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A Christmas Reflection

Yesterday I posted an article that I wrote that provided one view of Christmas, one that is informed more by my scholarship than anything else.  But Christmas is about a LOT more than scholarship!  I have a personal sentimental attachment to the season, as I explain in this other article I wrote some ten years ago, and that I posted early on in the history of the blog.  Here it is again, a more upbeat assessment of the season:

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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 reflection, a season of winter and snow and Christmas trees with lights to be observed with rapt contemplation.


Readers’ Mailbag: December 27, 2015
The Myth of the First Christmas

28

Comments

  1. Avatar
    herculodge  December 24, 2015

    I’ve gone through a similar trajectory. I’m intrigued how faith or fear of eternity never goes away. A.N. Wilson was a man of faith, then an atheist, and now seems to be warming up to his Christian faith again. I see the possible forgeries in the NT and I am put off most especially by Paul, but I wonder if some day against my own will I make a turn like A.N. Wilson has done.

    • Avatar
      teg51  December 25, 2015

      May i ask why Paul has ‘put you off”?

      • Avatar
        herculodge  December 27, 2015

        Even before I went to college and studied writing, I found Paul’s prose style pretentious and full of self-regard. As I grew older, I read books such as Hyam Maccoby’s The Mythmaker, which confirmed my being put off by Paul. The apostle boasted about being the best apostle and said his communications with Christ, he was sure to write, made him more legit than the other apostles. Finally, his treatment of Peter strikes me as petty and egotistical. He always struck me to be a mountebank. But Paul is a genius. It could be argued he shaped the world more than anyone in world history.

  2. Avatar
    Judith  December 24, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman, you keep outdoing yourself with these posts. This one was beyond very very very special. Thanks.

  3. Avatar
    doug  December 24, 2015

    I was once a conservative Christian; now I’m happy to be a secular humanist. But I love the Christmas/holiday season. I love sharing the joy of the season with others; it’s a communal experience. I don’t believe the Xmas myths are true, but we have taken those myths and turned them into beautiful human realities.

  4. Avatar
    madmargie  December 24, 2015

    I have too. I still consider myself a Christian and try to live by the commands and example of Jesus. But much of what I have believed most of my life is now just myth to me. Nevertheless I still go to church regularly because my particular congregation also lives by the words of Jesus. We seldom mention personal salvation, for example. It’s not “all about me”. It all about justice and helping wherever it is possible.

    By the way, thanks so much for giving a friend of mine one of your donated memberships. He is thrilled. It was a wonderful Christmas gift for him.

  5. Avatar
    shakespeare66  December 24, 2015

    I grew up with Christmas being the most important time of the year, and Easter an important second, oddly. Which was more important: his birth or his death? Certainly it would make for an interesting debate among a couple of good Christians. What I remember most is my mother’s cooking and especially her baking. She baked the best cookies. I happened to see a bunch of the cookies on Facebook today, made by a connection I made with a woman several years ago that had our grandparents coming to America at about the same time—they were supposed to be cousins, but we have never been able to verify that yet; however, we remain cousins and friends on FB. Christmas was delightful with a real tree odorizing the room with the bright lights and bulbs and music. I carried that same tradition into my own family and made Christmas a special time of year each year, playing songs sung by Bing Crosby, and Nat King Cole. My two kids thought I was looney. But they loved it at the same time. My children did not grow up in a formally Christian household. I had long given up my Catholic faith and we barely attended the Christian church down the street. It was an affair that the pastor had with a member of the clergy that broadsided the church and sent up packing to another one. But we left the decision of whether to believe to our own children, and they both grew up and became non-believers like their father. Their mother became a church going Christian after she was divorced by me, seeking solace in the church after losing a 25 year marriage. Christmas now is celebrating with my grandchildren with a Skype call from Dublin, Ireland and a call from my daughter in Seattle, Washington. Otherwise, I spend the day with my sister or my bother and their families. It is a wonderful time of the year, and it has also been a favorite of mine since I was a kid. I too have a lot of sentimentality about it and enjoy the looks on the faces of my grandkids when they open their Christmas presents. Have a good one.

  6. Avatar
    Steve  December 24, 2015

    I am amazed that even as I have set aside the stories of Christmas and the Christian Faith, I continue to be moved by holding hands in a family circle, connecting one person to another, one generation to another, one human being to another. My spirit is emotionally moved and I love each one deeply, even without the “magic truth” as my motivator. Maybe I’m not so lost after all …..

  7. talmoore
    talmoore  December 24, 2015

    Since it is so unlikely that Jesus was even born on December 25th anyhow (a 1 in 365 chance, in fact) isn’t it perfectly fine for non-believers to treat Christmas like the winter solstice celebration it was originally meant to supplant? It’s not like mistletoe, reindeers and snowflakes have anything to do with Jesus anyway.

