth’s relative, Mary, demonstrates a similar faith as she submits to a similar fate, bearing a child, with the words, “here am I, the servant of the Lord” (1:38).
In turn, the traditional hopes and expectations of the people are articulated in spirit-inspired hymns sung by Mary (1:46–55, known as the Magnificat), Zechariah (1:67–79, known as the Benedictus), and Simeon the righteous (2:29–32, known as the Nunc dimittis, or the Song of Simeon). Mary is “overshadowed” by the Spirit (1:35), Zechariah and Elizabeth are both “filled” with the Spirit (1:41, 1:67). Simeon is “righteous and devout” (2:25); the Spirit “rested on him” (2:25), then “revealed to him” the words he then speaks (2:26) before “guiding him … into the temple” (2:27).
The words of Anna, although unreported in detail by Luke (2:38), are likewise spirit-inspired (as are all prophetic utterances). The children who are born—Jesus and John—bear the weight of these traditional hopes and expectations as they come into being. They, too, are “filled with the Spirit” (John, 1:15; Jesus, 4:1, 14). This is the same Spirit which, according to old traditions in the Hebrew Scriptures, has been active since the time of creation (Gen 1:2) and which is still at work in the creation of every living creature (Ps 104:30).
The sense of deeply devoted and strongly conventional Jewish piety continues in the reports of the early years of Jesus. It is only in Luke’s Gospel that we find the information that Jesus was circumcised after eight days (2:21), that his mother was subsequently purified and brought offerings to the Temple (2:22–24), that the family made Passover pilgrimage to Jerusalem (2:41) and that Jesus showed an early interest in discussing matters of the Law (2:42-51).
These all reflect typical Jewish activities, mandated by the Law: circumcision at Gen 17:9-14; purification and offerings at Lev 12:1-8; the Passover pilgrimage at Exodus 23:17 and 34:23; and learning the matters of the Law at Deut 6:1-7. Luke ensures that we are aware of this, by noting “it was the time for …” (2:21, 22) and “as usual” (2:41), and by twice referring to the requirement of the Law (2:23, 39).
This continues as the narrative of the orderly account continues, recounting the events of the adult years of Jesus. He regularly attended the synagogue (4:16, 44; 6:6), where he was accorded the status of a teacher (4:20–27; 4:31–33; 13:10). Jesus regularly prayed to God (3:21; 5:16; 6:12; etc.). He knew the importance of the daily prayer, the Shema (10:25–28) and the Ten Commandments (18:18–21).
Jesus engaged in halakhic debates with the scribes of Pharisees, touching on various matters of the Law (5:21-24; 6:6-10; 7:36-50; 11:37-54; 14:1-6; 15:1-32; 16:14-18; 17:20-21; 20:1-47). Like other Jewish teachers of the day, Jesus taught in parables (5:36-38; 6:39-42; 8:4–8; 13:6-9; 13:18-21; 19:11-27; 20:9-19; 21:29-30). Luke alone reports a number of the especially well-known parables of Jesus (10:29–37; 12:13–21; 14:7-24; 15:3–32; 16:1-13; 16:19–31; 18:1-8; 18:9-14). Jesus was thoroughly Jewish in his teaching style.
Indeed, as Luke narrates the early sequence of events leading to the birth of Jesus, he indicates that Jesus will seek the renewal of the ancient promises which God made to Israel (1:46–55; 1:67–79; 2:29–35). Thus, the Lukan Jesus insists that the purpose of his mission is to fulfil the hopes once spoken by the prophets (4:18–21; 7:18–23; 24:18–27; 24:44–47).
Jesus begins to fulfil that prophetic vocation in his sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth (4:16-30), where he explicitly reads from the scroll of Isaiah (4:17-19) and clearly affirms that “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (4:21).
In his teachings, Jesus is clear that what he has to offer is a grand vision of the kingdom in which all are invited to share in the Messianic Banquet (13:29; 14:15–24). This was a vision which came to expression within Second Temple Judaism, after the return of many of the people,from their Exile in Babylon.
This vision was not shared by all, but it is clear that it was drawn firmly from Jewish traditions, especially as articulated in the latter sections of the book of Isaiah (Isa 42:1–6; 52:7–10; 55:1–5; 60:1–7; 66:18–24). So the Lukan Jesus functions as a prophetic voice in Israel, holding the people to this inclusive vision.
Luke does not play Jesus off, over against ‘the Jews’, in the way that we find happening in the work of his near-contemporary, in the Gospel according to John. Rather, the Lukan Jesus is immersed in the midst of his religion; he is one of the people of Israel at his birth, and he remains so even up to his death and beyond.
Luke’s Gospel—and its sequel, the Acts of the Apostles—provide no basis for a rejection of Judaism as no longer in keeping with God’s will. Not even the occasions when Paul encounters rejection at the hands of his fellow Jews, and he leaves saying “we are turning to the Gentiles” (Acts 13:46) or “from now on I will go to the Gentiles” (18:6) are definitive rejections of the Jews—Paul always returned to them! (Paul is back in the synagogue at 14:1, 17:1, 17:10, 18:19, 19:8, and note also Paul’s farewell speech at 20:21.)
Even the final scenes of Acts offer the possibility of wider Jewish acceptance of the Gospel: the possibility that they might “listen with their ears and understand with their heart and turn—and [God] would heal them” (Acts 28:27, citing Isaiah 6:10).
(For a more detailed argument along these lines, see the discussions in my commentary on Acts in the Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, 2000.)
