December 2015 & January 2016


The four biblical gospels - those of Matthew, Mark Luke and John - were all written to be biographies. I know they don’t look like that to modern eyes, but the people of the gospel writers’ generation would have had no difficulty in recognising them as similar to other biographies.

They all start at the same point - the baptism of Christ. Mark’s, the earliest, leaps straight in at that juncture. The others write prologues introducing the story and the themes which the writers thought most important. So John begins his, not with a story, but with a wonderful poem (In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God ………….) celebrating the relationship of Christ with God. The other two begin with stories. This is very much in line with Jewish practice where teaching tended to be done by the use of stories, as Jesus demonstrated in his parables. The stories in each case were about the birth of Christ.

Matthew throughout his gospel underlines how the story of Christ is a fulfilment of the Old Testament. And so his account of the birth of Christ is littered with references to the Old Testament. He has people coming from the east bearing gifts, a prophecy from Isaiah, he has Joseph escaping with his family to Egypt (Someone called Joseph, rescuing his family in Egypt: ring any bells?) and the list goes on. Luke, on the other hand, sees Christ reaching out to all and promising freedom to all. So the first people to come to worship him are the outcasts of society, and then there is the question of tax. We all know that Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem because all the world was to be taxed, and you can’t have a tax without first taking a census. The trouble is that there is no contemporary record anywhere of such a census and tax taking place. And such an act would have been really worthy of note. Even the emperor at the time, Augustus, in his modestly entitled Achievements of the Deified Augustus makes no mention of it, and, believe me, he would have. Why are there no other accounts? Because it didn’t happen. Why does Luke mention it? Because it is an important theme in his narrative. David had tried to make a census of the Jewish people, and had been punished by God for it. The Romans following the same blasphemous example is an illustration of the tyranny under which God’s people were suffering. The people longed for freedom: Jesus gave them freedom, but not in the way they anticipated.

The problem with Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts - written totally independently of each other and with different purposes - is that they are unsurprisingly incompatible with each other. For instance, Matthew has Jesus born in his parents’ house in Bethlehem, Luke has it happening in a cattle shed. There is no way that the two stories can be melded with each other. But, of course, people try to. Where would Nativity Plays be without that?  And that would not be a problem, were it not for the fact that, for so many people, it is from Nativity Plays that they get all that they know about the life of Christ. Their knowledge stops at his birth.

The four biblical gospels - those of Matthew, Mark Luke and John - were all written to be biographies. And none of them are terribly long. Wouldn’t it be really good if, this Christmas, we did not just leave the baby Jesus in the food trough in the cattle shed (or in his parents’ house) and instead took the story further? Wouldn’t it be good if we didn’t just celebrate Jesus’s birth, but also his life, death and resurrection? Wouldn’t it be good if we actually got to know him? I am sure that the key to answering that lies on the bookshelves of most houses. 

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