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Notes from Limmud 2008

How to Process Jesus' Virgin Birth Stories

Rabbi Dr Michael J. Cook

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. (Obviously, knowledge of Christianity is not my forte!) Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]

For two thousand years, the Jewish people have adopted an avoidance policy vis-a-vis Jesus. This strategy was encapsulated in the Talmud. The speaker thinks the rabbis did not know who Jesus was, and therefore any statement they make about him is from ignorance. The rabbis of old did not know much about Christianity.

Jesus* was not a rabbi; no people were called rabbi in his day. The reason Jesus was called a rabbi in Matthew and John was because these books were written in a time when there were rabbis. The speaker holds that if only Jews knew more about the NT, Jews would feel more secure in a Christian-oriented society (in the US at any rate). (This and the following talks are abridged from his book Modern Jews Engage the New Testament: Enhancing Jewish Well-Being in a Christian Environment.)

*Audience question: Given that there were so many myths and prophecies at the time about a man being born and dying and being reborn as a god; how do we know that Jesus actually existed? Answer: Generally when this happens, it is set in the remote past. Also, Jesus had brothers and sisters, and there is evidence of his brother James being put to death by the Romans. As Christianity spread, though, the story accrued many of the characteristics of these myths and prophecies.

The Gospel of Mark dates from ca. 72 CE (and was therefore highly unlikely to have been written by Mark himself). It is divided into two roughly equal sections: Jesus' ministry in the Galilee, and his time in Judaea. Most scholars today accept that the authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke copied the Gospel of Mark, ca. 85 and 95 respectively (though they both had their own material, too). The fourth of the Synoptic Gospels, dating from ca. 100 CE, is the Gospel of John. Matthew has the same arrangement as Mark; so does Luke, though with a travel narrative in the middle. John, however, has a different layout.

What prompted the writing of them was multi-faceted: The Second Coming failing to happen by the time the first generation of disciples of Jesus began to die off was probably an important factor: compare the recording of testimonies when the generation of Holocaust survivors began to die off. Another possible factor was different versions of the stories as Christians spread around the world. The author of Luke quite possibly did not like what was written in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew.

There are only two birth-stories of Jesus in the Gospels which got into the NT. Matthew and Luke both have a large introductory section. Mark, the earliest Gospel, does not have a birth-story of Jesus, which is very interesting: Perhaps the author did not know of such a story? Perhaps the story did not exist in Mark's day? The Gospel of John also has no birth-story of Jesus. Did the author not know of Matthew and Luke? Maybe he didn't like the birth-stories of Jesus.

The birth-stories in Matthew and Luke are contradictory and impossible to reconcile... except that Christians have managed it. This is a major phenomenon that most Christians aren't aware of.

When did the divinity of Jesus first become manifest to Christians? This happens differently in each Gospel, and with Paul. As time marched on, the moment when Jesus' divinity became evident became earlier and earlier. At the time of Paul's espistles, datable to the 50s, the moment of Jesus' divinity became manifest at Jesus' resurrection—"late in the lifetime of Jesus" (well, that's one way of putting it). In Mark (ca. 72) it was Jesus' (adult) baptism, when Jesus was about 30, and a voice came down from Heaven "Thou art my beloved son." (In Matthew it's "This is my beloved son", so other people could hear it.) Mark has made Jesus' baptism very important. The plus is that Jesus gets Jesus recognised as divine much earlier. The minus is that the author of Mark did not know a birth-story of Jesus. Had he known one, he would have forgotten about the baptism and gone for the miraculous birth-story.

So does that mean the birth-stories of Jesus were developed decades after his death? Yes! The early Christians were concerned with the Passion; later Christians with his ministry, and only later still his birth.

In Matthew and Luke, written in the 80s and 90s, the two birth-stories come in. For them, Jesus' divinity became manifest at Jesus' conception. Hence the whole Christmas phenomenon revolves only around one of the four narratives (Paul, Mark, Matthew/Luke and John). The speaker thinks the author of these books was disappointed with the account in Mark, that portrayed Jesus as a normal man until he was an adult.

The author of the Gospel of John, written ca. 100, believes Jesus was made manifest before the Creation of the world. Hence in John there is no birth-story: it's not important for him.

The accounts in Matthew and Luke differ in terms of Mary and Joseph's journeys, as will be demonstrated below.

In Matthew, Jesus' genealogy is given back to David through Joseph's male line, contradictory though this is if Mary had a virgin birth—only in the second century did Justin Martyr make Mary a descendant of David. Matthew was writing for Greeks, who did not have male lineages; these had divinities, who were virgin born. The Greeks were impressed by virgin births, and those of part-divine origin. Hence Matthew begins with the genealogy and then the virgin birth story.

Mary and Joseph live in Bethlehem in Matthew. During her betrothal, Mary is found with child. Betrothal was [and still is, for Jews] the equivalent of a living relationship as binding as marriage. This made her susceptible for being tried for adultery. An angel reassures a suspicious Joseph in a dream that Mary has conceived through the Holy Spirit, not another man. Joseph the dreamer in Matthew is modelled on Joseph the dreamer in Genesis—and like him, goes down to Egypt later.

