Two Visions [or Versions] of Peace (Part 3 of 3)

The Subversive Narratives of Advent: Part 3 of 3 

by Herb Montgomery

“The angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’ Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth on those God’s favor rests.’” (Luke 2.11-14)

We’ve arrived! This is our final installment of our Christmas series this year at RHM, and we’re looking at Luke’s birth-narrative this week. Again, I want to recommend the volume The First Christmas by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. I believe you’ll find it to be a very user-friendly resource in wresting what we today call “The Christmas Story” from ancient and modern forms of imperialism and their co-opting of these narratives.

Luke’s birth-narrative is quite different from Matthew’s, which we looked at last week. One of the differences is Luke’s narrative centers the voices of women more than Matthew. (Luke’s entire Gospel does this actually.) Luke and Matthew’s birth narratives also differ on geography. Luke progresses from Nazareth to Bethlehem to Nazareth with no time spent in Egypt. Matthew starts in Bethlehem then moves to Egypt, and then moves onto Nazareth. Another difference is that, unlike Matthew’s narrative, which was for Christian Jews in Galilee, Luke’s narrative is for a broader Gentile-Christian audience. This may help to explain the way that Matthew treats the Herodians in Galilee as the tools of Rome while Luke chooses a much more direct aim at Caesar himself.

To quote John Dominic Crossan in a recent panel discussion, what we see in the first century is not “Christianity against Judaism.” Rather we see, “Christian Judaism against Roman Imperialism . . . Of course [the followers of Jesus] are within Judaism, and of course they’re fighting with other groups as they’re elbowing one another for the future of their people in the cauldron that the Romans have created as any empire does to divide and conquer.”

This is the back drop I want us to see behind Luke’s birth narrative. In Luke, we’re not seeing Jesus versus Judaism, but rather Jesus versus Rome. (We can find signs of a growing anti-Semitism in early Christianity in Luke’s gospel: not as much as in John, but certainly more than in Matthew, and most definitely more than in Mark.)

To perceive Luke’s agenda in writing his narrative, we must read the narrative through three filters: 1) first-century Christianity, 2) Christianity in first-century Judaism, and 3) Christianity in Judaism in a context of Roman imperialism. We’ll start with the last one, Roman imperialism, and work our way backwards.

Roman Imperialism

When we speak of Roman imperialism, we’re referring to the integration of military, economic, political, and theological/philosophical layers in Rome. This four-pronged imperialism was a method of economic distribution; a type of human, social organization; a world order and its exercise of (or lack of) social justice; and specifically, Rome’s vision for global peace.

It was Augustus Caesar who, during the time of Luke’s birth-narrative, was entitled Divine, Son of God, God from God, Lord, Redeemer, Liberator, and Savior of the World. Here is why.

Rome experienced several civil wars as a democratic republic and had regressed to the point of disintegration when Octavian, later called Augustus, became Rome’s savior. Through Augustus, Rome transitioned from an imperial republic to an imperial monarchy. Augustus, the adopted son of Julius, was like his father deified, or regarded as a god. He was given the title Augustus in Latin (One who is divine) and Sebastos in Greek (One who is to be worshipped). Temples were inscribed to him with the dedication, “The Autocrat Caesar, the Son of God, the God to be worshipped.”

And as with all domination systems, the four imperial aspects produced a society where an elite at the top benefited from the subjugation of the many beneath them. Luke addresses all four of these aspects in his gospel. In response to Rome’s military power, Luke presents the teachings of Jesus on nonviolence. In response to Rome’s economic power, Luke presents Jesus’ teachings on wealth redistribution. In response to Rome’s political power, Luke presents Jesus, not Caesar, as Liberator, Redeemer, the bringer of Peace, Lord, and Savior of the world. And in response to the Rome’s theology of a ruler who was supposedly born to divine-human parents and so was named the Son of God, God from God to be worshiped, Luke presents Jesus and his subversive “kingdom.” Rome’s theology was larger than Caesar and included the worship of deities such as Mars the god of war, but it included the worship of Caesar as the incarnate representation of the Divine.

As theologian Adolf Gustav Deissmann wrote, it’s important for us to recognize the early establishment of a polemical parallelism between the cult of Christ and the cult of Caesar in the application of the term kyrios, ‘lord’” (p. 349)*.

Knowing Augustus’ birth-narratives is also beneficial to us. The story was that on the night of Augustus’ conception, Augustus’ father had a dream in which he saw the sun rising from Atias, his wife’s womb: Caesar Augustus was the coming of light to the world. Augustus was believed to be the “Son of God” fathered by Apollo, and Apollo in turn was the “Son of God” fathered by Zeus, the supreme god of the Roman and Greek pantheon.

Here’s a description from the 2nd Century CE of the divine conception of Augustus Caesar; it cites an Egyptian story about Augustus that dates to 31-29 BCE:

“When Atia [Augustus’ mother] had come in the middle of the night to the solemn service of Apollo, she had her litter set down in the temple and fell asleep, while the rest of the matrons also slept. On a sudden a serpent glided up to her and shortly went away. When she awoke, she purified her self, as if after the embraces of her husband, and at once there appeared on her body a mark in colors like a serpent, and she could never get rid of it; so that presently she ceased ever to go to the public baths. In the tenth month after that Augustus was born and was therefore regarded as the son of Apollo.” (Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, p. 94.4, emphasis added)

Propertius’ Elegies quotes the god Apollo as saying:

“O savior of the world… Augustus… now conquer at sea: the land is already yours: my bow battles for you’” (4.6.37– 39).

