Her firstborn son

May 31, 2013

Dear brothers and sisters,

I am taking the good news today from Luke 2:1-7.

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria, of which Judea was a part. So all went to be enrolled, each to his own town. And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. While they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

Caesar Augustus ruled for a long 41 years until 14 C.E., a period which became known as the Pax Augusta or Pax Romana, a relatively peaceful time in the Roman Empire lasting until 180 C.E.. Augustus was regarded as savior and god. Luke probably inserted this reference as a contrast to Jesus, the actual savior, son of God, and bringer of peace.

In Luke’s prologue he told Theophilus that he was writing an accurate, orderly narrative of Jesus’ life and ministry. However, writing so many years later he may have had some of his facts wrong as written records were not readily available. Quirinius was governor of Syria in 6 to 7 C.E. and not during Herod’s patriarchy from 37 to 4 B.C.E. Further, there are no existing historical records of Augustus ordering a worldwide census. According to the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Luke used the census as a device to move Joseph and Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem in order to make good on the prophecy in Micah that Bethlehem would be where the heir to David was to be born. “But you, Bethlehem-Ephrathah, too small to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel; whose origin is from of old, from ancient times.”

Barclay, though, points out that the census was taken every fourteen years in the Roman Empire for the purposes of taxation and military conscription. The earliest records reach back to 20 C.E.. If the census were taken before that and followed the same fourteen-year pattern, this census was taken in 8 B.C.E. However, most scholars believe that Jesus was born sometime between 6 and 4 B.C.E.. Barclay further explains that Quirinius, while not governor at that time, did hold an official position in the province from 10 to 7 B.C.E.. I think it’s best to keep in mind that the gospels were neither written nor intended to be factual biographies. The gospel writers were storytellers, not historians. The gospels are the story of salvation.

As Marcus Borg writes in Jesus, “When we find features like these [virgin birth, etc.] in a story, we commonly conclude that its literary genre is not a literal-factual report, but a metaphorical or symbolic narrative. These are the primary reasons that mainline scholars do not see the stories of Jesus’ birth as historically factual reports, but as metaphorical narratives. Some Christians are uncomfortable with this conclusion….To argue about whether the stories narrate what actually happened most often distracts us from the meanings of the stories.”

Luke, while not a Jew, took pains to show that salvation history was a continuous thread beginning with Abraham and running through Jesus and the community of believers struggling to bring about the kingdom of God while awaiting the return of His son. He was trying to tie it all together. So, Luke made frequent references to the scriptures and to prophecies, particularly to the coming of the Messiah from the line of David. Likewise, the description of Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes may have been a reference to Wisdom 7:4 in which Solomon, son of David and precursor to Jesus, was similarly described.

In using firstborn to describe Jesus Luke may have been conveying the idea that Jesus was the firstborn son of God and, perhaps, as the New American Bible notes, stretched to its legal meaning that Jesus “possessed the rights and privileges of the firstborn son,” the son of God. Luke was fond of using symbols as with the manger, which means to eat. Jesus was food for the world and Luke repeatedly describes events in which Jesus fed others. Lots of metaphors that would have conveyed deep meaning to his readers.

Regardless of how and where Jesus came into this world, attended by whatever sights and sounds and angels and choirs, the fact of the matter is that God became incarnate in the person of Jesus. He was Emmanuel, God among us. That is the story to be told over and over.



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