Showing posts with label Christmas. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Christmas. Show all posts

Thursday, 17 December 2020

The Man from Two Places

Imagine you were tasked with writing the definitive version of the gospel. You have some version of the Book of Mark available for a large chunk of the narrative, but it doesn’t include all of the new stories that have been floating around, such as Jesus’s post-resurrection appearances, and it also says nothing about his birth.

What’s more, despite the fact that Jesus is said to come from Nazareth in Galilee, there’s another tradition that says he was born in Bethlehem in Judaea. So, how can you incorporate this new tradition into the story and write the narrative of his birth in Bethlehem without contradicting the fact that he came from Nazareth?

Well, if you’re the author of Luke, you begin with Jesus’s parents living in Nazareth but invent a scenario that forces his mother to give birth in Bethlehem and return to Nazareth to raise him. On the other hand, if you’re the author of Matthew, you begin with the couple living in Bethlehem but invent a scenario that forces them to move to Nazareth after he’s born.

Luke's Nativity

The Gospel of Luke tells the story of a girl called Mary living in Nazareth who was betrothed to a man named Joseph. God sent an angel named Gabriel to tell her that she’d give birth to a son despite being a virgin.

Some time after this, the Romans decided to conduct a census, but for some strange reason, they told everyone to return to the town of their ancestors to register. Now, Joseph, the man to whom Mary was engaged, was a descendant of King David who was born in Bethlehem, so he took his pregnant wife and went to Bethlehem to register for the census.

Unfortunately, they couldn’t find a room for the night, and even more unfortunately, Mary went into labour, and thus, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, possibly in a stable (although it doesn’t explicitly say this), and placed in a manger where he was adored by some local shepherds.

After they’d waited a week for Mary to no longer be ‘ceremonially unclean’ from giving birth, they went to Jerusalem to offer a sacrifice, and on the eighth day, the baby was circumcised. After this, they returned to Nazareth.

Matthew's Nativity

Now, the author of Matthew came up with another way to resolve the issue. His story doesn’t mention Mary and Joseph living in Nazareth before Jesus’s birth. The first mention of a location is in Matthew 2:1 where it says that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Judaea, so it’s reasonable to assume that in Matthew’s version, Joseph and Mary were living there to begin with.

Matthew’s account begins by saying that Joseph and Mary were pledged to be married, but when she became inexplicably pregnant, Joseph decided to divorce her. However, an angel visited him and assured him that the child was conceived via the Holy Spirit.

Some time after the child was born, some unspecified number of magi from the east turned up looking for the Messiah, and they inadvertently tipped off King Herod that a new king had been born. The magi visited Jesus and brought him gifts. Meanwhile, Herod, fearing that the newborn king would usurp his throne, sent his men out to kill all the boys aged two and under. Luckily, Joseph was warned about this in a dream, so he and Mary took the baby and fled to Egypt.

Once Herod was dead, an angel came to Joseph in a dream and told him the coast was clear. However, Herod’s son Archelaus was now king, and Joseph was afraid to return to Bethlehem, so, instead, he, his wife, and his son settled outside of Judaea in Nazareth, Galilee.

Bringing them together

These two authors found very different ways to reconcile the conflicting traditions and came up with unique stories. However, both accounts made it into the Bible and have added elements to the Nativity story.

So, the combined version of the story begins in Luke with Mary being visited by Gabriel and being told she’d have a baby. The narrative then switches over to Joseph’s angelic visitation in Matthew. As no location is mentioned at this point in the story, you can claim this took place in Nazareth so as not to contradict Luke. Turning back to Luke, the Roman census brings the couple down to Bethlehem where Mary gives birth in a stable, and the shepherds turn up to adore the baby.

Jumping back to Matthew, some magi from the east come searching for the newborn king, tip off Herod, and then bring the baby gifts of gold, myrrh, and frankincense. In modern retellings of the Nativity, the number of magi is usually given as three because they had three gifts, and they are called either wise men or kings. Also, their visitation is often depicted as concurrent with the shepherds’.

