Scripture sleuth: John Dominic Crossan.

 

The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus's Birth

By Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Crossan

HarperOne, 272 pp., $22.95

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The First Christmas

John Dominic Crossan explains what the gospels really tell us about the birth of Jesus.

By John D. Spalding

Two years ago, biblical scholars John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg published “The Last Week,” a fascinating day-by-day account, based on Mark’s gospel, of how Jesus spent his final week in Jerusalem. Now, they’ve teamed up again to explore the beginning of Jesus’ life, unraveling what the news of his birth meant 2,000 years ago, so we can better understand its significance today.

In “The First Christmas,” Crossan and Borg argue that the nativity story is far richer and more challenging than familiar sentimentalized versions allow. Not simply tidings of comfort and joy, the gospel stories of Jesus’ birth are also edgy visions of another way of life, confronting the status quo and demanding personal and political transformation.

The author of more than 20 books, Crossan is professor emeritus of De Paul University and is widely considered one of the foremost historical Jesus scholars. In 1985, he co-founded the controversial Jesus Seminar—a group of biblical experts who meet twice a year to debate the authenticity of the words and deeds ascribed to Jesus in the gospels. Born in Tipperary, Ireland, in 1934, Crossan entered the Servites, a Roman Catholic order in 1950. He was ordained in 1957 but left the priesthood in 1969 to get married and pursue an academic life.

Recently, I sat down with Crossan to discuss “the reason for the season,” as the old saying goes. Our conversation ranged from virgin births and Roman censuses to how you became a god in the ancient world, and why it was a bad idea to mess with shepherds. We also discussed Hollywood portrayals of Jesus—from Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” to “The Nativity Story” and “Basic Instinct” director Paul Verhoeven’s curious idea for a Christ flick (hint: think Jesus as Harrison Ford in “The Fugitive”).

* * *

There’s a traditional nativity story most of us know, and it involves a manger in Bethlehem, a star, and adoring shepherds. But what do the gospels tell us about Jesus’ birth?

First of all, there are four gospels, and they all begin with what I call an overture. As in musical plays, an overture gives us the whole in miniature form, a sample of the themes and melodies that you are going to find in the drama that follows. Now what’s special about Matthew and Luke is that they start with what we call in the book a “parabolic overture.” In plain language, they make up a story. It’s fiction.

The proper title for Matthew 1 and 2 and Luke 1 and 2, which are stories about the birth of Jesus, would be “parable.” A parable is a deliberately made up story that packs a theological punch. So you’re listening to the story, engrossed in what’s happening, and then there’s a twist, a “gotcha.” For example, someone hearing Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan would think, “Yeah, that’s a dangerous road. That could happen--someone could get beat up on it, sure, yeah, yeah.” And then, “Wait a minute! Did he just say that our ethnic enemies, the Samaritans, might help a Jew if they found him lying in a ditch?” That notion turned their world upside down. It would be like, today, telling a story about a Good Terrorist. So the point of a parable is to trap you in the story, and then lure you into action. Jesus ends his parable by saying, “Now, go and do likewise.” And of course, no one thought Jesus was telling people literally to do likewise—become a Samaritan and look for a Jew in a ditch.

So the birth stories of Jesus in Matthew and Luke, neither of which has data, are prologues, or summaries, of everything that is going to follow in the gospels. And because Matthew and Luke are very different gospels--they were written unaware of each other--they also have very different overtures.

In other words, Matthew and Luke give two different accounts of Jesus’ birth.

Exactly. It’s what any of us do when we write a book. We write the prologue last. A prologue announces exactly what you’re going to do in the book, and then isn’t it miraculous when you do exactly that? So now imagine Matthew. He’s written his gospel, the major point of which is that Jesus is the new Moses. He begins his story, in the gospel now, by having Jesus going up and delivering what we call the Sermon on the Mount, but which he would have called the New Law From the New Mount Sinai.

