The Christmas Story: What's Real--and What's Not
Fact or folklore: Part IV in a series about the Nativity
Did it really happen? Did the angel Gabriel really appear to Mary to tell her she was to be the virgin mother of the Son of God? Do virgin births really occur anywhere except in mythology and fairy tales? Did Herod really slaughter the innocent children in his attempt to remove the threat of a newborn king? Did a star really appear in the sky when Jesus was born? Did that star really travel at a pace so slow that wise men could follow it from wherever they came from all the way to Bethlehem? Did these magi really offer gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the infant? Did a heavenly host really sing to hillside shepherds when the child was born?
Did it really happen? Or are these narratives a kind of religious Santa Claus story, not meant to be taken literally?
For most of the first 1,700 years of Christian history, the unchallenged answer to each of these inquiries would have been a resounding yes. Human beings lived then in a prescientific world of miracle and magic. The faith story, rooted as it was in the past, wove into its central fabric tales of wonder without either hesitation or embarrassment. But in the last 400 years of Western history, we have experienced an enormous intellectual revolution that has changed dramatically the way we view the world in which we live.
Our world does not admit of heavenly signs that broadcast events on earth, nor do we admit that there is such a thing as a supernatural or miraculous birth. We know that the story of a Santa Claus who travels through the sky is not literal truth, and we have come to suspect that neither is the story of Jesus' birth.
So, modern people face the "Did it really happen?" question about these Christmas stories and answer it with an increasingly clear No! No, these things did not really happen. No, they are not literal. They did not occur in history, and it is time for the leaders of the church to say so openly. The fact is that no reputable biblical theologian today, Catholic or Protestant, is willing to defend the historical accuracy of the details of the biblical birth stories.
When one goes deeply into these texts, it also becomes obvious that even the original authors of Matthew and Luke never intended their stories to be accounts of something that actually happened. That is something Western believers have imposed on these biblical texts. It was Dr. Jeffrey John, a New Testament scholar in the United Kingdom, who first identified these birth narratives for me as "haggadic midrash," by which he meant that they are part of the ongoing Jewish storytelling tradition crafted out of the pieces of the Jews' sacred past. They were designed to introduce Jesus, who in his adult life made people believe that a God presence had appeared in human history, in a unique way into this life. They were not intended to say anything factual about the details of his birth.