CHRISTMAS IN THE BIBLE
MYTH OR HISTORY
Albert Schweitzer had three doctor’s degrees – Doctor of Medicine, Music, and Theology. He was a missionary doctor in Gabon during the 20th Century. He was also an celebrated interpreter and organist for J.S. Bach’s music. He raised funds for his leprosy in Africa by touring Europe playing in concerts. He is also known for his Biblical scholarship on the life of Jesus. His book, “A Quest for Historical Jesus” astonished the churches around the world by concluding that it was impossible to know the life of Jesus in accurate historical details. He set the tone for the contemporary scholarly research on the life of Jesus.
Since Schweitzer, it is now widely accepted that Jesus is a historical figure who lived on earth for sure, but details of his life is mired in legends, myths, hymns, and poems. Though I personally believe that Jesus was one person, some even suggested that Jesus of the Bible could be a composited image of a person created from bits and pieces of messianic and revolutionary figures who lived in Palestine during the beginning of the current common calender
The Biblical account of the birth of Jesus is a typical example of a melange of facts and myths. It is impossible to separate facts from myths. But it is a mistake to conclude that those beautiful Christmas stories we love and grew up with should be dismissed as insignificant just because some of them may not be historical facts. In the core of this mixture, there is a figure of a historical Jesus which is embellished eloquently with myths. It is pregnant with a profound belief in Jesus the Christ – Messiah and the meaning of his life for all of us. They show the depth and width of the belief of our fathers and mothers of faith, which are impossible to describe fully by boring facts. It is just like: The value of a human person can not be measured by the monetary value of a body’s chemical components such as calcium, iron, salt and water, which could be less than $100. The renown scholar of literature, Northrop Frye, said, “Myth is an expression of truth on the deepest level.”
Let us follow the Bible passages relating to the birth of Jesus and try to discover the meaning of Christmas. The following are my reflections on some of disconnected but beautiful Christmas stories. Incidentally, it is worth noting that, with exception of the Gospels, the rest of the New Testament is silent about the birth of Jesus. Why Christmas has become such a huge event in our lives today is a good question I think it is because the birth of a child is always important in any culture. It was particularly so for pre-Christian and pagan spiritual traditions. The Church had to find something to quench the thirst for a baby story by christening the popular pagan festivals. Also in the Northern hemisphere people want something joyful to lighten up the dark nights of winter, even though the Bible itself originally didn’t show much enthusiasm for Christmas.
Religions borrow customs from each other often. Hanukkah, for example, was not a high holiday in ancient Judaism. But as Christmas became popular, Jewish people elevated it to celebrate in a big way during the same season as Christmas. Christmas tree was a German heathen custom to celebrate every-green; this one is a religious plagiarism. But why not. It makes grey days of winter smelling fresh.
I begin with Mark and John because they have little to stay about Christmas:
Let us begin with the Gospel according to Mark, which is universally accepted as the earliest account of the life of Jesus written during the first century. The simple fact is there is no Christmas story in Mark. It begins with the story of John the Baptist, who introduced Jesus in Northern Palestine by the river Jordan to the public as the Messiah everyone was waiting for. By then Jesus must have been about 30 years old. There is no Virgin mother Mary, no shepherds, no wise men, no star of Bethlehem in Mark. Jesus suddenly appeared before John by the river Jordan asking for baptism. This absence of Christmas speaks volume about what was important about Jesus in Mark’s mind. For him, the mere fact of Jesus lived and suffered, performed wonders, and taught many life lessons were what he believed to be the essence of the Gospel, Good News. His birth was not that important for Mark as his life was most important. It is possible that, due to his humble beginning in a back country of Galilee, nobody knew how Jesus was born neither did anyone know anything about his childhood and youth.
We now move onto the Gospel according to John. Chapter one of John does not say anything about birth. But it begins with what Jesus means. He describes Jesus as a manifestation of God by naming him as “the Word – logos.” If you want to know what God is like and thinks, the life of Jesus says it all. He goes on to describe him as God taking the shape of a human, who is not born of human stock through a human father (1:12). Is he hinting a miraculous virgin birth? It is not clear. At any rate, John does not spend too many words to tell the birth stories. Obviously for him, John the Baptist announcing the coming of the Messiah the most significant beginning of the life of Jesus. (1:15)
All the birth stories of Jesus we tell every year and love come from two Gospels: Matthew and Luke. Oddly those accounts are not the same. Obviously both Luke and Matthew writers did not know the other existed. Though both of them agree on the mother, Mary, giving birth while being unmarried, and the place of birth being Bethlehem, other stories are not the same. Incidentally, miraculous birth stories are common in many religions to distinguish special personalities from ordinary people. To take the virgin birth as a proof of Jesus being uniquely divine simply does not work. There are too many virgin birth myths to make Jesus special.
