On Archbishops, Christmas, and the two faces of religion

21 Dec

I did promise you a few heresies before Christmas a few days back and the media generally have obliged with pseudo-shocked reporting of the latest from the Archbishop of Canterbury. What he actually said in an interview may be seen on his site.

SM: It comes round every year that we’re not being Christian enough or people don’t know where Bethlehem is, people have never heard of Mary and so on, so this is a sort of an almost a tradition of Christmas, isn’t it really. But I wonder, if people have got a traditional religious Christmas card in front of them, I just want to go through it, Archbishop, to find out how much of it you think is true and crucial to the believing in Christmas. So start with … the baby Jesus in a manger; historically and factually true?

ABC: I should think so; the Gospel tells us he was born outside the main house, probably because it was overcrowded because it was pilgrimage time or census time; whatever; yes; he’s born in poor circumstances, slightly out of the ordinary.

SM: The Virgin Mary next door to him?

ABC: We know his mother’s name was Mary, that’s one of the things all the gospels agree about, and the two gospels that tell the story have the story of the virgin birth and that’s something I’m committed to as part of what I’ve inherited.

SM: You were a prominent part of a Spectator survey in the current issue which headlined’ Do you believe in the virgin birth?’ there are some people in this survey who would say they were Christian who don’t have a problem if you don’t believe in the Virgin birth;’ how important it is it to believe in that bit?

ABC: I don’t want to set it as a kind of hurdle that people have to get over before they, you know, be signed up;, but I think quite a few people that as time goes on, they get a sense, a deeper sense of what the virgin birth is about. I would say that of myself. About thirty years ago I might have said I wasn’t too fussed about it – now I see it much more as dovetailing with the rest of what I believe about the story and yes.

SM: Christopher Hitchens and many others make the point that isn’t the translation for young woman rather than virgin? Does it have to be seen as virgin; might it be a mistranslation?

ABC It is… well, what’s happening there one of the gospels quotes a prophecy that a virgin will conceive a child. Now the original Hebrew doesn’t have the word virgin, it’s just a young woman, but that’s the prophecy that’s quoted from the Old Testament in support of the story which is, in any case, about a birth without a human father, so it’s not that it rests on mistranslation; St Matthew’s gone to his Greek version of the bible and said “Oh, ‘virgin’; sounds like the story I know,” and put it in.

SM: So you’ve got the Virgin Mary, Jesus: Joseph?

ABC: Joseph, yes, again, the Gospels are pretty consistent that that’s his father’s name.

SM: So we’re panning out now — shepherds? They’re with their sheep and the oxes and asses?

ABC: Pass on the oxes and asses; they don’t figure very strongly in the gospels, so I can live without the ox and asses.

SM: And the wise men with the gold, frankincense, and Myrrh – with one of the wise men normally being black and the other two being white, for some reason?

ABC: Well Matthew’s gospel doesn’t tell us that there were three of them, doesn’t tell us they were kings, doesn’t tell us where they came from, it says they’re astrologers, wise men, priests from somewhere outside the Roman Empire. That‘s all we’re really told so, yes, ‘the three kings with the one from Africa’ – that’s legend; it works quite well as legend.

Believe it or not, there’s absolutely nothing surprising or shocking about that. If anything, the Archbishop is fairly conservative. Anyone who thinks the two somewhat contradictory gospel birth narratives are literal history has an awful lot of explaining to do, because they quite clearly are not, and were not even important enough to get a mention until at least 40 or 50 years after the crucifixion.

And Hitchens is right about the word translated as “virgin” in Isaiah.

Isaiah 7:14 virgin: Or “young woman.” In this context the difficult Hebrew word did not imply a virgin birth. However, in the Greek translation made about 200 (B.C. )and used by the early Christians, the word parthenos had a double meaning. While the translator took it to mean “young woman,” Matthew understood it to mean “virgin” and quoted the passage (Matthew 1.23) because it was the appropriate description of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

The Catholic Jerusalem Bible (1966) translates the word as “maiden” and that’s probably better. The other thing I have noticed about Isaiah 7-9 is that those who read it for prophecies of the birth and work of Jesus, a tradition that does obviously go back to the 1st century AD, are guilty of both cherry-picking (no dreadful and possibly sacrilegious pun intended) and ignoring context — not only the context of the period in which First Isaiah (the book is a later compilation of two or three books written over a considerable period) was composed and its purpose in that context, but also the context of the surrounding words. The text was in fact appropriated by Christians to suggest a continuity between what they saw as core Judaism and the later increasingly Gentile religion that Christianity was becoming. If you see that as a literary convention there is no great harm in it, but if you see it as reflective of objective history then you are in trouble.

There’s some great stuff in those Isaiah chapters, by the way:

Isaiah 10

1 You people are in for trouble! You have made cruel and unfair laws 2 that let you cheat the poor and needy and rob widows and orphans. 3 But what will you do when you are fiercely attacked and punished by foreigners? Where will you run for help? Where will you hide your valuables?

It seems to me that there is a double tradition at work in the Abrahamic religions. One is towards exclusivity and certainty and is constantly seeking ways to make the believer feel that he or she is “in” while everyone else is “out”. That leads in the long run to hubris and even worse to unspeakable cruelty, a cruelty that at times such believers have even ascribed to God himself. On the other hand there is a tradition of universality, inclusion, and a degree of uncertainty. That to me is where the Spirit of God may truly be found. All the Abrahamic faiths need to regard Tradition 1 with extreme caution and examine its fruits through history with the greatest care.

More later — perhaps.

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Posted by on December 21, 2007 in Christianity, faith and philosophy, religion


5 responses to “On Archbishops, Christmas, and the two faces of religion

  1. AV

    December 21, 2007 at 1:13 pm

    Just out of curiosity, Neil: where do you stand on the virgin birth question? And, for that matter, the resurrection?

  2. ninglun

    December 21, 2007 at 1:20 pm

    That comes under “more later” but the probably unsatisfactory short answer is somewhere between belief and agnosticism.

  3. AV

    December 21, 2007 at 6:05 pm

    On the other hand there is a tradition of universality, inclusion, and a degree of uncertainty. That to me is where the Spirit of God may truly be found.

    I can relate to this . . . sort of. (And it’s not just the residual postmodernist in me.) There is a traditional of fallibilism in scientific/critical thinking which is quite compatible–the notion that the facts we hold about the world are only provisionally “true,” and are always subject to review upon the discovery of new evidence. Of course, I don’t see the need to associate this sense of uncertainty with a “god.” But I must say, Neil: it’s a shame that the second tradition of which you speak hasn’t been more influential.

  4. ninglun

    December 21, 2007 at 6:17 pm

    Of course, I don’t see the need to associate this sense of uncertainty with a “god.” I think it is vital to do so… Even if on rather Buddhist grounds, that all theological statements are just fingers pointing to the moon.

  5. AV

    December 21, 2007 at 10:38 pm

    I think it is vital to do so

    I don’t understand why, which suggests it is perhaps best if we agree to disagree on this one.

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