Friday, January 06, 2012

An Unearthly Child

Teach me how to grow in goodness,
Daily as I go;
Thou hast been a child, and surely
Thou dost know.

So. Folk songs about the childhood of Jesus. Subversive, heretical stories; alternative Jesuses; hidden, suppressed traditions; lost spiritualities that the church doesn't want you to know about; hints from which we can reassemble long lost truths about the lost boyhood of Christ.

Well, no, obviously not. Pious folk in the olden days read the New Testament and wondered what was happening "off stage". When did Joseph propose to Mary? How did he find that she was pregnant? What did they do in Egypt? What happened when they go home? The four Gospels didn't tell them. So they made stuff up. Out of their heads. And the stuff that they made up is, in some cases, so off-the-wall that we read it and think: :"Were they reading the same Bible us we are?"

But they were. And that's what makes it so interesting. 


Think of one of the more familiar songs. Think of Once In Royal David's City. We've heard the song so many times that we've probably never listened to it. Cecil Frances Alexander (Mrs) evidently also had a bunch of questions about little baby Jesus, and also found that the Bible didn't answer them, so she also made stuff up. Out of her head. And her made up stuff is actually a good deal less convincing than the off-the-wall stuff in the "apocryphal" sources. "And through all his wondrous childhood / He would honour and obey / Love and watch the lowly maiden / In whose gentle arms he lay." Never mind that the one actually canonical story about the boy Jesus shows Mary practically loosing her blessed temper with him ("Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us?") "Christian children all must be / Mild, obedient, good as he." We know that this is what the boy Jesus was like, because this is what the boy Jesus must have been like. It doesn't occur to us that it no more comes out of the Bible than do the stories about Psycho Jesus bringing toys to life and striking playmates dead. We know that Mary and Joseph were the poorest of the poor, and that there was a donkey and an innkeeper and a stable. But if a different set of pious legends had taken root, we'd know that Mary was rich -- a Queen or Princess who lived in the Temple and had taken a vow of celibacy. And that Jesus was born in a cave. 


Stephen Green (a lunatic) pretended to be very offended by the dramatised retelling of the story of the birth of Jesus that the BBC did last year. I don't think he'd actually seen it. Lunatics never go and see things before they get offended by them. It looked to me as if the Nasty Mail phoned him up and said "The BBC's new Nativity film insinuates that Mary was raped, what do you think of that?" and he replied "That's just typical of the BBC. All part of a Communist plot to undermine the Christians basis of our civilisation I shouldn't wonder." 

In Tony Jordan's actual script, Joseph is shocked to find out that Mary is pregnant. Mary says "It was not my doing". Joseph replies, in horror "You were raped?" He's not slandering Mary, but trying to make excuses for her.

One wonders how Christian Voice would have reacted to the dramatised retelling of the story of the birth of Jesus that the craft guilds of Chester used to present during the fourteenth century. In that version, one of the two women who Joseph has found to take care of his wife and his new baby decides to test the claim that Mary is physically a virgin. The stage directions don't leave anything to the imagination. "Tunc Salome tentabit tangere Mariam in sexu secreto" they say: "Then Salome tries to touch Mary's private parts". Salome's hand is struck with leprosy as punishment; but she says sorry to the newborn Jesus and it gets better. 

Obviously, there is not a word about this in the Bible, but it's a very ancient legend. What would an ordinary human midwife have done if she'd been told that the lady who'd just given birth was literally a virgin? What would a pious man have thought if his absolutely trustworthy wife returned from a visit to her cousin obviously pregnant? It isn't only 21st century soap opera writers who ask these sorts of questions.


So. In the first of our folk-songs, Mary, the Queen of Galilee, is walking in an orchard with her elderly husband Joseph. She asks him to pick her some fruit: "Go and fetch me some cherries Joseph, for I am with child." This seems to be the first he knows about the baby, because he snaps back "Let he pluck you the cherries that brought you now with child." That's the lovely thing about these old songs. It starts out being pious and beautiful and rather courtly -- we're surely supposed to imagine a medieval lady and her lord perambulating through a beautiful English orchard -- and suddenly we hear the voice of a medieval carpenter saying just what a medieval carpenter would say if he thought his wife had been cheating on him. The unborn Baby Jesus immediately says "Bow down then, tall cherry tree, for my mother to have some." The tree does so; Mary picks the cherry; and Joseph is sorry for having doubted her. 

