Christmas question: When it comes to Jesus, how true is “true”?

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Most Americans, including many who say they have no religion, still believe Jesus was born to a virgin. This Greek icon of Theotokos depicts the Virgin Mary and the child Jesus. Photo by Nick Crettier, courtesy of National  Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

Most Americans, including many who say they have no religion, still believe Jesus was born to a virgin. This Greek icon of Theotokos depicts the Virgin Mary and the child Jesus. Photo by Nick Crettier, courtesy of National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

Does historical accuracy matter at Christmas? Or is this story about a different kind of truth?

No, I’m not asking about Megyn Kelly’s obsession with Jesus’ or Santa’s race. My questions came to mind a I wrote about a new survey by the Public Religion Research Center and Religion News Service.

Most Americans, including many who say they have no religion, still believe Jesus was born to a virgin. This Greek icon of Theotokos depicts the Virgin Mary and the child Jesus. Photo by Nick Crettier, courtesy of National  Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

Most Americans, including many who say they have no religion, still believe Jesus was born to a virgin. This Greek icon of Theotokos depicts the Virgin Mary and the child Jesus. Photo by Nick Crettier, courtesy of National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

The RNS/PRRI survey finds the number of people who say “the story of Christmas – that is, the Virgin birth, the angelic proclamation to the Shepherds, the Star of Bethlehem, and the Wise Men from the East — is historically accurate” has plummeted more than 17 percentage points in the last nine years. It fell from 67 percent in a Newsweek survey to 49 percent in the new PRRI poll. Another survey, released Wednesday by Pew Research, found a high level of belief in the Virgin birth — and a lot of folks who believe Santa will visit their house Christmas Eve.

Today, 40 percent of U.S. adults say Christmas is “a theological story to affirm faith in Jesus Christ.”

So what’s “true” here?

The late Sir John Templeton endowed a foundation that spends millions in supporting many kinds of educational and medical research but may be best known for his interest in what he called advancing spiritual knowledge. I participated for several years in a Templeton program for science and religion journalists but never saw “proof” of God – or “proof” of no God either.

But what if Jesus and God are theologically “true” if not scientifically so?

Jump in here with your views but remember the Faith & Reason rule: All views respectfully presented are welcome. So post early, post often, and share this with your friends. Even better, subscribe to F&R so it comes to your email.

  • There is an ox and an ass (Jackass) in the traditional nativity scene not because of history but because of chapter 1 of Isaiah. Check it out.

  • Pamela Wheaton

    I am a fairly young Christian. I have plunged with both feet into Biblical study and am now beginning to I understand and see connections from book to book. I am developing a deep faith in the Word and its accuracy. On the science side of things, I appreciate Lee Strobel (a investigative reporter), Kent Hovind (an interesting character with some thought provoking ideas), Calvary Chapel pastors (speak only of things which are substantiated in the pages of the Bible), and Answers in Genesis (apologetics using science). It is amazing how much science (and the writings of other historians) there is to support the Bible and how much flawed science has been used to promote Darwinism over the years.

    I believe the traditional nativity scenes take some creative license to present a story. But where those scenes lack accuracy is not from the Bible. For instance, it is not known with certainty that there were 3 Magi (only three gifts that were noted) and it is widely opined that Jesus was a toddler when found by the Magi.

    I am still studying. There is much to be learned and each new discovery is more profound than the last. My faith grows.

  • phazon

    You may also like to know that God didn’t put that star there why would God try and get Magi or wise men which where when translated from Greek means astrologers or magicians practices that God finds detestable. Notice that star lead the Magi first to King Herod who wanted to kill Jesus after instructions from Herod to find the child the star then led them to Jesus. Wonder who put that star there? it was only after God had told them in a dream with dire warning not to return to Herod that they did not return to him it was after this time, that King Herod had every child under 2 killed in the surrounding area. Amazing to see how many people actually forget what the bible says and supports Christmas a tradition that God surely doesn’t approve of after all it’s roots are implanted in pagan mythology and worship to the Gods Saturnila, Sol and the Persian God. Why would God want those days representing his son. Notice that the apostles never celebrated Jesus birth you will not find Gods servants celebrating birthdays in the bible because it is a pagan tradition that fuels egotistical attitudes and what is really a birthday when people come eat and drink and give you gifts sounds exactly like a form of worship to me.

