Advent of the (Rival) King: Part 3

Epiphany

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, look, Astrologers from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Judeans? For we saw his star in the east, and have come to worship him. And when Herod the king heard it, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. (Matt. 3:1-3, CGV)

There is a curious ethnic or national twist in this passage. The first century world was not the pluralistic environment we are used to in 21st century American culture. In fact, pluralism is still rather unusual in most of the world that still retains some of the more ancient ways. The first century was a world of in-group/out-group divisions. These divisions were strong and impenetrable. Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh describe this facet of first century culture in their book, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels.

One of the basic and abiding social distinctions made among first-century Mediterraneans was that between ingroup and outgroup persons. A person’s ingroup generally consisted of one’s household, extended family, and friends… Persons from the same city quarter or village would look upon each other as ingroup when in a “foreign” location, while in the city quarter or village they might be outgroup to each other…(Pg. 192)

In dealing with outgroup members, almost “anything goes.” Roman treatment of Jesus in the passion story is quite indicative of this. By U.S. Standards the dealings of ancient Mediterranean people with outgroup persons looks cruel, indifferent, and extremely hostile. Strangers can never be ingroup members. (Pg. 193—emphasis added)

This division along family/ethnic lines was the assumed norm in the first century. Those outside your “ingroup” were considered the enemy. To break these boundaries, if possible at all, required normally some other in-group member to vouch on your behalf. Even then, it would have been considered unusual. No one in the first century would have questioned this system. This was simply the way things were.

Yet here we have visitors from the East, definitely part of the outgroup, coming to Jerusalem. To them Jerusalem would have been one big outgroup. The Jerusalemites would definitely have treated these strangers with the hostility due them as outsiders. Despite that fact, here we have strangers, obviously of influence and power, coming into the city. Their stated purpose was not commerce, trade, or negotiation. They came from their country or countries to find the King of the Judeans and worship him. Such things did not happen in normal circumstances.

This event provides a precursor to a facet of Jesus’ ministry that would later play out with some controversy in the early church. During his life, Jesus broke the normal ingroup/outgroup systems within Israel to form his own faction. A faction was a type of coalition formed around a central person who recruited followers and maintained the loyalty of the core group. Jesus faction broke the groupings of kinship and family (Matt. 10:35-37), creating a his own “fictive kinship” group, his own ingroup, if you will. Since individualism as we know it did not exist, this new kinship group of Jesus defined the members of the group in terms of personality and behavior.

The church would later expand this breakup of ingroup/outgroup barriers to include ethnic groups beyond Israel. Our ears have become too much accustomed to Paul’s revolutionary proclamation:

There can be neither Judean nor Greek, there can be neither slave nor free, there can be no male and female; for you are all one in the Anointed Jesus. (Gal. 3:28–CGV)

And again:

..[Y]ou have put off the old man with his doings, and have put on the new man, that is being renewed to knowledge after the image of him that created him: where there can’t be Greek and Judean, circumcision and uncircumcision, foreigner, Scythian, slave, free; but the Anointed is all things, and in all. (Col. 3:9-11)

The church would proclaim an allegiance that was above, and therefore destroyed, the strict ingroup/outgroup divisions that were fundamental to the first century world. It took time, but this melding of ethnic groupings into the church transformed first Rome and then the world itself. What would have been treasonous talk in the first century became the slogan of the United States of America 1800 years later, as immortalized at the base of the Statue of Liberty.

Give me your tired, your poor,Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

What was unthinkable in the first century became the norm in the 19th. One could make the argument that this breaking of racial and ethnic barriers was made possible by the first century Christian communities working out their theology into the popular culture. Like the United States itself, the church has not done it consistently; often it has done it timidly, half-heartedly, and without vigor. Many times, it has failed to comprehend its own global nature and fought actively against it. Yet when it has obeyed the leading of Jesus and the teaching of Paul, the results have been glorious.

In “How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, Thomas E. Woods, Jr., Ph. D. makes a good case that this international/global/supra-ethnic view of the Church led to the concepts of international law, human rights, the university system, charitable foundations, the sciences, and even modern economics. The Church and its monks (and not just the Irish ones) held together the Western world when it was poised to fall into total savagery when the civilized world was over-run by the Vandals, Goths, Visigoths, and Franks. In short, Christianity kept the barbarians from converting the world into barbarism. Instead, the Church worked to convert the barbarians. No people, as Paul said, were excluded from the Body of Christ. Not even the barbarians. As a result, after centuries of discipline, amid setbacks, political intrigues, compromises, and even corruption and failure, civilization was preserved and advanced. Much of what the Western world takes for granted in terms of its conception of human decency and culture it owes to the global vision of the Church of Jesus Christ.

The supra-ethnic, global mission of the church was exemplified by the visit of the “Wise-men” and their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Christ child. What the “Wise-men” from the East invested in the newborn King of the Judeans, the world reaped the reward with compounded interest.

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~ by heretic on December 14, 2005.

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