Christmas Digest

Happy Christmas to you and your loved ones from the Saeculum!

Tis’ the season for overconsumption! This obviously applies to food and drink at Christmas, but it can also be true of our media in-take as well. Whether it be films, radio programmes, music, periodicals or magazines, we are treated to a rich and overwhelming feast for the senses over the festive period. 

This sense of overconsumption can also seep into the Christmas story itself—an endless array of characters and perspectives to consider, carols to sing and insights to glean. 

Given all of this, I have felt the need to curate some of my reading this Christmas. In this piece, I offer a brief sample—a digest if you will—of Christmas reflections  from across the internet. I have divided these into two sections: Christmas History, which deals with the history of the accounts of the first Christmas in the gospels and Christmas Meanings, which draws out the broader cultural significance of the season. 

Christmas History: Myth Busting 

Our interpretation of the significance (cultural or otherwise) of any event is only as good as our interpretation of that event in its original historical context. I’ve argued this more generally with the Bible but it’s also true of the Christmas accounts. In fact, it’s especially true of the Christmas Infancy Narratives since it is precisely in the Incarnation (God taking on humanity) that we are reminded that the Christian faith claims to have a stake in human history—“the Word became flesh”, John’s gospel claims. As Luke suggests, Jesus’s birth happens to coincide with some form of census in the days of Caesar Augustus’s reign.

It is a shame that so many Christians shy away from this history and instead favour saccharine half-truths and whimsical flights of fancy. Those who attend church services and those sympathetic to the cultural significance of Christianity—believer and sceptic alike—want real substance and part of this means wrestling with real history. 

And so, we need to engage in a bit of Christmas myth busting (by myth I mean something that is untrue or unhistorical, rather than Tolkien or Lewis’s more positive definition of myth). Let me hasten to add that the goal here isn’t to deconstruct or destroy the Christmas story in an arrogant fashion, effectively stripping the narrative down so that we are left with a bare bones account from which we can draw very little cultural significance. Rather, the goal is to try and recover as best we can the truth of Christmas as history so as to both make more precise but also more rich our interpretation and application of its message. If you can indulge me in a Christmas metaphor for a second, then think of good history as delicious custard: as the accompaniment to the Christmas pudding, custard brings out the full richness of the Christmas pudding. Similarly, good history brings out the full richness of the Christmas message.

Many of us probably won’t and shouldn’t want to end with the historical investigation, but all of us should certainly start there. I should also say that some of the events of the Christmas story, and the life of Jesus more broadly, are, in a very real sense unprovable or, at least, transcend history into the realm of metaphysics. We can subject the life, Virgin birth, or the resurrection to historical scrutiny. Yet our adherence to these events as history does rely a great deal on our prior assumptions about the existence of God and his desire and ability to act within the world he has created. 

So without further ado, here are some pieces on the history of the Christmas accounts.

If you can indulge me in a Christmas metaphor for a second, then think of good history as delicious custard—it brings out the full richness of the Christmas pudding. Similarly, good history brings out the full richness of the Christmas message.

When was Jesus born?

We celebrate the birthday of Jesus on 25th December, it seems, for mostly theological and symbolic reasons. Jesus’ date of conception was for reasons of symbolic significance given as the date of his death—25th March (for more, see here). Counting 9 months on from this date gives us 25th December as his date of birth. From as early as the 3rd century (at least as early as Hippolytus of Rome in the West), this was the date on which Christ’s birth was celebrated in the Western church, with 6th January commemorated in the east. There is no evidence that the choice of 25th December was based on an attempt to carry over pagan traditions such as the Saturnalia (on which, see Tom Holland here). 

So far, so obvious. But do we actually know when Jesus was born? The gospel accounts don’t tell us explicitly when Jesus was born, though there are some subtle clues. Ian Paul has suggested that we might instead date Jesus’ birth to September. He comes to this conclusion  on the basis of a few details in Luke’s gospel. First, the Annunciation (the visit of Gabriel to Mary) happens in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Second, Zechariah served his priestly term within the division of Abijah. Third, from 1 Chronicles 24, it seems that this priestly division was on duty in the month of Sivan, i.e. the beginning of June. “Adding the six months between John and Jesus, and the nine months of Mary’s gestation, brings us to around the middle of September the following year”.

This is an intriguing proposal though I’d want to see more evidence that the priestly divisions of 1 Chronicles or such like were followed in the early first century (if such evidence exists). In all of this, I wonder if we are asking the right question. How important were birthdays (or γενέσεις) to Roman-era Jews? In the New Testament, we have one reference to a birthday—that of Herod the Great, when he gave his infamous feast. (Similarly, in the OT, all we have in terms of references to birth commemorations is the “day” or יוֹם of Pharoah). But Herod’s is the birthday feast of a king. How widespread was the practice among commonfolk? How interesting to a first century Jew was the commemoration of one’s birth? There’s a good deal of evidence to suggest that celebrating your birthday wasn’t that widespread a practice among devout Jews of this period (see here for a popular-level article suggesting that this remains true). 

