Monday, December 5, 2011

Christmas and The Bible

(This blog only dates to the Spring of 2011, before that I blogged in other places and wrote a ton of notes on Facebook.  Some of those notes were pretty good, and worth reposting in this space so they can be a little bit more accessible.  The following piece is one of those and was originally put on my Facebook Page last December, though I've expanded it in a few places.)

A friend of mine once asked me "Why do Pagans spend so much time obsessing about Christianity?"  It's a fair question, and one I have numerous answers to.  The most obvious answer is that Christianity is the dominant religion in our society and culture, and to not acknowledge it is akin to ignoring a pink elephant sitting in your living room.  Nearly every aspect of our society is filtered through the prism of Christianity in some respects.  Christian Morality has decided what is legal and illegal in our society, what is "moral" and what is not, and what can and cannot be said on television.

It's also the faith that many of us Modern Pagans were raised in.  Since it was such a part of my early life, I'm still curious about it.  My reasons for writing about it are not to disprove it, but to figure out why certain things were written in certain ways.  Understanding the context of it leads to a better understanding of it.  I just wish that line of thinking was shared by more Christians, many of whom  blindly accept every statement in their Bibles at face value, without evaluating the context or circumstances under which it was written.

From a purely personal stand-point I enjoy reading about the origins of Christianity because I find value in the stories (I think Christianity can make someone a better person), and because it's history is interesting to me.  I'm not sure when Pan became a god exactly, but you can make the argument that we know the day when Jesus' divinity was voted on.  That's pretty cool to me, and I like tracing the origin of religion(s).  There's also a plethora of material out there about it, making it easy to research.

So while I'm not sure that I obsess about it, I do enjoy writing about it and researching it.  Often I choose to share that research with others-hence this blog post and the occasional lecture on it.  Nothing in this essay is ground breaking, but our media has trouble portraying the birth of Jesus in any way outside of the gospel narratives.  It bothers me that a story so full of holes historically never gets called out on the problems inherent in it.  Every Christmas I run into cable television documentaries out to prove the historicity of Matthew and Luke, and never the other way around.  Periodically, "scholars" like Ben Witherington, will host these crazy quests for magical stars that exist only in myth.  If the "liberal media" isn't going to bother to tell the truth about what the gospels say and don't say about the birth of Jesus, it becomes necessary for twits like myself to do it.  

The New Testament says very little about the birth of Jesus.  The earliest writings in the New Testament, letters from the Apostle Paul, make no mention of Jesus' birth.  The authentic* letters of Paul were written in about 50 BCE, twenty years or so after the crucifixion.  Had their been a miraculous story surrounding Jesus' birth you'd think Paul would have mentioned it, but alas, there are no tales of Wise Men, virgin births, shepherds, or even Bethlehem.

The earliest gospel, Mark, doesn't mention the birth of Jesus either.  Again, this is odd if wondrous things were happening that day.  Mark's gospel begins with Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist and the start of his public ministry, anything before that is irrelevant to the writer of Mark.  Mark's attitude seems to summarize the thoughts of early Christians pretty well, the birth of Jesus wasn't important, it was the death of Jesus that mattered.

The Gospel of John was the last of the canonical gospels to be written, dating to sometime between 90 and 100 CE.  The writer of John skips the familiar Christmas story we all grew up with too.  John does kind of write a birth narrative, but it's a cosmic narrative (dare I say gnostic at times?), and has nothing in common with the Jesus Birthday stories we know so well.

When it comes to the actual story of Jesus' birth, there isn't one, there are two.  The story of Jesus' birth is laid out in the gospels of Luke and Matthew, but the stories are incredibly different, and speak to the different audience each writer was writing for.  The Christmas Pageants we grew up with in church (and possibly public school as well) are a combination of the two stories, with some additional material thrown in.  Probably due to "Merry Christmas Charlie Brown!" on TV, I'm more familiar with the version presented in Luke than the one in Matthew, so I thought I'd start there.

Luke's account is exceedingly brief.  His account of Jesus' birth doesn't even take up a whole chapter.  It consists of about ten to eight paragraphs, with a few details we associate with the Christmas story occurring in his first chapter.  It's in the first chapter of Luke where we get an angel of the Lord coming down to talk to Mary about her (I'd assume) surprising pregnancy.

The second chapter of Luke relates parts of the Jesus story we know so well.  There are angels, shepherds, a manger, Bethlehem, and no room at the inn.  Those are about all the details Luke provides.  His story hints at a time of year (shepherds usually got the winter months off), but that's it for detail.

Luke's version of events reads as it does because he was writing to Gentiles, and probably peasant gentiles at that.  His concern is not with establishing Jesus as an earthly king-like messiah, he's concerned with portraying Jesus as humble and accessible.  Sure he's a bit worried about Jewish prophecy, but not to the extent that the write of Matthew was.

Luke does give some historical context to his story, the most famous of which is a census allegedly taken at the time of Jesus' birth.  "At that time Emperor Augustus ordered a census to be taken throughout the Roman Empire.  When this census took place, Quirinius was the governor of Syria.  Everyone then went to register himself, each at his home town."  Here the author of Luke cites a specific event and a verifiable historical personage, but both references have serious problems.

The reign of Caesar Augustus is pretty well documented, and there's not a piece of paper anywhere outside of the Gospel of Luke that tells of an Empire wide census.  The census is simply a vehicle to get Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, where, according to Jewish Prophecy, Jesus is supposed to be born.  There is no way that this census was an actual historical event, it was simply a literary device.  If you really stop to think about the census and each person registering "at his home town" you come up with a snarl of near epic proportions.  Joseph went to Bethlehem because his ancestor of one thousand years ago was King David (the record keeping for a guy who ended up as a humble carpenter is amazing!).  If every person in the Roman Empire had to trace their lineage back one thousand years and then go to that ancestors hometown in an era of foot-travel . . . . commerce and trade would literally halt, armies would fall apart, and the whole giant enterprise would be commented on outside of a sentence in Luke.

