Was Jesus’ Birth According to Scripture? Steve Moyise @ Newman

The second of Steve Moyise ‘s  seminars at Newman University, WasWas birth of Jesus PPT1 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

A nativity wordcloud for the Protevangelium of James

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.

Prot. of James wordle
Wordcloud for Protevangelium of James 11-22 (click to enlarge)

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.

Luke wordle
Luke’s account of the Nativity (click to enlarge)
Wordle for Matthew
Matthew’s account of the Nativity (click to enlarge)

Cick here to view wordclouds in Worcloud Gallery


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).

Continue reading

The dark reality of infanticide behind Matthew 1:21


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.


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.


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 site in Egypt.

P. Oxy 4.744 (Letter from Hilarion, June 1 B.C.E.)

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.


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).

Excavation Ashkelon
Excavation at Ashkelon. copyright Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon

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.

Faerman, M. Bar-Gal, G.K., Filon, D. Greenblatt, C.L., Stager, L., Oppenheim, A., and Smith, P. (1998) ‘Determining the Sex of Infanticide Victims from the Late
Roman Era through Ancient DNA Analysis.’ Journal of Archaeological Science. (1998) 25. 861–865.

Hanson, K.C. and Oakman, D.E. (1998) Palestine at the time of Jesus: Social Structures and Social Conflicts. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Morris, L. (1992) The Gospel According to Matthew.  Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans

Murphy, A.J. (2014) Undesired Offspring and Child Endangerment
in Jewish AntiquityJournal of Childhood and Religion (5), 3. 1-36.

Virgin Birth and What It Means

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.’

Virgin Birth and What It Means.

A nativity wordcloud for Matthew

To mark the beginning of advent and the start of our Advent Seminars, the first of which (3rd December) will be featuring Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth, we have produced a Matthean nativity wordcloud.

Wordclouds render words according to the frequency of their use within a text; the more frequent the word, the bigger it is displayed. They can be used as useful tools for identifying themes and use of language.

Wordle for Matthew
click to enlarge

The text of Matthew has been taken from the NRSV and covers Matthew 1 and 2. Although Matthew’s nativity traditionally starts at 1: 18, the wordcloud also includes his genealogy (vv.1-17). This is because the genealogy is central in setting up the birth account, embedding the story with reference to key figures and major events in Jewish history, as well as, importantly, establishing Jesus’ (and Joseph’s) royal lineage through to the ‘house of David’. The total number of words (including genealogy) is 1,124.


 Care must be taken with wordclouds as they can be misleading. For example, the prominence of ‘father’ would appear to be very apt (as this story is about a birth) and one might be tempted to draw a theological point from it by noting how important ‘fatherhood’ is in Matthew’s account and perhaps allude to the prominence of the divine father of Jesus in this story. However,  ‘father’ (πατηρ) occurs only once in the Greek text (at Matt 2:22) – and that is a reference to king Herod! The frequency of ‘father’ in most English versions is a translation of ‘γενναω’ (be father of, to give birth to’), sometimes rendered in older versions as ‘begat’. Once this is taken out of the equation, ‘mother’ then becomes much more prominent.


Another problem with wordclouds is that key themes may be overlooked. As we will see in the seminars that the theme of ‘kingship’ is central to Matthew’s account. Nevertheless, one has too look quite hard for the word ‘king’ in the wordcloud (it is nestled vertically just after Joseph).

Wordclouds can, nevertheless, help us to see some interesting features. For example the prominence of the name of Herod – again perhaps pointing to the running theme of kingship. Other prominent words also relate to important figures; Joseph, David and Jacob. Important titles are ‘Lord’ and ‘Messiah’ (Χριστος – Christ). ‘Angel’ and ‘dream’ are quite notable as is ‘Egypt’. Surprisingly (for me at least) ‘deportation’ is also quite prominent.


 Look out for more wordclouds next week as we will be featuring Luke’s account of the nativity and then we will be comparing them both.

Wordcloud produced using wordle.net.


NRCBR Advent Seminars 2014

Nativity by Dona Gelsinger
Nativity Scene by Dona Gelsinger

Christmas is fast approaching! Decorations are beginning to appear and we’ve even had a couple of frosts in central England. Adding to this sense of festive expectation is the news that Wednesday 3rd December will be the first of this year’s Advent Seminars at Newman University.

The story of the nativity is arguably the most widely known story from the New Testament (if not the entire Bible). For many people, especially those who do not consider themselves religious, it probably forms one of the most important foundation blocks for their understanding of Jesus and Christianity. This is perhaps not surprising, both Matthew and Luke use their accounts of Jesus’ birth in exactly this way; to introduce to the reader their presentation of Jesus and the kingdom that he us bringing.

Although complaints about the secularisation and commercialisation of Christmas have become as much part of this season as tinsel, holly and mince-pies, images of the nativity remain close to the heart of the celebration. There is something about this story that appears to be able to bridge cultures. This story about a young couple and the birth of a child, attended by donkeys, kings and angels, is something that most people can enjoy  and understand. Its message is simple and clear… or is it?

How has this story developed over the centuries? What has been added and what has been lost? Would Matthew and Luke recognise the scenes portrayed on Christmas cards and annually recreated in school plays and advertisements? Moreover, does it matter if things have been added and lost?

Starting with Matthew, over the next three weeks we will be looking at these questions. Instead of dismissing our familiar ‘Christmas story’ and trying to go back to the ‘orginal(s)’, we will take as our starting point the nativity as we know it today and we will then explore what Matthew, Luke and later traditions can add to our understanding and appreciation of it.

