Christmas, the Archbishop, and the Facts

Here's a story that I find very difficult to understand -- apparently, the Archbishop of Canterbury made some comments that questioned some of the details of the Christmas story and has been criticized for doing so. According to Archbishop of Canterbury's Comments on Nativity Spark Debate Among American Christians, Archbishop Rowan Williams called portions of the Christmas story "legend" and is described as actually "debunking" portions of the story. According to the article:

In an interview with BBC Radio Five earlier this week, Archbishop Williams debunked various details Christians have come to associate with the birth of Jesus Christ — including the number of wise men, whether they were kings, the snowy weather and the Dec. 25 date.

In the full text of his interview, the Archbishop's comments cover the full range of the usual events surrounding Christmas -- the manger, the birth by the Virgin Mary, Joseph, snow on the ground, the visit by the three wise men and the star. His answers on each aren't what I would call particularly eloquent, but they can be rounded out this way:

1. Was Jesus lain in a Manger? -- Probably. "I should think so. the Gospel tells us he was born outside the main house, probably because it was overcrowded because it was pilgrimage time or census time; whatever; yes; he's born in poor circumstances, slightly out of the ordinary."

2. Was Mary the mother of Jesus? -- Yes.

3. Was Mary a Virgin? -- Yes, but it is not essential to believe the Virgin Birth to be a Christian.

4. Did Matthew mistranslate "Young Woman" in Isaiah as "Virgin"? -- No. The word in Isaiah can be translated as either and Matthew wasn't wrong to translate it as virgin.

5. Were shepherds present? -- Yes.

6. Were there three wise men with gifts of gold, frankincense, and Myrrh - with one of the wise men normally being black and the other two being white, for some reason? -- We don't know the number of wise men, whether they were kings, where exactly they came from or their race. Moreover, they weren't there at the same time as the shepherds. They may have been astrologers, but that doesn't lend credence to astrology.

7. Was there snow on the ground? -- Probably not. We aren't sure the date or even the time of year Jesus was born, and we probably see it as being winter because of the later association of Jesus birth with December 25.

8. Was there a star of Bethlehem? -- Probably not one that moved before the wise men and came to rest with its light shining down on Bethlehem, but it makes sense that there was some type of heavenly event that alerted the wise men.

That's it. That's the extent of his comments. My reaction: with the exception of his comments about the manger and the star, I have no problem at all with what he says. In fact, I largely agree with him. You see, for the most part his criticisms of the Christmas story are not criticisms of the Biblical account of the Nativity. Rather, they are proper and appropriate corrections of some of the details that have built up around the Biblical accounts which are either unbiblical or which are based only very loosely on the Biblical texts.

The Bible provides the source and the best details regarding the birth of Jesus. The account of Jesus' birth is found in two of the Gospels: Matthew and Luke. These two New Testament books give us the details about the star, the manger, the shepherds the kings and Jesus' miraculous birth. And whether people want to admit it or not, the story that we often see portrayed at Christmas has all types of material added that make a nice story but have almost no basis in Matthew and Luke.

One place where people seem to become rather unnecessarily defensive is their efforts to defend the idea that Jesus was born on December 25. Quite simply, the Bible doesn't tell us when Jesus was born. Many people (incuding my fellow-blogger Jason Pratt) prefer a Spring or Summer date for Jesus' birth based on extrapolations from evidence found in the Bible itself. I have no problem with their reasoning, and (in my view) it is more valid reasoning than was used for deciding to settle on December 25 as the date of Christmas (which was based on the idea of the "integral date" in early Christian teachings). But while my friend Jason and others like him make a good argument, their argument only makes it more likely that Jesus was born in the Spring; these arguments certainly don't provide an exact date for Jesus' birth. So, why is it that anyone should get upset when the Archbishop admits the obvious: we don't know if there was snow on the ground because the Bible itself doesn't say that Jesus was born on December 25, or even in the wintertime? Biblically-based Christians should simply acknowledge that December 25 is no more than a date that we agreed to adopt as the date for celebrating Jesus' birth, and should not try to defend anything as ridiculous as the claim that we know that Jesus was born on December 25.

Likewise, the idea that three kings visited Jesus on the night of his birth is also decidedly unbiblical. Matthew 2:1 begins with a very strong refutation of this idea by saying, "After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jersualem . . . ." In fact, when they arrive in Bethlehem, they find Jesus in a "house" (Matthew 2:11). The Bible never says how many wise men there were -- that is derived from the fact that three gifts are identified in Matthew 2:11: gold, incense and myrrh. There is no suggestion that they were kings, and beyond calling them "magi" there is nothing more stated about either their races, identities or vocations. The fact that they knew something about astrology or astronomy is noted by the fact that they said that they had seen the "star" of the "one who has been born of the king of the Jews" in the east and had come to worship him. Again, there is no point to defending the non-Biblical retelling that places three kings in the stable on the night of Jesus' birth.

The star is perhaps the most troubling in this scenario. The Archbishop says that he doesn't know if there was a "a star above the place where the child" was. He notes that stars don't ordinarily act the way the star described in Matthew acts, but notes that there are other possible answers that suggest that there was some type of heavenly event. To the extent that the Archbishop might be read to suggest that there was no star at all, I disagree wholeheartedly. To the extent he is merely saying that there was not a star that moved ahead of the magi as they travelled, I don't think that such an answer is in any way unbiblical.

