In the second in this series I ask: Does the usual Christmas Nativity Scene have authenticity? I answer: No. Did you know that Jesus may well have not been born in Bethlehem? Did you know that what we accept, or have come to depict, as the Nativity is an amalgam of several contradictory stories? Did you know that the earliest gospels say nothing at all about the birth of Jesus?
For many none of this will be news; for others it may be disturbing. Wait and see.
So here we are, and for a full account of these matters see Bishop Spong: A Religious Santa Claus Tale. Not that Bishop Spong is the only church figure to say things like this, and he is certainly far from the first. You see the trouble with fundamentalists is that they don’t read their Bibles carefully enough.
Isaiah 7 almost certainly does not refer to Jesus, even though the appropriation of two verses in that chapter has become so embedded, thanks to Matthew’s very dubious use of a Greek translation of the Hebrew original, that many Christians find that unthinkable. However, if you read the chapter properly – that is you read it all, in context, in a good translation — you will see that it does not mention virgins anywhere, and that the birth it is talking about is very much a symbolic lesson for the times in which the text is set – a particular political situation around 800 years before Jesus was born.
The earliest Christian texts tell us nothing about the birth of Jesus, or nothing supernatural. Those are certain letters of Paul, as Spong says:
Paul, who is the first author of a book in the New Testament (he wrote between 50 and 64 C.E.), appears to have no knowledge of anything being unusual about Jesus’ birth. All Paul says is that Jesus was "born of a woman, born under the law" (Galatians 4:4) and "according to the flesh" he was "descended from the House of David" (Romans 1:3). Paul never mentions the names of Mary or Joseph. The only reference he makes to a member of the family of Jesus was to James, whom he called "the Lord’s brother," and with whom he did not get along very well (Galatians 1).
The earliest gospel in the Canon is Mark, which has no birth narrative. Neither does the Gospel of Thomas, which many scholars date back to around the same time the other Canonical gospels were being written. Thomas has no narrative at all to speak of, and in that respect probably reflects (though the Thomas we now have is not a primary version) what the first gospel stories were actually like.
Matthew and Luke, writing at least 40 years after the death of Jesus, have independent and contradictory stories about the birth of Jesus, Luke’s chronology, despite his being the more polished and careful as a writer of the two, being very doubtful. It may even be that Jesus was actually born in Nazareth in Galilee, where, it is reasonably certain, he spent most of his life. Matthew goes to extraordinary lengths with a tale which, like so much in Matthew, deliberately parallels the lives of Moses and Jesus in order to explain how Jesus ended up in Nazareth. Reading Matthew alone you would think Joseph and Mary had always lived in Bethlehem. Luke, on the other hand, probably correctly notes that they were from Nazareth, but then gets them to Bethlehem via the plot device of a census, which appears, if at all, to have happened some ten years or so after Jesus was born, which was not on the 25th December in a year no later then 4BC, when King Herod died. One story has wise men from the east visiting Mary in her house; the other has shepherds visiting a stable. The two events, if either is really an event, may have happened several years apart. The ox and ass came in later through creative embroidering and do not appear in the gospels themselves.
John, writing towards the end of the first century, begins with a philosophical poem rather than a story.
All the gospels really start with John the Baptizer, and the first public appearances of Jesus. And so on. All this is really well known.
So what do we celebrate at Christmas? The idea that “God is with us” – however you understand that. Tikno in Indonesia captures this well enough in his recent comment:
Before, when the bell is ringing, Jesus has came in simplicity.
Now, when the bell is ringing, let go holiday.
One remembers also the best that has been inspired by the name of Jesus. An obituary in today’s Sydney Morning Herald is not a bad example:
…Sister Veronica, raised in Quirindi, just south of Tamworth, was a pioneer of Aboriginal education. Entering the Josephites, the order founded by Blessed Mary MacKillop, just before her 18th birthday, she took her vows three years later.
She had chosen an order that had as its mission an energetic engagement with the community. She taught at Annandale, Port Kembla, Revesby, Walgett, the Central Coast and Hunters Hill, where she was headmistress of St John’s Preparatory School.
In 1974, she arrived at an Aboriginal mission in Kununurra to run the local school. Expecting a class of 60, she was greeted by 135 children. "From that first surprise blossomed her partnership with Aboriginal people and the evolving of what became known as two-way education," said a fellow Josephite, Sister Maria Casey.
