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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!)

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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.

The story comes to us as…

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A Christmas Reflection
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Comments

  1. Avatar
    godspell  December 23, 2015

    True, though arguably the two worst slaughters of Jewish people were the Roman suppression of the Jewish rebellion (for which Christians can hardly be blamed, as there were hardly any of them by then), and then of course the next one was perpetrated in the 20th century, under the leadership of a man who dearly wished that little Jew Jesus had never been born. His goal was ultimately to erase Jesus from history (you’ve met other people who share that goal, I think).

    I think we make up excuses to hate and kill each other, and we can do that quite well without God (as the 20th Century amply proves), so no point blaming Him. Let alone a baby in a manger. And I figured out really early none of that happened. It is, as you say, the logical starting point to start separating myth from reality, but the myth is still beautiful, and I suspect it’s saved more lives than it’s taken.

    • Avatar
      DeanMorrison  December 25, 2015

      I think you missed out the Spanish Inquisition and various pogroms across Europe.

      As for anti-Semitism – it was entirely a Christian invention. The founder of Protestantism, the German Martin Luther embedded it in the new version of Christianity with his book ‘On the Jews and their lies’ – from Wiki:

      “In the treatise, he argues that Jewish synagogues and schools be set on fire, their prayer books destroyed, rabbis forbidden to preach, homes burned, and property and money confiscated. They should be shown no mercy or kindness,[2] afforded no legal protection,[3] and these “poisonous envenomed worms” should be drafted into forced labor or expelled for all time.[4] He also seems to advocate their murder, writing “[w]e are at fault in not slaying them”.[5]”

      Of course he was just continuing the Catholic tradition that the Jews were ‘Jesus murderers’ – a stance that was only renounced very recently.

      When you consider that the overwhelming majority of those that served in the German forces were Christians, and that they’d sworn a sacred oath (to God) to do whatever Hitler commanded – then it rather looks like Hitler was merely the culmination of religious hatred that had been building up for centuries, and he was simply fulfilling what to many religious Germans must have seemed to divinely approved destiny.

      Of course there were Christian figures who bravely defended the Jews and paid for it with their lives.

      Others remained shamefully silent. The only high ranking Nazi who was excommunicated was Goebbels, and that was for the ‘sin’ of marrying a Protestant divorcee.

      • Avatar
        godspell  December 27, 2015

        Dean, I feel pretty old sometimes, but yes, I think we can say with certainty that I missed the Spanish Inquisition. 🙂

        As terrifying as that was, it can hardly compare with the horrific death counts laid at the feet of Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot. Atheism killed more in a few decades than the Inquisition killed in centuries.

        Antipathy towards Jewish communities would, in my opinion, have occurred with or without the rise of Christianity, and we can see evidence of that in the scriptures. That does not in any way exculpate Christianity for its enormous role in furthering that prejudice, but essentially, any minority community that sticks out like that, that refuses to assimilate because of strong traditions they don’t want to lose, is going to have problems with its neighbors. There’s a strain of anti-semitism in Japan, and that can hardly be laid at Christianity’s feet (it’s not because of any Jewish community of size there either–people can be hard to figure out).

        Catholics did more than any other group to save Jews in Europe (and the Protestants of Le Chambon were also Christians). Oskar Schindler was raised Catholic. Christians went to their deaths for sheltering Jews.

        I would suggest these were the only real Christians in Europe at that time.

        • Avatar
          Michael  February 5, 2016

          The tired “Atheist Kill” argument — The slaughter over 200 years by Christians is huge. Hitler was a Christian and Himmler stated that being a good Christian was a requirement for the SS and the Gestapo. The slaughter of Christians occurred in Roman society but was not as big as Christians love to claim. The Muslims were inclusive for the most part until the Crusades. Even today we have Fundamentalist who argue for the killing of LGBTs and other similar wishes.

          Atheist could care less except in rare occasions. Christians on the other hand seem to sadly specialize in it. Watch “The Passion” and Gibson’s pains to make sure to blame the Jews for the death of Jesus.

  2. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  December 23, 2015

    I have read this previously as well as your similar summaries elsewhere, but it was helpful to review it again, especially the contradictions between the two versions as well as how each of the two accounts is problematic on its own. Thanks.

