Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Birth of Jesus According to the Gospels

By Joseph F. Kelly, 106 pages, Liturgical Press.

This informative, scholarly study of the birth narratives found in Luke and Matthew examines the details of the biblical origins of Christmas. Kelly keeps in mind European and North American Christmas traditions, but reminds us that the writings were not intended to create a holiday with evergreen trees, candy canes, and a commercialized "holiday season."

The Birth of Jesus According to the Gospels does not offer a popular or cultural understanding of Christmas, but traces the broader points of the gospel writers, and their Christologies, or theologies of who Christ was. The evangelists' storytelling techniques hold theological significance for us today:

"The evangelists followed their Lord; they did not use miracles to engender faith but presumed that their readers had it already.... [T]he evangelists wrote as believing Christians for other believing Christians," and did not try to prove God's existence or Jesus' saving work. Members of the believing community, they wrote for others in that community.

Many common and not-so-common elements of contemporary Christmas culture are discussed. For instance, while most people find genealogies in the Old and New Testaments to be boring and meaningless, Kelly explains the theological meaning. In the gospels of Matthew and Luke, they meant to establish Jesus as following David's line, even if Joseph was not his biological father. In those times, it was sufficient for a man to recognize a child as his legal child for the son to be considered as following the genealogical line.

The author's insights into the ancient world in which Jesus and then the evangelists lived are interesting and help us understand many things, such as why Luke has to dedicate his writings to a certain Theophilus (because a writer needed the financial support of a nobleman during an era of no bestsellers, where most people were illiterate).

Kelly also contrasts Catholicism's veneration of Mary as a white aristocratic Nordic woman with the reality that she would have been a dark-skinned peasant woman with callouses on her hands and feet from all her labor.

The Birth of Jesus According to the Gospels offers nothing to the sentimental Christian, but many fruitful insights for those with historical or archeological interests.

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