Sunday, December 5, 2010

how real was their jesus? part 2

The announcement in Matthew is strikingly different. Not only is it more cursory than in Luke, but it is made after Mary's conception:
The birth of Jesus the Anointed took place as follows: While his mother Mary was engaged to Joseph, but before they slept together, she was found to be pregnant by the holy spirit. Since Joseph her husband was a good man and did not wish to expose her publicly, he planned to break off their engagement quietly. While he was thinking about these things a messenger of the Lord surprised him in a dream with these words: 'Joseph, descendant of David, don't hesitate to take Mary as your wife, since the holy spirit is responsible for her pregnancy. She will give birth to a son and you will name him Jesus. This means 'he will save his people from their sins' [Matthew 1 18-22].
So, the messenger, not specified as Gabriel, visits Joseph rather than Mary, after she has found herself to be pregnant and after she has told him, which she may well have delayed doing, considering their unmarried state, until it couldn't be hidden. If Mary was young and naive, she may well not have known of her state until she was well on. So we're talking four weeks minimum after conception, and probably much later.
So how would our Tardis team deal with these grossly contradictory accounts? Clearly we would need sufficient facts, or leads, to place us in the right place at the right time. Luke's gospel gives us an 'announcement' place - 'a city in Galilee called Nazareth', though the archaeological evidence strongly suggests that Nazareth would've been no more than a small village in Jesus's time [blessed news for the Tardis team]. Matthew's gospel doesn't specify a place, but tells us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, some seventy miles south of Nazareth - a few days by donkey.
However, all of this 'where' information is useless without further information as to when. 

To find out more, we turn to the birth itself, and again we find two seriously incompatible stories, leading us to be sceptical of both. We'll look at Matthew first this time: 
Jesus was born at Bethlehem, in Judea, when Herod was king [Matthew 2:1]. 
A very useful lead, but unfortunately for our team, Herod's reign was a long one, from around 37BCE to 5 or 4BCE.We know of course that the official year of his birth marks year zero in our calendar, but if Matthew's gospel is to be relied on here [and I see no reason why it should be], his birthdate is out by four to thirty-seven years. And there's no obvious reason to assume it's closer to four than thirty-seven. That's a long period to stake out. Let's see if we can reduce it.
In chapter two of Matthew, one event is mentioned which is so strikingly horrific that it just might provide a lead for us, before we even embark on our expedition:
When Herod realized he had been duped by the astrologers, he was outraged. He then issued a death warrant for all the male children in Bethlehem and surrounding regions two years old and younger [Matthew 2: 16]
Surely such a regally sanctioned massacre, in the reign of such a well-known monarch, would be in the historical records, giving us a date to go on? The answer is no. The infamous massacre of the innocents mentioned in Matthew isn't corroborated anywhere else, in spite of a great deal being known of Herod's reign. Josephus, the most important Jewish historian of the period, doesn't mention it. However, it was a very bloody reign, especially in the last years, and it's just possible that this local massacre got lost amongst the general carnage. After all, if we exclude Jerusalem, the number of slaughtered children in and around Bethlehem may not have been great. At least we can point to the last years of Herod as being slightly more likely as the birth period.
However, there's an argument which tells against this massacre having occurred, and of the consequences for Jesus, who was described as having escaped with his family to Egypt. Matthew's gospel is obsessed, it seems, with the fulfilment of prophecy, and this leads me to wonder if certain events are fashioned to fulfil those prophecies. For example, on the massacre, Matthew writes:
With this event the prediction made by the prophet Jeremiah came true: In Ramah the sound of mourning and bitter grieving was heard: Rachel weeping for her children. She refused to be consoled: they were no more [Matthew 2: 18]  
The reference is to Jeremiah 31:15. I don't for a moment believe this passage was an accurate prophecy of Herod's behaviour centuries later - Ramah was more or less in the vicinity of Bethlehem, but these prophecies were generally written after the events prophesied had occurred, so it probably referred to the invasion of the Assyrians, or the later invasion of the Babylonians - but it does indicate that Matthew was prepared to shape the tale to fit his propagandist intent. And of course it's quite possible, even likely, that the whole story was filched from the old testament tale of events surrounding the child Moses:
Then Pharaoh gave this order to all his people: “Every Hebrew boy that is born you must throw into the Nile, but let every girl live.” [Exodus 1:22, NIV]
So where does this leave us? Nowhere clear, and with a heightened scepticism of the Matthew gospel. The period of exile in Egypt was also claimed as a fulfilment of prophecy:
So Joseph got ready and took the child and his mother under cover of night and set out for Egypt. There they remained until Herod's death. This happened so the Lord's prediction would come true: 'Out of Egypt I have called my son'.
The Old Testament reference here is Hosea 11: 1, but note the whole verse:
When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son'.
To me, at least, the manipulation here is palpable. Hosea is speaking with the voice of 'the Lord', speaking of his 'child', the chosen people of Israel. The reference is clear - it's about the soi-disant exile from Egypt of a whole people, and their wandering in the wilderness. So the Matthew gospeller is being pretty audacious in substituting Jesus and family for the whole Jewish nation. Amongst other things, this tale is meant to emphasise Jesus's role as a particularly Jewish saviour, rather than the son of God. It comes to seem all the more unreliable as the birth story of any real person. 

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