So the overall story which Luke tells is that the hopes of Jewish faith are brought to fruition in the life of Jesus, and in those who follow The Way set forth by Jesus—and how this renewed vision spreads across the Mediterranean basin, through many nations. This is already in view as he shapes the beginning of his narrative, with those faithful Jewish characters—Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and (very briefly) Joseph, Simeon and Anna.
In Luke’s account of Jesus, then, he sets forth a vision of welcoming community, inclusive of both Jews and Gentiles. In reporting the preaching of John the baptiser, the prophetic vision was already in view: “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:6, citing Isa 40:5). Before this, at the moment when the spirit-inspired Simeon holds the infant Jesus in his arms, he speaks of God’s salvation as being “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (2:32).
This is surely what Anna perceives to be at work in the infant she sees being dedicated in the temple, and this is why she “praises God” and “speaks about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (2:38). Jesus was to fulfil this grand vision.
The universal implications of the Gospel are thus in view from the very earliest stages of Luke’s first volume of his orderly account. They continue through later scenes, as Gentiles come from Tyre and Sidon to listen to Jesus’ teachings (6:17), as Gentile centurions exhibit great faith (7:1–10) and show sympathy for the dying Jesus (23:47).
They come to full flourishing in the second volume of the orderly account, as the faithful followers of Jesus spread out from Jerusalem and Judea, even to “the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The Lukan Jesus has clearly set the course for the ultimate inclusion of Gentiles into the people of God. This is clear early on, right from the words of Simeon (2:29-32).
As we consider this passage in the days immediately after the remembering of the birth of Jesus at Christmas, we are given encouragement to hold to the inclusive vision for the whole world that commenced with the diligence and openness of faithful Jewish people, as they sensed the way that God was working in their world.
Last week, the Gospel passage we heard came from the orderly account of the things that have been fulfilled among us—the work we know as a Luke’s Gospel. We heard the story of the announcement to Mary that she would bear a child (Luke 1:26-38).
This week, we turn to the Gospel story set each year for Christmas (Luke 2:1-14), in which that birth is narrated. This, quite obviously, is the only account of the circumstances surrounding the actual birth of Jesus found in our Gospels. No other equivalent account is to be found amongst the earliest accounts of Jesus.
Certainly, the book of origins tells of the announcement of Mary’s pregnancy, but then it jumps to the visit of the wise ones from the east many months later (Matt 1:18-2:12). The book of signs begins its account of Jesus with a grand cosmic scenario “in the beginning” (John 1:1-18), but provides no specific accounting of his birth as a human being apart from a note that he “became flesh and dwelt among us”.
Two other Gospels which are dated relatively early simply ignore anything to do with his conception, birth, and childhood: the beginning of the good news, the Gospel of Mark, and the hidden words that the living Jesus spoke, the Gospel of Thomas.
From the second century onwards, however, Christians produced a number of Gospels which alleged to recount the birth and early life of Jesus: the Infancy Gospel of James (perhaps mid-2nd century), the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (its dating is disputed), the iLife of John the Baptist (written in 390), and the History of Joseph the Carpenter, as well as a work known as the Gospel,of Pseudo-Matthew (both dating from the 7th century). These accounts are quite obviously “mythological”, including numerous elements that we would consider to be non-historical.
The orderly account that we know as the Gospel of Luke, however, provides us with lots of details: the time, the location, the parents, the specifics of the birthplace, and the first visitors to the family of the newborn. It looks like it comes from a writer who draws on historical data to construct the story. It has the feel of an eyewitness account. But this is not the case.
The author of this Gospel is writing eight decades after the time of the events which he narrates, in the period immediately after the end of Second Temple Judaism (which ended with the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70CE, during the Roman-Jewish War of 66-74CE.)
He acknowledges that others before him have created accounts of Jesus, but he insists that he has scrutinised and assessed those sources (Luke 1:1-4). There is no claim, explicit or implicit, that the account of the newborn child is based on any eyewitness account. That the author himself “worked over” his source material cannot be doubted.
So the scene recounting the birth of Jesus (Luke 2:1-7) forms part of a long introductory section with a series of scenes, each of which are shaped by the influences of Jewish storytelling that existed for centuries prior to the first century (1:5-2:38).
Luke 2:1-14 has clear scriptural resonances: angels, shepherds, the city of David, the message of peace and goodwill, each reflect scriptural motifs. Yet the story also reflects the wider Hellenistic world, of which Second Temple Judaism was an integral part. This is evident in two specific ways: in the way that angels bring communications from God, and in the claim that Mary fell pregnant whilst a virgin.
The role of angels in the story
Angels are messengers sent from God. The Greek word, angelos, means messenger. The Hebrew word, malakh, also means messenger; it is related to the name of the prophet, Malachi, which literally means “my messenger”. So the Hebrew Scriptures regularly report that angels visit human beings, bearing announcements from the divine realm.
When these angels appear to human beings, they manifest a phenomenon known as an epiphany—from a Greek word meaning “shining forth”. An epiphany is a shining forth, a way of making clear the presence of God, through an angel, a messenger.
Such phenomena ware not unique to Judaism, and to the religions that grew from this source, Christianity and Islam. Angelic appearances, epiphanies of the gods, were also known in ancient times beyond Judaism. Such epiphanies are recounted in a range of literature of the period.
Often the angel appears in a dream; sometimes, it is manifested in a vision. The phenomenon was widely known and easily accepted at a popular level by people who happily believed that divine beings could readily communicate with human beings through such means.
