Once more we turn our gaze upwards to, what Richard Jefferies (1885) described as ‘nature on the roof’* as we look at the ubiquitous sparrow.
The cheeky sparrow
Although the rook will forever be my ‘favourite’ among birds, I have to confess to an utter delight when it comes to sparrows. Their sheer energy and collective vibrancy as you walk past a suburban bush and it erupts with a whirling chaos of chirps and cheeps! If find their wonderful chattering antics around the bird feeders as they squabble and bicker, like a bunch of adolescent monkeys, or dust-bathing at the kerbside of a local road, totally engrossing and entertaining.
The First Immanuel: Good news to a frightened people
As we approach the season for carols and Christmas cards you will probably come across one of the names of Jesus that is particularly associated with Christmas; Immanuel or in some translations that follow the Greek it is written as Emmanuel. However few people are quite so familiar with the first Immanuel whose birth had been announced some 700 years earlier during a very dark period in Israel’s history. For those living through these desperate times the future looked extremely bleak. They faced the very real prospect of imminent of captivity and death. These were people who needed good news; to know that their God had not deserted them. They were a frightened people in need of hope to take them through the devastation they were facing. Learning a little more about this period might provide an extra layer of texture and colour to the story that many of us celebrate at Christmas. Continue reading →
It was a real joy to have Lloyd Pietersen with us recently to present a paper on ‘Does the Matthean Jesus really love his enemies?’ He was participating as part of the Humanities Research Group Seminar Series for the Newman Humanities Research Centre.
(full text of paper available to download below)
Lloyd began by conceding that this was his first time presenting an academic paper on the Synoptics (or Matthew in particular) and that this was very much a work in progress. The focus was Jesus’ instruction in Matt 5:44 to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”, from the Sermon on the Mount, and argued that this idea broadly conflicted with the canonical and non-canonical Jewish understanding of ‘enemy hatred’. Continue reading →
Last year I posted a short piece reflecting on the use of the Bible in the debate concerning the refugee crisis: Migrants, Refugees and the search for a Biblical Perspective. Tragically, fourteen months later, the crisis shows no signs of abating and political solutions remain (largely) incoherent and confused. In the light of this, I have become increasingly aware of the application of a relatively new narrative to the traditional nativity story. This has been particularly pronounced in the use of memes on social networking sites and exemplifies the plasticity of this story and the way that it can be adapted to provide powerful messages that address specific issues and needs.
As part of the CCRS programme I regularly take a couple of sessions where we compare and contrast the canonical birth narratives and students almost overwhelming state that they prefer Luke’s account because they find it more applicable to them and to contemporary society. When asked to explain further, they generally point to the ‘humble setting’ of Jesus’ birth, and the identification with the poor and socially disadvantaged. There appears to be little room for the ‘kings’ (or more accurately, magi) in our modern day nativities! Continue reading →
This summer has been darkened by the catastrophic events surrounding the thousands of refugees attempting to find asylum in Europe. The release of images of the tiny body of 3 year old Aylan Kurdi lying face down on the shoreline has galvanised opinion and, more than that, helped to put a human face on the events.
Many Christian groups have been responding for some time to this crisis and recently their voicesare coming to thefore. A lot of my friends and associates on social media have also been adding their voice and, as one might expect, biblical texts are being widely quoted. But what is the biblical perspective?
Is it possible to make a truly biblical response to the images that we see?Continue reading →
The second of Steve Moyise‘s seminars at Newman University, Was the Birth of Jesus According to Scripture?, explored the use of the Hebrew scriptures in the Matthew and Luke’s nativity accounts and questioned how helpful historical criticism (generally the primary approach used by critical scholars) is for understanding the rationale behind their use.
Unfortunately we encountered difficulties with recording this session. However, we are grateful to Steve for providing us with a handout that includes much of the material from his talk (drawn from a chapter from his latest book – of the same title) and his PowerPoint slides (links below). Continue reading →
This week’s seminar (Wednesday, 17th December) and wordcloud explore how the story of the nativity developed after Matthew and Luke wrote their accounts. It is within these later writings that we can begin to see the beginning of a merging together (or harmonising) of Matthew and Luke’s stories, an emphasising of certain themes and also the introduction of some of the elements that are so familiar to us from our Christmas cards and nativity plays.