The Archbishop seems to be ready to accept some type of star or sign in the heavens that led the magi to inquire about the "one to be born king of the Jews" in Jersualem. The problem arises because Matthew 2:9-10 seems to suggest that the star was physically moving and going ahead of the magi as they travelled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Those verses read:

After [the magi] had heard [King Herod], they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.

As the Archbishop correctly notes, "we know stars don't behave quite like that". Some would point out (and I think that they would be justified in doing so) that this particular star was not an ordinary star. In fact, it wasn't really a "star" in the sense that it was a blazing ball of hydrogen that was hundreds of millions of miles away from Earth, but it was something different that merely appeared to be a star to these magi. That, it seems to me, is a legitimate way to view the star even though it raises questions about why this phenomenon was not particularly widely noted by other ancient astronomers.

Alternatively, one can view the language in verses 9 and 10 figuratively. Many portions of the Bible contains parables, prophetic language and figurative language which is not intended to be taken literally, and this may be one of those places. What this could mean (and I believe that one could be justified in reading the text this way, as well) is that the magi saw the star while they were in the east, and having determined that it was the star of the "one to be born king of the Jews" followed the star (in the same way that someone follows a dream) to the city of Jerusalem (which is where one would expect to find the king of the Jews born). Having learned that God's prophesy was that the "one to be born king of the Jews" was actually to be born in Bethlehem, they followed the star (again, as one follows a dream) to Bethlehem where they reached their destination (which is described figuratively as saying that the star "stopped over" Bethlehem).

Which is correct? I don't know. I believe that both views are within the acceptable views of the text and both are defensible. The Archbishop appears to accept the figurative reading over the more literal reading. Is that cause to take up arms against his views simply because he holds to a more figurative reading? Absolutely not. It is not necessary to hold to a moving star preceding the wise men to be within the broader understanding of the text. The only difficultly I would have with the Archbishop's views is to the extent it could be read as his possibly rejecting the existence of the star at all, but I don't think that he is doing that.

In fact, the only place where I really have any difficulty with anything the archbishop says is his less than enthusiastic response to the question whether Jesus was lain in a manger. Luke quite clearly states that the baby Jesus was wrapped in swaddling clothes and that his mother Mary "placed him in a manger (Luke 2:7). If the Bible is the source of the best knowledge about the birth of Jesus, then the Biblical account should be accepted until some better evidence is presented to say that it was in error. No such evidence has been found. However, in his answer he never said Jesus wasn't lain in a manger. He said that he "should think so", i.e., that Jesus probably was lain in a manger. That isn't a particularly strong "yes," so I am critical of him on that point.

Still, I don't think that believing that Jesus was lain in a manger is essential to being a Christian -- in fact, it is even less crucial than the question of the Virgin Birth. However, in my experience, whenever someone in Christianity begins to separate truth from the Bible, it ordinarily starts a downward slide where the person picks and chooses what to believe -- and that is the road that has been followed by too many of the mainline denominations as they have fallen into error. So, whenever I see a leader of the church suggesting that it is not necessary to believe any single aspect of the Bible, it raises concerns.

Even so, I personally find it very disturbing that some people should be attacking the archbishop for his views. By and large, the Archbishop's statements are really not controversial to anyone who has spent time actually reading the Bible accounts of the Nativity and comparing those accounts to the "Christmas story" regularly being taught to us by too many Christmas carols and Christmas specials. He's right about virtually everything he said. As Christians, we should be devoted to the truth above and beyond everything else, and that shouldn't be controversial.


Jason Pratt said…
Good post, Bill.

I'll eventually be posting an essay of some sort on birth-timing issues, though probably not next week when I do the birth-narrative per se. It's obviously complex. {s}

You're right about it only being probabilities, but in terms of various independent-but-overlapping story-contexts I think I can narrow it down to autumn at main harvest-festival time, i.e. Feast of
Tabernacles. And there there _is_ an ancient Christian festival date which points to a similar
timeframe: Sept 29, Michaelmass (Feast of Michael and All Saints). Exactly forty weeks after Dec 25, too: i.e. the 'ideal' gestation period.

On the other hand, Edersheim is quite convinced on similar grounds that Dec 25 is correct as the birth-date. So there's an interesting historical argument for comparison either way, based on the closely linked timeframes in GosLuke 1, anchored on the Abijah priestly course.

'Magoi' does literally mean 'great ones', and was the formal term for Chalcedean astrologers.

I should also do an essay on why Matthew uses Isaiah 7 instead of Isaiah 9, and some implications thereof; in an unexpected way they end up weighing toward historicity. (It isn't a
mistake on his part, but it does require rethinking how and why he's arriving at the reference.)

J.L. Hinman said…
I basically agree with everything he said. I think that alma stuff is overblown. The word referred to age more than to sexual experience. The point Mat makes is not that a virgin birth would be the proof Jesus was Messiah, but that just as the birth of a child heralded something in Isaiah's time so a birth of a Child would herald an new age again in Matt's time. He's making a midrashic connection. an literary connection.

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