Nestled within the Christmas story are a series of presumptions that may have come to order our own lives, such that we do not notice how strange they are. The overwhelming and most obvious accent of the Christmas story concerns the notion of who and what are important. Historically we have no record of peasant life, poor life, teenage girl life, or carpenter life. It is kings and warriors who live lives worth recording, and even here the accent falls upon public life and not interiority. There is no record of Darius I struggling with a guilty conscience after his ill treatment of Bardiya, about whom he fabricated the story that he was an imposter king. Being important was always a function of hierarchy, and if you were at the top you got to make the rules. Those at the top of the hierarchy were accorded all of the attention, and meaning (ethics, value) was garnered from the same circumstance. Public deeds of valor or heroism were not only what were important but in a scale of enduring meaning, this was all that was important.
In the birth story of Jesus this is reversed, as God visits a teenage girl in a country town, Nazareth, of a backwater region, Galilee, of a people that have no political importance on the world stage. We know as readers that there is no more important event in world history and by extension, at this moment the weight of meaning of world history falls upon this one who is all but a non-person by any standard measure. Something strange and subtle happens as we focus in on Mary, as even her thought life is opened to us and we are clued in to her reactions to this circumstance which is being revealed to her. “Mary was greatly troubled” at the angel’s words “and wondered what kind of greeting this might be” (Luke 1:29). The drama takes an inward turn, we are so used to, that we may miss its significance.
The earliest biographical records, hieroglyphic inscriptions on Egyptian monuments (c. 1300 B.C.E.) and cuneiform inscriptions found in Assyria (c. 720 B.C.E.) and Persia (c. 520 B.C.E.) for example, say nothing like, “The slave Asclepius wondered about the futility of life. Do this, do that, run here, run there, and he wondered what it all means.” There is no such inscription, no such record. What we have instead are commemorations of the deeds of the kings. Whether runic inscriptions in England or anecdotes or character sketches in ancient China, they follow something like the work of Homer in recording archetypal subjects. There were biographies of great men’s deeds, but they were men and it was their deeds that was the sole focus. No biographer of the great men bothered to record their misdeeds and no one recorded the inner life of the great men.
Among the earliest surviving biographical literature are those contained in De viris illustribus (On illustrious men), by Cornelius Nepos (c. 100–c. 25 B.C.E.), which would become a model for subsequent serial biography. Though not too far removed from the life of Christ, the literary technique unfolding in Scripture and the focus of concern on the inner life, the obscure, the poor, are completely absent. Plutarch (c. 46–after 119 C.E.), who comes after Christ, is perhaps the most famous ancient biographer, and he is unusual in his focus on his subject’s moral character, but what is lacking is both the technique and the focus on internal thought life.1
The question is whether the technique and the sense of agency are somehow being changed up before our eyes in Scripture and particularly in the birth narratives? There is a significance attached to human agency and choice which is set before Mary as she is presented with God’s plan, which seems incomparable even in biblical literature. Perhaps the scenes in which God is trying to persuade Moses to go to Egypt, or the opening episodes in Genesis in which the singular decision of Eve is weighted with world consequence, might compare but with Mary we are concerned with the redemption of the world. She is quite literally the means by which God is going to be incarnate, and as never before there is a focus on human agency as history is turning on the thought life of a teenage girl.
The text does not indicate that her consent was required but it is notable that she presumes that her approval of and obedience to God’s plan is one that she is expected to offer up. “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled” (Luke 1:38). The story seems to require her consent or at least willing acquiescence, which is much more than ancient societies ever record granting to a teenage girl. As my daughter indicated when I told her the subject of my blog, maybe there were many girls who said no to God’s plan prior to Mary. Given the choice of the red pill or blue pill, maybe a return to the matrix of culture, to following the rules, is the common outcome.
It is not simply that there is an undeveloped literary technique outside of Scripture which, as in painting, has yet to capture any but two-dimensional figures. What is unfolding around Mary is both a unique technique and sensibility. Literary specialist, Robert Alter, suggests these developments can be partially traced out in the literary developments of Hebrew Scripture, which he was surprised to find resembles modern literature more than the parallel literature of the time. Biblical narrative, from its opening chapters makes use of interior monologue. He notes that this was expected in modernists such as Faulkner and Virginia Woolf, where the monologues run on for pages, but it was a surprising technique and sensibility to encounter in ancient literature. He points to the example of how Saul devised a scheme to have David killed on the battlefield as recorded in the interior monologue of I Samuel 18:17: “And Saul had thought, ‘Let not my hand be against him but let the hand of the Philistines be against him.’” Instead of the characters being marionettes pulled by the web of expectation of the culture, Alter finds plot development, the evolution of character, and exposure of human interiority. We are told that Michal, Saul’s daughter, loved David (the only woman in the Bible of whom this is said), that the people loved David, and we are given detailed descriptions of the thought life and jealousies of Saul – a dangerous transparency, Alter notes, in the Machiavellian political world of the Book of Samuel.
