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By Helen Watson White in All Sorts
Helen uses her understanding of the Christmas stories to illustrate the creativity of the scripturesBEGINNINGS
As Glenaven begins its year, we think of beginnings, like the birth of a child - but especially, since Christmas is so recent, the birth of THE child who was the founder and subject of our religion. It is Jesus, and what we know of him, that brings us to a gathering in a particular building on a particular day, and who is (again) the reason for the season.
That season is Epiphany, from a Greek word meaning 'appear, reveal, shine, give light', as some of us learned at St Mary's, Mornington, last week, when the Anglicans and Methodists so close to each other on Whitby St, combined. The emphasis in Epiphany is on the mysterious magi from the unspecified East, who travelled to Bethlehem, guided by a potent sign in the form of a moving star, so they could pay homage to a particular baby newly born. So goes the story.
We have to use the word magi because there is no one word in English for its many meanings. Again, it's a Greek word (because Greek was the common-denominator language around the Mediterranean when the Bible, both testaments, was being written down and spread as far as it would go). We know the meaning as 'wise men' but they could equally be called astrologers, or members of a priestly caste of ancient Persia (Iran), or wizards, chaps who have secret magical powers.
Yes, they are portrayed as being as foreign as they can possibly be, because the writers are using them to represent the non-Jewish peoples of the world, the Gentiles. They appear in only one of the gospels, the book of Matthew, because the writers of Matthew had a particular audience they were trying to reach, of Jews who might become Jewish Christians, rather than Christian Jews. Note the magi don't appear in the same story as the shepherds and angels (that's Luke), or in Mark (which begins with a quotation from Isaiah introducing the figure of John the Baptizer, who prepares the way for Jesus). They are certainly nowhere near the gospel of John, which was written down last of the four gospels and has quite a different character.
There is not, indeed, any one gospel that presents what we know as 'the Christmas story'. They present bits of it, differently imagined each time. And imagined is the right word for these stories.Jesus, we know, was
born into history, in the time of Caesar Augustus, and was crucified by the order of Pontius Pilate, a Roman prefect. We know for a fact only that he was born and died, and approximately when.
There was no such thing as factual history in the era of the scriptures, no sense of objective truth - that came later with the rise of science. All there was, was story. There wasn't even certainty about authorship, because it was the usual thing to ascribe your writings to a famous person if you weren't famous yourself, or if you were just writing down a group of tales that had hitherto been spread by word of mouth, possibly over a very long time.
So I'm afraid to say it's all fiction. I hope that's not a disappointment to you. As a writer of fiction, it is very exciting to me! The baby laid in a feeding stall in a stable, the shepherds, the angels, the star overhead and the ones who got on their camels and followed it from afar -- particularly the last-mentioned -- are all inventions, and mostly particular to one strand of a many-stranded tradition. The magi, understood as kings, later even given the names Caspar, Melchior and Balthazaar, are the most fictional of all.
The stories clustered around Jesus well after he died, to illustrate that he was indeed like a new king for Israel. The wise men paying homage to him indicate he was also wise.
Jesus born into history was only significant for the number of amazing stories that gathered about him. Our religion is based on these imaginative stories, and all the centuries of amazing stories handed down in the Hebrew scriptures about his forbears in 'David's line.' Hymns offer more stories, and sermons still more. There is much to celebrate, especially the foundational creation stories, all so different. We value creativity, finally, not only because it earns money (for some) or improves people's lives, which it does, but because we believe it is of God.