An ancient inscription in what’s Turkey today refers to Augustus, “divine Augustus Caesar, son of a god, imperator of land and sea, the benefactor and savior of the whole world.”

So Caesar Augustus, conceived of Apollo, was, in Roman theology, the Savior of the World, and Luke’s gospel responds to that context.

Judaism in Roman Imperialism

Jews in Roman-occupied territory hoped for a world free from injustice and foreign oppression. In the Jewish Sibylline Oracles, a series of fictional prophecies within Judaism and early Christianity, we find this vision:

“The earth will belong equally to all, undivided by walls or fences. It will then bear more abundant fruits spontaneously. Lives will be in common and wealth will have no division. For there will be no poor man there, no rich, and no tyrant, no slave. Further, no one will be either great or small anymore. No kings, no leaders. All will be on a par together.” (2:319-324)

The hoped-for world in the Jewish vision for the future looked like a family, where YHWH as parent provided equally for all—enough for everyone, always.

There were also two competing strands in Judaism regarding the fate of the Gentiles (including the Romans) in this vision. One strand was violent and retributive:

“In anger and wrath I will execute vengeance on the nations that did not obey . . . Then my enemy will see, and shame will cover her who said to me, “Where is the Lord your God?” My eyes will see her downfall; now she will be trodden down like the mire of the streets . . . The nations shall see and be ashamed of all their might; they shall lay their hands on their mouths; their ears shall be deaf; they shall lick dust like a snake, like the crawling things of the earth; they shall come trembling out of their fortresses; they shall turn in dread to the Lord our God, and they shall stand in fear of you.” (Micah 5:15; 7:10, 16-17)

This is actually quite mild compared to some Christian versions of the future of this world that are being touted today. Nevertheless, the other Jewish option was less violent, more restorative, and involved the conversion of the Gentiles:

“In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised up above the hills. Peoples shall stream to it, and many nations shall come and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.” (Micah. 4:1-3, cf. Isaiah 2:2-4)

All injustice, oppression and violence would cease. And other prophets envision YHWH providing a rich feast where there was enough for all, Jew and Gentile alike:

“On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.” (Isaiah 25:6-8)

By the 1st Century, this vision also included a Messiah figure through whom this new world would be birthed into existence.

Here are two examples of that pre-Christian Jewish expectation of a Messiah.

“Raise up for them their king, the Son of David . . . to smash the arrogance of sinners like a potter’s jar; to shatter all their substance with an iron rod; to destroy the unlawful nations with the word of his mouth . . . He will judge peoples and nations in the wisdom of his righteousness . . . All shall be holy, and their king shall be the Lord Messiah. (For) he will not rely on horse and rider and bow, nor will he collect gold and silver for war. Nor will he build up hope in a multitude for a day of war.” (Psalms of Solomon 17:21, 23-24, 29, 32-33, emphasis added.)

The other example is from a Dead Sea Scroll fragment found in Cave 4 at Qumran:

“He will be called Son of God, and they will call him Son of the Most High. Like sparks of a vision, so will their kingdom be; they will rule several years over the earth and crush everything; a people will crush another people, and a city another city. Until the people of God arises [or: until he raises up the people of God] and makes everyone rest from the sword. His kingdom will be an eternal kingdom, and all his paths in truth and uprightness. The earth will be in truth and all will make peace. The sword will cease in the earth, and all the cities will pay him homage. He is a great god among the gods [or: The great God will be his strength]. He will make war with him; he will place the peoples in his hand and cast away everyone before him. His kingdom will be an eternal kingdom . . . ” (4Q246, emphasis added.)

From this brief sampling we can see that at the time of Luke’s writing, many within Judaism possessed the hope of restored world where all injustice, violence and oppression would be made right through the emergence of a Messiah figure. There were some who believed this would be accompanied with violent retribution against oppressors, and others who believed it would through more restorative and reconciling means, more nonviolent, retiring justice for everyone.

Christianity within Judaism within Roman Imperialism

Like the Sayings Q and the gospel of Mark, Luke begins the Jesus story with John the Baptist. Like Matthew, he adds a birth narrative rather than starting the story with an adult Jesus. But Luke begins even his birth story with John’s conception before Jesus’s. The experience of John’s parents in Luke’s birth-narratives is curiously parallel to that of Abraham and Sarah, the patriarch and matriarch of the Jewish people (compare Genesis 15-18).

There are also parallels to the stories of Hannah and the birth of the prophet Samuel, who anointed King David (read 1 Samuel 1-2) For Luke, John is the renewed “Samuel” anointing Jesus the renewed “David.” At the baptism in the river Jordan, Jesus, through John, becomes the renewed “anointed one.”

Miraculous conceptions by divine intervention are a staple within Jewish birth-narratives, and especially so in the time of Rome. Within both Judaism and Roman imperialism, birth-narratives were not so much biological explanations as much as they were about the destiny of the children being born. In our story this week, Luke interweaves the birth-narratives of Isaac, Samuel, and Caesar Augustus with those of John the Baptist and Jesus, and he describes Jesus as “the Christ,” the Messiah, the son of David, the renewed “King of Israel” born in David’s city, “Bethlehem.”

