(image courtesy paper model kiosk)
By Spencer D Gear PhD
Some of these details were published in my article, Make-believe and celebrations: Christmas message ignored, (Online Opinion, 24 December 2018).
Is this the truth about the origins of Christmas? Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker wrote: ‘Christmas—whether it is observed for religious or seasonal reasons or just for the hell of it—is in its origins and in its imagination and its implications indissolubly syncretist’ (Why wage a war on Christmas? 2018).
Syncretism is ‘the attempted reconciliation or union of different or opposing principles, practices, or parties, as in philosophy or religion’ (dictionary.com 2018. s.v. syncretism). So Gopnik’s view on Christmas origins is that of someone who wants to combine opposing principles or beliefs. Is that where Christmas began? Is it a mixture of beliefs of the pagan gods, Santa and his reindeer, profiteering and the baby in the manger?
It is unlikely that syncretism will get to the core of Christmas origins. It will not be joyous but toxic. O’ Come Let Us Adore Him is not likely to be a prominent theme.
In 2017, objections to Christmas came from a different quarter. The Sunshine Coast Daily in Queensland reported:
A ‘JESUS ban’ in public schools has sparked fury from [Sunshine] Coast MPs, after reports kids swapping Christmas cards, making Christmas tree decorations or bracelets could be censored.
The Australian reported an unofficial policy from the Queensland Department of Education and Training had identified junior evangelism as an issue to be stamped out, following a Departmental review into GodSpace religious instruction materials.
“The notion of trying to take pictures of Jesus out of Christmas cards is ludicrous,” Fairfax MP Ted O’Brien said, fuming at the reported edict.
“What do they think Christmas stands for? Are they going to try and take Christ out of the word Christmas next?
“I don’t think Australians should cop such political correctness. I think it’s ridiculous”….
The department [of Education] “expects schools to take appropriate action if aware that students participating in RI are evangelising to (sic) students who do not” in Queensland public schools.
“This could adversely affect the school’s ability to provide a safe, supportive and inclusive environment,” the report read.
Examples of evangelising reported as being in the review and two other previous reviews included exchanging Christmas cards referring to Jesus’s birth, making Christmas tree decorations and beaded bracelet gifts in order to share the good news about Jesus (Sawyer 2017).
(image courtesy The Leo House)
In the profiteering and commercialism of Christmas, what is the truth that is missed?
The charade that covers up these truths
Is the biblical Christmas story wrapped in history or myth? To unwrap this, see my article, The Virgin Birth: Fact, Fiction, or Something Else?
In this season, lost is the realisation that Christmas is first of all a celebration of the birth of the Saviour. He is all but forgotten – thoughtlessly smothered in the haste, commotion, partying and flamboyant marketing of this season.
Please don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting that Christmas should be only solemn, sombre, grim religious observances without any cheer. It should be a time of real joy and gladness as exemplified in the Christmas carol with words by Isaac Watts and music by George Frederick Handel:
Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing.
This is not manufactured sentiment and wild revelry that characterises the way the community celebrates Christmas.
This Christmas truth is covered up
What do Santa, reindeer, lights and Christmas trees disguise?
(1) The virgin birth, including its prophetic fulfillment
Even from within the church, former Roman Catholic priest, John Dominic Crossan objected: ‘The stories of Jesus’ birth are religious fiction, or parable, if you prefer…. This does not mean that they have no value, but … they are not to be read as literal history’ (Crossan & Watts 1999:10).
Objections are at the core of the Christmas story. Even Mary was a doubter herself about the virgin conception. The angel Gabriel appeared to a virgin in Nazareth who was pledged to marry Joseph. Gabriel’s message was that Mary was ‘highly favoured. The Lord is with you’. Those words disturbed Mary and she was ‘greatly troubled’ by what the words meant.
The angel told her that she would conceive and give birth to a son to be called Jesus. He will be ‘the Son of the Most High’, given the throne of his father David, and reign over Jacob’s descendants forever. This kingdom will never end (Luke 1).
