Friday, December 30, 2011

A Tale Of Two Nativities

We all know the Nativity Story.

The Archangel Gabriel appears to Mary. Mary conceives as a virgin. The angel of the Lord appears to Joseph. Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem for a census. The inn is full, so they stay in a barn. Jesus is born in Bethlehem in Judea. Jesus is wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. Angels appear to shepherds who then worship baby Jesus. Magi from the East see the star over Bethlehem and attend Jesus, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus flee to Egypt to avoid persecution from Herod. Finally, they travel to Nazareth in Galilee.

Nice story, but can you tell me where this complete tale can be found in the Bible? This is a trick question, of course. This whole story does not exist in one place in the Bible. It is, rather, a harmonization of the only two accounts of Jesus' birth, given in Luke 1-2 and Matthew 1-2. You probably knew this. But what you might not realize is how little the two accounts have in common. Let me illustrate. Here is the same passage, but now I've highlighted the text to indicate its source. Passages from Matthew are red, passages from Luke are blue, and overlapping story elements are purple and bolded.

The Archangel Gabriel appears to Mary. Mary conceives as a virgin. The angel of the Lord appears to Joseph. Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem for a census. The inn is full, so they stay in a barn. Jesus is born in Bethlehem in Judea. Jesus is wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. Angels appear to shepherds who then worship baby Jesus. Magi from the East see the star over Bethlehem and attend Jesus, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus flee to Egypt to avoid persecution from Herod. Finally, they travel to Nazareth in Galilee.

Not very much in common at all. Why the difference? Well, the biggest reason is that Matthew and Luke were written for two different audiences. Luke tends to emphasize Jesus' holiness and his role as a servant. It is fitting, then, that Luke's Jesus would have a humble beginning: born in a barn and worshipped by shepherds. Luke traces Jesus' lineage all the way back to Adam, and has him descended of David through his son Nathan. Matthew, on the other hand, emphasizes Jesus as the fulfillment of Jewish Messianic prophecy. Jesus is attended by Kings. His persecution under Herod echoes that of Moses, further emphasized by his flight to Egypt. Matthew traces Jesus' lineage only as far back as Abraham, going through David's successor Solomon. Two distinct lineages, two distinct coherent narratives with contrasting themes.

This begs the question: is it even appropriate to harmonize the stories into one? Personally, I don't think so. Not only do they differ in narrative and tone, but there is one detail that could be read as a direct contradiction. The Magi visit Jesus in a house, but they visit him in Bethlehem, at a time when Jesus and Mary and Joseph were staying in a barn. See, in the Matthean account, there is no mention of Joseph and Mary leaving Galilee. When the narrative has the family return to Israel from Egypt in Matthew 2:22-23, it says that Joseph was warned in a dream not to return to Judea (where Bethlehem is) and instead he withdrew to Galilee, to a town called Nazareth. The implication here, according to Matthew, was that Joseph and Mary already lived in Bethlehem. They only moved to Nazareth to avoid Herod's son. Whereas in the Lukan account, Joseph and Mary were Nazarenes who temporarily journeyed to Bethlehem for a census.

So how do we reconcile this? How did we end up with two disparate accounts of Jesus' birth? The key may be in their few similarities. In each story, we see that Jesus is a Nazarene, born in Bethlehem to a virgin who conceived through the Holy Spirit. That is the sum total of their similarities. It may be that those are the only details that the two authors had, and each constructed a birth narrative in keeping with their individual messages. The idea that someone could be from Nazareth and Bethlehem merits some explanation, so each author contrived a way for that to happen.

We certainly have no reason to accept the historicity of either account. There is no record of Luke's census conducted at that time or in that manner. Sending people to their home towns is a pretty ludicrous census-taking method anyway. Historically it makes no sense, but it works as a literary device to give Luke's Holy Servant a humble beginning. Likewise, there is no record of Herod the Great murdering Jewish babies (keep in mind that at this time the Hebrews were not slaves, but Roman subjects). Historically this makes no sense, but it works as a literary device to emphasize Jesus' connection to Judaism. Each author took the sparse details available and worked them into their unique depiction of Jesus' birth.

In a way, the tradition of harmonizing the Nativity into a single account is a bit of a tragedy. Luke's Jesus and Matthew's Jesus (to say nothing of Mark's or John's) are substantially different characters. When we try to blend them, we muddy the individual portraits, blurring the edges as a conceit to make the myriad appear whole. What does that get us? Three Wise Men in a barn--the idea is absurd, and it certainly isn't biblical. But most believers would rather have a single thematically incoherent narrative than a series of cohesive ones that disagree with each other about the unimportant details. At some point, the church decided that there is nothing to be learned from a story that can't be taken at absolute face value, and that is the truly great irony of fundamentalism. In the attempt to preserve the man, you distort the message. Perhaps it is better to think of the Nativity stories as parables. This didn't actually happen, but what can it teach us?

Just something to keep in mind next year when you sit down to watch your child's Christmas Pageant.

Happy Holidays,

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