Saturday, December 28, 2019

January 12, 2020 - Baptism of the Lord

                                                            Biblical Words                                            [640]
Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17.  
 God’s Servant is empowered by the Spirit for a mission to the nations. 
The first Sunday after Epiphany is traditionally celebrated as the Baptism of the Lord.  In all the Gospels, the baptism of Jesus is the time when the Holy Spirit comes upon the Anointed One with power.  This event inaugurates Jesus’ mission of preaching, healing, and combating the destructive powers that afflict the people.  
Isaiah 42:1-9.  
The prophetic reading is one of the most important passages of the Hebrew scriptures for the development of Christianity.  It is the first of four passages in Isaiah 42 through 53 that present the “Servant of the Lord” as the key figure in God’s plan for bringing justice to all peoples.  (The other passages are 49:1-6 [next Sunday’s prophetic reading]; 50:4-11; and 52:13-53:12, the four often called the Servant Songs.)  
In this first passage, God speaks to the heavenly powers and through them to the kings of the earth.  God introduces the servant.  
Here is my servant, whom I uphold, 
      my chosen, in whom my soul delights; 
I have put my spirit upon him; 
      he will bring forth justice to the nations.  (Verse 1, NRSV.)
The larger context of the passage, as well as the Greek translation, make clear that the servant is Israel.  The servant is Israel in a complicated way, however.  The servant is an individual, and when the servant passages are complete it is clear that the individual is a royal figure, a king.  
For some ceremonial and symbolic purposes, the king embodied Israel and its destiny before God and the nations.  For example, in Psalm 2 the king is declared to be Yahweh’s son, an identity occasionally assigned also to Israel (Hosea 11:1; Jeremiah 31:9).  Also, the “one like a son of man” is installed as a royal figure embodying the destiny of the people in Daniel 7:13-14, 22 and 27.  Such a representative figure lies behind God’s presentation of the servant.  
There is some strange language used to describe the servant’s character.  
He will not cry or lift up his voice, 
      or make it heard in the street; 
a bruised reed he will not break,
      and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.  (Verses 2-3.) 
The probable meaning is that as one who brings justice, this powerful figure will be very gentle.  He will not resort to violent behavior in the streets.  Rather, he will be very sensitive to the most delicate and damaged needy ones who depend on him for support and the protection of their rights.  
The presentation of the servant concludes with a firm declaration that the servant will persist in his mission “until he has established justice in the earth” (verse 4).  For guidance toward such an outcome, “the coastlands” – all that later became the Greek and Roman worlds – “wait for his teaching [torah].”  (See the same idea in Isaiah 2:3.).  
Our passage has a second part.  A prophetic voice declares that God the Creator speaks, and what God says is addressed to the servant.  
I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, 
      I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people, 
      a light to the nations.  (Verse 6.) 
The mission of the servant in Isaiah is to carry Israel’s experience of God’s salvation to all the nations.  For early Christians this mission was carried forward through the Servant Jesus, a mission gradually expanding from an abandoned Jerusalem to the many nations (see Matthew 28:18-20).  
Psalm 29.  
This Psalm is always used on the Sunday of the Baptism of the Lord (as well as on Trinity Sunday in year B).  On other occasions we will comment on this psalm as a hymn to the Storm God manifested as an awesome electrical storm sweeping eastward from the Mediterranean Sea to the desert beyond Damascus (Year B, 1st Sunday after Epiphany), and also as an Ugaritic-Canaanite contribution to the glory of Yahweh, the God of Zion (Year C, 1st Sunday after Epiphany).  
This psalm is appropriate for Jesus’ baptism because of its emphasis on the Voice of the Lord.  
“The voice of the Lord” (qol Yahweh) occurs seven times in verses 3 through 9.  In so far as this phrase has one meaning, it means the sound of thunder, and the psalm portrays it as wondrous, violent, and astonishing in its power over many grandiose and lofty things in the world.  
However, the wild sweep of roaring and flashing across the Syrian heavens culminates in a reverent and liturgical response from the assembled people in the temple – “and in his temple all say, ‘Glory!’” (verse 9, NRSV).  The worshiping community thus speaks its awed Amen! as the conclusion of the earthly sweep of God’s Voice.  
In the baptism narratives, of course, there is a Voice of God – one that speaks as Jesus emerges from the waters of the river.  There, however, the Voice accompanies a peaceful dove and solemnly declares that the Son of God has come into the world. 
The psalm affirms for Christian believers that the mighty sweep of the heavenly powers has also spoken quietly through the dove that brings the Spirit to Jesus. 
Acts 10:34-43.  
In place of an Epistle reading, the lection for the Baptism of the Lord is from the book of Acts.  The season of Epiphany represents the movement of God’s power into the human world – into the world of Jesus’ people in the Gospels, into the world of the nations in the book of Acts.  
The reading is the sermon that Peter began to preach when God had shown him that the people of the nations – the non-Judeans – were to be accepted into the Spirit-filled life of the Jesus followers.  The household of the Roman centurion, Cornelius, listens to Peter summarize the story of Jesus – from baptism by John through resurrection (verses 36-41).  
The culmination of the sermon – before the Holy spirit broke in and disrupted the service – was the declaration, “[Jesus] commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead.  All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (verses 42-43, NRSV).  
Peter proclaims a historic movement that had its beginning in the baptism offered by John the Baptist. 
Matthew 3:13-17.  
The Gospel reading is the Jesus baptism as given in the Gospel According to Matthew, the Gospel for year A of the Lectionary.  All four Gospels begin Jesus’ mission in the world with the baptism by John, though each treats it a little differently.  
Historically, Jesus became a follower of the Baptist, and therefore shared the view that the eschatological judgment was at hand.  In Matthew their messages of the coming kingdom are identical (3:2 and 4:17).  Jesus, however, came to realize that he was himself a channel of power from that coming realm on behalf of the afflicted people among John’s audiences.  John does not seem to have been a healer or one who ministered directly to the injured and broken among the sinners.  It was just such healing of needy ones to which Jesus pointed when John later asked who Jesus really was (Matthew 11:2-6).  The healing had become the difference between Jesus and John.  (See below the Special Note on John the Baptist and Jesus.
Theologically, the early followers of Jesus recognized some important link between Jesus and John the Baptist, but were compelled by their later insights about Jesus to interpret John as only “preparatory” in some way.  This apparently remained an important issue for some time, and evolved in the directions we see taken by the four different Gospels.  David hill comments, “The place of John the Baptist in relation to Jesus must have been one of the most discussed topics in the church of the 1st century.”  (The Gospel of Matthew, “New Century Bible,” Attic Press, 1977, p. 95.)  
The distinctive feature of the Matthew version of the baptism is the discussion of who is worthy to be baptized by whom.  Here, the Jesus tradition assumes that John knows who Jesus really is, that he is the “one more powerful” whose coming John is proclaiming as the judgment of God at hand.  Therefore, John objects to his baptizing Jesus and says, “I need to be baptized by you …” (verse 14, NRSV).  Jesus’ answer is:  we should do this now, “for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness” (verse 15, NRSV).  
There is a divine sequence to these things, according to which John is the last of the prophets (11:10-14), and in that divine sequence Jesus begins as subordinate to John.  The later issue, about whether a sinless Messiah should submit to a baptism for the repentance of sins, is not yet an important question in the stage of the tradition preserved in Matthew.  
The baptism itself is quickly told, and when Jesus emerges from the water the Spirit of God descends upon him in the shape of a dove.  The Voice of the Lord then speaks from heaven, introducing the Servant, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (verse 17).  
After the proper order has been followed – all righteousness fulfilled – the Savior, Yeshua, receives the divine power that will heal and restore the many.  
Special Note on John the Baptist and Jesus.  
This note is about an item concerning the historical Jesus, not just Jesus as presented in one or more of the Gospels.  That is unusual for me.  I mostly treat Jesus as an unknown entity, because we can only see him through several layers of lenses which have shaped him in their own imaginations before telling us what they remembered.  
First a few words about the historical John the Baptist.  
Two facts in the life of Jesus command almost universal assent.  They bracket the three years for which Jesus is most remembered, his life’s work, his mission.  One is Jesus’ baptism by John.  The other is his death by crucifixion.  Because they rank so high on the ‘almost impossible to doubt or deny’ scale of historical ‘facts,’ they are obvious starting points for an attempt to clarify the what and why of Jesus’ mission.  (J.D.G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered, Eerdmans, 2003, p. 339.)  
For Herod [Antipas] had put [John the Baptist] to death, even though he was a good man and had encouraged the Jews to lead righteous lives, to practice justice towards one another and piety towards God, and so doing to join in baptism…. When others too joined the crowds about him, because they were roused to fever pitch by his words, Herod became alarmed.  He feared that John’s ability to sway people might lead to some form of sedition, for it looked as if they would act on John’s advice in everything that they did.  Herod therefore decided that it would be much better to strike first and be rid of him before his work led to an uprising … And so John, because of Herod’s suspicions, was brought in chains to Machaerus…and there put to death.  (Josephus, Antiquities 18.115-119, as quoted in Graham Stanton, The Gospels and Jesus, 2d ed., Oxford Univ. Press, 2002, p. 184.)  
So it is historically clear that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist – something he would only have submitted to if he shared John’s basic belief that God’s power was about to break forth in judgment and radical rearrangement of the human realm.  However, we cannot accept the Gospels’ view that John recognized Jesus as the “one mightier than himself” in those early days of Jesus’ baptism.  This is clear from the fact that John later, while he was in prison, sends other disciples to ask a now-independent Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matthew 11:3 = Luke 7:19).  John, while he was living, did not know Jesus as having any special status in the divine plan.  (And perhaps his disciples, those who did not join the Jesus movement in the early years, did not know much of Jesus’ special status even many years later; see Acts 18:24-25, and 19:1-7.)  
Jesus the healer.  Several years ago, studying the miracle stories in Matthew’s Gospel, I was struck by an implication of the difference between Jesus and John the Baptist.  Historically speaking – no way around it – Jesus was a healer, big time!  That sets him off from his mentor, John the Baptist, of whom no one, Gospels or Josephus, suggests he had any healing powers.  

