Towards a New Theology Part THREE
We have just celebrated Christmas, a time when we remember the birth of our Saviour. So let us apply this method to the Christmas story, and see where we end up.
Jesus was born around the time of the Census ordered by Caesar Augustus. Although there is little documentation surviving from the census itself, there is enough to tell us that it was in summer, around 4 BCE. Suggested dates include from early May to mid September. Given also that the shepherds were in the fields tending their flocks that night, we know it was a particularly hot summer night. There is also enough surviving documentation to suggest who Joseph and Mary were. There was a man named Joseph, who was a very wealthy businessman – an Importer/Exporter Trader. He was a widower, with adult children from his previous marriage. He was in his late 30’s/early 40’s at the time of the Census. He was also engaged to be married to a young girl called Mary. He lived in Nazareth because that was where he did his trading – Nazareth being a Trade city. Nazareth was a rough, corrupt city. You only lived there if you’re business required you to live there (such as a trader) or because you were the lowest of the low – you couldn’t afford to live anywhere else, or your social status precluded you living anywhere else. There was the saying at the time ‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?’ Although he lived there, probably for work reasons, he called Bethlehem in Judea home – a very prestigious city. That’s why he went to Bethlehem to register. He didn’t want to be recorded that he was from such a despicable place as Nazareth. This same Joseph apparently is found later as the local carpenter in Nazareth. The description we find of him in scripture is not the wealthy, successful businessman, but the local Carpenter in the rough part of a troublesome province. How did he go from being a wealthy, successful businessman to the local carpenter in a troublesome town? Let us take a look at the next part of the story.
The Mary that he was engaged to was between 12 and 14 years old. Here is our first lesson in applying modern thinking to ancient documentation. Today, such a union would spark outrage. A 40 year old marrying a 14 year old. But this was the culture of the day. It was perfectly acceptable. We don’t know much about Mary beyond that. We can make assumptions based on cultural understanding, but they would just be generalisations. So let’s leave it there as far as her background. What we do know about her is that she was found to be pregnant – and Joseph was not the father. Having such a high standing in the community as Joseph did, he would not have wanted to be linked to such a scandal. So he originally planned to separate from her. However, his reputation as a holy and righteous man was also at stake. Here we find another difference in translation. The modern understanding of Holiness is very different to the Jewish understanding of Holiness. To the Jew, to ‘be Holy, as I the Lord your God am Holy’ (see Leviticus), meant ‘to do justice’. To make sure that the spirit of the law was upheld, not the letter. The ‘holy/righteous’ Jew was to fight for the disadvantaged, the downtrodden, the person without voice or power. To see righteousness – not the law – was upheld. If he left her, he would have affirmed her guilt, and she would have been stoned to death according to law (we have our first indication in the gospels that the Jewish legal system had become corrupt – upholding the letter of the law, not upholding holiness as the Jewish people understood holiness). A righteous man such as Joseph would not have wanted anyone’s death on his head – no matter what the reason. His righteousness won out over his desire for self-preservation. It is probably that which caused Joseph to go from wealthy successful businessman to local carpenter in Nazareth.
This is a story I can relate to. It tells me that bad things happen to good people. That no matter how much we try to do what God requires, we can still have bad things happen to us. If even the guardians of God’s only begotten son were treated as such, why should I expect to have any better treatment in life? Life isn’t fair. This story speaks true to the reality of life. I don’t see here a holy family who are so blessed and heavenly minded they are of no earthly good. I see a real family, with real people, affected by the reality and unfairness of life.
Now it’s possible there might be a different Joseph and Mary, one that mirrors more closely the classical understanding of the story, but probability suggests that it would be almost impossible to find another Joseph, who ended up as a carpenter in Nazareth, who was engaged to a pregnant girl called Mary, who went to Bethlehem for the census, where his betrothed gave birth. The improbability of this assumption is seen in the Monty Python spoof – ‘The Life of Brian’.
Part THREE of SIX
Residing in London, UK