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  • GeoffreyLaw

    Spot on Pamela. What do those scientist know, anyways? They don’t have the “Truth”. For example, in the KJV Bible, the Old testament mentions unicorns over ten times but if you ask one of those stupid scientists if unicorns are real, they’ll say no. Everyone should just forget about anything scientific because the “Real” “Truth” can be found in the Bible. Such as, did you know that JHWH told the Jews that bats are actually birds? Checkmate scientists. Bats are birds because the Bible says so.

  • Nate

    Thanks Cathy for the question. It’s interesting that you worked with the Templeton program, which is English in origin. I wonder if such a program would even work in the USA, where nuance, probability, symbolism and inquiry are in short supply (as evidenced by the comments thus far). I fear that educated people from other countries look at religious dialogue in this country and cringe because we seem to only have two kinds of conversation participants: Those who affirm a fundamental, Biblicist view of religion in the most literal terms, and those who are merely the mirror image and deny religion in the most literalist, secular fundamentalist terms (again, I point to the comments thus far here and on many of the posts at RNS).

    I think before you can have an intelligent discussion about religious “truth” perhaps a prior question should be asked: Whether or not Americans can have a discussion about anything that includes more than just two sides of affirm/deny, black/white, or right/wrong.

    Until that question gets answered, by all means lets sarcastically quote tired cliches we ripped off of Zeitgeist, “The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors”, and Sam Harris. And then lets reply by talking about the wrath of a holy God and quote some Bible verses. But whatever we do, let us please not try to construct a positive understanding of how these ancient stories could be understood in a way that is generous and embracing, whether or not there was a literal star leading three literal Kings.

  • Ian Clark

    Is the Christmas story historically accurate? No doubt the years have altered what really happened in Bethlehem somewhat. Just as there is an Oral Torah in Judaism to supplement, and in many cases supersede, the written Torah, I think that Chrisianity also has built up traditions, interpretations, and ideas which aren’t quite Biblical but, nonetheless, shape how we come to see and experience Christmas.

    However, the point of Christmas is to mark the birth of the literal figure, Jesus Christ. We mustn’t loose that fact as we dissect, or even dismiss, parts of the story. Either we are to believe in the birth of a literal Christ, or we are to reject it. There is no alternative. If rejected, then it is nonsense to celebrate the day. If accepted, the Christian should use the day as a day of reflection and spiritual awe.

    Why has belief in the Truth of Christmas waned over the years? I might suspect that our oppressive breed of capitalism has crept in. The society with a market has become a market with a society: and everything is for sale. We’ve witnessed the commodification of marriage, elderly parents, the poor. We’ve let our physical Earth be tapped and destroyed in the name of the Holy Dollar. Christmas, too, has become a holiday of consumerism: a holiday of the here and now, for our immediate gratification.

  • Ian Clark

    Pamela: as you have identified yourself as a young Christian, let me first begin by saying: good for you! I can be tough, in today’s world, to embrace Christianity. However, let me just offer you this as you progress in your journey: the Christian need not reject Darwinism and also need not selectively accept science. Does the brilliance of Darwinian evolution reject God? Absolutely not. For me, it shows that God has created a brilliantly adaptable world. Likewise, you need to recall that the Truth of the Bible is not always biographical Truth. It may contain Poetic Truth, Parable, etc. All of these require a different manner of reading than do things like letters and histories. And so what is “Truth” in Genesis am be far more abstract than what is “Truth” in Romans.

