Ox and ass before him bow

One of the great delights that many people like myself have at Christmastide is using our knowledge of history and the Bible to ruin everyone’s fun. So my biblical studies friends will post a yearly thing about what exactly we can really say about the events of Luke’s Gospel based either solely on the text or with supporting knowledge from ancient history and archaeology.

All those things like numbering your wise men or even that the manger in question was in a stable — that’s all silly fluff, added by ahistorical medieval people who had no appreciation for a dry discussion of the social history of first-century Judaea.

I’m at a point where, while I enjoyed these things for a while, I’m not so into it anymore.

Take the beasts in the title of this post: ox and ass. One year during his run as Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, in the midst of other matters of interest, mentioned that the beasts alongside the manger are really just legendary. No such mention comes in the Bible. And, indeed, they are an extrapolation by poor, ignorant late antique and medieval Christians who (logically enough) assume that, since mangers are usually found in stables, Jesus was born in a stable.

Not that Lord Williams of Oystermouth put it that way, thankfully.

Anyway, that ox and ass we all have with our Nativity sets, that are in Christmas pageants since the days of St Francis, that appear in Christmas carols (such as ‘Good Christian Men, Rejoice’) have been around for a while. I’m sure someone out there knows better than I do, but the earliest I’ve met them is carved into a fourth-century sarcophagus now in the Museo nazionale romano at Palazzo Massimo:

Now, even if the Church of the Holy Nativity in Bethlehem is not on the site of Jesus’ birth, even if Jesus was not born in a stable or if the Greek word doesn’t mean in, I think there is a fittingness to the ox and ass. And the more I learn about late antique and mediaeval Christianity, the more their world intersects mine, the more I read of their texts, the more I like this ox and ass.

The ox and ass are not just a potentially mistaken (but possibly true) historical detail.

I think they are theological.

The line from ‘Good Christian Men, Rejoice’ gets it:

Ox and ass before Him bow, for He is in the manger now

You see, when we’re not being pendantic about the historical details in the Bible, today we (especially the heirs of the Reformation) tend to collapse the entire significance of Jesus into his salvific substitutionary sacrifice on Calvary — even when we look upon the little town of Bethlehem.

But there is something powerful and dramatic and startling about Christmas. God demonstrates to us that he is not aloof. He is not a Platonic untouchable unmoved mover. He is not so transcendent that we will never encounter him. His holiness is not so delicate that he cannot mingle with us.

Fulfilling Isaiah 64:1, God has rent the heavens and come down amongst men. And, wonder of wonders, he has arrived not as the White Rider of Revelation, not as the suffering servant of Isaiah 54 (and the later chapters of the Gospels), but as a helpless, tiny infant. He who created Mary (reminds St Ephrem the Syrian) is fed by Mary’s milk.

God is Jesus.

God is the ruler of all creation. His coming to Earth as a human, the creator taking on the form of a creature, has cosmic implications. All of creation groans in expectation of the salvation being wrought through the power of the Incarnation. God has become a baby. The ox and ass in the pictures, the Nativity sets, the church plays, and the hymn — they represent creation. We all too often forget that we are part of the same creation as the beasts. But God is king of the beasts.

And so the beasts bow before him, lying in a manger.


‘We ought to understand Jesus within context first’ – some thoughts on doing theology

A friend of mine likes to occasionally post religious questions on Facebook to inspire conversation. Today, I saw:

Before his Resurrection, did Jesus know that the Earth orbits the Sun?

My short answer, ‘Yes.’ I don’t actually know if it’s right, mind you.

One other answer troubles me not by its conclusion (‘No.’) but by the premisses the commenter alluded to:

I would say that he didn’t know. To provide an adequate rationale to my postulation will take me far too long. I think a start is to unpack how much western thought about God and systematics we have unappropriately projected onto Jesus while he was on earth. (Not that I am against western thought or systematics but we ought to understand Jesus within context first)

I am not entirely sure where this author is going, frankly. But it hints at things that concern me. Somehow, this person believes that understanding Jesus within context will cause us to reject an understanding of Jesus that would allow him to maintain divine knowledge whilst incarnate on earth.

