The King of Stories -- The Messengers of the King

Introductory note from Jason Pratt: see here for the previous entry, which also happens to be the first entry of the series. It explains what I'm doing, and how, and contains the Johannine prologue.

The Messengers of the King

Most excellent Theophilus! (salutes the Scholar)

Since many have, in fact, already put their hands to drawing up an account of certain matters--of which we are fully assured among ourselves, as sure as those who, having become eyewitnesses and deputies of the Word since the beginning, have passed those things down to us--it seemed fitting for me, having traced everything carefully from the very first, to also write it out for you in consecutive order; so that you may know the certainty of the words about which you have been taught!

So: in the days of Herod, King of Judea, there came to be a certain priest, who served (his yearly duties ministering in the Jerusalem Temple) during the course of Abijah. [Footnote: priests of this course would serve in the temple on June 13-19, and Dec 6-12, by our calendar reckonings; plus both of the great eight-day feasts, of Passover and Tabernacles, with all other priests.] His name was Zechariah; and he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron (of priestly descent), and her name was Elizabeth. And they both were fair-minded, carefully keeping the commandments and services of justice under God.

Yet, they had no child, for Elizabeth was barren, and they both were advanced in their years.

Now one day, while he was performing his priestly service before God according to the order of his division (apparently June 13-19, based on what happens later), he was chosen by lot to enter the altar-room of the Temple to burn incense, while the whole multitude of the people were in prayer outside at the hour of the incense offering.

But being disturbed, he looked to the right of the altar of incense, and perceived an angel of the Lord standing there; and fear fell upon Zechariah.

Yet the angel said to him: "Fear not, Zechariah!--for your petition has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will call his name John! ('the Lord rejoices')

"And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth; for he will be great in the eye of the Lord!

"Now, neither wine nor any intoxicant may he be drinking under any circumstances; but he shall be filled by the Holy Spirit, even while in his mother's womb!

"And many of the sons of Israel will he be turning back to the Lord their God--for he shall be coming under His eye and before Him, in the spirit and power of Elijah, 'to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children' (as Malachi the prophet had said) and the disobedient to the wisdom of fairness; so as to make ready a people who are prepared for the Lord!"

But Zechariah said to the angel, "How can I be sure of this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in her years."

The angel answered and said: "I am Gabriel! ('God-disposer')--who stands beside the presence of God!--and I have been sent to speak to you, and to bring you this good news! So: because you do not believe my words, which shall be accomplished in their season, behold!--silent shall you be, and unable to speak, until the day when these things have been occurring!"

Now, the people were waiting for Zechariah, and were wondering at his delaying inside the Temple. Yet, when he came out, he was unable to speak to them; so they realized he must have seen an apparition in the Temple: indeed, he kept nodding to them and making gestures, and continued to be mute.

So it came about, when the days of his priestly service were ended (June 19th), that he went back home.

And after this his wife did become pregnant (June 21st or thereabouts); and she kept herself in seclusion for five months, saying: "This is the way the Lord has dealt with me: to look with favor upon me, to remove my disgrace among men!"

In the sixth month (afterward; Dec 21st or a little later), the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee, called Nazareth; to a maiden engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, descended from King David. And the name of the maiden was Miriam ('best beloved').

And approaching her, he said to her: "Rejoice, receiving joy, O blessed among women! The Lord is with you!"

This troubled her, when she heard it; and she tried to figure out why she was being greeted this way.

But the angel continued: "Fear not, Miriam; for you have found favor with God! Now see!--you will conceive in your womb, and bear a Son; and you shall be calling His name Jesus. ('the Lord saves' or 'the Lord is salvation')

"He will be great, and shall be called 'Son of Highest'!--and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His ancestor, David (the King); and He will reign over the house of Jacob, for all the ages to come; and of His kingdom, there shall never be an ending!"

"So..." said Miriam to the angel, "how is this to come about? For I have not yet known a man."

But answering her, the messenger said, "The Holy Spirit shall descend upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; this is why the Holy One, having been born of you, shall be called 'Son of God'.

"Now, look! Your relative, Elizabeth, has also conceived a son in her old age; and she is now in her sixth month, who once was called barren. Therefore, be sure that it will not be impossible for God to fulfill His every declaration."

So Miriam said: "See!--the slave of the Lord. May this happen with me, as you have told."

Then the angel went away from her.

Within the next few days (Dec 25 or thereabouts), Miriam made diligent preparations, and then went with haste into the mountains, to a city of the Judah region (not far from Jerusalem... some later traditions indicate the town of Juttah); and going into the house of Zechariah, she called out for Elizabeth.

At that very moment, as Elizabeth heard Miriam calling, the baby jumped in her womb, and Elizabeth, being filled by the Holy Spirit, shouted out in return: "Blessed are you among women! and blessed is the fruit of your womb! How has this come to be--that the mother of my Lord is coming to me!? Look here!--as soon as I heard you, my own baby leapt for joy within me!

"Oh! blessed are you for believing--for now what has been spoken to you from the Lord shall come to maturity!"

Miriam, hearing this, sang out:

My soul exalts the Lord!
And my spirit exults in God my Savior!
For He looks upon the lowliness of his bondsmaid,
and behold! from now on all generations will call me happy!

For the Mighty One does great things for me,
oh Holy is His name--
And (as it is written) His mercy is for the generations and generations
toward those who fear Him!

He does mighty deeds with His arm;
He scatters the proud in the understanding of their hearts;
He pulls down powers from their thrones;
And raises up the lowly.

The hungry (as it is written) He fills with good things;
the rich He sends away empty-handed!

Now He has given help to His servant-boy, Israel;
remembering the mercy He promised us
as He spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his seed for the age!

Miriam stayed with Elizabeth (says the Scholar), until her relative's time was complete.

So (about three months later, March 21st or thereabouts), Elizabeth gave birth to a son; and her neighbors and relatives rejoiced with her, in the Lord's great mercy toward her.

On the eighth day afterward, it came time to circumcise the little boy; and her friends and family wanted to give him his father's name, Zechariah.

But his mother, answering, said, "Indeed not!--but he shall be called John."

"None of your kin are named John," they replied; and so they nodded to his father, expecting him to name the boy as he wished instead.

But after requesting a tablet, he wrote upon it: "John is his name." This astonished them greatly.

At that moment, his mouth and tongue were freed, and being filled by the Holy Spirit, he praised God--and he prophesied:

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel!
For He visits us, fulfilling redemption for His people,
And rouses a horn of salvation for us
In the house of David, His servant-boy!

As He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets
who are from of old:

'Deliverance from our enemies!--
And from the hand of all who are hating us!'

Yes, to show mercy toward our fathers
And to remember His holy promises
that He swore, by His oath,
to Abraham our father:

that we, being rescued
from the hand of our enemies,
might offer Him fearless and divine service
in kindness and fair-togetherness
before Him, for all of our days!

Now you!--my little boy!
You shall also be called
a prophet of the Most High;
for you shall go, under His eye ('before His face'),
before Him (as it is written) making ready His roads!--
by letting His people know they shall be saved
in the pardoning of their sins,
by the tenderness and mercy of our God,
in which the Sunrise from on high
shall visit us!--
to shine (as it is written)
upon those who sit in darkness
and upon those under the shadow of death
directing our feet
onto the path
of peace!

Upon hearing this prophecy (says the Scholar), a holy fear fell upon all those living in the area; and everyone who heard of it pondered it in their hearts, saying among themselves, "So, what will this child be??" For the hand of the Lord was clearly upon him.

And all these things were being talked about, among the people in the hill country of Judea.

But Miriam (now three months pregnant herself) quietly left the area; returning to her home in Nazareth.

Now Miriam (says the Disciple, as he joins his voice to the story), was living with Joseph son of Jacob son of Matthan, of the lineage of David (the King); for they were betrothed to one another, but were living in the year between their promise and their marriage; so they had not yet slept together.

It soon became obvious, however, that Mary was carrying a child.

(Joseph, already her husband legally, had the right of the law, to sentence her to death, if she ever betrayed him in adultery.) But being a fair man, and not wanting to smear her name, he was planning to take her somewhere else to dissolve the marriage quietly (leaving her free to follow whomever he thought she'd been loving instead).

Yet while he was thinking of this; behold!--an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying: "Joseph, son of David! Do not be concerned about accepting Miriam as your wife; for what is being generated in her is of the Holy Spirit. Soon she shall be bringing forth a Son, and you shall be calling His name Jesus ('the Lord is salvation'); for He shall be saving His people from their sins!"

Now all this occurred (believes the Disciple, knowing what he does about the rest of the story) so that the declaration of the Lord through the prophet (Isaiah) could be fulfilled: "See here! The maiden shall become pregnant and shall be bringing forth a Son, and they shall be calling His name Immanu-el!" ('with us is God')

So, being roused from his sleep, Joseph did as the messenger of the Lord had commanded him; he accepted his wife, completing their betrothal in marriage.