Jesus is born in Bethlehem. Having seen a star, magi come to Jerusalem then follow the star to Bethlehem. King Herod sent the magi to kill Jesus. Joseph has a second dream telling him to flee to Egypt. So they do that; and after Herod dies, Joseph has a third dream telling him to go back. But due to fear of Herod's son Archelaus, reigning in the south, they go to Nazareth in the north. This is to explain why Jesus was never known as Jesus of Bethlehem. He wants him born in Bethlehem, because this is where King David was born.

[As an aside, this last point shoots down the otherwise attractive hypothesis offered in the Encyclopaedia Judaica, that Jesus was not actually born in the Bethlehem south of Jerusalem at all, but in the Galilean Bethlehem—בֵּית־לֶחֶם הַגְּלִילִית—much closer to Nazareth.]

In Luke, we have the angel Gabriel promising Zechariah John the Baptist's birth. After Elizabeth conceives, Gabriel makes his annunciation to Mary in Nazareth. Mary is related to Elizabeth, and visits her at length, then returns to Nazareth. John the Baptist is then born.

Mary now approaches term in Nazareth, not Bethlehem. This is irreconcilable with Matthew. Joseph and Mary now go to Bethlehem for Joseph to register in a census. With no room in the inn—since they now do not live there—Jesus is born in a manger. Angels and shepherds appear. There is no star here, and no magi. Matthew has those, but not the angels or shepherds. Jesus is circumcised, and is presented in the Temple in Jerusalem. The holy family now leave Jerusalem to return to Nazareth. The journeys here are completely different—compare the journey in Matthew with that in Luke—but he's also trying to do the same thing Matthew does: get Jesus born in Bethlehem. The irony is that Galilee was not under the control of Rome at that time—nobody had to go to their birthplace to be registered [and nor was that the case in the Roman Empire]. It's a fiction invented in Luke. Actually, nobody ever had to go to their birthplace to be registered; can you imagine the disruption this could cause? [Also, if you're trying to keep the birth of the King of the Jews hidden from Herod, the last place you want to have it in is the politically significant birthplace of King David!]

There is also, here, no fleeing to Egypt, or Herod massacring the infants in Bethlehem. It's also only Luke that records Jesus' פִּדְיוֹן הַבֶּן.

There are images from the Hebrew Bible that are very important in constructing these stories. Consider the following women of suspicious sexual behaviour: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba. Tamar's relationship with her father-in-law led to the perpetuation of the Judahite line from which King David was ultimately descended. Rahab, who was a prostitute, allowed the start of the conquest of the land of Israel. Ruth, who ended up with Boaz in a slightly suspicious manner, became the great-grandmother of King David. And Bathsheba, who had no business doing what she did, was the mother of Solomon, who had no business succeeding David.

It was widely known that there was something irregular about the conception of Jesus; hence the story arose of the virginal conception. (Aside: most people do not realise that immaculate conception and virgin birth refer to different people. Immaculate conception applies to Mary as a foetus; virgin birth applies to Jesus as a foetus. Once Jesus was thought to have been born of a virgin, there was still the problem that the virgin would have been tainted by Eve's Original Sin (in Christian theology). In order to solve this problem, the Roman Catholic Church developed in the Middle Ages (but only finalised in 1854) the idea that Mary was instantly and permanently freed by miracle from Original Sin.)

As well as referring to Joseph the dreamer, the story resonates with those of of the miraculous births of Isaac, Moses, Samson and the "son" in Isaiah 7:14. Micah prophesies the birth of a great ruler in Bethlehem (5:2). The portrayal of Herod the Great echoes that of the Pharaoh of Moses' childhood, killing male infants and then dying allowing Moses/Joseph to return. The adoration of the Magi is reminiscent of the Queen of Sheba coming to see Solomon in 1 Kings 10. Because the Christians only had the Jewish Bible, they didn't have their own Scriptures to take prophecies from, so they had to rely on reinterpretations of material from the OT.

The Christmas story today derives from a remarkable interspersing of the two stories in Matthew and Luke. It starts with Chapter 1 of Luke, then Ch. 1 of Matthew, Ch. 2 of Luke and Ch. 2 of Matthew. This is an impressive piece of redaction.

There's one problem with this, though: In Luke 2 the holy family are going north to Nazareth. But the Magi, following the star, haven't got to Bethlehem yet. So the Christmas story involves an invented segue, in which the family return to Bethlehem from Jerusalem.

Early Christians were bothered in the second century by the differences. They said that Matthew got his information from Joseph, and Luke from Mary. But this kind of implies that the Joseph and Mary never talked to each other! The process of amalgamating the two stories began in the second century, but did not finish then.

Jewish learning notes index

Date: 2009-01-06 02:16 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] naath.livejournal.com
immaculate conception and virgin birth refer to different people.

I knew this one... but at Midnight Mass I was flipping through the Missal (having been forbidden to knit) and it turns out that the gospel reading for the feast of the immaculate conception is of the annunciation and neither of the other readings are concerned at all with the immaculate conception (http://www.wf-f.org/Immaculateconception.html#anchor3244554). I suspect this does not help with the confusion!

Date: 2009-01-06 02:20 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
at Midnight Mass I was flipping through the Missal (having been forbidden to knit)



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