At one level, its a simple miracle story: how did Joseph come to find out that the Mary had a supernatural baby? Because he performed a miracle even before he was born. But for those able to see it, there's also a hidden meaning: if we believe in the Trinity, then God is both the father of the Baby, and the Baby itself. So Joseph's words come true literally, though he presumably doesn't know it yet. 

It is rather hard to see where this incident would fit into the story of Jesus birth in Matthew and Luke's gospels. The Bible doesn't tell us how or when Joseph finds out about Mary's baby: it just says that it happened after they were engaged, but before they were married. [*] I suppose she might have blurted it out while they were taking a walk in a cherry orchard. The Bible says that Joseph subsequently had a dream in which an angel told him that Mary was, in fact, still a virgin. He would have to have been quite obtuse to have needed an angelic messenger after he'd seen local trees worshipping Mary's unborn son. He'd have to have been positively perverse to still be sulking after he'd had his chat with Gabriel. So when does the story happen? Doubtless, you could harmonise it with the original story if you really wanted to. We Doctor Who fans are good at coming up with post-hoc rationalisations of blatant contradictions. But if you'd pointed out to Anon that his song contradicted the Bible, I think he would have said the medieval equivalent of "Duh -- hello! It's a song. I made it up for the wassailers to sing."

Or possibly, he didn't care very much about "the Bible". Possibly, he couldn't read, or couldn't read Latin. Possibly, he knew about Joseph and Mary and Baby Jesus only as stories: stories told by the priests, acted out in mystery plays, sung in vernacular songs. Possibly, he thought that "making up a new story about Joseph and Mary" was no odder than "making up a new story about Robin Hood." Or perhaps not exactly "making up": telling the same story in a new way. His story isn't that different from the Biblical one after all: Joseph is cross; because he thinks Mary had been cheating on him; something supernatural happens; he starts believing. They aren't characters in a soap opera where one thing leads to the next thing which leads to the next thing: they are characters from the land of Story where everything is always happening over and over again for the first time. Possibly, when the Bible got translated into English and someone invented the printing press, people like Anon stopped thinking of it as a body of stories, and started thinking of it as a big black book. Perhaps they didn't feel as free to make stuff up about stories in a big black book. Nowadays, when people make stuff up, like the Three Kings and the Stable and the Innkeepers Wife and Family Values, they pretend that it is really in the Bible, and get very cross, or pretend to get very cross, if you point out that it isn't.  Because once you have a big scary black book on your shelf, the last thing you are going to do is actually read it.


"But Andrew...Anon wasn't really making stuff up out of his head, was he? There were other written down lives of Jesus apart from the four 'official' ones, weren't there. And some of those included stories about his wondrous childhood, didn't they? But the Church wouldn't put those in her big black book because they were heretical and feminist and gnostic and contained the secret whereabouts of the Holy Grail. Anon was working from that hidden tradition. The carols show us a secret Jesus that the Church would rather we didn't find out about."

Well, up to a point.

The Cherry Tree Carol doesn't appear to have been drawn directly from any of the so-called apocryphal gospels. There an old book purporting to be St Matthew's long lost prequel to his Gospel (which it certainly isn't) as translated by St Jerome (which it almost certainly wasn't). That book includes a story in which the Holy Family are hiding from King Herod in Egypt. Mary fancies some figs from a very tall fig palm. Joseph says he's more worried about water. So Baby Jesus make the tree bend down, and where it touches the ground, a magic spring pops up. Mary gets her figs, Joseph gets his water, and Baby Jesus says that to commemorate this, people who win competitions will be given palms as prizes from now on. 

I'm not making this up. But somebody clearly was. 

It is quite possible that Anon was familiar with the fake Matthew book. But he evidently didn't regard it as an authentic alternative tradition, to be handed down from master to apprentice and thus concealed from the Big Bad Church. It looks more like he read it and thought "Magic fruit idea, but I could have put it to much better dramatic use."

