An Agnostic Reflects on Christmas

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I suppose a lot of people have the birth of Jesus on their minds these days.  Hard not to.  It occurred to me that it might be interesting to do a series of posts on what ancient Gospels – mainly the two of the New Testament, but also some of the others outside – say about it.   When I indicate that there are two in the NT that talk about it, it is because Matthew and Luke are the only ones that say anything about the birth of Jesus.   I think what I’ll do in these posts is talk about features of each one separately and then talk about the two of them together, with a few posts here at the beginning to provide different angles to introduce to the matter.  But I’ll also talk about other Gospels, like the Proto-Gospel of James (which in the Middle Ages was in some places at least as popular as the NT Gospels) and the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew.

One of the reasons this is on my mind just now – apart from the obvious thing that it is, after all, the season – is that I have just written an article for Newsweek/The Daily Beast on the infancy narratives.  That’s why I had to read the Pope’s new book on the topic, and both things – my article and the book – have had me reflecting on a number of the key issues, including such things as whether Jesus can plausibly be thought to have been born in Bethlehem, what we can say about the traditions of the virgin birth (in the New Testament it is a virginal conception, not a virgin birth), and, well, other things.

I decided to write this article without looking at articles about Christmas I had written in previous years.   And just now I looked at them.  Unfortunately, I can’t remember where they were published – I think both of the ones I’ll reproduce here were in some kind of national media, but I didn’t make a note of it.

This is the one I wrote in 2005, just after I finished writing Misquoting Jesus.  As you’ll see – possibly to your surprise (it was to mine!) – I actually embrace the Christmas story here in a sense.  And why not, I ask myself!  It’s a great story, and we shouldn’t deny its greatness even if we deny its historicity.  Or at least that’s the theme behind this piece I wrote seven years ago, for some unknown venue:

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An Agnostic Reflects on Christmas  

Growing up as a church-going Episcopalian in Kansas, my favorite time of year was always Christmas.  Nothing could match the romance of the season: the cold weather, the falling of snow, the expectations leading up to the Big Day.  I always loved the presents — giving as well as receiving — the music, the food, the tree.  Especially the tree.  It had to be real — freshly cut if possible; loaded with lights, the more the better; draped with ornaments, each of them full of meaning.  There was nothing better than darkening the room and sitting in rapt contemplation before the tree as it glowed with its bright, multi-colored lights.  It was a kind of hallowed moment, reverent, silent.

My faith in God began to slip away as I moved into my 30s.  I had shifted from being a reasonably devout Episcopalian, to becoming a born-again Christian, to being an ultra-conservative evangelical.  But graduate studies in the New Testament began to take their toll on my faith, as I began to see that the revered words of the Bible were not infallible but were, in fact, very human words.  They were copied by human scribes, who often altered the words when they copied them; and they had been originally written by human authors, who naturally allowed their own views, beliefs, perspectives, situations, loves, hates, and passions affect what they wrote.  And I began having trouble believing that a good God could be in charge of a world filled with such pain and suffering: famine, drought, war, earthquakes, mudslides, hurricanes, tsunamis.  I moved from being a conservative evangelical to being a liberal evangelical to being a liberal non-evangelical to becoming an agnostic.  And that’s where I am now.  For now.  It may seem sad to have lost one’s faith, but on the other hand, I’m happy, very happy, with my life, my career, my amazing wife, my loving family.  I’m one of the luckiest people on the face of the earth, despite what I’ve lost.

One of the things I haven’t lost, oddly enough, is my love of Christmas.  I no longer believe the Christmas story told every year.  I now know that the story of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Matthew is very different from the story in the Gospel of Luke, that their accounts are not simply differently nuanced, but factually at odds.  And I know that we don’t have their original accounts, but only the accounts as handed down by scribes who often changed the accounts, making it sometimes impossible to know what the originals said.  In one sense, I’ve lost something of the wonder of Jesus coming into the world, for I now realize that the biblical narratives are not history, but are in fact, stories.

