Tag Archives: Christmas

Did Matthew Botch Christmas? (…. Or How World Cup Soccer Helps to Better Understand Bible Prophecy)

It is the season of Advent, which means it is time for critics of Christianity to try to poke holes in the Christmas story, as people scramble to put up what is left of their Christmas decorations, fill their Amazon cart with last minute gifts, and believers in Jesus prepare for the celebration of the Incarnation of the Son of God.

Dr. Bart Ehrman, professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, New York Times bestseller author, and perhaps the most well-known public skeptic of Christianity, has been making the rounds on various atheist YouTube channels, promoting a new seminar regarding “Other Virgin Births in Antiquity,” just in time for the holidays.

Croatia beats Brazil at the 2022 World Cup, after a dramatic penalty shootout. Do you think penalty shootouts have nothing to teach us about Bible prophecy?…. Think again.

In one particular promotional video, on the atheist Paulogia channel, Paulogia asks Dr. Ehrman to interact with a video by Dr. Michael Heiser, an evangelical expert in Semitic languages, and perhaps my favorite Old Testament scholar. I posted a blog article asking “Is the Virgin Birth Prophecy a Mistranslation?,” back in 2016, which at the end featured the full-length video of Dr. Heiser’s lecture.

In the recent 20-minute video, Paulogia states in the subtitle: “Dr Bart Ehrman joins us to determine if [Dr. Michael Heiser’s] work is scholarly… or just more Christian apologetics.” Of course, this assumes Dr. Ehrman’s work is purely scholarly with no biased apologetics of his own….  NEWSFLASH: Every scholar has their biases, using their own style of apologetics to defend their views, including Bart Ehrman.

However, if you are interested, the recent 20-minute Paulogia interview with Dr. Ehrman, critiquing the Heiser video can be viewed here. You could just read on for now, and come back to it at a later time:

 

The Virgin Birth Prophecy…. Did Matthew Botch the Whole Thing?

To my knowledge, this is the only YouTube presentation where Dr. Ehrman interacts with Dr. Heiser’s material. I only want to highlight the main controversy here, as it has to do with the famous Virgin Birth prophecy found in Matthew 1:23, which quotes Isaiah 7:14, indicating that the birth of Jesus fulfills this prophecy, made about 700 years earlier.

The English Standard Version (ESV) translation, starting in Matthew 1:22, reads as follows to describe the very first Christmas:

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel”

This closely mirrors what the ESV has in Isaiah 7:14. However, compare the same passage in something like the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition (NRSVue), for Isaiah 7:14:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel.

The highlighted portion demonstrates the controversy. Both Dr. Ehrman and Dr. Heiser agree that the NRSVue rendering is the accurate translation of the original Hebrew. The Hebrew has the word “almah,” which generally means “young woman,” or “young maiden.” However, these two scholars then begin to differ.

Bart Ehrman argues that treating the Hebrew word “almah” to mean “virgin” is a mistranslation. The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, produced a few centuries before Jesus, by a group of Jewish scholars near Alexandria, Egypt, then carried this “mistranslation” into that Greek text, which Matthew borrows and places in his Gospel.

Michael Heiser argues otherwise. For the term “almah” is actually a rather ambiguous word in the Hebrew lexicon. Yes, it does generally mean “young woman.” However, an “almah” might also be considered to be a “virgin,” depending on the context. The concept of “virgin” is more restrictive, in the sense that it could refer to a “young woman” who has not yet experienced sexual relations. In other words, you simply can not rule out the idea that “almah” could mean “virgin.”

What the Paulogia video neglects to tell viewers is that there is a clear instance in the Bible when “almah” does mean “virgin,a translation which Dr. Heiser explains in a separate article, that I will summarize here: In Song of Songs 6:8, the ESV reads:

There are sixty queens and eighty concubines,
    and virgins without number.

This verse is talking about the women in the king’s harem, where the Scripture writer delineates three different classes of women. You can ignore the obvious moral difficulty of a king having a number of women at his disposal to focus on these three classes. A “queen” would be a wife of the king. A “concubine” would be a “secondary wife” or “slave woman.”  That last category, “virgin” corresponds to that Hebrew word “almah,” for reasons that the Orthodox Jewish Bible gives in a footnote:

….the word means explicitly or implicitly “virgin” and where “young woman” is not an adequate rendering, in this case, since the King was hardly interested in only young women in his harem, but demanded “virgins”; the older Jewish translations like Harkavy’s so translated the word as “virgin” in this verse until it became politically incorrect to do so in later, more liberal Jewish translations into English].

