Friday, December 3, 2010

Advent 2b: "The First Christmas": genealogy as destiny chapter

Excerpts for discussion from Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan:

"Most Christians and many non-Christians could tell you the basic story of the conception and birth of Jesus. But they would probably never mention the detailed genealogies given to him in Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38...Nowhere is it so clear as in these two genealogies that theological metaphor and symbolic parable rather than actual history and factual information create and dominate the Christmas stories of the conception and infancy of Jesus.

Different genealogies for the same Jesus:
Matthew comes at the very start of his Christmas story while Luke's genealogy comes at the start of Jesus' public life--after his baptism, in fact--and therefore outside his Christmas story. Matthew goes from Abraham to Jesus; Luke from Jesus to Adam. Matthew descends from David through Solomon, a king; Luke descends from David through Nathan, a prophet; Matthew names Jesus' grandfather as Jacob, but Luke names him as Heli. Both are heavily male-oriented, but Matthew names four women ancestors whereas Luke names none. Where have all the mothers gone?...They point to Josephus' own genealogy as an example, as Josephus includes especially how he has a royal and a priestly lineage, and they say "That combination is the highest Jewish pedigree for that time and place. Luke--but not Matthew--gives a similar double pedigree to Jesus. He is of priestly lineage through Mary and of royal lineage through Joseph. "

The importance of the women named in Matthew's genealogy:
Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, wife of Uriah (Bathsheeba), and Mary. Tamar played a prostitute and bore two sons by her father-in-law who had disowned her, in order to gain justice. Rahab was a Caanite prostitute from Jericho who helped the Israelis. Ruth was a Moabite woman married to an Israeli, a widow who did not desert her Israelite mother-in-law who also became widowed, she returns to Bethlehem with her and seduces Boaz whom marries her. Bathsheeba was the wife of the Hittite warrior Uriah whom David committed adultery with and bore sons, and after Uriah is killed in battle after being ordered to the front by David, David marries Bathsheeba.

The first four were all Gentiles and they say Matthew, who also includes the Gentiles,the Persian Magi, in his infancy story, might be stressing the inclusion of Gentiles in the broader story of Israel. They go on with other possibilities: "The second answer haas the advantage of connecting all five mothers together. In every case there was a marital abnormality, but it was precisely through these five somewhat surprising or irregular unions that God controlled the lineage of the Messiah. It has also been suggested that the women took the initiative and moved boldly to solve the irregularity. But, although that is certainly true for Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and maybe even Bathsheeba with regard to Solomon's royal ascendency, it is hardly true for Mary--as Matthew, rather than Luke, narrates the infancy of Jesus....Why did Matthew find it necessary to defend Mary by linking her to those other ancestral women?" That will be discussed in the next chapter, and the next post...

Luke's genealogy: it emphasizes Jesus' title as Son of God, which is also used at the baptism; Luke's ending the genealogy with Adam evokes Genesis, as does the baptism scene in Luke. His purpose is theological: "Jesus is a new Adam, a new "Son of God", the start of a new creation, the beginning of a transfigured earth."

But why evoke a genealogy at all? Descent from Abraham was true for all Jews; descending from David didn't make one a Messiah. At the time of Jesus, however, there was already a divine Son of God (Augustus), and one who claimed a genealogy back to the time of Troy and the goddess Venus and her child Aeneas who through his son Julus begins the Julian family line. Aeneas escpaes Troy taking his father on his shoulder (his father carrying the family idols) and his son by his hand, and flees to Italy. Artistic scenes of that story were ubiquitous in the Roman empire of Jesus time....Think of that imperical image, they write, when you read the biblical story of another fleeing family.

"...if you wanted to oppose and replace one Son of God born with a millenium-plus descent from the divinely born Aeneas,you would have to introduce an alternative Son of God with a better than millennium-plus descent from, say, the divinely born Isaac, as in Matthew, or, better, the divinely created Adam, as in Luke. But what is always clear is that ancient genealogy was not about history and poetry, but about prophecy and destiny, not about accuracy, but about advertising."

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Advent 2a: "The First Christmas" Discussion--context

Excerpts for discussion From Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan:

"What would you think of a book that started with the opener, I am going to discuss Mahatma Gandhi as a Hindu saint, but I'll skip all that distracting stuff about British imperial India.?..."

They rely on the concepts of text and context and matrix; they say it is clear you can't have context without a text, but not so clear that you can't have a text without a context; and matrix is the "necessary mutuality and reciprocity of text and context." So, for Christmas discussion, they say their context is to set out first the "clash between the kingdom of Rome and the kingdom of God" and the differences between the two. Then they discuss the "terrible brutality with which the kingdom of Rome struck Jesus' Galilean heartland around the very time of his birth."

