Christmas Past, Present & Future

Christmas 2013 has come and gone. Early U.S. returns suggest weaker than hoped for consumer holiday spending – due to anemic job growth and increased wage disparities (with fewer folks in the middle). The main winner appeared to be internet sales – even if UPS / FedEx didn’t quite get there on time.

This holiday served as a convenience to extend the enrollment period for Obamacare – in hopes that more young enrollees might yet be there.

Amid the din and commercial clatter, some mutter – wasn’t Jesus the reason for the season? Does Christmas really even matter?

Bethlehem's Church of the Shepherds Field:  Designed by Barluzzi, an Italian Franciscan monk and architect. Light penetrates the  concrete and glass dome,  evoking the divine brightness  that so startled nomadic shepherds of two millenia ago.

Bethlehem’s Church of the Shepherds Field:
Designed by Barluzzi, an Italian Franciscan monk and architect.
Light penetrates the
concrete and glass dome,
evoking the divine brightness
that so startled nomadic shepherds
of two millenia ago.



The Right Questions?

Are Christmas traditionalists asking the right questions? Wouldn’t it be better to ask: What’s so important about Christmas to seekers of this baby Jesus?

And here’s where the confusion begins. Because the Christian attachment to this season and to the biblical narrative of the first presumed Christmas is built on a foundation that is … well, shaky. For at least four reasons – having to do with:

1) Timing of Birth. Year 1 of the Western (then Julian) calendar was adjusted in what is now 525 AD by a Scythian monk named Dionysius Exiguus to be 525 years “since the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Later calculations have placed the birth to be in 4BC (or earlier) as this was the year when Herod the Great died (to assure consistency with Matthew’s reported slaughter of the innocents by Herod).

Rather than tying Jesus’ birth directly to the right of Herod, Luke’s gospel links the timing of Jesus birth to Quirinius, the Roman appointed governor of Syria. This is the official who administered a universal Roman census ordered by Caesar Augustus. However, this creates a chronological conflict as this census is generally determined to have occurred in 6 AD (ten years after the death of Herod). There are multiple possible explanations to address this discrepancy – all of which are problematic and, at best, conjectural.

Another question relates to the December 25 date now assigned to Jesus’ birth by most Christian faiths. The origin of this particular date is not fully certain – but is perhaps best explained as a means for Christianity in the first centuries AD to most readily supplant pagan winter solstice festivals. A more likely timing (assuming accuracy of the shepherds’ visitation) would be the lambing season in early spring (when shepherds would be out in the fields actively protecting the flock).  

2) Place of Birth. The two gospels that speak of Jesus’ birth (Matthew and Luke) place the event in Bethlehem – also the birthplace of the man who would become King David about a millennium previous. This is particularly important to Matthew who cites the Hebrew Scripture prophecy of Micah – stating that out of Bethlehem will “come a Ruler who will shepherd My people Israel.”

Assuming the census linkage with Jesus birth to be bogus and the prophetic fulfillment of Micah forced, some modern (typically non-fundamentalist) scholars suggest that the arduous trip to Bethlehem did not have to occur and that Jesus may actually have been born in Nazareth (which is certainly also implied to be the home town of Jesus in the Gospel of John).

3) Historical Narrative. Matthew and Luke are generally in agreement as to major events documented in their respective gospels. So, it is surprising to see that, with the exception of the place of birth, there is almost no correspondence between the major birth events cited by Matthew versus those of Luke.

The sequence of events recounted by Matthew are the dream of Joseph, wise men traveling to Bethlehem, family flight to Egypt, Herod’s slaughter of children in Bethlehem under 2 years of age,  and return of family to Nazareth after Herod’s death.

Luke’s account is more detailed but with virtually no overlap except for a pre-birth journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Luke’s account begins with angelic visits to Zacharias (a priest), then Mary. Mary visits her relative Elizabeth (wife of Zacharias), the Roman census order is given, there is no room at the inn, shepherds appear, Jesus is circumcised at 8 days, there are the Temple testimonies of the aged Simeon and Anna, and the holy family returns to Nazareth (with no mention of Egypt).

None of the events of Matthew are mentioned in Luke; none of Luke’s events appear in Matthew. Even the genealogies provided by the two gospels are different. 

Christmas services and pageants typically conflate (or combine) selected elements of the Matthean and Lukan accounts – simply assuming that both accounts are right (and overlooking the complete lack of correspondence between the two).