I like to use the online StepBible as a great tool for exploring such a word study, as in how the Hebrew word “almah” is translated throughout the whole Bible, to see this for myself. While Matthew’s method of Old Testament prophecy interpretation may sound weird to us, he was far from being careless or clumsy.

…..So much for Dr. Ehrman’s critique against Dr. Heiser on this point….

The Flight Into Egypt, by Vittore Carpacccio (1466-1525). Based on Matthew’s interpretation of prophecy in Hosea being fulfilled through his Virgin Birth narrative. The Gospel of Matthew takes a lot of heat from critics who think that Matthew was “making things up” as prophecy fulfillment in his Virgin Birth narrative. In this blog we tackle one of those criticisms, namely Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7:14 to announce the Virgin Birth.

 

On the Nature of Bible Prophecy: Why the “300+ Prophecies of Jesus” Can Be Misleading

Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that Bart Ehrman does raise an important issue that is often neglected: There is a specific Hebrew word for “virgin” found in the Old Testament: “betulah.” If the prophet Isaiah really meant “virgin” to be the word here in Isaiah 7:14, why did he choose the ambiguous word “almah” and not the more specific word “betulah?”

To answer that question you have to think more deeply about the nature of biblical prophecy. Both Dr. Heiser and Dr. Ehrman agree in the video that it would have been completely absurd for Isaiah to have one and only one meaning in mind regarding Isaiah 7:14, looking hundreds of years into the future, simply based on the original context of the passage.

A closer look at the whole chapter, in Isaiah 7, demonstrates what is going on. In the 8th century B.C.E., King Ahaz of Judah is being threatened by two kings from the land to the north. Verse 2 even says that Ahaz was “shaking” in fear. Would the God of Israel deliver Ahaz from this military threat?

Ahaz says that he will not test the Lord in this moment, but the prophet Isaiah is not buying into Ahaz’s fake piety. Isaiah then makes his famous prophecy, but then in verses 15-16, Isaiah says that before the promised child is old enough to know the difference between right and wrong, those two northern kings will no longer be a threat to Ahaz.

Just think about it. If Isaiah was only prophesying the coming of Jesus, would that have really made any sense to Ahaz? Imagine such a conversation that Isaiah would have had with Ahaz, if this indeed was the case:

“King Ahaz!  I have great news for you. Seven hundred years from now, a child will be born, and before that child reaches an age of moral maturity, those two kings that are causing you to shake in your boots now will no longer be a threat to you!”

Huh???

What type of comfort would that really give to Ahaz? He would be long dead before the prophecy would have any meaning for him.

Unfortunately, there are many Christians who never really think about this problem at all…. and it is a real problem. I had been a Christian for nearly several decades before I realized that this was indeed a problem. It does not help that there are a handful of evangelical scholars who perpetuate this idea that Isaiah 7:14 is solely a messianic prophecy, whose only purpose is to predict the coming of Jesus, at the first Christmas, nearly 700 years after Isaiah and Ahaz were living.

I presume they mean well, but I do not understand the full thinking process used by such scholars who promote this “single messianic prophecy” view. Assigning a prophecy to have a purely future, single meaning to it is attractive, in that it is simple to understand: Isaiah predicts the birth of Jesus… end of story.

But it comes across as a kind of wishful thinking approach to biblical prophecy. While there is not anything necessarily harmful in wanting something to be true, it becomes a serious problem when the evidence is either completely lacking or leads to nonsense, or far worse, the available evidence contradicts with the proposition that we want to believe to be true.

Many Christians familiar with at least some form of Christian apologetics are often told that at least some 300 prophecies in the Old Testament have been fulfilled by Jesus. In fact, several friends of mine have told me that they became believers in Jesus because of those 300+ prophecies. Understandably, many Christians want to see how Jesus fulfills centuries of Old Testament prophecies, hundreds of years into the future. But the story is more complicated than what you get in a typical Sunday morning sermon, particular during the season of Advent…. and frankly, the story is far more rich and profound.

Many imagine Jesus was probably walking around at some point in his life with clipboard underneath his tunic, checking off things to make sure they were being fulfilled: “Born in Bethlehem…. CHECK…. Born of a Virgin…. CHECK…. Avoiding the wrath of Herod by escaping to Egypt with Joseph and Mary and then returning…. GOT THAT, TOO!

