Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
Everyone loves a good origin story—or a bad one, for that matter—and boy does Jesus get his.
It's called Christmas. Ever heard of it?
Origin stories were maybe even a bigger deal back in the day. Who your dad was and any crazy stuff that happened at your birth were signs of who you were destined to become. So the attention Luke gives to all of the details of Jesus's birth is in keeping with other ancient literature.
Examples? How about Alexander the Great or Romulus and Remus? Oh, and in one story a fiery penis floats through the air and impregnates the mother of a son destined to be king. But we'll talk about that that some other time.
What Do Luke, Dr. Seuss, and Charles Dickens Have in Common?
But Luke is still responsible for a lot of what we consider Christmasy today.
His focus falls on a particular set of Christmastime symbols: Mary, the inn that has no available rooms, the manger, swaddling clothes, the shepherds, Simeon, and Anna. No doubt you've seen a manger at Christmastime, and guess what? It's distinctively and exclusively Lukan. Although, full disclosure: Matthew's wise men are usually woven in along with other good-sense embellishments—sheep, anyone?—just for kicks.
Interpreting Your Christmas Cards
We dare you to count how many Christmas cards you get this year that declare peace on earth. Guess what? Luke is responsible for that one, too. These words are part of the announcement delivered to the shepherds by a whole army of heavenly beings: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace" (2:14 KJV).
Some of your cards might add the second part of this same verse: "good will toward men" (KJV). Those of you who've got your trusty NRSV, though, will instead get "and on earth peace among those whom he favors" (2:14). Yowza—that's quite a discrepancy.
The difference comes down to the presence or absence of a single letter in Greek in the different manuscripts. Here are a few good arguments for accepting the text followed by the NRSV:
- Several big-league manuscripts representing a diversity of text types record the reading, "among those whom he favors."
- This reading is also more difficult theologically, and in textual criticism the more difficult reading is more likely the earlier reading. After all, why would a later scribe introduce the more difficult theological concept?
- Parallels to the phrase "those whom he favors" appear in the almost-contemporary Dead Sea Scrolls. There, the words are describing an elite loved-by-God group.
Moral of the story? Choose your Christmas cards carefully.