Friday, November 27, 2009

1 - The Nativity Under Scrutiny

Suppose you have been assigned to write your own story of the Nativity of Jesus. What do you put into it? What would you leave out? What is your story line or plot? What would be your opening scene?

If those questions were put to any of us, we would most likely tell the story as we heard and saw it performed, or participated in it ourselves in Christmas pageants as children. Then, if we sat down and read the actual Nativity narratives in Matthew and Luke, we would quickly find out how much we had missed. So why not sit down and read the two narratives right now?

Do you see how different they are? Do you see how much our Christmas pageants leave out? Or add? Have you any idea why that is so? And why are Matthew and Luke the only two Gospels - or any other New Testament texts - that have anything at all to say about Jesus’ birth?

Did you notice too that his actual birth was perfectly normal for a human being? As Paul said in Galatians 4:4, he was “born of a woman.” That can happen only in one way. So while the Nativity narratives do describe very briefly that Jesus was born in a very human way, the idea of a virgin birth is just not there. What is there is a virginal conception. And that is where our theological and interpretation difficulties begin.

Did Matthew and Luke believe in a viriginal conception by the Holy Spirit? That certainly is how the narratives read. But is it credible in this day when we know all the scientific details about human biology, evolution, genetics and so forth?

It was not a problem for the two Gospel authors in the 1st century of the Christian era. Jews of that time might have had more difficulty with it than Greeks. No one in either cultures had the slightest idea exactly how conception took place. In fact, as examples in the Hebrew Scriptures attest, it was believed that it was the man’s seed the woman received and she was no more than the vessel carrying the developing foetus until she gave birth in a painful way (Gen. 3:16;12:7). Their model was the way plants grew in soil (Gen. 1:29).

Greek culture, on the other hand, did have numerous examples in their mythology of gods who gave birth to children in unusual ways. Gods impregnating women was well known. There is also an instance of this in Genesis 6:1-4 which Hebrew thought regarded as remarkable but wrong. Scholars have long wondered whether this aspect of Greek culture influenced Matthew and Luke. After all, the text is in the Hebrew scriptures o which they depended for so much of their material.

As we proceed this study will try to show that they had another agenda in mind. They were rooted far more in the Hebrew tradition although they also wrote for Gentiles who would hear their stories.

1 comment:

  1. Oh how thought-provoking, John, thank you for such a stimulating beginning to Advent!