Let’s read Luke’s proclamation of the angels to the shepherds through our filters of Judaism and Roman imperialism. Luke skillfully integrates into his story the hopes of Judaism and the subversion of the political theology of the Roman Imperialism. Jesus, for Luke, is simultaneously the fulfillment of one (Judaism) and the subversion of the other (Rome). Again, this is not Jesus against Judaism, but Christian Judaism against Roman imperialism.

I’m going to color code this passage for Christmas.

Green phrases represent fulfillment (of Jewish hopes) and Red represent subversion (of Roman imperialism). Black phrases respond to both.

“But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and ON EARTH PEACE to those on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2.10-14)

In Luke’s birth-narrative, Jesus is both the Davidic Messiah in convergence with Judaism and Lord, Savior, and Peace-bringer in divergence with Rome.

As Borg and Crossan state in The First Christmas about using the title of “Lord” for Jesus:

Used simply as “the Lord” it meant the emperor, especially from Caesar Augustus onward, just as, for example, “der Führer” simply means “the leader” in German (where all nouns are capitalized), but eventually designated Adolf Hitler as the supreme and only leader. In that context to have called Christ “der Führer” would have meant death in Dachau. (p. 154)

Two Visions/Versions of Peace

Rome also had its own gospel of peace that Luke responds to in his version of the Jesus story.

By 9 BCE, the Roman province of Asia Minor was making this declaration about Augustus:

“Since the providence that has divinely ordered our existence has applied her energy and zeal and has brought to life the most perfect good in Augustus, whom she filled with virtues for the benefit of mankind, bestowing him upon us and our descendants as a savior—he who put an end to war and will order peace, Caesar, who by his epiphany exceeded the hopes of those who prophesied good tidings [euaggelia-the gospel], not only outdoing benefactors of the past, but also allowing no hope of greater benefactions in the future; and since the birthday of the god first brought to the world the good tidings [euaggelia] residing in him…. For that reason, with good fortune and safety, the Greeks of Asia have decided that the New Year in all the cities should begin on 23rd September, the birthday of Augustus… and that the letter of the proconsul and the decree of Asia should be inscribed on a pillar of white marble, which is to be placed in the sacred precinct of Rome and Augustus.” (Quoted from The First Christmas, p.160, emphasis added.)

In that same year, a magnificent “Altar of Peace” was dedicated in Rome’s Campus Martius. It was consecrated not just to the Pax Romana (peace of Rome) but, more precisely, to the Pax Augustana (peace of Augustus). It was given the name Ara Pacis Augustae, the Altar of Augustan Peace.

The gospel of peace proclaimed through Roman Imperialism was a peace through militaristic victory and the violent overthrow of Rome’s enemies. In Luke’s gospel narrative, however, Luke channels the nonviolent, restorative Jewish visions of peace. Luke’s Jesus shares the vision of peace on earth rooted in restoration of justice for all the oppressed. Even Luke’s choice to describe shepherds as the first recipients of this angelic announcement is significant. Shepherds were from the marginalized peasant class who most acutely experienced Roman oppression and exploitation. Just two chapters after the birth narrative, Luke’s Jesus is announcing “good news to the poor,” “release to the captives,” and “sight to those with prison blindness.” He has come “to let the oppressed go free” (see Luke 4:18). The angels’ message to the poor shepherds in Luke 2 foreshadows the entire message of Jesus in the gospel of Luke.

For Luke, Rome’s peace gospel and the peace gospel of Jesus come face to face. Jesus and Rome hold out to humanity two alternative transcendental visions for arriving at peace on earth. Rome’s way, peace through the violent forces of militaristic victory and oppression, is the way of all empires. Luke’s Jesus promises peace through nonviolent, restored justice for all people.

Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan write: “The terrible truth is that our world has never established peace through victory. Victory establishes not peace, but lull. Thereafter, violence returns once again, and always worse than before. And it is that escalator violence that then endangers our world” (The First Christmas).

The world has yet to see if choosing the way of nonviolent restoration of Jesus produces lasting peace. First, that way must be chosen.

Contrary to the ways Christian imperialism and colonialism have co-opted the Jesus story throughout history, Luke’s Jesus is a Jesus who points the way to peace based upon justice restored through nonviolent means.

Today, these two “gospels” still grind against one another, even for Christians. Today we still see a conflict, but it is not Rome versus Jesus, it’s Christian imperialism versus Jesus. Imperialism’s effort to produce peace on earth, even today, and even in Christianity, still tries to place weapons in the hands of the “good guys.”

A couple of weeks ago, in the midst of some gross Christian rhetoric (Jerry Falwell Jr.’s speech at Liberty University is an example), I created this satirical meme  and posted it online: “Peter, all that is needed to stop bad guys with swords is a good guy with a sword.” —Jesus peterswardmeme

What Jesus actually said was, “Those who live by the sword will die by it as well.”

It is important for Christians who seek to follow Luke’s Jesus to understand the history of the American empire’s second constitutional amendment. The United States was founded on peace achieved through revolutionary violence. And the American Empire is much like Rome if we substitute the word “freedom” for “peace.” As Rome proclaimed “peace,” so America proclaims “freedom,” but our freedom is not lasting. It is the type of freedom one achieves by being the biggest bully on the top of the hill, and it’s not freedom for everyone. It is a freedom achieved by violence and maintained and preserved by violence, almost identical to the “peace” of Rome that depended on its imperial armies.