Well, it just is not that simple. While there are some prophecies that have a single, direct fulfillment in view, such as most probably with Micah 5:2’s prediction that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, the weight of the evidence overall points to something more nuanced.

More often than not, both Second Temple-period Jewish and early Christian interpreters used a particular form of Bible interpretation to understand how prophecy works: typology. A typological interpretation of prophecy suggests that there is a “type” or pattern of prophecy fulfillment or partial fulfillment that anticipates a later, full fulfillment of the prophecy, or the “real thing” being prophesied. Some scholars refer to this as a “double-fulfillment” view of prophecy, but the terminology of “typology” is a theologically richer way of thinking about it.

Perhaps the best example is in Roman 5:14, when the Apostle Paul describes Adam as the type of the one who was to come, namely Jesus. In this example, Adam is the “type” while Jesus is the “real thing.” Or to put it another way, Jesus is the “Second Adam.” The curious thing about a lot of typology is that it is typically not that easy to figure out how a particular statement in the Old Testament anticipates its New Testament fulfillment, just by reading the Old Testament itself.

Most Jews today associate Isaiah 7:14 with a more near-term fulfillment of the prophecy, namely in the birth of Ahaz’ son, Hezekiah, the future king who would live beyond the deaths of those two northern kings who threatened Ahaz. When the Jew Trypho had his famous 2nd century C.E. debate with the Christian apologist Justin Martyr, Trypho made the case that Isaiah 7:14 prophesied the coming of Hezekiah, whereas Justin argued that it was Jesus who was prophesied.

However, many scholars have since argued that the prophesy initially referred to the birth of Isaiah’s own son, described in Isaiah 8, who actually receives the name of “Immanuel” in Isaiah 8:8-10.

Furthermore, there is nothing specific in the Old Testament that links Isaiah 7:14 to any particular, future messianic expectation. Also, we have no demonstrable pre-Christian Jewish texts after Isaiah that associate Isaiah 7:14 with a future coming Messiah, according to Beale and Carson’s Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. 

However, when the Septuagint translators translated “young woman” into “virgin,” this might indeed suggest that at least some Jews eventually began to think that there was something more to the Isaiah 7:14 prophecy, as a future son having some type of supernatural conception, centuries beyond the days of Isaiah, Ahaz, or Hezekiah. It is difficult to know for sure.

Nevertheless, Matthew in the New Testament ultimately settles the matter by linking the “virgin” to Jesus’ mother, Mary. For in Matthew’s mind, Jesus does more than simply deliver two northern kings from threatening King Ahaz, back around the 8th century B.CE. Instead, Jesus delivers the whole world from the deadly grip of sin, from Satan, and other powers of darkness.

World Cup 2022 Penalty Shootouts : a match of wits and skill.

 

The Cryptic Nature of Bible Prophecy: A Lesson from World Cup Soccer

Back to the discussion by Bart Ehrman that raises an important question: Why so cryptic?

Why is it that the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 is so ambiguous? If the whole point of Isaiah 7:14 was to point to Jesus, why did Isaiah not settle the matter himself and use the word “betulah” to describe the mother of the promised child?

The answer is found here: … think about World Cup penalty shootouts.

As I am writing this, the 2022 FIFA World Cup tournament in Qatar is wrapping up. Once you get into the semi-final and final rounds, games where the score is tied is settled by a penalty shootout. Each team brings up a shooter against the other team’s goalie. The standoff is almost all mental. Both the shooter and the goalie has to somehow anticipate what the other is going to do. Will the shooter feign a shot to the right, when the shot is really meant to go into the left side of the goal? Will the goalkeeper dive to his right, anticipating that the shooter will try to put the ball in that side of the net? Will the shot come low and straight-on, or will it go high and up to a corner?

It is all a battle of wits and skill, trying to read what the other player plans on doing.

In other words, the key to success in a penalty shootout in the World Cup is in trying to be as cryptic as possible, regarding what one intends to do.

The lesson of World Cup penalty shootout strategy can help us to understand why Bible prophecy is so cryptic: The key to understanding it is not by saying that Isaiah 7:14 was mistranslated, or that Matthew misused Isaiah’s prophesy. Instead, it is to recognize that the cryptic nature of the prophecy was cryptic by design. It was not some “mistake” that crept into our Bibles, sneaking under the radar of the early church fathers who affirmed the New Testament canon of Scripture. Instead, Matthew does what he does on purpose, to make a theological point. The Apostle Paul explains why this was the case in 1 Corinthians 2:6-10 (ESV):

Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written,

“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
    nor the heart of man imagined,
what God has prepared for those who love him”—

these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.