  3. Avatar
    Everythingmustgo65  December 23, 2015

    Very good post. Makes a valid point that goes all ways, whatever you believe.

  4. Avatar
    Xeronimo74  December 23, 2015

    ” God came into the world to save us from ourselves and from others, from the evil, pain, misery, and suffering that is otherwise the lot of mortals here on earth. ” > last time I’ve checked evil, pain, misery and suffering still exists … so much for that brilliant intervention by that god from the NT

    • Avatar
      godspell  December 24, 2015

      One might argue there’s a lot less of it now, proportionate to the number of people on earth.

      That isn’t a miracle created by God, so much as an indirect consequence of western industrial civilization, which is an indirect result of Christianity (seriously, it is).

      And obviously there could be lots of suffering in the future, if we can’t curb the indirect results of industry, which is an indirect result of science, which is (you guessed it) also an indirect result of Christianity (also Judaism and Islam).

  5. Avatar
    Wilusa  December 23, 2015

    Say, I have to pass on a Christmas-related story about my own “religious education”!

    I attended a Catholic high school. And for some reason, a – textbook about “literature,” maybe, that we had to read? – included one chapter of a novel about a Catholic teenaged girl growing up in the French-speaking region of Canada.

    The plot of that chapter? There was a tradition that if you said a thousand “Hail Marys” on the day before Christmas, you’d get what you were praying for. The girl tried it – I forget what she was praying for – and it didn’t work.

    The point, probably, was to tell us “tricks” like that *don’t* work. And I probably understood that was the intent. Plus, I didn’t know whether it was even a real French-Canadian tradition, or the author’s invention.

    But…I tried it anyway! Somehow, without my mother’s noticing, I actually managed to say a *thousand* of those stupid “Hail Marys” on the day before Christmas.

    As I said, I don’t remember what the girl in the story wanted. But I wanted what most normal teenaged girls wanted: a teenaged *boy*! A *specific* teenaged boy.

    Drat. It didn’t work for me, either.

  6. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  December 23, 2015

    Well that was depressing.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 24, 2015

      Yeah, sorry ’bout that. Hope today’s is more uplifting! As an old-time debater, I tend to see both sides of big issues (and subscribe to them both even!)….

  7. talmoore
    talmoore  December 23, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman, do you think it says something that the most popular and most celebrated Christian holiday is based on probably the most fabricated part of the gospel narratives? To me is suggests that the gloomy, depressing nature of the passion narrative is not nearly as appealing to the average Christian as the joyful tale of a newborn baby. It’s almost as if the birth narratives were purposely concocted as a palate cleanser to make the relatively less palatable crucifixion more acceptable.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 24, 2015

      Yes, it’s interesting to compare the Christian celebrations of Good Friday on the one hand and Christmas on the other!

  8. Avatar
    nichael  December 23, 2015

    Even setting aside the differences that are theologically or historically important it’s amazing the number of “details” of the Christmas Story that most folks take as given but that have nothing to do with the NT. And, moreover, what this says above the human urge to “fill in the gaps” in stories that are important to us, even when we have to make them up. (For example, the “three”wise men –and their names[!]–; the involvement of the animals; the newborn Jesus not crying; etc.). (As an aside, if anyone is interested in these types of “details” an altogether fascinating source is the “Golden Legend” a 13th cent. compilation by Jacobus de Voragine.)

    One interesting example is the legend that Jesus was “born in a stable”. Setting aside the fact that Matthew has essentially nothing to say about the details of Jesus birth, even Luke says only that Jesus was “laid in a manger”.

    Now we might make make the reasonable assumption that this implies that things happened in a stable, which is how this is typically read in the Western church. However, in the Eastern church the Birth is typically said to have happened in a _cave_. (In fact, among medieval painters it was common practice to combine these two legends, sometimes even placing the stable inside a cave –see, for example, Botticelli’s “Mystical Nativity” or Duccio’s “Nativity with the Prophets”.)

    For that matter, in “The Golden Legend” mentioned above, the Birth is said to take place in an area adjoining (and under the eaves of) the inn, which was used as a public gathering place (and, so, happened to have a manger).

