Sermon for Matins: The Nativity Stories

30 December 2007 at :00 am

Just before Christmas the Archbishop of Canterbury gave an interview to a radio reporter who probed the question of the historical accuracy of the nativity stories in the New Testament. The resulting minor furore no doubt as much as anything reflected the absence of any real news at the time, but the press had headlines about the Archbishop declaring the nativity stories to be all legends. As the Dean pointed out in his Christmas Day sermon here the Archbishop did not actually say that. Rowan Williams was merely pointing out that the original biblical stories have been embellished in the telling over the years and a lot of what is pictured about them, the wise men from the east being three Kings for example is not actually there in St Matthew’s gospel, as anyone could discover if they bothered to read the text. So the Archbishop was actually taking a fairly traditional and conservative line about the biblical evidence.

But he could have been what some might describe as being more radical in his approach, and had he done so there would have been a good deal of scholarly opinion to support him. Most biblical scholars today would accept that Matthew’s and Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus developed later in the tradition, there is nothing about the birth in St Mark’s Gospel, which is the earliest of the gospels, nor in the epistles of St Paul, most of which were written before the Gospels, and there are no references to Jesus’ birth in the early preaching of the church as reported in the Acts of the Apostles. The authors of Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels were writing well towards the end of the first century, and each was writing his gospel not so much with an historical purpose in mind as with a theological one. To read the gospels as though they were written by 21st century historians is to make a fundamental category error, they were not; they were by people who did their theology in the same way that Jesus did, by telling stories.

And that is why it is impossible to conflate the two accounts from Matthew and Luke to make them a single whole. For example, according to Luke after his birth Jesus’ parents took him to present him in the temple in Jerusalem, but according to Matthew they immediately left Bethlehem to flee to Egypt in order to avoid Herod in Jerusalem. They cannot both be historically correct.

But if their purpose was not historical then they can both be right, but theologically not historically. Matthew and Luke had slightly different although closely related theological purposes. So when we read their Gospels the question we should be asking ourselves is not ‘what really happened?’, because at this distance it is probably impossible to find a satisfactory answer, but ‘what did the author mean by putting this story in this place?’

Take Matthew’s Gospel first. The nativity stories there are punctuated by five Old Testament quotations each preceded by the phrase ‘All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:’ The actual quotations all refer to earlier events in the history of Israel, and taken by themselves they do not make a great deal of sense, but in Matthew’s nativity stories there are other echoes of the Old Testament as well.

Matthew wants in his Gospel to show Jesus as the new Moses, his Gospel is written in five sections corresponding, in a way, to the five books of Moses. And what happened to the Jews when Moses was born? Well according to the book of Exodus Pharaoh killed all the young Jewish children. Moses survived and led them to freedom. From where? Out of Egypt. Hence the theological purpose of the flight to Egypt and the massacre of the innocents. For Matthew, Jesus is the new Moses.

But he also wants to show Jesus as an inheritor of the true kingly status of Jewish leaders. Of David of course, who came from Bethlehem, but what happened to one of the other great Kings of Israel? Well, the Queen of Sheba brought gifts to King Solomon from the east, and in some Jewish commentaries of the time on that biblical text she was guided by a star.

Matthew is reflecting very deeply on the Hebrew bible and showing Jesus as the fulfilment of all the themes of Israel’s history. That was his purpose in telling these stories, which is what I mean by saying that his purpose was theological rather than historical. And the question we should ask arising from his gospel is not ‘what really happened?’ but ‘what does it mean for us that Jesus was the fulfilment of the Old Testament?’

Luke’s purpose was slightly different. There are two infancy stories in the first few chapters of Luke’s gospel, the birth of John the Baptist and the birth of Jesus, and there are strong parallels between them. But there is an earlier parallel as well, with the birth of Samuel, the first of the prophets of Israel. To read the song of Hannah, the mother of Samuel, in I Samuel chapter 2 is to see how close it is to the Song of Mary that we know as the Magnificat. Luke’s point is to say that the first and the last of the Jewish prophets, Samuel and John the Baptist, were God given gifts to his people, as was Jesus, who was the fulfilment of what those prophets hoped for. Samuel chose and appointed David as King, and John baptised Jesus and proclaimed him as ‘the One who is Mightier than I.’ Luke, like Matthew, is showing Jesus to be the fulfilment of Jewish history. But Luke does not do it by reproducing various quotations from the Hebrew Scriptures, rather he draws all sorts of parallels that anyone well versed in the Old Testament, as many of his original readers would have been, would have understood.

Time does not allow me to deal with all of them here, but take just one theme, that of poverty. Mary’s song contains the lines ‘He has put down the mighty from their seats, and has exalted the humble and meek’, words that are very similar to ones uttered by Hannah at the birth of Samuel. And Luke obviously believed the words he ascribed to Jesus later on ‘Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.’. Luke believed that not having this world’s goods in abundance was almost a necessary condition for recognising the ways of God. So who, for Luke, were some of the first people to acknowledge Jesus? Poor and despised shepherds, watching their flocks in the fields. That is the point of that story for Luke; it was the poor and unrespectable who first recognised Jesus; a slightly uncomfortable message for those of us who do not necessarily come into that category.

The Roman Catholic writer H J Richards, in his very good little book ‘The First Christmas: What really happened?’ expounds this view of the two gospels and he notes that some people might be disturbed by a sense of loss that the historical accuracy of the stories can be questioned. But he concludes: ‘It has been (my) purpose to show that what they have lost has been replaced by something much more worthwhile. These stories were not told to make children goggle in amazement. They were told to embody a theological meditation as profound as the mystery of the resurrection itself… They were told to give us an insight into the deepest meaning of the Old Testament, which all flows together in Christ, and into the deepest meaning of the New Testament, which needs the Old Testament to reveal its depths.’

Personally I wish that the Church of England would have more confidence and be more robust in a scholarly approach to the nativity stories rather than colluding with a naïve and ill informed literalism. Such an approach may upset some, but my guess is that it will mightily relieve others. If you think I am wrong do tell me when you leave.

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