So when Matthew sits down to write his prologue, he says, “OK. So Jesus is the new Moses. I know, I’ll write about the birth of Jesus, making it parallel the birth of Moses in such a way that anyone with a Jewish background will get that immediately.” The biggest thing about the birth of Moses is that the pharaoh tries to slay all the kids, almost killing Moses. Everyone knows that. So as Matthew makes up his story, he has the king try to kill all the male children of Bethlehem in order to kill Jesus. Any Jew hearing that would say, “Oh, Herod is the new pharaoh? That means the Jewish homeland under Herod, who is collaborating with the Romans, is like the new Egypt? And Jesus flees to Egypt for safety—but in the wrong direction? Moses left Egypt, heading north. Jesus is going the other way, heading south!”

So the details of Matthew’s birth account are very deliberate, and that’s why we insist on the story’s anti-imperial edge. Herod is the new pharaoh—but the official title Rome gave him is King of the Jews. Mark Antony and Octavian brought Herod into the senate and gave him the title, King of the Jews. So for Matthew to proclaim a newborn “King of the Jews” is, well, basically, high treason.

And yet Luke’s birth story is very different…

Basically, the Christmas story as we think of it is 95 percent Luke and five percent Matthew. Really, the only thing that comes from Matthew is the three wise men, and of course we call them “kings,” which is a terrible mistake. They’re not kings; the last thing on Earth they are is kings. They are magi, representing the wisdom of the east coming up against the power of the west. If you really want to cause trouble this Christmas, you might tell the truth and say they’re from Iran. They’re Persian wise men!

Luke is quite different from Matthew. The whole tone is not nearly as dark as Matthew. There’s no slaughter of the innocents in Luke. What happens in Luke is that the announcement is made to the shepherds, and the point here is that both groups that get the message are “outsiders.” It’s made to pagan magicians—that’s what magi means—and Jewish shepherds. And the shepherds are not the nice little guys we often think they were. Shepherds in the ancient world were tough guys who protected their sheep from wolves and thieves. They had weapons; they could take care of themselves. Shepherds were considered dangerous outsiders, and they knew whether the system was just or unjust. So then the angel comes to them and announces that the birth of the Messiah, the just king expected by Israel, and he gives Jesus some fancy titles—Lord, savior, and bringer of peace. Those titles belong to Caesar Augustus, the bringer of peace being the core title upon which the others depended. If Augustus hadn’t brought peace to the Roman Empire, he probably wouldn’t have survived very long.

You’ve written that if you asked anyone in the Mediterranean world at the time of Jesus, “Who’s the Son of God, the Lord, the redeemer, the savior of the world?” everyone would’ve known immediately who you were talking about, and it sure wouldn’t have been Jesus.

That’s right—it would have been Caesar Augustus. It’s like the first question they ask on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”—the idiot question everyone is supposed to get right. So, if you applied those titles to Jesus at that time, you’re either dealing with a kind of low lampoon, a silly joke, or you’re committing high treason. You’re saying that the program incarnate in Augustus, which I call “peace through victory,” is not the program willed by God. God’s program, you’re saying, is the one incarnate through Jesus—“peace through justice.” So if you think of Caesar and Jesus as two people running for election, those central competing ideas would be their platforms.

It’s striking that the Roman vision of the final kingdom is very similar to Jesus’ notion of the kingdom of God. They both extol a notion of equality, which erases distinctions between rich and poor, tyrant and slave, and yet the big difference between them is how you achieve that kingdom.

They really are similar. And it’s hard for us to imagine that what we today consider to be this distinctly “Christian language” was utterly comprehensible to people in the first century. They might not agree with that language, but they understood exactly what was being said. These titles of Son of God and savior, etc, meant that the human being you were talking about brought such transcendental gifts to the world that he had to be considered divine. And of course, the next question would be, “OK, we agree he could be divine because that’s part of our culture, but what has your guy done for the world? We can see what Augustus has done.”

So, the language they used, and it doesn’t matter whether we like it or not, always made certain content claims. It’d be the same for us today as asking, “Who do you like for president?” You’d know immediately what I was talking about. I don’t mean president of the local university, or the library. I’m talking about the 2008 campaign. And if I said, “What do you think of her?” You’d know I’m probably not referring to Obama’s wife. I mean Hillary. We know the language, so we can take shortcuts. Similarly, they all knew the language back then, and they took shortcuts, too. So all the terms that we think were invented by Christianity, and were sort of new and mysterious back then—not at all. They were all taken for granted in the first century. And when you applied those divine titles to Jesus, people thought, “We know what you mean, and therefore we’re going to kill you.”

