Tuesday, 26 December 2017


After listening to the usual selection of Christmas carols and readings, I thought it would be interesting to investigate how much of all these was based upon the actual Gospel accounts, and how much was tradition accumulated since.
  St. Mark's Gospel, which is generally reckoned to be the earliest, does not mention the Nativity at all, but instead opens with Jesus meeting John the Baptist. St. John's Gospel, which is quite unlike the others in general character, equally ignores the Nativity. Instead John opens with the mighty passage (traditionally read at the conclusion of the service by the senior man present), starting "In the beginning was the Word", which seems to me to resonate more of Neoplatonism or Gnosticism than of simple Christianity. This leaves us with just Matthew and Luke to describe the Nativity; and they tell completely different stories. Their stories have been combined in Christmas readings, but certain parts are simply omitted. It is often pointed out, of course, that neither Matthew nor Luke give us any reason to think that the Nativity took place in late December. But the winter solstice is an obvious time of year for the God-King to be born. 

   Luke's acount of the nativity is best known. He was a gifted story-teller, and it is from Luke that we have the appearance of the Angel Gabriel to Mary, the jorney to Bethlehem for the census, the birth in a manger, "Because there was no room at the inn", and the shepherds summoned by an angel to worship the baby Jesus. But Luke's full account is actually much more complex, with other, less familiar, details.
   Luke begins with the appearance of the angel Gabriel to Zecheriah, a priest. He and his wife Elizabeth, described as an elderly couple, have no children, but Gabriel announces that Elizabeth will soon bear a child: the future John the Baptist. Only after this, "in the sixth month", does Gabriel appear to Mary in the well-known scene where the future birth of Jesus Christ is announced. Mary then goes to meet Elizabeth, who is her cousin, and together they sing praises to God. The chapter end with the birth of John, which inspires a prophecy from Zecheriah.
   It is in Book 2 that we have the "decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed", Jospeh and Mary's journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the baby in the manger, and the coming of the shepherds. Luke then tells us that eight days later the infant Jesus was circumcised, and then presented in the Temple, with an appropriate sacrifice (a pair of turtle doves or young pigeons was usual, we are told); and the appearance of the baby inspires two pious old folks, Simeon and Anna, to utter prophesies. In Book three we pass to the work of John the Baptist and the bginning of Christ's ministry. Later in the chapter we have a genealogy of Jesus: son to father, through David, Abraham and Noah, all the way to Adam.     

St. Matthew opens with a genealogy, father to son, from Abraham to Joseph, which is completely different from Luke's. There is not even an agreement on the name of Joseph's father! (In any case, we might wonder what the point of these genealogies is, since Luke and Matthew both insist that Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus. *See footnote). Matthew's story of the nativity involves the wicked King Herod, the wise men with their gifts, and the flight into Egypt to escape the slaughter of the children. But Matthew begins with Joseph, whilst betrothed to Mary, realising that she is pregnant, and deciding to end the marriage contract. He is deterred from this when an angel (not named) appears to him in a dream, and tells him that the child has been conceived by the Holy Spirit, in accordance with a prophecy.
   Chapter two begins with the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem (with no mention of a manger, or reason for the family being there), and the appearance of the wise men (the Magi) to King Herod. They seek the newborn King of the Jews, for they have "seen his star in the East". Herod calls his scholars, who tell him that, according to a prophecy, the Christ child will be born in Bethlehem. The wise men go there, and the star stops over the place of birth. They present their famous and symbolic gifts; but are then warned in a dream not to return to Herod, and make their way home. Next, Joseph is warned, once again in a dream, to flee with the Holy Family to Egypt, thus escaping Herod's enraged massacre of all the babies in Bethlehem. It is only after Herod's death that Joseph is told (yet another dream) that it is now safe to return, and he goes to live, not in Judea, but in Nazareth; despite to suggestion that he had previously lived there.        In chapter three we pass to John the Baptist and the start of Christ's ministry. It is a little odd that Luke, who is believed to be a Greek, mentions Jesus's circumcision and presentation in the Temple; whereas Matthew, who is supposed to be a Jew, does not. Or perhaps to a Jew they were too obvious to be worth mentioning? 
It can be seen that these two accounts have practically nothing in common save for two points: firstly that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and secondly, that he grew up in Nazareth, in Galilee, which is a long distance away to the north. (One way of accounting for the obvious discrepancies is the tradition that the Magi only arrived in Bethlehem several days after the birth, hence "the twelve days of Christmas")  Also, the gospel accounts, especially Matthew's, have been much embroidered by later additions. He does not even tell us how many wise men there were: the tradition that they were is only a deduction from the fact that they presented three gifts. At no point are they called Kings: the New English Bible calls the astrologers! In the Middle Ages they were provided with names, and sometimes they were depicted as, respectively, a European, an Arab and a Negro, to symbolise the three continents of Europe, Asia and Africa cknowledging Christ. And since Matthew nowhere mentions a stable or a manger, paintings showing magnificently-dressed monarchs with vast trains of attendants kneeling before the infant Jesus in a rickety old stable, although gorgeous and dramatic, lack any Biblical basis. 
Image result for The-magi Nor, for that matter, is there any basis for the charming pictures of an ox and an ass looking down on the baby Jesus: these animals are nowhere mentioned.
   We are told practically nothing about Joseph, except that he is descended from King David (by two incompatible genealogies). The tradition that he was much older than Mary is no more than a tradition; nor is there any reference in the nativity stories to him being a carpenter. But there is no reason why Jesus should not himself have been a carpenter before embarking on his ministry: it was quite common in the Jewish world for rabbis to come from humble origins and support themselves by everyday trades.