This is why the American constitution has a second amendment. If citizens’ freedom were to ever be threatened again, they must have access to violent means to help them achieve it once again.

But today we are seeing the fruit of this unlimited access to violent means to ensure one’s freedom. Jesus could have very well said, “Those who achieve freedom by the sword, will be destroyed as well by the sword.”

Let me at minimum say this. The second amendment is not the standard for a follower of Luke’s Jesus. Jesus shows us a way to peace and freedom rooted in restoration, justice for all, and nonviolent means. In the face of tyranny, American followers of Luke’s Jesus are not permitted to use violence even if a secular constitution permits them to. Luke’s Jesus points out a way to peace and freedom radically different than the path of violence. Jesus taught of two paths: the broad path, though it seems right to most people, is the path that leads to death. Those who live by the sword, die by the sword. There is another path that Jesus told us leads to life, and he modeled that path for us.

Luke’s gospel is the gospel of peace achieved through the nonviolent restoration of justice and equity for everyone. Peace on earth means no more oppressed and oppressor, no more dominant and subjugated, just equity and peace for all.

“The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people . . . peace on earth on those God’s favor rests.” (Luke 2.11-14)

HeartGroup Application

This week:

  1. List at least three paradigm shifts you’ve had this year from Matthew’s and Luke’s birth-narratives either by reading The First Christmas or by going through this series. Share these insights with your HeartGroup.
  2. Discuss as a group how understanding the cultural matrix of Judaism and Roman imperialism changes your reading of the birth narratives of Jesus in Matthew and Luke.
  3. How can you apply the values in these narratives, especially in relation to peace, freedom, violence, and nonviolence, as followers of Jesus within our American Empire today?

This will be our last eSight before Christmas, so from all of us here at Renewed Heart Ministries, Happy Holidays to each and every one of you. We wish you also a very merry new year.

It’s our hope that, once again, your heart has been renewed and you’ve been empowered to follow Jesus more deeply in this coming year.

Till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you in two weeks.

*1910, Light from the ancient East. The New Testament illustrated by recently discovered texts of the Graeco-Roman world, L.R.M. Strachan, transl., London

A New Liberator (Part 2 of 3)

The Subversive Narratives of Advent (Part 2 of 3) 

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

“Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:2)

Our title this week is “A ‘New’ Liberator.” The title doesn’t imply that “new” means better or that “old” is bad. What we’ll see this week is that the “new” kind of liberation that Jesus brought varied from the approaches of the past. In Matthew’s birth-narrative, Jesus is a contemporary “Moses”: not a replacement, supersession, or denigration of the original Moses, but rather a contemporary expression of what Moses stood for in the minds and hearts of first century Jewish Christians.

First, let’s say a word about Matthew’s gospel itself. Matthew combines Sayings Gospel Q (Jewish copies of the Jesus Story) and Mark’s Gospel (Gentile copies of the Jesus Story). As the Jewish and Gentile sectors of Christianity blended, the Jewish-Gentile gospels of Matthew and Luke were written. Matthew combined the Jewish Sayings Q and the Gentile Gospel of Mark for the Jewish Christians population of Galilee. Luke/Acts combines Sayings Q (Jewish) and Mark’s Gospel (Gentile) for the much larger population of Gentile Christians (see The Gospel of Jesus by James M. Robinson).

So Matthew’s gospel is a much more “Jewish” telling of the Jesus story. This background helps us to understand Matthew’s gospel emphasis on the significance of Jesus being the renewed Moses.

Let’s look at Matthew’s parallels:

The Pentateuch

The Pentateuch is the Greek term for the “five scrolls” of the Torah. In the first century and still in traditional Judaism, the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy were and are attributed to Moses.

Matthew draws our attention to these five sacred books repeatedly in his gospel. First, many scholars see the entire gospel of Matthew as framed by five discourses:

  1. The Discourse from the Mount (Matthew 5-7)
  2. Missional Discourse (Matthew 10-11)
  3. Parabolic (of the “Kingdom”) Discourse (Matthew 13)
  4. Communal (Community of Jesus Followers) Discourse (Matthew 18-19)
  5. Olivet Discourse (Matthew 23-25)

 

Mathew uses the number “five” in other ways as well, especially in his birth narrative. The birth narrative itself is composed of five scenes.

  1. The Conception of Jesus and Joseph’s Dilemma (Matthew 1:18-24)
  2. The Wise men and Herod (Matthew 2:1-8)
  3. Adoration of the Magi (Matthew 2:9-12)
  4. The Slaughter of the Innocents and the Flight in Egypt to Escape (Matthew 2:13-18)
  5. Return from Egypt and Move to Nazareth (Matthew 2:19-21)

And Matthew’s birth-narrative is built on five fulfillments.

  1. Conception—“All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’).” —Matthew 1:22
  2. Birthplace—In Bethlehem in Judea,’ they replied, ‚for this is what the prophet has written: “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.”” —Matthew 2:5-6
  3. Egypt—“So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” —Matthew 2:14-15
  4. Infanticide—“Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” —Matthew 2:17-18
  5. Nazareth—“And he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.” —Matthew 2:23

Lastly, Matthew outlines his birth-narrative with five dreams.

