Grinching Xmas: I’m a Minister Who Doubts the Christmas Story

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“It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”

If you are Christian, of almost any ilk, it’s hard not to get caught up in the beautiful story of the birth of Jesus at this time of the year. The whole thing is just so magically delicious. The story of a King, but born in a manger. A mother who is pure, innocent, and virginal giving birth to the child of God. Angels sing of his majesty. The heavens realign so that a bright star might shine down on his birth. Lowly shepherds to respected magi journey to pay homage to this new born king. It’s just so inspiring! And beautiful! And unbelievable!

See, that’s the thing. It really, truly is unbelievable.

Here’s the thing about “unbelievable” and stories: if you are trying to give a factual accounting of the truth of what happened, “unbelievable” is a problem. If you are trying to communicate some larger truth than the truth of what happened, then it can approach upon poetry – and that’s beautiful in a very different way.

Let’s start with the odds of whether or not the Christmas story that we know was ever meant to be a factual accounting of the events of Jesus’ birth.

Many folks don’t realize it, but the New Testament isn’t assembled in chronological order of the writing of each book. The reality is that many of the writings attributed to Paul pre-date the Gospels by a few decades. So, our earliest look at what followers of Jesus thought about his miraculous birth comes from Paul’s letters. Out of all of his many letters, Paul found the birth of Jesus important enough to mention precisely twice. Galatians 4:4: “But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law.” And Romans 1:3: “ …Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh.”

So, Paul seems to think that Jesus’ birth was normal and not particularly miraculous. After all, if you are trying to convince folks that this guy is worth following, the whole remarkable birth story seems like it would be more than worth telling them about.

In terms of the Gospels, the first one written is most probably Mark. So, what did Mark have to say about this amazing story that absolutely has to be told? Nothing. And let’s face it, it’s not exactly the kind of story that you’d just sort of forget to include.

It would seem that during Jesus’ life and for some time after it (up until about 70CE), concepts of a miraculous birth were not part of the movement he birthed.

That brings me to Matthew and Luke, who actually do describe Jesus’ birth. Matthew and Luke, were written at roughly the same time, but somehow, they have fairly different recordings of the story – at times, significantly different. So, different that they are difficult to reconcile.

It is perfectly reasonable to think that stories about the same thing might disagree when they’ve only existed for a brief time in the communities that tell them. But over time, similar stories tend to conflate into a larger overarching story. When it comes to Matthew and Luke, that never happened. It’s really likely that these were each relatively young stories when they were recorded.

A curious question would be, if the miraculous birth narrative didn’t exist (at least not in any well-known way… and let’s face it, if it were being told, THAT’S a story that would have been well-known) much before the writing of Matthew and Luke, what was the impetus for the creation of it?

The Jesus movement hit a bit of a growth spurt in the time just before Matthew and Luke were written. They found themselves in the midst of many Pagan religions, some of which included popular miraculous birth stories of their heroes and gods (Zoroaster, Krishna, Buddha, Mithra, etc.). I suspect that the Christian birth stories were embellished in order to compete with many the larger religions of the time.

The results are the two conflicting stories we have in the Bible, as well as several non-canonical stories that were shared in the early Church. The details of these stories are not only frequently unbelievably miraculous, but they also seem to contradict history from that time. From the census that they traveled to partake in to King Herod killing every male baby in the area, there’s just no indication whatsoever from the reliable historians of their time that those events ever happened.

Add it all together and it’s difficult to come to any logical conclusion other than: it’s made up.

Was Jesus born? Yes, I believe so.

Who were Jesus’ parents? Mary AND Joseph (because that’s how human biology works, folks).

Where was he born? Probably in Nazareth in his parent’s home.

Should we throw the story of the first Christmas out then? To borrow from Paul, “by no means!” I happen to think that while not all stories tell the truth, all stories tell a truth. In other words, they don’t have to use facts to convey something that reveals a larger truth.

Personally, I find great value in the symbolism of the Christmas story. This is a story that was told under the shadow of a dominant culture. One that revered power and might. Yet, here is a child that has a connection to God like no one before him – the very Son of God. The Messiah comes to set his people free. A prince, but the prince of peace. He does not come in high and mighty like the kings of old. He is born under difficult circumstances.

He was born unto an olive skinned, middle-eastern, unwed, pregnant mother, who was seen as little more than property. Born into a world that would surely see him as an illegitimate child who was wrapped in what rags they could find and placed in a smelly, flea infested feeding trough in the midst of a dark musky smelling animal stall.

This is power from the bottom up. This is the power of love not the power of might. This is what the beginnings of liberation for the oppressed looks like. It doesn’t come from those who already hold power, it comes from the common everyday people. This is a promise that love wins. It is a foretaste and foreshadowing of who the teaching of this child is for and it causes the mighty to shake in their boots.

Yes, I love the Christmas story.

No, I do not believe it is true.

But yes, I do believe that it is truthful.

Merry Christmas.

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9 comments

  1. Thank you for the insightful post! I am a seminary student and have heard echoes of all of your points throughout lectures and studies, but not so explicitly. My question is, how do we reconcile these biblical truths with our creeds of faith? Can we profess the Apostles Creed in all sincerity? How do you pass this knowledge along to congregants in a way that resonates, albiet, jarring as it is.

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  2. I just read (well, listened to) The First Christmas by Borg and Crossley — that book has increased my understanding greatly of the Matthew and Luke Christmas stories. I’m still coming to terms with it,really, but I do understand how there can be Truth in a story that isn’t factual.

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  3. But if we start saying this part of the Bible has veracity and that part doesn’t, doesn’t the house of cards come tumbling down?
    Is there a cultural context where these stories can be considered parables?
    If no immaculate conception, then there was premarital sex?
    Lots to chew on here.

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    • Of course. The Bible is full of truisms, many (most?) of which are described in ways which are not truthful. In that aspect it’s the same as the holy scriptures of most any other faith. It provides a path, one of many.

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  4. This is an explanation and an exploration I waited for, for a long time. When we break open the literal shell that has often entombed this story all sorts of new and amazing probabilities and possibilities begin to emerge. Thank you for this.

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  5. Thanks for this. Well said. I am a preacher (Presbyerian) who takes a similar position. I am presently putting out a podcast called “Retelling the Bible” in which I am retelling the story of Luke’s nativity within the actual historical context the author gives to it — not because I think it happened exactly that way but because I think we have missed so much of what Luke was really saying by telling it that way. It is a powerfully true story, even if not factual. See @retellingbible

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  6. Thank you for this, Mark. Every year, I ponder this story. Most people don’t realize that the story as written is not in the Bible. There is nothing in the Bible about Mary, Joseph, Jesus, the Magi, shepherds, and animals standing around Jesus in a stable. I grew up believing it must be in the Bible since people told me it was, and even when I read the Bible, I still somehow believed it. Would you happen to know how this story originated? I’ve been trying to Google it, but can’t find who was the original author of this Nativity story itself.

    What’s also confusing is conflicting information in Matthew 1:18, 19 where it says, “His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” Therefore, just in this paragraph or two, was she already married to him or not? (Maybe I’m just not understanding this?)

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