  8. Avatar
    Triassicman  December 24, 2015

    I feel dreadful when I see those In life who have been served up injustice and misery clinging on to the hope of religion to bring them some pseudo happiness. It always saddened me when each of my children discovered the myth of Santa Claus as I knew that Xmas would never be quite the same for them. Bart, how big is the load for you in exposing the truth about the origins of the NT and removing the pillars of hope for many people who have nothing but that hope to bring them happiness. As Eric Idle wrote in “The Life Of Brian” ……..

    Life’s a piece of sh*t, when you look at it
    Life’s a laugh and death’s a joke, it’s true
    You’ll see its all a show, keep ’em laughin as you go
    Just remember that the last laugh is on you.

    Always look on the bright side of life…..

    Maybe TRUTH is a commodity that only a few of us in the West can obtain and enjoy. For the rest there is only illusion, albeit providing some degree of happiness.

  9. Avatar
    Dipsao  December 24, 2015

    Since my deconversion, one of the things I miss is a certain comfort that faith can give. It’s like being a sleeping child in the back seat of an automobile, your parents in front, talking, soft music playing over the radio. All is right with the world. Christmas is the only time I still feel that sentimentally. I listen to choirs singing treasured hymns of the church, share moments with family members and friends and indulge in a bit of “Christmas” cheer. I once shared with a Lutheran pastor about my deconversion. She said, “Hang in there. In a few years, I might be where you are and you might be where I am.” What a journey that would be.

    • Avatar
      herculodge  December 27, 2015

      I like your analogy of the child relaxing in the back of the car as “all is right with the world.” Ironically, though, I felt that way before I converted to Christianity at 17 because of a fear of hell. Even as I tried to submit to the Christian God out of my fear, I suffered a growing sense that everything was horribly wrong in a world with a God who authored eternal damnation. Even though I’m a struggling agnostic (still fear hell quite a bit), I long for the days, back before I knew about hell, when everything felt right with the world.

  10. TracyCramer
    TracyCramer  December 25, 2015

    Merry Christmas!

  11. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  December 25, 2015

    Very nice post. 🙂

  12. Avatar
    Matt7  December 25, 2015

    Nice reflections! Merry Christmas!

  13. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  December 25, 2015

    As I have said before, your personal blogs are the best ones. Merry Christmas.

  14. Avatar
    Wilusa  December 25, 2015

    A great quote I saw online today, condemning Homeland Security’s plan to expel the thousands of Central American refugees who’ve come to the U.S.:

    “Remember: Jesus was a refugee child who fled death gangs.”

    No, I don’t believe he really was. But the politicians who want those refugees expelled are themselves Christians, who presumably *do* believe the Bible stories!

  15. Avatar
    SteveWalach  December 26, 2015

    “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.”

    Yes, a “good” god who is in charge of everything in the world is a god completely at odds with itself. Given all the obvious internal contradictions inherent in such a concept, it is a god that a thinking person cannot logically commit to.

    Many devout Jewish victims of the Holocaust understandably lost faith in their “god in charge of everything.”

    But such a god is peculiar to fundamentalist notions of scriptural truth — but also prevalent among so-called liberal Christians.

    It is concept of god that implodes when one of Christianity’s most cherished dogmas is carefully scrutinized: An all loving god requires his son to die for the atonement of humanity’s sins.

    What sort of all-loving father is this who demands human sacrifice — and of his “only begotten son”? This notional god is riven with inconsistencies. If examined rationally, it is a god that can be embraced only by experts in cognitive dissonance.

    But what if the good god pointed to in the truest attestations of scripture is not really in charge of everything in the world? The author of the decalogue implies that there are other gods, strange (unknowable?) gods, that should always take a backseat to YHWH, who Elijah does not discover in the mighty powers of nature but in a “still small voice.”

    The Greeks and other pantheists knew that there were competing powers in the world, and they developed a cosmology of sorts to explain them: Zeus — thunder and lightning; Poseidon — earthquakes and ocean; Hades — the Underworld, including the wealth beneath earth’s surface; Apollo — the sun. And then there were the more personal forces humans could not control or conjure on their own: Aphrodite — erotic love; Athena — wisdom; Apollo — the arts; Hephaestus — industry and invention.

    By acknowledging a distribution of power among many, often competing, gods, the Greek myths allowed for the possibility of a transcendent power, or being, that was not compromised by the obvious logical contradictions in the that god you describe — and, justifiably, find wanting.