Matthew tells the story of wise men, who were the astrologers who followed the star, while Luke speaks about the shepherds in the field but without mentioning the star. Incidentally, popular image of “three” wise men comes from the “three” gifts they brought. The actual number of men was not mentioned. It could have been two men carrying three things.
Both Matthew and Luke mention the genealogy of Joseph, that gives away their bias. They are interested in Jesus being the Messiah, the king who would free and bring glory to the nation, just like King David did. The title comes from a corrupted English pronunciation of Hebrew word, “mahstah” or “messia.” When the New Testament was translated into Greek, which was the universal language at the time, Messiah became Greek word “Kharistus” – Christus or Christ. Matthew begins with Abraham, father of the Hebrew nation, while Luke begins with Adam and Eve – the first humans because he is interested in the whole humanity. Matthew was a Hebrew nationalist and Luke was an universalist. Both told birth stories attempting to connect Jesus with King David, the most beloved king. This is why Bethlehem was chosen as the birth place. Bethlehem was David’s birth place where he grew up. No serious scholar accepts that it was also Jesus’ birth place. It is believed that Jesus was born and grew up in Nazareth. It shows the writers’ prayer for the spiritual quality of political leader.
Another interesting fact is: for both Matthew and Luke, the genealogy of Jesus was that of Joseph, not of Mary. If Matthew and Luke were serious about the fact that Mary conceived Jesus without a man hence virgin birth, why should the genealogy be of Joseph ancestry? The word used to describe Mary simply means an unmarried young woman, virgin or not. If she was a virgin, why Joseph was troubled by Mary’s pregnancy? (Matthew 1) It could only mean Mary became pregnant by another man, not Joseph? It is impossible to make the story straight by trying to make sense out of the accounts by Matthew and Luke. I think that the point of Mary’s questionable pregnancy is, by making the beginning of Jesus less than socially acceptable, Jesus was a bastard. Mary was a single mom. In fact, the Gospels often make the point of Jesus not accepted in Nazareth where he is know as “son of Mary” not of Joseph. The song of Mary (Luke 1 46 – 56) makes sense: by forcing a young woman going through a socially unacceptable pregnancy, “God brought down the mighty and proud, and lifted up the lowly.”
What is the point of introducing the story of wise men from the East, who followed the star? That story appears only in Matthew. Persia, present day Iran, was well known for the art of star gazing – astrology. So it is logical to assume that those men came from Persia. Isn’t astrology (horoscope) still popular section of the news paper? As far as the Hebrew religion was concern, they were pagans. So the point of the story is: if you are dedicated to your own belief and serious about it to the point of sacrificing all to pursue what they believe, following the star for example, you will find the son of God, the implication is enormous. Does this also mean that idol worshippers would also find the Hebrew Messiah? Will Buddhists and Hindu believers find the Hebrew God? Or should this notion leads to the universality of religions: namely all religions are like many paths leading to the same summit?
The shepherd story is a typical Luke story. Luke is a socialist, a defender and sympathizer of the poor and the working class. Shepherds represent the homeless, and the poorly paid working people. They were chosen to hear the good news of the new born Messiah. It is a clear message, contrast to the king and the scholars who knew where and when the Messiah would be born but didn’t go to see him. Not only did they not to bother, but they planned to kill him, because they wanted to keep the status quo, holding on to power and wealth.
There are a lot more we can touch around the stories of Jesus’ birth and his youth. There is a story of massacre of infant boys in Bethlehem and the flight to Egypt. A story of the miraculous birth of John the Baptist, his mother Elizabeth who conceived well after her menopause. The encounter of Elizabeth and Mary while there were both pregnant. The story of 12 years old Jesus and his journey to Jerusalem. I am not going to touch on them, not because they are fabricated. They are important. But I have already articulated how we should understand those myths.
We must remind ourselves that the Bible is neither historical nor scientific book. It is a book about faith written in the forms of fiction, metaphor, myth, parable, poem, and sermon. What they mean is enormously important, not because of the historical facts they might seem to represent. Christmas in the Bible is magical. Let us enjoy it and think about its meaning for our faith in Jesus the Christ.