Don't Mess With Christmas

By Joe Bob Briggs | 12/19/2007

What could be better for the Christmas spirit than one of those books that tells us Jesus may or may not have been born in Bethlehem, Mary may or may not have been a virgin, the wise men from Babylon following a star is a real stretch, the dates are all wrong, those shepherds are only out in the fields between March and November, and Herod slaughtering the young children (admittedly, not one of our favorite episodes from the Christmas pageant) is not very probable? When the whole thing is written by Geza Vermes, our favorite Hungarian ex-Catholic-priest turned Jewish Oxford professor, you know that Paige Patterson won’t be sending any of these out for gifts this season.


Still, I’m a sucker for “historical Jesus” books like The Nativity: History & Legend (Doubleday, 172 pp., $17.95), even though the arguments are always the same:

    1. Here’s what the gospels say.
    2. They don’t agree with each other.
    3. They don’t agree with other contemporary sources.
    4. We don’t have much to go on, but here’s a little tiny bit from Philo and Josephus.
    5. Each gospel writer was probably shaping his story for a particular audience.
    6. The gospels aren’t history.

Well, yes, we know they aren’t history. Every heresy in the history of the world begins with someone literalizing the message, and now the debunkers are out there literalizing the transmission of the message.

And the Christmas story is child’s play for these guys. Only Matthew and Luke deal with the infancy of Christ at all, and the short passages from which we derive the December 25 tradition were apparently tacked on long after the rest of the gospels were complete.

I won’t go over all the familiar discrepancies, like the date of Jesus’ birth (the calendar was screwed up in the 6th century by a Russian monk, aptly named Dionysius the Small) and the Septuagint’s mistranslation of “young woman” as “virgin,” but I’ll mention two areas where I think Vermes might have come up with something new. He’s an expert on the Talmud, and he says there’s a condition known to the rabbis by which a woman can be called virginal even after having intercourse with a man—and that condition occurs when she’s married at age 12 (the traditional age of the time) but has not yet had her first menstrual period. If something like that happened with Mary and Joseph, and she became pregnant just prior to her first menstruation, then she could have been a technical virgin and yet the birth itself would be less than miraculous. I’m just passing this along, it still seems like a stretch.

The other intriguing part of this little book involves the Bethlehem-vs.-Nazareth debate. Apparently the early gospel writers were determined to place the birth in Bethlehem and were more or less embarrassed by the idea that it could possibly have occurred in Nazareth, which is mentioned nowhere in the Torah, the prophets or the writings. Unfortunately, the reason Luke gives for the family travelling to Bethlehem is not just unlikely, it’s impossible. That particular census, as described by Luke, never happened. The most likely census that did happen occurred after the death of Herod. And even if that one is the census involved in the narrative, there was never any requirement that Jews return to the land of their ancestors for the census. And even if that is not enough for you, there was never any requirement that the wife travel with the husband, or present herself at the census. Mary would need a better reason to walk those 70 miles.

As I say, these books are almost always unsatisfying. But nobody does them more simply and with more clarity than Vermes. He also has a sense of humor, especially when describing things like the efforts in the Talmud to portray Jesus as a bastard, and when making astute observations about how at Christmastime the church almost always chooses the sweet account of Luke instead of the paranoid account of Matthew.

If you wanna know why the story still resonates after so much deconstruction by so many writers, the best thing to do is watch the Charlie Brown Christmas Special where Linus recites the story. I defy anybody to mess with that awesome peace in this earth.


Templar | 01:39 pm on 12/20/2007

I thought the virgin birth is only mentioned in Luke and is a basic Greek idea. Luke was a greek.

Perdix0168 | 09:18 pm on 12/20/2007

The Virgin Birth is also mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew, and the non-Cannonical Gospel to the Hebrews. The latter gospel is thought to pre-date Matthew, so it may have been that the Virgin Birth story was around for quite a while before Matthew and Luke were written.

Anonymous | 03:58 pm on 12/20/2007

The way you handle the reporting of this type of book as almost commonplace and similar to so many others, and the way you summarize the common arguments makes me really wonder again how fundamentalist can remain so unaware. I know about willful ignorance, but you would think that even in their insecurity to defend their defensiveness they would want to educate themselves to know how to answer the work of scholars and others willing to look at reality. The timing of things is not necessarily heartwarming but it (and it's inviting title) may do something to spread a little education and crack the shell of a few more "devotees" who grasp so tightly to these creations of ancient men.

