Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The meaning of Christmas

The iconography of Christmas means a lot to Christians.  The stable, the star, the manger, even the innkeeper (was there only one inn in Bethlehem or what?)  Unfortunately for Christians, not only is much of the iconography stolen more or less wholesale from the now pretty much defunct religion of Mithras, but the nativity story as we know it is internally incoherent and historically bogus. 

First things first: does any of this sound familiar?

  • Three wise men came to visit the baby messiah, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
  • The messiah was born on 25th December.
  • His mother was a virgin.

These are all legends of Mithras, which predates Christianity.  It’s also worth noting that Mithra died on a cross at Easter, but not before celebrating a last supper with his 12 disciples.  Interesting.

There’s no doubt that much of the iconography concerning Christmas is lifted in its entirety and apparently without shame.  But there are more serious problems still with the Christmas story as we know it today.

Of the four official gospels, only Matthew and Luke deal with the birth of Jesus.  Some of the apocrypha deal with it too, but we’re told that those are somehow not important even though they have no greater or lesser historical credentials.  Matthew gives us an extensive genealogy of Jesus beginning with Abraham and running fourteen generations through to Jesus.  However, it’s unclear why he does this, since Joseph wasn’t Jesus’ father.  Jesus, therefore was not in any sense at all ‘of the line of David’.  This seems to be what Matthew was trying to establish with all the genealogy, presumably to show that the prophecy in Micha 5:1-2 was fulfilled.  Actually, it’s a pretty vague prophecy, even by the general standards of these things:

Mic 5:2 "But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to Me the One to be Ruler in Israel, whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting."

Jesus was, of course, never a ruler in any usual sense.  You have to torture the verse quite a lot before you can pretend it refers to the life and works of Jesus. 

But it doesn’t work anyway, because Joseph wasn’t Jesus’ dad.  This seems like an enormous spanner in the works that Christians seem intent to ignore.

Matthew introduces the concept of the virgin birth and points out that this all happened in the time of king Herod.  Then there’s the whole business of the three kings.  Nothing in the Bible says they were kings or that there were three of them or that they turned up on the day of Jesus’ birth, but the nativity as we see it in countless school plays every year has it that way.  And we know the rest.

But why are they in Bethlehem in the first place?  We know that Joseph and Mary were from Nazareth, so why do they suddenly and conveniently turn up in Bethlehem, right whether the prophecy in Micah kinda-sorta said they’d be?  Matthew doesn’t spin any yarns about taxation and a census or stables and shepherds. That all comes from Luke, which I’ll get onto in a moment.  Reading Matthew’s account, it seems that Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem all along, an account that contradicts various others.  With Matthew, it’s all about the wise men.

Luke’s story contradicts Matthew’s.  For one thing, the angel comes to Mary instead of Joseph and this is how we usually remember it in the school nativity.  Then we come to the part in Luke 2:1-5 which talks about a decree from the Emperor Augustus that a census be done.  He makes the unwise mistake of establishing some historical baselines.  Unwise because we can check it against historical data.  No such census took place in the days when Augustus was emperor of Rome and Quirinnius was governor of Syria.  But let’s suppose for a moment that one did and nobody wrote it down (an odd thing to do in a census, the entire point of those things being documentation).  Why would such a thing require that a person travel to ‘their’ city?  Surely the purpose of a census is to find out who is living where, not where…..well, wait.  Was Joseph born in Bethlehem?  There’s no suggestion anywhere in the Bible that this was the case, unless you count Matthew who – as we’ve seen – has them living there all along.  Matthew talks about the family being chased out of Bethlehem, their home, whereas Luke documents a fleeting visit.  So according to Luke, why is Joseph in Bethlehem in the first place?  Because it’s David’s city and David was one of Joseph’s ancestors, as established in Matthew’s genealogy.  Not very convincing, is it?  Why was David chosen instead of Joseph’s other thirteen ancestors?  Why not Abraham himself, since Matthew traces it back that far?  No part of this makes sense.

But this undoubted fiction gets them there, I guess.  Which is sort of in accordance with prophecy, I suppose. Then we have the business of the one inn in Bethlehem and there being no room there, since it was the millennium.  And we have stables and mangers and shepherds, none of which are mentioned in Matthew.  As well as only one inn, by the way, Bethlehem must only have had one stable.  The shepherds and the wise men seemed to find it without apparent difficulty. Oh, wait: the magi turned up a few years later and it's a modern conceit that the whole business plays out on a single night.

Luke’s account of the nativity is pretty brief, only 20 verses long.  Luke’s a dweller.  He bangs on and on about other happenings that we today regard as inconsequential, but he skims over the birth of the messiah as though it’s an afterthought.

Let’s finish by going back to Matthew.  The original text uses the word ‘עלמה’, which doesn’t specifically mean ‘virgin’.  It refers in general to an unmarried, betrothed or perhaps newly wed woman.  The same word is used elsewhere in the bible without the implication of virginity.  There’s a different, specific, word for ‘virgin’ and it’s hard to understand why that word wasn’t used if virginity was the concept Matthew – whoever he was (he certainly was not a disciple of Jesus as many claim) was trying to convey.

So in summary, the Christmas story is both inconsistent and incoherent.  It’s iconography is stolen from Mithras and other, earlier, religions.  The Bible is assembled from texts that were decided by someone with an ulterior motive to be canonical, while the others were thrown away.

And yet to Christians, this story is enormously important.

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