  1. To Joseph—“But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream . . .” —Matthew 1:20
  2. To the Magi—“And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.” —Matthew 2:12
  3. To Joseph—“When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream.” —Matthew 2:13
  4. To Joseph— “After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt . . .” —Matthew 2:19-20
  5. To Joseph—“[Having] been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee.” — Matthew 2:22

In a first century context, each of these repetitions reinforce that connection to the Pentateuch and, therefore, to Moses.

Law Giver

There’s another way Matthew’s gospel connects Jesus to Moses: the gospel shows Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount with a “new” law for the people. As Moses gave instruction on Mt. Sinai, Jesus also ascends a “mountain side” to give instruction (Matthew 5:1). And the Torah plays a significant role in Jesus’ instruction on his contemporary “Mt. Sinai.”

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder.’… But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment…” (Matthew 5. 21-26)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’… But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery…” (Matthew 5.27-30)

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife… causes her to commit adultery…” (Matthew 5.31- 32)

Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely.’… But I say to you, Do not swear at all…” (Matthew 5.33-37)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye.’… But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer…” (Matthew 5:38-42)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall… hate your enemy.’… But I say to you, Love your enemies…” (Matthew 5:43-48)

Our focus this week is not merely Jesus as Lawgiver in the way of Moses, but Jesus as Liberator in the way of Moses. Matthew introduces this Jesus in his birth-narrative in such a way as to draw our imaginations to Jesus as representing Israel’s liberation from a contemporary “Egypt.”

Slaying of Innocents

There is no more obvious parallel between Matthew’s birth-narrative of Jesus and the ancient Jewish birth-narrative of Moses than the slaying of the innocents in Matthew 2.

As early Jewish Jesus followers listened to Herod’s order to “kill” all the “males” in and around Bethlehem (Matthew 2.16), they would no doubt have remembered the story of Moses’ birth:

“Then Pharaoh gave this order to all his people: ‘Every Hebrew boy that is born you must throw into the Nile . . .’” (Exodus 1.22)

This connection lays the foundation for the most fascinating parallel of Jesus to Moses in Matthew’s birth narrative, as we are about to see.

 

Jewish Midrash

This is where Matthew’s birth narrative becomes the most interesting to me. The primary audience for Matthew’s birth narrative would have been the Galilean Jewish Christian community. Being Jews as well as Christians, they would have been familiar with the Jewish midrash surrounding Moses’ birth. Midrashic stories are retellings of the ancient narratives that expand on the originals or add commentaries to answer questions that intelligent listeners or readers may have asked about the ancient text.

Through the Jewish midrash on Moses’ birth, Matthew’s birth-narrative might take on a whole new understanding for you. I’m going to move very slowly so I don’t lose you.

The most significant question that intelligent Jewish listeners asked about ancient birth-narratives of Moses was, “Why did those Jewish parents continue having children if they knew their newborn males would be doomed to certain death? Why did they keep having children?”

The Jewish midrash surrounding Moses’ birth sought to answer this question as we’ll see. But also notice that both the midrash about Moses and the gospel of Matthew share the following elements: 1) sending wives away 2) receiving a Divine revelation 3) re-uniting with wives. Matthew used these three elements from the Moses story in his own. Watch for the pattern of sending away, revelation, and reuniting:

Book of Biblical Antiquities, Pseudo-Philo, 9:1-10:

Sending Away:

Then the elders of the people gathered the people together in mourning [and said]…“ Let us set up rules for ourselves that a man should not approach his wife… until we know what God may do.” And Amram answered and said…“ I will go and take my wife, and I will not consent to the command of the king; and if it is right in your eyes, let us all act in this way.”

Revelation 1: 

And the strategy that Amram thought out was pleasing before God. And God said…“ He who will be born from him will serve me forever.”

Re-Uniting:

And Amram of the tribe of Levi went out and took a wife from his own tribe. When he had taken her, others followed him and took their own wives….

Revelation 2: 

And this man had one son and one daughter; their names were Aaron and Miriam. And the spirit of God came upon Miriam one night, and she saw a dream and told it to her parents in the morning, saying: I have seen this night, and behold a man in a linen garment stood and said to me, “Go and say to your parents, ‘Behold he who will be born from you will be cast forth into the water; likewise through him the water will be dried up. And I will work signs through him and save my people, and he will exercise leadership always.’” And when Miriam told of her dream, her parents did not believe her.

(Quoted from our textbook, The First Christmas by Marcus Borg and Dom Crossan)

In Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities we have a variation of the pattern, “perplexity” and “revelation”:

Perplexity:

Amaram(es), a Hebrew of noble birth, fearing that the whole race would be extinguished through lack of the succeeding generation, and seriously anxious on his own account because his wife was with child, was in grievous perplexity. He accordingly had recourse to prayer to God….

Revelation: 

And God had compassion on him and, moved by his supplication, appeared to him in his sleep, exhorted him not to despair of the future, and told him that…“ This child, whose birth has filled the Egyptians with such dread that they have condemned to destruction all the offspring of the Israelites, shall indeed be yours; he shall escape those who are watching to destroy him, and, reared in a marvelous way, he shall deliver the Hebrew race from their bondage in Egypt, and be remembered, so long as the universe shall endure, not by Hebrews alone but even by alien nations.” (2.210– 11)

In the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, or Targum of Jerusalem I, we only have the “sending away” and “re-uniting” elements:

Sending Away and Re-Uniting: 

And Amram, a man of the tribe of Levi, went and returned to live in marriage with Jochebed his wife, whom he had put away on account of the decree of Pharaoh. And she was the daughter of a hundred and thirty years when he returned to her; but a miracle was wrought in her, and she returned unto youth as she was, when in her minority she was called the daughter of Levi. And the woman conceived and bore a son at the end of six months.