The implication of this, projected back into some real Jesus’ early life, is that discovering this power to heal was the beginning of Jesus’ own route beyond where the Baptist had brought him. 
One may suppose that as the weeks and months of John’s ministry went on, his disciples (like other assistants at great revivals) worked with the people who came as candidates for the great moment of the dunking.  Worked with people who came with disabilities and psycho-somatic disorders (possessed ones).  In an excited atmosphere, permeated with expectations of divine relief near at hand (such as those predicted in Isaiah 35), a compassionate and spiritually acute believer (Jesus) might come to realize that healing could come through him – that the power of God’s reign was not only ahead, but for some suffering few could happen NOW.  That a pronouncement or a laying on of hands could bring God’s own power into the present moment.  
And, if so, a new page of God’s good news would be opened for those seized by the spirit of that place, time – and that special person.  Jesus clearly became a widely-known healer.  He had to have started at some time – and he probably did not get it directly from John the Baptist.  (In a later view, of course, it came with the Holy Spirit that descended on him at the baptism.)  
I have now learned that other Gospel readers, reflecting on the historical Jesus, have come to the same conclusion.  (The reflections on Matthew 3:13-17 given above were originally written in 2004.) 
How are these differences [between Jesus and John the Baptist] to be accounted for?  Paul Hollenbach (1982) discerns a shift in Jesus’ ministry from baptizer to healer, and accounts for the change by referring to Jesus’ experience of the kingdom of God in his power to heal and exorcize.  Robert Webb (1994, pp. 225-6) accepts this explanation and adds a further observation:  as a prophet, Jesus experienced God’s call at the time of his baptism by John, and only gradually understood the full significance of that call.  “Jesus’ shift from baptizer to healer and exorcist implies a shift to an increased experience and intimacy with the divine realm.”  (Stanton, The Gospels and Jesus, 2d ed., p. 188.)  
[The cited works are:  Paul Hollenbach, “The Conversion of Jesus:  From Jesus the Baptizer to Jesus the Healer,” Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, II.25.1 (Berlin:  de Gruyter, 1982), pp. 196-219.  
Robert Webb, “John the Baptist and his Relationship to Jesus,” in B. Chilton and C.A. Evans (eds.), Studying the Historical Jesus (Leiden:  Brill, 1994), pp. 179-230.]  
In the context of the Baptist’s highly public ministry, Jesus shared the apocalyptic framework of John’s work, but gradually realized that the power of God’s reign was already available for the suffering ones, through his own compassionate voice and touch.  Long after both men were dead, and probably toward the second generation of Jesus followers, Christians had developed a view of John’s subordination to Jesus the Messiah, and that is made clear – though with somewhat inconsistent variations in detail – at the beginnings of all the mainline Gospels.  
Graham Stanton concludes his discussion of John the Baptist with an observation about the greatest difference between Jesus and John.  Unlike Jesus, John was not acclaimed by his disciples as raised from the dead (though Herod heard rumors of such a thing, Matthew 14:1-2).  Thus John gradually became only a page in history while Jesus became the “one more powerful than” he – and much more!  Stanton, p. 189.  