The big clue here is the meaning of “the rulers of this age.” Some suggest that these are political rulers in Paul’s day, but Paul is thinking of a bigger, supernatural picture here. In Michael Heiser’s The Unseen Realm these “rulers of this age” are supernatural beings that seek to challenge the authority of the God of Israel, and who wish to derail God’s program to reveal the messiah to the world through the person of Jesus of Nazareth (Kindle location 2134).

In order to thwart these dark powers who wish to thwart the one True God’s plan to bring about the redemption of humanity, God veils his plan in the Old Testament to reveal Jesus as the Christ in such a way that these “rulers of this age” would not be able to figure out what God was up to, until after the fact. By then, the “rulers of this age” would be powerless and too late to stop God’s redemption plan. The only way you would then be able to discern what God was doing was through hindsight.  This was what Matthew was doing by understanding in hindsight what the prophet Isaiah was getting at with Isaiah 7:14, whether Isaiah himself was fully aware of this added typological dimension or not.

In other words, the powers of darkness thought that God would strike the ball hard and low to the right side of the net, but instead, God feigned a move and then cranked the ball into the upper left hand side of the net.

Game over.

While this way of interpreting Isaiah 7:14 may not be as exhilarating as the “single messianic prophecy” view propagated by some Christians, it is still a defensible position to hold, given the available evidence. The “single messianic prophecy” view faces the onslaught of critics, like a Bart Ehrman, who can tear down such a indefensible thesis into shreds, which he manages to do in the Paulogia video.

On the other hand, a more nuanced, typological reading of Isaiah 7:14 is supported by the weight of evidence that undergirds it, and it can withstand the volley of criticisms  that skeptics might throw against it. Plus, it makes sense of the broader contour of the Bible’s story, of how God has sought to reveal his plan of redemption through the history of Israel, despite the opposition of the powers of darkness.

SO… back to the question in this blog article title, “Did Matthew Botch Christmas?” Hopefully the case has been made that the answer is “NO.”

At Christmas, the light of Christ breaks through the darkness to show to a hopeless world that there is still hope, and that Jesus himself is the living incarnate expression of that very hope.  The powers of darkness, intent on destroying God’s plan, were caught off guard, unaware of the deeper reality of God’s plan of redemption. Recipients of God’s mercy and grace instead benefit from that Good News. With that truth in mind, we have a wonderful reason to celebrate a Merry Christmas!

If you want a deep dive look at this, consider Dr. Michael Heiser’s full presentation regarding Isaiah’s Virgin Birth prophesy, as opposed to Paulogia’s heavily edited version with Bart Ehrman above. While I am not saying that the truth of Christianity rises and falls on the Virgin Birth story, I am saying that Christianity makes more sense with the Virgin Birth than without it. For that reason, I would consider the Virgin Birth to be an essential doctrine of the Christian faith, a hallmark of orthodox faith and belief. However, I would also add that Christians should learn that there are defensible ways of upholding the Virgin Birth, that we should consider, and let go of certain wishful thinking fantasies that simply can not be defended…… But before you check out the Dr. Heiser video, you can re-live the moment when Argentina beat the defending champions, France, in a World Cup penalty shootout in the 2022 Final!


Where Did We Get Our Holiday Traditions From? (Christmas, Easter, Halloween, etc.)

It is like myths that never die. A common critique made by a number of skeptics, and oddly enough, some Christians, is that some of the most treasured holidays celebrated by Christians actually have pagan roots to them, ranging from Christmas to Easter, and of course, Halloween.

Over the years that I have been writing this blog, I have posted critiques of these memes, but it seems like every year they keep popping up, again and again and again, on various forms of social media. *SIGH*

I finally decided to dig into one of most authoritative works on this topic, to get a scholarly approach to such holidays, instead of being bothered with it every time a holiday rolls around. Ronald E. Hutton is a professor of history at the University of Bristol, in the U.K., and he specializes in the political and religious history of the British Isles, ranging from Christianity to paganism. His 1996 work, Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, is regarded among historians as perhaps the most thorough work on the history of British folklore, which includes the celebration of various holidays. Since most of the holidays Americans celebrate have historical roots traced back to Great Britain, Stations of the Son is a great place to dive into such interesting history.

Is Christmas a baptized celebration of the ancient Roman Saturnalia festival? Not really. The early Christians had other reasons for dating for the birth of Christ on December 25, though much of that reasoning today is considered speculative by historians.

