History and the Meaning of Christmas

A historian, examining the information presented to us in ancient sources about the birth and infancy of Jesus, would find little that is of historical value. That he was born is beyond question, if one is indeed persuaded that Jesus existed as a historical figure, but a historian would like to be able to say more, and yet in most cases cannot.

Was Jesus descended from David? The early mention of this fact by Paul suggests that the family had the reputation of descent from David, but anyone who has done family history research will know that such family memories are not always accurate.

Where was Jesus born? Most likely in Nazareth in Galilee. This too provides evidence for Jesus’ existence as a historical figure, since it is hard to imagine early Christians inventing “Jesus of Nazareth” from scratch, necessitating that within decades later Christians would have to struggle to place his birth in Bethlehem in accordance with expectation.

Even if one were inclined to trust the New Testament sources, many traditional notions would still need to be discarded. It is unlikely that Luke’s reference was to a “commercial inn” rather than to a “guest room” in a house. And the chances that Jesus was born on December 25th are, at best, one in 365. But from a historian’s perspective, the conflicting information about the date of the events, the circumstances, Jesus’ genealogy, the family’s geographical movements, and other important details make the Biblical accounts, for all intents and purposes, historically useless.

It remains true that one can appreciate the stories, whose value as cultural classics is most likely beyond question, and whose theological symbolism remains interesting for those who scratch beneath the surface.

But what of those committed to a critical historical investigation? Is there meaning in history? Is there significance in the birth of the historical figure of Jesus?

I’d like to suggest that there is. The meaning I find in the event, the details of which (apart from the brute fact) are lost in the mists of history, is that we cannot fully guess the significance of the events in which we participate. It seems reasonable to surmise that no one, when Jesus was born, envisaged the world 2,000 years later in which we now find ourselves, filled not only with unimaginable technologies and scientific discoveries, but with people whose worship is focused on Jesus! Even if Jesus’ family imagined that perhaps their child might be the Messiah, surely their vision would be, at best, that millenia from then one of their (and his) descendants would still sit on the throne.

Not every choice and action we make will have such significance. But any one of them may. And the significance, eons from now, will surely be nothing we can imagine.

That is a message that profoundly challenges us, as well as offering hope. It is not a message limited to the birth of Jesus. But as this birth has such a prominent place in our time, it is worth allowing this historical message to be heard in, through, and in connection with Christmas.

I’m not sure what I’ll do today that will be of such lasting significance, if anything. But I suspect it is more likely to result from spending time with my family than blogging – although you never know. On that note…


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