A Christmas question: Did the baby Jesus cry?

MARY (an appropriate name for this particular question) ASKS:

Did the infant Jesus cry?

THE GUY ANSWERS:

Good one. A beloved Christmas carol says “the little Lord Jesus no crying he makes,” which would have been a tiny miracle.

But the New Testament, which has the only early accounts of Jesus’ Nativity, tells us nothing about his infancy, or even his youth except for teaching in the Jerusalem Temple at age 12.

If pondered in terms of what Christianity has always thought there’d be every reason to assume the Babe of Bethlehem cried just like all other infants do, for the same physiological and emotional reasons. That’s a solid inference from the faith’s central and mysterious belief that Jesus was God incarnate and at the same time fully a human being (“yet without sin”). The New Testament reports that just like everyone else the adult Jesus could be tired, hungry, sorrowful and perturbed, and that he experienced pain and death.

In other words, truly human, not inhuman.

New Testament writings from the 1st Century began the process of defining Jesus’ two natures, divine and human. For instance: “Though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:6-7). And “in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9).

The Nicene Creed of A.D. 381, recited by multitudes each Sunday to this day, states that Jesus was “true God of true God” who “for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” Many favorite Christmas carols say the same.

You get the impression that early Christianity had more trouble convincing people that Jesus was fully human than that he was fully divine. This is evident in the “pseudepigrapha” that some liberal scholars emphasize instead of focusing just on the four New Testament Gospels that the early church judged to be authentic and worthy of scriptural status. For one thing, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John originated much earlier than those non-biblical writings.

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Remember when Jesus went to Assiut? (Yeah, me neither.)

“Both Roman Catholic and Evangelical Protestant media have for years been drawing public attention to the persecution of Christians in many countries,” says the renowned sociologist of religion, Peter Berger. “Secular media have been less attentive; some have ascribed this to an anti-Christian bias; I rather doubt this—more likely it comes from the fact that many otherwise well-informed journalists are less informed on religious matters.”

Berger is probably right — which is cause for optimism. The condition of being “less informed on religious matters” is not only much easier to fix than anti-religious bias, it is often self-correcting. In my experience, when it’s pointed out to journalists that they are missing a “big story” they are quick to correct their oversight. Sometimes they have to be browbeaten into doing their jobs (e.g., Gosnell), but usually their natural curiosity about the world is enough to provoke them into seeking out what they’ve missed.

A prime example of this type of media self-correction can be found in recent articles about the Middle East. Many mainstream outlets that had previously missed or underplayed the persecution angle have, within the past few weeks, done a commendable job of reporting on the plight of Christians in Egypt. For example, the AP had a particularly good story yesterday titled, “Egypt’s Coup Puts Fearful Christians in a Corner.”

Like other Christians with stores on the street, Nabil shuttered his establishment until the protesters had passed. “They (the marchers) run their index finger across their throats to suggest they will slaughter us, or scream Morsi’s name in our faces,” he said.

A young couple arrived to shop while scores of marchers were still on the street. They froze in fear, the husband shielding his wife with his body.

Families living in apartment blocks above the stores stayed home, shutting windows and staying off balconies. Those outdoors kept their distance from the march.

In such an well-reported article, it feels unseemly to pick nits. But Bible-related gaffes are irresistible to us GetReligionistas, so I have to comment on this one:

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Hey! It’s journalists mangling scripture day! (UPDATED)

David Brooks wrote a very Brooksian column for today’s New York Times about how our culture was more dynamic when there were competing status hierarchies and how our current situation of one hierarchy means that the successful are less haunted by their own status and the less successful have nowhere to hide.

Now, normally we pay no attention to opinion pieces because our concern here at GetReligion is how straight news about religion is reported. But the column included this passage that I had to share:

In Corinthians, Jesus tells the crowds, “Not many of you were wise by worldly standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.”

Whoopsie! Not Jesus, but Paul! Brooks has since corrected the column and added a note reflecting the correction at the end. Another correspondent said he disliked the reference to Corinthians, as opposed to 1 Corinthians or 2nd Corinthians (the verses in question here are from the first chapter of 1st Corinthians, verses 26 and 27 and come from the New International Version, for what it’s worth).

Our second example of how to mangle a Scripture reference does come from a straight news report, this time Politico. The story is about how Rep. Mark Sanford spoke at the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference, which is for social conservatives:

In the latest stop of Sanford’s comeback tour, he explained that “great moments follow moments of great difficulty.”