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

January 5, 2020 - Epiphany of the Lord

                                                Biblical Words                                         [639]

Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14;  Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12. 
Epiphany is about a brilliant light coming into the world for all the nations. 
NOTE:  The Lectionary readings for Epiphany Day (January 6) are here given for the Sunday before Epiphany.  These are the texts appropriate to inaugurate the Epiphany Season.  
Christmas in Matthew’s Gospel emphasizes the royalty of the savior sent by God.  Epiphany glorifies even more the royal servant, whose righteousness and power shine like a beacon light for all the nations.  
Isaiah 60:1-6.  
Epiphany is about light shining, and the great Isaiah passage of Epiphany summons Zion to shine with the reflected light from God’s “dawning” upon her.  (The verb and noun “dawn” appear three times in 60:1-3, translated in NRSV as “risen” and “will arise” as well as “dawn.”)  This light is to shine in a darkness, deep darkness that enshrouds the peoples of the world, the nations (“Gentiles”; see Special Note on “Gentiles” below).  
This is a breathtaking view, a vast panorama exceeding a Disney World laser-light spectacular.  Here is the scene:  
All the world is a vast black space when a piercing light cuts through from the east and illumines a glorious city on an elevated summit (see Isaiah 2:2).  The city on the hill shines for all the distant lands that have only that brilliant glow to guide them as they move toward that center.  They go there to redistribute the wealth of all the world according to new priorities, now revealed as the righteousness and peace given by the Lord of all creation.  
The great light that shines on Zion attracts all the wealth and glory from among the nations, and as they bring the wealth toward the center, they also bring the dispersed sons and daughters of the mother city, now restored to her glory.  
Among the tribute flowing to Zion from Midian, Sheba, Kedar, and the like, are gold and frankincense.  Such gifts constitute “the praise of the Lord” from the nations.  
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14.  
The Psalm selection also focuses on the tribute and enrichment from the nations, but now the emphasis is on God’s rule through God’s king instead of the glory of God’s city.  The psalm is a prayer uttered on behalf of God’s king by the king’s people.  
The psalm has a superscription, “For Solomon,” that is, for “the Son of David.”  In the prayer the king is seen as the source of blessing for the whole natural realm, producing “prosperity” (shalom, verse 3) for the people and rain and showers for the earth.  
More especially is the king the source of justice and righteousness for the poor and oppressed of God’s people.  The tribute prayed for from the kings of Tarshish and Sheba is deserved – because “he delivers the needy when they call, / the poor and those who have no helper” (verse 12, NRSV).  This king redeems the poor from oppression and violence, “and precious is their blood in his sight” (verse 14).  
This is the kind of rule by the Son of David that will attract the devotion of the nations and cause them to stream to God’s city with gifts and new orientations of their power and wealth!  
Ephesians 3:1-12.  
The Epistle selection from Ephesians is one of those passages overloaded with lofty thoughts and pregnant phrases, too rich to be exhausted in a short reading.  The relevant thread, however, is “the mystery of Christ,” which concerns the Nations.  (“Gentiles” means “nations” in both Hebrew and Greek.).  
The “mystery” is that the true assembly (church) of God’s people is not confined to the people of Israel, but is destined from of old to include the nations.  It is these nations who are here informed about the mystery:  “…that is, the [nations] have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (verse 6, NRSV).  Through the gospel of which Paul was made a special servant, these nations are being brought in from the distant lands to share in the blessings that God’s King has brought to those who turn (repent) and reorient their lives toward the rule of God.  
The conclusion of this inspired line is that “the mystery” is revealed to the heavenly powers themselves, that the nations are joined with Israel in the church of Jesus Christ, “so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (verse 10, emphasis added).  
The multi-ethnic and multi-cultural church of Jesus Christ is a revelation to the heavenly beings themselves! 
Matthew 2:1-12.  
The exalted language and imagery of the message about the nations used in the previous readings is left behind by the Gospel reading for Epiphany.  
Here a series of simple circumstances are related very concisely.  We do not even hear of these magoi while they are still in the east, but they simply appear in Jerusalem and say, Where is the king?  We learn only later that they had previously seen a star leading them from the east (verse 9, alternate NRSV translation, “in the east”).  Here there is no fanfare or spectacular laser light show; only some ambassador types trying to get local directions in order to make an appearance in a very modest court.  Where the prophets and the psalmists exulted in pyrotechnic language to refer to worldly realities that were more modest, here the divine aura behind the simple events is significantly understated.  
The narrative presents, without emphasizing, that these are lofty representatives of the nations of the world, come to find the secret king whose coming changes the whole world.  Here royal gifts are presented in an utterly unassuming way.  The modesty and the secrecy of the real identity and destined work of God’s saving King are preserved.  
Only those with special wisdom (knowing the “mystery”) are aware of the cosmic import of what has happened and know how to conduct themselves accordingly.  These ambassadors from the east have their welfare and their secret preserved by God, and these sages “left for their own country by another road” (verse 12).  
The light of Epiphany had come into the world, and only a few knew it.  