David | 02:27 pm on 12/21/2007

Well of course he makes it sound like those who believe that the Gospels are ignorant. He doesn't even summarize their arguments at all, and summarizes the opposing arguments without any of the counter arguments to balance it out. Its a onesided farce

Also to Joe Briggs. One problem here buddy. Do you understand that Christ is not merely a matter of religion. Religion is merely ritual. I don't care if we can get all the feel good feelings about "peace on earth" during christmastime. The important question is not "Is it peaceful, or good etc?" The question is "Is It True?". If Jesus was not the Christ, the son of God then we should discount the entire Bible as a grand hoax. So be careful when you go about saying that the virgin birth was false, because while you may preserving your religion, you are doing a disservice to actually following what is True.

neclark | 09:01 pm on 12/28/2007

"If Jesus was not the Christ, the son of God then we should discount the entire Bible as a grand hoax."

As an atheist, I have no problem in doing just that - but I would flip the argument: since the Bible is essentially a cobbled-together book of fables & "just-so" stories, the christ figure which his followers cleave to cannot be anything but a deception at best - and at worst, a fraud perpetrated on (thus-far) 9 generations by those who `prophet' by fleecing sheep. At least the Jews recognized that Jesus-bar-Joseph didn't pass "messiah-muster" (they'd witnessed dozens of "dud" messiahs before- and several since).

My question for true-believers is; how many inconsistencies, inaccuracies, mistakes and contradictions can a "true" book contain, before being rendered objectively false and unbelievable? And what level of proof is necessary for "true-believers" to admit they've been duped, and move on?

Jim | 12:37 am on 1/20/2008

Egad, people. I don't see how we come out ahead by having a naive faith in "scholarship" as opposed to a naive faith in Scripture. Read your Biblical scholarship as critically as it claims to read Scripture and you'll find hosts of poorly or undocumented claims, assertions being passed off as arguments, and very large stretches passed for sound reasoning. The LXX translators probably translated the word for "young girl" as "virgin" because the Hebrew carried that connotation: in Jewish communities it was probably assumed that young girls were virgins. There is no "dictionary of Biblical Hebrew" extant from the period of the drafting of these documents. We can only guess as meanings from contexts, and since the LXX was translated before the oldest existing Biblical manuscripts it's probably grounded in a long tradition. Translations -help- interpretation, people, and help us understand the meaning of words, esp. when they are rarely used. Don't go blasting fundamentalists when you refuse to think any more than they do.

Doug | 07:10 pm on 12/22/2007

The problem here is not literalism versus non-literalism; it's the underlying assumption that the miraculous is impossible, and therefore, some among us feel the need to "look cool with the popular kids" and defend their faith (?) among secularists by explaining away any sign or wonder. I simply ask-if God can create the universe out of nothing (where did the stuff for the big bang come from?), is it too far-fetched to imagine he could rearrange some of the parts? Just because we can't explain something with our limited brains doesn't make it untrue by default. At least that's how I justified my C in calculus.

Mike A. | 01:37 pm on 12/29/2007


I just have to call you on this quick "God Proof" you included in your post:

"I simply ask-if God can create the universe out of nothing (where did the stuff for the big bang come from?), is it too far-fetched to imagine he could rearrange some of the parts?"

There is no proof that God (or anyone) created the universe out of nothing. Incredibly bright cosmologists have been grappling with the issue. Just because we don't have a scientific explanation (yet) doesn't mean "God did it". There are two main problems with this God of the Gaps argument:

1) History tells us that everything we couldn't explain scientifically was assigned to God. (Sunshine, rain, natural disasters, etc.) However, as bright men and women continue to study, they are able to find an explanation that doesn't require God.

2) If God created the universe, who or what created God? If you postulate God was always present (a cop-put), I could just as reasonably postulate that the matter and energy (or the cause of the first singularity) was always present.

Happy Holidays!


