Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Christmas Story

It seems that every year around Christmas, you can find someone pointing out the pagan origins of some of the Christmas rituals and decorations, as well as the pagan connections between the date suggested to be the day of Christ's birth.

Well, this post isn't about all of that.  Instead, I thought I'd clarify a few common misconceptions about the Christmas story as told in the Bible.

Before I get into that though, I want to make a few points about the Gospels themselves.

Each of the four Gospels are written from a different perspective with a specific audience in mind.  Matthew wrote to a Jewish audience, and presented Jesus as the messiah the Jews had been waiting for.  This is why Matthew gives the genealogy of Joseph, Jesus' adoptive father.  Joseph was a direct descendant of King David through Solomon's royal line, giving him legal claim to the throne of David (which, of course, during this period of time, the Romans had control of Palestine).  An adopted child had all the rights of a biological child, thus, Jesus had legal claim to the throne of David through Joseph.  So Matthew gives us the perspective of Jesus being King of the Jews.

Mark's Gospel may have been written to a Roman audience.  Mark portrays Jesus as a servant.

Luke, a gentile, wrote to a Greek audience, and more specifically, to someone named Theophilus (Luke 1:3).  Luke portrayed Jesus as a man, the perfect man.  Greeks were known as thinking men, so this was an appropriate perspective for a Greek audience.  Luke gives us the genealogy of Mary, the mother of Jesus.  Mary was actually a descendant of King David too, although not through Solomon's royal line.  But as the biological mother of Jesus, this was an important genealogy from the perspective of Jesus being human.

The book of John, which was the last of the Gospels written, was probably written to a Christian audience in general.  John emphasized Jesus' divinity.

It's been suggested that the prophet Ezekiel saw a vision that predicted these four records of Jesus.  In chapter one of the book of Ezekiel, Ezekiel mentions seeing a vision of four living creatures.  Here is what he had to say about their faces:
Their faces looked like this: Each of the four had the face of a man, and on the right side each had the face of a lion, and on the left the face of an ox; each also had the face of an eagle.  -Ezekiel 1:10

These four living creatures are also mentioned in the book of Revelation.  The lion symbolizes Kingship.  The Ox (a.k.a. 'beast of burden') was used for pulling carts and ploughs, making it a symbol of servitude.  The face of a man symbolizes..well...a man, and the eagle symbolizes divinity.  In the book of Revelation, the four living creatures are named in the same order that the four Gospels were chosen for inclusion in the Bible.

Huh...I guess maybe the Council of Nicaea did pick the right books to include in the Bible.

Matthew and Luke are the only two Gospel writers that mention the birth of Jesus.  Neither of them said a whole lot about it though.  Neither of them give us a date of his birth, indicating they only thought it was significant that he was born, and not when he was born.  One of the reasons they probably chose to mention his birth was because of the perspective they were writing from.  Matthew needed to convince the Jews that Jesus was the messiah they were waiting for, and Luke wanted people to know that Jesus was a man in flesh and blood.

Luke tells us that an angel informed shepherds that were out with their flocks at night that the messiah had been born.  The shepherds then went to visit Him (Hmm...imagine that, an angel announcing the birth of the messiah to lowly shepherds.  Interesting that the angel didn't bother mentioning it to the 'authorities' and the big government.  I'm still wondering if it is just a coincidence that most alien sightings today are reported by country folk.  And come to think of it, I don't think I've ever heard someone report an alien saying, "Take me to your leader.").

So as for the date of Jesus' birth, it was probably in the spring time.  It wasn't winter, because the shepherds wouldn't have been out with their flocks at night during the winter.  It's possible that it was summertime or fall, but the springtime is probably more likely just because it seems more appropriate.  Spring was (and still is) considered to be a time of new birth, and at one point was considered to be the beginning of the new year (am I the only one that finds it odd we use a calendar that starts the new year in the dead of winter and begins new days in the middle of the night??).  So it seems fitting that the messiah would have been born during a time of new birth.  At this point, I don't see much need in changing the date it's celebrated though.  The Gospel writers didn't bother to include a date, so I guess December 25th is as good as any date.