Special Note on “Gentiles” [originally written around 2012]. 
In Christian tradition, the season of Epiphany includes the reading of many Biblical texts that refer to “the nations,” often rendered in English translations as “the Gentiles.”  This translation is a serious error, however, and this seems the right place to discuss it.  
Let’s put the matter bluntly:  There are no such things as “Gentiles” – unless you are speaking Latin.  
In translations of Biblical texts “Gentiles” is used to translate the Hebrew haggōyīm and the Greek ta ethnē.  Both of these terms mean “(the) nations,” and they should be so translated.  We get “Gentiles” because that is the Latin word for “(the) nations.”  The early English translators spoke Latin in their everyday discourse as scholars, and they didn’t bother to actually translate here.  They simply repeated the Latin gentes where the Hebrew and Greek said “nations.”   
We have gotten rid of “Gentiles” in modern dictionaries of Biblical Hebrew (Brown-Driver-Briggs and Koehler-Baumgartner under gōy), but it still appears in dictionaries of New Testament Greek (Thayer, Abbott-Smith, Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich under ethnos), not to mention the dictionaries devoted to theological terminology of the New Testament (Cremer, Kittel-Friedrich-Bromiley, and The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology [ed. Colin Brown]).  
The presumed justification for “Gentiles” is that Jewish usage in the post-Exilic and New Testament periods used “the nations” to refer to everybody else besides Jews, especially for religious purposes.  Thus, gōyīm became a pejorative term meaning the unbelievers, “heathen” (often used by the King James translators) and “pagans.”  This is a correct statement about Jewish usage in the New Testament period, but for people who spoke Hebrew or Greek, what was heard in this reference was “(the) nations,” not some third term between Jews and nations called “Gentiles.”  
Absurdity has been reached when writers fall into saying, “these references are to the Gentiles rather than to the nations” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. II [Eerdmans, 1964; original German 1935], p. 368.  Emphasis is mine.).   “The Gentiles” rather than “the nations”!  This is, of course, an oxymoron.  The Gentiles are the nations – in any ancient language, at least.  
As a discipline of thought, I have systematically avoided the term “Gentiles” for some decades.  In Biblical texts it can always be translated “(the) nations,” when the reference is to political units, or “the people(s) of the nations” when the reference is to populations.  
It is important to note that the Biblical terms are nouns. In both Hebrew and Greek, it is “the nations” or “peoples of the nations.”  Whenever you see “Gentile” as an adjective, you are reading a modern writer, not a Biblical writer.  When modern writers use “Gentile” as an adjective, they mean “non-Jewish,” and sometimes it’s important to force the modern writer to be clear about that.  There is no such thing as “gentile” in between “Jew” (or “Israelite”) and non-Jew.  
Why bother?  Avoiding “Gentiles” is important only if you are trying to retain the overtones and nuances of “the nations” in the books of Isaiah, Psalms, and other post-Exilic writings – and carry those nuances over to New Testament texts, especially those used in Advent and Epiphany seasons.  
There is one discussion of “the nations” in a theological dictionary that gets it right.  This is A.R. Hulst’s discussion in Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament (ed. Ernst Jenni and Claus Westerman, tr. Mark E. Biddle; Hendrickson, 1997), Vol. 2, esp. pp. 916-918.  In his discussion, Hulst uses the Hebrew term gōyīm rather than either “Gentiles” or “nations.”  
Hulst, along with many others, observed that in the Deuteronomistic era of Israelite religion a definite theory of “the nations” was developed and embodied in the Deuteronomistic writings (Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Kings, and Jeremiah).  In this theory, the land of Israel had been taken from the “the nations,” who resided there before, and given by Yahweh to Israel.  The previous nations had not served Yahweh, and instead practiced “abominations.”  Many enclaves of those nations had survived the conquest period and remained as “snares” to lure Israelites to their (forbidden) religious practices – especially by marrying their daughters and sons to Israelites.  The Deuteronomistic and prophetic writings warn loudly and repeatedly against yielding to these deadly enticements of “the nations”!  
It is worth repeating that this was strictly a theory; it was not what really happened in early Israelite history.  However, for the “Yahweh-only” religious movement (that from the time of Elijah on created the essentials of what became the Jewish scriptures), this theory became the religious reality by which faithful (and often elite) Israelites lived.  
Which meant that, if faithful, they lived in separation from “the nations.”  Hulst writes:  
Now Israel’s separation is deeply rooted in the OT…  Deuteronomy never mentions that Israel may have the assignment of bringing salvation, to call the gōyīm, near and far, to faith in the one and universal God.  One sees the gōyīm as potential seducers, thus an impending danger.  The gōyīm could at most admire Israel (Deut 4:6); preferably they should be satisfied with their own religion and not burden Israel.  
As is well-known, however, another trend is also visible in the OT in other passages, those which are aware that Yahweh chose his people so that it could be a means for him to proclaim salvation to the peoples of the earth and thus to bring the whole world to a recognition of God’s majesty.  Beginning with the basic promise in Gen 12 and continuing through later statements in Exod 19, this line leads to Isa 60.  But here too a feeling of religious superiority easily arises.  One must go through the depths to be rid of this feeling and to come to a correct view of Israel’s task of bringing blessing in relation to the salvation of the gōyīm.  Exile and diaspora can be valued positively in this regard.  The servant of Yahweh is the light of the gōyīm (Isa 49:6), of all humanity:  suffering for the well-being of the world comes into view.  (TLOT, vol. 2, pp. 917-918.)  
This long-term and redemptive view of the nations – which includes the view that the nations at first make war on Zion and its Lord, but then are attracted to Zion as the source of blessing – is presented especially in the book of Isaiah and in the psalms that celebrate the Reign of Yahweh and of Yahweh’s Anointed.  Historically, it was the ancient vision of the Zion tradition before it became enmeshed with the Deuteronomic compromises of the time of Josiah (and probably of Hezekiah before him). 
In the exilic and post-exilic periods this vision of the nations is expressed by those voices that speak most clearly of Zion’s shame and restored glory through Yahweh’s judgment and salvation.  These are the texts that most clearly defined, for early Jesus followers, the meaning of “the nations” as a part of their Advent and Epiphany messages.  
And the overtones and nuances of this redemptive view of the nations tend to get lost when the poor “nations” show up in our English texts as “the Gentiles.” 

Thursday, December 19, 2019

December 29, 2019 - 1st Sunday after Christmas

                                                            Biblical Words                                       [638]

Isaiah 63:7-9; Psalm 148; Hebrews 2:10-18; Matthew 2:13-23. 
The people praise God, but the Messiah is a fugitive among a sorrowing people. 
Isaiah 63:7-9.  
The prophetic reading for the first Sunday after Christmas is a short passage praising the God who acted in the past to rescue the suffering people.  
God’s past saving acts are the basis for hope in the present -- hope that God’s character is true and will again produce a reversal for these needy children of God.  (“Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely,” verse 8, NRSV.)  
This praise of past saving deeds is in fact only the opening of a long and passionate lament for new, urgently hoped-for saving events in the near future.  (The full passage is Isaiah 63:7-64:12 [Heb. 64:11].) 
This lament speaks for a people excluded by Abraham and Israel (63:16), a people who has witnessed the destruction of cities and temple (64:10-11), and a voice heard in extremis at the beginning of Advent (64:1, read for the First Sunday in Advent of Year B).  Such a powerful and impressive lament begins with our exclamation of praise for past saving deeds!  
Though our passage of praise is quite brief, there are two different versions of it in ancient Jewish traditions.  The Greek translation followed a slightly different Hebrew text from the one that became fixed in Rabbinic tradition.  The Greek reads, 
[God] became their savior in all their distress.  It was no elder or messenger but his presence [literally “the Lord himself”] that saved them.  [LXX, which is approximated in the NRSV main text.] 
The Masoretic text reads instead, 

