Wednesday, December 13, 2006

It Ain't Necessarily So

Here we go again:

Sometime around the beginning of the Common Era, a nice Jewish girl comes to her fiancé with a problem. She is pregnant; he is not the father. The groom-to-be is understandably enraged. In his world, almost nothing brings more shame on a man and his family than a broken promise of virginity. Her explanation, that the baby was conceived by God, must have sounded implausible, desperate, even insane. On reflection, though, the man, who is profoundly decent—"righteous," as the story goes—decides that he cannot bear to inflict upon the girl the rare (but wholly legal) punishment for such crimes, which is stoning. And so he resolves to handle the matter in his own way. He will "divorce her quietly."

If the story ended there, it would be an ordinary drama about a family in crisis, one familiar in many times and many places. But this story was only beginning. The righteous man, Joseph, goes to sleep and receives a visit from an angel. "Joseph, son of David," the angel says, "do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son and you are to give him the name Jesus for he will save his people from their sins." Like all good Jews who had received visits from God or angels before him—Abraham, Moses—Joseph does as he is told. The baby is born in Bethlehem; his human parents name him Jesus.
Well, except the story doesn't even start there. The article goes on to imply, for example, that the values Matthew's version of the Nativity story supposedly presents (we'll come to that) are peculiarly Jewish:

It all began with the habits and culture of Judaism. The emphasis on family, on sexual morality, on caring for one's kith and kin—all were (and are) sacred Jewish traditions, and the transmission of those mores from a relative backwater of the Roman Empire in the first years of the Common Era to our own time is the unlikely result of Mary and Joseph's parenting, the disciples' failed apocalyptic hopes and, ultimately, the early Christians' search for a way to survive once they realized the Second Coming was not as imminent as they first believed.
The habits and culture of early Judaism (which, to avoid anachronism, didn't really exist in a way we could label "Judaism" until several decades after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE) certainly influenced Christianity. But those mores were not fundamentally different from the "family values" of the Romans. At least not in the matters of caring for kith and kin. Other societies may have cared for their own differently, but care for them they certainly did. Who, after all, would tolerate a society which didn't?

For example:

According to Deuteronomy, a man who violated a virgin had to pay a fine of 50 silver shekels and marry the woman in question; an unmarried woman who willfully had sex with a man other than her fiancé could be put to death. In ancient Israel, this value was probably a matter of pragmatism more than theology; it assured men who lived in a culture that prized family above all that their children were their own.
Well, maybe. But in the Middle Ages in Europe, the theory was a woman could not conceive unless she had an orgasm, and an orgasm was impossible in rape, therefore rape could never produce a distaff heir. QED. Bloodlines and property rights were paramount, and thus did men assure themselves all the children at the table were theirs. And US family law (in Texas, and I'm fairly sure this is uniform in all 50 states now) assumes the husband of the wife is the father of the children. There's a simple reason for this: we know who the mother is (the birth can be witnessed). The conception, however, is hidden. There have always been problems assuring who the child's father is, and there will always be legal "fictions" to settle the question. It's pragmatic, but it's not peculiarly Jewish. One must, in other words, be careful about letting presumptions create conclusions. [insert language from "in search of paul" here regarding Roman family. So I think the distinctions between Roman and Jewish practice are more than a bit overwrought in this article.

Which is not unusual, and not a slam on Newsweek: it's a popular magazine, not a scholarly publication. Besides, it gives me an excuse to discuss the topic.

First, of course, there's no reason to believe this story happened at all. Not that Jesus wasn't born (didn't we settle that in the 19th century?), but that Matthew's story is any more historical than Luke's (and the two are completely incompatible). But the same questions you may have had as a child ("Huh? Daddy, why does Joseph want to set aside his marriage to Mary?") persist even when you understand what "adultery"means. And filling in those blanks with an "emphasis...on sexual morality" is dangerously anachronistic (not to mention cross-cultural) unless you know what kind of sexual morality you're talking about.

If you take this story as in any way "real," (rather than Matthew's attempt to place Jesus as Messiah within Hebraic tradition and prophecy), you end up with the Raymond Brown attempts (I use the good Fr. metaphorically, and not caustically) to evaluate Galilean v. Judean marriage customs and the like (apparently it was the not unusual in Judea for a man to have "relations" with his betrothed before the marriage was formalized, but that was "not done" in Galilee. So which condition prevailed on Mary and Joseph?). Why, though, does Matthew raise the question of adultery at all? Luke doesn't raise it, and he includes an immaculate conception in his story.