In a lot of Nativity scenes, you'll see figures of Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus along with figures of animals and three wise men.  The problem is, the wise men didn't visit Jesus in a stable as a newborn.  Nor is there any indication there was only three wise men.  The wise men and the shepherds didn't arrive on the same night.  The wise men traveled from the East, and it may have been several days, weeks, or months after the birth when they visited.  By that time, Jesus and his parents were living in a house.  In fact, Matthew 2:10 even states the wise men visited Jesus in a house.  Matthew doesn't say anything about a stable.  We know that the wise men didn't arrive on the night of his birth, because Matthew 2:7 states that Herod asked the wise men when the star they had been following first appeared.  Matthew doesn't explicitly tell us what the wise men told him, but in Matthew 2:16, Herod decreed that all children two years old and younger were to be killed, and he based his decision on the timeframe the wise men had told him.  So going by that, the wise men may have arrived as late as two years after Jesus' birth (Although it probably wasn't quite that long, Herod probably just stated two years and younger in attempt to make sure all his bases were covered.).  It may also be important to note that Matthew says the wise men visited the "child," not the "baby."

The tale of the three wise men, known as Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, came several centuries later.  It crept into Christian tradition, and there's even a famous Christmas carol about them.  The Christmas carol further confuses the tale by describing them as being "three kings." But they were not kings.  I'm not aware of any translation of the Bible that describes them as "kings."

I'm not sure why people got the idea that there were only three wise men.  Maybe it's because only three gifts were mentioned.  But naming only three gifts doesn't indicate that only three people came and each gave an individual gift.  I could say that I received money, clothes, and gift cards at Christmas.  But I received those gifts from more than three people.  Additionally, I also received a combination of those gifts from some individuals!  So going by how many different gifts were named is not an indication of how many wise men there were.

More than likely, there were many wise men that came.  They might not have all been traveling together either.  If there were only a few of them, they might not have been granted an audience with King Herod.  The king probably had more to do than meet with a few eccentric astrologers from the East.  But if an entire entourage came, he might have to clear his schedule for that.  Also consider that if there had only been three of them, the king might not have been concerned with them coming into town looking for who they claimed was a newborn king.  Matthew also indicates that the people of Jerusalem were also disturbed by the arrival of the wise men; again, three visiting astrologers probably wouldn't have gotten the whole city into a frenzy.  I don't know how many there were, but I think there were probably more than three.

The story of the manger comes solely from Luke's record.  It's thought that Luke, who was not one of the Twelve, probably consulted the mother Mary as a source for his writings.  Some of the stories he writes about seem as though they may have been told from Mary's perspective, particularly the story of Jesus' birth and the events that led up to it (Luke begins his record by telling the story of the birth of John the Baptist first).  Luke actually skips over the part where Mary and Joseph take Jesus to Egypt to escape King Herod's wrath.  Matthew included it in his record because the prophet Hosea said that God would call his son out of Egypt (Hosea 11:1, Matthew 2:15).  Since Matthew was writing to a Jewish audience, it was necessary to point out the fulfillment of Jewish prophecies.  Luke wasn't writing to a Jewish audience, so he didn't even bother to mention that part of the story.

Neither Matthew or Luke say a whole lot about the birth of Jesus.  They don't dwell on the topic.  Luke mentions an incident at the Temple when Jesus was twelve years old, but both records mainly focus on Jesus as an adult.

What's interesting to me is that some of the Christmas traditions have become so ingrained in the public consciousness, many people don't even notice that some of the traditions aren't a part of the Biblical record.  Even some people that have read the records all the way through don't seem to notice that the Bible never mentions wise men named Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar visiting Jesus on the night of his birth.

So yes, I suppose it is true that many of the common Christmas traditions are pagan in origin.  A lot of them seem to be adapted from Norse/Scandinavian traditions.  I can't say that I'm surprised though.  The Romans were known for adapting some of the customs of the people they conquered.  It's not mere coincidence that Roman and Greek pantheons were so similar.  The Romans had their own pantheon, but they also adapted aspects of the Greek pantheon into their own.  When Christianity came to Rome, the Romans adapted aspects of it too.  Over the years, Roman Catholics did as their pagan Roman ancestors did.  It took hundreds of years to convert the Scandinavians from their pagan beliefs to Catholic beliefs.  Various methods of forcing them to convert or demonizing their gods were tried.  But they also tried more subtle methods.  Sometimes the Catholics would also blend aspects of the Scandinavian traditions with Catholic beliefs, or in some cases, essentially just tell the Scandinavians the reign of their gods was a thing of the past.  In other words, the Catholics didn't always try to convince the Scandinavians their traditions weren't true, they just tried to convince them they were from an era of the past.  With that in mind, I'm not surprised that ancient Scandinavian traditions have continued into the present day.  Even those cold, snowy Scandinavian winters seem to be the traditional image of what the Christmas season is 'supposed' to look like.

Nevertheless, I love the Christmas season.  I love the cool air, the decorations, the music, and the joy.  So Merry Christmas!

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