It’s that time of year when we tell the story of Christ’s Nativity. Then someone writes an article, publishes a book, or posts an exposé on social media telling us that everything we thought we knew about the old, old story is wrong. Yesterday, I saw one in my newsfeed shouting that Jesus’ family wasn’t poor after all. Joseph was a skilled tradesman who could afford to rent the stable because the inn was full. According to the retelling, it turns out that the stable wasn’t as rude and bare as the songs say. It was clean and private. I think it had wifi too.
Here is the way the new story goes. It was not in the bleak midwinter when “frosty wind made moan” but sometime in the spring. The star was not actually a star but a comet or a conjunction of planets or maybe swamp gas. The shepherds were not poor outcasts but more like gentlemen farmers who were well-heeled and highly thought of by the people. The three kings of the orient weren’t three in number and probably weren’t from the orient either. After a while, we begin to wonder if we can recognize the story at all.
There is a long tradition of this sort of thing going back before the days of the Internet. Some of the earliest deconstruction of the Christmas narrative was done by opponents of Christianity, like the second-century Greek philosopher Celsus. He claimed that Jesus was not born of a virgin but resulted from Mary’s adulterous affair with a Roman soldier. Of course, not all the demythologizing of the Nativity springs from a desire to debunk. Often, it is an attempt to clarify vague or absent details from the Gospels’ accounts.
Admittedly, there are some elements to the story, as we have heard and sung it, that are traditional, if not legendary. “The New Testament provides no precise information concerning the year, the month, or the day of the Nativity,” New Testament scholar F. F. Bruce points out. He notes that it is unlikely that the Magi brought their gifts to the stable, observing that they must have arrived after Jesus was presented at the temple. Otherwise, Joseph and Mary would not have been justified in sacrificing a pair of doves, the offering that Leviticus 12:8 prescribes for the poor who cannot afford a lamb (cf. Luke 2:22–24). The Gospels don’t say how many Magi there were. The number three probably comes from Matthew’s mention that they brought three gifts: gold, incense, and myrrh (Matt. 2:11). All of which raises two questions. First, why did such details creep into our telling of the story in the first place? And, second, what is wrong with correcting such errors?
As to the first question, the legendary content arose for various reasons. Primarily, it results from a well-intentioned desire to fill in the gaps. Although the Gospels included historical details, like the time frame during which Caesar Augustus issued his census decree or the fact that the Magi came from the east, their accounts are marvelously spare. There is much we would like to know that they don’t say. Sometimes, creative license motivates us to fill in the missing details. We want to tell this story the way we tell other stories. What do the characters look like? What are their names? So we draw inferences, seek clues, or simply make things up. Usually, the added details are small, like the number of the Magi. Occasionally, there may even be a warrant in the text for our addition. We tie the star in Numbers 24:17 to the rulers who come to the light in Isaiah 60:3 and conclude that the Magi were kings. We read of three gifts and decide they must have been three in number.
The second question is harder to answer. Is there anything wrong with demythologizing the Christmas narrative? I think the answer must be both no and yes. On the one hand, who can criticize a desire to maintain the integrity of the biblical account as it appears in the Scriptures? “Do not go beyond what is written,” Paul says in 1 Corinthians 4:6. He is talking about pride, but the warning also seems applicable here. It is always a bad idea to try and improve the biblical text. Unfortunately, our tendency to demythologize the Christmas narrative is not always driven by a passion for historical integrity or textual accuracy. Sometimes it is merely the academic equivalent to clickbait. It is an unfortunate fact of academic life that young scholars who are trying to make their bones must say something startling to get attention and often a job.
The same is true for people like me, who write books and post blogs. The rule is publish or perish for both parties, and the best way to get published is by saying something that will amaze and even agitate. In biblical studies, this often becomes a “new” understanding that is supposed to restore the original meaning to the old text. Yet, for some reason, the new “original” meaning always seems to overthrow the traditional view while somehow miraculously corresponding to modern thinking. What God always intended somehow always turns out to be what we already think or value.
This clamor for attention combined with the temptation to co-opt the biblical narrative for our own agenda has a debilitating effect on the Christmas story. Its effect upon us as worshippers is even worse. It leaves us skeptical and cynical—the modern compulsion to demythologize leeches the wonder from the Nativity story. What is more, what we are doing is not even true demythologizing. We are merely replacing old speculations with new ones.
On the other hand, saying we ought to remythologize the Christmas story might be viewed as its own kind of clickbait. It may sound like I suggest that we cast history aside and turn to legend. I do not. I am using myth in the sense that G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis did to refer to real events that echo the themes of the myths of old. “We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology,” Lewis wrote. “We must not be nervous about ‘parallels’ and ‘Pagan Christs’: they ought to be there–it would be a stumbling block if they weren’t.” I will grant there is some danger in using a term like myth in connection with the historical fact of Christ’s birth. Maybe we cannot see beyond the ordinary sense of the word. If so, then throw it out. The point is not the vocabulary we use to speak of these events but how we see them.
How should we see them? I think G. K. Chesterton provides a good answer when he describes the approach of Thomas Aquinas to the relationship between Revelation and Reason. “His argument for Revelation is not an argument against Reason; but it is an argument for Revelation,” Chesterton observes. “The conclusion he draws from it is that men must receive the highest moral truths in a miraculous manner; or most men would not receive them at all.”
Chesterton’s language captures the essence of the Bible’s account of Christ’s birth. It is moral truth delivered in a miraculous manner. The Nativity of Christ is not a myth. It is a miracle. The gaps in historical detail make little difference. It hardly matters whether there were three Magi or thirty. It does not even matter whether we know the actual date when Christ was born. All we need to know is made clear enough by the account we have, even though it is spare at points. That is, “when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law” (Gal. 5:4–5).
At that point, God didn’t just enter a story. He entered history as a human being by taking on flesh and being born of a virgin. His coming was announced with signs. Angels proclaimed his arrival to shepherds who saw Him lying in the manger. Magi traveled from the east following a star to pay homage to Him and present gifts. Herod, taken by surprise by His sudden arrival, plotted to murder the child and slaughtered the children of Bethlehem. Joseph took the child and His mother and escaped to Egypt and after the death of Herod returned to their home in Nazareth. Scripture records these facts, along with the wonder that accompanied them. Where the Christmas story is concerned, we do not need to be afraid of the scrutiny of legitimate history. Nor do we need to turn to legend to stoke our wonder. The biblical account requires neither demythologizing nor embellishing. It is perfect as it stands.