David Instone-Brewer and the Christmas Shambles

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.


9 thoughts on “David Instone-Brewer and the Christmas Shambles

  1. Frances, you say, “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.”
    What is nice about it?
    Are you sure it is still popular today just because it is nice? That sounds rather sweeping, dismissive and glib. Oh, and wrong.
    Did the Emperor Constantine think, “Oh, this is a nice story. Let’s make it official.” Or was he more interested in power-mongering, thus enabling the the popularisation and widespread dissemination of the “story”?
    You are entitled to disagree with DIB, but you undermine your entire article with your “because it’s a nice story” explanation at the end.

    • Hi Richard.
      “It’s a nice story” wasn’t supposed to be an explanation. And whether it’s “nice” or not will depend on what you mean by “a nice story.”
      I’m afraid I didn’t get your point about Constantine at all. Are you saying that the nativity story is popular because of Constantine’s patronage of the early Christian church?
      No amount of official patronage could have made the Greek and Roman myths popular if the stories themselves had not been interesting. They were, and that’s why we still read them today, although Zeus-worshippers are a bit thin on the ground.
      I think that stories become ( and remain) popular because they’re interesting and because the characters engage the sympathy of their audience. DIB wants to see the nativity story as one bleak incident after another, because that maximises the potential for the “criterion of embarrassment”. I don’t see it as either entirely dismal or entirely jolly. Which is what makes it interesting. Which was what I meant by “a nice story” in that context.

      Happy Boxing Day.

      • I’m not sure that people sacrifice their lives or kill just on the basis of a nice or even interesting story. And I doubt that the story would be as widely popular as it is today without Constantine’s PR work!

        Thank you for your kind wishes, but we don’t have Boxing Day in France. Even though we do have boxes….

  2. “I’m not sure that people sacrifice their lives or kill just on the basis of a nice or even interesting story.”

    Well, duh! Whoever said they did?


    And that was where I had originally planned to leave my response. But then it occurred to me that my purpose in blogging is to convey my ideas and if (as appears to me) you have misunderstood what I am saying in my OP, then the fault is more likely to be mine, for failing to communicate than yours for failing to understand.

    There are any number of reasons to regard the Nativity stories as untrue. But that’s maybe for another thread and it was not my intention to argue for the historical falsity of the Nativity accounts in Matthew and Luke. My sole limited purpose in this thread was to assess the merits of DIB’s arguments for claiming that they were reliable. DIB might be entirely wrong and the Nativity stories still be entirely true.

    DIB’s argument turns on his claim that pretty much everything in the stories should be interpreted as humiliating and unpleasant. This is supposed to challenge unbelievers to explain why anyone would have made up such an embarrassing story. I also think (although this is very much my personal opinion) that he has a subsidiary aim to shake Christian readers out of what he feels is a saccharine and complacent view of the stories.

    Driven by these motives he takes leave of any rational assessment of the stories and rather than seeing them as shades of light and dark, he wants to persuade us it’s just 50 shades of pitch black.

    That’s simply not an accurate account and a more balanced assessment would not assert so uncompromisingly that it’s “not a nice story.”

    When I said it was a nice story I did not mean that it was an untrue story. I do think it is untrue story, but it’s niceness as a story would be a lousy argument for claiming it to be false. Almost as lousy as DIB’s arguments for claiming it to be true.

    • Brilliant reply, Frances. I love it.
      I think you have correctly assessed DIB’s dual motivation for writing that article.
      So, you see, that I did understand your OP. But you did end with “And that’s why it’s still popular today.”
      That is simply inaccurate. It’s still popular today for a pile of reasons – including political maneuvering, bloodshed, inquisitions, burning at the stake and the invention of the printing press.
      If you had finished with, ” And that’s one of the reasons that it’s still popular today.” we wouldn’t be having this discussion.
      Go on – admit it. The rhetoric of your last paragraph was ALSO to demean the nativity story.
      Wasn’t it?