So He was their Deliverer. / In all their troubles He was troubled, / And the angel of His Presence delivered them.  [JPS Tanakh version, and NRSV footnote is similar.]  
The Greek text, used through the early ages by Christians, puts the emphasis on God’s own activity as savior, as distinct from intermediaries such as angels or strong men.  The Masoretic reading puts the emphasis on God’s empathy with the suffering of the people – “in their troubles He was troubled” – and accepts an angelic presence in the actual salvation.  (The King James Version, it might be noted, follows the Masoretic reading.  “In all their affliction he was afflicted, …”  God suffers with God’s elected ones!)   
Psalm 148.  
The Psalm reading is an exuberant and delightful summons to heaven and earth to praise the Lord, to “hallelu” (the plural form) God.  The literary skill exhibited by the composer of the psalm is not complicated but is pleasing to watch as it unfolds.  
In the first section, seven imperatives call upon heavenly things to praise the Lord (verses 1-4), moving from one aspect to another of the heavenly realm.  These imperatives are followed by an exhortation:  “Let them praise …,” which in turn leads to a reason for the praise:  because all these summoned entities were “created” by God and fixed forever.  
The second section (verses 7-13) gives only a single call to praise, but elaborates more fully those to whom it is addressed.  We hear a chain of earthly things, places, and people who are included in this imperative:  components of the earth, elements of weather, the lands, animals, and people, all called on to “Praise the Lord.”  Again there comes an exhortation, “Let them praise the name of the Lord.”  And, finally again, a reason for the summons to praise is given:  because “his name alone is exalted; his glory is above earth and heaven” (NRSV). 
Does this reason for praise seem too general, too vague?  The poet has completed the original basic structure, but both creative art and faith erupt in a final declaration, a final proclamation of why God is to be praised:  “He has raised up a horn for his people, …for the people of Israel who are close to him” (verse 14).  
This psalm is not about this horn, this pillar of strength to empower the people.  More about it will be heard in other psalms.  This psalm is about the heavenly and earthly realms transformed by God’s gift of such a leader.  
Hebrews 2:10-18.  
The Epistle reading emphasizes the incarnation in the Christmas message.  
A divine son and brother came into the human condition, joining the brothers and sisters soon to be saved, and defeating the powers of sin and death on behalf of those in bondage.  

For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father [literally “are from one (source)”].  For this reason Jesus is not afraid to call them brothers and sisters… (verse 11, NRSV).
Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death,… and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death (verses 14-15).  
Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect…  Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested (verses 17-18).  
The message of the Incarnation is that we are not alone.  One like us, but with power and compassion, has penetrated our condition and has made for us a path to life and new being.  
Matthew 2:13-23.  
The Gospel reading presents the coming of Jesus as re-enacting the sacred history of the birth of Israel.  
There are three episodes included in the reading, each with a prophetic saying that the episode is said to “fulfill.”  
One of the most distinctive things about the Gospel According to Matthew is the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7).  The Sermon is presented as the Law to be observed by the disciples of Jesus instead of the old traditional law from Sinai.  The Sermon is the new Torah, like the old Torah given at Sinai, and the episodes that precede the Sermon highlight a few moments of the Israelite story before Sinai. 
In all these episodes Joseph is the actor, and he is guided by the messenger (“angel”) of the Lord who speaks to him in dreams.  In the first episode Joseph is told to take the holy baby and its mother to Egypt for safe-keeping – as Joseph, the son of Jacob, went to Egypt before his brothers to save them from famine (Genesis 37-46).  This was to fulfill the prophecy in which God said, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”  (The full verse, Hosea 11:1, reads, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, / and out of Egypt I called my son,” NRSV.)  
The second episode is the “slaughter of the innocents,” as it is traditionally called.  The wicked King Herod corresponds to Pharaoh in the Moses story, who out of fear of the revolutionary threat of the Israelites ordered that their male children be killed after birth (Exodus 1:22).  
Herod, afraid of a new king in Judah, gives orders to kill all the boys less than two years old in the neighborhood of Bethlehem.  Jesus is saved because he is already in Egypt, but many of the sons of Rachel died in the slaughter.  
Rachel, favorite wife of patriarch Jacob, had died and been buried in the vicinity of Bethlehem, where a stone monument marked the mourning rites observed by her descendants (Genesis 35:19-20).  These mourning rites near Bethlehem are referred to by the prophet Jeremiah, whose prophecy is “fulfilled” by this episode (Jeremiah 31:15, which Matthew 2:18 follows very closely.)  
The third episode of the reading is the secret return from Egypt and the migration to Galilee because there was still danger in Judea.  If this has a parallel in the book of Exodus, it must be the flight of Moses from Pharaoh’s death penalty, a flight that took Moses to the land of Midian, where he got a family and eventually found God (see Exodus 2:11-3:12).  
In Matthew, the “prophecy” fulfilled by this move reads, “He will be called a Nazorean” (Matthew 2:23).  Presumably this is supposed to remind the hearers of “Nazareth,” the town where Jesus grew up.  However, nobody knows where this prophecy came from, and even just what it means.  Nevertheless, this episode too is clearly intended to present a prophetic foundation for seeing Jesus as fulfilling Israel’s destiny as a chosen people.  
Joseph, guided by the messenger of the Lord, has carefully preserved the savior of Israel through the threats of wicked men and the tragedies of suffering innocent ones.  