Was there a distinction between what the term “Son of God” meant to the ancient Israelites, the early Christians, and the Romans?

Well, the big distinction was what it meant to the Romans and to the Greeks. The Romans distinguished between a god, or deus, who was immortal and always has been a god, and a divus, or diva, a human being who had been elevated to divinity. So the Latin term applied to Octavian, before he was renamed Augustus, was divi filius. He was the “son of the divine one.” But the Greeks didn’t distinguish between immortal gods and human gods. Both were called theos, and the Greek equivalent for the Latin for a “son of god,” like Apollo, was the term theou huios. And when the Greeks refer to Augustus, they use the same term.

From the Hebrew point of view, one of the titles of God would be kurios, or Lord. And in the infancy gospel, there’s a deliberate oscillation between Lord, as God, and Lord, as Jesus. So they are making the claim that the God known in the Hebrew Scriptures as Lord is incarnate in Jesus. And that idea that would not strike people in the first century as difficult to accept. They might not believe Jesus is that Lord incarnate, but it’s entirely within the realm of possibility for them that human beings can be elevated into divinity. A person was never elevated into divinity, however, until, like Augustus, they had done something major for the human race. And once they had done something extraordinary, their divinity was then retrojected back into stories about their conception and birth, as well as into their genealogies and stories about their coming of age. But they are always writing backwards, after the fact.

As the gospel writers did with Jesus’ birth story.

They absolutely did that with Jesus. But let’s start with a Roman example. The historian Seutonius writes about the conception of Caesar Augustus at the very end of his biography. First he tells us all about Augustus’ life, up until the moment he’s going to die, describing the portents in the sky indicating that something terrible is about to happen. And then he writes, “Oh, by the way, this is the story of how he was conceived.” Meaning, “Now that you understand the greatness of Augustus’ life, you’re ready to believe the story of his birth. How could a guy this important simply have been conceived because his parents, Atia and Octavius, drank too much wine? There had to be a god involved.”

And yet Matthew and Luke tell their birth stories of Jesus earlier in their gospels.

Yes, and that’s because they’re writing late in the game. Jesus died in about the year 30, and Matthew and Luke are writing in the late 80s, some 50 years later. And there’s not a hint anywhere of the existence of those birth stories in the intervening years. Of course, everyone knows about Mary and Joseph and Jesus. They know Jesus is from Nazareth. But there’s not a hint of those birth stories anywhere before the late 80s. So Matthew and Luke don’t put Jesus’ birth stories at the end of their gospels, because they’re writing them at the end of the first Christian century.

Right, because Paul, who wrote in the 50s, doesn’t give a birth story of Jesus, nor does Mark, the earliest gospel, written in the late 60s.

That’s right, and when we finally do get birth stories, from Matthew and Luke, the general consensus among scholars is that the two writers don’t know each other’s accounts, which is exactly what we’d expect. Because you have two different gospels, which really have little data that they agree on, and these are not unimportant points, by the way. And the most important point is that Jesus is the Messiah they expected, the just king. Now, they both interpret that in very contemporary terms. Matthew experiences the Messiah as the king of the Jews, the same title that will appear on his cross. Luke, as we said, experiences the Messiah as the Lord, Savior, and bringer of peace. So they kind of update that message for their generations.

And they agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, because that’s the traditional site where King David was born. It doesn’t mean that if he wasn’t born in Bethlehem he couldn’t be the Messiah, but it would be like me saying, “My trouble with Barack Obama is that he thinks he was born in a log cabin.” And we’d know immediately that a connection between Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln is being made. “Born in a log cabin” equals “Abraham Lincoln.” Similarly, “born in Bethlehem” equals “David” equals “Messiah.”

But if people could readily accept, as parable, the statement that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, why does Luke give us an elaborate story about a census ordered by Caesar that forces Joseph and Mary to leave Nazareth for Bethlehem? Why not skip the census story, as Matthew does, and simply tell us Joseph and Mary were already living in Bethlehem when Jesus was born?

