Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Stuff I Wish People Would Stop Writing about Christmas

Every year people trot out the same observations about Christmas. It's not so much the observations themselves I object to, but the air of smug intellectual superiority, the "I know something you don't know" attitude. Because we all know all this stuff already. And some of it isn't even true. Here's my list:
  1. Jesus wasn't really born on Christmas Day.
  2. That's right, kids. Jesus wasn't really born on December the 25th. Well, duh. Strictly speaking, there is just about a 1/365th chance that Jesus was born on December 25th. I'm not going to go into details, but arguments both for and against a December birth aren't conclusive. Nonetheless, the date wasn't included in the gospels, and there's no reason to suppose that Jesus' birthday would have been remembered and celebrated outside the gospel records. Look, we all understand that December 25 is the day we traditionally celebrate the incarnation. It doesn't have to be accurate. That's not the point.
  3. "We Three Kings" is an almost completely inaccurate song.
  4. The Magi weren't kings and the number of them isn't specified in Scripture. They were "from the East," probably Persia, which is not the "Orient" as most people conceive of it (or did, before the term "Oriental" became non-PC and thus mostly fell out of use). But seriously, did anyone actually think that this song or any other Christmas carol was particularly accurate? In case anyone was wondering, there wasn't a Little Drummer Boy either.
  5. The Magi didn't arrive at the stable on the night of Jesus' birth.
  6. I've written about this before. It's fair to say that most likely the wise men weren't there. Jesus is called a small child, not a baby; they arrive at a house, not a stable; Herod is said to have killed all the boys up to two years old in Bethlehem "in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi." That's all the evidence from the biblical account. But we don't know whether God caused the star to appear when Jesus was born or earlier; the term for "small child" would have included babies; and "manger" and "house" are not mutually exclusive (more on that later). So the smug knowledge lying behind the confident assertion betrays a string of assumptions that are not necessarily less naive than the assumptions behind traditional nativity scenes that do include the magi.
  7. Shepherds were outcasts so it's remarkable that God chose them as witnesses of Jesus' birth.
  8. This one irritates me because it has become a commonplace and also because it's easy to overstate. One source puts shepherds only slightly above lepers on the social scale. While shepherds would have been ritually unclean most of the time and were thought of as untrustworthy, low class hired hands, Israel also has a rich tradition of shepherding in the Patriarchs and in the early life of King David. Tax collectors and prostitutes were the true outcasts of society, and are spoken of that way consistently in the New Testament. The annunciation to the shepherds shows God's concern for ordinary common people, but that's really as far as the evidence ought to be pushed.
  9. Jesus was born in a cave, not a stable.
  10. All this means is that stables weren't constructed in the same way modern buildings are. According to the cave theory, caves were used as shelters for animals and therefore were something of a makeshift stable. There's no real difference other than the stable being composed of rock rather than being a man-made structure. However, Kenneth Bailey makes an excellent case for the idea that the manger--the feeding trough for the animals--was actually in a section of a home and not in a cave at all. The "inn" in which there was no room wasn't a modern hotel, but the guest room of a house. Mary and Joseph probably stayed with relatives, who already had others occupying the guest room, and therefore had to stay in the area reserved for animals. The word "stable" isn't even mentioned in the scriptural passages, so trying to figure out whether it was a wooden structure or a cave really is just nothing more than speculation. 
So let's celebrate the Incarnation without worrying so much if people got every detail right. Let's stop worrying about which phrase people use to greet one another during the holiday season, since most people saying "Merry Christmas" are celebrating Santa-Fest, rather than Christ-Mass, anyway. Here's what Christmas means: "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost" (1 Tim. 1:15).

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