  9. Avatar
    Jimmy  December 23, 2015

    My wife and I like watching Jesus movies this time of year because they seem to be on almost every channel.. For us it is theater with some wonderful and big named actors from the past,. Our favorite Mary is Olivia Hussey. In this movie depicting Josephs and Marys wedding , Joseph places a ring on Mary’s right index finger. Was this a custom during this time or was it made up?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 24, 2015

      Probably made up — but I’m not sure we know! Yes, Olivia Hussey is great. My only problem is that I can’t see her without thinking Juliet….

  10. Avatar
    Morphinius  December 24, 2015

    Do you know when Christians were first permitted to celebrate the birth of Christ and decorate their homes? As I recollect, when I first read the Ante-Nicene Fathers twenty years ago, the early church fathers banned the decorating of homes and all birthday celebrations. Tertullian forbid Christians from engaging in any activities associated with Saturnalia and Midwinter festivities: decorating the doorways with boughs, wreaths, flowers, exchanging gifts, and indulging in food and drink. Origin taught that only sinners celebrated their birthdays; the righteous were to curse the day they were born. Although this did not apply directly to the birth of Jesus, I believe it did delay the practice of celebrating even his birth.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 24, 2015

      The celebration of Christmas started in the 4th century. I’m not sure that what we think of as Christmas celebrations (preparations; decorations; carols; and so on) was around before Dickens!

      • Avatar
        sbrehe  December 26, 2015

        Queen Elizabeth, in this year’s Christmas message, claims her great, great grandparents Victoria and Albert popularized the Christmas tree. So Dickens has to share some of the credit with the royals if she is correct!

        • Bart
          Bart  December 27, 2015

          I enjoyed her message very much. Dickens, of course, was writing in her time, so I’m not sure where Victoria got her ideas from….

    • talmoore
      talmoore  December 24, 2015

      Jeremiah 10:2-4

  11. Avatar
    shakespeare66  December 24, 2015

    I celebrate Christmas each year by watching the movie “A Christmas Carol” with George C. Scott. I love that version of the story. I used to read it to the students around Christmas time in my British Literature class even though I was “stepping” out of chronological order of the literature to do so. It is a heartwarming story and so enjoyable to read aloud, as I did, to snoring seniors. I think I was always a great deal more delighted in the reading of the story than my students were. That went for a lot of other stories as well. Unfortunately, young people just don’t being enough of life’s experiences to the stories to grab onto them like their aging teacher does. The two versions of Christ’s birth were all one blended story to those of us who were raised Catholic. We were never taught the difference between the Gospel’s of Mathew and Luke. In fact, we never read the Bible, but were told versions of the birth in a blended story. I never realized how different the two versions were, and how odd it is to think that one could believe some of the incredulous things stated in them.

  12. Avatar
    shunter  December 24, 2015

    And then there’s Mithra … born on 25 December of a virgin, 12 disciples, communion, crucifixion, rising on the 3rd day, on and on.

    Whether it’s fact or fiction, Christmas is a tradition and we need tradition to stay healthy in body, mind and spirit. It’s a wonderful time for children. I love watching their faces light up. For me, the season is for them.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 27, 2015

      I’m afraid we don’t have information on Mithra like this — it’s a modern myth that these things apply to him.

      • Avatar
        shunter  December 27, 2015

        Most Romans, including Constantin, worshiped the sun god Mithra. Say Constantin wanted to end the persecutions and did not want to stop worshiping his sun god Mithra; what does he do? This is a logical solution, a win-win. Mithra’s story becomes the backstory for Jesus, Constantin is happy and feels okay to be baptised knowing that he will be worshiping his sun god. I don’t know about modern myth, but this makes perfect sense, considering how many virgin births (for one thing) there were and the ties back to more ancient civilizations. I sense his backstory is a mashup of various myths, which is fine, but let’s peel back the mask to expose the real Jesus. It doesn’t diminish what he did or that he lived; I’d just appreciate truth. Perhaps it’s asking too much.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 28, 2015

          Actually, most Romans did not worship Mithras….

          • Avatar
            shunter  December 28, 2015

            Thank you – I’ll dig deeper into the subject.

  13. Avatar
    DeanMorrison  December 25, 2015

    I’m an atheist, but more than happy to wish everyone a Merry Christmas!

    One of the things that put me off Christianity is that I always thought it was so boring (being a Brit we were gently force fed the bland variety of it in school).

    Thanks to you Bart I know realise I was quite wrong, and find it absolutely fascinating. Looked at dispassionately and from an objective historical point of view it really is an amazing human story of people trying to make sense of the world around them based on scraps of contradictions, and the power struggles that ensued.

