Musings on Scripture

– and what isn’t always said

Tag: Bethlehem

1st January 2017 (Epiphany)

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Matthew 2:1-12

1In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? We observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’

7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Text © The New Revised Standard Version (English Edition) alt, used with permission.

If you ask someone who knows the Christmas story, even among those who go to church regularly, to tell you what they know, you are likely to hear about the angel visiting Mary, about Joseph and Mary having to travel to Bethlehem, about the lack of room available for them and their need to rest in a stable, about the shepherds in the fields being visited by an angel telling them of Christ’s birth, about the wise men (or kings) visiting Herod on the way to Bethlehem but returning by another route, and about the star which guided those wise men on their way. When we delve deeper we discover that Luke has the story of the shepherds, but no wise men, Matthew has the wise men, but no shepherds, and Mark and John don’t mention what happened surrounding the birth. Our Christmas story is, therefore, a mixture of two gospel renditions of the event.

Both Matthew and Luke place the birth of Jesus in the time of King Herod, who was appointed to the position in about 37BC and died, still holding that position, in 4BC. On that basis Jesus Christ was born “before Christ.” That, of course, doesn’t stop us referring to the era based on the birth of Christ, however inaccurate the calculation might have been, as the Christian era, and the time before that as “Before Christ”. There is nothing derogatory for other religions to complain about if we name an era after a particular person. People of other faiths might object to public references of “Anno Domini” – in the year of our Lord, but that shouldn’t stop Christians from using the term in Christian circles, or referring publicly to the current era as “Christian” rather than “Common”.

When I read about “all of Jerusalem” being frightened about the news of Christ’s birth I begin to wonder who “all of Jerusalem” refers to, and why they, rather than Herod, should be frightened at all. With Herod’s reputation for being a cruel leader it might have been that those in Jerusalem were afraid of the consequences of someone potentially taking over Herod’s kingdom, and the possibility of some form of retribution. The Jewish leaders might, if they had been reading their own scriptures carefully, have been afraid of “The King of the Jews” being someone who would take away the status and prestige of their being religious leaders, but that would hardly be “all of Jerusalem.” I have to wonder what a 67 year old king, in a time when three score and ten years was a real achievement, would have to be afraid of with the birth of a new child. Surely he would have been dead, from old age if nothing else, before the new King of the Jews was old enough to do anything. In the verses immediately after the passage read for Epiphany, Matthew tells of Herod’s rage when he realised that he had been deceived, and his order that all boys two years and younger in Bethlehem and surrounding areas should be killed. Whether or not that is a historical event, with Herod’s reputation for violence suggesting that it might have occurred but not been noteworthy enough to be recorded elsewhere, and the lack of reference to such an event in even early Christian writings suggesting it was a contrived fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy, there are things to note. The wise men saw a new ‘star’ in the sky and travelled, with camels, some distance before they reached Jerusalem. It wasn’t as if they could get into a car and hurtle along at 100km/hr and be there in a couple of days. Camels might be good for carrying loads, but they are slow. It could well have taken these wise men two years to get to Jerusalem. If Herod did order the murder of boys two years and under, based on timing given by the wise men, then Jesus would have been born in 6BC or earlier. If you remember the comments on last week’s gospel reading, there is some support, though not strong, for Quirinius to have been pseudo-governor in Syria around 6BC. Another point to note is that the birth was reported to have taken place in a stable in Bethlehem. Matthew, however, comments that the wise men entered a house, not a stable. What’s more, they found ‘the child’ (‘paidion’ in the Greek) whereas we might expect them to have found ‘the baby’ (brephos) if their visit was immediately on the heels of the birth. Had Mary and Joseph moved into a house in Bethlehem? The registration which brought them to Bethlehem wouldn’t have taken the two years it appears to have taken the wise men to reach Jesus, so had they returned to Nazareth and continued their lives in their own home there? If the slaughter of young boys was, indeed, a contrived fulfilment of scripture then there would be reason for Matthew not to suggest that the wise men had travelled on to Nazareth. Travelling back to their own countries by another route would have been easier if they had encountered Christ in Nazareth, rather than Bethlehem. The gospel only tells us that the wise men found Mary and the child – there’s no mention of poor Joseph. Wouldn’t he have stopped doing his carpentry if three high ranking delegates from another country appeared at his house? What about that star? More than 2000 years on from the event, we know that, as the earth rotates the stars appear to move across the sky, but is it really possible to say that a star stopped over one building rather than over another? A heavenly event, such as the alignment of certain stars or planets, could easily have resulted in the guidance those wise men used, but they still had to depend on advice from Herod, or the religious leaders of the time, to find the actual place they were seeking.

Much has been said about the gifts the wise men brought: gold, to mark Christ’s status as a king; frankincense, marking his deity; and myrrh, used for embalming a body after death. Three gifts to show His importance in the world. Three important gifts from gentile leaders. We are gentile leaders, so what are we offering the new-born king?

