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Thursday, December 17, 2009

The most wonderful time of the year...

It is probably an indication of the busy-ness of the season, that I have not produced a 5th page for this week. I had an idea, but did not have the time to develop it. There will not be a 5th page next week either, because I am not preaching this Sunday. We are having a Christmas Cantata instead.

In lieu of a proper 5th page, I am going re-present a piece I wrote at this time last year, part of the "Advent Alphabet Letters" series:

S is for story. We love the Nativity stories. As my children love to point out every year in pageant rehearsals, there are two distinct Nativity stories. Matthew and Luke’s stories are often “conflated”. -That is the term scholars use when two stories are fused into one. (So that you end up with the shepherds from Luke and the Magi from Matthew all crowded on the same pageant stage.)

When I lead Bible studies on the nativity stories, people often find it hard to believe that there are significant factual differences in the two stories. The best way to sort that out is to read Matthew chapters one and two, and then read Luke chapter one, and chapter two up to verse 20. Before you do your reading, let me try to address why these two stories are so different.

Both Matthew and Luke were gospels, rather than historical accounts. They were doing theological, rather than journalistic work. Matthew wrote at least 50 years after Jesus’ death. Luke may have been written a little later. They were most likely 2nd generation followers of the Jesus movement- and not amongst the original disciples. (Scholars note that it was common in the ancient world to attach the name of an honoured figure to a religious document- this at the same time was a tribute, and a way to claim some of the stature of the person.)

Matthew was probably a Jewish scribe (perhaps trained in the Jewish religious system), who lived in Syria, and was a Jewish convert to Christianity. Scholars see hints that he wrote after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the armies of Rome in the year 70 C.E.

Luke was probably a Gentile who became a follower of Jesus. He wrote his gospel in the ancient greek that was the common language of government and trade in the Roman empire.

Matthew and Luke were not eyewitnesses to anything they wrote about, certainly and especially not the birth of Jesus. What they were witnesses to, was the effect that Jesus and his ministry had on the people whose lives were touched. They saw the movement of people that grew around the first disciples, and quickly began to spread. They were aware of God at work in human history- of God being with them through Jesus of Nazareth. They experienced the spiritual presence of “the risen Christ”, which they saw as the fulfillment of ancient promises about a Saviour. They were passionate about spreading the “Good News”- the Gospel.

Spreading the Good News is not the same thing as reporting on “the news”. When we try to talk about the reality of God, and the work of God in our midst, and our response to God, that happens within us, we rely on allegory, and metaphor, and images and concepts that are already part of religious vocabulary. Many scholars are convinced that in the ancient world, those listening to a “religious story” would not expect it to be factually true- they would be listening for truth more than for facts.

I think a gospel writer has more in common with a song-writer or poet than a reporter. They tried to use human language to transmit the meaning and power they saw in the Jesus movement to change lives. They used stories that had survived in the movement’s oral tradition, hymns and sermons that were collected, and other documents that were shared amongst the early churches. They wove them together, each writer with their own style, and agenda. Matthew and Luke were writing for specific audiences, and would have aimed to be accessible, and sensible to the people who would hear their words read aloud in worship.

Biblical scholars who specialize in “source criticism” believe that Matthew and Luke had access to materials that included an early version of Mark’s gospel, something called “M”, that only Matthew had, “L” that only Luke had, and something called “Q”, which was likely a list of “sayings” of Jesus that both Matthew and Luke had seen. (These names were made up by the scholars.)

My suggestion would be that you take some time and read from Matthew and Luke, and have a pad of paper handy to jot down the differences you notice. Next time I will offer you my list.