This week’s wordcloud is of a piece of early Christian writing that many may not have heard about: the Protevangelium of James (Prot. Jas.), sometimes called the Infancy Gospel of James.
The text has been taken from Chapter 11 (the Annunciation to Mary) to chapter 22 (the Slaughter of the Innocents). It is 2,476 words long and so is roughly the same length as Luke’s account. The text is based on the Roberts-Donaldson translation which can be found on the Early Christian Writings site.
In previous weeks we have explored how both Matthew and Luke use their accounts of Jesus’ birth to provide important narrative and theological/Christological cues for the reader. In other words, they are telling us this story so that we might better understand and be prepared for what is coming next. It is fair to say that the later or apocryphal writings (like the Prot. Jas.) tend to do the reverse. They assume that the reader is familiar with New Testament Gospels and seek to look backward, answering the questions that the earlier accounts raised… and, if our seminars are any reflection on this, are still being raised!
Comparing this week’s wordcloud with those of Matthew and Luke, one of the most immediate features is the prominence given to both Mary and Joseph in the Prot. Jas., underlining the way this text harmonises the New Testament accounts. Although Elizabeth still appears (much smaller) there is no sign of Zechariah whose importance to the story is more concerned with his role as high priest and who is killed by Herod following the birth of Jesus (ch. 23).
A further sign of harmonisation is the appearance of both royal terminology (Matthew) and that of the temple (Luke). The text retains Matthew’s story of Herod, the Magi, the star and the slaughter. However, it is Luke’s account of the annunciation to Mary by Gabriel (who is now also described as an archangel) that is included, rather than Matthew’s version featuring Joseph. In fact, Joseph doesn’t discover Mary’s pregnancy until she is in her sixth month (ch. 13).
There are a couple of words which some readers might be surprised about; Salome, midwife and cave (more about them later!). We can also note the first introduction of the perennial nativity play favourite, the donkey (top left).
One of the things that provoked discussion at last week’s Advent Seminar concerned a remark made by Leon Morris (1992: 29) that the angel’s instruction that “[Mary] will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus…” (Matt 1:21a) is, in the context of Mary’s predicament, highly significant.
It is important to remember that in pre-industrial societies marriage was not simply an agreement between two individuals, but a contract between two families. In ancient Mediterranean cultures, betrothal would have usually been initiated with a meal at the woman’s parent’s home (M. Pesachim 3:7), this would also be attended by the payment of an indirect dowry (M. Ketubot 5.2); a negotiated payment by the ‘groom’s’ family paid to the betrothed couple. This would have been part of the overall Bride-wealth.
VIOLATION AND BETRAYAL
Therefore, Mary’s unexpected pregnancy was not only a violation of sexually appropriate behaviour, but it could have also have been seen as a betrayal of the two family groups involved and the agreement that bound them together. Joseph’s response to this news would directly impact upon the wider kinships groups and would have risked pitching one family against the other.*
Matthew openly addresses the socially awkward nature of Mary’s pregnancy face on. In fact, in his genealogy (1:1-17), he places Mary at the end of a list of four other women (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and the wife of Uriah) whom Jewish tradition viewed as being, to borrow from Brown (1993:73), “instrument[s] of God’s providence” despite their morally dubious reputations.
The point that Morris makes is that, although Joseph was within his rights to divorce Mary, the angel, not only instructed him against this, but also directed him to name the child. The naming of a child was the father’s right (which makes Gabriel’s instructions to Mary in Luke 1:31 so surprising!). However, this act meant significantly more than simply deciding a name. In naming Jesus, Joseph was officially accepting Jesus into his family (including wider family) as his son. It was a commitment of paternity and responsibility.
“CAST IT OUT”
The darker side of this act (if the father decided not to accept the child) was drawn to our attention by David (McLoughlin)who also then referred to a papyrus letter (P.Oxy 4.744) written in 1 B.C.E. that was found at the Oxyrhynchus sitein Egypt.
