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Christmas article in 'The Age'

Last Saturday there was a lengthy article in The Age under the headline 'Divine Invention'.

In the article, the author, Fenella Souter, suggests the main elements of Christmas is highly questionable as history and the wandering star is highly questionable as science.  She reports some have suggested the Christmas accounts were written to bolster the faltering early Christian movement with a more compelling backstory for Jesus.  She also reads great significance into the fact that the accounts in Matthew and Luke are different.  And speculates that nods to the Old Testament served to place Jesus within the grand narratives of Jewish myth and biblical interpretation.  She makes reference to records of other religions claiming virgin births suggesting Christianity has pagan overtones in thought testimony and practice; and reports John Shelby Spong's claims that the creation of the stories were part of an effort to elevate Jesus to mythic hero. 

She also makes reference to the development of Catholic beliefs in the perpetual virginity and immaculate (sinless) conception of Mary.  She also goes on to describe the development of Christmas as a global festival through the centuries.

It is true that many traditions have grown up around Christmas, however, the records in Luke and Matthew have credible historic details that show familiarity with the times, geography, and the way people lived.  There are a variety of astronomical events like comets that are credible possibilities for the star.  The early Christian movement was always energized by the death and resurrection of Jesus and these adult events of Jesus life place him centrally in the grand narrative of the Jewish people - their expectation of a Messiah, the cleansing of the temple and the return of God to His people.  They alone elevate Jesus Christ to more than just a man.  History suggests that Christianity made steady progress in growth and while there were some ups and downs, didn't falter in a way that required buttressing with a backstory.

While there are substantial differences between the Matthew and Luke accounts there are also many points of agreement.  And different emphases in reporting a single event by different peopleis common event today.  In addition there are references to the incarnation at the beginning of the Gospel of John and in Paul's letters - Philippians 2:5-8 and Gal 4:4-6. 

Claims of supposed pagan overtones are very hard to sustain when you really appreciate how tightly and completely the life of Jesus was tied into and a fulfillment of the entire story of the old testament.  Any overtones that may exist are swamped by orders of magnitude louder sounds of the Old Testament.  If you are interested in exploring this further, I can highly recommend 'Simply Jesus' by NT Wright.

In addition to the book by NT Wright, here are some references you may like to read:

A response from Paul Barnett to the article

An extract from a book by Kenneth Bailey that peals back some of the tradition that has been added on to the Christmas story (it is a pdf)

A shorter blog that draws on the Kenneth Bailey book

Final note:
Fenella Souter starts the article with her mother's dislike for the term Xmas taking the Christ out of Christmas, and then at the end of the article explains that it is based on a Greek symbol.  However, she doesn't explain that the X comes from the greek letter Chi (which looks like the english x) - the first letter of Christ in Greek.  Christ hasn't been removed - he is there all along.

David Wanstall, 08/12/2011