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

December 25, 2019 - Christmas Day

Biblical Words                                                          [637]

Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)
An ecstatic declaration rings out about a Messiah — to oppressed people and to working shepherds.   
The readings for Christmas Day are all ecstatic declarations. Something awesomely good has happened, and humble people, nations, and all beings high and low are invited to rejoice in it.  
Isaiah 9:2-7. 
The prophetic reading is from Isaiah ben Amoz (about 740-700 BCE).  He speaks of people sunk in gloom and oppression, people who currently know the “yoke” and the “rod” of their oppressor, people who have often seen the “boots of the tramping warriors” and the “garments rolled in blood” (verse 5, NRSV).  They are called people who walk in darkness, who live in a land of deep darkness.  
The people referred to are the people of the former northern kingdom of Israel, people who had been conquered and occupied three decades before by the mighty kings of Assyria (733 BCE, first exile of the northern kingdom).  They now lived as subject peoples in provinces that the Assyrians had created out of their old home territory of Israel.  
However, something has now happened, something that makes the prophet believe that there is extremely good news for those subject peoples.  The age of the great king David is about to return, the reign of the God of David is dawning again for the subject peoples living in darkness.  
The signal that a great change is happening is a birth.  “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us” (verse 6; Hebrew verse 5).  A birth — a mere birth!  How can a birth of a child, no matter how high on the status scale, signify such a revolutionary turn as this passage envisions?  
Again, in the time of Isaiah ben Amoz we are probably not talking about a literal nativity. More likely is the kind of birth pronounced in the messianic psalm:  “I will tell of the decree of the Lord:  He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you’” (Psalm 2:7).  The speaker is the newly enthroned king, whom God has “today” adopted, “begotten” as son to reign over the rebellious nations who oppose God and his Anointed (Psalm 2:2).  The “birth” proclaimed in the Isaiah good news is the establishment of a new regime, for which great expectations are raised high among the hopeful people.  
There is a new king in Jerusalem.  A divine decision has been made to put an end to the oppression of the peoples (of the old northern kingdom), to establish justice and peace in place of slavery and war.  Because of this new king, there is an ecstatic declaration of new light for people who have been trapped in darkness.  
Under this new king, the oppression will be ended, the debris of war will be disposed of, and there will be the beginning of a true reign of peace (verses 4-5). This king will have some wonderful names pronounced in his honor, including “Prince of Peace” (verse 6). In his reign “there shall be endless peace” and the throne of David will be established “with justice and with righteousness / from this time onward and forevermore” (verse 7).  
It came from Isaiah’s time, but it has become a vision and an ecstatic hope for the ages. 
Psalm 96.  
The ecstatic declaration in the Psalm reading is a “new song.”  This is perhaps the most emphatic of the “Enthronement of the Lord” psalms, those psalms that celebrate Yahweh as King of all creation and source of all stability and justice (Psalms 47, 93, 95-99).  Its punch line as an enthronement psalm is verse 10:  “Say among the nations, ‘The Lord is king!’” perhaps better rendered “The Lord has become king!”  It is an event.  Something has happened (at least in the liturgy).  
The declaration of the Lord’s kingship always has as its corollary a judgment.  “The world is firmly established, …[therefore] he will judge the peoples with equity” (verse 10).  The kingship of the Lord is good news to the oppressed, the victims of injustice, but it is bad news to the oppressors, to the arrogant and those ruled by greed.  
The Lord, who has now appeared, is on the side of the needy and downtrodden.  For them, the ecstatic declaration at Christmas is good news.   
Titus 2:11-14. 
The ecstatic declaration in the Epistle reading is the opening.  “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all!” (verse 11, NRSV).  
The great event declared as good news always involves change.  Here the change emphasized is not in the outward conditions but in how the saved ones live.  The emphasis is on the consequences of the saving event as they should be developed in the lives of those who have been saved.  These consequences include a “training” in an orderly manner of life, and living with a hope for a greater glory to come.  
The climax of the great event is that Jesus Christ has prepared a people of his own, a people who are “eager to do what is good” (verse 14, NIV translation, avoiding NRSV’s “zealous”).  
The final consequence of God’s great act:  a people eager to do what is good!  
Luke 2:1-14 (15-20). 
In the Gospel reading the ecstatic declaration is by the angels.  That, however, is the climax of the story.  
The narrative begins with an imperial setting.  “In those days Caesar Augustus declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists.” (verse 1, CEB [Common English Bible]).  The writer of the Gospel has overstated the case a bit.  It may have seemed to the local people that all the world was involved in the census, but in reality the census in question only involved Judea and Samaria.  
The Census.  Archelaus, the son of Herod the Great, had ruled Judea and Samaria for ten years after Herod the Great’s death (from 4 BCE to 6 CE).  However, Archelaus was such a tyrant and foolish administrator that the Romans had fired him.  At the request of his own Jewish subjects, he was banished to distant lands (notice: he was not executed) and Judea and Samaria were put under the oversight of the governor of the province of Syria, whose name was Quirinius (verse 2).  Judea and Samaria were now for the first time (6 CE) coming under direct Roman rule, instead of being run by native kings or tetrarchs approved by the Romans.  It was Quirinius, governor of the Roman province of Syria, who took the census of Judea and Samaria in order to establish a realistic basis for taxing the people.  
When this census was taken — and it is the only Roman census of Judea on record — Jesus was already twelve years old, assuming with Matthew that he was born before the death of Herod the Great in 4 BCE.  For the Gospel writer Luke, the imperial setting of Jesus’ birth was more important than precise chronology.  What people remembered about those times was the census that was taken at the beginning of direct Roman rule.  
The Birth.  As the Gospel presents it, it was this imperial census that caused Joseph to make a trip to Bethlehem, taking along his very pregnant wife.  Joseph had to go to Bethlehem because he was a distant descendant of the great king David, who had himself been a shepherd around Bethlehem (I Samuel 17:12-14).  
Descendant of a great king or not, there was no room at the inn.  This little family is pretty humble, consigned in their great need to the barn with the animals.  (The reference to the “manger” establishes this.  That Greek word is used in the translation of Isaiah 1:3, where the donkey knows “its master’s crib.”)  The birth is told in simple terms.  “While they were there, the time came for Mary to have her baby.  She gave birth to her firstborn son, wrapped him snuggly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the guestroom” (verses 6-7, CEB).  
The real fireworksthat do some kind of justice to the magnitude of the event, take place out in the countryside, where a bunch of shepherds were on night duty, working where David had worked over a thousand years before.  A heavenly messenger (“angel”) appeared to these shepherds.  It became obvious that this was not something ordinary!  There is a blazing field of lazar light shining around this figure, which terrifies the shepherds.  As is standard procedure with heavenly messengers, the first thing said is, “Don’t be afraid!”  
Then the messenger makes the ecstatic declaration.  “I bring good news to you — wonderful, joyous news for all people.  Your savior is born today in David’s city.  He is Christ the Lord” (verses 10-11, CEB).  The messenger adds that you can identify the right baby by a sign:  he will be found in a manger!   
Then the Hallelujah Chorus breaks out — or more properly, the Gloria Dei Chorus.  A “great assembly of the heavenly forces” declares, “Glory to God in heaven, / and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (verse 14).  
Christmas is a huge claim for a humble event, and this ecstatic declaration to the shepherds reveals the secret that makes it awesome for all of heaven and earth!  

