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The Virgin Birth and the Gospel of John: A Blast from the Past

As I've indicated on the Blog before, I tend to go to a Christmas Eve Midnight service with my wife Sarah (usually my one time in church during the year), and this year was no exception.  We were in Suffolk, England, in the town of Woodbridge, and attended the Anglican church there for a very nice service.  The Gospel reading was from John (1:1-14), a standard reading.  But I wondered whether anyone in the congregation realized that this passage in John says nothing about Jesus' being born of a virgin -- one of the very big points of the Christmas message today!   And just now I wondered if I had ever talked about that very interesting factoid on the blog.  It turns out, the answer is yes, precisely three years ago today.  This is what I said then. ********************************************************************* I have pointed out that our earliest Gospel, Mark, not only is lacking a story of the virgin birth but also tells a story that seems to run precisely counter to the idea that Jesus’ mother [...]

2020-04-03T01:41:15-04:00December 28th, 2017|Canonical Gospels, Public Forum|

Christmas Reflection 2017

More than any other time, event, or celebration, Christmas, for me, shows that you can take the boy out of Christianity but you can’t take Christianity out of the boy.  As much as I am a completely secular-humanist/agnostic/atheist (pick your term), I am still hopelessly attracted to Christmas and what it stands for. As I said in the previous post, it is not that I “believe” in the Christmas story (stories) as a historical event (events).  In my judgment the biblical accounts have virtually nothing historical about them, other than that Jesus was born to two lower-class Jewish peasants somewhere in the land of Israel during the reign of Caesar Augustus.  Beyond that – I don’t see anything historical in the accounts.   No need to explain why here – I’ve talked about it enough on the blog before. And yet I’m drawn to the season and all it stands for, surely in a way that someone who had not been raised Christian simply cannot be.   I think for me, in my thoroughly secular life, it [...]

2018-01-09T12:25:18-05:00December 24th, 2017|Public Forum, Reflections and Ruminations|

Is the Christmas Story a Myth?

Is the whole Christian story a myth?   It probably depends on what you mean by myth. For a very long time now, scholars of religion have had hard and protracted debates on what the term “myth” means, or should mean.  I won’t be going into any of that here.  Instead I’ll begin by talking about two teaching experiences, one negative and one positive. Negative experience: my first teaching job was at Rutgers University, where I was asked to fill in for a professor of New Testament who had to take an emergency leave of absence in the middle of the spring term in 1984.  Her husband had been diagnosed with cancer, he was dying, and she could not continue teaching after giving the midterm exam.  Would I be willing to take over her class for the second half of the semester? Absolutely I was willing.  And I did so.  It was really hard.  I had to pick up wherever she left off.  Among other things, she was using a textbook that I did not like [...]

2018-01-09T12:26:34-05:00December 23rd, 2017|Public Forum, Reflections and Ruminations|

What Did the Angels Tell the Shepherds? It Depends. Mailbag Sept. 10, 2017

I will be dealing with an interesting question in this week’ Readers’ Mailbag, having to do with the translation of the New Testament from Greek into English.  It involves a problem with a familiar verse (recited every Christmas!) that has a textual problem: different manuscripts have different readings – involving a single letter! – that affect the translation.   QUESTION: A lot of different hymns and liturgies and suchlike make reference to or paraphrase the Gloria, which in turn is based on Luke 2:14. I’d always heard (various permutations of) two different versions: “Glory to God in the highest and on Earth peace to men of good will” and “Glory to God in the highest and on Earth peace, goodwill to men”. That is, of course, quite a significant difference in meaning. The Latin is “Gloria in excelsis Deo et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis”, which I understand is is unambiguously “…men of good will”. Unfortunately, I don’t read a word of Greek; the text of the Gloria I found online was Δόξα ἐν [...]

Finding Meaning in the Bible: More Responses to my Christmas Article

In the previous post I indicated some of the initial reactions, four years ago, to my Newsweek article on the Gospel stories about Christmas.  I received yet more reaction after that old post, and so posted again, dealing this time with people who thought I was too kindly disposed to anyone who found the stories meaningful.  Here is what I said at the time.  (I still stick by it, for what it's worth!)   ********************************************************************** When the editor at Newsweek ask me if I would be willing to write an article on the birth of Jesus, I was hesitant and wrote him back asking if he was sure he really wanted me to do it.  I told him that I seem to be incapable of writing anything that doesn’t stir up controversy.  It must be in my blood.  Still, he said that they knew about my work and were not afraid of controversy, and they did indeed want an article from me. What’s interesting to me is that I’ve been getting it from all sides.  [...]

2020-04-03T02:47:39-04:00December 5th, 2016|Bart's Critics, Public Forum, Reflections and Ruminations|

Response to my Newsweek Article on Christmas

Earlier this week I posted my Newsweek article on Christmas from four years ago, and several people have asked me what kind of reaction I received.  I made two posts about that at the time.  Here’s the first.  I find this post rather humorous now, years later, since I was obviously being wildly defensive (halfway through the response) before denying I was defensive at all (at the end)!  What funny people we can be…. ******************************************************** My Newsweek article this week has generated a lot of response.  I have no idea what kind of comments they typically get for their stories, but so far, as of now, there have been 559 on mine; and most of them are negative – to no one’s surprise – written by people (conservative evangelicals and fundamenalists for the most part, from what I can tell) who think that the Gospels are perfectly accurate in what they have to say about Jesus – not just at his birth but for his entire life.  A lot of these respondents think that anyone [...]