    I’m now hooked and have just signed up to the blog – best Christmas present I’ve ever bought myself, and even better is the thought that my small contribution helps you help other Bart.

    All the best to you and yours!

    Dean Morrison
    Hastings
    England

  14. Avatar
    VaughanGibbs  December 25, 2015

    I have heard it said that the story of the nativity was familiar in the ancient world and is actually a re-cycling of the myths and festivals of other religions. Christmas is equated with Saturnalia and Easter with Eostre, and it has been suggested that elements of ancient Egyptian and Babylonian religions are also very similar. Given that the Romans were involved in the spread of Christianity throughout their empire, and that they previously had tended to equate the pagan divinities of conquered countries with their own, and in England, early Christian churches were built on the sites of pagan shrines and temples, and taking Biblical comments about Paul adjusting his doctrines to make them understandable and acceptable to local populations (1 Corinthians 9 19-23, Acts 17.23), how can we in any way trust the version of Christianity that has been handed down to us?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 27, 2015

      I’d say the “Christmas stories” in the NT were set in place long before Christianity became a favored religion in Rome. But I also don’t think the stories can be historical!

      • Avatar
        VaughanGibbs  December 28, 2015

        I believe that one of the Christmas day traditions of the British Army is that enlisted men are served their meal by their officers and NCOs. This seems similar to the tradition in Saturnalia in which it is believed the masters of households waited upon their servants.
        Although this isn’t of course a religious observance, to me it’s an example of how easy it is for one set of customs to merge seamlessly and almost unnoticed with another,
        In Paul’s fervent and almost desperate desire to spread his message before Jesus’s imminent return one wonders how much he was prepared to turn a ‘blind eye’ to the ingrained ideas of those he was trying to convert. And whether any of those local pagan ideas / traditions eventually found their way into a mainstream Christianity?
        I think Paul felt he was in the position of a captain who knew that the ship is sinking, but who’s passengers seemed oblivious to the danger. He would surely use any ruse that he could to get them into the lifeboats?

  15. Avatar
    Steefen  December 26, 2015

    Dr. Bart Ehrman: Both Matthew and Luke told stories to make it happen – so that Mary was a virgin who gave birth in Bethlehem — even though the accounts cannot be historical.

    Steefen: Why couldn’t Jesus have been born in Bethlehem? Above, you say, one gospel has Jesus’ parents living in Bethlehem, the other gospel having them traveling to Bethlehem. If Jesus was not born in Bethlehem, where was he born, as you see it?

  16. cheito
    cheito  December 26, 2015

    DR Ehrman:

    YOUR COMMENT:

    “The Myth of the First Christmas.”

    MY COMMENT:

    The first recorded date of Christmas being celebrated on December 25th was in 336AD not when Matthew and Luke were Written.

    I’ll agree that Matthew is not historically accurate and that the stories about the birth of Jesus are myths.
    However, the birth of Jesus is not a Myth as you well know.

    I’m not so sure about Luke’s account being a myth. I will agree that we don’t have Luke’s original record, therefore, we will never know what he wrote.

    Also, the resurrection was witnessed by Peter. His letter has to be considered in your conclusion. Peter was a liar is what you’re saying. Jesus did not rise from the dead. He made it up. He had visions that deluded Him.

    Paul also was a liar and he did not see Jesus as he claims. Are you totally convinced about this? I’m not.

  17. Avatar
    webattorney  December 27, 2015

    My approach is since there are many holidays and issues that are important to diverse peoples in the world, as long as there is something to agree on, I am all for it. We need more peace makers in this world for sure. I wish we would bundle up all holidays into one LONG holidays though.

  18. Avatar
    James  January 11, 2016

    I’ve always wondered that if Christ’s birth was heralded by such miraculous events; a star, wise men, shepherds seeing angels, etc. Stories that were told and re-told for over 60 years until they were finally written down by Luke & Matthew. Why wouldn’t the people who had heard these stories be anticipating Jesus of Nazareth to come forth and proclaim himself as the promised Messiah? Why did so many people not believe who he was? Why did even his family members doubt him? Wouldn’t they be the first to say, “Yes, this is the promised King that was born in Bethlehem so many years ago.”

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