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Friday, December 25, 2015

Merry ChristMyths

We all know that Christmas, like many other holidays, is shrouded in myths. There is the Santa Claus myth with the whole North Pole, flying reindeer, and elves thing thrown in, the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer myth, the myths surrounding Christmas trees (Were they of pagan origin or of Christian origin? Whichever is true, the other is myth.), and even the complaint of Christians that "XMas" is sacrilegious. (For those wondering, the "X" comes from the Greek -- remember those IXOYE fish stickers? -- for Christ and, thus, is a valid representation of Christmas.) As it turns out, we who are keen to keep Christ in Christmas keep our own set of myths, too.

First, the easy one. Christmas is celebrated on December 25th, but no biblical text calls for it. There, done. Easy.

Here's an interesting point. We are all quite clear that Joseph brought pregnant Mary to Bethlehem on the back of a donkey. Did you know that no such text exists? Maybe he did; maybe he didn't. It is a tradition, not a biblical truth. Also, the tradition goes on to hold that the night they arrived she gave birth. Again, maybe. All the text says is that while they were in Bethlehem she gave birth (Luke 2:6). Who knows how long they were there?

How about this? We are all quite sure that Jesus was born in a stable. Nowhere in the text is this found. We know He was laid "in a manger1", referring to an animal feeding trough. Sure. But "inn" (Luke 2:7) is only a possible translation. The word appears 3 times in the Bible and the other two refer to "guest rooms". Jesus and His disciples ate their Last Supper in one of these (Luke 22:11). "Inn" is not as likely as a place where other family members had arrived first. Having all the extra rooms in use, they would have been put down on the main floor of the house where it was routine to let animals stay to help keep them safe and the house warm. So when we go out of our way to complain about mean innkeepers who couldn't find room for a poor pregnant woman, perhaps we ought to be careful.

I'm somewhat surprised that many believe that when Joseph and Mary wandered into Bethlehem that night, they were not married at the time. A couple of places I've seen pastors pointing to Joseph's compassion for his unwed fiancé for taking her with him to be counted and not leaving her to the scorn of others. Matthew, on the other hand, is explicit. As soon as Joseph found out she was pregnant with the offspring of the Holy Spirit, he married her (Matt 1:24-25). They did not have sexual relations until Jesus was born, but they were married. (Note, also, that despite the claim of the Roman Catholic Church to the contrary, Matthew says Joseph "knew her not until she had given birth to a son" (Matt 1:25). That means that after that he did. Sorry about the "virgin for life" claim. Not biblical.2)

One thing we know for sure is that the little Lord Jesus didn't cry, right? Well, again, it makes for a nice song, perhaps, but there's no reason to argue that the baby Jesus didn't cry at all.

Did you know that the Bible does not say that angels sang to the shepherds? The translations say that the angel "said to them" (Luke 2:10) the news he had and that "a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying" their famous "Glory to God" message (Luke 2:13-14). The "singing" idea is simply a product of the songs that have been written about the event. Besides this, while just about every Nativity scene has an angel hanging around the Christ child, no biblical text suggests there was one. There may have been, but that's not written down. (Nor is there any reference to a little shepherd boy with a drum.)

Then there is the tale of Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar ... the "three wisemen". There are all sorts of problems here. While it is true that "magi" from the east came, they were not "wise men" nor the ever-popular "kings", but simply learned guys from the east. There is some conjecture that they may have been remnants of the group of which Daniel was part in Babylon. Advisers to the king, that sort of thing. So that whole "Wise men still seek Him" thing is mistaken. But, as it turns out, that's barely scratching the surface here. There is no reference in the text to three, let alone the names that have been assigned. The "three" comes only from the fact that three gifts are listed. If four brought gold and six brought frankincense and another two brought myrrh, it would still be three gifts but clearly not three magi. Nor were they present at the birth. We know this from a couple of textual clues. First, they did not arrive at the "inn" as described in Luke 2:7. They came to "the house" (Matt 2:11). Further, Herod, who had diligently inquired about when they first saw the star (Matt 2:7), ordered the deaths of all male children two years old or under (Matt 2:16) in order to eliminate the "threat". Then there is the logical problem. A trip from the East would take time. If they arrived on the night of His birth, that star would have been hanging over Bethlehem for a long time before Mary and Joseph arrived that night. The best guess, then, given all the clues, is that the magi showed up somewhat less than 2 years after, not the night of, His birth. Jesus could have been walking by then, no longer a baby (Luke 2:16), but "a child" (Matt 2:11).

