Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Nativity story

Matthew's Nativity is charming and frightening... but it's a Jewish myth

By Géza Vermes

December 19, 2004

When we speak of the Nativity story, we speak, in essence, of the account in St Matthew's Gospel. The virgin birth, Joseph's dream, the star, the Wise Men and their gifts, the flight to Egypt, and Herod's slaughter of the innocents: all these elements are drawn from Chapters 1 and 2 of the first Gospel. Only the adoration of the shepherds and the birth in the manger are missing - these staples of the tale being supplied by St Luke.

St Matthew's account of the Christmas story, like a child's fairy tale, consists of an admixture of the charming and the frightening. The sweet image of the baby cared for by the Virgin Mary, greeted by angels, and visited by the Magi - magicians in pursuit of a miraculous star - is followed by menace. The bloodthirsty Herod enters the fray, informed of Jesus's birth by the Magi, and advised by the interpreters of what we have come to call the Old Testament ("the chief priests and scribes"), sages who identify the place where the new king of Israel is to be found.

To rid himself of a potential rival, Herod lets loose his cruel soldiers on the infants of Bethlehem. They all perish - except the child whom Herod actually fears. Joseph, warned by a dream, carries Jesus to safety in Egypt - where, centuries before, the very existence of the Jewish people had nearly been brought to an end by Pharaoh. Yet another dream, and Joseph is told by "an angel of the Lord" that he can take Mary and Jesus back to the Holy Land.

This account of Jesus's birth is missing entirely from the Gospels of Mark and John, and appears in a radically different form in Luke, where there is no mention of a star, wise men or Herod, nor of the murder of the innocents and Jesus's escape to Egypt. The question, then, is: what are the true origins of St Matthew's account, which have proved so extraordinarily influential in Christian civilisation?

To answer this, we have to examine Biblical sources and Jewish folklore. Dreams, for instance, play an essential part in Matthew's account of the Nativity. Joseph discovers by means of a vision that the pregnancy of Mary is miraculous - "that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost" - in fulfilment of a prophecy by Isaiah.

According to the prophet, a child called "Emmanuel" would be born of a virgin. The crucial point here is that Matthew is quoting the Greek translation of Isaiah: "Behold a parthenos [virgin] shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Emmanuel." But Isaiah wrote in Hebrew, not in Greek, and in the Hebrew Bible, the mother of Emmanuel is not a virgin - the Hebrew for this would be betulah - but a young woman, almah, already pregnant. She is to give birth to a son, Immanu El, meaning "God is with us"

Here, the historical context of Isaiah's original words is key: this name - Immanu El - promised divine protection to the inhabitants of Jerusalem during the siege of the city by two enemy kings seven centuries before the birth of Jesus. But the writer responsible for St Matthew's Gospel - which is in Greek - added his own double twist to the Hebrew words of Isaiah, distorting them dramatically in the process. The Gospel author took the translated word parthenos, not in the loose sense of a young girl but strictly as "virgin"; and the name "God is with us" not as a promise of hope but, literally, as a person sharing the nature of the Deity.

It is hard to exaggerate the significance of these changes. Matthew's Gospel was written in about AD 80-90 for Christians who were not of Jewish provenance - that is, Gentiles who had no knowledge of Isaiah's original Hebrew. For them, the passage announced, unambiguously, the fulfilment of an ancient prophecy: the miraculous birth of a divine being. But the prophet himself and readers of his original Hebrew sentence regarded it as a quite specific allusion to the historical circumstances of Isaiah's age - and would have found its mutation in Greek into one of the foundations of Christian doctrine quite baffling.

Matthew's Christmas narrative also refers to the providential escape of Jesus from Herod's murder plot. Here, the Evangelist did not need to cite Biblical authorities such as Isaiah. Herod's record of atrocities was a matter of common knowledge. He was responsible for putting to death his favourite wife, three of his sons, his brother-in-law, his uncle, as well as his mother in law and her father, together with countless other Jews. He was certainly capable of murdering small children.

This part of the story is historically plausible, therefore. However, there are good reasons, based on close analysis of Jewish tradition, to suppose that St Matthew's claim is a variant on a powerful tradition rather than a literal historical claim: a generic story, so to speak, rather than a specific one.