Then Mary’s fears rose like today’s sceptics. ‘How will this be,’ Mary asked the angel, ‘since I am a virgin?’ The angel answered, ‘The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God’ (Luke 1:34-35).
Why is there resistance from Mary down to Dom Crossan in the late twentieth century?
(a) In a materialistic, commercial age dominated by naturalistic explanations, many find it more difficult to believe in a virgin conception than Jesus’ walking on water. Since God is so omnipotent he could speak the heavens and the earth into existence (Gen 1:1), doubt about God’s powerful actions has crept into our society through evolutionary theories. A flow on is resistance to the virgin birth.
(b) No matter one’s worldview, we live in a miraculous world where God’s providence means ‘he causes his sun to shine on evil people and good people. He sends rain on those who do right and those who don’t’ (Matt 5:45 NIRV). It would be sound thinking during this Christmas season to understand the everyday miracles we need to survive, including the air we breathe and the power of gravity. What happens when the rains are not sent by almighty God – for his reasons?
(c) Genuine Bible prophecy is held in low regard. This miraculous event was prophesied in the Old Testament (OT). The history of the Western world turns on this result, the division of BC to AD.
The Christ child’s birth in Bethlehem was prophesied in Micah 5:1-2 that he would be born in Bethlehem, 700 years before his birth. And it happened as predicted.
Yet sceptics respond with this type of question: ‘Where is the evidence that “Messianic prophecies of the OT weren’t manufactured after Jesus birth, life and death by his disciples”?
Paul Williams, British blogger and convert to Islam, posed this question:
There is evidence they [Jesus’ disciples] did [make stuff up] from time to time. Consider Matthew 2 [v.23] for example:
“There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean.’
”There is no such prophecy anywhere in the Bible (in Jimmy Akin, Did Matthew *Invent* A Prophecy About Jesus? 2012, emphasis in original).
It’s important to note How Matt 2:23 cites the OT: ‘… what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled …’ The specific quote is not found in any OT prophet. Was Matthew wrong with this statement?
An answer is found in what Matthew stated. He did not quote a specific prophet but referred to ‘prophets’. It would be fruitless to try to find a particular prophet who stated this about Nazareth when Matthew used the general, ‘prophets’. Geisler & Howe (1992:328) provide evidence of how Jesus fulfilled the righteous requirements of the OT law, which included fulfilling the Nazarite vow.
One fact removes the possibility that Jesus’ disciples read the OT prophecy back into the NT – after the fact. This evidence is in the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran, Israel, on the west bank of the Dead Sea. In 1946-47, Bedouin shepherd boys found every book of the OT except Esther in desert caves. Here is proof that the Messianic prophecies predated the incarnation of Jesus. Copies of Isaiah, Psalm 22, Daniel 9 and other OT prophecies have been dated to 335-100 BC by paleography, scribal and carbon 14 dating – secular methods. This was a significant find because it demonstrated the fulfillment of the prophecies was not manipulated by Jesus’ disciples.
(image courtesy imgurmax.pw)
Isaiah 7:14 prophesied: ‘Therefore the Lord himself will give you [plural] a sign: the virgin [or, young woman] will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel [meaning, ‘God with us’]. This was confirmed – not invented – in Matthew 1:22-23.
You couldn’t believe the academic and other theological gymnastics that surround the meaning of ‘virgin’, with some wanting to translate it as a ‘young woman’ and not inferring virginity. In Isa 7:14, the Hebrew word used is almah whose root meaning could be either ‘maiden’ (virgin) or ‘young woman’.
Here is one example of the resistance to the virgin conception from Bob Seidensticker (2013):
“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (Matt. 1:23).
Matthew documents the fulfillment of a prophecy written 750 years earlier. Powerful evidence of the truth of the Bible?
