From the Archives:
The Christian Myth of Jesus's Birth
Editor’s Note: In a modern era when ancient religious myths continue to set nations at war against one another at the cost of untold human suffering, it is no longer possible to look benignly even at some of the innocent myths like those that surround the birth of Jesus.
Anything that suggests the superiority of one religion over another carries with it the risk of justifying yet more killing. Indeed, one of the bitter ironies of this season’s joyful praise for the “prince of peace” is that his gentle teachings have been twisted into possibly the most violent and warlike religion in history.
If Christians don’t like to hear that – if they wish to think of, say, Islam as a particularly violent religion and Christianity as one of peace and human kindness – they should recall the endless bloodletting done in Jesus’s name, from the days since Christianity was adopted as Rome’s official religion through the Middle Ages to today.
For instance, think of:
--The “heretics” tortured and burned alive for transgressions such as disagreeing over interpretations of the transubstantiation of Christ in the communion or for deviating from Christian doctrine that clashed with scientific discoveries;
--The Crusaders who slaughtered the Muslim and Jewish populations of Jerusalem in 1099, hailed in Europe as a great victory;
--The interminable religious wars that ravaged Europe for centuries and the suffering that kings inflicted on their subjects after claiming a divine right under Christianity.
--The Christian-led genocides against and enslavements of indigenous “heathens” of the Western Hemisphere, Africa and Australia as well as brutal imperial incursions into Asia;
--The European pogroms against the Jews based on an anti-Semitism rationalized by labeling Jews collectively as “Christ killers,” laying the groundwork for the Nazi Holocaust as the Vatican and many Protestant religious leaders stood by silently.
--The religious justification for even more torture and butchery against “godless” leftists during the Cold War, again aided and abetted by the Vatican and fundamentalist Christians;
--Today’s “war on terror” or “clash of civilizations” directed against Muslims with the strong support of many deeply religious Christians (and Jews) who decry Islam as a violent religion bent on conquest.
So, given that grim history – and in the hope that Christians might pause in their celebrations to reflect on how far Christianity has strayed from the peaceful teachings of Jesus – we are republishing the Rev. Howard Bess’s article from 2009 about some of the cherished myths about Jesus’s birth:
The Advent season is a fun time. For many Christians, it is the happiest season of the year. The joy comes from the anticipation: “Joy to the world, the Lord has come. Let earth receive her king.”
I do not desire to dim the lights of Christmas, but it might be helpful to some to hear what the stories of Jesus birth are really about.
There are four versions of the life of Jesus. We call them the Gospels….Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Only two of the versions say anything about the birth of Jesus.
Mark, the first of the Gospels, begins the Jesus story with Jesus as an adult. John, the last Gospel written, likewise says nothing about the birth of Jesus. Matthew tells the birth story in only a few short paragraphs. Luke’s version of the beginnings of Jesus is four times as long as that of Matthew.
Those two versions are very different. Luke plays with a much larger cast. His flair for the dramatic is pronounced. He includes an abundance of poetry and music with the support of angelic hosts.
Reconciling the two versions has been tried by many, but never with success. They are two different stories. They each have their own distinctive version of the events that surrounded the birth of Jesus.
In attempting to understand the meaning of the birth stories, we ask some familiar questions. Who wrote the material? When did he write it? Why did he write it? For whom was he writing? What literary device was the author using?
The actual authors of the two stories (who wrote them down) are historically unknown. The stories were written 40 to 50 years after the death of Jesus. The reason the narratives were written is a bit more complicated.
By the time of the writings, Christians and Christian churches were under severe persecution by their Roman masters. The growth in the number of followers of Jesus was dramatic and had become a matter of concern to local puppet rulers.
Lord had become the title given Jesus throughout the churches. Calling someone “Lord” had the companion confession of servitude. For Christians of the late first century CE, Jesus was the true possessor and ruler of their lives.
Under the Caesars, Augustus and Octavian, the mantle of divinity was claimed for the Roman emperor. They claimed the titles Lord, Son of God, Bringer of Peace, and Savior of the World.
First century Christians remembered very well that according to Jesus “You shall love the Lord your God with heart, mind, soul, and strength.” Jesus was their Lord. They did not have divided loyalties.
The ancient world was full of miraculous birth stories. It was a favorite way for rulers to claim divine rights. It was a literary tool that was waiting for early Christians to use to declare the divine specialness of the one they called Lord.
The birth narratives, that were eventually attached to Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels, were stories that were created and circulated to counter the claim of the Caesars to be divine and worthy to be called Lord. Every claim of specialness for Caesar was countered by the claim that all his titles belonged to Jesus.
The birth narratives are as much political treatise as theological statement. They cannot be found as a part of the earliest memories of followers of Jesus and make sense only in the context of their Roman oppressors claim for divinity.
For whom were the birth narratives written?
The intended audience was probably internal. The early church needed celebrations to remind Christians who they were. Communion and baptism became the tools to remember the death of Jesus and his resurrection. The birth narratives were the perfect base for a celebration of his coming into the world.
What literary device was used by the authors?
Broadly speaking the authors were story tellers. They were not historians. Their work cannot be understood as history.
The birth narratives are properly called myths. A myth by definition is any story or report in which God or a God is the primary actor. Angels, free-moving stars, dreams, and unexplained bright lights are a part of the tools of mythology. Christians and the world at large have not been served well by attempts to read the birth narratives as history.
Just as many children feel deceived when they find out Santa is not real, many Christians feel deceived when they conclude that Jesus was not born of a virgin and that a star did not travel through the sky and come to rest over a particular place in Bethlehem.
As a Christian, I embrace the belief that a loving God is active in the affairs of the world. I believe that Jesus from Nazareth is Lord. I believe he is Son of God. I believe he is Bringer of Peace. I believe he is Savior of the World.
These are the messages so beautifully told in the birth narratives. It doesn’t matter whether or not Jesus was born in Bethlehem. When the birth stories are put into their broader historic and religious context, they become masterpieces of truth-telling and a witness to the joyful life.
The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His email address is email@example.com.
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