Sister Veronica was an early exponent of what was then a radical educational theory: teaching the regular curriculum of maths and English alongside the local language, culture and history. For the first time, the local Kija language would be written, as well as spoken.
Later she moved to Warnum, one of the most isolated pockets of the Kimberley. She and the other sisters working there lived rough for several years, in the soaring temperatures of north-western Australia, before their house was built. But the hardship forged a bond with the women of Warnum, who accepted her as kin, even giving her a "skin name".
Sister Veronica became deft at handling the often delicate politics of the church, the education system and the indigenous communities. Measured in her approach to people and problems, she never gave the appearance of frustration or anxiety.
Her knowledge of indigenous women was captured in her master’s thesis, Aboriginal Women In The Face Of Change, and her book, From Digging Sticks To Writing Sticks…
There is of course much one would rather forget, but let us set aside Christmas for focusing on the good that has been and can be.
Finally, look at a post by Postkiwi Duncan Macleod, a Uniting Church minister in Queensland: Gustav Niebuhr on Interfaith Conversation.
Gustav Niebuhr’s writings include the book “Beyond Tolerance: Searching for Interfaith Understanding in America” and articles for “The New York Times Magazine”, “The Christian Century” and “The Buddhist Review”. He is associate professor of religion the media at Syracuse University in New York State. Gustav is the grandson of Reinhold Niebuhr, and grandnephew of Helmut Reinhold Niebuhr…
Gustav talks about being inspired to write his book, “Beyond Tolerance”, by his experience at the New York Times in the late 1990s writing about religious conflict in which he encountered people who were engaged in inter-faith dialogue and projects. His interest in the topic was spurred into action when he found people of faith who deliberately reached out to the Muslim community in the wake of 9/11.
Michael Pappas in his interview suggests that crisis might be what is required to stimulate the building of inter-faith relationships. Niebuhr points out that relationships are built over time in response to a growing awareness of pluralism. He refers to the changes that have happened in the United States since the immigration laws were overhauled in 1965.
I found it interesting the idea the most effective relationship building is done not by intellectual dialogue (usually carried out by academics) but through shared projects. Niebuhr refers to the Interfaith Youth Core in Chicago, founded by Eboo Patel, as a great example of how that might happen. Niebuhr talks about using humour, interviews and stories to break down stereotypes.
Much better than being “right” don’t you think?
Update: a sad note
Being a Protestant, I am not affected directly by anything the Pope might say, but it is always heartening when he says something useful, as he does at times. However, it is very sad when he says something as backward-looking, indeed quite silly, as the hyperbolic pronouncement that has just come out on the subject of gays, lesbians and transexuals. The Wild Reed will be very disappointed I should think, though not surprised.
- NAME: MICHAEL J. BAYLY
- LOCATION: ST. PAUL, MINNESOTA, UNITED STATES
I was born and raised in rural Australia but am now living in the US where I serve as the executive coordinator of the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (CPCSM) and the editor of The Progressive Catholic Voice. I established The Wild Reed as a sign of solidarity with all who are dedicated to living lives of integration and wholeness – though, in particular, with gay people seeking to be true to both the gift of their sexuality and their Catholic faith.The Wild Reed simply invites people to observe and reflect upon one man’s progressive, gay, Catholic perspective on faith, sexuality, politics, and culture.
My old internet friend, the late Father Ken Sinclair, must be spinning in his grave. Ken co-wrote this major study: Consequences of Decriminalization of Homosexuality: A Study of Two Australian States.
A comparison between homosexual males in two Australian states. Victoria (prior to decriminalization of homosexuality) and South Australia (eight years after decriminalization), indicated that the consequences of decriminalization did not include an increase in the negative aspects of homosexuality, such as public solicitation or sexually transmitted disease. Findings suggest that as a consequence of decriminalization, the psychological adjustment of homosexual men will increase and sexually transmitted diseases and public solicitation will decrease. These data are tentatively interpreted as indicating that there are few if any negative consequences of decriminalizing homosexuality, and a number of positive consequences.
Indeed many Catholics I know will be saddened. Will they take notice? Of course not…