Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Rhetorical Politics of the Birth of Jesus

There is a "rhetorical mythology" around the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Political leaders have long used scriptures to persuade people, so it is unsurprising that the story of the birth of the major figure of Christianity would be used for political purposes. I am not religious, and I am certainly not a theological scholar, but some of the myths used by politicians in public statements are clearly absurd and deserve to be debunked.

A bit of New Testament data helps understand how shallow the political rhetoric is: only one book of the Four Gospels details the birth of Jesus. Only Luke 2 offers the familiar details. One chapter of one book from the Christian Gospels is all we have. Not much to build on, but politicians are seldom restrained by such limits. Mark and John provide few details at all about Jesus as a child, and nothing about his birth. Matthew offers a little about the genealogy of Jesus, via Joseph, but only Luke offers the story of Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem.

Again, understand that I write this only from the view of errors in political speeches -- errors I believe are intentional in many instances. I am not writing this as a Christian or Jew or anything else; my intention is not to claim that the Gospel accounts are historical or true. However, if you are going to cite the New Testament stories, you should at least get those right.

Myth 1: Jesus was born into a humble, low-caste family.

Political motivation: appeal to the "common man" and those of modest means. Prove a connection to the lower-classes and those without status. Many politicians can't let go of the "simple carpenter" image, though that's a misreading of the time period. The artisan class was substantially "higher" in prestige than the working or farming classes.

It is very unlikely Jesus was in the lowest class of Nazareth. The book of Matthew (1:1-1:16) begins with a detailed lineage, the fraternal genealogy of Joseph from Abraham through to Jesus. Any family able to trace its lineage through the most honored families in Judaism was at least "middle-class" by standards of the time. Joseph's family supposedly included: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, King David, and Solomon. It's no minor thing to be related to King David, even if thousands of families over 14 generations could make a similar claim.

In the Gospel of Luke, we learn that Mary is related to a priest, certainly not representative of the lower classes.

Luke 1:5: In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.

Elizabeth must be a significant relative to Mary, though the relationship is unclear. Mary takes residence during her pregnancy in the house of Zechariah, the priest, along with Elizabeth, who is also expecting a miraculous child to be named John.
Luke 1:39: In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, (1:40) and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.
Luke 1:56: And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home.
In Mark 6 and Matthew 13, residents of Nazareth seem stunned that the son of a carpenter would know the scriptures and traditions of Judaism:
Mark 6:1 He went away from there and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. (6:2) And on the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands? (6:3) Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.
However, this deals more with the specific roles of the caste system in Jewish tradition. At the time of Jesus, only a priest of high rank, not even the apprentice scholars, would dare speak a sermon in the synagogues. A carpenter, regardless of anything else, would never dare to teach as a priest would. The priesthood of antiquity was inherited, not something anyone could do. (In the early Jewish tradition, only certain families were the priests. It was a complex social system.)

That everyone in town knows Joseph and his sons is actually an indication of his standing. The violation is not one of class, but of roles and tradition. Only a priest can be priest.

Myth 2: Joseph was going to abandon Mary.

Political motivation: varies by party. Some use this to talk about the sanctity of life, even though it was common to abandon unwanted children. Others use this aspect of the story to impress upon fathers their importance to families.

Joseph seems to have been a man of standing, one with the ability to offer a rather modern solution to Mary's "problem" of pregnancy: divorce. This implies some standing because at the time the man would have had to provide some financial support to an ex-wife until she was either remarried or one of her family members took her into a household. Jewish tradition of the time would not allow for divorce without either cause or, without cause, financial compensation. Joseph, in the Gospels, doesn't seem to leaning towards a divorce of cause.
Matthew 1:18: Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. (1:19) And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.
Notice the mention of divorce. It is neither dishonorable nor especially unusual. Joseph's offer of divorce is meant to protect Mary and her family from shame. Joseph and Mary had yet to wed, according to Matthew, yet Joseph was willing to wed the young woman, allow her to give birth, and then divorce her. That's no small task, especially if Joseph had been poor or lower-class. An angel, Gabriel, persuaded Joseph to wed Mary and keep her as his wife.
Matthew 1:20: But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. (1:21) She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."
Myth 3: Jesus was "homeless" at birth.

Political motivation: sympathy for the homeless and needy, usually in the form of government programs. The idea is that if Jesus was homeless, then the homeless are "like Jesus" in some way.

This is a staple of political speeches, unfortunately. It's also not true.

Nothing in the Four Gospels indicates Jesus was homeless. Joseph and Mary are from established families and Joseph, as a carpenter, had an important career. In the time of Jesus, a carpenter wasn't merely a worker: he was the architect, the contractor, the foreman, and, most likely, the employer of many men. "Carpenter" is more analogous to the owner of a modern construction company.

What we know is that the family had left Nazareth and Jesus was born "on the road" in Bethlehem. The Gospel of Matthew gives us only the location of the birth:
Matthew 2:1: Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem.
In Matthew, we are not told why Jesus is born in Bethlehem or why the wise men of Herod headed for Jerusalem. However, it is likely that the final taxes would be due in Jerusalem, while the census was conducted in Bethlehem. We are talking about a government bureaucracy, after all. We know the government is to blame based on the Gospel of Luke.
Luke 2:1: In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. (2:2) This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. (2:3) And all went to be registered, each to his own town.
The destination for Joseph was Bethlehem's census office, probably in a Roman government building.
Luke 2:4: And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, (2:5) to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.
Because the Romans worried about tax evasion, they required entire households to register in person at their government centers. Makes you wonder why they couldn't accept the word of each male head of household, or send out census counters to each village. You would register at the census, then proceed to pay taxes, usually in a regional center. The taxes were based on your earnings and your family size. More people, the theory went, meant a family needed more Roman-provided services. The lowest castes did not generally owe taxes in ancient Roman territories, another indication Joseph has enough money to pay taxes.

It wasn't that Mary and Joseph were homeless, therefore. They were on the road thanks to the government. And because the Syrian territorial governor wanted everyone to be counted at the same time, the cities and towns with government offices were overrun with families. Imagine asking everyone to go to the nearest state capital city to be counted, followed by a trip to the largest commercial city to pay taxes. The only winners in this mess were people with taverns, inns, and households willing to board travelers.
Luke 2:6: And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. (2:7) And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
We are not told there were animals around or that the manger was particularly bad (considering the time and place). We don't know if Joseph had paid livery or not, either. What we do know is that it was government that caused Jesus to be born outside a good home.

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