Originality vs. Tradition: A Brief Note on Christmas

23 12 2006

I am reminded of a scene in the Hall of Fire, the chamber of Elvish music and meditation in Tolkien’s Rivendell. After having composed and sung a lay to Eärendil, the Elven mariner who, in the First Age, helped overthrow the forces of Morgoth, Bilbo asks Frodo if he can tell which parts were composed by him and which by Aragorn:

“I am not going to try and guess,” said Frodo smiling.
“You needn’t,” said Bilbo. “As a matter of fact it was all mine. Except that Aragorn insisted on putting in a green stone. He seemed to think it important. I don’t know why. Otherwise he obviously thought the whole thing rather above my head, and he said that if I had the cheek to make verses about Eärendil in the house of Elrond, it was my affair. I suppose he was right.”

[FotR, “Many Meetings”]

I am reminded of this because if I, as a Jew who lacks a Christian education, should wish to speak about Christmas – and post my opinions on internet, of all places – then that is my affair. Nonetheless, as ignorant as I may be, the following is the result of my thoughts over the last few days.

The Gospel of Matthew commences with an enigma. We are told that Jesus is descended directly from King David, in unbroken patrilineal descent over the course of some twenty-eight generations. This is an important claim for, in the ancient world as well as now, Jews place(d) a great deal of faith in the notion that their messiah would be of David’s lineage. Just as God was held to have promised an everlasting reign to the descendants of Judah (Gen 49:10), so was that promise to be fulfilled in the everlasting dominion of the Judean messiah. Until now, Matthew is precisely what one might expect: Jewish. But, almost as if to alter immediately the nature of his claims regarding Jesus, the author of Matthew’s Gospel (for not everybody believes that it was consistently Matthew) goes on to relate a most miraculous event. Mary, who had never had intercourse with Joseph, becomes pregnant by the holy spirit (Heb: רוח הקודש) and conceives the infant Jesus. This is more than passing strange.

Aside from the fact that such demigods, if such we should take Jesus to be, are rare (to say the least) within the Jewish tradition, this eradicates the previous Davidic claim. Jesus cannot be descended from David if he is not related to Joseph, and if Jesus is descended from David then it is absurd to suggest that Mary was a virgin. Can these two origin stories be reconciled with one another? Or must one argue in favour of two authors: one Greek and one Jewish? Until now, I had always assumed the latter. Clearly, one tradition is the Jewish tradition (that which claims Davidic descent) while the other is… well, Greek. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course; some of my best friends are pagans.

In my ongoing quest to find more reading material relating to my up-and-coming Masters in English Literature, I inadvertently stumbled across a fascinating text: Y. Sherwood (ed.), Derrida’s Bible: Reading a Page of Scripture with a Little Help from Derrida (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004). Comprising some eighteen essays on the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, contributors to this neat little volume have sought to analyse the Biblical narratives with the aid of Derrida’s personal brand of literary critique. One of these essays, entitled “Between Genealogy and Virgin Birth: Origin and Originality in Matthew” (by L. Danes) deals with this precise issue.

Danes raises some interesting points, not least is the association that may be raised between these two origin stories and the apparantly disharmonious relationship between the two creation stories at the beginning of Genesis. Just as the first creation story is general and the second particularistic, so too might Matthew have held up a glass and written his particularistic origin story prior to the general one. This is a cute idea (I do not mean to disparage it), but a simple one. The irreconcilability of the two creation stories at the beginning of Genesis is best resolved by positing two different texts; anything more accommodating than that smacks of exegesis. I can understand a Christian wishing to expound upon Matthew in such a fashion in order to make the text appear a little more deliberate than it does, but I will not necessarily buy into those notions myself.

And yet, in thinking this, I find myself echoing much of the scholarship upon the Hebrew Bible with which I do not agree. Even were one to posit that Genesis 1 and 2 comprised two different sources (as I might still be prone to believe in relation to Matthew 1), there was still one individual who was ultimately responsible for having thrust them together in a particular fashion. As Fishbane demonstrated within his brilliant Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel, this redactor was masterful indeed. Rather than simply splicing two stories in a way that made them jolt each other the least, this individual also added his own touches here and there in order to make the overall composition work. Rather than just being a ‘redactor’, this person was also an ‘author’ in the highest sense. And, just as I seek to appreciate their work relating to the Hebrew Bible, so too must I make a concerted effort to do the same in relation to my appreciation of the Gospels.

So, so much for the notion that Matthew 1 was simply designed to ‘mirror’ Genesis 1 and 2; how can we make the two stories within Matthew 1 work? According to Danes, this is the very issue that lies at the heart of all origin stories. On the one hand, they must be heir to particular traditions that can ground them within some type of orthodoxy; on the other, they must be entirely original or else they lose the name of ‘origin’. This curious dialectic is the very backbone of Matthew’s text, for Jesus must be both a Jewish messiah and the son of God at the same time. Being a Jew would make Jesus heir to the Hebrew Bible and, more contemporarily, the disputes between rival sectarian factions; being the messiah must make him specifically a descendant of a particular king. Being the son of God, well that should mean that Jesus passes and transcends the disputes between factions and the accidents of genealogy. And so far as the Hebrew Bible is concerned, Jesus cannot be heir to a book that he is presumed to have written.

In order to deal with this peculiar problem, Matthew(‘s redactor) simply incorporated two opposing stories that, while irreconcilable with one another, nonetheless encapsulate this particular issue perfectly. They present us with a paradox of sorts, within which the belief in either one renders belief in the other moot. A believing Christian cannot but choose one; they must choose both. Hence the paradox that serves as the birth of their religion.

Am I happy with this explanation? Surprisingly (perhaps), yes. To me, in many ways, this is the very nature of Christmas itself. Designed to celebrate the birth of Jesus, nobody (save certain fundamentalists) actually believes that it does. Jesus was not born on a Hebrew date corresponding to the 25th of December and, lest anybody should like to assume that he was, this date had already been commemorated by the Romans for Deus Sol Invictus. Ironic, perhaps, that the worship of the sun should have become the worship of the Son.

When was Jesus really born? Theories abound but, ultimately, such things really do not matter. In the dichotomy of particular vs. general, the general won out. Jesus lost his status of demigod and assumed the mantle of absolute divinity. In that light, the fact that he was apparantly descended from King David is less of a fortunate coincidence and more of an orchestrated plan. The fact that December 25th had already been celebrated as a pagan festivity became less of a thorn in the side of Christianity and more of an indication that, even prior to his birth, Jesus was in charge. Jesus might have been really born at any time, but Christmas is when Jesus (the idea of Jesus; Jesus the God) was born.

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3 responses

24 12 2006
Conrad

“Ironic, perhaps, that the worship of the sun should have become the worship of the Son.”

Ironic, or appropriate? Or ironically appropriate?

Myself, I like the idea of the Gospels as a sort of realist satire on mythography and theological abstraction. Frye talks a bit about Christ as an essentially ironic figure, in a very particular meaning of ironic, as an inversion of type.

27 12 2006
ha-historion

Very interesting. Paulian Christianity did incorporate many pagan ideas and customs in his new brand of the faith.

29 12 2006
Jen

heh, I was just thinking about this myself the other day. It seems that the essence of Christianity is the ability to believe impossible concepts (I would say doublethink if it weren’t for the unfortunate connotations). The whole idea of the Trinity; being mortal and divine at the same time; etc

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