  • My problem is less with the Virgin Birth doctrine per se (although it is silly and biologically implausible), but with the theological reasons for insisting on it. If Jesus was to be an animal sacrifice (something the infant and his blessed mother could have never known) to make blood atonement, he had to be perfect. And sin/sinfulness was believed to be passed inter-generationally through sexual intercourse. Thus Jesus, the final sacrificial lamb, had to come to us in sinless perfection. So the story makes sense, kind of.

    But do we really believe that blood sacrifices are efficacious for cleansing sin? No. So why do we persist in this strange belief? And why is the Virgin Birth the penultimate rung on the slippery slope to apostasy (just before denying the historicity of the bodily resurrection)? I think these poll numbers are inflated by social desirability response bias.

    I’m not that religious anymore, but when I think about this Holy Child, I don’t immediately reduce his life to a brutal execution and “sacrifice” for my or anyone else’s sins. Ultimately, that’s what the doctrine of the virgin conception of Christ does. It reduces him to a scapegoat in a sacrificial system that no one even believes in anymore. I think it’s pathetic.

  • There is no Christmas story in the Gospel of Mark, but the story of Jesus is still myth, which means it is figuratively but not literally true. See my new book Secret of the Savior: The Myth of the Messiah in Mark.

  • a si lo festejan los mexicanos

  • Jacob: Your understanding of the theological reason why the Virgin birth is seen as necessary is very closely tied to the Western-Augustinian theory of original sin and transmitted guilt. Is it possible that this is a tactical mistake? For instance, the Eastern Orthodox theological tradition eschews all that Augustinian theory for one in which sin is more like a virus or disease passed generationally, making each generation sick, rather than as guilt and shame for actions we may never have done.

    For the Orthodox tradition, the Virgin birth is not usually hooked to any tradition regarding original sin, or perceived need for Mary to have been a sinless vessel conceived through an “immaculate conception” (which is also an invention of Western Catholicism). For instance:

    All of that is to say that there is an alternate theological rationale for insisting in Jesus’ virgin conception in Mary’s womb: The idea that he is the very incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity. If he is indeed God in human flesh, then it does make sense to insist that his conception also comes directly from God. There are ways to understand Jesus as the full embodiment of God without the Virgin conception, but they are more difficult and less straightforward affirmations of his Divinity. If one accepts his Divinity, that is the major “miracle”. It is far less miraculous to affirm God could make someone pregnant than it is to affirm God became human (or even to affirm God created the universe!).

    Now, the question of whether it is historically the case is still separate from theologizing about it. People are fond of pointing out that Mark, John, Paul, and the rest of the NT outside of Matthew and Luke, do NOT speak of the Virgin conception. But those same people often fail to mention that the rest of the NT also does not mention his biological father at all, and there is sparse reference to his mother Mary. Could it be that there is no mention of Jesus’ biological father because there was no biological father? I guess we will not find out until we meet God face to face to ask God.

  • Ian: I think I may be more prone than you to accept a “literal” Virgin conception, if I am reading between the lines correctly. But I think your comments on evolution and the creeping corrosion of capitalism are spot on. Your comments are very much an exception to what I said in my first post.

  • JonP

    “Thus Jesus, the final sacrificial lamb…”
    Wait, if Jesus is the final sacrificial lamb, then are those that are actually being saved all of the animals that would have otherwise been sacrificed?

  • JonP

    “All of that is to say that there is an alternate theological rationale for insisting in Jesus’ virgin conception in Mary’s womb”
    I thought the theological rationale was that if Jesus had a normal birth, and a normal death, then what reason would there be to believe that Jesus was not a normal person? He needed signs and wonders, the first of which was miraculous birth that would have been impossible without god, and the final of which was resurrection and ascension which also are also otherwise impossible. The virgin birth establishes that Jesus is not really a human.

  • JonP

    “But what if Jesus and God are theologically “true” if not scientifically so?”

    I think that Jesus and god are theologically “true” in the same sense that it is true that James T. Kirk was captain of the USS Enterprise. It is not true to say that Spock was captain of the Enterprise, as it is to say it is not true that Jesus was just a normal person whom an entire mythology was built around.