A contemporary of Matthew, the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (AD 37-c.100), reports, and later rabbinic literature confirms, a folk tale which was in circulation in New Testament times. It relates to the birth of Moses and his miraculous escape from the hands of Pharaoh of Egypt. In the Old Testament, the extermination of the new-born male children of the Jews was decreed by the Egyptian king in order to stop the growth of the dissatisfied Jewish population, perceived as a threat to the Egyptian state.

The rabbis recorded a similarly murderous plan. Pharaoh - like Joseph in St Matthew's Gospel - had a dream. In it, he saw two scales, with the whole of Egypt lying in one of them, and a lamb in the other. But the lamb turned out to be weightier than Egypt. The court magicians were summoned and explained to the king that the lamb symbolised a Jewish boy who would become a lethal threat to Egypt. In Aramaic, the word talya, like "kid" in English, can mean both a young animal and a child.

Amram, the father of Moses, also had a dream and learned that his son was the future redeemer of the Jews. Afraid of breaking the royal command, yet intent on saving his son, he constructed a papyrus basket and entrusted the fate of the child to God. As in the Bible, little Moses is said to have been found by Pharaoh's daughter who persuaded her father to appoint Moses as his heir. The willing Pharaoh took the baby in his arms, but Moses grabbed the king's crown and threw it to the floor. The sacred scribe, who had foretold the birth of the liberator of the Jews, realised who the baby was and advised the king to kill him. However, Divine Providence in the person of Pharaoh's daughter quickly stepped in, and Moses survived.

My point is that St Matthew's account of the Nativity - the basis of all Christmas celebrations - appears in a quite different light when it is considered as the product of a particular Jewish linguistic, literary and religious context, rather than the sentimental narrative we have inherited.

The doctrine of the miraculous conception and birth of a God-man was based on a remarkable mistranslation into Greek - wilful or otherwise - of Isaiah's original, quite specific Hebrew words. As for the episode of the massacre of the innocents and escape to Egypt, its similarity to the rabbinic story of the birth of Moses is so striking that it hardly can be attributed to coincidence. In both we find dreams, a murderous king advised by interpreters of sacred writings, and the frustration by divine intervention of wicked plans. Nor is it conceivable that Josephus and the rabbis, spokesmen of Jewish tradition, copied their birth legend of Moses from Matthew.

We are led inescapably to this conclusion: that the awesomely influential Nativity story in the first book of the New Testament is a speculative, rather than a historical text. Far from being a report of a literal happening, it is an amalgam of flawed Greek-Christian scriptural references, and of "birth tales" current in Judaism in the first century AD. The story with which we are all so familiar is not fact, but folklore.

Stripping away the pious fiction

When you strip away all the pious fiction, what is left of the real Jesus?

By Géza Vermes

The Times of London

December 24, 2004

WHAT DOES Christmas signify today if we discard the festive eating, drinking and merrymaking, inherited from the pagan Yule? Is it a reawakening of childhood imagery, dreaming of, but rarely experiencing, a white snowy morning, with Jesus lying in the manger, greeted by bearded shepherds and three colourful oriental stargazing kings, while in the background angelic choirs sing glory to God? Alas, all this is largely pious fiction.

No one knows the exact date of the birth of Jesus Christ. December 25 was selected by the Western Church only in the 4th century to rival the pre-Christian Roman feast of the Victorious Sun. Nor was Christ born in Year 1 as the era bearing his name continues to pretend. The New Testament locates the event shortly before the death of King Herod which occurred in 4BC. A 6th-century Roman monk, Dionysius the Small, is guilty of the miscalculation: he wrongly placed the birth of Jesus in the year 753 ab urbe condita — after the foundation of the city of Rome — instead of 747 or 748.

So who was this Jewish boy, whose wrongly dated birthday is still commemorated the world over on December 25 (the Orthodox Church celebrations are in early January)? The four evangelists, our chief informants, convey two pictures of Jesus. For John, writing probably shortly after AD100, He was the eternal Word of God who became flesh for a brief period before ascending to heaven. The other three Gospels, which predate John by one to three decades, depict Jesus in less elevated terms. Their hero was born circa 6 to 5BC, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate, Roman governor of Judaea between AD26 and 36. They report that Jesus lived with His parents, Joseph and Mary, His four brothers and several sisters in Nazareth in the Galilee ruled by Antipas, Herod’s son, and was a carpenter or builder.

