(The Nationalist, 02 April 2007)
There is a substantial and potentially damaging gap between the understanding scripture scholars have of the bible, and that of the man and woman in the pew. A few points from the story of the infancy of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke offer an example:
Did the angel Gabriel appear to Mary? A traditional commentary says, ‘Perhaps – but it is more likely that Luke… has presented genuine spiritual experiences in a traditional and consecrated style.’
The dreams of Joseph echo the dreams of another Joseph in the Old Testament book of Genesis.
There is no other record of a census being held in the Roman empire at that time, which brings it into doubt, considering that it would have been a massive and virtually unprecedented exercise.
There is no astronomical record of a star doing anything as unusual as moving and then stopping. The Jerusalem Bible notes say simply, ‘It is futile to look for a natural explanation.’
We don’t know when Jesus was born; there is no evidence that it was 25 December.
The gospel account of his birth makes no mention of an ox or an ass. That may have been introduced later as a way of “fulfilling” Isaiah 11.6-8.
The gospel speaks of wise men, but doesn’t say they were three, or that their names were Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar. It does not say they were kings. (Nor were they wise, if they went to King Herod to tell him of someone he could only see as a potential rival.)
There is no record of Herod slaughtering infants in Bethlehem. He would have been fully capable of doing so; indeed he killed several of his own sons. A Roman emperor said of him that you would be safer as Herod’s pig (hus) than as his son (huios), but the absence of supporting evidence puts the massacre of the infants in doubt. Matthew presents it as fulfilling a prophecy, and quotes a verse in support, but the original context of that verse is entirely different.
Scripture scholars regard the story of Joseph and Mary moving to Bethlehem, and their subsequent flight into Egypt, as stories created for the purpose of “fulfilling” Old Testament texts. Scholars believe Jesus was probably born in Nazareth.
Neither was Jesus born in the year 1 AD, but rather about 6 BC. A Syrian monk called Dionysius Exiguus (Little Denis) got his sums wrong when back-dating the calendar from his own time so as to make the birth of Jesus the starting-point of a new Christian calendar.
A commentary says about Jesus’ infancy narratives, ‘These stories correspond strikingly to contemporary Jewish legends.’ They are a type of Jewish reflection on scripture, known as midrash. ‘Around the core fact is a good deal of inspired embroidery, whose message is not to be learnt by feverish insistence on the historicity of every detail.’ The latter is not the way the Gospel writers composed their material.
Few people take the Genesis account of creation literally. To do so is not fidelity to the bible, but infidelity to one’s intelligence. It invites ridicule and rejection. I have heard it said of members of a bible study group that when they open their bibles, they close their minds. That’s a pity. Taking Genesis as a parable, a metaphor, brings it to life and gives it meaning. Recently, a rabbi described the Hebrew Bible (what Christians call the Old Testament) as the ‘novel of God’s dealings with his people’.
A similar process applies to the Gospels.