Another Way to look at the Infancy Gospels
It doesn’t matter if you are religious or not. It doesn’t matter if you are an atheist, an agnostic, or a believer. Jesus of Nazareth interests people regardless of background or philosophical perspective. Anyone who could stimulate so much emotion and influence to have the turn of the millennia marked by his birth is fascinating to explore.
This month we mark his birth – though most scholars are convinced that he was born in the period from May to August, not in December. One clue Is that the period when shepherds and sheep were out to pasture is May to November. No sheep grazing outside in December. The Christian writer, Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150-215), reports that he knew celebrations of Jesus’s birth in May. There are other non-historical elements in the stories and, of course, some of them are what we call “mythical” today – in the proper sense of the word. Hold on.
When you approach the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke, you need to move off the position normally espoused in our rather flat-footed culture. We’re not good with poetry, image and symbol – unless those symbols relate to, say, the NFL or the flag. We don’t do well with poetry because many of us are impatient of compressed language. We need it “spelled out.” Such attitudes and learned responses inhibit our reading of the gospels.
Many of us insist that a written record be either historic or scientific fact or else it be nonsense and meaningless, a myth in the sense used today: an untrue story. If you want to get anywhere in reading the gospels, you have to give up these polar opposites and take the way of parable and story, by which truth is revealed but not necessarily in an historically accurate manner. When you look at the era when these records were compiled, the historical veracity beyond the bare minimum of, say, Jesus’s birth, is not at stake. What’s at stake is whether or not these stories relate to the human condition and can be embraced as truth on a different level. Those are the conditions under which the gospels came to us.
Here’s one way to approach them. Let’s ask the question: “What key symbols in these stories relate to cultural events, incidents, or people at the time?” When you ask this question, answers begin to come in rapidly. There are kings and despots afoot like Herod, a truly nasty sort. One despot claimed to be, if not God, at least the Son of God. That would be Caesar, one of the most unpopular characters on the scene. Hence Jesus of Nazareth is opposed to him as Son of God (a term that would not have been offensive, properly understood). Rome is gainsaid more than once in the New Testament; it shows up in the gospels as the opponent to another kingdom called “the Kingdom of God,” more a collective attitude toward life than an actual tool of governance. There are stars and lights in the infancy gospels. The oppressed Jewish inhabitants of what was called Syro-Palestina considered Rome to be a kingdom of darkness. What better than to oppose it with a Kingdom of light?
It does not require a lot of effort to recognize that the infancy gospels are the prologue to a subversive ministry. Unfortunately, many Christians have forgotten or never knew the subversive nature of the narrative they read. Perhaps this year we can begin to think about them as political documents once again and see Jesus and his entourage as opposed to the politics of power, domination, conquest, and warfare. Who knows, perhaps he might yet become the Prince of Peace.