Just to get you into the Christmas spirit and also brush up on some Matthean cheer (…or is it?!), meet some of the coolest camels ever to appear beside the manger…

Video by Will Vinton (Claymation Christmas Special)


Wednesday 3rd December  – Matthew’s account of the Nativity (a new king is born)

Newman University (Room DW004) at 7.00pm

These seminars are open to all. There is plenty of free on-site parking.

Contributions: £4 (refreshments included) free to students and staff

2014 Advent Seminar Series

The Nativity with the Evangelists and Beyond

Image of nativirty
Decoding the Nativity – image from Channel 4

Room DW004 @ 7.00pm

3rd December – Matthew’s account of the Nativity (a new king is born)

10th December – Luke’s account of the Nativity (a new kingdom is come)

17th December – The Nativity after the New Testament

The nativity is one of the best loved stories in the Bible. For many, Christian and non-Christian, it is foundational to their understanding of the person of Jesus. Its popularity as a school play makes it one of the few biblical stories that can join different cultural and faith groups together in an inclusive and non-threatening way.

We will be asking whether it matters if the nativity scenes that we recognise on Christmas cards and in school nativity plays markedly differ from those we read about in the New Testament. We will be looking at the authority of not just the written text, but also of the narrative or story itself. Why does it still maintain such a powerful hold in our imaginations? Are changes necessarily bad? The three sessions will explore what might happen when we reintroduce some of the elements of the ‘original’ narratives back into our modern day version of the birth of Jesus.

The seminar will be hosted by Dr Richard Goode (Visiting Research Fellow in Biblical Studies, Newman University), Rev Stephen Winter (Community Theologian & formally Assistant Director of Development, the Diocese of Worcester) and Andrew Summers (Theology student and church leader)

These seminars are open to all.

Contributions: £4 (refreshments included) free to students and staff

There is plenty of free on-site parking.

For map please click here

For more details please contact Emma Board:

email: boar200@staff.newman.ac.uk

telephone: 0121 476 1181 ext. 2395


Uncovering hidden texts (Palimpsests)

Codex Zacynthius (Luke 3:7-8 undertext and Matthew 26:39-51 overtext) Image: Public Domain


Recently Cambridge University Library announced their  success in securing Codex Zacynthius from the British and Foreign Bible Society. Codex Zacynthius (so called because it was ‘found’ on the Greek island of Zakynthos) was brought to Britain in the early 19th century and has been kept at the University of Cambridge since 1985. Ostensibly, the codex is a 13th century Gospel lectionary written on 176 leaves of vellum (treated calf skin) and has been accorded the lectionary number l299. A lectionary is a book containing portions of the Bible to be read at specific times in the Christian calendar. Ancient lectionaries, like Zacynthius, are helpful in biblical and textual studies as they provide evidence of any changes occurring in the text and the way in which those texts were used. This helps us to build a clearer picture of the way in which the Bible was transmitted and the texts used.


However, what makes Zacynthius even more interesting is that it is also a palimpsest and contains a far older text. A ‘palimpsest’ is a manuscript that has been re-used (or recycled!). Parchment was an expensive commodity and therefore, even though a text was no longer useful or had become badly worn (the ink could fade, begin to cracked or simply be worn away through use), the parchment was often still viable. Therefore, the writing would have been erased (usually be scraping away the remaining ink) and re-used.  This is the case with Codex Zacynthius. If you look at the image below you will be able to make out the original text (referred as the ‘undertext’) that runs sideways on.

Codex Zacynthius: at the end of a chapter of the Evangeliarium, the undertext is clearly legible. Credit: Cambridge University Library


The undertext contains significant portions of Luke’s Gospel that include:  1:1-9,19-23,27-28,30-32,36-60,77; 2:19,21-22,33-3; 3:5-8,11-20; 4:1-2,6-20,32-43; 5:17-36; 6:21; 7:6,11-37,39-47; 8:4-21,25-35,43-50; 9:1-28,32-33,35; 9:41; 10:18,21-40; 11:1-4,24-33 running over 86 full leaves and 3 partial leaves. Although it is listed in the NA 27 as dating from the 6th century, David Parker (University of Birmingham) has more recently argued that the squarer and more compressed formations of some of the letters suggest a later date (possibly 7th century).

This text has been allotted the letter Ξ and the number 040 and both its under and over texts are cited as witnesses to the critical edition of the Nestle-Aland New Testament Greek text (Novum Testamentum Graece). This is the Greek text used by most modern translators for producing new editions of the New Testament.


Palimpsests like Zacynthius can tell us a lot about how texts are transmitted (or reproduced) and we can see what types of text are being used in one particular place (for example, how different is the earlier text to the later one?) By studying how different families (or groups) of texts circulated we can build a clearer picture of their relationships to one another. Alongside its value as a relatively early witness to the text of Luke’s Gospel, the use of palimpsests within Christian tradition can reveal to us information about the reception of the Bible within different Christian communities. A pragmatic re-use of existing manuscripts (even those containing the text of the Gospels) appears to have been accepted and permitted. In fact, leaves from the wonderful and lavishly produced Codex Sinaiticus have been found being used to create bindings for later books. There also does not appear to have been a corresponding development of the Jewish tradition of Genizah – the prohibition of the destruction of objects viewed as holy (particularly sacred writings containing the name of God); for example, see Babylonian Talmud: Shabbat 115a.