Several months ago, Sanford recalled a supporter in the Palmetto State urging him to be more courageous in the spirit of Timothy 1:7. He called it “a pivotal point” in his race.

“You need to seize that verse and operate on it,” he told the activists. “So I would simply ask as you build a movement to make a difference … be of courage.”

Um, what is Timothy 1:7? The Apostle Paul wrote two letters to Timothy. In the first letter, in the first chapter, Paul tells Timothy to encourage people in Ephesus to reject the teaching and practice of false doctrine. The seventh verse is just a snippet of this portion:

Now the purpose of the commandment is love from a pure heart, from a good conscience, and from sincere faith, from which some, having strayed, have turned aside to idle talk, desiring to be teachers of the law, understanding neither what they say nor the things which they affirm.

In the second letter to Timothy, Paul writes with encouragement:

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Political reporters learn about St. Augustine. Chaos ensues.

On Friday, Angus Dwyer wrote on Twitter:

You’ll never guess what uncontroversial Christian doctrine this Republican candidate and/or office-holder believes!

Yes, friends, it’s that time of month again, when political reporters discover Christian doctrine and write BuzzFeed-style pieces about how outrageous said doctrine is! This weekend’s example comes, conveniently enough, from BuzzFeed’s own Andrew Kaczynski:

Virginia Republican Lt. Governor candidate E.W. Jackson candidate said birth defects are caused by sin.

The headline and subhed:

Va. Republican Lt. Governor Candidate Said Birth Defects Were Caused By Sin 

“It is the principle of sin, rebellion against God and His truth which has brought about birth defects and other destructive natural occurrences.”

Is St. Augustine running for the Republican nomination to be Lt. Governor of Virginia? Because he wrote about this idea a long time ago! As reporter Joel Gehrke gently replied to Mr. Kaczynski:

Don’t most Christians think that the world would be perfect if not for sin?

Kaczynski then appealed to his 12 years of Catholic education to say he had never heard of such a notion. Gehrke provided links to Augustine.

It turns out all sorts of Christians teach and confess that evil is not the result of a loving God but, rather, sin. Just randomly from the Google, for instance, I found this passage on an Antiochian Orthodox Church web site explaining Holy Unction:

Sickness is the weakness of the body as a result of the sin of the world. Sickness is not the punishment from God of personal sinful behavior, per se. We all share in the consequences of sin in this world.

I hope no Orthodox Christians think about running for political office! BuzzFeed is on it!

I’m not saying Christian teaching on sin, sickness and death is easy for an uninformed person to understand. It’s not. It’s a topic that has been a challenge for Christians since Jesus first told questioners that a man’s birth defect was not the result of his sin or his parents, as had been held. He goes on to heal the defect and give everyone a larger lesson about everyone being born blind and defected.

I imagine that when some reporters read the Republican candidate’s words, they just assume the worst or even just assume that he was saying, contra what Jesus taught while performing miracles, that birth defects were caused by the personal sins of the involved parties. I haven’t read Jackson’s book, but you certainly would need far more than the passage quoted by BuzzFeed to accuse him of straying so far from traditional Christian teaching.

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CBS: John the Baptist was at the Crucifixion

In our discussions on the New York Timeswhopper of an error (and weird correction), some readers pointed out that the media outlet was not alone in making a major mistake that day:

CBS, clearly embarrassed to be No. 2 in Christian faith ignorance, ran a segment on CBS Sunday Morning in which Martha Teichner stated confidently that John THE BAPTIST stood at the foot of the cross with Mary. That should get some kind of honorable mention here.

Over at the CBS.com site, viewers were calling out the report left and right:

  • I am an avid fan of CBS Sunday Morning; it is part of our Sunday ritual. I was amazed though this morning that Martha Teichner said that John the Baptist was at the foot of the cross with Mary. That was the disciple John, the brother of James- son of Zebedee.John the Baptist had been beheaded before Jesus was crucified. How did this get by? As a Catholic I object to this error. Love your show; just be careful.
  • You lost a viewer this morning for the poor journalism in this story. The reporter did not know her New Testament well enough to know that John the Baptist was killed and Mary could not have lived with him in Turkey, the person she lived with was the Apostle John. It was nice that you started with a Catholic congregation in NY but why not also talk to a Catholic or Orthodox theologian? I turned it off when you highlighted a fringe element. Is this the way you do journalism for other stories too. A shame, I had really enjoyed watching your show before I went to Mass.
  • Martha Teichner, usually a credible reporter. Big mistake not getting a Christian to edit your story. John the Baptist died early in Jesus ministry – perhaps 3 years before Christ’s death and resurrection. In the Gospel of John, “John the Apostle” refers to himself as the one Jesus loved, not John the Baptist. Poor form!
  • Beautiful photos but you botched a couple of things. The most glaring error was stating that the “beloved disciple” who witnessed the crucifixion along with Mary the mother of Jesus was perhaps John the Baptist. John the Baptist was beheaded by Herod long before this. The beloved disciple is thought to be John, who wrote the Gospel of John, three short letters near the end of the New Testament, and the last book in the Bible, the book of Revelation. Also, Mary is mentioned in Acts 1:14-15 (you said she is mentioned only in the four gospels), where we find her just after the ascension huddling with the disciples in a crowd of about 120 people in the upper room (a group that also included the brothers of Jesus, so the supposed “rift” mentioned by your expert was apparently mended and they had become believers). So she was clearly involved and in touch with the early church. But it was refreshing that a news outlet referenced the resurrection, even tangentially, on Easter Sunday. Most news organizations act as though this key event never occurred. Obviously, something happened, whether or not one believes in the resurrection. I do believe.
  • For Martha Teichner’s sake, I wish someone would have vetted this story before it aired. One error that is easily verifiable was that John the Beloved is NOT John the Baptist. John the Baptist, Mary’s cousin Elizabeth’s son, was killed (beheaded) during Jesus’ ministry – so he could not have been at the crucifixion. John the Beloved is the same John that authored the book of Revelation. Unfortunately, I was so distracted by this oversight, I couldn’t enjoy the rest of the story. I hope others were able to see what was trying to be shared and learn something. Thank you!

The report itself was very interesting and very well done. It was heavily biased toward New York City adherents and scholars and could have used more diversity among the quoted scholars. The John the Baptist error was the big doozie but I think readers might have trouble with a few more things in it as well.

Anyway, CBS has corrected the video and the print version of the story. And there’s a note at the end that says:

EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this story mis-identified the possible “beloved disciple” as John the Baptist.

What does that mean — “the possible ‘beloved disciple’”? I don’t understand why the word “possible” is used.

This NY Times Easter correction is a doozie

The reporter who passed this one along to us wrote, simply:

they just make it real easy for you guys, don’t they?

Another reporter on Twitter put it:

That NYT correction has to be throwing @GetReligion HQ into all-hands-on-deck mode. “I need EVERYONE ON THIS NOW!”

Sadly, we’ve had such reason to be down on general religion coverage in recent weeks, that I’m not even sure anyone is surprised by this.

But still. But still.

The New York Times published a fairly straightforward story about Pope Francis’ first Urbi et Orbi message. With this paragraph:

Easter is the celebration of the resurrection into heaven of Jesus, three days after he was crucified, the premise for the Christian belief in an everlasting life. In urging peace, Francis called on Jesus to ”change hatred into love, vengeance into forgiveness, war into peace.”

Yes, the professionals at the New York Times are confused about what Easter marks. If you were satirizing the poor state of the Grey Lady’s understanding of religion, this would seem over-the-top. And yet it’s real. My favorite part is the correction to the piece — yes, it was corrected to drop the “into heaven” and replace it with “from the dead.” The correction is:

An earlier version of this article mischaracterized the Christian holiday of Easter. It is the celebration of Jesus’s resurrection from the dead, not his resurrection into heaven.

To be clear, not only is Easter not about Jesus’ “resurrection into heaven,” Christians don’t believe Jesus “resurrected into heaven” period. There are some ancient creeds that could be quickly accessed (for those who have never heard them) that explain all this. Those creeds confess Christ’s ascension into heaven, not “resurrection.”

Since it’s Opening Day, I will share this fake correction I saw elsewhere:

In last Thursday’s story, “Americans excited to visit ‘ball parks,’” the sport of baseball was repeatedly spelled bayspall. The number of ‘bases’ was given as five; the correct number is three. “Home plate” is a marker embedded in the ground, not a trophy awarded to the winner of the World Series. “Babe” Ruth was the popular nickname of George Herman Ruth Jr. (1895–1948), generally regarded the greatest baseballer of the early twentieth century, and not the African-American mistress of Brooklyn Dodgers owner Walter F. O’Malley as stated in the article. The Times regrets the errors.

Wait, that is a fake correction, right?

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Do Nativity scenes owe more to artists than historians?

