Sunday Perspectives

January 3, 2021

The metamorphosis of religious fiction (1)

Saying it as it is

By Douglas Anele

From experience, I  know that adherents of religion, especially those who benefit from it such as members of the clergy, politicians and others whose livelihoods are connected to the church or mosque, typically respond harshly anytime someone questions the fundamentals of their faith with compelling information and valid arguments.

Muslims are the worst because Islamic scriptures contain copious number of passages that prescribe jihad and other severe punishments for unbelievers, so-called blasphemers and apostates. Even the gullible masses who are victims of religious exploitation usually side with their pastors, imams, prophets, and Daddy GOs because, as Karl Marx wryly remarked more than a century ago, “religion is the opium of the people.”

That said, we are already in the Yuletide season, which provides a good opportunity for critical re-examination of the foundation of Christmas, one of the greatest religious celebrations of humankind. For starters, billions of Christians who celebrate the occasion as the actual birth date of Jesus of Nazareth are blissfully unaware of the impossibility of ascertaining the exact date he was born.

More challenging to the Christian faith are compelling arguments by several outstanding scholars in New Testament exegesis such as David F. Strauss, Alfred Loisy, George Brandes, George Santayana, G. A. Wells, Bertrand Russell and Richard Carrier to the effect that Jesus never existed or that the gospels are not accurate descriptions of actual events because they were compiled belatedly by non-eyewitnesses with a religious agenda and deeply committed already to the emerging Christian faith.

Now, leaving aside issues concerning the historicity of Jesus for the time being, let us focus on the origin of Christmas. The article captioned “The Truth about Christmas” published in Awake by Jehovah’s Witnesses, a somewhat conservative-radical denomination or sect in Christianity, provides a useful introduction to our subject.

Quoting the Encyclopaedia of Religion, the magazine informs that ‘Christmas’ means Christ’s Mass, that is, the mass celebrating the feast of Christ’s nativity or birth. According to The Christmas Encyclopaedia, the establishment of December 25 as Jesus’ birthday did not evolve from biblical precedent but from Roman pagan festivals held towards the end of the year around the time of winter solstice in the northern hemisphere.

Among these were the Saturnalia, in honour of Saturn, god of agriculture, and the combined festivals of two sun gods, the Roman Sol Invictus (Invincible Sun) and the Persian Mithra. Both birthdays were held on December 25 in line with the Julian calendar.

Christianisation of these pagan ceremonies started around the year 350 AD when Pope Julius I declared and canonised that same day to be Christ’s birthday. The nativity of Jesus gradually assimilated other unchristian solstice festivities such that imageries relating to the sun were increasingly adopted to portray the risen Christ known as the Invincible Sun, and the old solar disk became the halo of Christian saints.

But the actual text of Jesus’ birth in the Holy Bible does not indicate clearly the exact date. Instead, it claims (in Luke 2:8) that when Jesus was born shepherds were living outdoors tending their flocks at night around Bethlehem. In the Palestinian region at the time, the cold, rainy season usually began in October, and shepherds, especially in the colder highlands like those in the vicinity of Bethlehem, brought their sheep into protective shelters at night.

The month of December was among the coldest period, sometimes accompanied by snowfall, which implies that it was very unlikely that, as Luke suggests, shepherds would be out at night around the time Jesus was born. Meanwhile, the metamorphosis of Christmas into a fundamental pillar of Christian observance is somewhat baffling. In the gospels Jesus neither celebrated his birthday nor instructed his disciples and followers to do so.

According to Awake, “the early Christians, many of whom had accompanied Jesus in his ministry, never celebrated his birth. Rather, in harmony with his command they commemorated his death.” Yet it is not only the date of Christmas that lacks biblical warrant or justification – the other things associated with its celebration, including Santa Claus, Christmas tree, partying, feasting and exchange of gifts, are mostly of unchristian or pagan origin.

In their very interesting book, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh & Henry Lincoln corroborate the notion that Christmas originated from paganism. They point out that, of the four gospels in the New Testament, only Matthew and Luke contain narratives about Jesus’ origin and birth.