But they are beautiful stories.  Angelic visitors, heavenly inspired dreams, miraculous works: a virgin conceives and bears a son!  There are shepherds and wise men and wicked kings and murdering soldiers and near escapes; tragedy and salvation.

The stories live on, with or without my faith in them as history.  And the meaning of the stories continues to touch me.  This is a season of giving: God giving his son, the wise men giving their gifts, the Son giving his life, and his followers giving themselves. It is a season of brightness, of music, of lights, a season of winter and snow and Christmas trees — especially the trees.

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  1. tcc  December 5, 2012

    If I view the whole thing as a myth, and Jesus as a (mostly) mythical hero from outer space, they’re pretty good stories. If I try to think about them historically, they’re pretty bizarre propaganda pieces about a doomsday preacher that got turned into a god…so I usually just try to view the whole thing as an entertaining myth.

  2. RonaldTaska  December 5, 2012

    Really splendid writing. Thanks for sharing. Please carry on with your plans to post more on this Christmas topic. With regard to the differences between Matthew and Luke, I hear again and again that these are just different viewpoints or perspectives not real differences sort of like someone seeing the front of a shirt and stating it says “University of Texas” and someone else seeing the back of the shirt and stating it says “Longhorns.” I think this is quite different than someone seeing the “University of Texas” on the shirt and someone else seeing “Texas Aggies” on the shirt. Please address this difference between a different viewpoint and a contradiction as you move along with the Christmas topic.

  3. Dottie Miller  December 5, 2012

    I prefer to just celebrate the natural season of the year determined by the position of the Sun ( life giving sun) known as the winter solstice. The season was celebrated with lighting and decorating trees long before the Christians took the tradition and tied it to their story.

    “King Tut never saw a Christmas tree, but he would have understood the tradition which traces back long before the first Christmas, says David Robson, Extension Educator, Horticulture with the Springfield Extension Center.

    The Egyptians were part of a long line of cultures that treasured and worshipped evergreens. When the winter solstice arrive, they brought green date palm leaves into their homes to symbolize life’s triumph over death.

    The Romans celebrated the winter solstice with a fest called Saturnalia in honor of Saturnus, the god of agriculture. They decorated their houses with greens and lights and exchanged gifts. They gave coins for prosperity, pastries for happiness, and lamps to light one’s journey through life.”
    http://www.christmas-tree.com/where.html

    This is my first year celebrating the true reason for the season.
    I find letting go of the “stories” (lies) very joyful!

  4. maxhirez  December 5, 2012

    First, good lord can you ever write, but that’s no surprise. It’s how we all find your blog I guess. Second, I’m right there with you on most of this (minus the career path.) Third, since you’re on the subject, can you go a little into the history of the evolution of the holiday as it relates to the early church and your areas of expertise? Not just apocryphal gospel traditions like the Protovangelion, but why and by whom the holiday was given its date, what the meanings of the traditions we’ve inherited from that history are, and what you find most interesting about the early church and Christmas, that sort of thing.

  5. FrancisDunn  December 5, 2012

    You have a loving family and thats really all that counts. This is something the world and all of its myths can never take away from you. How about faith in yourself? Thats what got you what you have today.

  6. Elisabeth Strout  December 5, 2012

    Hard not to, for sure. I can relate as an Evangelical Christian-turned-Muslim, being back in the U.S. with my very conservative Christian family for the holidays for the first time since my conversion. It’s hard not to be drawn into the ‘magic’ of the Christmas season, with all the bells and whistles you describe. I appreciated this piece, and just wanted to drop a quick note saying how much I’m indebted to you for your ongoing work in textual criticism. In reading/listening to your work, I find there is perhaps hope that my family and Christian friends will one day come to an intellectually honest understanding of the Bible’s origins.