  • JonP

    “But whatever we do, let us please not try to construct a positive understanding of how these ancient stories could be understood in a way that is generous and embracing, whether or not there was a literal star leading three literal Kings.”

    That doesn’t sound like as much fun. Either we need to deny all of the specific factual claims made, or we need to affirm by accepting at least one specific claim. The extreme affirmation is accepting all claims (biblical literalism).

    Because I am a scientist, I see that the gray area is in deciding which claims are supported by evidence. For example, there may have been three literal kings, but not a literal star leading them.

    On what basis do we accept any of the claims in any of the biblical stories? This is difficult for me to answer, because my Christian friends do not seem to understand that the bible needs evidence to support it’s claims; the bible is not the evidence.

  • JonP

    The other conversation requires that we view the bible as mythology.

    “But whatever we do, let us please not try to construct a positive understanding of how these ancient stories could be understood in a way that is generous and embracing”

    We can do this with any stories in literature, and the bible is not really that special. The God in the bible likes genocide and murdering babies (or at least ordering his chosen people to do the dirty work). Star Trek may have better stories about being generous and embracing.

  • In response to JonP: “The virgin birth establishes that Jesus is not really a human.”

    I can see how you might get there, if you were positing that Jesus is essentially some kind of “superman” who merely appears to be human but is really invincible. The interesting thing is that this is not the direction that either Matthew nor Luke take the Virgin Conception, and a “superman” version of the Incarnation was sternly rejected by all seven of the original Ecumenical Councils.

    For instance, Luke has the most detailed description of the Virgin Conception, and also the most detailed description of Jesus growth and maturation as an actual human. Our only first century stories of Jesus’ childhood come from Luke. Both Matthew and Luke are keen to show Jesus as suffering, weak, and even tempted (cf. Mat 4; Luk 4). Luke especially is careful to show that Jesus was only able to do his miracles by relying on the Holy Spirit (just as any other prophet- cf. Luke 4.18-21). And Matthew and Luke both show Jesus suffering emotionally and physically, just like any human, during his passion and death.

    The first Seven Ecumenical Councils– from Nicea in 325 to Chalcedon in 451 to Nicea II in 787– carefully rejected any theory of Incarnation that made Jesus less than fully 100% human and 100% God. Docetism was rejected for making Jesus into a sort of Divine hologram of a human being. Nestorianism was rejected for positing that Jesus was not a united divine-human person. Apollinarianism was rejected for taking away Jesus’ human soul, and only leaving him with a human body. Monophysitism was rejected because it said the Divine nature overwhelmed and subsumed his human nature.

    Many say these issues are absurd theological hair splitting. But there is a deep truth that they are trying to preserve: In order to reunite humanity with God, God has to be on both sides of the equation: Reaching to the full depths of the human situation, while also reaching to the heights of Divinity, to “bridge the gap” between the two.

    And that is why the “Chalcedonian Definition” of the Incarnation is the “gold standard” for Orthodox Christian theology. It defines the bounds of Christological thinking as a union of two natures– human nature and divine nature– in one person of Jesus Christ, without dividing or confusing the two natures, without falling off into a rejection of Jesus’ full divinity or ignoring his full humanity.

    And for the early Church, the affirmation of the Virgin Conception was tied into striking that balance, not rejecting Christ’s humanity in favor of his Divinity.

  • Ian Clark

    Hi Nate,

    Thanks for your feedback. As a Christian I do tend to be biased towards the literal nature of Christ’s divinity, and the events surrounding his birth. In this sense, I view Christmas as the celebration of the birth of the literal savior. Though, of course, I suspect many of the specific details of that birth and some of the beliefs we hold today are historically flawed or simply symbolic.

    My worry is that our churches have fallen out of vogue for exactly the thing they (should) aim to combat: consumerism, materialism, selfishness. So we see two things. We see “Christian” preachers who decide to preach and “Jesus wants you rich” theology to appeal to this. Or, we see declining religiosity. Either way, we loose sight of the Gospel.