In his treatise On divination, Cicero attests to a more learned, or philosophical, understanding of the basis of such epiphanies, when he defines dreams (somniorum) and prophecy (vaticinationum praedictione) as two forms of natural divination—that is, two means by which human beings might know, or divine, the will of the gods (On divination 1.6.12).
In another work, On the nature of the gods of the gods, Cicero reports the opinion of a Stoic philosopher (Lucilius Balbus), that the power of divination “has clearly been bestowed by the immortal gods on man, and on no other creature, for the ascertainment of future events” (On the nature of the gods 2.65.163). At another place in his discussion of divination, Cicero reports that the Stoic Chrysippus defined dreams as “visions sent by the gods” (On divination 2.63.130).
Such epiphanies, then, were understood to be a plausible and natural means through which communication could take place between the gods and humanity. The Jewish writer Josephus concurs with this assessment; as he recounts epiphanies from the early part of Jewish history, he notes that angels announce the will of God (History of the Jews 4.110) and speak according to divine providence (History of the Jews 5.277).
Luke’s angels, appearing to Zechariah (Luke 1:11), Mary (1:26), and then the shepherds in the fields (2:9-14), and Matthew’s angel who appears to Joseph (Matt 1:20), thus reflect a common understanding, widespread in the ancient world, of how the divine realm communicates with human beings. The information conveyed by angels is of importance, as it comes from God. As the angels appear to people, they call them to pay attention, as they declare what is to happen … and they call us, who hear the stories of Jesus, to look for the presence of God in the message, and in our lives.
The birth of a child to a virgin
Both New Testament accounts of the birth of Jesus refer to Mary being a virgin when she conceived. The book of origins explains this in terms of the fulfilment of a prophetic word (Isaiah 7:14, cited in Matt 1:23). The orderly account of things fulfilled has the angel Gabriel explain this to Mary as being possible because “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35). As a result, in both instances the narratives signal that the child to be born will be special: a sign of Immanuel, God-with-us, in Matthew, and a child known as holy, the Son of God, in Luke.
The notion that there are extraordinary circumstances related to the birth of a special person is something that was not unusual to people of the ancient world. Charles Talbert writes that “portents, prophecies and omens are widely used in biographical literature of Mediterranean antiquity for the period of a hero’s life before he enters upon his public career” (“Prophecies of Future Greatness”, p.134, in a 1980 Festschrift for Lou H. Silberman).
In the Life of Augustus, by Roman historian Suetonius, for instance, there are no less than fourteen omens associated with the infant Augustus (a miraculous conception, six portents and their interpretations, three dreams, two prophecies, and then two prodigies during his childhood).
As Plutarch recounts the lives of Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome, he reports not only that they were rescued by wolves at their birth, and raised by woodpeckers (Romulus 2). In the same account of the birth of Romulus, Plutarch notes that his mother was a virgin when she conceived.
In recounting the life of Alexander the Great, Plutarch has the announcement of the imminent birth of the child take place along with a crash of thunder, a great flash of lightening—and then a thunderbolt strikes the womb of Olympias (Life of Alexander 2). The father, Philip of Macedon, has a dream in which he “seals up the womb of Olympias”.
This is followed by another dream, in which he sees a serpent sleeping with Olympias—perhaps a sign that his wife would conceive, not by union with him, but by divine means. At any rate, it seems that Plutarch is covering his bets by providing a number of options by which Olympias falls pregnant with her baby, Alexander. Finally, on the day of the birth of Alexander, another omen takes place: the temple of Artemis was burnt to the ground.
All of these miraculous events are designed with the one purpose in mind: to indicate that the child to be born is special. The stories are found in lives of great figures (men, inevitably); the portentous happenings noted at their birth are not intended to be taken as historical events, but as symbolic pointers, indicating the grand importance of the tiny child. Which is the same function that is exercised in the Gospel stories by the claim that Mary was a virgin; the miraculous conception of Jesus served to point to his significance and greatness.
We should not consider either element on the story—the announcements of the angel, nor the declaration that Mary conceived when she was a virgin—to be an historical fact. They are both part of the way that stories were told, in the ancient world, about the origins of a person later seen and known to be a great person. And they both reflect typical elements in the piety and belief systems of people of the day. They are symbols which point to the importance of Jesus. They are not intended to be bare historical facts.
As I have written in two recent posts, the biblical accounts of the birth of Jesus are not actual history. They are stories told to indicate the special nature of Jesus. Which means, we shouldn’t read them as history (ἱστορία). The Christmas story isn’t history. The Christmas story is myth (μῦθος).
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.
The stories told at Christmas are located in specific human situations, and point to specific human needs. Outsiders and outcasts are included in the story told by Luke. Shepherds, despised for their work and marginalised from society, appear front and centre in his story. Strangers travel from distant foreign lands in Matthew’s narrative, bearing gifts to pay homage to the infant Jesus.
Women, not men, play central roles in the opening chapters of Luke’s story. Elizabeth, cursed as barren, blossoms into pregnancy, and speaks where her husband is struck dumb. Mary, young and virginal, receives startling news from an angel; she holds her own stands up to the angel, commits to the task, and then sings powerful words of justice, signalling in advance the revolutionary message that will be spoken by the child whom she is bearing.
Both Luke and Matthew include the gritty reality of the refugee situation in their accounts. Luke has a pregnant Mary undertake an enforced journey with Joseph, from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the hometown of his family line, only to be forced to give birth in precarious circumstances. There is no historical evidence for the census that occasioned this journey, but the story provides a compelling vision of what refugees faced then, and still face today.