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

December 22, 2019 - 4th Sunday of Advent

                                                                    Biblical Words                                        [636]

Isaiah 7:10-16;  Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25.  
Births as signs of saving events and the giving of names reveal God's Secret Work.

Isaiah 7:10-16. 

The prophetic reading is the famous Isaiah passage about the “virgin” and the birth of the child named Immanuel.  In its original eighth-century BCE setting, the meaning of the prophecy was the shortness of time from conception to toddler-hood, and the great change that would come upon the Davidic king in that time. 

The historical situation in Isaiah’s time:  Ahaz, king of Judah and Jerusalem, is under siege by the neighboring kingdoms of Aram (Syria, capital city Damascus) and Israel (the Northern Kingdom, capital city Samaria).  The goal of the enemies is to force Judah to join a coalition of small states to resist the huge power of Assyria, which has been expanding its empire further and further into Syria and Palestine.  If successful, the besiegers would overthrow the Davidic dynasty in Jerusalem and place a new dynasty on the throne, headed by “the son of Tabeel” (Isaiah 7:6). 

Ahaz’s choices are (1) give in to the enemies and join the coalition, (2) simply withstand the siege and try to outlast the attackers, or (3) seek diplomatic escape by appealing to Assyria to come and rescue Jerusalem from its enemies. 

Isaiah, accompanied by his symbolically-named son “(only) a remnant will return,” had already delivered a message to Ahaz from Yahweh, telling him to take door number two, stand the siege and trust God to take care of it (7:1-9).  Our passage tells of a second encounter between Isaiah and Ahaz during the same crisis.  

Isaiah tries to convince Ahaz to ask for a sign to prove what is in fact God's will.  Ahaz doesn't want to hear what he knows Isaiah's message will be, and asserts that it is impious to put God to the test.  Therefore, Isaiah insists that God will give Ahaz a sign anyway, and he predicts the birth and the naming of a child. 

The child’s name will be Immanu-El, “God (El) is with us.”  

That is, a woman now (or about to be) pregnant will in a few months name her child “God with us,” symbolizing that deliverance from trouble has taken place.  When the child is a few years old (probably at weaning age when it eats “curds and honey”) the two enemy countries will be no more.  

We may note that this “sign” is not much help to Ahaz, because it will only happen after the issue has been settled.   Ahaz still has to live by faith, or sell out to Assyria (which is what he actually did, II Kings 16:7-9). 

The symbolic name, Immanuel, echoed the deliverance story of the Zion tradition.  In that liturgical drama of the saving of the Holy City from the onslaught of hostile nations, seen in Psalms 46, 48, and 76, the climax was the joyful proclamation that God is with us:  “The Lord of hosts is with us; / the God of Jacob is our refuge” (Psalm 46:11, NRSV).  The hope and expectation of such a deliverance continued down through the ages, evoked by the symbolic name Immanuel (“Emmanuel” in Greek texts, Septuagint and New Testament).  By New Testament times it had created a meaning-world of its own with special reference to the birth of Jesus. 

The “virgin” and the prophecy.  When the Latin-speaking West learned to read Hebrew again after the Middle Ages, it became clear that the Hebrew word for the woman in Isaiah 7:14 (‘almah) means “young woman,” who may or may not be married.  Hebrew has a different word for “virgin” (bethūlāh).  In the second century BCE, when Isaiah was translated into Greek, the key word in 7:14 was translated by the Greek parthenos, “virgin.”  It was this Greek that the Gospel writers read and that gave force to the narratives of the “virgin birth” as reported in Matthew and Luke.  It was only in Greek that the “virgin” birth was a significant “sign.” 

Isaiah's prophecy created a history that ran on into the future to create a whole new spiritual world, the world of the Christian Madonna.   (On the historical development of Jesus’ virginal conception, see Special Comment below.)

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19.  

The Psalm reading is portions of a prayer by a people who have been through struggle and defeat.  It refers particularly to the tribes of the Northern Kingdom, using the unusual name Joseph for them (verse 1).  The prayer recognizes that God has brought punishment upon these peoples — “you have fed them with the bread of tears” (verse 5, NRSV). 

The main plea is expressed in a recurring punch line, which increases in intensity on each repetition through the psalm:  “Restore us, O God … Restore us, O God of hosts … Restore us, O Lord [Yahweh] God of hosts,” verses 3, 7, 19. 

What is asked of God with each utterance of this plea is, “let your face shine, that we may be saved.”

It is a fitting prayer for a people waiting in darkness for Advent.

Romans 1:1-7 

The Epistle reading is the creedal statement masquerading as the writer’s credentials in the opening of Paul's letter to the Romans.

It starts “Paul … set apart for the gospel of God,” and proceeds in a complicated sentence to summarize the essentials of the gospel. 
The gospel (1) was promised before hand through God’s prophets in the holy scriptures; (2) it is about God’s Son.  
God’s Son (3) was descended from David, “according to the flesh”; (4) was declared Son of God with the power of the holy resurrection from the dead; (5) gave grace and apostleship to the speaker, Paul.
Paul (6) was made an apostle specifically to the nations [“Gentiles”]; (7) to call the nations to the name of Jesus as the Christ; which nations (8) include the Roman Christians, who belong to Jesus Christ, though Paul did not originally convert them.

It is the descent from David that is most pertinent to the Advent reading.  It was to the “house of David” that Isaiah's prophecy was delivered (“Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also?” Isaiah 7:13).  

In the long run the good news of the birth of the Anointed One is for the nations, but its channel is through the great symbolic king of Israel who received the promise of perpetual kingship for his family (e.g., II Samuel 7:16).  It is the heir of David who is expected to bring in the coming deliverance from oppression and sins. 

Mathew 1:18-25.  

The Gospel reading is the awesome events preceding Jesus' birth as seen from Joseph's viewpoint, that is, the viewpoint of Mary’s fiancée.  