Was Easter derived from a pagan fertility festival? No, the date of Easter is tied back to near the Jewish Passover.

Was “All Hallows Eve,” what would become Halloween, stolen from the Druids? No, the eve of All Saints Day had other beginnings, and according to Hutton, the connection with the Samhain festival is uncertain, as we have very little evidence to be able to determine the exact nature of the ancient Samhain festival anyway.

But as with many things like this, there are particular grains of truth in all of the “Christmas is Pagan” and “Easter is Pagan” themes, much of it based on a lot of speculation. As Ronald Hutton describes it, the story is actually fairly complicated, and far more interesting than what you read on most social media postings.

Consider Halloween, for example: All Saints Day originally came out of a Germanic tradition, established on November 1, in about the 9th century. The Germanic practice varied from the original celebration of Christian martyrs, who died under Roman pagan emperors, which is first recorded to have happened on the 13th of May, in 373 C.E. This Germanic tradition should put to bed the often repeated claim that the November 1st day came from the Celts. If anything, the evidence shows that influence is the other way around. Celtic Europe followed the Germanic tradition instead.

According to Hutton, why the Northern Europeans shifted the date from May to November remains somewhat of a mystery. The connection with concerns about the status of the dead came into play in about 998 C.E., when “All Souls Day” started to become instituted on November 2, the day after All Saints Day, as a means of encouraging Christians to pray on behalf of dead friends and relatives. So, at best, it is half truths about All Saints and All Souls Days, along with some anti-Roman Catholic polemic that drives the “Halloween is Pagan” story (see Hutton, p. 364).

Supposed “evidence” for Halloween’s connection with pagan practices does not really pick up any significant traction until hundreds of years later in the 19th century, particular when Sir James Frazer popularized the idea in his The Golden Bough, though most scholars today dismiss a great deal of Frazer’s claims. But since Frazer’s work is in the public domain, Internet websites publish Frazer’s work with great enthusiasm. As a result, assured claims of the “pagan roots” of Halloween have become a type of self-fulfilling prophecy: Halloween has become a pagan holiday because we are constantly reminded that it is pagan, despite the lack of sound historical evidence to back up these claims.

It has become pretty much a losing battle, trying to set the record straight here. I am content to stick with the celebration of Reformation Day, and forgo the Halloween controversy altogether.

All of this is thoroughly documented in Stations of the Sun, but a more succinct presentation of Hutton’s research can be found at the HistoryForAtheists website, as well as in an informative YouTube documentary by the HistoryForAtheists maintainer, Tim O’Neill, or read my summary from a blog post I wrote in 2021. Nevertheless, just about every year, CountryLiving magazine runs the same article over and over again, with a subtitles like, “The history of Halloween dates back to a pagan festival called Samhain,” or some other speculative overstatement.  Good grief!

To be frank, Stations of the Son is very detailed and dense, and does not necessarily lend itself to light reading. Hutton’s research is painstaking and precise. I pretty much had to dip in and out of Stations of the Sun, in order to retain some interest over the past year. As an evangelical Protestant, I was disappointed to read Hutton’s description of the nativity stories of Matthew and Luke to be in direct contradiction with one another, right at the beginning of the book, even though a good case can be made to harmonize the differing Gospels’ accounts (Here is my analysis from a previous Veracity blog post).

However, it was fun to learn about the history of the Easter egg. Various anti-Easter memes suggest that Christians were trying to cover up some pagan fertility rite. The more accurate story, that Ronald Hutton describes, goes back to the fact that the Lenten fasts instituted by the medieval church took eggs off the menu for Christians, until the Lenten fast ended at Easter. By then, many Christians had a whole stockpile of eggs, ideally hard-boiled, that could be eaten, but that could be put to use in other ways, such as with Easter egg hunts, and paintings of eggs. Overtime, eggs became less essential foodstuffs for European Christians, but such traditional practices remained, at least among more liturgically oriented Christians.

Now I know a whole lot more about the traditions behind those Easter egg hunts I celebrated as a kid.

Mistletoe. We are often told that the practice of kissing under the mistletoe has ancient, even pagan roots. Actually, the evidence for the practice is pretty murky, prior to Washington Irving’s popularizing of the mistletoe story in the 19th century.

Ah, but Christmas is upon us now. Little did I know but the “Twelve Days of Christmas” has a long history:

The tradition of twelve days of celebration following ‘midwinter’ was firmly established by 877, when the law code of Alfred the Great granted freedom from work to all servants during that span (Stations of the Sun, p. 6).

