I know I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: the hardest thing to do when studying the Bible is to read the words on the page without the baggage of tradition lending a hand. For the purposes of this Bible study, “tradition” has a lowercase “t.” (While it rhymes with “p,” it does not stand for “pool.”) This tradition is everything from the writings of the church fathers to the texts of songs in our hymnals. Now, I’m not saying that reading with a knowledge of tradition is a bad thing — far from it. Sometimes, however, tradition serves to muddy the scriptural waters to the point that we can no longer see our soggy selves floating around.
The opening of the second chapter of Matthew, one of the choices for this Sunday’s Gospel text, illustrates just how murky the waters can get. This is the bit where the wise men from the East come to see King Herod, and he sends them on a reconnaissance mission to find the newborn “king of the Jews.” Until a dream notifies them, the wise men are unaware of Herod’s malicious plans. They bring the infant Jesus some gifts he has no practical use for (does myrrh clear up diaper rash?) and then go home by another road.
Okay, now let’s bring in tradition. For years and years we have smooshed the beginnings of Matthew and Luke together so much that we have trouble separating them, even when reading them independently of each other. But this independent reading is so important for seeing how each evangelist is setting up his account of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If you let the “no place in the inn” bit of the story (from Luke) fall away, you’ll notice that it certainly looks like Joseph, Mary, and Jesus live in Bethlehem — they relocate to Nazareth after their jaunt in Egypt. Indeed, the wise men come to Mary’s house, not a stable. So, while Luke uses the census to get the holy family to Bethlehem and back, Matthew uses Herod’s slaughter of the infants to get the holy family out of Bethlehem and eventually to Nazareth. But that’s not how we usually tell the story.
Now, bring in that hymn about the kings and everything gets even murkier. First, the wise men are “magi,” not “kings” — yes, these are entirely different words in Greek. Second, we have no way of knowing how many there were: we surmise three, but that’s because of the gifts. Maybe a couple went halfsies on the frankincense.
I acknowledge that using “We three kings of Orient are…” is a bit of a cheap shot, but it sure gets my point across. While these are small things that end up being mere distractions from what the text says, there are pieces of our tradition that amount to much more. Here’s one: Martin Luther’s “law/grace” dichotomy has colored readings of Paul’s letters for five hundred years. Luther’s viewpoint is so thoroughly embedded in biblical scholarship that it has taken on its own scriptural aura. But his is not the only reading.
Here’s another: one segment of Christian tradition — let’s call it the “rapture dispensationalist” segment (please read the footnote if those words are unfamiliar)* — sees the book of Revelation** as a script for what is going to happen during the “end times” (cue ominous music). This has led people (who would most likely — and ironically — call themselves “biblical literalists”) to speculate that the dragons and locusts symbolize things like atomic weapons and AK-47s. This reading of Revelation as a blueprint for the future has leaked into Christian tradition over the last two hundred years — so much so that the waters of Revelation (already murky by the difficult imagery of the text) are muddied even more by futile searches for modern analogs to biblical images. A more productive reading sees Revelation as an early Christian warning against complacency and the errors of “the world,” a warning that transcends the time in which it was written.
Tradition helps us float in our biblical waters. But when we study the Bible, we should always take one swim unsupported by inner tubes or those floaties you wear on your upper arms. Perhaps, when we peer into that clear water, we will encounter God in new and fresh ways. Then we can add our encounters to that long story that is our Christian tradition.
* These are people who believe that the world will end in seven years of really gruesome carnage and destruction. Depending on which flavor of rapture dispensationalism you subscribe to, you will be brought bodily to heaven either before, in the middle of, or after these seven years.*** Again, depending on your flavor, Jesus comes back at some point in this time frame as well. As you can probably tell from this explanation, I am not a rapture dispensationalist.
** Please, please, please don’t say “Revelations” when you talk about this biblical text. There is just no “s” anywhere in that word.
*** A footnote inside a footnote! One term for the “middle of” way of thinking is this: “Mid-tribulation rapture dispensationalism.” See how smart you can sound with silly church words!