The story simply tells us, with no elaboration, that Mary became pregnant by the Holy Spirit.   This created a serious problem for the upstanding man who was engaged to her, who knew he wasn't the father.  It takes a divine intervention to prevent Joseph from sending her away — making her her father's problem and presumably consigning the kid to adoption or some despised lowly status.  Every step of Joseph’s actions through Matthew 1 and 2 is guided, as here, by a heavenly messenger speaking in a dream. 

The messenger (“angel” in NRSV) tells Joseph who the real father is, and goes on to tell Joseph what to name the boy.

Jesus, the Greek form of the name Joshua, comes from the Hebrew root meaning to be saved or victorious. The messenger says this Jesus will “save his people,” though the qualification is added that he will save his people “from their sins.”  The implication is that of all the powers that have oppressed and defeated the people, the ultimate or most critical power is that of their own sins.  The beginning of deliverance from oppression and misery is deliverance from sins. 

Since the narrative has now described a “virgin birth,” the Gospel writer gives the first of many prophecies from the older scriptures that were seen as fulfilled in various events of Jesus' activity.  

Here we get the Isaiah prophecy of the virgin conceiving a son who will be called Emmanuel – yet another name for the Spirit-conceived child.  The messenger explains the name to Joseph.  (Two forms of the name are found in English, "Emmanuel" follows Greek, "Immanuel" follows Hebrew pronunciations.) 

Christian tradition from the beginning has connected the "virgin" with the entry of God into a world depressed in misery and darkness.  A deep and subtle cord runs through Christian cultures focused on this mother of the Son of God, who can be called the "God-bearer" in many traditions, particularly Eastern ones.  Some deep cultural roots of that pervasive virginal-maternal theme were probably tapped already by the Isaiah prophecy about the “young woman” — and this theme has carried a mystique that we still feel as the Advent season climaxes. 
Special Comment:  the "Virgin Conception" of Jesus
On terminology:  Raymond Brown pointed out many times that the Biblical stories are not about a virgin "birth"; they are about a virgin conception.  Only much later in Mariology did the idea develop that Mary was a virgin after the birth.

In Matthew's narrative the virginity of Mary is itself not emphasized.  The narrative spends its time, not on Mary’s virginity, but on Joseph’s dilemma.  The fact that Mary “was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit” (1:18) creates the problem; it is not itself the big deal.  Later Christian tradition made the “miracle” of the virgin conception a big deal, even making belief in the “virgin birth” a test of true Christians (see James Barr, Fundamentalism, Westminster, 1978, pp. 175-76). 

A Progressive view of Scripture would seek a historical understanding of the virgin conception and its implications for Christian attitudes toward human sexuality, parenthood, and God.  

Broadly speaking, the virginity of Mary is simply a corollary of the impregnation by the Holy Spirit.  For early Christians the important point was that the father was divine.  God — working as the Holy Spirit — was the father.  The whole business of a virgin conceiving by the Holy Spirit is a radical affirmation that Jesus was the Son of God — from birth

Thus, the virgin conception is one stage in the developing Christology within the New Testament.  When and how did Jesus become (or become manifested as) the Son of God?  Essentially, these are the successive answers:  
  • First, the resurrection made Jesus the Son of God (seen in Romans 1:4).  
  • Later reflection made Jesus’ Baptism the moment of his becoming the Son of God.  (This stage is reflected in Mark.) 
  • Thirdly, in Matthew and Luke, Jesus became Son of God at conception by the Holy Spirit. 
  • And finally, in John's Prologue, Jesus was the Son of God as Logos before the creation
(Many scholars have discussed this, but see especially Raymond Brown, An Introduction to New Testament Christology, Paulist Press, 1994, Part III, pp. 103-152.) 

Thus, a story of a virgin conception is one way to affirm that Jesus was the Son of God.  The idea of a virgin conception is relatively late in the tradition.  The letters of Paul know nothing of it; the Gospels of Mark and John know nothing of it; it is not mentioned in the later general epistles or the book of Revelation.   While Matthew and Luke both have cycles of birth stories that include the virgin conception, their presentations are completely different, showing there was little common tradition about the matter.  

By the time these two Gospels were written (around 80 to 90 CE), the following points were fixed in pre-Gospel tradition, since both Gospels, in spite of their differences, assume them:  

(1)  the Holy Spirit caused the conception, 
(2)  Mary was a virgin betrothed to Joseph before the conception; 
(3)  Joseph was a descendant of David; 
(4)  the birth took place in Bethlehem, 
(5)  in the days of Herod the Great.  

For the rest, Matthew and Luke reflect entirely different settings with entirely different people involved.  Local story-telling skills had been inspired to fill in the details according to different settings! 

As to the implications of the virgin conception for Christian attitudes, it is clear that the original Isaiah prophecy, quoted by Matthew, did not refer to a “virgin” at all (see on the first reading above).  It referred to a “young woman” ready for motherhood in the standard manner.  The “miracle” there had to do with the political arena of Jerusalem and Judah, not with the birth as such. 

Somewhere between the eighth century and the second century BCE, the young woman became a “virgin.” We don't know how, but it apparently happened in the Greek-speaking circles of Judean scribes, and got recorded in the Greek translation of the Isaiah passage.  Early Jesus followers in Greek-speaking circles seized on the now virgin-conception as a “sign” and became convinced that it referred to the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.  Their delight at discovering this hidden sign in the scriptures was expressed in the Matthew story of Joseph's dilemma, and, among different poetic believers, in Luke's richly detailed annunciation by Gabriel to the virgin girl of Nazareth.  

As the second century of Christianity developed, believers increasingly came to prize sexual innocence as a sign of purity of faith — whether among women or men.  From that time on a very different attitude toward the virginity of Mary grew, which ultimately became expressed in the idea of her perpetual virginity — right on to her death.  

Human sexuality had never stained her special holiness.  She had to remain utterly pure because the Lord had passed through her body — without breaking a hymen at any stage of the process.  Mary’s future after that is the story of all the Madonnas of Christendom. 

Since the Reformation, Protestants have de-divinized Mary and in many cases have accepted at face-value the Gospel narratives about Jesus’ (younger) brothers and sisters, with no mention of step mothers, cousins, or the like (which were supplied as Jesus’ “brothers” and “sisters” in Catholic tradition from at least the time of Jerome, around 400 CE). In this Protestant perspective, Jesus’ family life would have been standard issue.  Only his status as (unrecognized) Messiah was produced by the virgin conception.

For the rest we may imagine him a regular son of Nazareth — until a wild-man named John roused him to a different phase of his human life.