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Mayfield: Another take on Christmas

Rich Mayfield

I am well aware that the Christmas season officially began yesterday with midnight madness sales kicking off a hoped-for spending spree that will reignite our communal, if latent, consuming impulse and thus save our world from economic collapse. Go for it. I am definitely opposed to economic collapses.

But as we are all going about saving the world, I thought it might be of some interest to explore some of the theological underpinnings of our upcoming holiday. While I recognize that not all participants in the Christmas season would care to align themselves with Christianity right now, and judging from the headlines out of Ireland, one can certainly understand why, I offer the following bits of Biblical trivia along with one rather shocking hypothesis to invite you into a deeper appreciation for this once religious festival.

The Bible, like all sacred texts, was written to describe a particular understanding of reality. In my case, as a Christian, it begins with the understanding of an ancient religious tradition known today as Judaism. The Hebrew Scripture – or what is often referred to as the Old Testament – is the cumulative work of a particular religion’s attempt to understand who they are and what life is all about. Christianity emerged out of Judaism with a reinterpretation of some of the Hebrew Scripture to proclaim a new understanding of how God is at work in the world through Jesus. This reinterpretation is found in the second part of the Bible that Christians call the New Testament.

Now there are a number of issues that need to be dealt with before one can even begin to get a grasp of how the Bible, both Hebrew and Christian, should be understood. The first is language. I know this may come as a surprise to some, but the Bible wasn’t written in English, King James’ or otherwise. The Hebrew scripture was written in Hebrew but was translated into the Greek several hundred years before Jesus. So the early Christians used a Greek translation of the original texts to interpret this new understanding of the ancient Hebrew. The New Testament was written in Greek, but we have to remember that Jesus’s language was Aramaic – and although he may have been able to read and write in Greek and/or Hebrew, he spoke in a different language than how it was eventually written down. Do you begin to see the problem here? Anyone who has traveled to a foreign country knows some of the difficulties around translating what you want to say to someone who doesn’t understand a word of what you’re saying!

Again, Jesus spoke in Aramaic not Greek. We are told that Jesus once said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Of course, camels don’t go through needles … not even teeny-weeny camels. But in Aramaic the word for “camel” and the word for “rope” are almost identical. So did Jesus say it is harder for a “camel” to go through the eye of a needle or a “rope” to go through the eye of a needle? One is impossible; the other may have a little wiggle room. The problem of translating Hebrew into Greek becomes even more apparent in the famous passage from Isaiah of the Hebrew Scripture that Matthew used in writing about the birth of Jesus in the Christian Scripture. Matthew used the Greek translation of the original Hebrew when he quoted Isaiah 7:14 to describe the miraculous conception of Jesus: “… A ‘virgin’ will conceive and bear a son and his name shall be called Emmanuel.” Only in the original Hebrew the word is “almah,” which is never understood in Hebrew as virgin but rather a young woman. Somewhat shockingly perhaps, a whole doctrine was developed around this mistranslation. My point is not to argue against the perpetual virginity of Mary or the biological eccentricities surrounding Jesus’s birth but, rather, to point out the incredible difficulties inherent in translations.

Then we have to confront the context of these writings. When were they written? Who wrote them and why? Much of the Hebrew Scripture emerged out of a tumultuous time of tribal warfare. Armies fought horrific battles – each claiming, as we do today, that God or the gods are on one particular side. We have the writings of one of these groups. It is understandable that God is on the side of these particular authors, just as Allah is on the side of Islam. It all depends on your particular perspective. So ponder, if you’d like, the context of the birth stories of Jesus.

Palestine in the time of Jesus was an occupied country, much as it is today. Only back then the occupiers were Romans. If you know anything about history, you know that occupying forces do some pretty terrible things. They take over homes. They blow up schools. They enslave or kill men. And they often rape the women. This has been shown quite terribly in our own lifetime. We remember with horror the stories out of Bosnia and Serbia. The Vietnam War left hundreds maybe thousands of mixed-race children in its wake. It is a horrible but very real casualty of occupation.

Consider this possibility: the scandal of Mary’s pregnancy that Joseph so nobly responds to is not the result of a beatific blessing surrounded by cherubim and seraphim but a brutal rape by a Roman soldier.

The word is “mamzer.” It is a Hebrew word that means “of questionable birth” or “illegitimate child.” Some Bible scholars are suggesting that this is an accurate description of Jesus. They posit this thesis on some very intriguing evidence. A mamzer, you see, would be rejected in his own community, as Jesus most certainly was. A mamzer would be excluded from fully participating in the religious and cultural rituals of his tribe. A mamzer would be an outsider, a reject.

Over and over again in the Christian Scripture, Jesus can be seen reaching out to the outcast, welcoming those who were never welcomed, eating with the unclean, advocating that no one is excluded from the love of God. This is not the teachings of someone who led a privileged and economically enriched life but, rather, the teachings of an outsider, one who has been rejected by his religion, his culture, his community… a bastard, a mamzer.

So with that, I bid you go and shop. Our world certainly needs saving.

Rich Mayfield is the author of “Reconstructing Christianity: Notes from the New Reformation.” E-mail comments about this column to editor@summitdaily.com.


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