Well … no. The first reason is the reason by which anyone would reject a claimed prophecy: the evidence of the fulfillment is not independent but comes only through authors (of Matthew and Luke) who one must assume had read the prophecy. They had motive and opportunity to claim a fulfillment where none existed.
But was that quote from Isaiah even a prophecy of a messiah? You’d expect something like, “The LORD God understands the burdens of His people and will send a savior. And ye shall know him by this sign: the virgin will give birth to a son” and so on.
Here’s what that chapter of Isaiah is actually talking about. In the early 700s BCE, Syria and Israel allied with nearby countries for protection against Assyria, the local bully that was vacuuming up smaller states. Judea refused to join the alliance. Syria and Israel, fearing a potential enemy at their rear, moved to conquer Judea.
God spoke through the prophet Isaiah to tell the king of Judea that, with faith, his enemies would be destroyed. Isaiah gives him a sign: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (7:14). Before the boy is old enough to understand right from wrong, Syria and Israel will be destroyed.
In speaking to this opposition to Isa 7:14 being fulfilled in Jesus, Messiah and Emmanuel, it is important to note that OT prophecies mostly have a double fulfillment:
‘Few laws are more important to observe in the interpretation of prophetic Scriptures than the law of double reference. Two events, widely separated as to the time of their fulfillment, may be brought together into the scope of prophecy’ (Pentecost 1958:56).
See the excellent article by David Jeremiah that explains this more fully: ‘The principle of double fulfillment in interpreting Scripture‘.
This is the case with Isa 7:14. The immediate relevance of this verse is spelled out in the context. It dealt with the Lord speaking to King Ahaz. The son born to the young woman,’before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right’, was a sign that the land of the two kings that Ahaz dreaded would be deserted and the Lord would bring prosperity to Ahaz and his people (Isa 7:15ff).
Was this son born to a virgin or young woman?
Old Testament scholar, Gleason Archer (1982:269), stated, ‘It is … not as precise a word for virgin as the Hebrew bethulah’ (see Gen 24:16). However, for the seven times the singular almah is used in the Hebrew OT, the word always refers to a woman who has had no sexual relations – a virgin. We know from the Isa 7:14 fulfillment in Matt 1:24 that Joseph had no sexual liaison with Mary ‘until she had given birth to a son’.
When the Hebrew OT was translated into Greek (the Septuagint) about 250 BC by seventy Jewish scholars, parthenos was used to translate almah, which can only be translated as virgin and not young woman. This also is the case in Matt 1:23 where the Greek for ‘virgin’ is parthenos. The Greeks used numphe for bride or young woman.
Why is the virgin birth important in the records of the first Christmas? Am I nit picking in emphasising Jesus’ virgin birth rather than his birth to a young woman? Not at all! There are at least five reasons why the virgin birth is important to Christianity (suggested by Don Stewart):
Because Mary ‘was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit’ (Matt 1:18), it guaranteed his heavenly identity of being God the Son.
Jesus lived a sinless life since there was no sexual liaison between a male and a female for his conception. With a human father, he would have inherited a sinful nature. The sin nature is passed down through the male as it was Adam who was responsible for the first sin of disobedience (Gen 3; Rom 5:12). The virgin birth guarantees that Jesus ‘appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin’ (1 John 3:5). No sinful human being could guarantee cleansing from sin.
For the cleansing of human sin, God required a perfect sacrifice in the OT (Ex 12:5) and the sinless Jesus, with his crucifixion, was a sin offering for Christian believers (2 Cor 5:21). Hebrews 7:26 confirms that Jesus was a high priest who truly meets our need because he was the ‘one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens’. This was possible because of his virgin birth.
Christ’s unparalleled attributes are revealed in Scripture. Don Stewart’s summary of this uniqueness is:
What the virgin birth does is show the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. No one else has ever come into the world the same way as Jesus. The unique and miraculous nature of Jesus carried on through His entire life. His birth was a miracle, His public ministry consisted of miracles, Jesus miraculously lived a sinless life, He miraculously came back from the dead, and left this world in a miraculous way. From His entrance into this world until His departure, the life of Jesus Christ was a miracle.
