The recent statement by a Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly illustrates well why historical Jesus research is so important. Jesus has become a powerful myth, indeed more than one, and has been coopted in the service of a great many ideologies. Nothing provides as effective a counter to the infinite range of things that Jesus has become and may yet become, than historical evidence does.

Ironically, Kelly was emphasizing that Santa Claus was white, just like Jesus (and equally historical, it sounds like). Santa Claus the myth can become any color, just as Jesus the myth can. But the historical St. Nicholas, from the region of modern-day Turkey, was probably at most only a shade closer to Kelly's definition of whiteness than Jesus was.

Of course, historical evidence is only effective as an antidote to ideological distortion of evidence, if people are willing to listen. And so willful ignorance can provide an antidote to the antidote.

Satirical responses to this have also been offered by Jeff Carter and Fred Clark, the latter having shared the image below:




Today there was a large sack, much like I would expect Santa to use, sitting in front of my door. But it was blue, and had “Royal Mail” written on it. It was several copies of the new book Time and Relative Dimensions in Faith: Religion and Doctor Who which I co-edited with Andrew Crome. 366 pages chock full of wibbly wobbly timey wimey Whovian goodness. TARDIF has arrived!

A letter to yesterday's Indianapolis Star had an interesting response to the annual “keep Christ in Christmas” hubbub. What if Christians kept just Christ in Christmas, and let go of all the stuff that is not specifically Christian? What if they let go of the trees, and the gifts, and Santa, and secular Christmas music, and just focused on Jesus, and the other stuff was moved to a separate holiday (the letter proposed New Year's Day)?

I suspect that the truth is that most of us who are Christians like all that other stuff. I bet that most of us would agree that it wouldn't seem like Christmas without it.

And so, rather than move everything not explicitly Christian to New Year's Day, can we not merely stop pretending that this is a holiday that anyone has an exclusive claim on, and learn to share it?

Maybe we could even manage a bit of goodwill and all that in the process?


Vadim Putzu drew to my attention this conference at Franklin & Marshall College:

Conference on Religion & Technology

Sponsored by the Department of Religious Studies

Saturday, October 27, 2012

10 a.m.-4:30 p.m.

Space: Bonchek Lecture Hall

Building: Ann & Richard Barshinger Life Sciences & Philosophy Building

The Internet has given rise to much religious imagery.  Both dreams of utopia and nightmares of apocalypse abound.   It has also shaken up some of our certitudes about the human.  Is there even such a thing or are we just underdeveloped machines? What does the expansion of internet technology mean for our experience of time, of space, and of the body? What kind of ethical conundrums arise from our computer-driven technology?

Three scholars—Robert Geraci (Manhattan College, Religious Studies, historian) Thomas Carlson (University of California, Santa Barbara, Religious Studies, philosopher, Katherine Hayles (Duke University, Program in Literature, literary scholar) will describe these new mythologies and address these questions.  Three faculty members from F&M will respond to their presentations:  Misty Bastian (Anthropology), Stephen Cooper (Religious Studies), Peter Jaros (English).

There will be ample time for audience participation throughout.  The day will end with a panel discussion on a specific topic provoked by the conversation of the day.

The conference is free and open to the public.

UPDATE: Here is a link to the abstracts of the presentations by the invited speakers, as well as the conference schedule.

Jesus mythicism is akin to someone saying that because there is no Santa Claus, it makes the most sense to say that there wasn’t a historical bishop Nicholas of Myra.

It seems as though some are afraid that if one concedes the existence of the historical figure, you are accommodating or leaving an open door for the myth.

But that simply isn’t true. In fact, historical study of the history behind legends and myths, when such exists, is a far more effective way of combating the mythology, should one be inclined to do so, than simply suggesting lamely and implausibly that someone simply invented the whole thing out of whole cloth and then tried to base it in history.

What the evidence indicates is what matters. While the evidence for specific details about the historical figure of Jesus are open to dispute, some details – in particular the crucifixion – are beyond all reasonable doubt.

When I suggested this analogy in a comment on a post at Why Evolution Is True, someone responded that in the case of Nicholas of Myra we have clear evidence, unlike in the case of Jesus.

Even a tiny amount of research indicates that the historical evidence for Nicholas is fairly minimal and from after his time. As it is for so many historical figures who are nonetheless more likely to have existed than to have simply been invented.

Time and again it comes back to this: why would an adherent of the later mythology try to turn its central figure into a historical human being who fails to live up to the emphases of the myths? It makes no sense. But that is what mythicists claim.


Timothy Dalrymple posted a blog entry responding to one that I wrote for a previous Christmas and shared again this year. His historical point about uncertainty regarding the reason for the choice of date is probably a fair one. But I don’t think that I was at all caricaturing those who think there is a “war on Christmas.” Just take a look at the AFA’s call to boycott Walgreens, or (the creator of which actually left a comment on my blog a couple of months ago), and let me know if you think I was offering an unfair caricature.

I know not everyone thinks like this, but I was addressing those who do, not others who think differently but bear some slight resemblance.  🙂  But I do know that, depending on the circles one moves in or intersects with, some things might sound like caricature that are in fact pretty faithful descriptions, if only of a fringe of particularly egregious offenders.

