Sermon preached in Bishopton Parish Church, on 26th December 2010, First Sunday after Christmas
I don’t know how you spent your Christmas day, but I spent considerable time looking at historical accounts about the birth of Jesus. While most normal people I know spend Christmas day playing with the brand new toys and gadgets that they got for Christmas, I was reading historical articles. Sad, I know… You see, I was trying to figure out how to harmonize the birth account in Luke chapter 2, which we read on Christmas Eve, with the account in Matthew chapter 2, which we read today. The problem was a gap of at least 10 years between the two accounts.
Luke places the birth of Jesus at the time when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Luke writes: “When the first census took place, Quirinius was the governor of Syria.” According to historical records, Quirinius became the governor of Syria after Herod’s son, Archelaus was deposed in 6 AD. The problem is that Matthew places the birth of Jesus at the time of Herod the Great, which is at least 10 years before that time, as he died around 4 BC. Do you feel a headache coming? I certainly did.
I read many articles which tried to explain that actually Quirinius had been sent by Caesar to Syria round about the time when Herod the Great was King, putting him in charge of a census while some other fellow was governor of Syria. Thus what Luke is trying to say is that this particular census was lead by Quirinius, who ‘later’ became governor of Syria, not ‘while’ he was a governor of Syria. Clever explanation, but you’d have to perform some serious reorganization of the original text to draw that conclusion.
Another way of solving the problem was the mistranslation of the word ‘first’ in that verse. The word protos should have been translated as ‘before’ rather than ‘first’, so it should have read “The census took place before Quirinius was the governor of Syria.” Again, very clever, but no current version of the Bible that I am aware of makes that translation.
So we have a problem. Not an impossible problem, but a problem nonetheless. Also, when we look a bit closer at Matthew’s account of the three magi, we will notice that it was pretty daft of them to go to the King in office, a notoriously jealous and murderous king at that, and ask him about where the new king will be born. That’s a very daft thing to do. No wonder many historians doubt the historicity of this account.
So, we do have to ask ourselves, what if either Luke or Matthew is wrong about the timing of Jesus’ birth? What if both are wrong? Where does that leave our trust in the historical accuracy of Scripture? What if the story of the magi is nothing more than a fabrication of Matthew’s imagination, and not historical fact? What if the story of the shepherds is a fabrication of Luke’s imagination, and not historical fact?
Luke seems to have known nothing about the magi, and Matthew seems to have known nothing about the shepherds. It’s unlikely that they split the material between them: “OK, Luke, you take the shepherds, I’ll take the magi.” And Mark seems to have been completely oblivious to any birth account. Had he known anything about it, perhaps he would have at least mentioned it. John doesn’t mention it either.
You will probably hear fierce debates over the historical accuracy of biblical texts. Some will argue with great fervour and conviction that every single word written in the Bible is historically accurate and free of error. At the other extreme, many say that the whole Bible is a human invention with no trace of divine inspiration, since there is no God in the first place.
Of course, the two extremes exist, but they are both untenable. Even the most extreme literalists recognize that there are stories in the Bible which come under the category of ‘fiction’. And even the most extreme atheists will recognize that there is truth in the Bible, even if it may be wrongly attributed. But is there a middle ground between these extremes?
We can get into serious trouble if we try to read ancient texts using contemporary lens. This is a surprisingly common mistake. History was simply not recorded in the same way two thousand years ago as it is now. That is why it is so difficult for modern historians to make sense of ancient historical writings. There’s a whole area of study around these issues called critical philosophy of history.
And if we attempt to read the four Gospels from a historical point of view and expect them to live up to modern historical standards, we will get into serious errors and develop some serious headaches. The four Gospels are not historical books in the modern sense. Not even close.
The Gospels are concerned mainly with meaning, and not with historical accuracy. If historical accuracy was the point, we wouldn’t need four accounts. One accurate account would be enough. There was an attempt to put one together, but it never caught on. The meaning of the stories in the Bible does not depend on their historical accuracy. Nobody enquires about the historicity of the Prodigal Son, because it doesn’t matter. The meaning of the parable is exactly the same if the prodigal son was a real historical person, or if he wasn’t.
So, let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the whole magi story told by Matthew is a figment of his imagination. Many scholars believe that it is not a historical account. But why would Matthew include this made up story in his account? For what purpose? What was he trying to achieve?
Well, as you probably know, Matthew wrote his gospel with a Jewish audience in mind. He quotes extensively from the prophets, he goes to great length to show how Jesus fulfils the prophesies of the Old Testament.
Some scholars place the writing of this gospel after the fall of Jerusalem, when the centre of Jewish national identity was utterly destroyed. Matthew’s mission was to convince the dispersed Jewish community that Jesus was the Messiah who was promised to the Jews; that he was the fulfilment of the prophecies of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Micah.
In our passage from chapter 2, Matthew draws a very clear parallel with the story of Moses, suggesting that Jesus is the new Moses. Moses had escaped the murderous plans of the Pharaoh, and Jesus also escaped the murderous plans of Herod. Innocent male children were killed by Pharaoh when the nation of Israel threatened to multiply excessively, and so were innocent male children killed by Herod, out of jealousy and fear for his own throne.
What Matthew is trying to tell the Jews is that Jesus is not only a part of Jewish history, but that he is the very fulfilment of national identity. Just as Moses was a Saviour who lead the nation out of Egypt, so was Jesus a Saviour how had to escape to Egypt, but then came out of Egypt in order to lead the nation into freedom. Moses was a son of Rachel, and so was Jesus.
We do not know with any degree of certainty if Herod the Great did actually order the killing of innocent children. There is no historical record that he ever did that, but he was certainly capable of such murderous acts. When he came to power he murdered the whole Sanhedrin, the council of the chief priests and elders of the people. He also murdered his own two sons. Matthew wanted the Jews to associate Herod with the Pharaoh, thus making the parallel clearly identifiable.
The reason we sometimes find these ancient texts so difficult to understand is that we often do not know the historical context in which they were written. We do not have all the facts, thus we cannot make all the associations that would have been so obvious to contemporary audiences. For instance, if you never read the Moses story, this account in Matthew’s gospel would make little sense to you.
We do have to enquire however as to what this story has to do with us, regardless of its historical accuracy or lack-there-of. What is the meaning for us today? We are not Jews. Matthew is writing to the Jews, using Jewish stories and heroes to speak of Jesus, so what does it mean to us?
Well, I believe it is important for us to realize that Jesus was in fact a Jew. It is important for us to acknowledge the strong connection between Jesus and his Jewish ancestry. It is true that just as Moses was a liberator for the Jews, so is Jesus a liberator for the whole world. But we sometimes tend to forget the Jewishness of Jesus.
We are too much influenced by Hollywood depictions of Jesus as a tall Caucasian man with long hair and blue eyes. We have a much too romantic, sanitised and air-brushed vision of Jesus. We sometimes forget that he was in fact a Jew who was born as an actual baby into the real world, where his life was under threat, where he lived in opposition to a real political and religious establishment, where he preached a practical message of love and reconciliation, and where he finally paid the ultimate price: a death on a very real cross, spilling real blood, feeling real pain.
This passage may very well have a different meaning for each and every one of us, according to the uniqueness of our experience. So how does this real Jewish Jesus connect with where you are right now in your life journey? This is the question that the Bible invites us to explore. So let us take on that challenge as we look forward to the coming year, with all its promises and hopes, knowing that Jesus will always be our guide on the journey. Amen!