The historically reliable Bible confirms Jesus’ virgin birth. See my articles: (a) Can you trust the Bible, part 1? (b) Can you trust the Bible, part 2? (c) Can you trustthe Bible, part 3? (d) Can you trust the Bible, part 4?
With commercialised Christmases, these core elements are ignored and replaced.
(2) The meaning of nativity
Nativity is a special name for a baby’s birth place. If I was born in Brisbane, you could say my nativity was in Brisbane. However, it predominately refers to Christians’ pointing to the birth place of Jesus Christ. Nativity ‘comes from the French word nativité, which also means “birth.” The Latin root word is nativus, “born or native“’.
Often Christian nativity scenes include the Christ child in the manger, Mary and Joseph, shepherds, some barn animals, three magi and angels.
Should there have been angels in the first nativity scene? Luke 2:8-9 informs us that the shepherds were out in the fields watching their flocks at night when an angel appeared to announce the Messiah’s arrival. The shepherds ‘were terrified’. So the angels should not appear in a nativity scene.
As a passing comment, to talk about angels appearing today could cause great anguish amongst many because we don’t believe in that such characters. They are made for movies!
To the contrary, the Bible teaches that ‘angels are only servants—spirits sent to care for people who will inherit salvation’ (Heb 1:14). We hear about the dark side of evil angels (demons) today, but discussion of angels is far from our thinking of reality.
The late Billy Graham wrote a book on Angels: God’s Secret Agents. He said angels are real, are not the product of our imagination, and ‘if we had open spiritual eyes we would see not only a world filled with evil spirits and powers—but also powerful angels with drawn swords, set for our defense’.
Corrie ten Boom, who harboured Jews and others in her house’s basement in Holland during the Nazi Holocaust, wrote:
Are there angels here on earth? What do they look like? Do they have any influence on the history of mankind? Do they really have anything to do with the lives of human beings? The Bible writers believed in them and thought they were important because they wrote about them hundreds of times, much more than about evil spirits and Satan. So why do we hear so little about them these days? (God is Still a God of Miracles)
These dimensions of the Christmas story are ignored, by-passed or laughed at when commercialisation crushes Christmas.
(3) The star guided the magi
(image courtesy Crystalinks)
Often in nativity scenes, there are three wise men (magi) accompanying the manger, Jesus, Joseph and Mary. The setting is in a stable. Jesus may have been born in such a place but it is as probable that he was born in a house’s lower level where there were animals sheltering for the night.
Luke 2:7 states: ‘She gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn’. It was in the kataluma (Greek word), which is best understood as ‘the guest room’. It was not a commercial lodging for which Luke had a word, pandokheion, which he didn’t use.
Which new mother with her firstborn would want to give birth in a public inn?
Even though the wise men often show up in nativity scenes for Jesus’ birth, the evidence points to the magi visiting Jesus later. It is difficult to create a time line for their visit to Jesus. We know the situation when King Herod found out about the city where the Messiah was born and sent the magi to find him:
Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in that entire region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. (Matt 2:16).
This is an indicator that Jesus was a young child, under 2-years of age, when Herod realised he had been deceived by the magi and then issued this edict to kill all male children in that age group.
Can the star that guided the wise men be identified? While the regular Greek word for ‘star’ was used, the text of Matt 2:1-11 doesn’t name the star. It appeared only to the magi, so it would be reasonable to assume it was no ordinary star because of its purpose of identifying the location of the baby Messiah.
(4) Jesus born to die a sacrificial death
Every human being is born to die: ‘Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment’ (Heb 9:27). What was subdued in emphasis at that first Christmas was what the angel told Joseph, husband of Mary.
An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins (Matt 1:21-22).
