You’ve just had a baby and you get visits from a bunch of local undesirables, then some rich foreigners turn up with expensive gifts. Don’t you just hate it when that happens?
This is certainly how David Instone-Brewer wants to persuade us that a first century Jew would have felt about Jesus’ visitors. Shepherds, he informs us, were the lowest of the low in Israelite society, scumbags, in fact.
But wait a moment, isn’t there a Psalm that starts “The Lord is my shepherd….”? So a pious Jew, searching for a metaphor to describe God, came up with……a scumbag?
The OT includes many references to shepherds and none of them that I’ve been able to find are negative. For instance Ezekiel 34:11-12 God says: “Look, I myself shall take care of my flock and look after it. As a shepherd looks after his flock…..so shall I look after my sheep.”
OT characters who are shepherds include Jacob, Joseph and David. Hardly figures who were much despised by Jews at the time!
Next DIB wants us to see Mary, Joseph and Jesus as political refugees, “hunted by the most powerful monarch in the region, and he knew their family identity.” Modern day refugees, he assures us, are lucky in comparison.
Except that the whole point of the Massacre of the Innocents story (which DIB turns to next) was that Herod didn’t know the family identity. Hence the order to kill all male children up the age of two – that way Jesus would be caught, even if he couldn’t be identified.
Blissfully unaware of having shot himself in the foot by robbing Herod of a motive, DIB goes on to defend the credibility of the Massacre story. The problem for believers is that there is no other record of such a massacre ever having taken place. DIB tries to explain this away by saying that Herod was such a well-known villain, that a massacre of Jewish boys would not be regarded as particularly note-worthy. I find this hard to swallow. The Jews, as DIB goes on to emphasise, were greatly concerned with producing children, as a way to ensure the survival of the nation. The “go forth and multiply” commandment was taken very seriously. The death of all male children under two in a town would be a source of intense anguish. “Lamentation and great mourning” is how Matthew describes it (thereby fulfilling Jeremiah 31:15). Not a trifling incident, if it had really happened, even in the context of Herod’s character.
DIB also believes that the Jews of 1AD would have given both Jesus and Mary a hard time over his illegitimacy. Without the least textual authority for his claims, DIB tells us that Mary went around advertising the fact that she had been impregnated by God and that Jesus was unmarried. We simply don’t know if either of those things is true but DIB is more than happy to fill in the blanks in whichever way best serves his purpose!
Why does DIB like a scandal so much? Look at his last paragraph:
Today, however, the Christmas scandals in the Gospels are like gold dust to historians because they know that no one would make them up. In the dust of uncertainty they shine out like diamonds; as facts that can be relied on.
There is absolutely no doubt that Jesus’ birth was strange: strangely horrific, strangely wonderful, or perhaps a combination of both. But there’s one thing it definitely wasn’t: it was never ‘just a nice story’.
DIB is using “the criterion from embarassment” which is a useful tool for distinguishing the reliable from the unreliable in NT stories. Stories like the cursing of the fig tree, or Jesus’ confession that he does not know the date of the Day of Judgment have the ring of truth about them because they are difficult to fit in with the gospel writers’ agenda. But DIB sees embarrassment everywhere! There is nothing contrary to Matthew or Luke’s purpose in portraying Jesus as the miraculous product of virgin birth, pronounced as a king by angels, revealed by a star, striking fear into the heart of a tyrant.
The Christmas story is already contrived and convoluted, with the original writers already straining to make it fit with what they thought were OT prophecies. DIB makes an already tortuous account still less credible by claiming to find scandals where there are none and trying to brush aside the lack of evidence one would expect to find of events such as the Massacre of the Innocents.
It is a nice story. Like all nice stories, it has its shades of light and dark but that’s why people liked it. And that’s why it’s still popular today.