The matrix fo the Christmas stories has three layers for them: 1. first that they were understood only within Christianity; 2. after WW II "especially forced ecumenical respect but historical accuracy between contemporary Christianity and Judaism, the contextual matrix was expanded to interpret the Christmas stories within Christianity within Judaism, especially for that traumatic first century c.e.; 3. especially at the end of the 20th and start of the 21st century,the "full context for those Christmas stories is to see them within Christianity within Judaism within the Roman Empire.

The context: their use of the term "kingdom" "emphasizes not so much territorial space, regional place, or ethnic identity, as much a mode of economic distribution, a type of human organization, and a style of world orderk social justice, and global peace....The infancy stories of Matthew and Luke "move, of course, within the kingdom of God over against the kingdom of Rome."

The kingdom of Rome: After Octavian's defeat of Antony and Cleoptra at the Battle of Actium in 31 bce, the "Augustus-to-be had saved the Roman Empire and brought peace to the Mediterranean...Was he not Savior of the World? And that almost instant upgrade from Son of God--son that is of the already divine Julius Caeser--to God in his own right was not just because of Augustine's personality or even character, but because of his program...the four successive elements of Roman imperial theology...religion, war, victory, peace. You worship the gods,you go to war with their assistance, you are victorious with their help, and you obtain peace from their generosity...always peace through victory, peace through war, peace through violence.

The kingdom of God: Drawing from the Book of Daniel, also written near the time of the beginning of the Roman Empire, they discuss how Daniel condemns all the other kingdoms besides God's, and God's kingdom has the same end for peace, but it is peace through justice and nonviolence. The question for Judaism in considering the vision of God's kingdom is what would God do to the Gentiles, and how?...In the bible, both Hebrew and Christian scriptures, there are two answers to the what: one is that there would be a final extermination in battle, the other that there would be a great conversion to the God of peace and a feast of all nations..."Which one, do you think, is announced by those Christmas stories? When Luke's angels announce "peace on earth" to those shepherds at Bethlehem, is it peace through victory or peace through justice?"

The answer to the how it would happen raises the question of a mediator to effect it: "Would God have some Messiah or Christ--that is, some Anointed One--as viceroy or administrator for the establishment on earth of the kingdom of God?" They give two examples of a pre-Christian Jewish expectation of such a Messiah: the first from the Psalms of Solomon, and names the one as Son of David, who does battle of sorts, but not militarily, against Rome; the other from the Dead Sea Scrolls, and names the one as Son of the Most High, with an eternal kingdom of peace.

Now they turn to the immediate context of Nazareth of Jesus' birth near the time of Herod the Great's death in 4 bce. Jewish uprisings after that death, and they carried messianic overtones. Putting down those uprisings was done with brutality. One of the uprisings happened at Sepphoris, capital of the Galilee, very near Nazareth. The Roman legions went to Sepphoris and burned it and enslaved its inhabitants. History doesn't record what happened to nearby villages, but later when it does record other Roman punishments for uprisings they did the same brutality to nearby villages.

"Jesus grew up in Nazareth after 4bce, so this is our claim. The major event in his village's life ws the day the Romans came. As he grew up toward Luke's coming of age at 12,he could not not have heard, again and again and again, about the day of the Romans--who had escaped and who had not, who had lived and who had died...This is our imagination to what his coming of age entailed:

"One day when he was old enough, Mary took Jesus up to the top of the Nazareth ridge. It was springtime, the breeze had cleared the air, and the wildflowers were already everywhere. Across the valley, Sepphoris gleamed white on its green hill. "We knew they were coming," Mary said, "but your father had not come home. So we waited after the others were gone. Then we heard the noise, and the earth trembled a little. We did too, but your father had still not come home. Finally, we saw the dust nd we had to flee, but your father never came home. I brought you up here today so you will always remember that day we lost him and what little else we had. We lived, yes, but with these questions. Why did God not defend those who defended God? Where was God that day the Romans came?"

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Friday, November 26, 2010

Advent: First Week Online Conversation of "The First Christmas": How To Approach The Nativity Stories

Advent and Christmas Conversation: excerpts from The First Christmas by Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan

Each week of Advent, we will post excerpts from this book and invite your reading, reflections, and your own response here; also post links for conversation that develop the themes of each week's posting.
First Week of Advent Discussion: How To Approach the Nativity Stories...

