The Christmas Story and Other Redeeming Myths
Nick Gier, Professor Emeritus, University of Idaho
A myth is a tale that tells truth—Anonymous
At the risk of being a Grinch who ruins Christmas, I would like to go behind the Christmas Story and relate what scholars know about the biblical texts involved. I hope that the result will be a more enlightened perspective on the role of such stories in the common life of humankind.
In the second chapter of Matthew we read the story of wise men who came from the East to worship the baby Jesus. These men are called magoi (Greek for magicians), and scholars have identified them, if they were there, as Zoroastrian priests from Babylon.
There are several problems with this story. If they were following a star in the East, they would have been heading in the direction of the birth of a Hindu savior, not a Jewish one. Most likely, however, they were seeking their own savior, one named Saosyant.
Jewish historian Josephus hated King Herod and chronicled his life in great detail, but it is very odd that he never mentions the slaughter of infants found in Matthew 2:16. The Buddha and Krishna also had royal genealogies and miraculous conceptions; they worked miracles and escaped the clutches of death. Jesus, Krishna, and Zoroaster were also threatened in infancy by demon kings. Could these be redeeming myths and not actual history?
Returning now to the beginning of the story, there is no record of Caesar Augustus’ decree that “all the world should be enrolled” (Luke 2:1). The Romans kept extremely detailed records of such events. Not only is Luke’s census not in these records, it goes against all that we know of Roman economic history.
In Josephus’ account of the Roman census in 6 C.E., he writes that those people taxed were assessed of their possessions, including lands and livestock. But Luke has Joseph and Mary making a three-day journey, away from their home and possessions in Nazareth, to register in their alleged ancestral home in Bethlehem.
An Egyptian papyrus recording a census in AD 104 states that “since registration by household is imminent, it is necessary to notify all who for any reason are absent from their districts to return to their own homes that they may carry out the ordinary business of registration.”
The authors of the Gospel of John apparently do not know of Jesus’ alleged birth in Bethlehem. Nathanael does not know it (7:46), and no one answers the challenge of the crowd when they say: “Is the Christ to come from Galilee? Has not the scriptures said that the Christ comes from Bethlehem?” (7:42).
At this point some readers may be saying: “Way to go, Gier, you’ve just spoiled Christmas more than any commercial enterprise could ever do.”
Let me tell you about a wise woman in an African village whose job it was to instruct the children in the tribe’s myths. She began each session with the following disclaimer: “The stories that I will tell you are not true, but they are the most important stories that you will ever hear.”
In India it is the grandmother’s task to teach Hindu mythology to the children. These are fantastic tales of great heroes and heroines, but also much violence, death, and sex. Their graphic “in your face” style, not too different from Grimm’s Fairy Tales or many Old Testament stories, has a very important socio-psychological purpose.
In Europe and America, where we pride ourselves (even very religious people do) by living without myth and legend, we still pay huge sums to psychotherapists to help us recover from unresolved experiences of violence, death, and sex. I’ve always thought that Hindu mythology serves as a fairly effective substitute for a mental health program that the Indians cannot afford.
Every year Unitarian children, some of whom I’ve taught world religions, celebrate the miraculous births of Confucius, Buddha, and Jesus. Could not these births simply be symbols of the light of hope that every new born child brings to a broken world?
In conclusion I offer this poem by Unitarian religious educator Sophia Lyon Fahs:
And so the children come.
And so they have been coming.
Always in the same way they come,
Born of the seed of man and woman.
No angels herald their beginnings,
No prophets predict their future courses,
No wise men see a star to point their way
To find a babe that may save humankind.
Yet each night a child is born is a holy night.
Fathers and Mothers,
Sitting beside their children’s cribs,
Feel glory in the wond’rous sight of life beginning.
They ask: “When or how will this new life end?
Or will it ever end?”
Each night a child is born is a holy night.
Nick Gier taught religion and philosophy at the University of Idaho for 31 years. Read more on Luke’s census and the savior archetype at www.class.uidaho.edu/ngier/census.htm and /archetype.htm.