First, I imagine (perhaps falsely) this person holds a dichotomous position between ‘Hebraic’ and ‘Greek’ thought. This is the sort of position that sometimes leads people to reject theological concepts about God such as His eternity (as classically understood), His Trinitarian ousia, his omniscience (as classically understood), impassibility as well as the creatio ex nihilo.

These ideas and others are often thought to be ‘Hellenistic’ importations, falsely grafted onto the pure ‘Hebraic’ gospel. This is not true. They are, in fact, Christian doctrines developed through prayerful reading of Scripture and resistance to ‘Hellenistic’ philosophy. For example, it is in resisting Plato in their reading of Scripture that Christians posit creatio ex nihilo and divine eternity as classically understood.

Let’s talk, then, about the hypostatic union, since that’s really what’s in question.

The hypostatic union is the theologically incomprehensible complete union of the divine and human in the single person (hypostasis) of Jesus Christ such that he is 100% God and 100% human. He has the properties of divinity and of humanity. But he is not two persons. He is one person. Some of us articulate this as Jesus existing in two natures, some think that divides him too far and makes him into a pantomime horse.

This immediately grabs you as a fine piece of Hellenistic philosophy, doesn’t it?

Except, of course, that no one knows how it works, and most people who try to explain it realise they can’t and choose, instead, to stand in awe before the mystery of God.

And, really, what resemblence does this owe to Jesus ‘within context’?

First, what is Jesus’ context? Hellenistic Judaism in the Greco-Roman world? The apostles composed their works in Greek and cited a Hellenistic Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. St Paul even quoted a Greek poet. John’s Gospel begins with its beautiful prologue on the divine Word.

Furthermore, throughout the Gospel of Mark, Jesus performs many miracles with no divine aid, no magic spells, and no invocation of any god. This sets him apart his contemporary miracle men, the Hebrew prophets, and the Apostles. He also rises from the dead in an unprecedented manner — no prophet or holy man is used as God’s instrument in the Resurrection, unlike when the prophets and Apostles do it. Jesus also seems to think he can forgive people’s sins. And when his earthly ministry is over, he ascends into heaven.

And that’s just from the Gospels, without turning to the earlier Christian writings of St Paul, who says some pretty heavy stuff about Jesus that points to him being God.

Jesus is God. He is also fully man.

How it works, of course, we cannot fully say. Hypostatic union.

But if we realise that Jesus is, in fact, fully man and fully God, how we determine divine knowledge during the incarnation is not merely some sort of question of Greek vs Hebrew, which is a false dichotomy.

But, frankly, no one reads or even tries to comprehend the Fathers anymore. If we understood them in their context, besides Jesus in his, we might find out that they are speaking the same theological language.

One Parthian shot. If ‘western’ is the problem, I present you with Ephrem the Syrian, one of the last exponents of Semitic, Syriac Christianity before it was ‘hellenised’. From his Hymns on the Incarnation:

From Hymn 8

Blessed is the Messenger who came bearing
a great peace.  By the mercy of His Father,
He lowered Himself to us.  Our own debts
He did not take up to Him.  He reconciled
[His] Lordship with His chattels.

Refrain: Glory to Your Dawn, divine and human.

Glorious is the Wise One Who allied and joined
Divinity with humanity,
one from the height and the other from the depth.
He mingled the natures like pigments
and an image came into being: the God-man.
O Zealous One who saw Adam
who became dust and the accursed serpent
eating him.  Reality dwelt
in what had lost its flavor.  He made him salt
by which the cursed serpent would be blinded.
Blessed is the Compassionate One Who saw, next to paradise,
the lance that barred the way
to the Tree of Life.  He came to take up
the body that would be struck so that by the opening in His side
He might break through the way into paradise.

From Hymn 12

Who indeed has seen the Babe Who is more ancient
than His bearer?  The Ancient One entered
and became young in her.  He emerged an infant
and grew by her milk.  He entered and became small in her;
He emerged and grew through her—a great wonder!