Matthew has Mary and Joseph, with Jesus now a two-year-old toddler, making an even longer forced trek, from Bethlehem into Egypt, because of the excessive reaction of the king of the time. There is also no historical evidence for the slaughter of all boys aged two and under in Bethlehem at that time, but the story in Matthew’s Gospel again highlights the tenuous situations faced by refugees, then as now.
Matthew’s Moses typology leads him to place the slaughter of the Innocents right at the heart of his narrative. He grounds the story of Jesus in the historical, political, and cultural life of the day, when a tyrant could exercise immense power, when the sensibilities we have about human life seem absent. It provides a dreadful realism to a story which, all too often in the developing Christian Tradition, became etherealised, spiritualised, and romanticised.
We need to remember the Christmas story as an important pointer to the counter-cultural, alternative-narrative impact of the person of Jesus. It is not history, but it offers a powerful myth. It grounds our faith in a revolutionary understanding of reality, and in actions that establish an alternative reality. The story is not to be domesticated and coated in syrup; its stark reality and honest grappling with life needs to be grasped and valued.
As we sing songs of this story, let us not reify the story (that is, turn the narrative into “a thing”, like history) … let us not collapse the story into a surface “real history”, but let us allow the story to speak in a deep way of who we are as humans, and of the reality of our lives today. That is how the story functions, as myth (μῦθος) — not in the sense of myth being “not true”, but rather, in the sense of myth plumbing the depths of human existence.
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.
The Canberra Region PresbyteryCo-Chairpersons and Presbytery Ministers offer these greetings as Advent draws to a close and we enter the Christmas season.
HOPE (John Squires)
During December, we have been in the season of Advent. It is a season of four weeks; a season marked by HOPE. The word “Advent” literally means “towards the coming”. It is what pregnant women do; they look with hope “towards the coming” of the expected child. It is what young children do, as dinner time approaches; they look with hope “towards the coming” of their working parents, returning home to share in the evening meal and associated rituals. It is what we have been doing during these four weeks; to look with hope “towards the coming” of Jesus, the one whose birth we celebrate on Christmas Day.
It was just over a year ago that the Presbytery elected Judy McKinlay to the position of Co-Chairperson. It was just ten months ago that Andrew Smith and I stood at the front of Canberra City Church, in a service where we were each inducted into our ministry placements as Presbytery Ministers. And it has only been four months since Ross Kingham was elected to fill the other position of Co-Chairperson. We all serve with a desire to encourage, support, equip, and sustain the mission of all the Congregations in this Presbytery.
What a year it has been, to maintain hope! A year ago, many communities were already coping with the immediate impacts of the bushfires; as the fires grew, our anxieties rose, and grief spread wide. Early this year, countries overseas were beginning to experience the devastating impact of a new viral pandemic; the effects of COVID-19 became all to apparent for us as the year proceeded. Fear flew in on top of grief and anxiety. Four months ago, we were just beginning to hope that life might move out of heavy restrictions, and some manner of COVID-normality might be achieved. Hope was knocking on the door, peeking through the curtains.
Hope invites us to stand firm in the midst of these challenges: hope based in who we are, as people of faith. Hope grounded in the resilience of humanity. Hope based on our relationship with a loving God, who extends to us divine Grace so that we might work for compassion and justice in society. Hope made manifest in the story of Jesus, God-with-us, whose coming we remember and celebrate at Christmas.
PEACE (Ross Kingham)
May the PEACE of Christ be yours this Christmas Season!
The following words of James McAuley have enriched the lives of many over the years:
Incarnate Word, in whom all nature lives
Cast flame upon the earth: raise up contemplatives
Among us, those who walk within the fire
Of ceaseless prayer, impetuous desire.
Set pools of silence in this thirsty land:
Distracted folk that sow their hopes in sand
Will sometimes feel an evanescent sense
Of questioning they do not know from whence.
Scan (Mercator’s map) who will, with faithless eyes,
It will not yield…. its mysteries….
He shall not see Leviathan hunt the deep,
Nor Jacob’s ladder rise from stony sleep;
For him the serpent is not lifted up,
Nor Mystery poured red into the cup…
Open, eyes of the heart, begin to see
The tranquil, vast, created mystery,
In all its courts of being laid awake,
Flooded with uncreated light for mercy’s sake.
(James McAuley, Selected Poems, 1963
JOY (Andrew Smith)
JOY springs to my mind and heart when I read the Isaiah 40:1-11 passage that was part of the lectionary for the second Sunday in Advent. In verse 6: “A voice says, ‘Cry out!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’” Part of the answer comes in verse 9. It overflows with joy. The one who cries out is the herald of good tidings. Another who cries out is again the herald of good tidings. They joyfully cry out, “Here is your God!”
There is great joy for the exiles in this passage as their expectancy is raised for the longed-for return of God. They cry out these good tidings to one another, “Here is your God”. When we apply this passage in Advent it raises our expectancy about the coming of Jesus Christ – “Here is your God”. These are good tidings of great joy. Here is forgiveness, restoration, and justice. Here is the coming of the Kingdom of God.
We cry this out to each other as we gather for worship through Advent and Christmas. And joyfully we will get to sing it as well! We also cry it out to the world as we gather with our local communities for Christmas Carol outdoors or indoors. We also experiment in finding ways to cry it out in the course of the whole year in connection with our loving service. In these notices see the article “On the Journey, Know Christ is Here” that touches on some of how Eurobodalla “cried out” in its card that accompanied gifts to fire affected people.