Twelve days off of work? Now I know why the Puritans had such a difficult time justifying the celebration of Christmas, as a lot of people can get into a lot of trouble when they are not working for twelve straight days in a row!

But if there is one definite link to “paganism,” or more properly-speaking, pre-Christian European religion, it would be the association of “Yule” with the name of Christmas.

In the eleventh century Danish rule over England resulted in the introduction of the colloquial Scandinavian term for Christmas, ‘Yule’, which provided an alternative name for it among the English (Stations of the Sun, p. 6).

There is not much Christian about the “Yule log,” as it mostly has an association with some ancient midwinter festival, recognizing that late December is the darkest time of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. But the popular idea that the majority of today’s Christmas customs were derived from the Yule tradition is just plain bunk, according to most historians today.

Furthermore, the use of mistletoe and dressing up with greens have very little reference to Christian symbolism. But even with mistletoe, its connection with kissing and supposed origins in Druid paganism only became known through the writings of the American author, Washington Irving, in his 1819 short story, “Christmas Day.” Where Washington Irving, more well known today as the author of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” got his information is a mystery, as mistletoe had become a fashionable part of church decorations since the 17th and 18th centuries, with no established record of its supposed connection to pagan religion (see Hutton, p. 37). Again, read a helpful summary of Hutton’s research in Tim O’Neill’s blog at HistoryForAthiests about “Pagan Christmas.

So, if you are interested in reading an authoritative history of where many our holiday traditions come from, particularly as they relate to their origins in the British Isles, Ronald Hutton’s Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain is the “go-to” academic treatment on the subject. I will be referring to this frequently whenever I hear fantastic claims about the supposed “true” or “secret” meaning of Christmas, Easter, and Halloween alike.

For a quick summary of the most popular “Christmas is Pagan” ideas, versus their most likely origins, click on the following JPEG file to view larger on your own device. Print it out and hand it to your friends, or share it with that Christmas-is-Pagan acquaintance who sends you stuff on social media.

 


Did Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents Really Happen?

Merry Christmas, Ye Veracity Readers!

While you are putting the last touches on your Christmas tree, and reading the story of the Nativity to your family, someone is bound to wonder (at least silently, if not out loud), “Do we really know if this ‘Virgin Birth’ story is really true?” …

Anyone familiar with the world of mainstream biblical scholarship will know that the Christmas narratives, which are found only in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, have come under a great deal of scrutiny over the last couple of hundred years. As I have addressed elsewhere, critics will cite “contradictions” between Matthew’s story and Luke’s story, as well as problems trying to sync up the Scriptural narratives with sources outside of the Bible, notably the timing of the census of Quirinius.

The story of Herod the Great’s Massacre of the Innocents, recorded in Matthew 2:16-18, is often singled out as being implausible as well. The main difficulty is that we have no source outside of Matthew describing how Herod ordered the killing of all of the male infants, under the age of 2, in and around the town of Bethlehem. In Matthew’s story, the Gospel highlights in Matthew 2:13-15 that Jesus was able to escape the slaughter when his parents took him to Egypt, for safety.

Massacre of the Innocents, 1610-1611, Toronto. By Peter Paul Rubens – Rubenshuis, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=75942301

A Useful Fiction?

Some have sought to defend and rescue Matthew’s story by suggesting that Matthew was using a type of fictional narrative device, as a means of symbolically associating Jesus with being the “new Moses.” After all, Exodus 1:22 suggests a parallel with Matthew’s story by describing the slaughter of Hebrew infants, while sparing the life of Moses, in the days of Pharoah. The similarities are striking.

The use of fictional narrative devices to communicate truth is not unknown to the Gospels, along with other parts of the Bible. Jesus himself used parables to teach his disciples about the Kingdom of God. Furthermore, the theme of Jesus being the “new Moses” is indeed a big part of Matthew’s Gospel. But the idea of a fictionalized Massacre of the Innocents undoubtedly will strike some as suggesting that Matthew was simply “making up” a historical detail, by riffing on an idea pulled out of the Old Testament.

Mmmmm….. 

We see this same type of criticism about the Bible, more broadly, made particularly by so-called “Jesus Mythicists,” those who believe that Jesus never even existed, suggesting that much of what we read in the Gospels is simply riffing on a whole set of ancient stories of a pagan origin, and not simply depending on stories found in the Old Testament.

New Testament scholar Mike Licona uses the following illustration to show the fallacy of such thinking: ….

