Nativity Myths

Frank Viola posted about “Nativity Myths” and “Separating Fact From Fiction in the Nativity Story.” With such promising headings, I clicked through to read the post hopefully, and was disappointed. Although he does a good job of distinguishing between some things that are explicit in the New Testament and others which are later tradition, there is no real acknowledgement of the fact that some things which are in the text might themselves be non-factual.

Also problematic are claims such as that Hebrew prophets “predicted that He would be called out of Egypt by God, His Father (Hos. 11:1; Matt. 2:13-18).” It is clear simply from reading Hosea 11:1ff that the passage is not about a future Messiah, but about Israel being called out of Egypt by God in the Exodus. Either Matthew applies the passage to Jesus by way of typology, or he was pulling a fast one, or he had poor reading comprehension skills. But whatever stance one takes on that, one thing that one cannot honestly say is that Hosea was making a prediction about Jesus. The Biblical texts themselves preclude their being understood in that way.

(To Frank's credit, I made these points to him, and he qualified the wording to speak more of “foreshadowing” than “prediction.” And in case you are wondering, yes, it was my exchange with Frank both on his blog and off that inspired me to make the “most interesting blog commenter in the world” meme image yesterday.)

I've discussed the discrepancies between the nativity stories in Matthew and Luke before on more than one occasion, and so won't repeat that discussion here, but will simply link to those earlier discussions (and to the podcast on the topic which Mark Goodacre just posted). What I will add here is this: It seems to me that the more seriously one takes the actual details of the infancy stories in the New Testament, the more comfortable one will be with the idea that myths are not something that can be excluded from Christmas storytelling, because they are woven into the very fabric of our earliest stories about Jesus' birth.

What do others think about this?


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  • John Squires

    yes, you have got it right, James….myth began well before Jesus, and has been integral to the enterprise of telling stories (inlcuding the stories of Jesus) for millenia…what makes people think the earliest Christians were any different??

  • Dan Ortiz

    Myth? or folklore?…. These always get confused. Alan Dundes makes a distinction between the two as myth being about creation/origins, and folklore being about wordsay/narratives. The Christmas “myths” could well be Christmas “folklore”

  • After describing the flight to Egypt Matthew states, “This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.'”

    Seems pretty clear to me. Matthew is pulling a fast one.

    Later, In Matthew 21:7, when he pictures Jesus riding into Jerusalem on two animals, he’s probably showing his poor reading comprehension of Zechariah.

    In either case, I think we give Matthew too much credit when we call his use of the OT a “typology”. Most of his OT references are so awkwardly out of context, they have all the appearance of being poor and thoughtless attempts at what we now call “prooftexting”.


  • Gavin Mackinney

    The world is full of “myths” in the sense that we have facts or stories that are not as accurate as they are supposed to be. Here are a few examples “we live in a democracy” (lol) “science is objective” a “war on terror”. However, I truly believe that the bible deals with the most important questions and answers through the stories in it. The “facts” are not important to me in a textbook or news article kind of way. I believe in God through Jesus because I have met and been moved by His people and their love.

  • SoWhat78

    James, why should this surprise you? Viola believes in inerrancy and that the Bible is the “word of god.” Don’t get me wrong. I agree with your commentary on the nativity story, but Viola’s ideas are typical of an inerrantist.

    • Well, it wasn’t so much surprise (I didn’t really know what his views were, though) as disappointment – which I often feel even when I am not surprised! 🙂

      • SoWhat78

        Thanks for the reply. Yeah, in my question, I should have asked you why you were disappointed instead of surprised. My bad.

        • No problem – I am indeed often disappointed/surprised when presumably there was nothing that should have been surprising to me!