The last midrashic example endured as far as a Jewish medieval collection known as Sefer ha-Zikhronot, or Book of Memoirs.

Sending Away: 

When the Israelites heard this command of Pharaoh to cast their males into the river, some of the people separated from their wives, while others remained with them…. When, however, the word of the king and his decree became known respecting the casting of their males into the river, many of God’s people separated from their wives, as did Amram from his wife.

Revelation: 

After the lapse of three years the Spirit of God came upon Miriam, so that she went forth and prophesied in the house, saying, “Behold, a son shall be born to my mother and father, and he shall rescue the Israelites from the hands of the Egyptians.”

Re-Uniting: 

When Amram heard his young daughter’s prophecy he took back his wife, from whom he had separated in consequence of Pharaoh’s decree to destroy all the male line of the house of Jacob.

At the birth of Moses this midrash announces, “The whole house was at that moment filled with a great light, as the light of the sun and the moon in their splendour.”

Now, let’s look for these same elements in Matthew’s birth-narrative about Jesus.

Sending Away:

This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to send her away her quietly.

Divine Revelation:

But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).

Re-Uniting:

When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.

(Matthew 1.18-24, emphasis added.)

Notice that in the Jewish midrashic tradition about Moses, the birth-narratives focus primarily on Moses’ father, Amram. Contrary to Luke’s gospel, which focuses on Elizabeth and Mary, Matthew’s narrative does the opposite and focuses entirely on Joseph and his experience. For Matthew, Joseph is the new Amram.

Matthew’s birth-narrative is clear: Jesus is a new Moses; Herod, a tool of the Roman empire, is a new Pharaoh, and a new Exodus is dawning on the horizon with all the meaning and hope that expectation would have possessed for Matthew’s Jewish Christian listeners.

We have one more, brief, connection to Moses to compare.

The Magi and the King of the Jews

Herod’s imperial title was “King of the Jews.” Unlike Mark and John, Matthew does not refer to Jesus with the Davidic title of “King of Israel.” Matthew is very intentional in applying Herod’s Roman title, “King of the Jews,” to his Jesus.

And asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” Matthew 2:2 (Emphasis added.)

Meanwhile Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” “You have said so,” Jesus replied. Matthew 27:11 (Emphasis added.)

And then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand. Then they knelt in front of him and mocked him. “Hail, king of the Jews!” they said. Matthew 27:29 (Emphasis added.)

Above his head they placed the written charge against him: THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS. Matthew 27:37 (Emphasis added.)

From a Jewish perspective, especially for Matthew and other Jewish Christians living in Galilee, no title for Jesus could have been more anti-Herodian and thereby also anti-Roman than King of the Jews. They were keenly aware of what it meant to live in Herod’s territory and claim his titles.

Matthew skillfully links the grinding of Roman imperialism against the hopes and dreams of first century Judaism with the ancient grinding of Egyptian imperialism against the liberation of Hebrew slaves. Matthew’s placement for Jesus is as the new Moses at the center this liberation.

Matthew’s subversive use of “Kings of the Jews” also helps us understand the role that the magi (magicians or wise men) play in Matthew’s birth-narrative.

Let’s take one more look at the Jewish midrash about Moses’s birth. The three story elements that surface in these midrash are 1) dream/revelation, 2) fear, and 3) interpretation/advice.

Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, or Targum of Jerusalem I on Exodus 1– 2:

Dream: 

“And Pharaoh told that he, being asleep, had seen in his dream, and, behold, all the land of Egypt was placed in one scale of a balance, and a lamb, the young of a sheep, was in the other scale; and the scale with the lamb in it overweighed.”

Interpretation: 

“Forthwith he sent and called all the magicians of Mizraim, and imparted to them his dream. Immediately Jannis and Jambres, the chief of the magicians, opened their mouth and answered Pharaoh: A certain child is about to be born in the congregation of Israel, by whose hand will be destruction to all the land of Egypt.”

Josephus’s Jewish Antiquities:

Revelation: 

“While they were in this plight, a further incident had the effect of stimulating the Egyptians yet more to exterminate our race. One of the sacred scribes— persons with considerable skill in accurately predicting the future— announced to the king that there would be born to the Israelites at that time one who would abase the sovereignty of the Egyptians and exalt the Israelites, were he reared to manhood, and would surpass all men in virtue and win everlasting renown.”

Fear: 

“Alarmed thereat, the king…”

Advice: 

“…on this sage’s advice, ordered that every male child born to the Israelites should be destroyed by being cast into the river.” (2.205-6)

Sefer ha-Zikhronot, or Book of Memoirs:

Dream: 

“In the 130th year after the Israelites had gone down to Egypt, Pharaoh dreamt a dream. While he was sitting on the throne of his kingdom he lifted up his eyes, and beheld an old man standing before him. In his hand he held a pair of scales as used by merchants. The old man then took the scales and, holding them up before Pharaoh, he laid hold of all the elders of Egypt and its princes, together with all its great men, and, having bound them together, placed them in one pan of the scales. After that he took a milch goat, and, placing it on the other pan, it outweighed all the others. Pharaoh then awoke, and it was a dream.”