    Augustine, I think, and certainly Aquinas and the many other great thinkers in the apophatic tradition would have agreed with you that a single god in charge of everything is an unskillful anthropomorphic, inevitably contradictory, creation and one they — like you — could not believe in either. Today, they’d be called atheists, too.

    Maybe it’s all in how one defines the ineffable power that in some traditions (even Judeo -Christian ones) can be experienced, at least in small doses — yet can never be fully understood, only acknowledged as an eternal but palpable mystery.

    “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

  16. Avatar
    sbrehe  December 26, 2015

    I have come to appreciate the Luke and Matthew nativity stories as midrashim. Christians ought to appreciate such stories about stories like our Jewish friends. Such homilitic expansion, duly recognized, open new vistas. In fact, some of favorite Christmas hymns and carols are midrashim as well.

  17. Avatar
    Alfred  December 26, 2015

    Yesterday, in Oxford, England, I attended a service at a small parish Church (Anglican). It was a children’s service, and featured the Vicar delivering, interspersed with carols, his own version of the Bible stories. As well as the usual merging of gospel accounts, he added details that I don’t think are in any known account, apocryphal or otherwise. We learned that Mary was a happy young girl, who went to school, and loved animals. She laughed a lot. And she was surprised to be visited by the angel (hands up anyone who has been visited by an Angel and told they were going to have a baby). The children went to the back of the Church and one by one brought back the various statues for the nativity seen. My granddaughter (aged two) was very excited, having been indoctrinated by a pre-school, about the arrival of baby Jesus ( Baby Jesus! Baby Jesus!). And the Vicar added excitement by encouraging the assembled children to make animal noises whenever the animals were mentioned. I wonder if anything similar went on in the early Church. We always seem to assume they were deadly serious. Maybe they wen’t. There was tea and cakes afterwards, and a collection for a housing charity. ????

    • Pattycake1974
      Pattycake1974  December 28, 2015

      Very interesting. I’ve never been out of the country, but I would LOVE to visit England especially London. One day, I’ll get to do stuff. lol

  18. Avatar
    dragonfly  December 27, 2015

    Christmas is also the time of year with the highest rate of suicides. It’s just another day of suffering for me, with extra an reminder of how little so-called friends and family care about you when you don’t have health. I hope i don’t make it to next christmas.

    • Avatar
      Judith  December 27, 2015

      dragonfly,

      Your situation is impossibly difficult for both you and your family. I know. The last time I saw one of my beloved friends (who was ill) it was necessary to pry her fingers from my hand to get away. The guilt for not visiting more often and/or long enough was unbearable. (I had a husband and son who required care and my own life to keep up.) My son would keep his friends longer than they could stay, walking with them to their cars and hanging on to the car doors. It was agony to watch both for their friends and for him. A solution might be to invite family and friends but adhere to a time limit. Ask for a half hour visit. Tell them you are not well enough for a “real” visit but want to catch up with what all is going on with them. That way they should feel free to stop in often and the guilt factor would be less. Hope this helps.

    • Avatar
      Wilusa  December 27, 2015

      I’m so, so sorry you feel this way! All I can think of to tell you is that back in the 1990s, I had *very* serious bouts with ill health – had to be resuscitated twice. At one point, the only nearby “kin” I could rely on for help was a “sort-of” brother-in-law – the long-divorced first husband of my deceased sister, who was by then happily married to someone else (but *was* the father of my nephew, who lived farther away). This “brother-in-law” wasn’t a young man. And when I came home from the hospital (released before I should have been, still in bad shape), the apartment he’d supposedly had cleaned (me paying for it, of course) was a *shambles*. Worse than I’d left it, even with a scary fire hazard he’d never noticed.

      But…I survived that “decade from hell,” and all these years later, I’m leading a very happy life. I still have health problems, but nothing life-threatening. I want, and *intend*, to live for another twenty-plus years. I don’t know what your actual problems are…but please, don’t give up! The best period of your life may still be ahead of you!

    • Avatar
      webattorney  December 27, 2015

      What health ailments are you suffering from? As I get older, I realize one’s health is most important.

    • Pattycake1974
      Pattycake1974  December 27, 2015

      I care about you! We can chat if you want. My email is patty_floyd@yahoo.com. If you would, put dragonfly in the subject line, so I know it’s from you.

  19. Avatar
    TomSmith  December 28, 2015

    Here’s a nice bit of music about the sentimental side of attachment to Christmas, and why it remains important…
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fCNvZqpa-7Q

  20. Garrett20
    Garrett20  December 28, 2015

    Very well written! Nice post, Dr. Ehrman. Even as a conservative Christian, I enjoy your work and scholarship. I pray that you and your family had a very, Merry Christmas and have a healthy 2016!

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