The letter, dated 29th year of the Emperor Augustus, 23rd day of the Egyptian month Pauni (17th June 1 B.C.E.), is from Hilarion to his pregnant wife Alis. The overall tone of the letter is very tender. Hilarion is away in Alexandria. He reassures Alis that he is thinking of her and that she should not worry. Although he has not yet received his pay, he assures her that as soon as he does, he will send it up to her. However he also gives her this instruction concerning the unborn baby:
“Above all, if you bear a child and it is male, let it [live], but if it is female, cast it out.”
The word here for ‘cast it out’ (ἔκβαλε) is the same word used in the Gospels to describe Jesus expelling (casting out) demons.
Within the patriarchal structure of antiquity, the ultimate decision of whether a baby should live or die rested in the father’s (or head of the household’s) hands. In a world where offspring could become a dangerous drain upon a household’s resources, infanticide was high.
NEO-NATAL BODY DUMP IN ASHKELON
Excavations of neo-natal body dumps in Late Roman Period Israel have shown that infanticide was fairly common. Research of such a dump in the sewer system under a Roman bathhouse in Ashkelon and comprising the skeletal remains of about 100 babies (up to approximately 3 months old) suggests that ‘unwelcome’ or ‘inconvenient’ babies that were the result of extra-marital relationships were (literally?) cast away. Moreover, infanticide appears to have been viewed as the favoured means of family planning allowing sex selection and birth order to take place (see: M. Faerman et al. 1998).
Bathhouses had a reputation for being places that encouraged promiscuity and prostitution and the report by Faerman et al. (1998:864-865) show that, although frequently a means of sex selection (in favour of males), the unusual number of male remains at the Ashkelon site suggest that infanticide could also have been used as a way to ‘deal’ with babies that were the result of prostitution and/or promiscuous liaisons.
Care must be taken before indiscriminately drawing parallels between evidence from the late Roman period and applying it to late Second Temple Judaism. However, as Faerman et al’s (1998) report indicates, this is far from an isolated incident and not restricted to one particular period. Forms of infanticide appear to be have been present (and recognised) within Palestinian Jewish tradition, even though precise attitudes to it are hard to discern (see Murphy, 2014).
In his birth narrative, Matthew appears to be aware of the scandalous nature in which a betrothed woman is found to be pregnant. He tells the birth from Joseph’s point of view. In the shame-honour culture of first century Palestine, Mary’s apparent violation of sexual mores (and even law) reflected badly upon him (and their respective families too). Joseph’s response to the angel was not a decision to be made between two lovers, but one that bore the heavy weight of the concerns of two families that had financially entered a marriage contract and the down-payment (on Joseph’s side) had already been paid. To accept the child was to bring the shame of the mother and the mother’s family into his own family. Most would echo Hilarion’s injunction to Alis concerning the birth of a daughter in the case of this illegitimate child; ‘throw it out.’
And so the angel instructs Joseph to take this young girl (shrouded in scandal) into his family as his wife and, when the baby is born, to “name him Jesus.” A few short verses later (v. 25), Matthew uses those same words again to explain how, on the birth of the baby, Joseph “named him Jesus.”
This is a significant and profound act for Joseph. On one level, he is naming the child, a relatively common name, Yeshua (Joshua). On a deeper level, he is accepting this baby as his own, bringing him into his household. On a deeper level still, he his publicly demonstrating that in accepting this child (born amid the dark rumours of scandal – whether sexual misconduct or rape), he should be allowed to live.
* For more information see: Hanson and Oakman, 1998:31-43 and Chilton, 2005: 84-110.
Brown, R. (1993) The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. New edn. New York: Doubleday
Chilton, B. (2006) ‘Recovering Jesus’ Mamzerut‘. in. Charlesworth, J.H. (2006) (ed.) Jesus and Archaeology. Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans. 84-110.
The Bible Odyssey site is a beautifully presented rich resource. Run by the main guild of biblical scholars (Society of Biblical Literature), it offers a wonderful array of short articles and videos written and presented by some of the foremost scholars in the field.
Just in time for the beginning of our seminar series looking at the nativity story, Mary Foskett (Wake Forest University) has discussed the meaning behind what is commonly called ‘the virgin birth.’