    However, as it relates to the Gospel, that Word of God must be considered what it is: an anthology of works. Some letters, some histories, some poems, some parables, etc. just as we find Truth differently in those things today, so we need to find Truth in different ways when we read the Gospel.

    That Truth – that Good News – isn’t Good at all if viewed through a materialist’s eyes. It’s limiting, oppressive, and frustrating. But looked at from the perspective of love, we find eternal Truth of an overwhelming nature.

  • Ian Clark

    JonP: yes. Jesus died as a sacrifice for our sins, so that we could have the opportunity for repentance. Where we were slaves to our sin – dead in sin – we may now be alive in Christ.

  • JonP

    “if you were positing that Jesus is essentially some kind of “superman” who merely appears to be human but is really invincible.”

    Jesus would have been at least a facsimile good enough to convince those around him that he was human. There are only a few ways I can think of in which Jesus could have been human and born to a literal virgin Mary.

    Mary may have had an extreme chromosomal abnormality. Mary could have had an aberrant y-chromosome and a self-fertilizing egg. This would most likely have made Mary’s sex male during her fetal development. It also would have required the extremely unlikely self-fertilization event.

    Other species can reproduce asexually (and it’s at least theoretically plausible that those mechanisms could work in humans under some unknown circumstances), but then Jesus would have been a clone of Mary, and female.

    We could posit divine intervention in which Mary had normally functioning reproductive system, was a virgin, and gave birth to a human male. Either a sperm magically materialized in Mary’s fallopian tube (or anywhere along the reproductive tract) which fertilized an egg, or the chromosomes magically materialized in the egg and led to cell division. I guess Jesus could have magically materialized as a blastocyst, embryo or fetus, but that would be a little too ridiculous, because the miracle is supposed to be the conception.

    However, Matthew, Luke, anyone at ecumenical councils, etc. would have known about none of this. They were using models of human development, morphology and behavior that are demonstrably wrong. They simply did not know where babies really come from. They would have had no way of determining Jesus’ actual origins, and are therefore not accurate sources of information to determine the literal truth.

  • JonP

    Ian Clark: What is Jesus sacrificing in his death? He knows he is coming back to life anyway, and he knows he gets to spend eternity in paradise afterwards. Is a couple of days of some pain really that bad when it is followed by eternity of no pain? Especially when there are no personal consequences like death.

    It also would be nice if someone could explain to me how Jesus being crucified has anything to do with repentance. Is it justified to let an innocent person accept the punishment for all the guilty people?

    Also, what exactly do you mean by “slaves to our sin”, “dead in sin” and “alive in Christ”? I have heard people use similar phrases but I can not figure out what they mean.

    Has anything really changed from before to after Jesus’ death? What happened to the people who had no chance of being saved by Jesus because they were alive before Jesus? Were they saved retroactively? Were they screwed?

  • Ian Clark

    Hi Nate:

    Apologies for my delayed response to this. While I think your questions don’t have simple (or short!) answers, I’ll do my best to provide concise, and brief, responses which may prompt from further investigation:

    1) “What is Jesus sacrificing in his death? He knows he is coming back to life anyway”

    Jesus was at once divine and human. As a man, we was capable of profound pain and emotional strain. The death of Jesus is not the death of God – but the sacrifice of His humanity. In suffering the crushing pain of crucifixion, he endured the worst of human rejection to illustrate two things: 1) the survival of the spirit in spite of the death of the body, and 2) the willingness to endure human loss and sacrifice when such suffering would not be “required” of a divine figure.

    2) “would be nice if someone could explain to me how Jesus being crucified has anything to do with repentance. Is it justified to let an innocent person accept the punishment for all the guilty people?”

