Reading the Christmas Stories: What is biblical criticism? Part 2

Now, let’s all do a little critical reading of the Bible together. In keeping with the Christmas season let’s read the Christmas stories in the New Testament. These stories are in Matthew 2 and in Luke 2:1-20. In order to do this you will need a piece of paper and a pen. Fold the paper in half, lengthwise. At the top on the left side of the fold write “Matthew” and on the right side write “Luke.” Now just start reading Matthew and write down all of the nuggets of information you see, one nugget per line. As an example the first verse of Matthew might lead you to write down: “Herod is king,” “Jesus is born in Bethlehem,” and “Wise men show up.”

Once you have finished with Matthew, make sure the Matthew side is covered up or turned over and now do the same for Luke 2:1-20. Once you have finished Luke’s story, uncover both Matthew and Luke. Now match up nuggets that are the same by drawing lines, numbering, lettering, or color coding. Finally, make a third list of all of the common elements in both stories.

Congratulations, you have now started doing some critical reading of the Bible. What conclusions can you draw from these three lists? As you are doing this try and remember three of the main features of biblical criticism: 1) Ignore tradition and authority for the time being, 2) Allow differences to count (avoid the tempatation to harmonize or justify) and 3) Follow a specific methodology. You are already doing #3 by using the list. Biblical critics call this method “reading horizontally” as opposed to “reading vertically,” which is how most people read scripture. Please share any insights in the comments section. I will post my own comments and my lists in two parts coming up. The first part will be on how these lists inform a literary reading of the Christmas stories. The second will be on how these lists inform an historical reading of the Christmas stories. Good Luck!

11 Replies to “Reading the Christmas Stories: What is biblical criticism? Part 2”

  1. For an excellent discussion of how the historical-critical method works in an analyis of the Nativity stories see Raymond E. Brown’s The Birth of the Messiah. Read it and you will never look at the Christmas story in the same way again. Brown was a Roman Catholic priest who had a great gift for integrating the intellectual and spiritual approach to the Bible

  2. The Christmas stories are kind of tough for me, because I absolutely love Christmas, including the traditional biblical stories. So when I read them critically, I always sort of metaphorically put on my scholar’s cap, with the understanding that from time to time I’ll take it off again and just enjoy the stories in the traditional way.

  3. I’ll plug Margaret Barker’s new Christmas:The Original Story from SPCK, which I got from Amazon UK. She offers close reading of Matthew and Luke in light of Temple theology and the Palestinian political and religious context, adds in close readings of mentions of the nativity in elsewhere in the NT, a look at the Infancy Gospel of James, and a translation and commentary on the Christmas story in the Quran.

    Kevin Christensen
    Pittsburgh, PA

  4. I just looked at Brown’s books on Amazon and decided they are more technical than I want to deal with. Is there a good summary of the same material? I would also like to get a summary of a Brown-like study on the crucifixion – any thoughts?

  5. Kevin,

    One of the reasons that I plan on doing two more posts on this is because I think that critical readings can go both ways with the Christmas stories. The historical-critical approach can be deflationary, which I assume is what you mean by making them less enjoyable. However, I find that a literary approach is not deflationary. In fact, I think that the birth narratives provide the lenses through which Matthew and Luke want their gospels to be read. So, I’ll do the more literary analysis first, then the historical-critical approach after that.

  6. rick,

    Brown’s tomes are heavyweight. His books on the birth and death of Jesus weight in at over 2000 pages combined.

    A less long winded scholar who writes on the same subjects is Geza Vermes. He has one book on the nativity, another on the passion, and a third on the resurrection. Each is under 200 pages. I have not read these, but I have read Vermes’ translations of the Dead Sea Scrolls and his Jesus the Jew. They were both accessible and scholarly. However, he is going to be much more skeptical than Brown is, so you may not get the same conclusions.

  7. Great point about it going both ways David.

    I like Vemes books a lot. He has several on Jesus. He is more skeptical as you note although I personally like that. However lots of members probably won’t. (My mom started reading Jesus the Jew while she was visiting last month and it wasn’t what she was expecting)

  8. Raymond Brown has a couple of shorter (~80 pages)paperbacks for non-Bible dorks on Christmas and Easter:

    A Coming Christ in Advent
    An Adult Christ at Christmas
    A Once and Coming Spirit At Pentecost

    You will enjoy them, and best of all they are cheap.

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