One final note: were there three wise men, or four? The Story of the Other Wise Man, by Henry van Dyke, tells of a fourth wise man who intended to join the other three but was delayed and eventually caught up with Christ, who was, at that time, on the way to His crucifixion. Artaban used his gifts to help many others on the long journey to Jerusalem. That story was inspired by God, just as the canonical scriptures were, but it was written a number of centuries too late to be included.

25th December 2016

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

luke-2-we-are-all-innkeepersLuke 2:1-20

1In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged, and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child, 7and she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified, 10but the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ 13Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’

15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them, 19but Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Text © The New Revised Standard Version (English Edition) alt, used with permission.

In most cases the passages of scripture selected for reading as part of a church service are extracts from a much larger whole. When an extract starts with “In those days”, “In that region”, or any of the multitude of beginnings which depend on previous text for their sense, I wonder why an effort is rarely made to provide us with the setting, so we know the context for the story. Some years ago I was training people to read set passages, and gave them a challenge. With just one name changed to a pronoun I read the story of Jesus on the road to Emmaus and asked them to listen as one who had never heard the story before, and to raise a hand when they could identify the main character. No-one raised a hand. If that happened with people who are already connected with a church how can we expect newcomers to church to understand what we’re talking about without the context being set?

Luke claims that the emperor Caesar (in classical Latin pronounced Kaiser, not seizer) Augustus initiated the first registration of everyone in the Roman world at a time when Quirinius was governor of Syria, and that was the reason for Joseph and Mary travelling to Bethlehem. Given that the wise men, in Matthew’s rendition of the birth story, asked Herod for guidance to get to see the new-born King of the Jews, there is a significant problem with Luke’s information. Of course, a thorough investigation of Luke’s attempt to date-stamp the birth of Jesus, written well over half a century after the event, only goes to show that scripture is theological ahead of being historical in our sense of accuracy of details such as dates. We miss the point of the birth and its significance for the world if we try to confirm or contradict details of timing in Luke’s narrative.

It’s easy for us, in the 21st century and where it’s not unusual for a woman to be pregnant before being married, to overlook the importance of Joseph’s support for Mary. Matthew 1:19 tells us that Joseph was planning on “dismissing” Mary because he was unwilling to expose her, not him, to public disgrace – as if the developing pregnancy would not be noticed – but his intention was changed after a visit from an angel. In those days a pregnancy before marriage would have brought disgrace for both parties, but if the man disappeared from the relationship early enough he might escape because she had been unfaithful – isn’t “she” always the sinful one? What’s that lump in your throat called, Adam? Joseph showed strength of both character and faith by sticking with Mary in the lead up to Jesus’ birth.

If we think that “cleanliness is next to Godliness” what might we think of the location of Christ’s birth? All the good places in Bethlehem were occupied by the time Mary and Joseph arrived, so they had to occupy a stable, with the animals around them and the smell of their feed and their urine and faeces. This was no place of cleanliness in terms we humans think of it, especially these days. It was no royal palace, fit for a king on our human scales, but an indication of Christ’s connection with the poor and with every living thing.

‘There were shepherds, abiding in the fields, watching over their flocks by night’ – sorry, I’ve sung Messiah so many times that quotes are inevitable. Our Christmas celebrations are centred on a date close to the northern hemisphere’s winter solstice, which is a time of intense cold, snow, and plenty of cloud cover. That’s certainly not a time when shepherds would be out in the fields at night, tending to their sheep: it’s a time when the sheep would be in barns or stables, protected as much as possible from the freezing conditions – and yes, it does get that cold in Israel! Even the Sahara desert got some snow recently. We don’t know the exact date of Christ’s birth; we don’t even know the actual year because when “Dionysius the Little” tried to calculate it, way back in the 6th century, he didn’t have the accurate information we have now. What we do know is that Jesus was born into a Jewish community and, later, showed his divinity as well as his humanity. As with many Christian festivals, the date was chosen to re-badge a pagan festival.

Angels come in various forms. Sometimes we don’t recognise them when they are vitally present for us, because we see just another human being. The film The Staircase tells the story of a real-life example of an angel providing a community of nuns in New Mexico with a staircase many believed was impossible, and disappearing without trace or payment as soon as it was complete. Have we been visited by angels in our lives, or, more particularly, have we been angels in the lives of others? The angels who visited the shepherds in the fields around Bethlehem were no humans who walked into the shepherds’ lives and walked out again. In this case the appearance created fear and awe, and the experience was enough to stir the shepherds into action. Can we experience the birth of Christ in such as way that we are stirred into action to spread the Good News? Can we be so stirred by our encounter with the living Lord Jesus that we spend our lives rejoicing, and glorifying and praising God for what we have heard and seen. I hope so.