  3. All I can honestly admit to is that my last paragraph was thrown together in haste. I wanted to get the OP published before Xmas (which seemed important at the time, although now I’m not sure why.)
    I wasn’t terribly happy with the last paragraph but I decided that it was as good as it was going to get in the time I had left before Christmas, so I clicked the “publish” button and here we are.
    I might have intended to demean the nativity story if I had had the time to form any more complex intention than the intention to write something which bore some semblance of a conclusion to what had gone before. And I would have gotten away with it, if it hadn’t been for that pesky Welshman. (If you’re not familiar with Scooby Doo, you won’t get the reference.)

  4. I have no great desire to embark on an analysis of David Instone-Brewer’s article, but I would like to touch upon the issue of the status of real, live, flesh-and-blood shepherds in 1st Century Palestine. True, the role of ‘shepherd’ was supposed to be a noble one – you have quite correctly alluded to those OT texts which described God’s role in leading His people and also, in a secondary sense, the role of the spiritual leaders, including the pharisees.

    However, real-live shepherds were regarded as low life. Jeremias in ‘Parables’ (p132) and ‘Jerusalem’ (p304) makes the point that herdsmen appear twice on Rabbinic lists of proscribed trades. He notes that “most of the time they were dishonest and thieving; they led their herds on to other people’s land…and pilfered the produce of the herd.” Derrett (‘The Prodigal Son’) writes that, “The Shepherd was despised socially on account of his flocks’ eating private property, whatever prestige the occupation of shepherd might have in the eyes of allegorists.”

    It is this cultural background that indicates that Jesus is on the attack against religious hypocrites when he launches into the Parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15: 2-4). He is aiming his narration at those who liked to categorise the population into second and third-class citizens.

    • I have just written a book which will never be a best-seller. But sometimes I get the very strong impression that there is a guaranteed market for virtually any book which touts the messages, “What Bible really says,” and/or “Why all Christians have got stuff wrong until I wrote this book.”
      Instone-Brewer and Derrett have understood this principle.
      So now we understand the real social position of shepherds in Palestine 2,000 years ago. Better still, from another source we learn how this reality is actually an integral part of the Gospel narrative.
      I think it can be very useful for Christians to better understand the socio-historical context of every book in the Bible (unless you’re a young earth Creationist) . Of course, for each individual Christian it will be helpful in a different way.
      For a long time the images of the Good Shepherd and the Lamb of God were a problem for me (and apparently for the majority of Eskimos – but that’s another story).
      The whole point of raising sheep was , and is, in order to shear and/or eat them. Woolly sweaters and mint sauce. I used to think that the lost sheep should have kept on running.
      Until I became a Catholic.
      Christ didn’t run.
      But there’s worse to follow. In John, chapter 6, Christ is quoted as saying, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you;”
      Later, the narrative adds this, “After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him.” I think I would likely have drawn back with them.
      In fact, eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Christ was re-written as purely symbolic after the Reformation. Theologians in the Reformation tradition started a trend – making the Gospel more palatable, while claiming that this had always been the “true” version.
      Will there ever be a dearth of enlightened authors chomping at the bit to share the “real” message of the Bible with us? Not for as long as there are Christians around, I guess.

      In fact I understand why there is such an appetite for the “Let me show you how to get it (the Bible, positive thinking, independence for Scotland etc) right at last” books. I am not deriding Instone-Brewer or Derrett. They are answering a need. We are all, to varying degrees, trying to make sense of our universe. Seeking coherence is one of the things that the human brain has been doing since it evolved lumps of grey matter that handled abstract thought. It is logical that what apparently made sense 2,000 years ago needs to be revisited if we wish to continue finding coherence today.
      Civilisations and science evolve in much the same way. What was true, acceptable or fashionable a couple of centuries ago is often seen as silly, totally unacceptable or ugly today. I see no reason why this trend should stop one day.

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