There is no help at all from the rest of the New Testament with added empirical evidence. Neither of the other gospel writers – Mark, John – nor Paul nor any of the other New Testament writers describe the birth of Jesus in any way, shape or form.

4) Prophetic Fulfillment. Of the gospel writers, Matthew exhibits a penchant to over-reach in his goal to demonstrate that Jesus’ birth is in fulfillment of Hebrew prophecy. A couple of added examples:

  • Herod’s slaughter of the innocents is portrayed by Matthew as fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy: “A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children …” But wait a minute! Doesn’t this slaughter take place in Bethlehem? Ramah is a town on the other side of Jerusalem from Bethlehem.
  • More puzzling is Matthew’s earlier citation of the prophet Isaiah: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive …” The original Hebrew of Isaiah 7:14 uses the term almah, which is best translated as young unmarried woman (virgin or otherwise). However, the earliest existing versions of Matthew’s gospel draw from the 3rd century BC Greek Septuagint wherein the Hebrew almah is translated to the Greek as parthenos (virgin).

Why Matthew who was a Jewish tax collector might want to quote from the less precise Greek rather than the more precise Hebrew is not known. What is known is that an early 2nd century AD church leader named Papias (Bishop of Hierapolis) wrote that: “Matthew organized the sayings in the Hebrew (Aramaic) language, but everyone has translated them as best he could.” Could the original Matthean version which no longer exists have been spot on, only to be corrupted in a later Greek addition? No one knows – as the textual evidence is no longer available.

Outside of Matthew and Luke, the concept of Mary as virgin is to be found nowhere else in the New Testament. The Almighty God certainly has the power to enable a woman to conceive without intercourse. But did He? Unfortunately, the historicity of this event is clouded by a weak (or misinterpreted) link to Old Testament prophecy.

The Incarnation

One thing that New Testament is not wishy-washy about is the incarnation – the concept that Jesus somehow was both God and human. Consider the following sampling:

  • The very first sentence of Matthew’s gospel tells us that his account is about “Jesus Christ” – the anointed one of God. And it is in Matthew that the apostle Peter Simon firmly declares that “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
  • Luke’ Jesus fends off the temptations of the devil by admonishing Satan not to “tempt the Lord your God.”
  • In John’s gospel, Jesus is quoted as saying that “the Father and I are one.”
  • Even in skeptical Mark’s gospel, testimony is finally offered by a Roman centurion who at the death of Jesus declares: “Truly, this Man was the Son of God.”
  • Extending beyond the gospels, it is the latecomer Paul who never met Jesus in the flesh but nonetheless spreads the message of Jesus’ incarnation over and over. For example, in his opening statement of a letter to the Romans, Paul proclaims “the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.”
  • Finally, even James who regarded his brother Jesus as a bit of a lunatic during his earthly sojourn would eventually be won over to the Christian cause. In his one and only New Testament writing, he begins by declaring himself: “James, a bondservant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

In short, even though the mechanics of incarnation may be a bit fuzzy (and subject to endless debate), the scriptural reality of incarnation is not. The divine and the human wrapped together – it’s fully attested throughout the complete New Testament.

Re-Branding Christmas?

What with all these historical questions combined with the crass commercialization of the season, there are those Christians who would gladly walk away from Christmas altogether. Give it back to the pagan bacchanalia of the season’s pre-historic beginnings.

This approach has been tried before – as when the Puritan Oliver Cromwell banned the celebration of Christmas from England in 1647 as “a popish festival with no biblical justification.” In the end, seasonal merriment always seems to win out over the predilections of more sober minded folk.

But, despite all the excess and corruption surrounding the season, Christmas has one thing going for it – that should be of importance to all Christians. Despite all the politically correct re-labeling away from “Merry Christmas” to “Happy Holidays” – everyone around this globe still knows that this event is somehow about the Godhead and humankind getting together. It’s a celebration of the master of the universe breaking into one little planet in the form of a human baby birthed in an animal feeding trough.

Should anyone in their right mind walk away from a brand that powerful, that global? Of course not!

Live in the moment even as we mix the best of the divine with the most crass of the human. Yes, where possible, aim for authenticity – for those who actually care. Yet for all the rest – even as they toast another year, there is yet the never ending afterglow of this kid Jesus (still the reason for the season).


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