“What shall I cry?” We need help to be heralds of these good tidings. The Gospel Project of our church (running through Uniting Mission and Education) identifies that we need help with developing a clear understanding of the gospel that we can confidently share and speak into the public square. The project aims to develop a Uniting Church perspective on both the good news Jesus proclaimed and the good news about Jesus.
These are good tidings of great joy. Lift up your voice with strength, O herald of good tidings. Lift it up, do not fear. Lift it up in Advent and Christmas. Lift it up all year.
LOVE (Judy McKinlay)
For most in our community, Christmas is primarily about love and family. It seems that’s one reason TV channels air Love Actually every Christmas season. Against the background of Christmas merriment and ritual, it touches on the complications of love and family relationships, and issues of commitment, faithfulness and trust. At the end, Great Britain’s bachelor Prime Minister and his young, sweet staffer publically declare their love. The viewer accepts their declared love as real. How it is actualized from that point on is left to our imagination.
For many of our contemporaries, Love Actually seems more about believable love than the story of a baby born millennia ago to a devout Jewish girl in a Palestinian village. They are wrong. The wonder once evoked by heraldic angels, quaking shepherds and wise men may have faded for 20th Century society, but the plot remains fully explained in 1 John 4, and summarized in John 3: 16. Take a moment to read them again. God leaves nothing to our imagination. He declares and actualizes his love synchronically, because Love is who he is. From the beginning, he has unceasingly, steadfastfully, faithfully, loved the world for which his Son died.
So I was taught that love was our Lord’s meaning. And I saw most certainly in this and in everything, that before God made us he loved us, and this love has never abated nor ever shall. And in this love he has done all his works; and in this love he has made everything for our benefit; and in this love our life is everlasting. In our making we had our beginning, but the love in which he made us was in him from without beginning, and in this love we have our beginning. And all this shall be seen in God without end, which may Jesus grant us. Amen. (Julian of Norwhich).
“Beloved, we love because He first loved us.” In this Christmas time when God’s beloved world is so hurting, and so many are grieving, suffering and needing to be loved, may we make Love real in all our words and actions. And may the blessings of hope, peace, joy and love be with you all.
The Moderator of our Synod, the Rev. Simon Hansford, has issued a 2020 Christmas message on video. It is available to watch and upload at https://vimeo.com/485752056
The orderly account of the things coming to fulfilment (which we know as the Gospel of Luke) tells us much more about the beginnings of Jesus (his conception, birth, and early days) than the other Gospels. The passage offered by the lectionary for this Sunday is one such text.
It’s a well-known and familiar passage, from the very beginning of the Christmas story (Luke 1:26-38). It is the scene that is often called The Annunciation. The announcement that is being made in this scene, is to Mary, informing her that she will bear a child.
Mary responds dramatically to this news. She is perplexed, amazed; she is a virgin. “How can this be?”, she asks. A messenger from God informs her, though, that impossibilities are now becoming realities. Indeed, her aged, barren cousin is now pregnant, and Mary will find herself bearing a child—but no ordinary a child; a child “who will be holy, who will he called Son of God”. Now that is really out of the ordinary!
We learn all of this through the “reporting” of a dialogue between the two characters, mother-to-be Mary, and the angel Gabriel. The dialogue isn’t an actual transcript of what took place—indeed, there is no way that the author of this Gospel could have been present to listen and remember.
Instead, the scene is based on the typical dialogue scene that we find at many places in Hebrew Scriptures. And it comes hard on the heels of a similar encounter, another dialogue scene, reported earlier in this chapter (Luke 1:5-22). The earlier dialogue involved an older man, Zechariah (although this dialogue ends up with Zechariah being completely mute); the next scene involves a young woman (who holds her own in the dialogue, as we shall see).
The dialogue proceeds, just as we would expect: he said, then she said; then he said, and so she said. He, of course, is the angel Gabriel. She is Mary, at this time identified simply as “a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph” (1:27).
Jews knew about the angel Gabriel from his appearances to Daniel (Dan 8:15-17, 9:21). He appeared to Daniel at the time of prayer (Dan 9:21)—presumably this is the same angel who had earlier appeared to Zechariah, in Jerusalem, at a time of prayer (1:10-11).
If this is indeed the same angelic person who appeared to Daniel (and to Zechariah, and Mary), then he was quite a sight; Daniel describes Gabriel as “a man clothed in linen, with a belt of gold from Uphaz around his waist. His body was like beryl, his face like lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and the sound of his words like the roar of a multitude.” (Dan 10:5-6).
Such an appearance would undoubtedly evoke fear. Indeed, before Gabriel even speaks to him, Zechariah is said to have been “terrified, and fear overwhelmed him” (Luke 1:12), as also was Daniel (Dan 8:17), who says that “my strength left me, and my complexion grew deathly pale, and I retained no strength”, before he fell in a trance to the ground (Dan 10:8-9).
So the words of the angel, in both scenes, seek to meet this understandable response. “Do not be afraid”, he says to Zechariah (1:13) and also to Mary (1:30). This is what angels do; this is how they greet people: “do not be afraid” (see Gen 15:1, 26:24; 2 Kings 1:15; Dan 10:9). Zechariah’s fear had gripped him before he spoke a word, but Mary had the presence of mind, before the angel spoke these words, to reflect on what she was experiencing.
The dialogue begins when Gabriel greets Mary (1:28) and informs her that she was favoured (the word comes from the Greek word charis, which means grace or favour, and becomes a key theological term in early Christianity). Mary is described as being “much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be” (1:29).
