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Life Arts    H1'ed 12/25/19

The Christmas Story: Fact or Fiction?

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Grandchildren are wonderful, and so are Christmas pageants.

Last Sunday, just minutes before the curtain went up on our church's annual play, one of the shepherds (my seven-year-old grandson Orlando) approached me with an urgent question seemingly from out of the blue. "What's the evidence (he used that word) that Jesus ever lived? How do we know," he asked, "that he existed at all? Huh? Huh? Where's the evidence?"

Caught off guard, I replied, "Well, that's complicated. I suppose we have as much evidence as for any figures from the ancient past. How do we know, for instance, that Julius Caesar ever existed?"

With that, Orlando ran off to tend the sheep.

But of course, my answer except for the first part about complications was completely inadequate. It revealed how we elders have dodged sharp questions from our children and grandchildren long enough. We've not been honest with them in answering burning queries concerning the very meaning of life and the nature of the sources we claim to be inspired. As a result, we've driven them away into a world that is consequently (as Caitlin Johnstone has so delicately put it) completely F**ked. That is, we've filled their minds with fictions that pretend to explain the world but that won't finally hold water.

Let's face it: we don't have nearly the evidence for Jesus' existence that we have for Caesar's. And there's good reason for that hard reality -- reason that cuts to the very heart of so many questions about figures from yesteryear and even about our contemporaries. It's why we need "people's histories" like Howard Zinn's.

Fact is, we never know much about poor people from any historical period (including our own). And Jesus left no direct record. He wrote nothing. Possibly he was illiterate.

Moreover, the record-keepers of Jesus time (and the Romans were exquisite about records -- that and building roads and killing people) just weren't interested in the nobodies they ruled, especially in marginal provinces like Israel and especially from towns like Nazareth, a true nowheresville.

Yes, the Romans kept records about their puppet kings and temple collaborators. But even those flunkies weren't interested in the others, much less about the innumerable insurgents they routinely offered for execution with the special process Rome reserved for terrorists crucifixion.

Despite the impression we get from the Christian Gospels (which were written long after the fact) the whole world wasn't watching Jesus' trial and execution, much less his birth. No, there probably wasn't any trial at all. And Jesus' body was likely thrown into a common grave after it was consumed by buzzards and dogs.

So, actually, my response to Orlando's question (if he were capable of understanding it) should have been: "If you're asking about the birth of Jesus and the story you're about to perform on stage . . . No, we don't have any evidence that it happened in the way you'll portray it.

"In fact, the story you're enacting probably didn't take place at all. Most likely, there were no angels or shepherds, magi or guiding star.

"I say that because only Luke and Matthew tell stories like that. They're not found in Mark (the earliest of the Gospels) nor in John, the last one of the four. This means that Mark and John either didn't know of what scholars call "the infancy narratives" (including the virgin birth) or they didn't think the tales important enough to include. And if the Christmas stories actually occurred, neither of those possibilities is very likely.

"You see, the infancy narratives are what scholars call Midrashim or Aggadah interpretative parables based on ancient Jewish texts like Isaiah 7:14, which reads: 'a virgin (actually a young girl) shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel." The stories are invented to make a theological point in this case, that from the beginning Jesus embodied a special manifestation of Israel's God, Yahweh."

Personally, I remember when I was first introduced to Midrashim and Aggadah when I was much older than my seven-year-old grandson. That was something like 55 years ago, when at about 24 years of age, I was beginning my seminary study of ancient biblical texts. I still remember my shock at learning that the story of the Wisemen was Midrashic fiction. What? No magi? No star? No gold, frankincense and myrrh? My mind quickly raced ahead. What then about Jesus' resurrection? Could that be Midrash too? I was deeply threatened and devastated.

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Mike Rivage-Seul is a liberation theologian and former Roman Catholic priest. Retired in 2014, he taught at Berea College in Kentucky for 40 years where he directed Berea's Peace and Social Justice Studies Program.Mike blogs (more...)
 

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15 people are discussing this page, with 21 comments


Mike Rivage-Seul

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These are great stories that totally upend the dominant narratives of our completely screwed up world. If only Christians knew . . .

Submitted on Wednesday, Dec 25, 2019 at 10:00:02 AM

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nelswight

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Merry Christmas to all the Rivage-Seul Families!

Submitted on Wednesday, Dec 25, 2019 at 2:13:06 PM

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Mike Rivage-Seul

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Reply to nelswight:   New Content

Thanks so much, Nels. Merry Christmas to you and your family as well. I hope 2020 will be a great year for you all.

Submitted on Wednesday, Dec 25, 2019 at 2:44:43 PM

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Mohammad Ala

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WOOOHOOOO. Nels is posting again. Merry Christmas.

Submitted on Wednesday, Dec 25, 2019 at 9:26:40 PM

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Marta Steele

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Wonderful words, Mike, and quite a precocious grandson! Merry Christmas to you and yours!

Submitted on Wednesday, Dec 25, 2019 at 6:50:45 PM

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Mike Rivage-Seul

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Marta, always good to connect. I hope this holiday season will be the absolute best for you and those you love.

Submitted on Wednesday, Dec 25, 2019 at 8:12:33 PM

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Janet Supriano

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Thanks for a great article, Mike, and best wishes to all for 2020.

My gift: 6 minutes of levity, reminiscent of my own introduction to the He/She/It that scrambled my brains, too.

:) :) :)

Click Here

Submitted on Wednesday, Dec 25, 2019 at 7:03:34 PM

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Mike Rivage-Seul

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Love it, Janet. Thanks so much. Happy holidays.

Submitted on Wednesday, Dec 25, 2019 at 8:13:27 PM

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David Watts

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Thank you. That brightened up my Christmas Day and got me back to smiling again. :)

Submitted on Wednesday, Dec 25, 2019 at 10:04:24 PM

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Chuck Nafziger

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Merry Christmas to you Mike and your understanding of the Xmas story.

