Monday, December 26, 2011

In this Christmas season a hint about Saul may help us understand the birth of Jesus

Ever since our book was finalized I continue to put pieces together of the Jesus story. Recently I was reading one of the recognized scholars on Paul and an interesting idea fell into place. There’s nothing like a bright idea on a dull day!

The Jewish historian, Josephus, gave an arresting tidbit: Saul of Tarsus was associated with Galilee. Only a hint, but it comes with his report there was an uprising in Galilee about 4 B.C.; it resulted in several thousand persons being enslaved, transported to Tarsus, and offered for sale. Perhaps, in some such circumstances, a baby boy was subsequently born; he was peculiarly named “Saul” after the first Jewish king – and persecutor of David.

In this time frame, rumors would swirl. A priest serving in the Temple had been struck dumb. When he could speak, it was about his newly born son, John, who would become “the Baptizer.” Coincidentally, a young virgin, cousin to John’s mother, came for a lengthy stay; people whispered. The gossipers should have been more cautious; the Roman soldiers would be dangerously on the alert. We know how suddenly protesters can die, innocents caught up as well. Soon a carpenter named Joseph was not only considering taking Mary - now pregnant - as wife, but also about the tense situation in Galilee.

A good man with a pregnant wife would seek safety. Even if she were nine months pregnant – and travel in winter uncertain - she would be safer in their home village. The town must have been already crowded with refugees, but even a stable was shelter and soon there was great rejoicing. A son had been born.

To the east, kings wealthy with knowledge had heard rumors and wanted to see if the time for the Messiah had come. Galilee was no place to linger; they followed tips and rode south to the capitol. There they began asking around, were brought to Herod, who sent for religious leaders. A tip was offered, and Bethlehem is almost right down the hill. When they came, we would think, the baby had already been circumcised and able to smile and wave his hands. Gifts were offered and there must have been a feast and everyone overate. 

Midnight, and Joseph couldn’t sleep. Suddenly, a realization erupted. He woke Mary; the kings heard, got up. It hit them all: they had been so naive as to alert Herod. They had promised him they were coming right back and reporting. Mary threw their things in a sack, the kings were already saddling up. By dawn three wiser men were crossing the border by a little used path. Joseph and Mary, with baby and exhausted donkey, were straining to reach an Egyptian border station.

The rest is history, some perhaps as speculative as this. Great story: we recognize the need all too well as Luke wrote it up; he needed to reassure the suspicious authorities in Rome that from the very beginning these Christians were obedient, law observing citizens of the Empire. Shepherds, not soldiers, rejoiced at the birth. For years Roman bureaucrats must have been discussing a census of the whole Empire and getting taxes better regulated. Like all authors, Luke made use of what stories were available and filled in the in blanks. Paul would have already been executed but the Church still lived, always precariously.

People have not changed much; God has not changed either. This Creative Power we celebrate intervenes to save, both respecting and utilizing circumstances. Why should this be a dull day?

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