He then says, as we have noted, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God.” That is followed by a declaration of the name of the child: “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus” (1:31). This is parallel to the declaration made to Zechariah: “your prayer has been heard; your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John” (1:13).
This follows the same pattern in scriptural stories when divinely-favoured women are told they will give birth, and they name of their child: Hagar, mother of Ishmael (Gen 16:11), Sarah, mother of Isaac (Gen 17:19), Gomer, the wife of Hosea and mother of three children (Hosea 1:4,6,9); and see also the moment of naming for Leah, mother of Asher (Gen 30:13), the unnamed mother of Samson (Judges 13:24), and Hannah, mother of Samuel (1 Sam 1:20).
The angel continues: “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David; he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (1:32-33). The Davidic ancestry of Jesus was an important claim for the early Christians. It was cited in early literature as a key element (Luke 2:4; John 7:42; Rom 1:3; 2 Tim 2:8; Rev 5:5, 22:16; see more on this at https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/19/descended-from-david-according-to-the-flesh-rom-1/).
In response to this good comeback, Gabriel responds with a number of significant points. First, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.” This statement references three central scriptural elements.
The Holy Spirit is understood to be active throughout the story of Israel: at the moment of creation (Gen 1:1-2), bringing all creatures into being (Ps 104:30), in equipping specific leaders (Exod 31:2-3; Num 11:25, 26; Deut 34:9; Judges 3:9-10, 6:34, 11:29, 13:25; 1 Sam 10:6, 10, 11:6, 16:13, 2 Sam 23:2; 2 Kings 2:9, 15), by inspiring the prophets (Isa 61:1: Ezekiel 2:2; Joel 2:28-29), and in the servant of the Lord (Isa 42:1). Mary here stands with others early in Luke’s story who experience the Holy Spirit coming upon them (John, 1:15; Elizabeth, 1:41; Zechariah, 1:67; Simeon, 2:25-26); and, of course, Jesus himself is filled with the Spirit (3:22; 4:1).
Holiness was a central element of piety in ancient Israel; the holy God called a holy people to live in covenant with him, and exhibit holiness in every aspect of life (Lev 11:44-45, 19:2, 20:7-8; Exod 19:6; Deut 7:6, 14:2, 21, 28:9). Following from this prophetic word to his pregnant mother, the adult Jesus was indeed known as “the holy one” (Mark 1:24; Luke 4:34; John 6:69; Acts 3:14, 13:35).
“Son of God” was also a phrase derived from older traditions; the king was regarded as God’s son (Ps 2:7; 2 Sam 7:14), commencing with David (Ps 89:26-28), and Israel as a whole was regarded as God’s son (Exod 4:22: Jer 31:9, 20). It is applied to Jesus with regularity in his adult life (Luke 4:3,9,41; 8:28; 22:70; Acts 9:20; John 1:34,49; 11:4,27; 19:7; 20:31) as well as in early confessions of faith (Rom 1:4; 2 Cor 1:19; Gal 2:20; Eph 4:13; Heb 4:14; 6:6; 10:29; 1 John 3:8; 4:15; 5:5; Rev 2:18).
Then, Gabriel tells Mary, “your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren” (1:35). The Hebrew Scriptures offer accounts of women thought unable to bear a child, being visited by an angel and gifted a child by God, such as Sarah (Gen 11:30), Rebekah (Gen 25:21), and the woman who bore Samson (Judges 13:3). This blessing from God is celebrated by the psalmist (Ps 113:9) and the prophet (Isa 54:1).
Gabriel’s final words are “nothing will be impossible with God” (1:35-36). This also is a biblical phrase; see Zechariah 8:6, and note also Gen 18:14 and Job 42:2.
Finally, to end the conversation, Mary concludes, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (1:38). She accepts what is in store for her. Traditional Christianity has highlighted this element in the story; Mary becomes the humble, self-effacing, obediently submissive, thoroughly passive figure of traditional Catholic piety.
This overlooks the fact that “here am I” was a standard response to a commission from God, spoken by faithful and fearless prophets, Moses (Exod 3:4), Samuel (1 Sam 3:4), Isaiah (Isa 6:8), Trito-Isaiah (Isa 65:1), and Jeremiah (Jer 26:14), as well as the psalmist (Ps 40:7), and the patriarchs, Abraham (Gen 22:1), Esau (Gen 27:1), Jacob (Gen 31:11 and 46:2). It is also the response of Ananias in Damascus to a vision of the Lord (Acts 9:10). Mary is here accepting a challenging divine commission, and pledging her commitment to the task. It is an activist’s response!
The interpretation of Mary as passive, humble, submissive and obedient also overlooks the feisty nature of Mary’s interchange with Gabriel, as we have traced it. And this feisty nature, with its prophetic focus and clarity, is made clear just a few verses later, as Mary sings in praise of God (1:39-45). In this song, she makes it clear that she is up for the task, that she has the vision of what God is doing in Jesus, that she is fully subscribed to working for the righteous-justice of God in the lives of her people!
The many scriptural resonances, both in that song (known as the Magnificat) and in the scene of the Annunciation, indicate that Mary is to be understand within the stream of prophetic figures in Hebrew Scripture. She was a force to be reckoned with!
The scene of the Annunciation closes with the brief note, “the angel departed from her” (1:38). The angel had left; but the consequences of this announcement would stay with Mary, through the coming months of her pregnancy and the birth of the child; and through the coming years, of his growth through childhood, his adulthood, and the tragic events of betrayal, trial, crucifixion and death.
