December 23, 2014 by James Crossley
On ABC Religion and Ethics, N.T. Wright has given his annual Christmas address: ‘The Virgin Birth and the Constraints of History’. And the Christmas story is, it seems, not just very Jewish but fiercely Jewish!
What about Luke, who tells the story from Mary’s point of view? His setting is just as Jewish as Matthew’s…But his emphasis, unlike Matthew’s, is on the very Jewish point that this birth is a direct challenge to the pagan power – in other words, to Caesar. This fits with Luke’s whole emphasis: the (very Jewish) gospel is for the whole world, of which Jesus is now the Lord. Israel’s god is the king of the world; now, Jesus is the king of the world…these fiercely Jewish stories…thoroughly Jewish context
And so on. As ever, we might ask, what is ‘not very Jewish’, ‘mildly Jewish’, ‘tamely Jewish’, ‘moderately Jewish’, ‘lukewarmly Jewish’ etc. But let us humour Wright a little more. If everything, including the Christmas story, were so thoroughly/fiercely/very Jewish, does that make Christianity and Wright…Jewish? Fiercely Jewish perhaps?
But ‘fiercely Jewish’, ‘very Jewish’ etc as a convenient block becomes something distinct from another convenient block: (‘nakedly’) pagan (which presumably covers everything not [fiercely] Jewish in the ancient world). Both of these seemingly cannot mix or, if they did, they might render one another unclean:
But that belief was a Jewish belief expressed in classic Jewish God-language; while the only models for virginal conception are the nakedly pagan stories of Alexander, Augustus and others…from an early, very Jewish, high Christology, to a sudden paganization, and back to a very Jewish storytelling again. The evangelists would then have thoroughly deconstructed their own deep intentions, suggesting that the climax of YHWH’s purpose for Israel took place through a pagan-style miraculous birth.
I’m not going to repeat the critiques of these uses of ‘very Jewish’, the clunky uses of identity, and the strict Jewish versus pagan dichotomy. Just to say this: after all the scholarship over the past 40 years, is it possible we might just give up these bizarre binaries and the assumptions of what Jewish ‘really is’ (i.e. something multiculturally convenient and used to make Jesus/NT/Christianity better and protected from anything deemed idolatrous).
I am not going to get into the debate about historicity (the issues Wright raises have long been discussed) but I will just note this interestingly worded claim:
Some have questioned whether Herod would really have behaved in the way described in Matthew 2. The answer, from any reader of Josephus, would be an unequivocal “Yes.”
Except, of course, Josephus does not mention the slaughter of children…
Thanks to Robert Myles for
shit stirring the link.