Fear:

“Rising early next morning, he called all his servants, and told them the dream. They were sorely frightened by it…”

Interpretation:

“And one of the king’s eunuchs said, “This is nothing else than the foreboding of a great evil about to fall upon Egypt.” On hearing this the king said to the eunuch, “What will it be?” And the eunuch replied, “A child will be born in Israel, who will destroy all the land of Egypt. If it is pleasing to the king, let the royal command go forth in all the land of Egypt that every male born among the Hebrews should be slain, so that this evil be averted from the land of Egypt.”

Matthew uses these three midrashic story elements (revelation/dream, fear, interpretation/advice) in his parallel birth-narrative of Jesus:

Revelation:

“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’”

Fear:

“When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.”

Advice/Interpretation:

“When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. ‘In Bethlehem in Judea,‘ they replied, ‘for this is what the prophet has written….’” (Matthew 2:1-5)

Note a few things. First, Matthew’s narrative doesn’t match the dream of Pharaoh with a dream of Herod. Matthew seems to reserve all divine revelation (the five dreams) for the heroes of his story. Because Herod is playing the villainous role of Pharaoh, no divine vision is awarded him and he only receives a revelation through the arriving magi. This is why, although it seems counter-intuitive to us that the magi would need to stop and ask directions—they’ve been following a star—they must stop and meet Herod. Their announcement to Herod provides the story element of Herod’s “revelation.” The magi must initiate the narrative parallel of “fear” and “advice.”

Second, in Matthew’s stories we witness a literary reversal of the magi themselves. In the Jewish tradition, magicians (magi) and wise men provide the advice/interpretation as Pharaoh’s servants. But in Matthew’s birth-narrative, the magi aren’t the servants of the new “Pharaoh” (Herod); they have instead come to offer gifts and worship to the new “Moses” (Jesus). Why this deviation?

This is the core of what’s truly subversive about Matthew’s birth-narrative. The magi do not recognize Herod as the rightful “King of the Jews.” They have come from the east, following a westward-leading star (see Numbers 24.17), bringing gifts and to worship the rightful “King of the Jews,” a child named Jesus.

“Who is the ‘King of the Jews’? That was Herod the Great’s title, but Matthew’s story tells us Herod was more like Pharaoh, the lord of Egypt, the lord of bondage and oppression, violence and brutality. And his son was no better. Rather, Jesus is the true King of the Jews. And the rulers of his world sought to destroy him.”

The First Christmas, Borg, Marcus J.; Crossan, John Dominic. (p. 37).

HeartGroup Application

Matthew’s birth-narrative envisions Jesus as the new Moses who initiates a new exodus out of empire and liberates his followers from injustice, violence, and oppression. The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) are deeply political, but not in the sense that many think of it today. The “politics” of the gospels is not a foaming-at-the-mouth pursuit of top positions in a secular government.

Rather, the Jesus narratives deeply subvert any political domination system that seeks to subjugate the many for the benefit of a few. These stories are more than personal or private: they are deeply politically subversive as well. The early Jesus community was becoming a new human society, a counter-society, and a common-wealth quite literally rooted in the sayings/teachings of Jesus. As such it not only made personal differences in the lives of Jesus followers, but it also confronted systemic injustice as well. Beginning in January, we’ll be looking at the saying/teachings (sayings Q) included in the Matthew narrative.

But for now, during this holiday season, let’s focus on our own American Empire:

1) In your HeartGroup, discuss together how understanding these parallels to Moses in Matthew affect your reading of the Christmas story.

2) Discuss what affect the reading of Mathew’s birth-narrative would have if we applied this story not only to Egypt (Moses) and Rome (Jesus and his followers), but to America today (us) and the liberation of those groups who are the subjugated in our contemporary domination system.

3) Together, begin reading Luke 1-2 as preparation for next week.

Happy holidays to each of you.  I know this week’s eSight is long.  If you made it all the way through you are amazing!

Remember, Matthew’s Jesus is a new liberator from all things that keep us from being fully human. (I feel like we should all go listen to Maddy Prior and The Carnival band’s Coventry Carol now.)

I love each of you, dearly.  I’m grateful that you are here, participating in this series.

Till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I’ll see you next week.

The Subversive Narratives of Advent  (Part 1 of 3)

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

“I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all people.” (Luke 2.10) 

Advent season has begun!

Over the next two weeks I want to look at the birth narratives of Jesus from first century Christian, Jewish, and Roman perspectives. Much has been lost, co-opted, and eclipsed by the Imperial Christianity that began in the fourth century when Christianity became the official religion of the Empire. So in the next two weekly e-Sights, we’ll be looking first at Matthew’s birth narrative and then at Luke’s. Both Matthew and Luke have story elements in common. They also differ greatly on other narrative details. We will be reading each story in the contexts they were each written in. Seen that original context, these narratives are intensely subversive of the military, political, and economic ways of empire as well as imperial theologies, not just in Rome but across time, including our own era.