I am blessed to be a member of an absolutely wonderful congregation. It’s a healthy mix of people who work together to keep the mission of our congregation going and thriving. Our regular focus on the Divine Service inspires all of our mission work, including a parish school and community programs.

I had to say that before pointing out this one tiny … issue. See, we have this 100-year-old Nativity scene we set up each year. The older folks in the congregation have let us know that this must always happen. Somehow over the years it got mixed with both another Nativity scene and with a Noah’s Ark scene. It’s ridiculous. In with the oxen and cattle and camels are pairs of zebras and rhinos and elephants. There is some theological beauty in combining these two scenes, but it’s kind of a train wreck.

I thought of that when I read this great story by Tim Townsend in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. For all the importance that Nativity scenes have in the lives of Christians in America and throughout the world, it’s interesting how little coverage we get of them in news stories. For many, it might be difficult to write an interesting or newsy story about them.

When the duke of Urbino in Italy needed a gift for the queen of Spain, he turned to his friend, the painter Federico Barocci.

Barocci, a devout Catholic, worked during the Counter-Reformation, and in 1597 he had painted his version of one of the most recognizable images in all Christendom.

And as Christians mark Jesus’ birth today, they will do so with imagery that owes less, perhaps, to historical accuracy than to artists such as Barocci and thousands of others who preceded him for 1,000 years.

The hook is that Barocci’s Nativity is on display at the St. Louis Art Museum. But Townsend uses this as item to write an interesting story exploring the theology and artistry of the scene:

Historians and theologians say it is that sense of family intimacy, coupled with the humbling circumstances of Christ’s birth as told in the Gospel of Luke, that has resonated with Christians for centuries.

Many Christians hang a crucifix or cross — a symbol of the resurrection — in their homes, “but the other pillar of Christianity is the incarnation,” said St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson. “When the savior of the world was born, he wasn’t born in a palace, he was not born as a king. He came as a defenseless child.”

And, of course, Luke made Christ’s vulnerability even more stark by placing Mary and Joseph in a stable. When the time came for Mary to deliver the child, she “gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn,” wrote the author of Luke’s Gospel.

There is a ton of history packed into the story as well as interpretations of same, making it a rare, meaty story in the midst of a lot of fluffy stories. You should read the whole thing.

The whole thing reminded me of the stir over Pope Benedict’s writing that the Gospels don’t mention any animals at the manger. Townsend mentions it toward the end of the piece, which concludes:

Eventually manger scenes became a feature in many Christian homes throughout the world. Carlson said that when he was growing up, he loved to play with the creche figures in his parents’ house.

“What got me into trouble was that I also had these little toy soldiers,” he said. Did he ever mingle the two? “Never,” he said, smiling.

Carlson has 14 creches decorating the archbishop’s residence on Lindell Boulevard at this time of year. He keeps two of them up year-round. One, a gift from a family in South Dakota made of wood and dating to the 19th century, sits on a mantle directly across from the desk in his home office. He looks at it every day.

“To me,” he said, “it’s just a simple reminder that God loved us so much that he sent his son to be with us.”

Our house currently has three manger scenes: a toy one for the children, a nice ceramic one my mother sent me this year and the one my Dad picked up when he was studying in Israel. It’s such an obvious point but it’s nice to see something so important to me and my family in the news. What’s more, it’s nice to learn more about the history of their development and their significance throughout the ages.

Nativity image via Shutterstock.

Everything you know about Christmas is wrong

George just posted about an old story being rehashed for Christmas, which reminded me that the regular attempts to debunk Christianity around its holy days has become my favorite tradition. What would Christmas and Easter be like without a semi-blasphemous newsweekly magazine cover questioning some central tenet of the religion?

All that to say that the Washington Post‘s piece the “The Evolution of Holiday Celebrations” is a decent entry into the genre.

It’s in the Style section, so all expectations are lowered, of course. It says stuff like this:

Early Christians did not celebrate the Nativity. Christianity had been around for more than 350 years before the church fathers in Rome decided to add that event to the Christian calendar. They did so in part because many Christians were arguing that Jesus had not been an actual human being but rather a divine spirit — a belief the church fathers considered heretical. What better way to convince Christians that Jesus was human than to commemorate his physical birth? The problem was that there was no evidence of when Jesus’s birth took place. (Neither Luke nor Matthew, the two gospel writers who included stories of Jesus’s Nativity in their narratives, had indicated the date, or even the season, of the event.)

