Controversial Christmas Carols

In groundbreaking but controversial research, historians are challenging this historicity of the account of the arrival of the magi offered in “I Saw Three Ships.”

Archaeologist and New Testament scholar Bob Carlung, who has spent his life investigating the historic topography of the Holy Land, said in a recent interview, “It is simply unfeasible that there was a waterway for ships leading to Bethlehem in the first century. Not only is there no text that refers to such a canal or river flowing into the town, nor physical evidence of the same, but there is not even a wadi that would have flooded seasonally or even occasionally that could have served to bring three ships from the East to Bethlehem by any known route.”

Kenneth Bacon, of the organization Answers in Hymnal, takes a very different stance. “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. There is no reason to believe that a freak tsunami could not have occurred, carrying three ships inland from the Mediterranean to Jerusalem, where the Gospels say they arrived first. From there they would have dragged the ships, as was the custom in those times. Clearly this work by ‘historians’ is based on naturalist presuppositions and is little more than an attack on the foundation of Christianity, its authoritative, inerrant music.”

Theologian and New Testament scholar Lucas Romulan emphasized that it is not only possible but important to appreciate the meaning of the carol without resorting to such literalist harmonization tactics, and without being overly disturbed by historians’ skepticism. “Having the magi travel to Jerusalem or Bethlehem via the Mediterranean when coming from the East only salvages the factual character of the carol’s geographic and seafaring claims at the expense of other more important elements. After all, if they came by that route, could we really categorize them as wise men any longer?”

Conservative Christian apologist Saxon De Geyter proposed yet another alternative viewpoint. “Camels in those times were referred to as ‘ships of the desert.’ If one treats the reference as being to camels rather than boats, then the problem disappears and the factual truthfulness of the carol is preserved intact.”

While theologians and scholars continue to debate, many of the faithful remain unshaken in their faith. “We have celebrated Christmas the same way every year for as long as I can remember,” said the 87-year old Doris Pewarmer, longtime member of the First Carolingian Church in Nashville, Tennessee. “I grew up being taught that the carols are true. As a child, I always played the smallest boat arriving in Bethlehem in our annual Christmas pageant. The ship of my faith in the traditional carols is not going to be swayed by these tiny breezes from historians and scholars. You ask me how I know they sailed? They sail within my heart!”

  • http://www.facebook.com/thatjeffcarter Jeff Carter

    Next, I suppose, you’re going to tell me that the little Lord Jesus DID cry when cattle woke him.  Humbug.

  • Gary

    Government warning label attached, “any attempt to confirm references will be futile”.

  • Cliff Martin

    It may come as a surprise to you, James, but I have actually abandoned the literalist view in favor of a more liberal mythological understanding. I suspect that the “three ships” legend grew up around certain oral traditions in earlier times, and were never intended to be understood literally. I know for some of the faithful, this can involve an arduous paradigm shift, and calls to question other cherished beliefs, but it so much more in line with all the data.   

  • http://cognitivediscopants.wordpress.com Chris M

    James, this is brilliant.
    Although I can’t help but notice that the argument against literal ships rests on uniformitarian assumptions. Just because ships can’t sail on sand today, doesn’t mean they couldn’t 2000 years ago.

  • http://anumma.com/ Anumma

    If you retrovert the story into its original Aramaic, and take every seventh letter, you get the words “three,” “Plymouth,” and “Nina.” Or do you not believe that God is powerful enough to present us a pointless, centuries-too-late prophecy to shame unbelievers and make us feel special?

  • Anonymous

    As a hymnal believing Christian, I find this post very disturbing. Once we stop accepting “three ships” as literal, then what is to stop us from saying that God’s grace isn’t amazing, or that it isn’t well with my soul? This post shows the dangerous slippery slope that James has engaged in which is destined to destroy our hymnals. I uphold the authority of the hymnal from the very first hymn!

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  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_PJ6PZMYZVJL4CGQBUYBVMQSDPQ james Harrison

    My favorite Christmas card for 2011:

    In lieu of a present, a contribution has been made in your name to my landlady.

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  • Paul D.

    I’m shocked at you all. True Christianity is based on the Hymnal, and failure to believe in the historical Three Ships of the Magi means you don’t love Jesus. After all, if you can’t believe everything in the Lyric of God, how can you believe any of it?

    To those who deny the historical voyage across the sands of Palestine, I ask only this: were you there?

  • Anonymous

    i have to confess that i have never heard of this song.
    fortunately it has a wiki page and lots of youtubes.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q5MNiukRWmA&feature=related 
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_Saw_Three_Ships 
    so now i know.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    As so often happens, when you try to parody fundamentalism, someone comes up with an example that looks surprisingly like the parody. Here’s a link I came across today of people taking their Christmas carols way too seriously:  
    http://www.stufffundieslike.com/2011/12/fwotw-evaluation-of-christmas-selections-in-the-living-hymns-hymnal/

  • Stephanie_mcgrath

    Christmas carols are man made and can give us insight into how people of different cultures interpret and celebrate The Word.  Doesn’t our history have to come from the Bible which was God Breathed, rather than from human beings 1800 years after the fact?

    • Anonymous

      You’re making the assumption that the bible was intended to teach history. 

    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Hi Stephanie! If one is looking for historical information, then earlier sources tend to be more useful for that sort of thing. Of course, to answer historical questions, what matters is not whether the writings included by the church in its Bible were God breathed (since Christians who use that terminology would certainly view the parables of Jesus as “God-breathed” even though they are not factual stories), but whether their information can be verified using the methods of historical investigation.

      But this post was intended as a parody of the way some people treat the Bible, insisting that it must always be factually correct about matters of history, astronomy, and various other topics. I was trying to show what would happen if people treated Christmas carols in the same way.


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