A useful tool that I want to recommend this holiday season is Marcus Borg’s and Dominic Crossan’s timely volume, The First Christmas. They’ve done invaluable work in compiling information about the historical/cultural setting in which these birth-narratives were originally told. That information helps us rediscover the stories’ meaning not simply to the first century followers of Jesus but also to us today as well. If I were teaching a class on the Christmas narratives this holiday season, not only would each student have a copy of Matthew’s and Luke’s narratives, they’d also have this 244-page volume as an accompanying text book. It is a fantastic overview.

A Preliminary Word about Both Narratives

Something to note before we begin: These narratives are primarily concerned with this world, not with heaven. They are focused on this life. Too often, the birth-narratives of Jesus are read through the lens of salvation defined as entrance into a post-mortem heaven. But that is not how the original Jewish Jesus community would have heard these stories. They were concerned with the whole of life, not merely with an afterlife. A spiritual or afterlife application of these narratives became the dominant interpretation through the cultural influence of the expanding Roman Empire and European colonialism. We’ve talked about the way that reading the gospel narratives with an otherworldly focus has had intensely destructive fruit. Before imperial Christianity, these narratives were understood to be about the transformation of this world. They were not solely theological; they were theological and political! They announced the Divine dream for this world and announced that the fulfillment of that dream had begun in Jesus. They were not about the destruction of this world but about the restoration of it. This restoration, seen in the narratives as they were originally understood, was symbolized by visions of the end of war, violence, injustice, and oppression.

The Importance of Context

A point that I have been harping on for months now (and was happy to see addressed by Borg and Crossan) is the importance of acknowledging the historical context in which the Jesus narratives were created. Two examples that I use regularly to help people see the historical context of the Jesus story are Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I was overwhelmingly pleased to see Marcus and Dom use these examples as well:

“What would you think of a book that started with the opener, “I am going to discuss Mahatma Gandhi as a Hindu saint, but I’ll skip all that distracting stuff about British imperial India”? Or another with, “I am going to describe Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as a Christian saint, but I’ll get right to his biography and skip all that stuff about racism in America as background baggage”? You would know immediately that something is seriously wrong with those authors’ presentations.”—The First Christmas (p. 55)

I couldn’t agree more!

If we’re going to be able to wrest these two narratives from the militaristic, political, economic, and theological eclipse of empire and restore them to their original, deeply imperially subversive character, we must discover their Jewish, Christian, and Roman context.

Once we see the historical context of these stories, we cannot unsee it. Once we know it, we cannot unknow it. And once we experience this context, it will forever change how we read the birth-narratives of Jesus.

Next week, we’ll look again at Matthew’s narrative. The following week, just before Christmas, we will be turning our attention to Luke’s. My hope is that through this short series that you will read the birth-narratives in Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels anew, that your heart will be renewed, and that you will be inspired, as a Jesus follower, to more deeply embody the this-world-transforming values taught within these narratives.

Though the early Jesus birth-narratives were originally intended to subvert the Roman Empire, I believe they also hold significance for us today who live in or in the shadow of the American Empire. In our era, these narratives are being eclipsed by the consumerism of our Empire’s economic machine. The early followers’ voices are lost even to Christians who are most familiar with these Christmas stories. Systemic racism continues to thrive, xenophobia toward Syrian refugees and Muslim Americans flourishes, and U.S. militaristic methods of achieving peace are continually touted by those who carry the name of this babe from Bethlehem.

If we are to rediscover the original subversive power of the birth-narratives of Jesus and rightly apply the stories to our lives today, we must begin with reading these narratives in the matrix of Imperial Rome and its grinding clash with the hopes of first-century Judaism.

“Who is the ‘King of the Jews’? That was Herod the Great’s title, but Matthew’s story tells us Herod was more like Pharaoh, the lord of Egypt, the lord of bondage and oppression, violence and brutality. And his son was no better. Rather, Jesus is the true King of the Jews. And the rulers of his world sought to destroy him.

Who is the Son of God, Lord, savior of the world, and the one who brings peace on earth? Within Roman imperial theology, the emperor, Caesar, was all of these. No, Luke’s story says, that status and those titles belong to Jesus. He—not the emperor—is the embodiment of God’s will for the earth.

Who is the light of the world? The emperor, son of Apollo, the god of light and reason and imperial order? Or is Jesus, who was executed by empire, the light in the darkness, the true light to whom the wise of this world are drawn?

Where do we find the fulfillment of God’s dream for Israel and humanity? In the way things are now? Or only beyond death? Or in a very different world this side of death?”

The First Christmas, p. 37.

The Gospel of Rome promised peace through victory achieved by violence. The conquered interpret this kind of peace in a vastly different way than the conquerors do. The Gospel of the Early Jesus Community envisioned a peace through restored justice for all, through a distinctly nonviolent transformation.

Over the next two weeks, I’m looking forward to sharing these two birth-narratives with you and focusing on how the first century Jesus community heard and read them in the context of their era.

What we are about to discover may mean you’ll never read these stories in quite the same way again.

HeartGroup Application

  1. Take time this week to read Matthew 1-2 as well as Luke 1-2. Familiarize yourself with each story. Try to keep them separate, for now, in your reading.
  2. List what each story has in common. Then where each narrative differs from the other.
  3. In preparation for next week, create an outline of Matthew’s birth-narrative as this is the one we will be looking at first. You can do this on your own or as a group in your HeartGroup.

I’m looking forward to next week already! Until then, keep living in the way of love, till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you dearly.

I’m overjoyed that you’re joining us for this small series this year.

Happy Holidays, and I’ll see you next week.