REMYTHOLOGIZING CHRISTMAS: Why it’s Better to Wonder as We Wander

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.”

Men must receive the highest moral truths in a miraculous manner or most men would not receive them at all.

G. K. Chesterton

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.

The Recent History of God

Where does one begin when speaking of God? A biography usually starts at the beginning with its subject’s birth and ancestry. But the God of Scripture, unlike the gods of myth, is uncreated and eternal. He has no beginning or point of origin. He has no ancestors. For this reason, God’s account of Himself in Scripture begins not with His creation but with ours. If the Bible is the history of God, it is only a record of recent history.

Why this had to be the case should be obvious. God’s existence in what we call the past is infinite. It is not possible to grasp, let alone record. God’s eternal nature is also unlimited in its power and scope. He is not bound by time or space. He is not dependent on anyone or anything but sustains everything that exists (Acts 17:25; Hebrews 1:3; Colossians 1:17). The full scope of all that God is and has done is beyond our view. There is too much to know and too much to write. Even if it could be written, it is doubtful that we would be able to comprehend it.

The Bible only records what we might call God’s recent history because it begins with our history. It is a mistake to think of the Bible as the autobiography of God. It is just the opposite. The Bible is God’s biography of us. From the Bible we know something about what God is like. God has shown us this through what He has said and done in our world. The Bible also tells us about ourselves. In many respects, the Bible tells humanity’s story as much as it does God’s.

The theologians have a word for this. They call it revelation. Divine self-revelation is where all knowledge of God begins. We only know about God because God has chosen to reveal Himself to us. Moreover, what we know about God is dependent upon what God has chosen to reveal. We cannot put God on a slab to dissect Him to expose all His parts. We cannot watch Him through a microscope or find Him in the world’s most powerful telescope. If we are to know what God is like, He must show us Himself.

God has done this in two primary ways. God has revealed Himself by actions and in words. The Bible also shows that God has done this in two different modes. One is broad. The other is narrow. There are some things that God has revealed to everyone. They are plain for all who are willing to see. These truths are expressed in the universal language of creation. This is what the Psalmist means when He says, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1). The Psalmist goes on to describe creation as a kind of non-verbal communication that “goes out into all the earth” (v. 2).

This general revelation of God is also communicated to us internally. Because this internal message operates on the level of conscience, its function is primarily negative. The primary purpose of internal general revelation is to show us that we are not like God. The apostle Paul explains its negative function when he says: “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. (Rom. 1:18–19).

Another important feature of this general revelation is its limited scope. Neither the external general revelation of creation nor the internal revelation of conscience can tell us everything that can be known about God. They do not even tell us the most important things that we should know about Him. This mode of revelation covers only a few basics. In a way, general revelation is God’s kindergarten, limiting its message to God’s eternal power and His divine nature. General revelation tells us that God exists, that He is the creator, and that we are not Him.

Fortunately, God has also chosen to reveal Himself on another band. This is a mode that the theologians call “special” revelation. Special revelation is more narrow than general revelation. While general revelation is available to everyone, special revelation was experienced by only a few. God revealed Himself to a few chosen messengers who passed what they had heard from God down to others. Special revelation is also narrow in its focus. The message of special revelation primarily has to do with God’s plan to redeem humanity from sin. Special revelation was personal and ultimately verbal. The things God said and did were written down and collected in the Scriptures. They describe His saving acts and interpret those actions for us. They tell us what God expects of us and give us a glimpse of what God will do in the future.

Divine self-revelation is where all knowledge of God begins.

When you read the Bible, you quickly discover that God did not make Himself known all at once. Instead, He revealed Himself in stages. This progressive revelation of God reaches its peak in the person and work of Jesus Christ. As the writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews observeed, “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe” (Heb. 1:1–2).

God, who dwells outside of history, entered history to make Himself known once and for all in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Not only does Jesus reveal God to us in human terms, but He also shows us what God had in mind when He created the world. If the Bible is a history of the human race described from God’s perspective, Jesus Christ is the key that unlocks that history for us. Jesus is the bridge that connects God’s story with human history. Jesus is the end toward which all God’s words and works in the world tend. Jesus is the sum of all that God has to say about Himself.

Revelation shows us what we can know about God. But the fact that God has shown us Himself in this way reveals something about us as well. It proves that there is something that stands in the way of our understanding God. The word the Bible uses for this is sin. Not surprisingly, this is where the Bible’s history of God begins. Not just with creation but with humanity’s departure from God through disobedience.

Therefore, if we want to describe God’s history with humanity in simple terms, we could probably articulate it in three sentences. God made us. We rejected Him. So God took on human nature and came to redeem us in person. The Bible’s revelation of God is not a collection of vague philosophies or abstract facts. Everything that revelation has to say about God has redemption at its center. Everything that can be said about divine revelation, the discipline that we call theology, can pretty much be divided into five categories: the nature of God, the nature of humanity, the person and work of Jesus Christ, the nature of redemption, and God’s plan for bringing this stage of His history to a close.

Where does one begin when speaking about God? We begin with God. The only way to begin with God is to begin with what God has said. Everything that we can say about God depends upon what God has said Himself. Scripture tells us that God has shown Himself both by word and action. But between these two, it is Scripture that must have the primary place. Scripture both describes and interprets God’s words and actions for us.

But why would God reveal Himself to us in the first place? It is not so that we would accumulate facts about Him. The goal of revelation is faith. We study Scripture so that we might know about God, and by knowing, that we might come to believe. For, as the writer of the book of Hebrews observed, “without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrews 11:6).