Now, here comes the tricky part. In Luke, the couple observed the ritual purification week, had Jesus circumcised on the eighth day, and then returned home to Nazareth, but in Matthew, they went to Egypt once the magi had left, and it was only after Herod died that they settled in Nazareth. The easiest way to resolve this contradiction is to ignore it by including only one of the endings or leaving them off completely. I mean, it’s much more pleasant to end with the happy couple being brought gifts than it is to have them fleeing from an infanticidal killing spree, right?

Sunday, 22 December 2019

War on Christmas

According to certain American conservative Christians, we atheists are waging a war on Christmas. Apparently, nobody deemed it necessary to tell me this when I went through atheist boot camp. Although this fear that Christmas is somehow under attack seems to be a uniquely American phenomenon, and I’m British and therefore unqualified to comment, I thought I’d weigh in on the issue anyway.

Both the UK and US have a predominantly Christian populace, and, as a result, Christmas has become part of the culture. However, in both nations, there are people who follow other religions with their own festivals, and people who are non-religious.

Here in the UK, that’s not really a problem. Christmas is the most popular festival, so people generally wish each other a merry Christmas, even if they don’t know which festival the other person celebrates, and this greeting is well received, because it’s understood that Christmas is what most people celebrate.

In the US, people also wish each other merry Christmas, but some people opt to say ‘happy holidays’ instead, as they are aware that Christmas isn’t the only holiday celebrated at this time of year. That seems reasonable, right? In a country that was built on immigration by people who came from all corners of the globe (side note: American globes are actually cube-shaped), using a more inclusive greeting seems very fitting.

WRONG! You see, even though wishing somebody happy holidays is a sentiment that translates to, ‘I hope that you enjoy whichever festival you celebrate; I don’t want to assume, but I wish you well anyway’, according to some people, not specifically using the word ‘Christmas’ at the time when they celebrate Christmas is like taking a huge dump on their face, the faces of their children, their sincerely held Christian beliefs, the American flag, and blue-eyed white American Jesus!

Some even go as far as to claim that people are trying to ‘take the Christ out of Christmas’ in the same way that not displaying the Ten Commandments (laws from Judaism and Christianity) in schools and other public buildings is, in some way that nobody can quite explain, evicting the omnipresent God from those places. I bet it never occurred to you that if even one person gives a festive greeting to a Christian that doesn’t include the word ‘Christmas’, they are forced to take down all of their decorations, the Christmas ham is ripped from their mouths, and all of their gifts are confiscated and burned on a pyre built out of the branches of their Christmas tree. Well, you know now, you inconsiderate prick!

The fact of the matter is Christmas, as it’s celebrated today, has little to do with the birth of Christ. The nativity story doesn’t include a scene where Santa flies in with his reindeer, and there were no decorated conifers in the manger. Jesus wasn’t even born in winter, and even if he had been, it’s unlikely that the land would have been covered in snow. And when the magi decided to bring Jesus gifts, it wasn’t after spending several gruelling hours in a department store fighting off other shoppers as they tried to procure the last bottle of myrrh.

The majority of the traditions we associate with Christmas are a product of the cultures that celebrate it, either as continuations of pre-Christian practices or later secular additions. But none of these non-Christian trappings prevent the religious from celebrating Christmas as a religious festival. Churches still have midnight mass, shops still sell manger scenes, and you can still crack open your Bible and read both of the nativity narratives. You can even do all of the secular things and pretend that they have something to do with the birth of Jesus if you like! None of us atheists will hold you at gunpoint and force you to stop, I swear!

I know I’ve treated this topic with my usual sarcastic and cynical tone, but in all honesty, I quite enjoy Christmas. I love spending time with my family, indulging in a bit of gluttony, and giving people presents with the hopes that it will bring them some joy.

No matter what you celebrate this time of year, or even if you don’t celebrate anything, I wish you happiness, religious liberty, and a credit card bill that you can easily afford to pay off in January.