…. Most Americans are quite familiar with the story of an airplane, that took off from Massachusetts one morning, that at some point after 9am flew into one of the tallest skyscrapers in the world, in New York City, between the 78th and 80th floors, killing everyone on board.

Of course, you probably know exactly what event this is, right?

Are you sure you know what I am talking about??

Are you really sure?

…..

Here is the answer:

It is about the B-25 that flew into the Empire State Building on July 28, 1945.

Some readers might be surprised here, as what immediately comes to mind is 9/11, when the Boeing 767 flew into the South Tower, of the World Trade Center.

Coincidentally, both airplanes hit their respective buildings at the exact same floors! Both planes took off in the morning from Massachusetts. Both planes had no survivors, following their respective crashes. The parallels are striking, are they not?

Nevertheless, we would never draw from this example the conclusion that 9/11 never happened. But you never know what someone might think, 2,000 years from now, assuming humanity is still on this planet by then. Here is Dr. Licona explaining this:

Herod’s Atrocities Were So Numerous, They Were Hard to Keep Track

So, do we really need to accept Matthew’s story about the slaughter of babies as being purely fictional? A closer look at what is already known about Herod suggests that we need not go down that road. There is plenty of material in Herod’s life to indicate that the Massacre of the Innocents is quite plausible indeed. In other words, the absence of evidence does not necessarily mean the evidence of absence.

Dr. Paul Maier, a retired historian at Western Michigan University, tells us that Herod was a master politician, who sought to placate his Jewish subjects while seeking help from the Romans. After the Romans conquered Judea in 63 BCE, Herod acted as a governor, representing the Roman emperor. Herod rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem, restoring it to a type of glory, reminiscent of King Solomon’s temple. He created the sea port city of Caesarea over a period of twelve years by sinking some ship hulls to create a harbor area. He also built a great palace for himself, theaters, a stadium, and the famous mountain fortress at Masada.

Yet as an ambitious ruler, Herod could be quite paranoid and ruthless. The Jewish historian Josephus tells us that after some attempted poisonings within his family, he put three of his sons to death on suspicion of treason. He put his favorite wife, Mariamne, a Hasmonean Maccabean princess, to death, as well as his mother-in-law. Towards the end of his life, Herod was so rattled by threats to depose him that he even plotted to kill a stadium full of Jewish leaders, a plot that eventually failed. Caesar Augustus remarked that “I would rather be Herod’s pig than his son.”

Part of the suspicion about Matthew’s account of Herod stems from unwarranted traditions that arose within the church, over the years, that lack Scriptural support. A Byzantine liturgy stated that 14,000 infants were killed by Herod at Bethlehem. A Syrian tradition placed the number at 64,000 infants killed. During the medieval period, an attempt was made to link Revelation 14:3 with the massacre, thus inflating the number to 144,000 thousand!

The problem with these large numbers tied to certain Scriptural narratives is that other facts on the ground make such claims unnecessary. In the case of Herod’s massacre, the town of Bethlehem was known to be pretty tiny. Imagine the Bethlehem in the days of Jesus to be the rough equivalent of a rural American town that only has one traffic light in it. You might miss Bethlehem if you were driving through it and blinked! We are talking about an area, with probably less than a 1,000 inhabitants, having a relatively small number of young children. With that in mind, it is quite plausible to consider that perhaps only a dozen or so of Bethlehem’s male infant population were murdered, which would hardly have measured a blip on the notoriously brutal life of Herod, as reported by those like Josephus.

So, it should not come as a surprise to learn that Matthew was the only ancient writer to have recorded this incident from the life of Herod the Great. While some might still have qualms about the historicity of certain events found in the Bible, a strong case can be made, giving us a great deal of confidence that the story of Christmas happened exactly like what we are told within the Sacred Book.

… And with that, I wish you once again, a Merry Christmas!


Where Do “Live Nativity” Scenes Come From?

A typical nativity creche …. replete with Joseph, Mary, the baby Jesus, a shepherd and the “Three Kings of Orient are,” much like the one I grew up with. Historically accurate? Not so much. But it does give us food for thought.

 

Christmas is that time of year when many churches do their best to portray the Christmas story. In the era of COVID, indoor Christmas concerts have become tricky enterprises. But what about an outdoor venue to tell about the story of the Incarnation? What about bringing in live animals, too?!

Ah… Enter in the “live nativity”!