Looking Ahead to Christmas: A Blast from the Past

With the passing of Thanksgiving, Christmas season has now officially arrived (whether that brings you joy, despair, or indifference!).   Here is a post that I made exactly four years, prompted in part by my decision to publish an edition of “other” Gospels (that did not make it into the New Testament, including some that deal with the birth of Jesus. ****************************************************** Right now I have the “other” Gospels on my mind.   It’s true, I often have them on my mind, since they have been a focus for a good deal of my research over the past few years, and will continue to be for some years to come.  But just now, they are particularly on my mind even though the book I’m currently writing (How Jesus Became God) is about something else. They’re on my mind for three reasons.  First, I’ve agreed with Oxford Press, to produce, along with my colleague Zlatko Plese, an English-only edition of The Apocryphal Gospels, which came out in a Greek/Latin/Coptic-English edition last year; this new edition will include only the [...]

2020-04-03T02:51:57-04:00November 27th, 2016|Canonical Gospels, Public Forum, Reflections and Ruminations|

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: ************************************************************ 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 [...]

2017-11-16T21:48:06-05:00December 24th, 2015|Public Forum, Reflections and Ruminations|

The Myth of the First Christmas

Over the years I’ve been asked to write short articles on the meaning of Christmas for various news magazines.  Looking back at some of these articles makes me realize how many different views of the season seem to be competing with each other inside my head.  Or maybe I’ve just been in different moods! I thought I would reproduce a couple of these articles on the blog.  The following is one I wrote a few years ago for the British journal The New Statesman.  I called it “The Myth of the First Christmas.”  (Apologies to those with better memories than mine: I just checked after posting this article and see that I did so earlier -- three years ago!  But no matter, I didn't remember what was in it, and so probably you won't either!) ****************************************************************** Once more the season is come upon us. At its heart stands a tale of two-thousand year vintage, the Christmas story.  Or perhaps we should say the Christmas myth. When Post-Enlightenment scholars turned their critical tools on the tales [...]

2020-04-03T03:58:18-04:00December 23rd, 2015|Canonical Gospels, Public Forum, Reflections and Ruminations|

The Giving Season

  The season of giving has come upon us!   I have to admit, even though I am not a Christian, I absolutely love the Christmas season.   I know there are a lot of things wrong with Christianity, just as there are with every religion.   The harm, the evil, done in the name of Christ is enough to make my skin crawl.  But at the same time, there is a lot of good, and I see no reason to deny it.   At its very best, Christianity is all about giving:  God giving his son, his son giving himself, his followers giving themselves to one another, and even to strangers in need -- giving of themselves and their worldly goods for the sake of  others.    This is the part of Christianity – which I consider to be true Christianity at its heart – that I completely resonate with and cherish, even though I no longer consider myself to be among the faithful….. The Christmas season is a giving season.  I completely detest the crass materialism.  But the [...]

2017-09-16T22:22:37-04:00December 4th, 2013|Public Forum|

Christmas Longings

So we have managed to make our way through another Christmas season.  I had a number of posts leading up to the big day, and now I’d like to make a couple of others looking back upon it from this side.   But first let me say that I hope all of you – whether fundamentalist (not too many of *you* on this blog!!), liberal Christian, Jew, Muslim, agnostic, atheist,  or none of the above – had a very nice, relaxing, rejuvenating, and fulfilling holiday.   I did. In the opening chapter of my book God’s Problem, I talked about going to church on Christmas Eve in 2006 with my wife Sarah and brother-in-law Simon, in Saffron-Walden, a market town in England where Simon lives, not far from Cambridge.  It was a somber but moving Christmas Eve service, and yet one that had the opposite of the intended effect on me.  It made me realize just how estranged I was from the Christian faith, from the notion that with Christ God entered into the world and took [...]

2018-01-01T01:17:08-05:00December 27th, 2012|Bart’s Biography, Public Forum, Reflections and Ruminations|

Reflections on the Season

I will need to take a break from posting to the blog for a few days.   I am in London and the next few days will be visiting family; I will be incommunicado until the day after Boxing Day (as they call it here).  For those of you who don’t know, my wife Sarah is a Brit, and her family is all here.   We have a flat in London (Wimbledon, actually) and we spend 2-3 months out of the year here.  This time of year there is a lot of seeing family.   It’s not *exactly* the twelve days of Christmas, but sometimes it feels like it – opening presents with one part of the family, then another, then another. This really is one of my favorite times of the year.  When I was a kid, as is true for a lot of kids, Christmas was a big deal for me.   I loved all the trappings: Christmas trees, Christmas shopping, Christmas lights, Christmas presents.   And as a kid I very much appreciated the religious aspects of it as [...]

2018-01-01T01:17:35-05:00December 24th, 2012|Bart’s Biography, Public Forum, Reflections and Ruminations|

The Myth of the First Christmas

Yesterday I started a little series of posts on the Christmas story, both in the NT and in later Gospels, by reproducing a little meditation from seven years ago. Here’s one that I wrote last year. Again, it was for some national media (a magazine, I think), but I don’t remember and I didn’t write it down. It deals with some of the things that I’ll be talking about at greater length in some of my forthcoming posts, but in a succinct way; still, be forewarned, there will necessarily be overlap. In this piece, though, I am dealing, ultimately, not so much with the discrepancies and historical problems with the story per se; those allow me to get to a bigger point at the end. In any event, here it is, as written last year at this time. ****************************************************************************************************************** The Myth of the First Christmas Once more the season is come upon us. At its heart stands a tale of two-thousand year vintage, the Christmas story. Or perhaps we should say the Christmas myth. When [...]

2020-04-03T19:09:34-04:00December 6th, 2012|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus|

An Agnostic Reflects on Christmas

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 [...]

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