Matthew and Luke both have a problem. What they both know, as did everyone who knew about Jesus back then, was that his name was Jesus of Nazareth. But they both want to have him born in Bethlehem, to correspond parabolically with the earlier tradition about David. I don’t think Jesus was actually born in Bethlehem. I think he was born in Nazareth. But as Matthew sees it, the holy family is living in Bethlehem. There’s nothing about Nazareth until they go there after the flight to Egypt. They go to Egypt to escape the slaughter of the innocents, after which then return, only to realize that Archelaus was just as bad [as his father, Herod the Great]. So they move on to Nazareth. That’s Matthew’s explanation of how Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem.

Luke starts the other way around. He presumes that the family was living in Nazareth, and he has to get them to Bethlehem. And his way of doing that is what I would call factually wrong, but symbolically right. He says that Caesar Augustus has proclaimed a census for the whole world. Factually, that’s so absurdly wrong that I don’t believe that Luke, who really knows the Roman world, means that literally. Because he would know that the Romans only conducted a census whenever they took over direct control of a new province, and they did that for taxation purposes. So in a sense, yes, Augustus is trying to count the whole world, and to tax the whole world, but nobody ever ran a census of the entire world at one time.

And Rome’s censuses never required a mass migration in which everyone had to return to their ancestral home, as Luke claims.

No, in fact it was just the opposite. Not only did Rome not require mass migration, but we actually know from very good records that they had stern laws forbidding people from leaving where they currently lived and worked during a census. And everyone knew in advance when a census was going to take place; they never happened unexpectedly. So, say I lived in Oxyrhynchus but was visiting Alexandria when a census was about to happen. It would be my responsibility, as head of the household, to get back home to make sure everyone was counted properly, because they conducted censuses according to families. If for some reason I stayed in Alexandria, I could get in big trouble.

So Luke’s suggestion that people went back to their ancestral home—apart from the fact it would be impossible for most people to know where that was—would have created a bureaucratic nightmare. And on top that, Mary was a pregnant woman about to deliver. If they tried to go from Nazareth to Bethlehem on the back of a donkey, she probably would have given birth somewhere in Samaria.

So the census is a nifty literary device. What does Luke get out of it?

Well, apart from showing off a little bit of historical knowledge, which Luke likes to do, it really locates Jesus in the imperial world of his time. It’s like, well, Caesar Augustus is running the world, so before we even get to this story of Jesus, I’m going to mention him. Then when I refer to the titles “Lord,” and “savior” and “bringer of peace,” the audience couldn’t possibly miss my point that Jesus, not Augustus, is the true Son of God. There were easier ways Luke could have gotten Jesus to Bethlehem without going into all that history, and gotten it so wrong.

So Luke’s reference to a census dramatizes that Jesus was born under Roman rule and Roman bureaucracy, the point of which was to optimize Roman taxation.

Exactly. And I think Luke likes the irony that Jesus, the Messiah, winds up born in Bethlehem, the city of David, specifically because Augustus’ census sends him there.

Matthew and Luke give different genealogies for Jesus. In Matthew, Jesus descends from David through Solomon—a king—and Luke traces Jesus from David through Nathan—a prophet. Why is that significant?

The difference demonstrates that Matthew and Luke are doing something other than giving historical, genetic information. And the people who put these two stories together in the New Testament were utterly aware of that. As you just said, Matthew and Luke don’t even agree on who Jesus’ grandfather was—they give different names for Joseph’s father. And only in the post-Enlightenment world is this an issue: “Oh, they don’t know what they’re talking about. These genealogies are filled with ridiculous mistakes.”

The purpose of an ancient genealogy was to establish the person’s pedigree. The genealogies of Jesus are totally artificial and parabolic, just as was Augustus’ claim that he was descended from exiles who fled the Trojan war and settled in Italy to found the Julian line. This claim gives Augustus a 1,000-year-old pedigree. But both Matthew and Luke do him one better. They give Jesus a pedigree that goes back, according to their understanding of time, almost 2,000 years. And Luke traces Jesus back to Adam, who was born of God without a woman, which goes back, say, 4,000 years in their categorization. So to people who believe Augustus is a big deal, that says, “gotcha!”

