I ran across an interesting interview with Dominic Crossan that deals with the subject matter of his latest collaboration with Marcus Borg, The First Christmas.
(Apropos of nothing, ever since I heard Crossan speak in the "Living the Questions" DVD seminars, I find that I have a hard time reading a transcript of anything he says or writes without mentally vocalizing it with an Irish brogue. )
The interview ranges over many topics, and I can't do justice to all that was said there. I would call attention, just to give a flavor of the interview, to one of the subjects, which had to do with the differing birth narratives in Matthew and Luke:
In other words, Matthew and Luke give two different accounts of Jesus’ birth.
Exactly. It’s what any of us do when we write a book. We write the prologue last. A prologue announces exactly what you’re going to do in the book, and then isn’t it miraculous when you do exactly that? So now imagine Matthew. He’s written his gospel, the major point of which is that Jesus is the new Moses. He begins his story, in the gospel now, by having Jesus going up and delivering what we call the Sermon on the Mount, but which he would have called the New Law From the New Mount Sinai.
So when Matthew sits down to write his prologue, he says, “OK. So Jesus is the new Moses. I know, I’ll write about the birth of Jesus, making it parallel the birth of Moses in such a way that anyone with a Jewish background will get that immediately.” The biggest thing about the birth of Moses is that the pharaoh tries to slay all the kids, almost killing Moses. Everyone knows that. So as Matthew makes up his story, he has the king try to kill all the male children of Bethlehem in order to kill Jesus. Any Jew hearing that would say, “Oh, Herod is the new pharaoh? That means the Jewish homeland under Herod, who is collaborating with the Romans, is like the new Egypt? And Jesus flees to Egypt for safety—but in the wrong direction? Moses left Egypt, heading north. Jesus is going the other way, heading south!”
So the details of Matthew’s birth account are very deliberate, and that’s why we insist on the story’s anti-imperial edge. Herod is the new pharaoh—but the official title Rome gave him is King of the Jews. Mark Antony and Octavian brought Herod into the senate and gave him the title, King of the Jews. So for Matthew to proclaim a newborn “King of the Jews” is, well, basically, high treason.
And yet Luke’s birth story is very different…
Basically, the Christmas story as we think of it is 95 percent Luke and five percent Matthew. Really, the only thing that comes from Matthew is the three wise men, and of course we call them “kings,” which is a terrible mistake. They’re not kings; the last thing on Earth they are is kings. They are magi, representing the wisdom of the east coming up against the power of the west. If you really want to cause trouble this Christmas, you might tell the truth and say they’re from Iran. They’re Persian wise men!
Luke is quite different from Matthew. The whole tone is not nearly as dark as Matthew. There’s no slaughter of the innocents in Luke. What happens in Luke is that the announcement is made to the shepherds, and the point here is that both groups that get the message are “outsiders.” It’s made to pagan magicians—that’s what magi means—and Jewish shepherds. And the shepherds are not the nice little guys we often think they were. Shepherds in the ancient world were tough guys who protected their sheep from wolves and thieves. They had weapons; they could take care of themselves. Shepherds were considered dangerous outsiders, and they knew whether the system was just or unjust. So then the angel comes to them and announces that the birth of the Messiah, the just king expected by Israel, and he gives Jesus some fancy titles—Lord, savior, and bringer of peace. Those titles belong to Caesar Augustus, the bringer of peace being the core title upon which the others depended. If Augustus hadn’t brought peace to the Roman Empire, he probably wouldn’t have survived very long.
You’ve written that if you asked anyone in the Mediterranean world at the time of Jesus, “Who’s the Son of God, the Lord, the redeemer, the savior of the world?” everyone would’ve known immediately who you were talking about, and it sure wouldn’t have been Jesus.
That’s right—it would have been Caesar Augustus. It’s like the first question they ask on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”—the idiot question everyone is supposed to get right. So, if you applied those titles to Jesus at that time, you’re either dealing with a kind of low lampoon, a silly joke, or you’re committing high treason. You’re saying that the program incarnate in Augustus, which I call “peace through victory,” is not the program willed by God. God’s program, you’re saying, is the one incarnate through Jesus—“peace through justice.” So if you think of Caesar and Jesus as two people running for election, those central competing ideas would be their platforms.