The essence of the Jesus story is recorded in Mark, the earliest of the Gospels. It immediately starts with his public career with no reference to his birth, childhood or education. Nor are we told whether Jesus was married. Celibate life was unusual among Jews of his age except among the monkish Essenes, described by 1st-century AD Jewish writers and the Dead Sea Scrolls. But the Gospels ascribe no Essene connection to Jesus; indeed they represent his religious outlook as flatly contradicting Essenism. His choice of the unmarried state must have sprung from his awareness of a prophetic vocation, which imposed on Him renunciation of worldly pleasures in order to keep Him constantly alert to divine revelations.

Jesus emerged from obscurity in AD29, when He answered John the Baptist’s appeal to repentance. When John was arrested by Herod Antipas a little later, Jesus set out to announce the imminent coming of the kingdom of heaven. He preached in Galilean village synagogues, practised charismatic healing and exorcism and became famous as “the prophet Jesus from Nazareth”. He attracted to himself 12 apostles, mostly local fishermen, and spent his itinerant ministry in the Galilean countryside. He visited villages, vineyards, and fields where lilies grew, but shunned the cities. The Synoptic Gospels record only a single fateful visit to Jerusalem.

He addressed his message to “the house of Israel” alone and expressly forbade His disciples to approach non-Jews, although occasionally he showed compassion to Gentiles and healed the servant of a Roman centurion from Capernaum and the daughter of a Greek woman from southern Lebanon.

As a teacher, He laid special emphasis on the inner significance and permanent validity of the Law of Moses and revealed His spiritual authority, not by interpreting the Bible, but by curing the sick and delivering the possessed. Like his contemporaries, Jesus attributed illness and sin to the influence of evil spirits and considered healing, exorcism and forgiveness of sins as synonyms. People brought the sick to Him after the synagogue service on the Sabbath. Some petty-minded bigots muttered that Jesus was breaching the law of sabbatical rest, but His healing by word or touch did not constitute “work”.

The non-Christian Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, writing shortly before AD100, calls Jesus a “performer of astonishing deeds”. In Christian terminology, the author of the Acts of the Apostles says the same when talking of “a man attested by God with mighty works and wonders”.

Jesus distinguished himself from other Jewish charismatics of his time by the added beauty and power of His teaching. He preferred poetic imagery to philosophical ideas. He compared the Kingdom of God to a rich harvest, to a tiny mustard seed mysteriously growing into a tall shrub, and to the leaven that mysteriously turns flour into bread. His parables depict the theocentric world to which Jesus’s charismatic activity showed the way. Echoing the prophet Isaiah, He declared that His restoring sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf and life to the dead proved that the reign of God had already begun.

For his repentant followers Jesus prescribed complete trust in God, childlike simplicity and a willingness to surrender themselves and their possessions for the sake of heaven. For Him the present exceeded the future in importance. Forward planning was meaningless as the time of this world was fast running out.

The ingredients of Jesus’s religion were enthusiasm, urgency, compassion and love. He cherished children, the sick and the despised. In his eyes, the return of a stray lamb to the sheepfold, the repentance of a tax collector or a harlot, caused more joy in heaven than the prosaic virtue of 99 just men.

Because of His healings, many saw in Jesus the Messiah, triumphant over Rome and establisher of everlasting peace. Yet he had no political ambition. Rumours that He might be the Christ were nevertheless spreading and contributed to His downfall. His tragic end was precipitated by an unpremeditated act in the Temple. The noisy business transacted by the merchants of sacrificial animals and the moneychangers so outraged the rural holy man that He overturned their tables and violently expelled them. He thus created a fracas in the sanctuary of the overcrowded city before Passover and alerted the priests.

So the Temple authorities, the official guardians of peace, saw in Jesus a potential threat to order. They had to intervene promptly. Nevertheless even in those circumstances, the Jewish leadership preferred to pass the ultimate responsibility to the cruel Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, who condemned Jesus to death. He was crucified before Passover probably in AD30 because in the eyes of officialdom, Roman and Jewish, He had done the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Just as the New Testament had prefaced the biography of Jesus by the joyful prologue of the Nativity, it also appended an epilogue to the tragedy of the Cross, the glorious hymn of the Resurrection. Indeed, Jesus had made such a profound impact on His apostles that they attributed to the power of His name the continued success of their charismatic activity. So Jesus rose from the dead in the hearts of His disciples and He lives on as long as the Christian Church endures.