My take is that the story was made up to fit into the Yule tales that have to do with the solstice, a real world, observable occurrence. The timing and the Three Kings pointing to the Son (sun) are obviously references to the stars in Orion's belt pointing to very bright Sirius. That star configuration cannot be missed on clear, late December nights.

However, I cringe at the corporate takeover and the suicidal ritual of giving doubly or triply over packaged junk or toxic sugary food while paying tribute to race-to-the-bottom Amazon and its evil oligarch. The hit on the environment makes the ritual one of slow motion suicide by any realistic analysis. Ad campaigns are so successful that most people know this but do it anyway. As I look behind the curtain at the corporate psyops, by getting folks to knowing go through this religious inspired suicide ritual, they pave the way for more of the madness throughout the coming year. I call it a corporate thing: does it rise to Satanic in your thoughts?

Even as I work hard to earn the coveted, corporate endorsed, Grinch label, my blood sugar hit its highest of 2019 this morning after yesterday's eating all the GMO and Bt laden sugar crap with which my well meaning neighbors have been poisoning me. That included heavenly sweet, green, melt in your mouth "Grinch Poop."

May your Yule be merry and your new year organic, sustainable, and respectful to the Earth!

Submitted on Wednesday, Dec 25, 2019 at 8:53:47 PM

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prsmith

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Happy Saturnalia. . .the reason for the season.

Submitted on Wednesday, Dec 25, 2019 at 10:04:49 PM

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Similar to many things about most religions, Christmas was made up to make people (children) happy and create business opportunity to sell junkie Chinese products.

Christian religion is relatively new in comparison to other religions. It has borrowed many ideas from Zoroastrian religion including the concept of Heaven and Hell.

Heaven and Hell also is a gimmick to trick people to pay Vatican more money.

Submitted on Wednesday, Dec 25, 2019 at 9:32:30 PM

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Robert Gormley

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I doubt Jesus was illiterate. It is said he was teaching the

elders of the temple at the tender age of 12. Will anyone

confess that Jesus was the son of the living God?

Funny how even preachers have a hard time declaring

that.

Submitted on Wednesday, Dec 25, 2019 at 11:47:00 PM

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Tom Calarco

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I've never studied or researched the historical authenticity of JC, but I recall way back when in college, taking Medieval History that his existence was recorded by the Roman historian, Josephus. I can't recall now what Josephus wrote about him, but it wasn't that much.

Submitted on Thursday, Dec 26, 2019 at 4:20:05 AM

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David Wieland

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Thank you for sharing an enlightened view of why the Christmas story has value for all of us, without needing to be factual. You reminded me of an article posted in Quillette yesterday that discusses the great contribution of Christianity to the development of Western democracy.

Submitted on Thursday, Dec 26, 2019 at 6:07:11 AM

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shad williams

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Are you being facetious? I don't see much democracy promoted by the church of Rome for the English, Spanish, Portuguese and French encouraging them to not enslave african humans or to allow them to have a voice in whether to die in passage drinking salt water and later be subjected to Mr. Lynch's deadly instructions to human owners on how to control their property.

I don't see how the old testament or Jesus helped to save those lost souls, do you?

Surely you jest? If so, it is not very humorous.

Please stop.

Submitted on Monday, Dec 30, 2019 at 2:41:24 PM

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David Wieland

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Apparently I unintentionally hit a nerve. The article I linked points to the historical ascendancy of the Christian Church as a moral authority higher than emperors. In other words, a ruler's authority was no longer supreme. Of course, this took time to establish, as have all advancements, moral and otherwise, and there are many black marks along way, as with all human endeavors. Quoting from the article:

"It is easy to look back on Christian history and deride it as nothing but a long parade of inquisitions, crusades and witch hunts. But the events of 390 remind us how Christianity also gave Western societies a universally accessible moral vocabulary to describe good and evil in a way that transcended raw power and the bigotry of tribe."

It's not denying that there's much room for further progress to acknowledge that Christianity has given us an important transnational reference to aid our development.

Submitted on Monday, Dec 30, 2019 at 8:11:08 PM

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Ken Swiatek

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Not But Once A Year

He was just a newborn child

Brought into this world of woe.

Didn't ask to come,

Don't need wise men to tell us so.

"What shall we bring him?"

Said his friends and kin.

"Where shall we search for him?"

Said the people of the world.

The kings proclaimed the Word:

"This birth will save the world!"

But children need a place to play,

And live, and laugh, and grow.

The Father shed a tear

For his baby, newly born.

"Our child needs Love,

Our child needs Peace,

And Hope from this day on."

Next time when you're wondering

What to bring on your sojourn,

Spread some Love,

And brew some Peace,

And Hope from this day on!

And if you're searching

Where to chart your star,

You need not travel distances,

Just start right where you are.

She was just a newborn child "

Ken Swiatek ┬ę

Submitted on Thursday, Dec 26, 2019 at 2:29:07 PM

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911TRUTH

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Jesus is fake but Cheesus is REAL!


(Image by Unknown Owner) Details DMCA

Submitted on Thursday, Dec 26, 2019 at 4:31:34 PM

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linda jordan

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There may not be much written about Jesus in the Roman empire, but isn't it ironic that Constantine adopted Christianity as the religion of the Roman empire.

Submitted on Thursday, Dec 26, 2019 at 11:23:40 PM

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shad williams

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It seems like you gave a more subtle message, which is: somethings are not always what they seem. Another message might be that, there is something good in everything no matter how horrible the consequences are for what it promoted.

I am reminded of all the elites still living off the largesse of their divine rule era.

Submitted on Monday, Dec 30, 2019 at 2:45:38 PM

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