M.R. James, who knew about this kind of thing, thought that the fake Matthew prequel might be as early as the 9th century: that puts it as close to the real historical Jesus as Errol Flynn was to the real historical Robin Hood. Granted, most of the text (though not the fig tree incident) comes from the books of James and Thomas, which  are much older. M.R James thought they were from around the turn of the 3rd / 4th centuries --about as close to the events as we are to Bonny Prince Charlie. [**] You only have to read them to see that they are not independent alternatives to Matthew and Luke: they are written by people who had read Matthew and Luke over and over and written their own stories to expand them. They are, in fact, nothing more or less than fan-fiction. "James" is a prequel about how Mary and Joseph got married, and the details of Jesus birth. (It introduces a midwife called Salome, but doesn't say she molested Mary.) "Thomas" is about Jesus "missing years". It starts with the boy Jesus in Nazareth making clay sparrows and bringing them to life; it ends with him being taken to the temple at the age of twelve. That's an obvious hallmark of fan fiction. The official text is indeed completely silent about the period between the flight into Egypt and the trip to Jerusalem, so the fanfic writer feels justified in inventing something to plug the gaps. Luke's story of the boy Jesus giving his parents the slip so he can spend more time showing off to the rabbis in the temple finishes by saying that he went back to Nazareth and obeyed his parents from then on. So a story about a teenage Jesus getting into trouble would contradict established continuity. A story about an eight year old Jesus being a naughty little deity is just about permissible.

Which brings us to the second of our folk songs. In this one, you will recall, Jesus goes out to play ball with some rich kids, who poke fun at him and make insinuations about his mother. So he performs a miracle: he makes a magic beam of light across the river, walks across it, and asks the other kids to follow him. They do, but not being Sons of God, they fall through the invisible bridge and drown. When Mary hears about this, she smacks Jesus three times with a stick. (Which seems pretty lenient for murder: Mickey Harrington got six for riding his Raleigh bike across the cricket pitch.) In the same way that he blessed the date palm, Jesus curses the stick he was hit with.

Maddy Prior, who knows a thing or two about folk songs, thought that Anon was offering an alternative to orthodox dogma: "This story of the boy Jesus portrays him as all too human, and does not accord with the given Bible Image. It strikes me as a parable concerning power and the need for everyone to learn how to use it."  Possibly she also had access to a missing verse in which Joseph tells Jesus that in this life with great power must also come great responsibility. 

Jesus is not the Tot of Steel. He isn't even Harry Potter. He is a little boy who is also God. And that is something which it is completely impossible to get your head round. So the fan fiction writers don't even try to get their heads round it. They don't offer clever explanations of the paradox. They don't explain to us that since the second person of the Trinity and a human being were combined into a single person, there is no problem with saying that Jesus both knew everything there was to know and had to go back to school and learn stuff. They run with the paradox. It's the illogicality they find delightful. They tell us that when Jesus started school, he told his teacher "I am ALPHA and OMEGA so how dare you try to teach me the alphabet". He got slapped for that as well.

Some people are tempted to describe this stuff as "gnostic", in the sense of "weird". ("Gnostic", as a wise man once said, is a word used to describe any passage in the Bible which the present writer doesn't understand.) Cecil Sharp, who also knew a thing or two about folk songs, mentions another carol called The Holy Well. In that version, some kids are horrible to Jesus, and Mary Mild encourages him to punish them. But he won't, because he's not that kind of Messiah. "From this" explains Mr Sharp "We may conclude that the Holy Well is a comparatively modern recension of the Bitter Withy, modified so that it shall the better accord with a truer conception of the character of Jesus." People in the olden days thought that Jesus might have stuck the bullies dead, but we Victorians know what he must have really been like.
But in fact, it's all perfectly orthodox. There's is nothing theologically odder about the old song in which Jesus has to go across his mother's knee for a smack than the newer one in which he always honours and obeys the lowly maiden in whose gentle arms he lay. The idea that God who made the universe does whatever Mary tells him to is no odder than the idea that God who made the universe doesn't always do what Mary tells him. Maybe it seems odd to us that Mary Mild would correct Jesus harshly, but then Mary Mild is another thing we made up out of our heads. The Mary of the Bible is anything but mild. She's into casting down the mighty from their seats and exalting the humble, which is like, commie talk. The idea that Mary has to say "mind you don't get into any trouble" to Jesus only strikes us as odd because we were raised with the Victorian toy-doll version of Jesus. Of course Jesus won't get into trouble. He's Jesus. 