    We have to remember that when we speak of Christ we are not speaking simply of a “person”, but of God in the flesh. The ethics of man would proclaim: “let the guilty pay, and let the innocent be alone”. But, before God, there is no innocence. All are guilty. Everyone is sinful. Jesus accepted human punishment as an act of love for and with mankind. Consider a soldier who dies in war or social activist. This individual has accepted his fate for a cause greater than himself – for his nation or his ideology. Christ, too, sacrificied himself in defense of the Kingdom of God – in spite of those who sought to oppress what he preached and lived during his life.

    3) “what exactly do you mean by “slaves to our sin”, “dead in sin” and “alive in Christ”? ”

    Very simply, phrases of this sort mean that without Christ we have no hope. We are all sinful people. It is in our nature. Hence the allegory of the “fall of man” in Genesis – and, more importantly, our everyday life experiences. None of us are wothy of anything. In effect, we are dead in our sin, and slaves to it as it is our human nature. But in God’s love of mankind, as illustrated by Christ, we are able to be justified by faith – by love.

    4) What happened to the people who had no chance of being saved by Jesus because they were alive before Jesus? Were they saved retroactively? Were they screwed?

    We must remember that Christ came to the world at a time when the world was prepared to begin to receive Christ. Prior to Christ, the Prophets began to pave the way for the Messiah. Jesus did not arrive “out of the blue”. We read the Tanakh (Old Testament) now to help us, likewise, to understand Christ. We must also remember that when we speak of Jesus we are also speaking of God. Those before Jesus had a knowledge of and respect for God, and so through Faith we must believe them, too, to have been justified.

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  • Scott M

    Something that is not “scientifically true” cannot be “theologically true”. Truth is independent of the accuracy of science and the assertions of faith. The Virgin Birth cannot be confirmed because there were no witnesses around the period before and during the gestation of the Jesus fetus. More importantly, there’s no evidence of the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection or of God.

    Science can’t, nor does it have to, disprove God because of the philosophical concept of the “burden of proof”. Scientists don’t claim God doesn’t exist because there’s no evidence in support of this claim. Christians claim God exists, but have no evidence to support their claim. Pastafarians claim that their Flying Spaghetti Monster God exists but has hidden all evidence of His existence, therefore, they’re clearly stating that they claim that they believe without any evidence. Belief without evidence is more commonly known as “faith”, yet contemporary apologists have made attempts to muddy this definition and equate hearsay witness testimonies as empirical evidence, which it is not. Belief because of faith is the only intellectually honest reason to have as a Christian or Pastafarian, but that does not mean it is intellectually reasonable.

  • Larry

    “Theological truth” means it relates to people and gives some commentary about the universal human experience. Its subjective, mythopoetic, and essentially literary. The Bible has as much theological truth as any other piece of literature has to tell us about ourselves. Nobody has to care whether a favored novel is based on a true story or not to personally affect the reader.

    Any religion which insists on claims of scientific truth is stampeding on thin ice with heavy boots. Literalism is either pure stupidity or merely a tool for browbeating people into belief dishonestly.

    Religious belief exists only as a function of faith. The absence of evidence, not the existence of it. Belief based on objective criteria have different standards and structure than belief based on faith. Belief based on objective findings imply disbelief is possible if contrary evidence is found. Religious belief is never subject to such a rule. So it can never be based on literal scientific truth.