As far as we can tell, Galilean custom was more strict than Judean on sexual relations for a couple between the initial engagement, which established a legal right, and the final ceremony, which established a common home. [Let me note this custom of legal right before common home prevailed into the 19th century in Britain in some form, as the ending of an engagement could be a breach of promise action, based on contract law.] But even in Galilee, villagers would have presumed that Mary's pregnancy came not from fornication or adultery, but from a slightly ahead-of-time marital consummation. Apart from Mary, only Joseph knew whether that could have been the explanation. Note, by the way, that, with adultery only affected
a husband's rights, Mary could not have committed adultery unless Joseph already had marriage rights over her.
Jon Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed, Excavating Jesus (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), p. 79. (Most of what follows, except for parenthetical comments, is drawn almost directly from this book.)

So, as Crossan and Reed ask, why did Matthew tell the story this way?

Since they were already officially engaged, pregnancy, even if not exactly proper bfeore Mary's move from her father's to her husband's home, would make nobody save Joseph suspect adultery. Eyebrows might raise and tongues might wag, but little else would happen, and it certainly would not make Jesus' conception adulterous....And even if he claimed it, he might not be believed. Around the year 200 C.E., for example, the Jewish legal codification in the Mishnah recorded the following debate: "If a man says, 'This my son is a bastard,' he may not be believed. Even if they both said of the unborn child in her womb, 'It is a bastard,' they may not e believed. R. Judah says: They may be believed." (Quiddushin 4:8)
Back to the law today; no man can deny paternity of a child born during marriage unless there is a blood test proving he is not the father. I actually had a case like this, where the wife was pregnant by her boyfriend during a pending divorce (yes, it had been pending that long). No one disagreed that the child was the boyfriend's, and the father of the child wanted to raise it as his. But the law said the child was the husband's, until proven otherwise, and denial of paternity by the husband and even the mother/wife, was not enough. These things last a long time, and for good reason: parentless children have no one to speak for them, or care for them. So why does Matthew do this? The explanation Crossan comes up with involves the story of Moses. Not the story in Exodus, but the story in Josephus' Jewish Antiquities and Pseudo-Philo's Biblical Antiquities. Folk tales, in other words, about the birth of Moses. You know, the kind of thing Hollywood does when it wants to tell the story of, oh, say, the birth of Jesus.

That there are parallels to the nativity stories in scripture is not new, of course. Luke's story of childless Elizabeth recalls at least 4 stories: Genesis 16:7-16; Genesis 18:1-15; Judes 13:3-24; and 1 Samuel 1:1-20. Matthew works in one of Josephus's stories about Moses' birth with the aftermath of Jesus' birth: the Massacre of the Innocents. According to Josephus, the birth of a leader of the enslaved Jews was predicted and Pharoah ordered all male children born to the Israelites around the time predicted, thrown into the river. (You can see how these stories embellish on the scriptural ones, and pick up details for verisimilitude.) Now it gets more interesting.

In Exodus, the parents of Moses marry after Pharoah decrees all male Israelite children should be killed. Why marry after that decree, though? (Remember, this is pre-14th century Europe; marrying for love is an anachronism, except in Hollywood movies.) The folk literature explained that the marriage occured before the decree, and Jochebed is already pregnant when it is made (note the parallels in Matthew again: Herod makes his decree after the birth of Jesus, not before, though the Magi knew of the birth before it happened). Josephus records that God appeared to Moses' father in a dream and reassured him of Moses' fate: "This child...shall indeed be yours; he shall escape those who are watching to destroy him, and...he shall deliver the Hebrew race from their bondage in Egypt, and be remembered...even by alien nations." (quoted in Crossan, p. 83).

In another version, recorded by Pseudo-Philo, Moses' sister Miriam has a dream which foretells the greatness of Moses. Other versions in later texts (which may be earlier in tradition) have Jochebed and Amram divorced and convinced to marry again because of this dream. So there's a fairly rich amount of literature here for Matthew to draw on. And he does so in order to establish the connections, both scriptural and in the popular mind, between Jesus and Moses (one more link, from many: Jesus gives his sermon "on the mount" in Matthew, as Moses came down from Sinai with the law. In Luke, Jesus "looks up" at his disciples when he begins that sermon.)

So, does Matthew record a story about a family in crisis? From our point of view, yes, yes he does. But from Matthew's point of view? The crisis, more likely, was in the community of believers he wrote for, struggling to establish its identity in first century Palestine. Which is interesting if for no other reason than that, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

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