And is it true? This most tremendous tale of all?
I love Christmas. Turkey sandwiches, catching up with friends and family, and of course the Queen. But there’s also something about this season that makes most of us at least stop for a second. As John Betjeman puts it in his poem Christmas:
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall ?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?
Undoubtedly there’s a magic about Christmas. Yet as we put up the tree and gorge ourselves on festive food and Christmas TV, we’re often simultaneously aware of the emptiness and hopelessness of this world we live in.
It might be that this season forces us to recall a personal tragedy that has marked our path this year. Maybe we feel a sense of despair at what’s on our news screens. Maybe all the gathering with friends and family, the spending and spending, just leaves us very aware of our own inadequacies and brokenness.
And so we’re occasionally left wondering, maybe hoping, that this tale of the baby, shepherds and kings might just be true. It could be a moment’s reflection brought about by the striking words of a familiar carol, or perhaps it’s a sense of wonder as we watch loved ones act out that ‘tremendous tale’ in their nativity play.
Yet Betjeman’s question has got to be right: ‘And is it true?’ As he so wonderfully puts it:
For if it is, no loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,
No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare…’
But so often the assumption is that it just can’t be true. During Christmas 2012, you could see adverts in Times Square declaring “Keep the Merry! Dump the Myth”.
And in the UK it’s increasingly taken for granted that “it doesn’t really matter what the myth is”… it’s basically just a lovely story to help us get through winter. We’re encouraged to take on the rituals but leave behind the beliefs behind them. But is that right?
I’ve recently been reading Gospel Truth by New Testament scholar Dr Paul Barnett, in which he puts forward the case for the historical accuracy of the NT accounts in the face of New Atheism, including a stimulating chapter on the accounts of Jesus’ birth. The accusations are often made that a) because only two of the four gospel accounts (Matthew & Luke) detail Jesus’ birth, then it must be made up; b) there are enough contradictions between those two accounts to give us reason to write them both off anyway; and c) let’s not even get started on the supposed ‘virgin birth’.
In response Barnett gently probes this reasoning, suggesting that actually the virgin birth is hardly out of keeping with the theology of the rest of the New Testament (e.g. the divine/human paradox in John’s gospel and the general ‘cosmic’ focused presentation of the pre-existent Christ elsewhere, cf. 1 Peter 1:18-21; Hebrews 1:1-4). Likewise the so-called ‘contradictions’ may often have sensible explanation behind them (e.g. the cultural use of genealogies to make a point and the different gender emphases depending on primary audience). Similarly the details that are often dismissed as ‘Christmas card embellishments’, e.g. the magi and the shepherds, can also be cogently accounted for. You can find some of this presented online in a blogpost Barnett wrote last year.
Below is a video that includes an interview with Barnett from a few Christmases ago, where he discusses the evidence of the gospel accounts. You may also want to check out John Dickson’s recent column on the historicity of Jesus for ABC (Australia). Dickson is the Founding Director of the Centre for Public Christianity, which has another provoking article ‘Too Good to be True?’, which raises the following interesting point: though it is often claimed that Christianity is just wishful thinking, “it’s not unreasonable to think that some self-interest could play a part in a decision to consign God to the status of imaginary friend.” A healthy reminder, perhaps, that none of us comes to the evidence entirely neutral, and that dismissing the objectivity of Jesus, the manger and all that jazz is not as straightforward as often assumed.
You can also find a short but helpful piece on the virgin birth here.