The issue of divine conception and virgin births throughout antiquity—from the Hebrew Scriptures through Roman history and up to Jesus and Mary—is complicated. But as you and Marcus Borg note, the heart of the matter is the theology and destiny of the child, rather than the biology of the mother.

In the Jewish tradition, the predestined child was known to be predestined because it was usually born to aged and infertile parents. That’s a very public miracle, if you will, because if two 90-year-olds could produce a child, and at least the doctor and nurses see it happening, then you can’t argue that’s not a miracle. And it’s actually a safer miracle to claim than a virgin birth—for which you can only take the mother’s word. On the other hand, in the Greco-Roman tradition, divine conception is always the result of divine intercourse—either a human male impregnating a goddess, or a god impregnating a human female.

Now, the New Testament refers to a virginal conception—and I use that term very carefully, rather than virgin birth, which we very often use as a shorthand. There’s no reference in the New Testament to a “virgin birth.” That’s a Roman Catholic doctrine, for which the analogy is, as Thomas Aquinas said, “like light coming through glass.” Biologically, that means Jesus was born without breaking the hymen of Mary. Nor does virginal conception have anything to do with immaculate conception, which is a Roman Catholic doctrine saying that Mary was born without original sin. Any time the media equates virginal conception with immaculate conception, they’re making a bad mistake, because it suggests that sex is a stain of some sort.

The New Testament claims that Jesus was not conceived by any form of intercourse, human or divine. And the only way you could read that in the ancient world, where people believed that wonderful things could happen, is, “Wow, this kid is really unique. He’s more special than Augustus, whose mother was impregnated by Apollo!”

Why was virginal conception a bigger deal than divine conception?

Because you’re dealing with the Jewish God who created the world by command, “Let it be,” and not by getting down there and working. And this is what God did with Mary, who said, “Let it be done unto me according to thy Word.” In a way, virginal conception is a one-upmanship over any divine or predestined child that either the Jewish or Greco-Roman traditions had ever known.

Because it puts the birth of Jesus on par with the creation of the world…

It really does. So the theology of Jesus’ birth is profound. Now, some would ask, “Do you think people back then took that claim literally?” To which I’d say, I don’t have a clue, because in a pre-Enlightenment world, when it was really believed by everyone that extraordinary things could happen, I think people were able to walk carefully between what you and I want to know is literal or metaphorical, parabolic or historical.

You and Marcus Borg characterize the concern over factuality as distinctly modern. So this literalist insistence that if the Bible isn’t factual, then it isn’t true—the ancients never thought in those terms.

No, they didn’t. But then some people would say, “You mean they didn’t really know the difference between facts and parables?” Well, of course they did. I doubt that if the ancients read Aesop’s fables, they’d think that animals could literally speak to each other. But if you told them about the smart little mouse that outwitted the big bear—I think they’d understand the message.

Yeah, nowhere in the gospels does anyone stop Jesus mid-parable and question whether a farmer really planted a fig tree that bore no fruit, or what the farmer’s name was, or where he lived.

I think some people get hung up on questions of factuality because it saves them from addressing the real question, which is “What does the story mean?” Say Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, and suddenly everyone in the crowd starts arguing, “Hey, did that really happen?” And someone says, “Sure, I’ve traveled that road lots of times, and it’s really dangerous, and I’ve seen a donkey and an inn down there.” If the argument stays there, it has carefully avoided the part where Jesus says, “OK, now go forth and do likewise.” What does that mean—that if I find my enemy in a ditch, I’m supposed to go and help him?

And as far as factuality is concerned, let’s not forget: Matthew and Luke don’t provide any historical data except for a few obvious facts—that Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and Herod actually existed. Now, let’s get over that and say, if you have no other data, and you have to make up these stories, why did you make them up this way? And that’s a real question, because if a story is all about data, then it’s just providing facts. But if you’re making the story up, then the issue becomes why—what’s the story’s purpose?

