Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son (Luke 2:1-20)

Okay, what the heck. Here's the Christmas edition of the ASAB, as hinted.

So Luke chapter 2 opens with mention of the census tax in "all the world". While of course this is a clear hyperbole of a sort (surely there was not a Roman tax on people living in the Far East or southern Africa) it's not clear to what degree. One could assume that Luke means throughout the Roman Empire, as some translators have assumed (the NIV translates the phrase to "the entire Roman world", although I don't believe the word "Roman" is in the Greek text), but even with that assumption, I have heard that there is no historical record of a tax even of that magnitude. While that is not mentioned in the SAB, the perhaps more weighty matter of the timing of this tax is mentioned. While one might dismiss the above as hyperbole of a sort, Luke seems to be intent on being very specific with respect to the time frame, "when Cyrenius was governor of Syria." This is a well-known issue with this story, and there are various approaches to it that have been taken. The most convincing approach I have ever heard is that some scholars have suggested that Quirinius/Cyrenius actually served two terms as governor of Syria, the first being at the time of Jesus' birth.

(Note that as I think I said before--and if not, I say it now--I'm not highly familiar with the finer points of historical accuracy. This limits my abilities to respond to points such as the one above, but aside from the fact that I don't expect to be able to answer every issue in the SAB, it also presents an odd opportunity to go outside of my usual mode of response at times. That is to say, while most of the points I respond to that are not of an historical nature, and thus I respond to them using only logic and/or common sense, I am forced to respond to these (if I choose to) by doing outside research. I think that's fine, since in most cases, one would not know that these supposed errors exist without outside research to find them in the first place!)

For the purposes of the taxation, for some reason Joseph had to leave the town of Nazareth and come to Bethlehem. Supposedly Bethlehem was prophesied to be the birthplace of the Messiah, so it's good this worked out, and also interesting that God's will is exercised by the decree of a pagan king. (I love to point out to fellow Christians of a conservative political bent that if God's will can be worked out in men like Caesar, Herod and Pharaoh, then surely God would have no problem working with a Democrat in the White House.) The SAB contends that there is a contradiction with Matthew 2. While I may do Matthew 2 after I finish this chapter, I think the response to this is simple. Mary and Joseph (or at least Joseph) lived in Nazareth before the census. The census called them to relocate to Bethlehem. After the census, they decided to stay there, and lived there for a couple years before another temporary move to Egypt. In any case, wherever this "house" that they lived in was that is mentioned during the story of the Magi, it clearly was a place they lived about two years after Jesus was born. While there was no place to stay when they first came to Bethlehem, that doesn't mean they had to stay in the stable for two years.

Of interesting note, the Bible never says that they were in a "stable" per se. Because Jesus lay in a manger, people assume that the surroundings were a barn of some sort, but the actual nature of the structure Jesus was born in is not really known. Some people think he was born in a cave on the outskirts of Bethlehem which may or may not have held livestock. Also of interesting cultural note, as is seen later in the passage and explained more fully in the Old Testament, a woman giving birth would be considered "unclean", and need to be purified. In addition, anything touched by an unclean thing or person tends to also be unclean. Thus, if the inn had given them a room, they would have had to throw out or purify everything in that room that Mary had touched. Contrary to the image of a crowded inn with a kindly innkeeper who says, "You poor young folks, if only I could put you up...Tell you what, I'll let you have my barn!" it's quite possible that there was specifically "no room" for a pregnant woman in labor.

The fact that there were shepherds watching sheep at night suggests that this is not likely to be late December at all, of course. Most likely, it was a time with favorable warm weather, such as spring. I once read a book that suggested there was a significant astrological event that happened in early October of 6 B.C., and perhaps that was the "star" the Magi talk about seeing, and the weather would have been good enough for grazing sheep at night. Who knows?

The shepherds get invited to the party, so to speak, when some angels appear to them and tell them what's going on. They sing a little chorus of praise that ends "...on earth peace, good will toward men." This little song and other verses elsewhere lead the SAB to pose the very apropos question, "Did Jesus come to bring peace?" Some passages seem to suggest yes, while others no. The answer is of course, "Yes and no." How can this be? Well, the important question to ask is, "Peace with whom?" Jesus came to give an offering of peace between man and God. That much is very clear, and I believe that is what is meant by all of the passages mentioning Jesus bringing peace. Perhaps there are some that are clearly saying otherwise, and if so I will eventually get to them when I come to the New Testament. However, there is an unfortunate side-effect due to the fact that the world as it was then and is today is not in general at peace with God. As James says,
...know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.
You see, the problem is that once a person puts themselves on the side of God, then they're not on the side of all the people who are not on God's side. (This is a difficult Biblical issue regarding the many meanings of the word "world", in this case meaning the non-Christian culture around us.) Put that way, it seems rather obvious, but the idea here is that the majority are not on God's side. Even today, only about one-third of the world is Christian. So no contradiction as such, but simply two different sides of the same coin. When you find peace with God, you will find that you will lose a lot of your other peace. (My roommate at the time I became a Christian was very irritated at my conversion, despite the fact that I was never preachy at home.)

1 comment:

Brucker said...

Ah, I see that some of the issue of contradiction is in verse 39 of the chapter. No matter, I'll get to it in tomorrow's post.