But we wouldn't, I think, be nearly as freaked out by a story in which Joseph had to say "No, lad, if you carve your dove-tale joint like that, the whole wardrobe will collapse". (Or maybe we would. Charles Dickens, who didn't really believe that Jesus was God, still thought the Milias' painting of Christ in the Carpenter's shop was almost too disgusting to be exhibited.) If learning stuff is part of being a child and Jesus was really a child, then Jesus must have really had to learn stuff. If learning to be good is part of growing up and teaching your child to be good is part of being a good parent, then there must have been times when Mary had to, in the jargon, teach Jesus the difference between right and wrong.  


Or maybe not. St Augustine, god bless him, says that if an adult were to scream for his food and cry if he doesn't get it, we'd say that he was being selfish; and that we try to stop children from being selfish as soon as they are old enough to teach. It follows that a crying baby is, in a technical sense, "sinning"; a perfect, un-fallen baby in the Garden of Eden would not have behaved like that. So if, theologically, Jesus represents what human beings would have been like if not for the Fall then maybe it follows that the boy Jesus would never have tripped, or disobeyed, or accidentally injured his hand with one of Joseph's tools -- and baby Jesus would never have cried. In which case, we would have to say that Jesus and Mary are literally unimaginable alien beings, and the question "What would Jesus do?" is hardly worth asking. 
And perhaps hymns like Away in a Manger and Once In Royal David's City are delighted by that side of the paradox: the utterly unimaginable un-fallen human baby. And maybe we need to hear both sides of the story. But Away in a Manger is the one which flirts with heresy. Because if you believe in little-Lord-Jesus-no-crying-he-makes, you are in danger of thinking "God didn't really become a baby -- he just pretended to."

One day, I intend to read St Augustine. But not yet.

If Mary never needs to say "Mind you aren't naughty" to the creator of the Universe and if the creator of the Universe never wanted to play catch then he wasn't a human, he was just a holy spook temporarily animating a child shaped zombie. But that's what the folk tale has such fun with. In so far as a he is a child, it's natural for him to go out playing, and be bullied by other kids. In so far as he is God then it's natural for him to strike people who blaspheme against him dead. In so far as he is a Boy, its natural for him to get punished for being naughty. In so far as he is God, its natural for him to put a curse on the naughty step. By showing a small child behaving like God and God being treated like a small child, we are being encouraged to get our heads around the idea of the god-child. Or to entirely fail to do so, which is the best we can manage.


"That's all very well. But wasn't it rather hard luck on the other kids, who didn't know who it was that they were taking the mickey out of? Getting drowned seems like an awfully harsh punishment for bad manners."

"I thought we'd already covered this. No children were harmed in the composition of this song. Because, it's like a song. I made it up. Couldn't you tell?"

Mind you, if you were a poor medieval dude in a tavern, not being quite sure where your next turnip was coming from, then it would probably have forgivable to laugh at three rich snobs getting thrown in the river because they didn't understand that you shouldn't mess with baby Jesus. And people in Merrie England with it's infant mortality and bubonic plague and what not probably found it easier to believe that God had a bit of a temper than we do.

Actually, I can think of three other possible theological readings of the Bitter Withy song, all based around the fact that the drowned children didn't know who they were taunting. But if I  start down that path we'll still be here next Epiphany. Let's just say that Anon really does fit an astonishing number of levels of meaning into his songs. He's very nearly as good as Dylan. [***] 


If any biologists have read this far, I know well enough what they will say. "Well, there you are then. The nasty church decided that from June 325, Christians would have to believe two completely inconsistent things and Christians have had to twist their heads into all sorts of silly contortions before breakfast every morning ever since. When they use words like 'paradox' they really mean that they know its all a load of rubbish but are pretending that it isn't. Sky-fairy! Sky-fairy! Sky-fairy!" 

So it is probably worth noting that the moment at which I personally stopped thinking of the story of Baby Jesus as one of those dull fables that grown ups went on and on about and started to think of it as something exciting and fascinating was precisely the moment at which I perceived that the paradox was a paradox. 

Another little lyric by Anon sticks in my mind.

A God, and yet a man? 
A mayde, and yet a mother? 
Witt wonders what witt can 
Conceave this or the other.

A God, and can he die? 
A dead man, can he live? 
What witt can well replie? 
What reason reason give?

God, truth it selfe doth teache it; 
Mans witt sinkes too farr under 
By reasons power to reach it 
Beleeve, and leave to wonder!

