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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.

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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 Post-Enlightenment scholars turned their critical tools on the tales of Scripture, the birth of Jesus to a virgin in Bethlehem was one of the first subjected to skeptical scrutiny. Not only was the notion of a virgin birth deemed unhistorical on general principle. The other familiar aspects of the story were seriously called into question.

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The Christmas Story: Some Basic Background
Apostles as Guarantors of the Truth

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    zemi  December 6, 2012

    What do Christmas look like in your family? Does your wife see the Christmas stories the way you do or differently?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 6, 2012

      It looks like most Christmases: carols, Christmas trees, ornaments, presents, family, food, fire in the fireplace — the whole nine yards!

      • Avatar
        zemi  December 6, 2012

        Sounds great! Thanks

        • Avatar
          DMiller5842  December 9, 2012

          My house looks like this too. Even though this is my first year celebrating without the guilt of not accepting the lies. I am celebrating the real reason for the season…. nature and the life giving Sun. The tree, the gifts, the candles, Santa, the festivals — are all independent of the Christian religion.
          I don’t worship the Sun, but I do appreciate the creation all around me and the role the Sun plays in it all.

      • Christopher Sanders
        Christopher Sanders  December 11, 2012

        If you don’t mind me asking, what is your secret for avoiding fighting over religion? I’m the only atheist in my family of four, both my parents and my sister, who is dating, very seriously, a youth pastor, don’t exactly admire my beliefs, which strain our already tenuous relationships. Haha, not trying to make you my shrink, just wondering if you have a tip.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  December 12, 2012

          The secret is to be completely honest about your own views and not judgmental of the views of those close to you, but to be open hearted and open minded, even if firm in what you yourself believe. Of course, sometimes not even that works!

          • Christopher Sanders
            Christopher Sanders  February 7, 2013

            Thanks a lot! I will certainly try to do just that. It certainly is hard though to be patient with someone who can just spout straight nonsense right out of their face…

  2. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  December 6, 2012

    Good post, especially the part about how myths can bring “bad” news. Thanks.

  3. Avatar
    Jim  December 6, 2012

    Can one employ historical criteria to negate the birth story in total? For example, can one actually prove that Jesus was not born in Bethlehem? What if his parents were in Bethlehem staying with relatives for a few months for some reason unknown to us when he was born, and then whoever wrote Matthew and Luke greatly embellished the oral traditions that initially had some element of truth (i.e. birthplace Bethlehem). Also, giving Mary the penthouse suite (stable) for the delivery could be logical in light of Jewish ritual uncleanliness policies (i.e. ritually safe distance from the relatives of the house they were staying at). Other aspects like an inn/motel in Bethlehem seem highly unlikely and a December birth date is known to be arbitrarily chosen centuries later. No comment from me on the singing angels gig.

  4. Avatar
    Xeronimo74  December 6, 2012

    How can anyone actually believe that a star ( = a distant sun!!!) could guide someone (like people following a firefly) only to then stop OVER a specific house? I just can’t grasp the naivety that’s necessary to think something like that…

    • Avatar
      wisemenwatch  December 6, 2012

      I just have to say this (because there is a wide opening here)…

      “House” is an astrological term that describes a section of the Zodiac. In charting planetary transits through the night sky, a planet or “star” could literally guide the Magi. When a planet turns retrograde, it will have a period of time when it appears to “stop” and it is always in some house or another. Only if you aren’t familiar with the terminology does it appear to be impossible. Just as the Virgin Birth in Bethlehem also makes sense when you consider the Zodiacal sign of Virgo the Virgin who is depicted as a grain goddess. Virgo’s section of the Zodiac is the “house” that rules bread (Bethlehem).

      Was the December 25 birth of Christ really “arbitarily” chosen when that date also coincides with the Winter Solstice (when the sun begins to rise earlier instead of later each day, thus appearing to be born anew from beneath the horizon year after year.) Jesus was born under the earth, in a cave, and returns to the same kind of structure, the rock hewn tomb at his death, just as the sun also appears to disappear beneath the earth.

      Could these elements of the myth of Jesus’ birth have been introduced in Alexandria, which also is known for its fine astrologers?

      “It was in ‘Alexandrian Egypt’ that Babylonian astrology was mixed with the Egyptian tradition of Decanic astrology to create Horoscopic astrology. This contained the Babylonian zodiac with its system of planetary exaltations, the triplicities of the signs and the importance of eclipses. Along with this it incorporated the Egyptian concept of dividing the zodiac into thirty-six decans of ten degrees each, with an emphasis on the rising decan, the Greek system of planetary Gods, sign rulership and four elements.[4]”

      To see more: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek_astrology

      • Avatar
        Xeronimo74  December 8, 2012

        This reminds me of this: http://www.solarmythology.com/

        I have to say a lot of things seem to fit but it’s probably because of selective filtering … ? Especially since I do believe that there’s some historicity to Jesus. But maybe the two don’t exclude each other. There was a preacher that got crucified and then some solar myth where added to the story. I don’t know.

