Having sat through one pagan — I mean, Methodist — and another obligated Catholic mass in the past 48 hours; having heard the beginning of John and croaked out “O, Little Town of Bethlehem” at least four times in the past five days, I thought I’d take a moment to see what we knew, really, about the Little Baby Jesus (LBJ).
Read along in your Bibles:
The oldest Gospel, Mark, has — well, nothing. It starts with Jesus baptized as an adult, age unknown. John starts much earlier — way, way back “in the beginning” (of time), when God/Jesus created the universe. Unfortunately, down here on Earth, John skips the LBJ part. Acts and the Letters say nothing.
That leaves us with 3,800 words in Matthew and Luke as our ONLY sources. So-called “Infancy Gospels,” like Thomas and James, popped up in the second century, but they were written more than 100 years after Jesus’ death and are obviously fictional.
Matthew traces a family tree from Abraham through David to Joseph, who is Jesus’ father — but wait a second. He’s not, is he? We find out in a moment that God is Jesus’ father. Joseph is not related to him at all. Why do we care if some random guy is descended from King David?
Luke also has a genealogy, which goes back in time from Joseph through David and Abraham to Adam, aka “the son of God.” (3:23-37) Most of the names in these two genealogies are different; in fact, almost all of them are.
But whatever. Matthew has the Holy Spirit get busy with Mary … Joseph marries her … she gives birth … she bonks Joseph. Look it up: Matthew says Joseph “did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son.” (1:25) See that screaming “UNTIL”? The world’s oldest recorded case of blue-balls.
The dynamic duo lives in Bethlehem, hometown of David. King Herod has a dream and sends “the Maji” (unknown number) to follow a star and they come to “the house.” No manger. No swaddling clothes. Maji exit, running.
Joseph moves to Egypt, imitating Moses. He waits (duration unknown). Herod dies, family moves to what Rock Star Theologian Bart Ehrman calls “an insignificant little one-horse town” called Nazareth. The end.
Okay. A little skimpy, Matt, but at least we have these running Maji and some (implied) Joe-on-Mary action. But where’s the Little Baby Jesus? Doesn’t make a peep.
We turn to Luke. He’s the screenwriting disciple, the Mel Gibson of gospelers, the USC grad who crafts the Jesus we all think we know today. If you cut out Mark, Matthew and John, most of us wouldn’t miss a begat. But take Luke out, you got some serious ‘splaining to do.
After some stuff about a cousin of Mary’s, Luke finally gets to her and old blue-balls in verse 27. The angel Gabriel visits the couple in … Nazareth? But in Matthew, they’re living in Bethlehem.
Whatev. Joe goes to Bethlehem because — well, we’re told the Roman Emperor decreed a “census.” Matthew has no census; no ancient source mentions a census. But Luke does give us a manger, some “cloths.” But no running Maji. And weirdly, no marriage: Mary was “pledged to be married” to Joseph, but that’s it. Jesus was a human bastard. (2:5-7)
Then Luke has a whole scene in Jerusalem for Jesus’ bris and some prophets and so on, not a whisper of which is in Matthew. No Egypt. No Herod. No star over Bethlehem. Hmmm. These stories are totally different. If they weren’t bound together in the same book, I’d think they were about different people.
Where are we? Jesus parents were named Mary and Joseph. They were Jewish. They may have come from Nazareth. That’s it. Merry (day after) Christmas!
* Continuing Ed Dept: I’ve mentioned Yale’s excellent free course on the Hebrew Bible. More recently, they added a full-semester New Testament course by Dale Martin; the lectures on the epistles, especially Paul’s, are on fire.