Thursday, April 11, 2013

Time Stands Still

Today in my Gospels class we were reading the Proto-Gospel of James, which has a very fascinating depiction of time:
But I, Joseph, was walking, and I was not walking.  I looked up into the air, and I saw that it was greatly disturbed.  I looked up to the vault of the sky, and I saw it standing still; and the birds of the sky were at rest.  I looked back to the earth and saw a bowl laid out for some workers who were reclining to eat.  Their hands were in the bowl, but those who were chewing were not chewing; and those who were taking something from the bowl were not lifting it up; and those who were bringing their hands to their mouths were not bringing them to their mouths.  Everyone was looking up.  And I saw a clock of sheep being herded, but they were standing still.  And the shepherd raised his hand to strike them, but his hand remained in the air.  I looked down at the torrential stream, and I saw some goats whose mouths were over the water, but they were not drinking.  Then suddenly everything returned to its normal course. (pericope 18; translation Bart Ehrman, Lost Scriptures, p. 69)
This is the moment of Jesus' birth.  When Jesus comes into the world, the world stands still.  But at least one person, Joseph, had the consciousness to realize that time had frozen, even for just a moment.  It is, in my opinion, a beautiful passage; the imagery of things happening and not happening at the same time expresses the extraordinariness of the moment.  Jesus' birth affects time.  But whence and why this imagery?

Firstly, I am unaware of other places where Jesus (or someone else) causes time to stop like this.  In Joshua the sun stands still, but just the sun and not the entire temporal stream.  If someone else knows any traditions--Jewish, emergent Christian, Greco-Roman, etc.--I would love to hear about it.

Secondly, why this imagery?  I posed this question to my class.  It was not a rhetorical question, not a question for which I was seeking to elucidate a particular answer or set of several answers that I or other scholars had already thought of, but a question of me genuinely trying to figure this out.  They had some good ideas (and I will release their names if they would like me to do so; otherwise, I will protect their anonymity in the public forum).  But, please note, these ideas came from my brilliant students--not me.  One student suggested that the fact it happens to Joseph--that Joseph is the one cognizant of these events--is significant.  Indeed, the first-person singular of these events is quite striking (how often do we see from Joseph's point of view in the Gospels?).  So why is this significanct?  Because Mary already has reassurance that this child is of God since it is all happening to her; Joseph's experience is more indirect, and, therefore, needs more assurances.  The second idea is thinking more cosmically.  What happens when something beyond nature, beyond the quotidian world, breaks into this world?  What happens when a being who stands outside of time, steps into time?  Perhaps time would stand still because, with Jesus' birth, a residue of that other timeless world that comes into this world.  Or, perhaps, we could say that the otherworldly being coming into this world, creates a tear in the fabric of this reality, expressed here as a temporal disturbance in the flow of time.  What other ideas can we brainstorm for the stopping of the temporal flow when Jesus is born?

1 comment:

ginat said...

On the day of the Lord, the heavens, which mark time and symbolize temporal, sublunar existence, are darkened or destroyed. The birth of the savior prefigures the ultimate change that he will bring.

Joseph perhaps perceives the change because he is of the Davidic lineage, the instrument for achieving Messianic change.

That said, as you say, it would be interesting to know if there are other texts with similarly explicit descriptions of stopped time.