Mary knew, from the start, of the significance of this child (at least as Luke tells in his orderly account). And what did Mary know, of the stories that were later told, that he proclaimed the kingdom, healed the sick, cast out demons, and had even been raised from the dead? And how did she speak of him, then?
Every Christmas, we are surrounded by images of the much-loved nativity scene: the infant Jesus, in a cradle, with his mother Mary sitting and his father Joseph standing nearby, surrounded by animals (cows, most often), with a group of shepherds (perhaps with their sheep) to one side, whilst on the other side three colourfully-dressed men stand with presents in hand: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
We see this image everywhere. But it is not an accurate portrayal of what was happening at the time when Jesus was born. For one thing, it is not a photograph of an actual event. Far from it. It is not even based on a written report from the first century, telling that this was what happened.
The traditional scene that we see today did not come into being until it was invented by the medieval friar, Francis of Assisi. Before that, it did not exist. And no Gospel account actually tells of cows mooing beside the newborn child, or of the newborn infant making no crying sounds, or of the sheep baaing alongside the cows, that we see in the traditional nativity scene.
Francis is the most popular Catholic saint in the world. He is the one who preached to the birds; blessed fish that had been caught, releasing them back into the water; and communicated with wolves, brokering an agreement between one famous ferocious wolf and the citizens of a town that were terrified of it. There is no surprise, then, that Francis used real animals when he created the very first, live, Christmas nativity scene. As a result of all these stories, Francis is the patron saint of animals and the environment. And he is the inventor of the familiar nativity scene.
Actually, this scene is a compilation of two quite discrete stories, told decades later, offering very different perspectives on the event, providing two somewhat different emphases in the story of the birth of this child. The nativity scene merges and blends the story found in the orderly account constructed by Luke, and the book of origins compiled by Matthew. Wise men and shepherds sit on each side of the family group, at the same time, in the same place, in this traditional scene. But not in our biblical accounts.
In the opening chapters of Matthew, 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. In this story, 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.
Luke tells a more irenic version of the story than what is found in Matthew’s Gospel. The story told by Luke (usually represented through idyllic pastoral scenes and sweetly-singing angels), actually tells of a widespread movement of the population that meant a pregnant Mary, accompanied by Joseph, had to travel afar and find lodging in a crowded town just as the most inconvenient time.
There are historical problems with this story: identifying the census as an actual historical event, and locating it accurately in time, both present challenges; the fact that Herod, ruling in Matthew’s account, died in 4BCE, but Quirinius, who ordered the census noted in Luke’s account, began as Governor in 6 CE. However, the combined story has entered the popular mindset as a real event and provides a clear and compelling picture of the holy family as refugees, because of decisions made by political authorities, whether Herod or Quirinius.
We overlook, perhaps, that the shepherds who came in from the fields to pay homage to the newborn child would have been despised for carrying out a lowly and unworthy occupation. They were outcasts, considered 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!
Even though this is not an historical story, it is important for theological reasons. It is part of the foundational myth of the Christian faith. The writer of Matthew’s Gospel wants to make strong correlations between Jesus and Moses, not only in the mythological account found in the opening chapters, but also throughout the following chapters of the Gospel. The writer of Luke’s Gospel hints at his key themes in the opening chapter, and the develops a strong political and economic message throughout his Gospel: God reached out to the poor and powerless, and harshly judges the wealthy and powerful.
As myth, the tradition points to important truths. Matthew’s account of “the Slaughter of the Innocents”, for instance, although generated by his Moses typology, still grounds the story of Jesus in the historical, political, and cultural life of the day, when tyrants exercised immense power. Even though we recognise Matthew is not reporting an actual historical event, his narrative provides a dreadful realism to a story which, all too often in the developing Christian Tradition, became etherealised, spiritualised, and romanticised.
By the same token, Luke’s recounting of the visit of the outcast shepherds to the infant child and his family indicates that those on the edge were welcomed by Jesus throughout his ministry. He grounds the message of the Gospel in the heart of the needs of the people of his day.
So even as we recognise that the Christmas story is not history, we can appreciate the insights that it offers us as a mythological narrative. It is worth celebrating: not as an actual historical event, in the way it is traditionally portrayed, but as the foundation of the faith that we hold: in Jesus, God has come to be with us.
Last week, the lectionary offered a Gospel passage from the beginning of the good news about Jesus, featuring the fiersome desert-dwelling prophet, John, known as the Baptiser (Mark 1:1-8). This week, we have a section from the book of signs in which the same person, John, figures. But he is quite a different person in this week’s text–and the way he is portrayed offers a glimpse into another world.
The book of signs introduces John as a much more domesticated figure, compared with the way that he appears at the start of the beginning of the good news of Jesus. In John’s account, he appears, all of a sudden, in the midst of the majestic poetic Prologue (1:1-18) which opens this Gospel.
The Prologue is focussed on the eternal character of the Word of God (1:1-2), present at the moment of creation (1:3), shaping the world that we know and inhabit (1:14, 16-17). In the midst of this, the human figure of John appears—as somewhat of an anomaly in the midst of the ethereal poetic lines (1:6-8, 15).
The Prologue is followed by a more prosaic Prelude (1:19-51), which narrates a series of encounters involving John, Jesus, and their followers. These encounters establish the centrality of Jesus in the narrative, first through the testimony of John the baptiser (1:19-36), then by having various individuals “come and see” him (1:39, 46).
Both John and these individual disciples confess the significance of Jesus through a variety of Christological titles. This Prelude ends with Jesus himself adopting a title to explain his significance (“Son of Man”, 1:51).
