Yikes! Newsweek has done it again. For at least the third time in several decades, the national bi-weekly has trekked into a religious Twilight Zone, leaving a portion of the community of faith sprouting sweaty palms … and in the process doing inquiring minds a favor.

Here’s the exposé. In the December 17, 2012, issue, Newsweek’s cover story, “Who was Jesus?”, posed questions disputing a select bevy of enshrined views of the gospel nativity narratives. To wit: “Why was Jesus born in Bethlehem? Was the birth in a barn or a cave? How many ‘Wise Men’?” And the latest bombshell, “Did Jesus have a wife?” All this has left more than a few believers asking, “Is nothing sacred?” You really have to read it!

The questions above may seem threatening to many moderns. Others, however, who have been gifted by progressive biblical interpretation, may conclude, “So, what else is new?” To church history buffs, the queries above are at least as old as the Enlightenment, with perhaps the exception of the question of whether Jesus would have checked “S” or “M” in the marital box of a Roman census (assuming the recently discovered eight-line Coptic papyrus fragment from the 4th century C.E. suggesting that Jesus had a wife passes the “hoax” sniff test).

We should give Newsweek its due for pulling the covers on some of the more popular mythologies surrounding the Nativity, and pointing us in the direction of a more informed, biblical faith. It may come as a surprise, even a shock to some, to learn that many of the images of the popularized Nativity Story are simply the product of tradition’s sanctified guesswork and/or cultural accretions. For example, at the original Birth there were no Christmas trees, or ornaments, or red ribbons, or mincemeat pie, or wreaths, or Muzak, or mistletoe, or snowmen and reindeer, or Santa, or eggnog, or churches and liturgies; even the term “Christmas” is itself a somewhat bungled abbreviation of the centuries-old “Christ’s Mass.” These and other familiar cosmetics of our modern Nativity celebration exist because people from numerous cultures found them expressive, attractive, and useful in celebrating their faith, and they carry their own unique imprimatur on them.

Moreover, remember that while there are four Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — only two of them, Matthew and Luke, have a Nativity Story, as Newsweek reminded us. And those two accounts are not identical by any stretch of the imagination. For example, Matthew has the Wise Men, the Star, but no shepherds and no angels or celestial choir, and seems to place the birth in a house, not in a manger. Luke, on the other hand, has the manger, angels, and celestial choir, but no Wise Men. When we typically celebrate Christmas it is an enriching harmonized version. The point here is that the variations appear less as “contradictions” than evidence that the different Gospel authors were selective in their choice/use of source materials, and were less concerned with factuality than with shaping the Story their Gospel was intended to tell. This will not be new information to those whose faith communities have kept abreast of the evolving trends in biblical scholarship.

A nod in the direction the Wise Men is helpful here. At the outset we can stipulate that the most compelling supposition for the tradition of only three Wise Men is that three known gifts were brought to the Child — gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Ipso facto, three gifts equals three Wise Men. That logic is neat, though flawed, but it is now indelible in the Christmas tradition, and Newsweek is correct to challenge it. While we’re at it, let’s walk through another door here. Fr. Raymond Brown, the splendid Roman Catholic biblical theologian, has written a provocative book, The Birth of the Messiah.[1] He suggests that the term “wise men” is a too romantic, even misleading, designation. The original Greek in which Matthew was written calls the wise men “magi,” and a footnote on this word in the New Revised Standard Version says they were “a learned class in ancient Persia.” Actually, says Fr. Brown and others, the term “magi” covered a duke’s mixture of astrologers, fortune-tellers, palm readers, and magicians, all with varying degrees of credibility. Simply put, “magi” ranged all the way from serious students of the stars to snake oil salesmen, and the Jewish community to which Matthew is writing likely considered magi a lunatic fringe. Consequently , the magi would represent the essence of Gentile idolatry, and religious “wacko-ism.” We also know that gold, frankincense, and myrrh were part of the hokus-pokus of their trade. Consequently, the magi were not the “We Three Kings of Orient are.” Instead, they probably were closer to your good old country-variety horoscope and psychic hot-line junkies, sincere but not necessarily well informed about serious religious matters. Yet — here they are in Matthew’s gospel, star-gazers on a mission. However, their GPS is not functioning because they wind up nine miles north of Bethlehem, and are forced to ask directions from King Herod. Eventually, they find the Child, offer up their treasures of gold/ frankincense/myrrh, and finally return home another way because they believed a dream they had. Let me ask you: is that how you would begin a story about the birth of Jesus? … with magicians? What do they know? They are the wrong race — and especially the wrong religion. Which, of course, is the point.

Biblical scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan reminds us that the birth stories can be read as neither fact nor fable, but as parable.[2] That is, the serious reader of the Nativity asks, not whether they happened factually the way they are described, but what do they mean? Look at the birth narratives through new eyes. In choosing a Child say both Matthew and Luke, God chose us all. In the inclusion of shepherds and magi, God says, “You don’t have to pass ‘tests’ of nationality, race, or tradition. Divine acceptance is simply for the asking.” God’s limitless love is our Good News. Isn’t that a relief!

—John Smith

[1] Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (New York: Doubleday and Co., 1977), 188-200. See also Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2005), 73-76.

[2]Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Birth (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2007), 25-53.

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