      • Avatar
        DMiller5842  December 8, 2012

        I know Bart doesn’t buy into this, but it makes sense to me.
        Maybe I just don’t know enough to refute it.

  5. Avatar
    Jdavis3927  December 6, 2012

    Good stuff Bart, and I concur with Ronald. Good for Christians, bad for anyone else…how convenient:)

  6. Avatar
    ecbrown88  December 7, 2012

    Ball lightning? St Elmo’s fire? Foo Fighters?

    A better rationalist apology might be that the Magi, who studies atrology, were “guuided” by the star (supernova? comet?) in the sense that its timing and losuc in the celestial sphere were interpreted to a royal birth in this city bethlehme, which ins in our index precisely where the comet first appeared (ie. Regulus, or whatever.”

    I “follow” Bart, but his leading is not physical.

  7. Avatar
    wisemenwatch  December 8, 2012

    I have this theory.

    You see, most so-called “mythicists” do not believe that Jesus was an actual person.

    But Bart has got me to thinking that a man named Jesus did really exist.

    So if Jesus the man did exist, what am I going to do with all this astrology that is screaming out in Matthew’s birth narrative? Jesus was really born, so maybe we should look at some of what we thought was “myth” and consider that they also might be real, actual events.

    The neat thing about astrology is that calculations can be made forward to read future events, but also made backwards to read the past. So, possibly this was birthchart was reconsiled to events that had already passed.

    If Matthew isn’t describing a horoscope for Jesus who was said to be born a king, I don’t know what he is doing. It tells you right off the bat that astrologers went to see the newborn king.

    Astrologers follow a star that is on paper. That star could take years to progress into a certain auspicious place.

    It wasn’t shooting across the heavens. It was moving slowly…on paper. When this star (planet) reached a retrograde period, it became stationary and motionless prior to appearing to travel backwards. Thus, this star actually could have “stopped” over the house where Jesus was born. He was born in the house of Virgo; he was born of the Virgin, whose astrological symbol (or glyph) is a large M.

    The astrologers knew ahead of time when this would occur, when the star would come to a stop and in what section (house) of the night sky.

    This also explains why apparently no one else could see this star. They didn’t know which one of trillions was the one that was leading, or where it was going, or what it portended. They didn’t know astrology.

    Matthew is using the highest science of the time to show the reader that Jesus was born to be a king, as ordained by the Heavens.

    There! Easy to incorporate a physical Jesus with an astrological tale.

  8. Avatar
    CalifiorniaPuma  December 8, 2012

    Thomas Paine, deist and author of The Age of Reason (1794), may not have been a scholar in the stricter sense, but an Enlightenment thinker he was. He challenged not only the virgin birth “has upon the face of it every token of absolute impossibility…” and noted how the Christmas story and Christianity are “built upon the heathen mythology,” he wrote explicitly about the preposterous nature of stories throughout both Old and New Testaments. How much credit do (or should) Post-Enlightenment scholars give Paine as a trailblazer in the field (s) of Biblical studies?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 8, 2012

      Pain and other English and American deists are indeed credited with these findings and views by biblical scholars; later serious research by those trained in the requisite disciplines in many instances verified their suspicions (but not always).

      • Avatar
        DMiller5842  December 9, 2012

        I would love to see more about this topic – specifics on what they verified or not.

  9. Avatar
    jimvj  December 8, 2012

    I’m reading Charles Freeman’s “The Closing Of The Western Mind”, and was surprised to find that in the 4th century the emperor Julian had written a detailed refutation (Against the Galileans) of the Christian religion, including the nativity stories of the gospels. He pointed out that the whole “virgin” prophecy was based on a mistranslation in the greek Septuagint.

    That this kind of detailed criticism was done that far back is surprising.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 8, 2012

      Yes, there were debates over the issue already in the second century, as seen in Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho.

  10. Avatar
    sleonard  December 13, 2012

    This article appeared in the Dec 19, 2011 – Jan 1, 2012 issue of the New Statesman.

    http://www.scribd.com/doc/90858761/New-Statesman-19-December-2011-01-January-2012

  11. Avatar
    Michael Burgess  December 30, 2013

    Of all the arguments that Jesus was a real person, the one I find most compelling comes from the atheist Christopher Hitchens. He asks why Luke would have gone to so much trouble to invent a census that takes Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. If Jesus of Nazareth was fictional, the story could have him born in Bethlehem without all the rigamarole.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 31, 2013

      I guess the answer would be that Luke *thought* he was a real person from Nazareth…. (which isn’t my view, of course)

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