18 December, 2008
Out of the four gospels in the New Testament only two of them have any detail on the birth of Jesus. Each story, the one in Matthew and the one in Luke, are quite different but contain the authors attempts to explain two bits of information. The first is that the Messiah (the anointed one) would be born in Bethlehem. The second is that Jesus was known as Jesus the Nazareon/Nazarene/Nazerite. The author of Matthew takes the view that the family have always lived in Bethlehem, and then they have to flee when an evil king attempts to kill all the young children in the land. They finally end up in the town of Nazareth. The author of Luke takes a different approach. He postulates that the family originally came from Nazareth but were forced by the Romans to visit Bethlehem where the birth took place. So why did the authors feel the need to create stories about these two facts? One possibility is of course that there was a historical Jesus and people knew that he had been born in Bethlehem but grew up in Nazareth. But there are other possibilities too.
Bethlehem was known for being the birthplace of the Israelite hero King David. The monarchy that ruled Judah for hundreds of years claimed descent from David and euphemisms were used to describe people who were part of this family. Of the Root of Jesse (David’s father) was one, and Born of Bethlehem was another. After the fall of Judah many prophecies were made about the return of a King of Judah and it was expected that it would be a member of the royal household who would take up the reign. And so the prophecies predicted that the Messiah (the anointed one, or King) would be of the Root of Jesse, or Born of Bethlehem. So when Jesus was declared the Messiah some thought it necessary to show his credentials. Both Matthew and Luke give long (differing) genealogies to show how Jesus was literally descended from King David. But they also both took the idea of being Born of Bethlehem literally and placed his birth in that city.
This brought up a problem though. Jesus was supposed to have lived in Nazareth. Or was he? Nazareth had existed in ancient times but had been abandoned for many years by the time Jesus was supposed to have lived. It was only repopulated around the middle of the first century, decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection were placed. So why did people think he lived there? It could have something to do with the name, Jesus was known as a Nazorene, which could mean someone for a particular Jewish sect. In modern terms it would be like saying Jesus the Methodist, or Jesus the Sunni. As the incarnation of God Almighty it seemed strange to later generations that Jesus would be from a particular sect. And so the solution was to place his hometown as Nazareth thereby changing Jesus the Nazarene to Jesus of Nazareth and allowing him to be sectless and someone everyone could worship.
Ideas about Jesus were varied from the get go, and the gospel authors attempts to explain these ideas were often as varied as people’s attempts to reconstruct the early church and Jesus’ life today.
17 December, 2008
Many years after King Herod had died the Romans decided to help out in Judea. They sent a Governor and included Judea in the latest round of taxing that the Emperor had declared. The Governor was new at his job and didn’t quite understand how taxing worked. The romans were keen to know how many people lived where in order to work out the taxes and expected revenue, but the Governor decided it would be better if people returned to their hometowns for some strange reason. And so Joseph and his heavily pregnant wife Mary traveled to Bethlehem, an arduous journey made more difficult by all the traffic on the roads. Eventually they made their way through the morass of donkeys and arrived at an inn which gave them lodgings in the stable, with a handy manger for the child that Mary had just delivered.
Meanwhile, some nearby shepherds were having a snooze on the hills when they were awoken by a bright light as a mighty angel appeared to them. The shepherds were terrified and cowered before the shining bright light as it spoke to them of a new joy and a saviour for the people. Then the angel was joined by a choir and they sang an amazing song, and danced some tap and put on a show that would not be equaled for thousands of years. The shepherds fear left them as they watched the angelic host. After they left and the shepherds had put away their popcorn, these hardy men of the hills decided to tell the world about this new saviour and to visit the inn where the angel had told them their new king would be.
And so the inn’s stable was overrun by sweaty shepherds who got very excited by the whole event. Alas they had brought no gifts and Mary was a touch miffed at missing out on some nice spices and gold. The shepherds oohed and aaahed over the infant and then went out around the town spreading news of this new miracle. Fortunately there was no jealous king around at this time or he might have done something mad like ordering the death of all newborns. Mary was a devout Jew and performed the rituals of purification to expunge the sin that childbirth had brought. The child was named Jesus and circumcised after eight days and then it was time to take him to the Temple in Jerusalem where he would be offered to God. Joseph knew that all male firstborns had to be given to god in sacrifice and was glad to be leaving the shepherds who continued to spread the word of the child and also would often stop by the inn and chat to Joseph for hours and hours and hours.
It had long been the practice that instead of actually killing your firstborn son for God that a different offering would be accepted instead. And so the parents arrived in Jerusalem and bought two turtle doves whose blood would sate God’s appetite. When they went to the Temple a couple of old prophets got excited, almost as excited as the shepherds but not in such an uncouth way. They praised the child, thanked God that they had lived to see the saviour and watched the blood rituals.
After all this was done Joseph pondered whether or not he should return home to Nazareth, after all they had already traveled to Bethlehem and Jerusalem, perhaps a holiday was in order? Maybe a trip to Egypt? But no, that would be expensive and there was much work to be done at home, and so the holy family returned to Nazareth, eagerly looking forward to changing the Word of God’s nappies.