The Liberation of Christmas: The Infancy Narratives in Social Context

Richard Horsley (2006), reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

Another cultural eye opener by Horsley, with the focus and emphasis on the social relationships reflected in the infancy narratives.  Horsley does not deal with the theological issue of the incarnation in the infancy narratives, but explores the ‘salvation embodied in Jesus in its historical context of concrete political, economic and religious relationships’ (p xii).  Horsley’s treatment emphasizes that Luke 1 & 2 reflect a Palestinian Jewish milieu (p 15).  He then claims that ‘our usual hearing of the Christmas story misses or avoids the politico-economic as well as the religio-cultural conflict (p 22). In his chapter on ‘Caesar and Census’ he quotes Roman poets whose language about Caesar is remarkably similar to the words found in Luke (‘saviour’, ‘lord’, ‘euaggelion’).  Another chapter explores the interaction with Herod, the Roman client king, and another section deals with the role of peasants in Palestine under Roman control. 

Horsley’s most fascinating treatment is in the chapter, ‘A Modern Analogy’, where he explores the significance of the infancy narrative to a church that is in league with Herod, not with a peasant couple, a church whose government is a recapitulation of the Roman empire working through client regimes and political repression.  The infancy narratives find their story retold in the repressive history of Central America that the new Roman emperor supports (or at least did).  The historical tradition of the infancy narrative is a reflection of today’s empire.

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.