Yay, it’s nearly Christmas. Or rather, Present Day, as it should be known for those us who don’t profess any belief in god, go to church, or celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, and just want to get on with the business of spending our hard-earned cash/credit on gifts for loved ones.
Despite appearances, I’m not really one of those “Bah! Humbug!” Christmas grumps. I actually like this time of year a lot. I think it’s important to mark the passing of another year, and to celebrate everything that’s beautiful about the season we’re in. There’s also a lot to look forward to. The days are getting longer again, as the earth’s axis returns its tilt towards the sun, and a new year always presents us with opportunities for renewal.
All of this is great, but what I can’t stand is all the nonsense we’re bombarded with each year. Nothing more so than the story of Jesus’ birth.
Most of the Christian’s I know, no longer think 25 December is the actual day that Christ was born. It’s a belief that’s no longer essential to their identity as modern Christians. And for most moderate and non-practising Christians, the Christian mythology has been superseded in importance by the myth of Santa Claus – another all-knowing, god-like figure with an entourage of special helpers who passes judgement on little children and rewards them for being good. For fundamentalist/evangelical Christians, on the other hand, Christmas has become a time to affirm their faith and personal relationship with God by reminding them of the sacrifice (‘the human sacrifice’) “He” made for them. Despite these differences, what unites both moderates and fundamentalists at this time of year is an overarching Christian identity – a belief that the God of the Bible exists, was incarnated in human form, lived and taught amongst us and died for the sins of humanity. They have these very specific beliefs because that it what the Bible says, and other’s have handed down to them. There’s no escaping this fact. Even those claiming personal experiences of the divine must admit that their experiences only have the meaning they do because they reinforce pre-existing beliefs, which in the case of Christians are rooted in the Bible.
What I find astonishing is the resilience of most Christian’s confidence in the Bible – even when presented with clear examples of its complete incoherence and inaccuracies. The Nativity is a perfect example. How has this completely unbelievable story survived years and years of scholarship? How – given its annual repetition over umpteen centuries – has it not come to be treated by the majority of people as the thoroughly inconsistent, completely implausible, utterly absurd fabrication that it is?
Richard Dawkins has done a much better job than I could ever hope to do is exposing the unbelievable truth about the Nativity, so for the rest of this blog I’ll leave you in his capable hands. But before I do I want to make one final point. The passage, which I quote at length below, is from Dawkin’s book the God Delusion (I cannot recommend it highly enough). In it he deals with scriptural arguments for God’s existence. The point Dawkins makes here so powerfully is that sacred texts such as the Bible should not be trusted as sources of evidence for beliefs – and in fact, cannot and do not offer any evidence for belief. I remember once making this point to a moderate Muslim friend of mine. His response surprised me, because as a defence of sacred texts, what it amounted to was saying that they should not be given the status of sacredness. They are not meant to be factually accurate and should not be taken literally. Their meaning is subject to interpretation. At this point, everyone else at the table wanted us to shut up because we’d been going at it for hours already. What I didn’t get to say to him was that his proposition made absolutely no sense at all: surely he wasn’t suggesting that the Bible or Qur’an had the same status as James Joyce? Clearly not. Scriptures lay down prescriptions on how to live; most literary texts don’t. Scriptures claim to be the words of the divine, and demand acceptance as such from their readers; most literary texts don’t. Though intellectually appealing, his apologist’s reasoning is nothing more than a half-hearted concession to the incredulity of scriptural texts and the beliefs they propagate. In short: Nonsense. My wish this Present Day is that more and more people learn to rid themselves of nonsense.
And with that, over to Dawkins:
“When the gospels were written, many years after Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, nobody knew where he was born. But an Old Testament prophecy (Micah 5:2) had led Jews to expect that the long-awaited Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. In the light of this prophecy, John’s gospel specifically remarks that his followers were surprised that he was not born in Bethlehem: ‘Others said, This is the Christ. But some said, Shall Christ come out of Galilee? Hath not the scripture said, That Christ cometh of the seed of David, and out of the town of Bethlehem, where David was?