A consistent element Alter does not explicitly name, but which he seems to be tracing, is that as long as characters are following the rules and doing what is expected their personhood remains closed to us. David remains largely opaque until he too, having fallen for Bathsheba, plots to kill Uriah. As David’s life and his family’s life fall apart, we are let in on the lusts, murderous plots, and failed expectations of David, his children, and his commanding general. His adultery with Bathsheba and murder of her husband unleashes a series of dark tragedies: David’s son Amnon rapes his half-sister Tamar; her brother Absalom exacts a bloody vengeance; Absalom flees and returns to court, only to usurp the throne; his death is engineered by the cold pragmatist, general Joab; and the strangeness of David’s reactions are notable and a deep insight to his personhood. He never stops loving Absalom and refuses to give up on him until Joab forces his hand. David mourns inappropriately (washing his face and ceasing mourning at the death of Bathsheba’s first child), he loves excessively, he is an embarrassment to his wife, an object of jealousy to Saul, and like most of the characters in the Bible and unlike the characters in the surrounding literature, he is deeply flawed, profoundly contradictory and a complexly realized individual. The question this begins to evoke is, how is this full development of personality pertinent to the religion as it is presently practiced?
In the short sketches we have of Joseph, the initially revealing information given to us is that he is of the line of David. Perhaps this is the needed hint as to how his story is to be read. We might imagine, here is un-David, but there is a similar opening of the personality of the man, in contrast to the expectations of the culture. However, a reverse course begins to be traced.
The bulk of the Christmas story is about God getting the human agents to cooperate with his plan, but his plan does not in any way fit with the law or Jewish expectations. Joseph does not need to consider whether or not he will go ahead with the marriage when his bride turns up pregnant, as the dictates of the society are clear. Matthew only need inform us, Joseph “was faithful to the law.” Joseph is willing to bend the law and to silently end his engagement but he has not yet broken free of the constraints that are placed upon him. We have indications he was a kind soul, but his only choice was whether to halt the marriage quietly or publicly. It would not have occurred to him to enter into an illegal marriage, and it certainly would not have occurred to him that God wanted him to marry illegally. “Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly” (Matt. 1:19). This challenge of law and cultural norms frames and fills out the life of Christ: it begins through an illegal marriage, culminates in a law defying death, and ends with the breaking of the seal of Roman law placed upon his tomb. With Christmas and Christ, we are stepping outside of a rule governed cosmos in which persons are but an extension of the cosmic order.
Matthew tells us what Joseph has “in mind” or what his internal dialogue and intention are. In turn, the concern of God and his angel is not only with what Joseph plans to do but the attitude or emotion attached to his plan: “But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit’” (Matt. 1:20). We enter into Joseph’s internal thought life – what he had “in mind” and his “consideration” – and this is all exposed in sharp contrast to God’s intention expressed to him in a dream. Much like his son’s future challenge to the law, Joseph’s kindness, his love for Mary, and his humanity are not revealed to us because he fits the pattern expected of him, but because like his forebear David, he begins to defy expectations – only in a different direction. Both Joseph and Mary are disclosed to us internally and in the fullness of their personhood, not because they are exemplars of their culture, but because they are God’s human agents involved in overturning cultural expectations.
The problem with this literary/personal focus is that it does not fit with either the way that we normally read sacred literature nor with our expectations of how it functions in the religion. David is no spiritual example and it is hard to imagine how he prefigures the Christ, except in the vaguest sense as a king who was promised an eternal reign. This does not explain the need for the fullness of his story and of the other stories of the Hebrew Bible. Of course, the same problem is going to repeat itself with the coming of Christ, in that doctrine, especially in which Christ is simply a sacrifice, has no real need for the full story of the life of Christ.
What gets passed over in the focus on doctrine and propositions is the peculiar literary art, the development of fully embodied personhood, the rise of human agency to a central level of importance. In Alter’s description, the Hebrew gift to the world does not reside in material culture (archeology, ceramics, jewelry, sculpture, or painting) but in its literary art. He maintains “the ancient Hebrew writers altogether eclipsed their neighbors, producing powerful narratives that were formally brilliant and technically innovative and poetry . . . that rivaled any poetry composed in the Mediterranean world.” He does not presume to know how or why this literary achievement came about, but what is strange is that the purveyors of the religion have traditionally not even noticed. This overwhelming fact about the unique nature of the Old and New Testament is the one element that the religions, Jewish and Christian, have not traditionally accounted for or even accommodated.
