Christians carry around in their heads what I call the mush gospel. We mush together the various stories from all the gospels into a single story/gospel that is idiosyncratic. This mush gospel is built up from reading, from hearing the gospel stories read, and from sermons and hymns. We use that mush gospel to make sense of gospel stories when we hear them; that is the context into which we fit them. For the most part, we never understand a single gospel as a complete story with a complex plot and characters. The individuality of each gospel narrative is lost.
Nowhere is this more evident than at Christmas. The universal Christmas story has combined both Matthew and Luke’s narrative with Santa Claus and Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, into the story we get so sentimental about at this season of the year. In fact, Charles Dickens may be the real inventor of Christmas. (See David Parker, Christmas and Charles Dickens. This is a hot topic on the internet; just google it.) But this takes us too far afield.
We combine Matthew and Luke and get a worldwide census, trip to Bethlehem, a stable, angels, shepherds, wise men, and snow. Get the picture? We refresh it each year at Christmas. A perfect mythological brew!
The census and resulting trip comes from Luke. Matthew assumes that Joseph and his wife reside in Bethlehem. Likewise for the stable, that’s a Lucan feature. For Matthew, Jesus is born in a house (2:11). Luke has angels and shepherds, Matthew wise men (or whatever they are). The snow comes from Dickens and Victorian England. We have mushed it all together in one cultural narrative that tells us more about us and our needs than it does about the gospel stories.
Both Matthew and Luke have created their own gospel stories. Robert Miller, Born Divine, has done a great job in showing the cultural backdrop that makes such stories the necessary accouterments for great men. The birth narratives in Matthew and Luke are not compatible, except in the mush gospel. They are fictions created by the authors of the gospels.
Neither Mark, the first gospel, nor the gospel of John thought it necessary to begin the story of Jesus with his birth. Mark begins with John the Bather, while the Fourth Gospel has a hymn beginning before the beginning and then starts the story at the same point Mark did—with John the Bather, which probably shows his dependence on the narrative of Mark’s gospel.
If we look at each of the two birth narratives as separate artistic creations, each tells a powerful story that needs to be heard again.
Matthew narrates much of his story from the point of view of Joseph, after all it is his genealogy that opens the gospel of Matthew. Then he launches into the story of Jesus’ conception. This is a strange tale. It begins in a curiously passive voice, “While his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before she moved in with him, she was found to be pregnant by the holy spirit” (1:18, all translations from the Complete Gospels.) “Was found” implies a backstory, namely that it has become apparent that she was pregnant; the villagers have noticed. And so questions have begun to be asked. Gossip has started. They’re not living together, so what is going on? Joseph was a virtuous or righteous man. The righteous/dik– words are important in Matthew, one of his primary virtues. “Congratulations to those who hunger and thirst for justice! They will have a feast” (5:6). Since Joseph was righteous, he did not wish to shame her by disavowing the child which would have protected his virtue. Instead an angel tells him he is to name the child. By naming the child, he claims the child as his own. The ancient world has no paternity tests, so naming the child is a claim of legitimacy.
Notice what has happened. The virtuous and righteous Joseph has had to forfeit his righteousness in the eyes of the village gossips in order to follow the command of the angel, the voice of God. So Matthew indicates in this tale that appearances may be deceiving. The apparently unrighteous one may turn out to be the truly righteous one. Joseph will have to forfeit his public virtue to maintain true virtue, to follow the divine voice.
This is an important theme that runs throughout Matthew’s gospel. In the parable of the wheat and tares, “The slaves said to him, ‘So do you want us to go and pull the weeds?’ He replied, ‘No, otherwise you’ll uproot the wheat at the same time as you pull the weeds. Let them grow up together until the harvest, and at harvest time I’ll say to the harvesters, ‘Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles for burning, but gather the wheat into my granary'” (13:28-30). The community for Matthew is made up of the pure and the impure and it may be impossible to know which one is which. Are Mary and Joseph wheat or weeds? The story indicates that in the public’s eye they would be judged as weeds.
In the final judgment scene when the shepherd separates the sheep from goats, neither the righteous nor the unrighteous know how they have either succeeded or failed. When told the standard by which they will be judged, the righteous respond,
“Master, when did we see you hungry and feed you or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we notice that you were a foreigner and offer you hospitality? Or naked and clothe you? When did we find you ill or in prison and come to visit you?”
And the king will respond to them, “Let me tell you: whatever you did for the least of my brothers and sisters, you did for me”
The standard of righteous virtue is much more complex and ambiguous than one might think. Matthew’s narrative has considerably complicated the issue. The standard is certainly not the Ten Commandments.
Matthew’s birth narrative has both humor and irony in it. Joseph is told by the angel that “the holy spirit is responsible for her pregnancy” (1:20). How do you think that excuse will work with the village gossips? The naming is odd. Joseph is instructed to name the child Jesus, but the quote from scripture, the proof text, says he is Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” At the gospel’s very conclusion, Jesus says “I’ll be with you” (26:20), fulling the name.
I have long thought the wise men or Astrologers are a Marx Brothers routine. We find out they have been following the star for two years and lose it at precisely the critical moment. And where do they lose it? In Jerusalem, the holy city. And who do they confide in? Herod, the worse possible confidant, who sends them on their way, thus provoking the story’s tragic end. Creches image them kneeling at the manger in a stable, but Matthew implies a different image. The child is between one and two years old and at home. The gifts are odd: gold for royalty, but the spices are for preparing a corpse for burial. A very strange gift for a young boy, yet this birth narrative forecasts the whole of the gospel.
Joseph now flees with the mother and child into Egypt, while Herod issues “instructions to kill all the children two years old and younger in Bethlehem and the surrounding region” (2:16). The tale ends on a tragic note with
Rachel weeping for her children.
She refused to be consoled
because they were no more
(2:18 quoting Jer 31:15 but not exactly).
This story does not celebrate innocence, a quiet Christmas night in Bethlehem, but a tragic situation with the father, mother and child in flight for their lives and Rachel weeping for her children because they were no more. A grieving mother is the image of Christmas.
This powerful image of a family fleeing across borders and mothers weeping for their dead children has a formidable contemporary semblance. We see it every day on the front pages of our newspapers and news sources. It is front and center in our politics. Yet the mush gospel blocks us from seeing this hard reality in Matthew’s Christmas story. It is time for those with eyes to see!
Bernard Brandon Scott is Darbeth Distinguished Professor Emeritus of New Testament at the Phillips Theological Seminary, Tulsa, Oklahoma. He is the author and editor of many books, including The Real Paul: Recovering His Radical Challenge and The Trouble with Resurrection. A charter member of the Jesus Seminar, he is chair of Westar’s newly established Christianity Seminar. He served as chair of the Bible in Ancient and Modern Media Section of the Society of Biblical Literature, as well as a member of several SBL Seminars including the Parable Seminar and Historical Jesus Seminar. He holds an A.B. from St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology, an M.A. from Miami University, and a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University.