Saturday, January 5, 2013

Towards a New Theology Part THREE

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’.


Graeme Randall
Former SA officer
Australia East

Residing in London, UK


Anonymous said...

This is a very interesting series! I am looking forward to the rest of it! Thanks Graeme for your contributions to this blog!

Active Officer
USA West

Sven Ljungholm said...


... The early Salvationists had this balance of concerns in mind when they established the Army’s doctrines. By limiting the doctrines to 11 articles of faith, they created a clear standard on essential matters of Christian faith, while leaving plenty of breathing room on questions of secondary importance.

Over the next five articles in this series, I will be reviewing five major heresies from the Early Church, and showing how the rejection of these heresies shaped Christianity’s central beliefs about creation, the Trinity, Jesus and human sinfulness. I will also explore potential “shadow heresies” that may crop up in contemporary Christian thinking. Cultivating this awareness can help us to faithfully proclaim the gospel today.

James Pedlar is a doctoral student at Wycliffe College, in the Toronto School of Theology.

Graeme Randall said...

Daryl (comment on part 2),

1st article of faith 'We believe that the scriptures of the Old and New Testament were given by inspiration of God,and that they only constitute the divine rule of Christian Faith and Practice'

Yes, I still do believe that. However, we need to look at other documentation in order to understand what those Scriptures are saying, and how to read them. That is the point of this whole series. I'm not suggesting we add or subtract anything from the Scriptures, what I am saying is that we need to more fully understand the people, the writing, the language, the culture, the politics, everything at the time of their writing - so that we can understand what was meant when it was written. Then we can more confidently state Article 1, and be able to back ourselves up beyond just saying 'I believe it because I feel it's right'. We can also more confidently expound what they are saying.

As far as being converted through the traditional 'stories' or 'myths'. 2 points there:

1) If they are being converted by the traditional 'myths' or 'stories', then what are they being converted to? Are they experiencing the true gospel, true Salvation? Or are they converting to what has become a false religion that has lots of emotive experiences and warm, fuzzy feelings, with lots of rules and regulations about how to come to God?

2) I don't think people are nowadays coming to God the way they used to. What you have said is true up to a few decades ago at most, but nowadays I don't think really applies. People are more intellectual, more likely to ask questions. They realise more acutely the unfairness of life - they are unemployed, they lose good people, they are struggling. Life isn't all roses and violins when you come to God. We still live in the same world. They want a gospel that reflects that, that looks real, that speaks about real people with real struggles. That's why I write what I do.

Hope this answers your question.


Graeme Randall said...

To Sven's posting above,

When I was in the School for Officer Training, our Doctrine Teacher - Colonel Bram Lucas - used to say that we have one Doctrine, made up of 11 Articles of Faith. The Colonel was part of the committee that wrote the old red 'Handbook of Doctrine' that some of the older Salvationists would remember. He also drummed into us that when they wrote the handbook of doctrine, and reviewed the 11 Articles of Faith, they wanted to make sure that it was broad enough to encompass every Theological position imaginable. If you wanted to believe in a literal 7 day creation, then TSA doctrine would affirm it. If you wanted to believe in evolution, guided by God over hundreads of millions of years, then TSA doctrine would affirm it. Or anything in between. The same goes for any topic you can think of. He used to say that we in TSA have forgotten that, and that is one of the problems with TSA today.


Anonymous said...


Rightly dividing the Word is important.
Remembering the warning from scripture about itching ears is too. New theologies that people put together can be misleading at times because it goes with culture and practices of the day.

Sound Bible teaching never changes.

Former Officer
USA West

Anonymous said...

Forgive me Former, Officer USA West. But just what is sound Gospel teaching? Is it the propounding of your interpretation of "Scripture" which is based on your education, knowledge, intellectual capacity, and your personal belief that you have divine revelation in this matter? Basically, is it that what you agree with is sound Gospel teaching and none other?
I find Graeme's views very welcome and most enlightening especially as they fill in background to a "position" somewhat to the "left-field" of him that I have reached. And I believe that unless I deny the possibility of continuing revelation I shall never reach stasis: nor do I want to: but will continue to seek further understanding and enlightenment.
Old Hornblower

Anonymous said...

Old Hornblower, if Graeme speaks to you, while USA West doesn't; If you are a reader, you would enjoy reading the following American authors:

All the books by Marcus Borg
All the books by Brian McLaren
The Great Emergence by Phyliss Tickle, and the Future of Faith by Harvey Cox. All are good writing and good reading,

Keep blowing your horn,

Canada and Bermuda

Anonymous said...

Former C and B

Many thanks

Old Hornblower

Anonymous said...

Excellent articles Graeme. I could not agree with you more!!! Looking forward to the remainder and the logic and theology they will bring to this discussion.

Cameron Horsburgh said...

Good article! Your conclusions here are bang on. I frequently find myself mentioning that Christmas is for everyone, not just Christians. Both Gospel accounts of the Nativity are full of people who don't fit in and who have been forgotten, but find themselves blessed.

May I push back on one or two historical points? I've studied these accounts fairly heavily over the years, and I'm a little curious. Specifically:

* Joseph was a wealthy, previously married business man.

* Information about the timing of the census. As I understand it the census of Quirinius was conducted in about 6CE, about ten years after the nativity. I haven't seen any documentary evidence that confirms Luke's timing, and if you have I'd love to see it!

Another problem that would be worth addressing is that there are two quite different versions of the Christmas story. In Matthew Mary and Joseph are married and live in Bethlehem, only moving to Nazareth after the trouble with Herod. In Luke they start in Nazareth as a betrothed couple and travel to Bethlehem for the census, then return to Galilee after Jesus' presentation at the Temple.


Anonymous said...

Cameron Horsburgh I can't see in Mattthew that Mary and Joseph lived in Bethlehem, it only records in 2:1 that Jesus was born there. Also 1:18 clearly records they were only engaged when Mary found she was pregnant. (per NIV,KJV/AV, NKJV,ESV,NASB,AMP,CEB,CJB,CEV,DARBY, KNOX, PHILLIPS. HOLMAN, GNT, 1599GENEVA, Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition )