Thursday, December 20, 2007

Poor Rowan Williams

There's going to be a lot 'blogged about what the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury said on the radio yesterday. The Times headlines the story Archbishop says nativity 'a legend' and begins with the paragraph:
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, dismissed the Christmas story of the Three Wise Men yesterday as nothing but “legend”.
Damien Thompson's take on this is:
Does Rowan Williams EVER think before opening his mouth? He waits until the week before Christmas before describing the nativity as a “legend” and condemning the poor wise men, asses and oxen to the realms of fantasy.
Yes, it’s true that most biblical scholars agree with him. But really – has the Archbishop of Canterbury got nothing better to do than dismantle the Christmas story on Radio Five Live, for God’s sake? Can you imagine Pope Benedict XVI going on Simon Mayo’s show to chip away at the naïve beliefs of millions of Christians?
I agree with Thompson that Williams was certainly unwise in what he was saying, but I don't think the reportage fairly represents what he actually said. I would suggest actually reading a transcript of the interview in question before making up one's mind about him.
Firstly, note that the question he is being asked relates not to the accuracy of the infancy narratives in the Gospels, but rather the classical Christmas card images.
So, he points out that there's nothing in the Gospesl about the ox and the ass, and notes that the Wise Men and the shepherds probably weren't there at the same time and doubts that it was snowing. So far as I can see, he doesn't deny the historicity of the Magi.
Simon Mayo: And the wise men with the gold, frankincense, and Myrrh - with one of the wise men normally being black and the other two being white, for some reason?

Archbishop of Canterbury: Well Matthew's gospel doesn't tell us that there were three of them, doesn't tell us they were kings, doesn't tell us where they came from, it says they're astrologers, wise men, priests from somewhere outside the Roman Empire. That's all we're really told so, yes, 'the three kings with the one from Africa' - that's legend; it works quite well as legend.

SM But would they have been there?

ABC Not with the shepherds, they wouldn't. So if you've got shepherds on one side and three kings on the other, there's a bit of conflation going on.

SM And pulling back further - snow on the ground?

ABC Very unlikely I think; it can be pretty damn cold in Bethlehem at this time of the year, but we don't know that it was this time of year because again the Gospels don't tell us what time of year it was; Christmas is the time it is because it fitted very well with the winter festival.

SM Just as a side issue on the kings and the wise bit; do you have a problem with astrologers being seen as wise men; there'd be many people in your church who would think, actually, astrology is bunk and should be exposed as bunk and the idea of saying that they are wise is somewhat farcical.?

ABC Well I 'm inclined to agree that astrology is bunk but you're dealing there with a world in which people watched the stars in order to get a sort of heads up on significant matters and astrologers were quite a growth industry; people who were respected and had a kind of professional technical skill and were respected as such., the thing here if course is what's the skill about? Well it's all bringing them to Jesus; it's not about fortune telling or telling the future, it's about a skill of watching the universe which leads them inexorably towards this event, so I don't think it's a justification of astrology.
It seems to me that what Williams is saying is that their depiction as 'three Kings, one of them from Africa' works well as legend; he doesn't say that the Magi themselves were legendary, and indeed continues to speak of them as though they did come to pay their homage.
It's worth reading what he has to say about the Virgin Birth as well. Again, this is an area where he will be misunderstood.
I'm certainly not one to see eye-to-eye with the Archbishop of Canterbury in many matters theological, but it really is unfortunate to see him misunderstood and pilloried because of this interview.
By the way, if you've ever wondered about the animals traditionally shown in nativity scences, the answer can be found in Is 1:3:
The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib: but Israel hath not known me, and my people hath not understood.
Some of the Fathers associate the ox with the people of Israel and the ass with the gentiles.


TheCrankyProfessor said...

One of the great joys of my life was when I realized that I didn't *need* to teach my students about anything but patristic commentary - I teach medieval art, and how Christians understood the Bible is much more important than how 19th and 20th century scholars have taken to understanding the Bible. The ox and the ass work for that!

John said...

"But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,
'We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.'"

Rowan Williams is a man of strong faith and deep integrity who is not prepared to dance to the media's tunes.