White House or Temple?

21 November 2008

Robin Griffith-Jones looks at two takes on the nativity

Incarnation: this detail of a hexaptych icon with themes from the Great Feasts, from the Holy Monastery of St Catherine, Sinai, Egypt, appears on the cover of Christmas METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART, NEW YORK

Incarnation: this detail of a hexaptych icon with themes from the Great Feasts, from the Holy Monastery of St Catherine, Sinai, Egypt, appears on the ...

Christmas: The original story
Margaret Barker

SPCK £12.99 (978-0-281-06050-4)
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

reviewed with

The First Christmas: What the Gospels really teach about Jesus’s birth
Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan

SPCK £7.99 (978-0-281-06004-7)
Church Times Bookshop £7.20

HERE are two books on Christmas from two very different viewpoints. They cover the same subject, focus inevitably on the same two short texts (the opening chapters of Matthew and Luke), and are aimed at similar audiences. Each expounds the stories scene by scene. Each emphasises the Old Testament typo­logies involved and — to powerful effect — draws non-biblical texts into the discussion. But they are quite different in content and tone.

For Borg and Crossan, the nativity stories are parables: what matters is not what they tell us of Jesus’s birth (almost nothing), but why they are told as they are. To assess them for historical accuracy is to miss the point. The stories are setting up Jesus in programmatic — and dangerous — opposition to the emperors of Rome. (Augustus was described as the son of Apollo, god of light; he was the saviour and son of God whose epiphany brought the gospel of peace and a new beginning to the world.) The Roman Empire proclaimed peace through military victory; but Jesus proclaimed peace through non-violent justice.

To confess Jesus as Lord is to commit oneself to his empire and to no other; to live and work within God’s “participatory eschatology”; and so to gauge without illusion — and so perhaps to confront — the American empire which is the heir to Rome’s all-pervasive rule. The authors (both American) want to inspire their readers with God’s future, not have a fight over Jesus’s imagined past: this is a book about modern Western engagement with the West’s own power.

The book is generous to its readers: long passages are quoted in full. Some possible ingredients are omitted from the discussion, but those which are used give it a clear, engaging flavour. Readers may ask none the less how much in the Gospels (for Borg and Crossan) is parabolic; how it came so early and for so many years to be thought of as history; how Revelation fits in with their picture of a peaceful jus­tice; and how readily the same an­tago­nism to Rome could be read out of the texts and exploits of Judaism, which was, despite them all, given special privileges in the Empire.

Margaret Barker portrays a world of a very different texture. She has for many years been showing us that the Temple, with its symbolism and liturgy, were central to Christ and to his first followers. Jesus was the in­car­nation of Yahweh, the Son of God Most High, by Mary, the “incarna­tion” of Wisdom.

The stories of Jesus’s birth are stories of the Holy of Holies. As at his first heavenly birth he belonged in heaven, so at his second earthly birth he belonged in the Holy of Holies which was heaven on earth. He would emerge to live and die on earth, but, at his death would re-enter the Holy of Holies as both the High Priest and as the victim whose blood the High Priest sprinkled there.

The Temple traditions informing every line of the New Testament’s infancy stories — and the under­valued Infancy Gospel of James — were nearly expunged from the Jewish scriptures by reformers in the sixth century BC, and by rabbis who were fearful of Christian expansion in the second and later centuries AD; they have been almost wholly forgotten in modern scholarship.

Margaret Barker has, yet again, written an extraordinarily rich book. Every paragraph gives a new view­point from which to see, as if for the first time, history and rituals behind long-familiar texts. Thoughtless historical scepticism is quietly but firmly opposed. No ingredients are omitted; all of them are distilled into their most concentrated form.

Readers unfamiliar with Barker’s work may find the meal she offers hard to digest at first. What should they do? Read the book slowly. Then flick through it again, to let the pieces of its jigsaw settle into place. Then read it again, more slowly still. What Milton found in church music, patient readers will find here: this book will dissolve them into ecstasies and bring all heaven before their eyes.

The Revd Robin Griffith-Jones is Master of the Temple, in London.

To order either book, email the details to Church Times Bookshop (please mention "Church Times Bookshop price")

To order either book, email the details to Church Times Bookshop (please mention "Church Times Bookshop price")

Coronavirus (Covid-19) update

The latest: Daily news updates

Get the free Church Times email bulletin


> Lift Up Your Hearts: 29 May (PDF download)

> All our recommended resources for prayer, worship, live streaming and more


Record your experience of the pandemic, the ministry that you have given or received, and what you think will happen to churches in a post-pandemic world

> Take the survey

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)