Luke's reference to Quirinius is also curious.  Quirinius was the governor of Syria, but he did not become the governor of Syria until 6 CE.  The date is troubling because the writer of Matthew states in no uncertain terms that Herod was the King of Judea when Jesus was born and unfortunately, Herod died ten years before Quirinius took the throne.  If Luke's references to the census and Quirinius are wrong (and history tells us they are), everything else in his birth narrative might be wrong as well.

Where as the story presented in Luke is rather salt of the earth, the story presented in Matthew is far more royal.  In Matthew it is Joseph who gets a heavenly visit, not Mary.  The writer of the gospel also takes pains to point out that Jesus being born of a virgin is a fulfillment of a prophecy found in the book Isaiah.

There are some serious problems with that prophecy in Isaiah though when it comes to the matter of divine birth.  In the Hebrew, Isaiah uses the word "alma" which can certainly mean virgin, but it more accurately translates to "young woman."  Most babies born in the year 3 BCE were born of young women, there's nothing all that miraculous about that.  Coupled with the silence from Mark and Paul, it's unlikely that Jesus was born of a virgin (not to mention the difficulty), it's also unlikely that Isaiah meant to have his prophecy interpreted that way.

It's Matthew, and Matthew only, who tells the tale of the "Visitors From the East" (as they are called in my Good News Bible).  The Three Wise Men as we call them today were never named in Matthew, he doesn't even tell you how many there are.  The idea that there were three, and that they had names, was a much later invention.  Matthew simply says they were from the East and attended the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem after following a star.  Matthew's Jesus is also born in a house, and there are no mentions of a manger or problems with the local inns.  "They went into the house" is how my Bible puts it.

The story of the star is unique to Matthew, and the cause of a great deal of speculation.  Being the skeptic that I am, I find the tale of the star almost impossible to believe.  It's a nice tale, and again, illustrates the ideas that Matthew wants to present (Jesus is divine, this birth is special), but as a real historical event it's hard to take seriously.  For centuries scholars have looked for proof of a celestial event similar to the one found in Matthew, with very little luck.  A localized star appearing in the Roman Empire would have been cause for a great deal of excitement, and it's just absent from the historical record.

There have been many attempts to link the star to comets, or a conjunction of planets.  I think it's best to accept heart warming mythology for what it is, and not sweat the details.  There's a star on top of my Christmas tree, it makes me happy, I like the symbolism, I don't see the need to care about its historical accuracy.

Like Luke, Matthew makes reference to a historical event that we should be able to find evidence for.  In this case that event is the "Massacre of the Innocents."  The Massacre of the Innocents is Herod's attempt to kill Jesus, the "King of the Jews,"after being made aware of his impending birth by the Wise Men.  The Massacre involved the killing of every male in the area in and around Bethlehem under the age of two, and it's only mentioned in the Book of Matthew.  You'd think such a horrible event would be documented in at least a few other places.  (Thankfully, the Massacre of the Innocents did not end up as one of the Twelve Days of Christmas.)

Early Christianity was not interested in the birth of Jesus, and many scholars have speculated that the birth narratives found in Matthew and Luke were later additions to those gospels.  If that's true, those stories are in good company.  Mark's gospel originally just ended with the crucifixion of Jesus, the "empty tomb" part of the gospel was apparently a later addition.

In recent years it's become popular in modern Pagan circles to claim that all of the "story" surrounding the birth of Jesus is pagan in origin.  I think some of that's true, it's probably partially responsible for the idea that Jesus was born of a virgin, and it explains things like the stars and the magi.  All of those elements appear in pagan tales from the time of Jesus.  The story of Mithras' birth is pretty similar to the story in Matthew, minus the Bethlehem, but I think the Christian take on many of those elements is surprisingly fresh.  The tale also remains ambiguous enough that people can add things to it:  talking animals, innkeepers, the Wise Men mythology, common man and royalty coming together, etc.

Christmas was an unknown holiday in the early Christian Church.  Jewish holidays and then Easter took center stage.  Birthday holidays were considered pagan by early Church leaders like Origen.  Some of his quotes on the subject are pretty scathing on the subject of birthdays, saints "not only do not celebrate a festival on their birth days, but filled with the Holy Spirit, they curse that day."  Ouch.  Origen certainly didn't put a stocking up on Christmas Eve.

The first mention of Christmas as a Christian holiday was in 336 CE.  The earliest known association with December 25th with the birth of Jesus is from a calendar in 354 CE.  The December 25th birthday is very pagan for those keeping score at home.  A multitude of pagan deities had their birthdays celebrated on that day near the Winter Solstice, it was one of the feast days of Dionysus.  It also coincided quite nicely with the Roman festival of Saturnalia, a winter festival full of feasting, drinking, gift giving, and celebration.  The Norse Yule was also at the time of year, and was another holiday  featuring drinking, feasting, gift giving, but also evergreen trees and branches, and candles.

To Yule and Saturnalia (and other winter festivals) the stories of Jesus' birth were added to create "Christmas."  Of course the development of Christmas went through several starts and stops, and was outlawed by Christian groups like the Puritans (the "War on Christmas" has been fought much more vigorously within Christianity than by any outside forces).  It wasn't until the 19th Century that it became universally popular in the Western World.

*That link will take you to an old Facebook note of mine on Biblical literacy.

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