You distinguish the ancients’ “taken-for-granted literalism” from today’s “conscious literalism.” It’s interesting to think that today’s literalists are really a post-Enlightenment phenomenon, especially when they consider themselves such kindred spirits with Jesus’ actual followers.

It’s kind of sad. I was arguing with [Bishop N.T.] Wright once, and he said, “You’re just post-Enlightenment.” And I said that it’s really not about being post-Enlightenment, which of course I am. It’s about the fact that I am aware that I am reading pre-Enlightenment people. And when I am reading pre-Enlightenment people, I have to remind myself that they accepted that a child could be born of a god and a human mother. Therefore, when I read a story about such a child, I have to ask, what is the claim being made for this child? What’s his curriculum vitae? What does his resume say? The god Asclepius invented healing—that’s important. Dionysius invented wine. OK, I can see why they both got divinized. Nobody gets divinized for nothing. You could say you don’t think Asclepius was divine, but in the ancient world what you meant by that was that you don’t really think healing is important. Or you could say, I think beer is more important than wine, so I don’t think Dionysius was really divine.

Last year’s film “The Nativity Story” wasn’t a big hit with the critics. One reviewer called it “stillborn,” and another noted that even the nuns at the screening were “shifting uncomfortably in their wimples.” Did you see it?

I didn’t see it. I mean, I really couldn’t watch it. It would be terribly hard to pull off a film about Jesus’ birth, because what would there be to see? The tendency in Hollywood would be to go with Matthew’s account because at least there you have the slaughter of the innocents, which you might get some mileage out of. But how can you dramatize a parable like that without making an audience giggle?

Or fall asleep. Maybe that’s why Mel Gibson just went straight to the end of the story.

And it’s not that Gibson just went straight to the end of the story. He went right to the most brutal part of the end of the story. He didn’t even cover the final week in the life of Jesus, which Marcus and I examined in our book, “The Last Week.” Now, you really could make a great movie based on our book because it raises the whole question of whether the authorities are going to be able to get Jesus away from the crowd. As long as the crowd is Jesus’ protective screen, they can’t get him without causing a riot. Even though we know how it’s going to end, you really could make a story out of it—one that takes Mark’s account seriously. Here, Jesus goes up to the temple to make a double protestation, and he’s protected by his crowd. And the question the authorities ask is, “Can we get him?”

For years, Paul Verhoeven, who directed films like “Robo Cop,” “Basic Instinct,” and “Showgirls,” was a member of the Jesus Seminar, and he was researching a film he wanted to make about the historical Jesus. Have you heard anything more about that project?

Verhoeven and I haven’t been in touch for a while, and I don’t know anything more about the film, or whether he’s even still working on it. I understand he just made another movie in Holland that’s set during the war, so he may even be living back in the Netherlands now. I don’t know.

When I asked you about Verhoeven’s Jesus film last year, you mentioned you were surprised to finally learn the direction he wanted to take it.

Yeah. Basically his whole idea was that Jesus had his conflict at the temple early in his ministry, not at the end, and for the rest of the story he’s running from the authorities, like Harrison Ford in “The Fugitive.”

So he envisioned a thriller, an action film.

I think so—a pursuit movie in which Jesus is the odd man out. Verhoeven once told me that Jesus preached “Blessed are the poor” because he himself was poor, and he was poor because he was on the run. But I suggested to him that a great movie could be made by simply using the Rashomon effect with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, collapsing their four visions and having them interplay with each other. And Verhoeven wrote back saying that, yeah, that’d be very interesting.

By “Rashomon,” you mean the 1950s Kurosawa film?

Yes. In the film, Kurosawa tells the story about a Japanese samurai and his wife who travel through a forest, where he gets killed and she gets raped. And it’s told in flashbacks from the points of view of four witnesses: the wife; a bandit; the dead samurai, who tells his side through a medium; and a peasant who was hiding in a bush. The film is so subtly done that at first you think the four versions form a single, coherent story, but eventually you realize you’re getting four different interwoven accounts.

Did the similarities between this film and the four gospels strike you immediately?

No. I first saw the film at an art house when I was a student in Dublin in 1958, and it was only years and years later that I saw the connection.

Do you plan to attend mass this Christmas?