"Because of the importance of Christmas, how we understand the stories of Jesus' birth matters...They are : sentimentalized. And, of course, there is emotional power in them. They touch the deepest of human yearnings for light in the darkness, for the fulfillment of our hopes, for a different kind of world. Moreover, for many Christians, they are associated with their earliest memories of childhood. Christmas has emotional power. But the stories of Jesus' birth are more than sentimental. The stories of the first Christmas are both personal and political. They speak of personal and political transformation. Set in their first century context, they are comprehensive and passionate visions of another way of seeing life and of living our lives. They challenge the common life, the status quo, of most times and places. Even as they are tidings of comfort and joy, they are edgy and challenging. They confront "normalcy," what we call the "normalcy of civilization"--the way most societies, most human cultures, have been and are organized.

...Our task is twofold. The first is historical: to exposit these stories and their meanings in their first-century context. The second is contemporary: to treat their meanings for Christian understanding and commitment today...We think hearing their ancient and contemporary meanings matter particularly for American Christians today. To say the obvious, America is in the powerful and perilous position of being the empire of our day. As we will see, the stories of the first Christmas are pervasively anti-Imperial. In our setting, what does it mean to affirm with the Christmas stories that Jesus is the Son of God (and the emperor is not), that Jesus is the savior of the world (and the emperor is not), that Jesus is Lord (and the emperor is not). The repetition risks growing tiresome.

"There is a political meaning and challenge in these stories, both in their ancient writings and today. Of course, these stories are not "only" political--they are also deeply personal. They speak,and speak powerfully, about our deepest yearnings and about God's promises and passion. They are religious in the way the Bible as a whole is religious: life with the God of Israel, the God of Jesus, is both personal and political. The personal and political meanings can be distinguished but not separated without betraying one or the other. And because the political meaning of these stories has commonly been overlooked, we highlight it...Doing so involves no denial of the way these stories also speak to our lives as individuals. They are about light in our darkness, the fulfillment of our deepest yearnings, and the birth of Christ within us. They are about us--our hopes and fears. And they are about a different kind of world. God's dream for us is not simply peace of mind, but peace on earth."

[Borg and Crossan then spend a chapter discussing the stories as "pageantry" in the way many people have come to think and understand them, and how both Matthew and Luke present different pageants, how pageants can be done, but how important it is to make distinctions between the two versions so meaning is gained and not lost. They also say many Christians see the stories as fact and nothing more, while others see them as fable and nothing more. But they use a third way approach, seeing them mostly as parables, and also as overtures to the rest of the respective gospels. So Matthew's nativity stories carry seeds of themes that are seen again grown in the rest of Matthew--Jesus as the new Moses and Herod as the new Pharoah foreshadowing much of the way the Hebrew stories are recast as Christian stories in that gospel--and the same is true of Luke where the emphasis on the movement of the Holy Spirit and also on women and the poor and liberation can also be seen in its nativity stories with the focus on angels and Mary and shepherds.]

"Jesus told parables about God and the advent of God, the coming of God's kingdom. His followers told parables about Jesus and his advent, the coming of the bearer of God's kingdom. In this sense, we see the birth stories as parables about Jesus. We focus on their more than literal more than factual meanings. To see these stories as parabolic or metaphorical narratives does not require denying their factuality. It simply sets that question aside. A parabolic approach means "Believe whatever you want about whether the stories are factual--now, let's talk about what these stories mean. Meaning, not factuality, is emphasized....(they write how no one argues over the facts of Jesus' parables and whether their actions really happened and their characters were really true, but instead delve into the meanings; the same should be taken with the parables about Jesus.)

"A second feature of the parables of Jesus adds to our model of interpreting the birth stories...They subverted conventional ways of seeing life and God. They undermind a "world" meaning a taken for granted way of seeing "the way things are."...And just as Jesus told subversive stories about God, his followers told subversive stories about Jesus....Who is the King of the Jews? That was Herod the Great's title, but Matthew's story tells us Herod was more like Pharoah, the lord of Egypt, the lord of bondage and oppression, violence and brutality. And his son was no better. Rather, Jesus is the true King of the Jews. And the rulers of his world sought to destroy him. Who is the Son of God, the Lord, the savior of the world, and the one who brings peace on earth? Within Roman imperial theology, the emperor, Caesar was all of these. No, Luke's story says, that status and those titles belong to Jesus. He--not the Emperor--is the embodiment of God's will for the earth.

For the Second Week of Advent Discussion, we will take up the chapters "The Context of the Christmas Stories" and "Genealogy as Destiny." Third Week: "An Angel Comes To Mary" and "In David's City of Bethlehem". The Fourth Week of Advent: "Light Against the Darkness" and "Jesus as the Fulfillment of Prophecy". For Christmas: "Joy to the World."

You are welcome to comment on the quotes and points above, especially to share personal journeys along the road in your life of finding deeper meaning in how you yourself have learned to approach the nativity stories, both personal and political.

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