Both Matthew and Luke make an attempt to place a date on the nativity. King Herod plays an important part in Matthew's story, and Luke also places the story of Zechariah in the reign of Herod; though he confuses the picture by putting the census "when Quirinius was governor of Syria", which suggests a date as late as AD 6. He then says Jesus began his ministry "in the fifteenth year of the Emperor Tiberius": that is, AD 28 or 29. But this presents another problem, because in the Roman dating Herod died in 4 BC! This difficulty came to be realised in later centuries, which is why Bishop Ussher famously dated the creation of the world in 4004 BC rather than simply 4000; in other words, four thousand years before the birth of Christ. 

When examining these different accounts, we should bear in mind the lack of any surviving independent evidence. Very few documents survive from the Ancient World, and states then were not run bureaucratically: they did not compile information just for its own sake. Historians in Greek and Roman times did not approach their work with the degree of rigorous research and evaluation that would be expected of a modern PhD thesis. The great Greek historian Thucydides tells us that he did not attempt accurate reporting of speeches, but instead tried "to have speakers say what, im my opinion, was called for by each situation".  As R. G. Collingwood put it, "We start from the wrong premise by assuming that Greeks and Romans looked upon the study and writing of history essentially as we do". The same assessment can be made of the gospel writers.         

A Jewish friend once told me that, for an orthodox Jew, it was a horribly blasphemous thought that God should come down to earth and beget a child on a human woman. The Greek and Roman gods, of course, were doing this all the time. 
   I remember a radio discussion about the Nativity between A. N. Wilson and a bishop. Wilson asked, "Look here, bishop: do you believe these things actually happened?" The bishop started talking about allegory and metaphor, but Wilson cut him short, saying, "Then you don't!" To my mind, Wilson had easily won this exchange, yet the studio audience gave much greater applause to the bishop! 

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

A Happy Christmas to all!


Mary with the infant Jesus and John the Baptist, by Raphael. The iconography on pictures like this is always standard. Mary, as ever, wears a red dress and a bue cloak. John the Baptist always carries a cross with a very long shaft and short cross-piece. As an adult, he would have dishevelled hair and beard, and would wear a tunic of animal-skin. If Jesus is on the picture, John will point at him; otherwise he will point heavenwards.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Grinshill under snow

We've had hardly any snow here in north Shropshire for many years, but this changed dramatically at the weekend. We climbed to the top of Grinshill and were rewarded with these views, looking towards the Wrekin, Shrewsbury and the road to Wales.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Tolkien's Last Story