Even so, the two accounts are at odds with each other to the extent that they can be plausibly interpreted as actually referring to two different individuals. In Matthew, for instance, Jesus was an aristocrat; probably a legitimate claimant to the kingship of Israel, being a descendant of David through Solomon. On the other hand, Luke’s gospel claims that Jesus’ family, though descended from the house of David, was of a somewhat less exalted stock; and it is on the basis of Mark’s account that the legend of the poor carpenter emerged.

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Joachim Kahl, a former Protestant theologian, did not discuss the birth of Jesus explicitly in his book, The Misery of Christianity. However, what he says about the historicity of Jesus is quite instructive. He accepts, tentatively, that the Jew called Jesus of Nazareth was probably a historical figure, but that he was deified and raised to the level of a celestial being by his followers after his incomprehensible death, an idea which suggests that the celebration of Jesus’ birthday could be part of that pious extravagant interpolation or metamorphosis.

Another writer who believes that available historical source materials are inadequate for reaching any definitive conclusion concerning Jesus, including his birthday, is Alfred Reynolds. In Jesus versus Christianity, he points out that if one relies on historical sources, nothing is known with certainty about Jesus (Yeshua).

That is largely because “The New Testament cannot be regarded as a historical record since the extant copies were written by believers in foreign countries and in Greek over almost a hundred years after the events they describe.” In addition the synoptic gospels “are too full of contradictions and miraculous stories to be accepted as historical documents.

The great Roman historians of the first and second centuries do not know of the man Jesus.” Therefore, logically if according to Reynolds no definitively true proposition can be established from historical research about Jesus, then no one can say for certain the date of his birth.

The historian and biblical archaeologist, James D. Tabor, tries in his work, The Jesus Dynasty, to piece together a plausible phenomenology or storyline of the life of Jesus and origins of Christianity. His account of the birth of Jesus is a reconstruction of gospel stories which reflects a historian’s attempt to demythologise the biblical Jesus and present a realistic or probable account of what might have happened.

In that regard, Tabor discountenances the alleged supernatural origin of Jesus’ conception through a careful reading of the gospels in the light of recent archaeological and historical discoveries.  He suggests that the virgin birth story could be an attempt to address a shockingly real situation – Mary’s pregnancy before her marriage to Joseph.

Based on archaeological evidence, Tabor hints at the tantalising possibility that Jesus probably was the illegitimate child of a Jewish Roman soldier named Tiberius Julius Abdes Pantera. Going through his re-reading of New Testament stories about Jesus’ birth and ancestry, it is obvious Tabor does not accept the nativity story as an accurate or factual representation of real historical events.

Going back to the mythological dimension of Christmas, the core idea behind it is that of the virgin birth of Jesus as recounted in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. In Jewish tradition, such an idea is an aberration.

But it developed into a cornerstone of Christian theological dogma in early Christianity, so that for millions of believers today “any suggestion that Jesus was conceived through the normal process of human sexual reproduction, even if somehow sanctified by God, is viewed as scandalous if not outright heresy.”

Now, the notion that certain humans (almost always men) were fathered by supernatural entities or gods was commonplace in Greco-Roman and Mediterranean cultures. Examples include Plato, Empedocles, Hercules, Pythagoras, and Alexander the Great. These “paradigmatic individuals,” are separated from “ordinary mortals” by their supernatural births, ability to perform miracles and extraordinary death.

A plausible conjecture with respect to Jesus is that his pioneer followers, convinced that he was as exalted and heavenly as any of the Mediterranean heroes and gods, appropriated existing stories of supernatural birth and applied it to the Nazarene, an effective pragmatic strategy that must have attracted adherents of other pre-existing religions that had the same belief to the emerging Christian faith.

The apotheosis of Jesus goes even deeper: with time he metamorphosed into the eternal son of god as part of the Christian trinitarian godhead. The noted British historian, Arnold Toynbee, has chronicled the astonishing and complex labyrinthine transformation of an “apparently powerless carpenter” into a human-saviour god as Pauline Christianity absorbed the mythological elements of primitive Mediterranean religions, especially of Egyptian pharaohs begotten from their mothers by a god. It must be mentioned in passing that, on the evidence of Christian scriptures, Jesus himself, like any typical pious orthodox Jew, rejected the suggestion that he was divine in any sense.


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