The thing that links Christ to Joseph and David and to the peculiar nature of the Hebrew Scriptures, and apart from which only the vaguest doctrine can seem to apply, is the full-blooded nature of a shared humanity. That is, it is not just that there is a deep literary portrayal of an already present humanity, but what Eric Auerbach may have been the first to recognize, the Bible unleashes a new literature and a new form of human sensibility. The Bible is not apart or simply a part of the Western literary tradition and its new sense of humanity but it is a generative force within it. As Alter describes Auerbach’s contribution, it is his recognition “that it is not Homer but the Bible that is the precursor of the representation of problematic quotidian reality that passes through Dante and Shakespeare to culminate in the realist novel of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.” Add to this the insight of Charles Taylor, who traces out the sources of the modern self, and we see the unfolding fulfillment of the words of Simeon to Mary in regards to the work of Jesus: “the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed” (Luke 2:35). This revealing of what was formerly concealed unleashes not only a new sense of freedom and equality (all have equal and free access to the saving work of Christ) but a new sense of what it means to be human as human choice and agency takes on an added depth of meaning.
Maybe this new sensibility is revealed as much in the range of negative possibilities it opens as in its immediate positive benefits. It is doubtful the ancients struggled with the existential questions that seem to be a by-product of the sort of freedom and egalitarianism which develop out of a Judeo-Christian heritage. Taylor, suggests that the notion that we are deep individuals with hidden well springs of feeling and perhaps of talent, is a late development occurring somewhere toward the end of the eighteenth century. Certainly, in the typical traditional society meaning and value are a direct by-product of a tightly woven web in which it could not have occurred to someone to chart a completely alternative course. As a result, all sorts of identity crises and the recognition of chance and fate and human choice will all be seen in a different light.
It is hard to imagine, even in the near modern setting, say a warrior under Cochise (stories with which I was fascinated as a boy) having an identity crisis. “Chief, I am just not feeling the whole raiding and stealing and macho warrior scene. I may sit this raid out and lay back at the teepee and play my flute and reconsider my options in life.” There were official contraries and clowns among the Plains Indians, yet theirs was a highly regulated opposite to the norm. The weight of searching out one’s true identity and living an “authentic” life true to an inward reality seems to require a different order of humanity.
This is not simply a literary device but, in the description of Charles Taylor and others, what unfolds from the biblical understanding is a new concept of personhood, a new focus on the importance of human interiority, and this will have ramifications great and small, good and evil, which constitute our present reality. This was first brought to my attention in the case of the Japanese novel, called the “I” novel, as it explored the heightened emphasis put upon inner dialogue (which is all that some of these novels consist of) and personal suffering as in some way inherently meaningful. All of this unfolds in a very short time span in Japan as the traditional culture gives way to Western and an inadvertent Christian influence. The destructiveness this new art form and new sensibility had on its first practitioners in Japan (with very few exceptions suicide is the common fate of early Japanese novelists), indicates that the focus on interiority is not neutral, but holds out both potential freedom and harm.
It is in the modern period, Clifford Geertz tells us, that we all begin with the capacities to live a thousand kinds of life, and this can be taken as a great opportunity or call for endless crisis and questioning. Choice of career, choice of spouse, choice of identity, are open as endless possibility and endless doubt about the “proper” course. The philosopher, Elizabeth Anderson, notes that people now have the freedom to have “crosscutting identities” in what she describes as new levels of freedom. “At church, I’m one thing. At work, I’m something else. I’m something else at home, or with my friends. The ability not to have an identity that one carries from sphere to sphere but, rather, to be able to slip in and adopt whatever values and norms are appropriate while retaining one’s identities in other domains?” She asks if this is not what it means to be free in the modern period?
At the same time, both the cataclysmic and utopian possibilities of human choice are laid bare before our eyes. We now recognize that Chin Woo or some obscure individual in Wuhan must have had a hunger for pangolin steaks or fried bat, such that his dinner choice will unleash a global pandemic. What might have once been assigned to the gods or to karma, we now recognize is a product of human choice. If Adolf Hitler had been just a little bit more confident as a painter, is it possible he would have pursued mixing water colors rather than dictatorship? Is it possible that World War I and even World War II could have been avoided if Gavrilo Princip, who would shoot Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, had died only a few years earlier of tuberculosis?
On the positive side, we now recognize that what was once presumed to be the cosmic order or the natural state is the product of human culture and hierarchy which can be manipulated or changed up entirely. Freedom is a possibility which can, in part, be manipulated and controlled. But this does not mean tragedy and futility are easier to take, knowing they are the product of human choice. As Simeon tells Mary, “And a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:35). The depth of human suffering is perhaps only aggravated in recognition that most all of it can be laid at the feet of human cruelty. At the same time, the reality of a salvation focused on revealing the full depth and possibility of human personhood, can be seen as holding out realization of a different cosmic order.
Biography – Ancient Biography – Lives, Biographical, Biographies, and Illustrious – JRank Articles https://science.jrank.org/pages/8462/Biography-Ancient-Biography.html#ixzz6hSdTeH2u
Robert Alter, “A Life of Learning: Wandering Among Fields” Christianity and Literature, Vol. 63, No. 1 (Autumn 2013) https://www.christianityandliterature.com/Robert-Alter
 Ibid, Alter.
 Ibid, Alter.
 Nathan Heller, “The Philosopher Redefining Equality”, in an interview and article in The New Yorker (December 31, 2018).