When  "The Lord of the Rings" was finally published in 1955, J.R.R. Tolkien was already sixty-three years old. With the help of enthusiastic endorsements from the likes of C.S. Lewis and W.H. Auden, the enormous work was an immediate success, and really took off when Ace Books put out an unauthorised paperback edition in the U.S.A. in 1965. Tolkien, who had always been worried about money, unexpectedly found himself a rich man, and was able to retire from his Oxford professorship in 1959.
    His publishers, Allen and Unwin, were naturally eager for more books from him; partcularly the "Simarillion", which recounted the earlier history of Middle Earth, which Tolkien had been working on spasmodically ever since the First World War; but this was to prove elusive. Tolkien had always been a productive but disorganised writer: he would begin a story or a long poem only to become dissatisfied with it and start again, perhaps several times. His papers therefore included many different drafts of the same story, often with the names of the characters changed. Two of the central stories in the "Silmarillion" cycle, "The Lay of the Children of Hurin" and "The Lay of Leithian" (about Beren and Luthien) were even recast as poems; the first in Saxon-style alliterative verse, the second as rhymed couplets, and neither had been completed! One suspects that "The Lord of the Rings" would have fared no better without the encouragement of C. S. Lewis and the other Inklings: certainly early drafts of the book are very different from what eventually emerged. 
   Reducing the mass of "Silmarillion" drafts into a single coherent story would clearly take a great deal of work, and for the moment his publishers had to be content with two minor works: "The Adventures of Tom Bombadil" (1962), an anthology of poems, and "Tree and Leaf" (1964), a combination of the text of a lecture on fairy stories, and a short story, "Leaf by Niggle". Most of the material in these had originally been written much earlier.
   Meanwhile Tolkien was subject to all manner of distractions. He began to receive enormous quantities of letters from fans, and for a while tried to reply to them all, often at considerable length. He worked on his translation of the great mediaeval poem, "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight", which was only published after his death. He was badly shaken by the death of C. S. Lewis in 1963, and increasingly worried by the deteriorating health of his wife, Edith. They celebrated their Golden Wedding in 1966, in an occasion made memorable by the performance of "The Road Goes Ever On", a setting to music of Tolkien's poems, with the composer Donald Swann at the piano. Then in 1968 they left Oxford and retired to Bournemouth, where Tolkien felt increasingly lonely and cut off from his intellectual roots. He commented, "Find it impossible to work - beginning to feel old and the fire dying down". Edith died in 1971.

Unexpectedly in early 1965 he was asked by an American publisher to write a preface to a reissue of a story by the late-Victorian fantasy writer George MacDonald. Tolkien did not share Lewis's enthusiasm for MacDonald's writings, but he took up the offer, and began by explaining the notion of Fairy; not as a twee little lady with wings and a diaphonous dress, but as something strange and powerful, which may perhaps be glimpsed in a tale. To illustrate the point, he would tell the following story.... The story grew until it became "Smith of Wootton Major", the last story he ever wrote, which was published in 1967. The preface to George MacDonald's book was never completed.

"Smith of Wootton Major" is a very short book. Even with the full-page illustrations it runs to just over 60 pages. The setting, as with Tolkien's earlier work, "Farmer Giles of Ham", is a vaguely-defined mediaeval England. The gist of the story is how the central figure, who is never given any name other than Smith, was as a boy given a token, a star, which enables him to visit the land of Faery (Tolkien's preferred spelling). He travels there many times, and sees a variety of strange, wonderful and sometimes terrifying things, most of which he fails to understand. Eventually after almost fifty years he is obliged to give up the star so it can be passed on, and has to settle down to a mundane life as the village blacksmith.
   Tolkien always maintained that he disliked allegory in stories, but he acknowledged an allegorical element here, with religious obsevation in Wootton Major being reduced to just regular feasting. It is also clearly an autobiographical tale, by an old man who knows his creative powers are waning (Smith can no longer visit Faery once he has given back the star). It also illustrates Tolkien's fundamentally pessimistic attitude towards the modern world: the only other significant character in the story is Noakes, the village cook, who is vain, greedy, ignorant and refuses to believe in Faery at all.

After Edith's death, Tolkien retuned to Oxford, but was unable to make much progress in sorting out the "Silmarillion". He died in 1973, and it was left to his son, Christopher, to publish his own selection of the "Silmarillion" stories in 1977.