That John is a witness to Jesus is already indicated in the Prologue, through some prosaic narrative insertions into the grand poetic opening. The Lectionary this coming Sunday offers us both the initial prosaic comment (1:6-8), and the ensuing story relating what John said about Jesus (1:19-28).
But the John whom we meet in this gospel is a very different figure from the desert dwelling apocalyptic visionary whom we encountered in last week’s reading from Mark’s gospel. The Johannine John does not frequent the desert, as in Mark 1; rather, his activity is located in Bethany, near the Jordan (1:28).
The Johannine John does not issue a clarion call for repentance, as in Mark 1; rather, he bears witness to Jesus, “the one coming after me” (1:27), as the one “who ranks ahead of me” (1:30). As John, in this gospel, bears witness to Jesus (1:6–8, 15; 1:29–36; 3:25–30; 10:41), he testifies that Jesus is the light (1:7), of greater rank than John himself (1:15, 30), the Lamb of God (1:29, 36), the Son of God (1:34), the bridegroom (3:29), and, by implication, the Messiah (1:20; 3:28).
What is the reason for this different portrayal of John the Baptist in this Gospel?
The Gospel of John includes some pointers to the development of a faith community which looked beyond the parameters of Judaism as it was being shaped by the Pharisees, towards other forms of Jewish faith and life—and perhaps beyond. The Gospel is being painted on a wider canvas. It offers us glimpses
The early prominence accorded to John the baptiser, and other content such as the fact that the first large–scale success enjoyed by Jesus was in Samaria, and the appearance of Greeks in Jerusalem, seeking Jesus, and even the way that the Logos (the Word) is portrayed in the Prologue, each point to this wider canvas. Sometimes this is defined as “heterodox Judaism”, in contrast to the dominant Pharisaic stream within formative Judaism.
John the baptiser is prominent at the start of each canonical gospel; scholars wonder if there was originally a link between the Jesus movement and the movement led by John the baptiser. Evidence for this link is also drawn from places such as Acts 19:1–7, and the Q passage in Luke 7 (par Matt 11). It is John’s Gospel which provides the clearest evidence, when it recounts that the earliest followers of Jesus were drawn from the followers of John (1:35–42).
This emphatic depiction of John as deflecting attention from himself, to Jesus, indicates that there was, at an early stage, some competition between the two figures—or, at least, between their respective followers. This link is confirmed, for some scholars, by the nexus of ideas that flow from Johannine Christianity into the Mandaean literature of the third and fourth centuries CE—including, amongst other things, the prominence accorded to John the baptiser.
Thus, the reform movement within Second Temple Judaism headed by John is seen to have had some influence on the gospel, in its early stages, at least. John stands outside the Pharisaic–rabbinic stream of Judaism which would become dominant after 70 CE. This is the first indication of the influence of a different kind of Judaism on this Gospel, which led to the development of a different form of Christianity in the ensuing centuries.
Likewise, the prominence accorded to Samaria in John 4 can be seen as a significant indicator of an important influence shaping the gospel. This scene (like all others in this gospel) is not a straightforward historical narrative, but rather a remembering of an important part of the beliefs of the community, conveyed through the narration of a “typical” incident.
The encounter at the well (4:5–8) leads into a long scene where Jesus engages in deepening theological reflection with the Samaritan woman (4:9–28a), climaxing in the first successful missionary venture within the Jesus movement (4:28b–30, 39–42)—at least, as John recounts it. The first missionary is this anonymous Samaritan woman, and the first body of converts to Jesus are inhabitants of the Samaritan village.
This story has a powerful function within this particular community’s traditions. Samaritans are depicted as sharing a common Jewish ancestry (“our father Jacob”, 4:12) and holding an eschatological hope in the Messiah (“I know that Messiah is coming”, 4:25). Yet embedded in the story are clear indications of the tensions between this northern form of Judaism and the dominant southern mode; ordinary dealings between Jew and Samaritan are unusual (4:9), and liturgical–theological differences mark them off from one another (4:20–21). The success of Jesus’ message in this context indicates its attraction to those outside the “mainstream”.
The words and ideas found in the Prologue to the gospel (1:1–18) have led to a further hypothesis that Hellenistic Judaism had been influential in the context in which the gospel was shaped. The role of the Logosis akin to the role of Wisdom within Hellenistic Jewish literature —both as the agent by which God created the world, and as the means by which God reveals knowledge and truth to the world.
That Judaism had long been engaged with the dominant hellenistic culture, has been well proven by contemporary scholarship. Influences from the Greek–speaking world, and its hellenised culture, are reflected in numerous Jewish writings. In this gospel, the account of the Greeks who wish to see Jesus (12:20–22) is a clear indication of the interaction between the community of the gospel, and the wider hellenised world.
The issue is also raised by the question of the Pharisees at 7:35; “does he [Jesus] intend to go to the Dispersion among the Greeks and teach the Greeks?” Other signs, less immediately obvious, pointing to this influence, are claimed at various points throughout the gospel. Once again, we see that the kind of Judaism which has influenced the gospel is not of the dominant, Pharisaic–rabbinic kind. It has become open to the wider world; perhaps the community which first received this Gospel had already become somewhat diversified in its composition.
This link is confirmed, for some scholars, by the nexus of ideas that flow from Johannine Christianity into the Mandaean literature of the third and fourth centuries CE—including, amongst other things, the prominence accorded to John the baptiser.
So, the distinctive figure of John at the start of this distinctive Gospel, offers a keyhole through which we can gain a glimpse of a little-appreciated strand amongst the wide diversity of options in early Christianity.