"Well, now, thanks for that," I can hear some complaining. "Messed up the whole thing, didn't you?" I would hope that this isn't true. The fact that the child was born of a virgin (Matt 1:23) who was impregnated by the Holy Spirit (Matt 1:18) (and all you mean-spirited, narrow-minded folk that are ready to complain about "sex with God" have to put that aside since the Holy Spirit does not need to use standard methods to impregnate a human) is still true. Add to that the host of prophecies Christ fulfilled, and it gets really, really big. That Jesus is God Incarnate (Matt 1:23) is true. The reality that the Son of God covered His divine glory to become flesh (Phil 2:5-8) is true. The certainty that God sent His Son on our behalf (John 3:16) is undeniable. The amazing Good News that Christ is the free gift of God through Whom we are given eternal life (Rom 6:23) is glorious. In fact, when you think through the truth of Christmas and its consequent results, some misaligned or questionable myths surrounding the event become irrelevant in view of the surpassing glory of His Truth. "Thanks be to God for His inexpressible gift!" (2 Cor 9:15)
1 Are you aware of how big that manger had to be? Scripture says that when the shepherds arrived to see the baby, they "found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger." If it fit all three of them, then it had to be pretty big. (Okay, a little Christmas humor.)

2 Also of interest, there are many who assume that 1) Jesus was born in a cave and 2) that Joseph was much older than Mary. Neither are found in Scripture ... but are found in the same place that Mary's "perpetual virginity" is found. It is in an apocryphal book called Protoevangelium of James. Oddly, while the Roman Catholics believe this book to be not actual Scripture, they base some of their traditions and theology on it. If you're not Catholic, you may want to rethink those points.


Glenn E. Chatfield said...

Another interesting thing about the star which guided the Magi:

Since it would take the Magi quite some time to get to Bethlehem, why couldn't the star have been to guide them BEFORE Jesus was born so as to lead them there by the time he was born? It doesn't say. It just says they came to Jerusalem to learn where Jesus was born, and suddenly as they leave Jerusalem they see the star again.

And remember how long it was that Joseph & Mary were still in the area prior to the Magi arriving; it was 8 days before Jesus was circumcised, then later he was presented in the Temple, which by Lev. 12:2-8 would be 40 days after the birth. Most likely, Joseph and Mary were staying in the house of relatives (where initially the guest room was filled) all this time, and the Magi visited them there AFTER they had finished their 40 days and temple visit, because right after the visit by the Magi they were told to high-tail it out of there and they headed to Egypt.

By the time Heron realized the Magi weren't returning he had to figure out when the star first appeared to determine the ages of children to wipe out. So if the star appeared early enough for the Magi to travel about 900 miles (a few months) plus the month-and-a-half after the temple visit, then Herod figured getting rid of all under 2 would cover the time.

Marshall Art said...

"If four brought gold and six brought frankincense and another two brought myrrh, it would still be three gifts but clearly not three magi."

No. It would be 12 gifts. If three people bought you the same gift, it would still be three gifts, just three of the same thing.

The point stands, however. Twenty four dudes could have shown up with only three gifts between them, the cheap *%&#$!

Also, wouldn't "learned" men be "wise" to some extent? Just quibbling for fun.

Stan said...

It would be three gift types? "Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh." That would still fit.

There is a difference between "learned" and "wise", between "knowledge" and "wisdom".

And, seriously, quibbling on Christmas. How rude! Oh ... wait ... that's what my entire post was. Never mind.