[*] In the BBC film, Mary's condition is obvious to Joseph when she comes back from her three month long visit to Elizabeth. I think that is probably implicit in Luke's Gospel, actually.

[**] If Matthew's Gospel is from AD 100 then its as close to the real events as we are to the First World War: plenty of time for myths to develop, but the last eye-witnesses have just died off.

[***] a: It's an allegory of the last judgement b: It's an allegory of the atonement c: It's a rather nasty example of the "blood libel.". 


Andrew Rilstone said...


@Nick asked why Charles Wesley thought that baby Jesus had wings, and if this proves that he was a Balrog.

Well, the first thing is that Charles Wesley doesn’t think that baby Jesus had wings: if I said “Tax inspectors are octopuses, with their tentacles grabbing eight things at the same time” you wouldn’t think that I thought that tax inspectors really had tentacles instead of hands; you would think that I thought that tax inspectors were like octopuses in some respect.

Charles Wesley thinks that baby Jesus is like the sun: it’s dark at night time, but when the sun comes up it gets light; life depends on the light of the sun; when Jesus was born, he brought life and light to everyone, so it was like the sun coming up.

So the real question is “Why did Charles Wesley think that the Sun had wings.”

Charles Wesley was obviously quoting from Malachi, which is a good place to find metaphors for Jesus because it is the last book of the Old Testament. Malachi said “But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings; and ye shall go forth, and grow up as calves of the stall.”

So the real real question is “Why did the prophet Malachi think that the Sun had wings.”

After literally minutes of painstaking research, I have discovered that the Hebrew word for “wings” is sometimes used metaphorically for “the edge of”; so that Ezekiel talks about sending a message to “the four wings of the land” (which King James renders as “corners”); and that when David wants to show that he had King Saul at his mercy but didn’t kill him, he cuts off the “wing” of his robes.

So “wings of the sun” means “edge of the sun”, “corona of the sun” or probably just “the sun’s rays”.

So when Wesley says “Hail thou Sun of Righteousness, light and life to all he brings, risen with healing in his wings” means “The birth of Jesus is like the beginning of a new day, when the sun’s rays bring light, life and healing to everyone.”

Carol sheets that write it as "Son of righteousness" are wrong.

Trixbat said...

A good essay for the holidays that made me think... and I enjoyed the folk songs.

Lirazel said...

That made me laugh out loud. Also, I found him rather dull, but maybe I had a bad translation.

I find I resent St. Brigit (if I remember correctly) of Sweden every time I see another nativity scene based on her vision of it. For one thing, as you speculate with printing, it seems to have stopped the imagination of the Western church stone-cold dead when it comes to that scene.

Lirazel said...

And my comment was supposed to start with the line: "One day, I intend to read St Augustine. But not yet." But I used some HTML tags, and blogspot ate it.

guy.jackson said...

I remember my old R.E. teacher once suggested that Jesus didn't know he was the Son of God until God told Him. Which would, I suppose, answer the question of how Jesus would behave as a child (like a normal boy, because that's what He thought He was), although I don't know how theologically sound that suggestion is. I'm also not sure whether I find it a particularly satisfying answer to the paradox.

Mike Taylor said...

The moment at which I personally stopped thinking of the story of Baby Jesus as one of those dull fables that grown ups went on and on about and started to think of it as something exciting and fascinating was precisely the moment at which I perceived that the paradox was a paradox.

How very Chestertonian. And I mean that as high praise.

Guy Jackson wrote: "I'm also not sure whether I find it a particularly satisfying answer to the paradox." But "a satisfying answer" really isn't the point of a paradox. (And that, I think, is the point of this whole post.)

guy.jackson said...

"But "a satisfying answer" really isn't the point of a paradox."

I was talking about emotionally satisfying, rather than logically satisfying. I agree that a paradox doesn't have to have a neat logical reply (indeed, some might say that's rather the point), but if you don't feel that the answer speaks to you emotionally, it rather fails as a devotional tool.

Mike Taylor said...

I agree that a paradox doesn't have to have a neat logical reply (indeed, some might say that's rather the point), but if you don't feel that the answer speaks to you emotionally, it rather fails as a devotional tool.

Well, different people differ, no doubt. But for me, it's the paradox itself that speaks to me emotionally, not a solution to it.