But, he did not sleep with her in marriage, until she gave birth to her Son.

Matthew 1:18-25a
Luke 1:1-79

[Next time: The Birth of the King]


BK said…
Jason P.

Thank you for this work on this matter. I find your interpretation interesting. But I guess I do wonder why you chose the dates you did. You state two things:

[Footnote: priests of this course would serve in the temple on June 13-19, and Dec 6-12, by our calendar reckonings; plus both of the great eight-day feasts, of Passover and Tabernacles, with all other priests.

And then you state:

Now one day, while he was performing his priestly service before God according to the order of his division (apparently June 13-19, based on what happens later) . . . .

But then you never say "what happens later" that led you to choose those dates rather than the December 6-12 dates (or maybe I just missed it). What made you choose the June as opposed to the December dates?
Jason Pratt said…

The "what happens later" happen later. {g}

It's a good question, though; and I should take the opportunity to add that Edersheim (for example) quite totally disagrees with when the course of Abijah would be reckoned (in comparison with our calendars.) The end result is that he does end up with what we'd call a traditional Christmas birth-date; but ironically he includes evidence in an appendix, from Jewish complaints about the 'teaching of Peter', that Christians had from antiquity been replacing the two most important Jewish holidays with holidays based on the life and death of Christ. Those two holidays were Passover (duh), and Tabernacles. But why Tabernacles? The only way it would synch up with an event as important as the death of Christ, would be if it was linked to the birth of Christ. And Tabernacles can only happen in relatively early autumn (within a range of weeks based on the lunar cycle). A relatively early autumn birth would mean a conception around mid-winter (just as my mid-Nov birth means I'm a Valentine's baby, or close enough to never mind, assuming as it was an average gestation with no problems.) Which in turn would synch up with a conception of JohnBapt (by Luke's timing reckoning, even setting aside the Abijah reference), around midsummer.

There are several hints in that direction, externally and internally; and it makes sense as a story factor. (Though some other dates make sense, too.) Notice that in the Johannine prologue John uses the term eskenosen, or tabernacling? (That's why I translated the phrase 'dwelling as in a holy tent among us'.) There is a fairly significant theological theme connecting Christ with the Shekinah of God that dwelt in the tabernacle; and some of that theme is present in the canonical Gospel texts later, too. It would make thematic sense for God to synch up the Tabernacle Feast (aka the Feast of Water and Light) with the coming of the Messiah, just as Passover was synched with the sacrifice of the Messiah.

One could, one could try drawing that comparison the other way around: that when people were coming up with the stories they decided to synch those holidays together with a 'story' of Jesus for thematic purposes (basically inventing the links for mythopoeic reasons, per that theory. Though keep in mind that mythopoetry simply shows an intention for thematic links. Whose, or Whose, intentions, are a whole other question. {g})

But while the Passover link to the story is extremely blatantly obvious, it must be said that if this invention-theory is true these people totally failed to make the Tabernacles link similarly obvious as an equally important mythopoeic event (despite plenty of chunky mythopoeic elements in the canonical nativity stories.) It's there in the background, kind of as a rabbinic disputation point _later_ in the story, but Gentiles are likely to miss the connections altogether. (I'm frankly surprised Edersheim misses it. But then, I have to admit that I don't know enough yet to understand why he and other sources disagree so strongly as to the Abijah dating.)

Anyway, the dating scheme within the year will have to synch with story elements coming up next week, too. When exactly would a government think it best to displace populations for a taxation census?--something that's never going to be popular anyway. Dead of winter? (Even relatively mild winters as in 1st century Palestine?) Heat of summer (before the harvests come in?) Springtime, before the harvests of the year could possibly be tallied up? (Lots of people on the road for a holiday then, in Palestine, going to visit family if they can't get to Jerusalem, but Lord, imagine how much fun it would be to try to run a tax-gathering scheme during a holiday devoted to the population having been rather violently freed from oppression of pagan overlords... {wry g}) Or autumn, when the final harvests are starting and if someone is behind on his taxes he can help work off his tax debts in the fields?

Those shepherds synch up better with either spring or fall (not winter or summer), too, including thematically when one considers that the flocks around Bethlehem were specially intended for sacrifice in the Temple during the Great Feasts. (There was a tower out there, too, from which tradition said the birth of the Messiah would be announced, but which was otherwise used for keeping watch on herds...)


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