My wife and I will spend Christmas with her grandchildren this year, and Aubrey, who’s now 11, asked me if we’d go to mass with her this Christmas and I said, “Of course.” Whatever 11-year-old grandchildren ask for, they get.

What does the Christmas story mean for you today?

Lately, both liberals and conservatives have been saying that America is the new Roman Empire. Liberals have been saying it as a gibe, and conservatives have been proclaiming it quite proudly. This underlines for me the permanent challenge of Christmas, and makes it particularly acute at the moment. If you are a Christian, and the old Roman Empire crucified your Lord, well, what does it feel like to live in the new Roman Empire? And what can you do about it?

When I wrote about the Roman Empire when I first began my work, I was not drawing parallels at all to the American Empire. It was only in the 1990s that I began to wonder if perhaps globalization might be a sophisticated, postmodern form of Roman imperialization. And then I was appalled when people like pundit Charles Krauthammer came out of the closest gloating, “We’re an Empire!” I thought, “OK, it’s not just a liberal gibe. It’s a destiny.”

Then two things occurred to me. First, I don’t think we’re as good as the Roman Empire. By that I don’t mean we’re more brutal, but rather that we’re not as dedicated and efficient as the Roman Empire was. Our best and our brightest from Harvard and Yale are not lining up to go serve in our colonies. Who wants to serve in Afghanistan? It’s relatively easy to conquer an empire; the hard part is to run one. You can’t run an empire without the will to do it right.

But the more serious issue is that every Christmas we put up our trees and get out our ornaments and trot out tidings of peace on Earth. Then, after a week or so, we take down our trees and put away our ornaments, and peace on Earth goes back into storage until the following year. And it seems that the escalatory violence that is such a part of our normalcy is endangering the human species and our world more and more. So what appeared in the sky above Bethlehem that first Christmas 2,000 years ago was an early, distant warning that said, you can never achieve peace on Earth through victory—only through justice. For me, that’s the enduring message of the Christmas story.

 

Comment on this article here. Related reading:

* A review of "In Search of Paul," by John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed.
* A review of "The Last Week," by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan.
* An
interview with Bart Ehrman on the historical Jesus.

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John D. Spalding is the editor of SoMAreview.com, and he is writing a book about daily life in first-century Palestine. His last piece was for SoMA was A Doubter on a Mission From God.

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The New, Updated Gospel of Mark
By Stephanie Hunt
In South Carolina, Vacation Bible School gets Sanforized.

July 16, 2009

Why Is a Spiritual Advisor Like a Lay's Potato Chip?
By Mary Beth Crain
Answer: Betcha Can't Have Just One!

December 24, 2008

Christmas Eve Blues
By Ondine Galsworth
Your best friend is dead. Your mother is bi-polar. And you've lived your life as a fake Catholic. Where do you go from here?

December 23, 2008

Christmas Gifts of Long Ago
By Mary Beth Crain
What would it be like if today's techno-spoiled kids were forced to have a good old-fashioned Victorian Christmas?

November 25, 2008

Giving Thanks in Thankless Times
By Mary Beth Crain
In times of fear and despair, gratitude is sometimes all we've got left.

November 16, 2008

Seeing Red
By Stephanie Hunt
Obama's presidential victory is a huge step forward for our nation. But in the Carolinas, it's still North versus South.

October 29, 2008

Ghost Writer
By Mary Beth Crain
Our senior editor talks about her new book, "Haunted U.S. Battelfields," the perfect read for a creepy and kooky, mysterious and spooky, altogether ooky All Hallows Eve.

October 26, 2008

The Poison Seeds Spread by Dying Congregations
By Matthew Streib
Just as a certain presidential candidate has gone to the extremes of negativity in a desperate attempt to keep his campaign alive, so parallels can be seen on the religious front.

October 11, 2008

Palin Watch V: Troopergate, Poopergate!
By Mary Beth Crain
Confronted with a scathing indictment of abuse of power, Governor Palin thumbs her nose at the "Troopergate" report.

October 4, 2008

Palin Watch IV: Post-Debate Musings
By Mary Beth Crain
This hockey mom belongs in the penalty box.

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