So when was Jesus born? We don’t know with any certainty, I think. I hasten to add that if true, and we are celebrating Christ’s birth at the wrong point of the year, this takes nothing away from the fact that we do so. There is plenty of richness in celebrating in late December, especially against the dark and cold backdrop of bleak Midwinter in the Northern Hemisphere.

In any case, it seems more important to the Gospel writers that Jesus was born, the nature of his birth (i.e. by divine intervention…though Paul puzzlingly remains silent on the topic), the parents to whom he was born and also where he was born: Bethlehem, the City of David. On this last point, we come to another popular Christmas myth.

Where was Jesus born?

Last year’s QI Christmas Special included a segment debunking the myth that Jesus was born in a stable as we might think of it today—a smelly outhouse filled with animals located at a safe distance from the family’s main quarters. There is no evidence for this conclusion or the interpretation (based on a mistranslation) that Mary and Joseph were given the stable because there was no room for them in the “inn”. As Stephen Carlson of Australia Catholic University has argued, it is far more plausible, historically and grammatically, that Joseph returned from Nazareth, Mary’s home town, which the couple were to make their new home, to his family home where he was known, in order to register for the census. From an extensive word-survey, Carlson concludes that the translation of Luke 2:7’s kataluma refers not to an inn but probably to the guest room that might have been set aside as a marriage chamber. That “there was no room” should be better translated as “the room was not big enough for Mary to give birth in”. Therefore, she was moved to the main living room where she could be assisted by relatives and, crucially, where the family’s animals would also have stayed (hence the mention of a manger or feeding trough). Already this shifts the meaning of the Christmas story quite considerably. As Ian Paul writes

For Luke, Jesus isn’t pictured as born ‘over there’, away from everyday life, inviting us to visit once a year, but at the heart of the home, asking whether we too will make space for him. He isn’t pictured as poor and outcast (not here at least) asking what we can do for him, but as a child of hope and promise, asking what he might do for us. He isn’t pictured as rejected, inviting us to pity him, but as welcomed, asking us whether we will welcome him too.

Those are just two big questions concerning the history of the Christmas accounts. There are plenty of other interesting resources out there, including blogposts on Matthew and Luke’s accounts of the Christmas story and whether they can be reconciled (see here and here), a deep dive into astrology, the magi and the Star from the Undeceptions Podcast and the work of Richard Bauckham on the family and relatives of Jesus.

I hope that these resources encourage you, as they have encouraged me, to wrestle with the Infancy Narratives as history. They’re a lot more than history, of course, but they’re certainly no less than history.

Christmas Meanings: Cultural Significance

We perhaps come to the most significant question of all: Why was Jesus born? This is another way of asking, What does Christmas mean? As we’ve seen, we already start to uncover the cultural and theological significance of the Christmas story as we carry out the historical investigation. On the basis of this historical work, we come to see that some readings are clearly more secure than others as a basis for drawing out and applying aspects of the Christmas message.

 My favourite reflection of this year comes from over at the Critic, where Matthew Roberts reflects on four central and revolutionary truths from the Christmas narratives, each of which accords well with the historical conclusions we’ve arrived at above: first, that the Incarnation (God taking on flesh in Jesus) shows that the body has value; second, that people are essentially made of the same stuff, whether Barbarian or Greek or Jew; third, that there is such a thing as truth which God embodies, is concerned with and calls for human beings to pursue; and fourth, that “humility and love, not pride and power, are the essential virtues by which mankind is measured”.

Roberts ends on a provocative note by stating that the secular west wants these four principles without the foundational truth buttressing each of them: that “true humanity is about knowing God, not fulfilling ourselves”.

If God entered our world as a baby in Bethlehem, then God must have made our world for the purpose of becoming a baby in Bethlehem. And thus it demands that we recognise that humanity is not a self-defining, self-advancing, self-worshipping species; or at least, we are not designed to be, and the attempt is doomed to failure. For we were made by God so that God could come to live with us. Christ came down to earth from his heavenly throne in order to bring us back up with him. To make us truly human by turning us humans back to our creator.  

I am reminded that we all too easily make Christianity and Christmas a morality play about universal goodwill and care for the poor when in fact these are two subsequent and challenging truths which flow from a more foundational reality: we are all poor in our humanity, fallen, helpless and mired in the muck of our own making. The wondrous and true miracle of Christmas is that Christ enters that muck to restore us to our true selves. And he does so at great personal cost to himself. For the one born in the living room would be executed on a Roman cross.

So, why was Jesus born? So that we in our poverty might know and enjoy him in his richness. And from this place, we begin to work with him to bring the riches of his grace to others. 

That’s worth digesting this Christmas.

Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

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