However, Jesus of Bethlehem was born to be Jesus, the crucified One, who ‘will save his people from their sins’. This is glossed over at Christmastime. The real meaning of Easter is like a hand in glove event with Christmas.
I met a person recently who said: You Christians always (hyperbole) talk about sin. Please quit it! The reason sin (breaking God’s law) is an issue is because it is what separates all sinners from God. We needed a sinless, perfect sacrifice to bridge the gap between a holy and just God and human beings. Jesus, the baby in the manger, grew to become that sacrifice so that all who believe (trust) in Jesus may receive forgiveness and eternal life.
These are God’s requirements and not those any human being formulated.
(5) The baby was the wonderful counsellor, mighty God, everlasting Father and prince of peace (Isa 9:6).
(image courtesy flickr.com)
This prophecy from Isaiah has a question that needs answering among the Christmas glitz.
How can the second person of the Trinity, God the Son, be prophesied to be the ‘everlasting Father’? At first sight, it sounds contradictory. How can the Son be the Father?
It is doubtful ‘everlasting Father’ is the best translation of the Hebrew, abiad, which literally means ‘Father of eternity’. The first part of Isa 9:6 stresses the incarnation, ‘For to us a child is born, to us a son is given….’ So ‘Father of eternity’ refers to the ‘Author of eternity’, from the beginning of time/creation to the consummation of all things. ‘This title points to Christ as Creator of the world’ (Archer 1982:268) as indicated by John 1:3, ‘All things came into being through Him….’
(6) The baby who started Christianity and its peaceful spread
Christianity spreads through peaceful proclamation. Any other way is an aberration, e.g. the Crusades, John Calvin’s endorsement of the death penalty for Servetus who was not a Trinitarian, and support of slavery. Christianity is not spread through force or violence.
Even an atheist/agnostic such as scientist, Richard Dawkins, inferred the benefits of Christianity. A Fox News headline was, ‘Atheist Richard Dawkins warns against celebrating the alleged demise of Christianity in Europe’. Why would Dawkins, an anti-Christian, say this?
‘Before we rejoice at the death throes of the relatively benign Christian religion, let’s not forget Hilaire Belloc’s menacing rhyme: ‘Always keep a-hold of nurse – For fear of finding something worse….
Dawkins has previously voiced concern over the decline of the Christian faith, “in so far as Christianity might be a bulwark against something worse,” which he echoed in his tweet’.
(image courtesy pinterest)
The baby born to the virgin Mary at Bethlehem is the Messiah who is the ‘prince of peace’ and Christianity’s spread worldwide is based on its theology, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God’ (Matt 5:9).
As illustrated above, all kinds of excuses and revelry – whether deliberate or going with the flow – have made the Christmas season one of celebrations while the truth is smothered.
This truth includes the Messiah born to the virgin Mary in Bethlehem, a Saviour who was prophesied by OT prophets.
He was born to die – not a normal death – and shed his blood on a Golgotha cross to provide salvation for the world.
This same Jesus will return triumphantly: ‘For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first’ (1 Thess 4:16 NIV).
Geisler, N & Howe, T 1992. When critics ask: A popular handbook on Bible difficulties. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books.
Pentecost, J D 1958. Things to come. Findlay, Ohio: Dunham Publishing Company.
Sawyer, S 2017. No Christ in Christmas next? School ‘Jesus ban’ sparks fury. Sunshine Coast Daily (online), 27 July. Available at: https://www.sunshinecoastdaily.com.au/news/no-christ-in-christmas-next-school-jesus-ban-spark/3205543/ (Accessed 21 December 2018).
Seidensticker, B 2013. Virgin Birth of Jesus: Fact or Fiction? Patheos: Cross Examined (online), 3 December. Available at: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined/2013/12/virgin-birth-of-jesus-fact-or-fiction/ (Accessed 21 December 2018).
Copyright © 2018 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 21 December 2018.