  • Michael

    It is difficult to imagine a more perverted sense of reasoning regarding the story of the Magi at St. Matthew 2 than your post. The reason why God did “put that star there”, is that His original promise to Abraham 2,000 years before, when He entered into covenant with Him, was that “all nations on the earth” would be blessed through him and his offspring (proximately that meant through his son Isaac, but ultimately that promise is fulfilled through Abraham’s distant descendant Jesus Christ who would bring salvation to all). When God entered into covenant with Abraham and then successively through Isaac, and Jacob, He had decided to isolate one family through which to build a tribe (which included his nephew Lot and his family, servants and livestock), through which to build a nation (Jacob / Israel, the twelve tribes), through which to build a kingdom (king David) to rule over all the kingdoms of the earth (remember that there was separation of the peoples of the earth after the tower of Babel) so that God would be the Lord over everyone. There was an ancient prophecy at Numbers 24:17, “I see him, though not now; I observe him, though not near: A star shall advance from Jacob, and a scepter shall rise from Israel,…” to destroy Israel’s enemies. So all along the covenant was meant to include the bringing in of the Gentile nations (the so-called pagans). Magi were members of the Persian priestly caste. There are many stories in the Bible of pagan priests attempting to discern or read the “signs of the times” by following the patterns of the stars or consulting mediums or reading the signs in the entrails of animals, interpreting dreams or visions, etc.. They wouldn’t have been expected to know or follow God’s prohibitions of such things as they weren’t Israelites (cf. Acts 17: 29, 30) and yet God has provided this convergence where their belief that the arrival of a new king would be accompanied by the discovery of a new star, leads them to the Jewish Messiah. This is the beginning of the fulfillment of the promise that not just the Jewish nation, but, again, referring to the promise to Abraham, “all nations on the earth” would be blessed through Him. The Magi represent the first fruits of the entering in of the Gentiles back into relationship to the one, true, living God through Jesus Christ’s being made flesh and dwelling among us.

    It is perfectly natural that they should go to Jerusalem seeking a newborn king. How could they possibly know what malice Herod harbors in his heart? They are not mind readers. The star leads them to Jerusalem, they quite naturally think there must be a new Jewish king, and they go inquiring at the city capital of the Jews, Jerusalem to pay their respects. It is there that the priests and scribes reveal from the sacred Scriptures that it is out of Bethlehem, the regional capital of the tribe of Judah (king David’s tribe) that a ruler would come. This all seems rather bizarre and pre-scientific because we no longer consult the stars for heavenly wisdom but it is obvious from the context of the story that it was and seemed perfectly possible and reasonable at that ancient time 2,000 years ago. Herod does not brush them off (remember that although Herod is an Idumean and a puppet of Rome who has installed him as a king over the dusty outpost of Jerusalem and the Jews), he is familiar with the Jewish Scriptures and consults the chief priests and scribes to enquire to whom this portent may indicate. Likewise they do not say, “Well this is just silly, we aren’t meant to engage in divinization or astrology, etc.”, no they go and consult the Scriptures (or Herod would likely have had their heads – remember he is disquieted and the whole royal court with him because of his agitation that a rival claimant may be arising on the near horizon to challenge his hold on the throne over the Jews, cf. Matthew 2: 3, 4) and determine if there is a prophecy regarding the coming of a Messiah to deliver Israel from their enemies and fulfill God’s promise to king David that He would establish David’s throne eternally (cf. 2 Samuel 7: 8-13) referring to the coming of Jesus Christ. It is interesting that the verse they uncover (cf. Matthew 2: 5, 6) is Micah 5: 1. That whole chapter of Micah 5 tells of the coming of the Messiah through the birth of a woman (Micah 5:2) and how His coming would be a blessing not only to Judah and the rest of the tribes of Israel, but to the peoples of the “ends of the earth” (Micah 5:3, that Israel would rule “in the midst of many peoples” (i. e. the Gentiles, Micah 5:6), “among the nations” (Micah 5:7, 8), etc. And here are the first fruits of the coming in of the Gentiles, the Magi who pay him homage and give to him symbolic gifts fit for a king – gold, frankincense, and myrrh (cf. Matthew 2: 11,12). Although they were unaware of Herod’s evil intention to send them forth with this new information in order that he might discover where the Messiah was and destroy Him, God gives the Magi a dream to warn them not to return to Herod that they might not be unwitting accomplices in Herod’s evil designs. And yet that very star that, at its rising led them to Jerusalem, now reappears to lead them to Bethlehem and to the Messiah (Matt. 2: 9-11).