Saint Francis and the “Modern” Nativity

Throughout the history of church, the telling of the Christmas story has been a staple of Christian tradition. But the most well-known version of the “live nativity,” featuring shepherds and magi coming to worship at the feet of Jesus, along with “ox and ass” adoring the baby Jesus, can be traced back to 1223, in Greccio, Italy.

According to St. Bonaventure’s Life of Saint Francis, the famous 13th century evangelist created a manger scene in a cave near this Italian city, with human actors and animals playing various parts to tell the story of Christmas. Pope Honorius authorized the public display, and the popularity of the “live nativity” took off after that.

Yet while kids in particular enjoy nativity scenes today, the art of doing live nativity has some problems… and it is not about how to care for all of those animals! When astute observers read the nativity stories found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke closely, they soon discover that placing the shepherds together with the wise men “from the East,” does not fit the chronology. However, Saint Francis, was primarily concerned about bringing in all of the various elements of the story, in order to tell a simplified, cohesive narrative, to a medieval European audience who were mostly illiterate, as opposed to following a strict chronology.

Nevertheless, this distortion of what is actually found in the New Testament has created fodder for generations of critics to cast a skeptical eye over the live nativity. While significant challenges for harmonizing the stories told by Matthew and Luke do exist, it is still possible to draw together a consistently whole, coherent narrative, albeit more complex than what St. Francis put together.

A close-up of part of Fra Angelico’s fresco, in Florence, showing the ox and ass peering in from behind their stalls, to catch a glimpse of the baby Jesus.

 

Animals Who Worship the Baby Jesus

One of the more interesting aspects of the St. Francis’ nativity scene, is the use of the “ox and ass.” The popular 14th century carol, “Good Christian Men, Rejoice,” has the well-known line, “Ox and ass before Him bow, And He is in the manger now. Christ is born today! Christ is born today.

The problem is that in the Gospels, the mention of “ox and ass” is nowhere to be found. But the theological development of this idea across the centuries is a fascinating topic.

An ox and donkey are mentioned in Isaiah 1:3: “The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” Christian theologians across the centuries have looked upon this as an appropriate metaphor explaining why so many do not accept the Christmas story, even today. 

However, if you combine Isaiah 1:3 with the Septuagint reading of Habakkuk 3:2, the connection with Christmas becomes more apparent. Most English Bibles today read Habakkuk 3:2 as based on the Masoretic, or ancient Hebrew text of the Old Testament, something like this (from the ESV):

O Lord, I have heard the report of you,
    and your work, O Lord, do I fear.
In the midst of the years revive it;
    in the midst of the years make it known;
    in wrath remember mercy.

First century Jews across the Greek speaking world, along with the earliest Christians, read from the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, where the phrase “in the midst of the years” reads differently as “in the midst of two living creatures,” as in something like Sir Lancelot Charles Lee Brenton’s 1844 English translation of the Septuagint:

….thou shalt be known between the two living creatures, thou shalt be acknowledged when the years draw nigh; thou shalt be manifested when the time is come; when my soul is troubled, thou wilt in wrath remember mercy.

The first mention of connecting the ox and ass to the Christmas story can be then traced back to the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, otherwise known as The Infancy Gospel of Matthew, most probably written in the 7th century, as a speculation into some of the otherwise unknown events of Jesus’ life, before he enters his public ministry as an adult:

“And on the third day after the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, the most blessed Mary went forth out of the cave, and entering a stable, placed the child in the stall, and the ox and the ass adored Him. Then was fulfilled that which was said by Isaiah the prophet, saying: The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib.The very animals, therefore, the ox and the ass, having Him in their midst, incessantly adored Him. Then was fulfilled that which was said by Abacuc the prophet, saying: Between two animals thou art made manifest. In the same place Joseph remained with Mary three days.”

Some may object that an historical look back into the origins of today’s popular “live nativity” might ruin certain elements of Christmas for them. But it need not be thought of that way.

Instead, an honest look at where certain Christian traditions come from should do three things:

  1. It serves as a reminder to non-believers that Christians are not so crazy to believe what they believe.
  2. It prompts the believer to dig more into their own Bibles to more adequately ascertain the truth of what Christians say they believe.
  3. It reminds us all that the story of Christmas is ultimately a great mystery to celebrate and enter into, as we consider the theological meaning of God becoming human, and entering our world.

The Queen’s Christmas Broadcast

This kind of made me have second thoughts, as to why we Americans broke away from the mother country. Though respectful of other faiths, the Queen’s Christian faith shines through clearly. Following this year’s speech, is the first televised Christmas speech she gave in 1957, reading from John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.

 


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