Doug | 03:36 pm on 1/02/2008

Concurrently, just because science "doesn't have an explanation yet" is a cop-out. The sunshine, rain, natural disasters, et cetera argument is also no proof of no God. You simply keep going backwards forever without God. What caused the sunshine to heat the water droplets? but then what caused the sun? but then what caused the big bang? but simply never ends. You can prove this to yourself logically if you just admit it. Eventually, there has to be a first cause. If you want to propose that matter was always present, you can, but that is not a cause, it is simply matter. How did the elemental forces believed to cause the big bang, such as gravity, just happen to exist? Besides, your solution is no more provable than mine, nor does it pass the smell-test. Yes, I'll admit an ever-existing God is unprovable, and a mystery, but it satisfies me. If not you, that's cool. I'm not trying to "prove" God, as that is impossible, much as disproving him is.

marat | 08:41 pm on 12/25/2007

The virgin birth isn't unique to the Bible. It actually has its origins in India, probably, and was trasmitted westward through Persia. They have a whole slew of deities that came from virgins (Zoroaster spoke of one about 800 BCE; Mithras, a competitor with Christianity, was also born of a virgin). Since Judea was such a cultural crossroads, it's not surprising that the Christians picked up this story and applied it to their die-and-rise figure.

David | 11:40 pm on 12/25/2007

Oh okay thats not really much of argument. Just because there were other gods beforehand who mentioned virgin birth (or how about we extend that to include blood sacrifice, written revelation, omnipotent creator, god in human form, trinities of gods, father gods, sons of God, redemption, an afterlife, and pretty much the rest of Christianity) does not mean that it was stolen from those other religions. In fact, if anything we could take to be a strength of Christianity. As C.S. Lewis said, these pagan myths show that Christianity isn't really all that new.. Which isn't a bad thing. The great thing about Christianity is that it is when all the myths, came true in the Great Myth. Just as God was incarnated in man, so to was all the other myths incarnated in Truth. Just look at all the archetypes that Joseph Campbell explained in "The Hero with a Thousand Faces". Sure, Campbell merely chose to look at it as human physche but we can all agree that there is certainly some truth in those archetypes, but more so that they have to have a point of creation. And what is that creation? I would say God. Far from disproving Jesus, those myths only confirm it.

Siarlys Jenkins | 06:32 pm on 12/27/2007

OK, so this type of discussion leads to one of two ends:
1) the whole thing is an interesting, meaningless, myth, therefore, Christianity is all a mistake, or,
2) there is some genuine, divine, cosmic significance somewhere in all of this.
I would suggest considering that IF there is divine significance, then it is timeless, not specific to a moment in time on earth, or a particular human body. But perhaps, just perhaps, the birth, life and death of this man, Yehoshua ben Yosef, or Yeshua, or Jesus, whoever's son he was, was made use of by the Creator (who really has all the inside knowledge here) to teach, reveal, convey, an understanding that IS real, and of cosmic significance, and would be real whether we knew anything about it or not. (Something to do with reconciliation between the austere eternal omnipotence of the Deity, and the pathetic material conglomerations of chemicals that he has been cultivating, and for some reason cherishes.) Which brings us back to Linus: yeah, he had the important part down. Anyway, I like the lights and food and music and fellowship, and even lines like "ransom captive Israel" and "Oh Come All ye Faithful" and harking to herald angels singing. (I also enjoy the discussion of which details are accurate -- because it can strip away the unimportant stuff from what is real.)

neclark | 09:04 pm on 12/28/2007

As a "Born-Again Pagan", I'm tired of the unrelenting "War on the Winter Solstice", and I want my holiday back!

Siarlys Jenkins | 06:04 pm on 1/03/2008

So celebrate your holiday dude! That's what I always tell fellow Christians. If you want to go downtown singing Christmas carols in the middle of the tinsely secular celebration sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce wanting to boost seasonal sales, just go downtown and sing! Who's stopping you? But remember, churches didn't start the celebration of Christmas in America, New York businessmen did. That's why the churches have to catch up to put Jesus back into the celebration. At least nobody has coopted the Solstice yet -- although when the Goddess Shop and Veggie Sandwiches becomes a national chain, you may rue the day...

Mr. G | 10:23 pm on 12/30/2007

I find it ironic that after all this time, with Christian apologists such as myself, who have spent so much time trying to justify my faith to unbelievers, suddenly giving way to atheistic apologists trying to justify their faith (or what they contend is their lack of faith). People used to say that I was wasting my time trying to "argue" people into heaven. Why do the non-religious feel that they can do the same to me? I could argue with you guys about what's wrong with these arguments, but I don't have the time. Instead, check out Lee Stroebel's new book, "The Case for Christmas" which deals with all these arguments, especially the validity of the Gospels, the possibility of the Virgin Birth, etc.

So Merry CHRISTmas everyone. If the cross offends you, find another voice. Joe Bob, I miss your Drive-In Theater very much...

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