Is it most accurate to say “many Christians” argued that Jesus wasn’t human? Is that really the central aspect of how the date for Christmas was chosen? That is a heresy that has been taught and continues to be taught but I’m not sure this is phrased the best way. As for the rest, it’s true that the Nativity was not celebrated by early-early Christians, but we also know that it was celebrated in a variety of locations well before the date was fixed. By 200 A.D., for instance, Clement of Alexandria is reporting that Egyptians have marked the date and the year of Christ’s birth. The thing was that different people were celebrating the birth on different dates. Why did it get pinned to Dec. 25? Was this a top-down effort to defeat gnosticism? Was the day something Christian laypeople noted that some church leaders tried to stop? Was it much more complex than a brief article in the Style section could broach?

The church fathers decided to place the new holiday in late December, virtually guaranteeing that it would be widely adopted because this was already a season of mid-winter revels, a holdover from pagan times. For the inhabitants of the Roman Empire, the holiday was called Saturnalia. This festival, which concluded on Dec. 23, was partly a holiday of lights that celebrated the winter solstice. But Saturn was the god of agricultural abundance, so his festival also marked the bounty of the completed harvest. Finally, the Saturnalia was a time of role reversals and seasonal license. Everyone took time off from ordinary labor. Slaves were granted temporary freedom and were treated by their masters to lavish banquets. The holiday was observed with feasting, drinking, gambling and sexual abandon.

Yeah, well, it’s certainly true that when the calendar was standardized, there was a push for Dec. 25 as the date to mark Jesus’ birth. But was this because it was a co-opting of Saturnalia? It’s certainly a theory. But Dec. 25 was one of the many dates being used by Christians to mark Christ’s birth and maybe not for the reasons you hear.

As I wrote six years ago (!) here at GetReligion:

Associated Press reporter Richard Ostling wrote about it a few years ago, first describing the theory that says Christians stole a pagan festival for Christmas. Then he cited other research, including Hippolytus of Rome’s Chronicle, written three decades before Aurelian launched Saturnalia, that says Jesus’ birth “took place eight days before the kalends of January,” that is, Dec. 25. He speaks with William Tighe, a church historian at Muehlenberg College:

Tighe said there’s evidence that as early as the second and third centuries, Christians sought to fix the birth date to help determine the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection for the liturgical calendar — long before Christmas also became a festival.

The New Testament Gospels say the Crucifixion happened at the Jewish Passover season. The “integral age” concept, taught by ancient Judaism though not in the Bible, held that Israel’s great prophets died the same day as their birth or conception.

Quite early on, Tighe said, Christians applied this idea to Jesus and set the Passover period’s March 25 for the Feast of the Annunciation, marking the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she would give birth. Add nine months to the conception date and we get Dec. 25.

It doesn’t matter. Almost everyone believes something else.

The story also tackles Hannukah:

In recent times, Hanukkah, too, has largely become a child’s holiday. Many Jewish parents give their children seasonal presents as abundant — and expensive — as those received by their Christian neighbors.

And with Hanukkah as with Christmas, a vestige remains of older mid-winter festivals. This is the dreidel, a four-sided top that resembles the familiar six-sided dice and is used in similar fashion to determine how much money (or Hanukkah “gelt”) the player receives — or owes. Thus Hanukkah, originating as the celebration of a military victory, now incorporates a host of other rituals: the commemoration of a divine miracle, a seasonal celebration of light and harvest, a focus on children and even a hint of mid-winter revelry.

Over the centuries, through all those historical accidents, Hanukkah and Christmas have come to look a lot like each other.

They don’t really look much like each other, obviously, but is the dreidel just a game? It’s origin isn’t exactly known but when I was in Israel, I was told that it hearkens back to a game developed by Jews to hide the fact they were studying the Torah. During one period of their history, the penalty for teaching the Torah was death. Jews would gather in caves to study and were pretending they were gambling if spotted by soldiers.

But more than anything, it’s not what is in the article that is so bothersome but what’s left out. Or how what’s in the article is treated so flippantly. Did Christianity just happen onto the idea of Jesus being the Christ? Isn’t the Nativity story a central element of the Gospels of Luke and Matthew? Even the Winter Solstice is treated as something of an historical accident. Was Hanukkah really just a holiday that morphed into something about light?

I wonder if part of the problem is that the author of the piece typically writes very accessible history books and that this breezy style works well when you have the time to flesh out more details but when you’re given just a few hundred words in the printed page, it comes off too glib, glossing over serious religious and cultural battles. That might be a function of editing as much as anything.

Hanukkah image via Shutterstock.


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