Matthew and Luke handle the problem differently, by deciding that Jesus must have been born in Bethlehem after all. But they get there by different routes. Matthew has Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem all along, moving to Nazareth only long after the birth of Jesus, on their return from Egypt where they fled from King Herod and the massacre of the innocents. Luke, by contrast, acknowledges that Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth before Jesus was born. So how to get them to Bethlehem at the crucial moment, in order to fulfil the prophecy? Luke says that, in the time when Cyrenius (Quirinius) was governor of Syria, Caesar Augustus decreed a census for taxation purposes, and everybody had to go ‘to his own city’. Joseph was ‘of the house and lineage of David’ and therefore he had to go to ‘the city of David, which is called Bethlehem.’ That must have seemed like a good solution. Except that historically it is complete nonsense, as A.N. Wilson in Jesus and Robin Lane Fox in The Unauthorised Version (among others) have pointed out. David, if he existed, lived nearly a thousand years before Mary and Joseph. Why on earth would the Romans have required Joseph to go to the city where a remote ancestor had lived a millennium earlier? It is as though I were required to specify, say, Ashby-de-la-Zouch as my home town on a census form, if it happened that I could trace my ancestry back to the Seigneur de Dakeyne, who came over with William the Conqueror and settled there.”
Moreover, Luke screws up his dating by tactlessly mentioning events that historians are capable of independently checking. There was indeed a census under Governor Quirinius – a local census, not one decreed by Caesar Augustus for the Empire as a whole – but it happened too late: in AD 6, long after Herod’s death.
In the December 2004 issue of Free Inquiry, Tom Flynn, the Editor of that excellent magazine, assembled a collection of articles documenting the contradictions and gaping holes in the well-loved Christian story. Flynn himself lists the many contradictions between Matthew and Luke, the only two evangelists who treat the birth of Jesus at all. Robert Gillooly shows how all the essential features of the Jesus legend, including the star in the east, the virgin birth, the miracles, the execution, the resurrection and the ascension are borrowed…from other religions already in existence in the Mediterranean and Near East region….
“Sophisticated Christians do not need Ira Gershwin to convince them that ‘The things that you’re li’ble / To read in the Bible / It ain’t necessarily so’. But there are many unsophisticated Christians out there who think it absolutely is necessarily so – who take the Bible very seriously indeed as a literal and accurate record of history and hence as evidence supporting their religious beliefs. Do these people never open the book that they believe is the literal truth? Why don’t they notice those glaring contradictions? Shouldn’t a literalist worry about the fact that Matthew traces Joseph’s descent from King David via twenty-eight intermediate generations, while Luke has forty-one generations? Worse, there is almost no overlap in the names on the two lists! In any case, if Jesus really was born of a virgin, Joseph’s ancestry is irrelevant and cannot be used to fulfil, on Jesus’ behalf, the Old Testament prophecy that the Messiah should be descended from David.
…The four gospels that made it into the official cannon were chosen, more or less arbitrarily, out of a large sample of at least a dozen including the Gospels of Thomas, Peter, Nicodemus, Phillip, Bartholomew and Mary Magdalen. …The gospels that didn’t make it were omitted by those ecclesiastics perhaps because they included stories that were even more embarrassingly implausible than those in the four canonical ones. The Infant Gospel of Thomas, for example, has numerous anecdotes about the child Jesus abusing his magical powers in the manner of a mischievous fairy, impishly transforming his playmates into goats, or turning mud into sparrows, or giving his father a hand with carpentry by miraculously lengthening a piece of wood.
…Although Jesus probably existed, reputable biblical scholars do not in general regard the New Testament (and obviously not the Old Testament) as a reliable record of what actually happened in history…In the farsighted words of Thomas Jefferson, writing to his predecessor, John Adams, ‘The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.'”
We wait in eager anticipation!
Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, 2006, 118 – 122.
Tom Flynn, ‘Matthew vs Luke’ Free Inquiry 25:1, 2004, 34-45
Robert Gillooly, ‘Shedding light on the light of the world’, Free Inquiry, 25:1, 2004, 27-30