    It staggers the imagination that someone would reach back to the Puritans of Massachusetts, the very people who engaged in the Salem witch trials, to dig back up a belief that somehow Christmas is a pagan holiday. Are we in the 21st century or the 17th century? Christmas is about the birth of the Jewish Messiah, the fully human, fully divine God/man, the “Word made flesh” who dwelt among us. Before we make short shrift of this bogus bogeyman you have concocted or rather resuscitated from 400 years ago, let’s remember a few things about the ancient near Eastern and pagan worlds. It was normal, when warring tribes or kingdoms did battle to invoke each kingdom’s “gods” as being with them and against their enemies in such a manner that not only were the people fighting against another kingdom, but they would say that their god was fighting against their enemies god. Therefore not only would a victory be assigned to the army or general, but it would be said that their god was victorious over such and such a nation’s god. We have a biblical example of this in the contest between Elijah and the Lord God (Yahweh / Jehovah) and the prophets of Baal (I Kings 18) and Ahab and the prophets of Baal.

    Well, when the Gentiles were admitted into the nascent Church (cf. Acts
    10) it was determined at the first Church council at Jerusalem (cf. Acts 15) that Gentiles did not need to become circumcised pious Jews scrupulously following all of the prohibitions in the Mosaic law in order to be good Christians (cf. Acts 15). They were simply forbidden not to offer sacrifice to the Roman pantheon of the gods (Zeus, Hera, Venus, Aphrodite, Apollo, etc) or the imperial cult (to worship caesar as a god), not to engage in unlawful marriage (to relatives, divorce/remarriage, multiple wives, etc), etc (Acts 15: 19, 20). However, it was seen as a victory when, as the Church made the long, slow march out into history, the pantheon of the gods and the imperial cult were forbidden to be practiced in the 300’s after the Roman empire became overwhelmingly Christian in such a short time. It was not unusual to take a temple that had been dedicated to a god, and convert it into a Christian church to demonstrate in a physical, tangible way that the living and true God of the Christians, had “conquered” the false or pseudo-god of pagan Rome. Similarly, so as to borrow from pre-existing dates or festivals and re-associate them with Christian significance served a twofold purpose. They could take a date or festival that was already associated in the popular mind with “religious worship”, divest it of its pagan association, reinvest it with a Christian meaning that resembled but was at root different from the pagan one, and thereby “teach” the newly baptized Roman both that the Christian God had concquered the “unconquerable” Roman sun god, and about the “new” Christian religion (associate the fulfilled prohecies of the OT with references to the “sun / son of righteousness”, “until the daystar arise in your hearts”, “the bright and morning star”, etc with Jesus Christ as Messiah and God). So, in popular practice if the worship of “Sol Invictus”, the “unconquered Sun” was honored, then it was possible to take this popular association, show how Jesus Christ had conquered it (by the outlaw of its practice in the empire), and reinvest it with a Christian meaning (Jesus Christ the “bright and morning star”, “until the daystar shine in your hearts”, etc.). However, even this Protestant canard has been called into question by reputable scholars (cf. a recent presentation of this objection at the Wikipedia entry for “Sol Invictus” regarding the dispute about its authenticity (“Sol Invictus and Christianity and Judaism”).

    I am not even going to address the whole birthday celebration objection. It is easily seen by historical records that Christians celebrated the dates of Christ’s birth, His death, and His resurrection. This sounds like the objection that the cultists, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, make regarding the celebration of birthdays being “egotistical”. Bizarre. Christians did celebrate the “birthday” or Incarnation of the “Word made flesh”. By the way, if you are a Jehovah’s Witness, Jesus Christ is not created, He is uncreated God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten NOT MADE, one in being with the Father.

  • Mary Spaulding

    “Today, 40 percent of U.S. adults say Christmas is ‘a theological story’ to affirm faith in Jesus Christ.”

    How can a story, that is, a fictional story affirm faith. Either it is true or it is not. I believe that Jesus was conceived by the virgin Mary, that Jesus lived a sinless life, died, was buried and rose the third day. If these are not true, then as Paul said our faith is in vain so I conclude that it cannot be ‘a theological story.’