  7. lordchesterfield  December 6, 2012

    Thank you for your enlightening articles. Looking at the Bible as possible myth would you comment on the book “Caesar’s Messiah, The Roman Conspiracy to invent Jesus”, the basis of which is that the whole New Testament was constructed by the Romans. Or, at least point out from your studies the fallacies of such a claim. Thank you again for your books and articles. Jim

  8. amorfati
    amorfati  December 12, 2012

    I love this article—and Christmas trees! This article brings to mind a passage:

    “Do not despise the fact of having been religious; consider fully how you have had a genuine access to art. Can you not, with the help of these experiences, follow immense stretches of former humanity with a clearer understanding? Is not that ground which sometimes displeases you so greatly, that ground of clouded thought, precisely the one upon which have grown many of the most glorious fruits of older civilizations? You must have loved religion and art as you loved mother and nurse, otherwise you cannot be wise. But you must be able to see beyond them, to outgrow them; if you remain under their ban you do not understand them.”

    ~F. W. Nietzsche

    Thanks for sharing, Bart!

  9. kmazurek  December 18, 2012

    Bart,

    I have read a lot of your books and articles, and I love them. I’m of Jewish descent (my father is Jewish and my mother isn’t), and I am familiar with both Judaism and Christianity. I have a question for you that I haven’t seen you address (which you may have). Jews don’t believe in the virgin birth because there is another word for virgin, and “almah” is used in other places that doesn’t necessarily imply virginity (the widowed Ruth), not to mention Isaiah 7:14 is not believed to be a messianic prophecy. Why do you think the translators of the Septuagint make the Greek word “virgin”?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 19, 2012

      Good question. On the bigger question, my sense is that Jews don’t believe in the virgin birth mainly because they don’t think Mary was a virgin! (Same with me, I might add….). Yes, there was a different Hebrew word for “woman who has never had sex”: BETHULAH. I think the Septuagint translators used PARTHENOS for ALMAH simply because it too could simply mean “young woman,” and only later came to mean “young woman who had never had sex.”

      • kmazurek  December 19, 2012

        Thank you Bart!

        I was wondering if you knew of any documents which “parthenos” was used simply as “young woman” rather than “virgin”?

        Thanks!
        kmazurek

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  December 20, 2012

          Well, I would know if I were home with my research tools surrounding me. But alas, I am out of the country and am on a shoestring of books. But yes, it does indeed get used that way — of women who have clearly had sex.

          • kmazurek  December 20, 2012

            Thanks!

            Keep up the brilliant work and never get discouraged!

  10. Pat Ferguson  December 18, 2012

    Seasons Greetings!

    I’m running behind on my daily reading of and responding to various Christianity-related blogs and forums, and I ask your understanding of my belatedness to your postings.

    You wrote: “There was nothing better than darkening the room and sitting in rapt contemplation before the tree as it glowed with its bright, multi-colored lights. It was a kind of hallowed moment, reverent, silent.” Yes, it was. When my young sons became ‘Tweens and developed a better appreciation of music, we decorated our Christmas trees with flashing colored and white lights. Then, on some evenings after dark, we’d also darken the room, put on several types of musical recordings, and then sit quietly and reflectively while the lights seemingly danced to the beat of the music.

    These were seasonal experiences that were, for my little family, hypnotic and meditative but, no, the face of Jesus twinkling in the lights was never seen. Nor were any heavenly visions experienced (sigh).

    And WOW! Watching the lights flashing to the rhythm of the “Halleluiah Chorus” was our best experience which we always saved for the last song of the evening :-)

    Happy Saturnalia!

  11. chaplainrich72  December 22, 2012

    I am somewhat late to the party but non the less engaged. As you may be able to tell from my log in, I bring a somewhat unique perspective to the topic of faith and religion. I have engaged in military combat “for God and Country” and I am now chaplain to a group of war time military veterans.

    I joined the blog after reading the Newsweek article. I very much identify with the belief cycle that Bart described in this piece. I am eagerly looking forward to further enlightened discussion.

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