On the more substantive points, from my own perspective, there is no sense in which Christmas is disappearing from the public square, except to the extent that we increasingly live in a society which is shared with others who may not celebrate it. And I do not see how expecting stores to mention one specific holiday in greeting customers does anything useful. Should those who celebrate other holidays not shop there? Can those who celebrate other holidays not work there? Does a store clerk saying “Happy Holidays” change the fact that Christmas music with profound religious content gets a lot of airtime on radio stations that do not normally play religious music, and churches have opportunities to invite people to plays, pageants, carol-singing and much else? I really fail to see that there is anything in jeopardy in the present situation that anyone ought to fight for, especially if their concern is not for cultural tradition but for personal faith.

I was pleased to find Jon Stewart responding to the idea of a “war on Christmas” in a manner that echoed some of my own thoughts on the matter.

What do you think? Has there ever actually been a war on Christmas? Have you come across those who think there is? Has Christmas ever been a purely religious holiday, celebrated without anything pagan, secular, selfish, irreligious, or grinchy? What do you make of my thoughts and Timothy’s response to them?

Oh, and by the way – I hope you had a Merry Christmas!


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!”

You might think that this is a post about what atheists or proponents of other religions do (or some of you might even think that this is something that I do and am sharing tips on for others).

But no, some Christians, or at least people who claim to be Christians, do at least as good a job as any opponent of Christianity could do, if not better. Here’s a survey of just a few that have come to my attention in recent days:

1) Demand that others wish you a Merry Christmas

Someone left a spam comment on my blog a week or two ago for the very viewpoint that Hemant Mehta posted about today. Apparently some Christians are not content to use their religious freedom to wish others a merry Christmas. They are demanding that store clerks, no matter their religious viewpoint, and no matter that they interact with customers of various religious traditions, wish them a merry Christmas as well.

How this undermines Christianity: On the one hand, it gives a bad impression of Christians as seeking to impose themselves on others. On the other hand, it promotes cultural Christianity and externalism rather than personal faith and commitment. The war on the war on Christmas, and the war on Santa, are at best distractions.

2) Promote the use of King James Version only

How this undermines Christianity: As Jim West notes, there is nothing that will render the Bible to obscurity and oblivion like forcing it to remain in antiquated, barely intelligible English. The early Christians were so committed to the translation of their message that we have almost nothing from Jesus in the language that he spoke, namely Aramaic. Communication has historically been important, and the KJV-only stance is in this respect not merely problematic but profoundly anti-Christian.

3) Let Barnes and Noble define what is Scripture

Joel Watts noted that a commenter named Mike Gantt defined “all Scripture” as follows: “No, by “All Scripture” I mean what they give you if you walk into Barnes and Noble and tell them you want to buy a Bible.”

How this undermines Christianity: Most conservative Christians genuinely do mean by “the Bible” whatever their particular brand of Christianity’s bookstores sell them between two covers with “Holy Bible” written on the front. Barnes and Noble in fact probably stocks Protestant, Catholic and Jewish Bibles, and maybe even The Brick Bible, thus already creating more confusion than they can handle. Any Christianity that either is unwilling to acknowledge where its Scriptures come from, or simply doesn’t know, is on a downward slope towards ignorance and the worst sorts of fundamentalism. Ignoring or dismissing the church’s role in defining Scripture leads to simplistic stances on the Bible that are not only unhelpful, but at odds with the Christian tradition, which from the early councils through the Protestant Reformation has always been aware of the need to know about these matters and participate intelligently in the discussion of them.

4) Use circular reasoning

How this undermines Christianity: It turns the Christian faith into a closed loop into which one either has to be born or otherwise never enter. Rather than a Gospel that can be preached, it offers a closed circle for people whose thinking is a closed circle. Here’s an illustration of the problem

As the saying goes, with friends (and promoters!) like these, does Christianity really need enemies? And to the extent that it has enemies, can they be any more of a threat than those working to undermine Christianity and its credibility from the inside?

An e-mail from AAR mentioned that there will be an iPhone/iPad app for this year’s conferences! The e-mail also mentioned the following:

Ballroom Space for Self-organizing Groups

The Marriott Marquis-Golden Gate Ballroom C2 & C3 will be set aside Sunday afternoon from 2:00 pm-5:00 pm for self-organizing groups. This is an opportunity for colleagues to work on new and continuing research projects, to discuss a single paper at length, or simply to hold an informal seminar. This space is designed to facilitate spontaneous meetings that will be posted on a flipchart outside the room (e.g., I will be giving a talk on XYZ today at 3 pm at table #23 – come by if you are interested!). To reserve a space now, email

Perhaps SBL bibliobloggers and religion bloggers from the AAR side should reserve a spot and hold a joint gathering to network and get to know one another, as well as making new connections as a result of the two organizations finally being together again.

Sci-fi fans, don’t forget this session:

A20-255 Wildcard Session

Theme: Religion/Science/Fiction: Beyond the Final Frontier

Kimberly Rae Connor, University of San Francisco, Presiding

Science Fiction (SF) is the genre of limitless possible worlds with a unique ability to pose, examine, and suggest answers to the most profound questions and to envision transcendence beyond realist literature. Along with religion, SF is where large numbers of the American public go to explore the meanings and purposes of human existence. Why this is so has to do with the construction of SF narratives upon scientific facts about the world and spun through the inexhaustible possibilities of the human imagination. SF’s technique of “making strange” the world so that we can better see ourselves and our predicaments allows us to reflect on our most basic questions about what it means to be human. This session takes the genre, modes, themes and techniques of SF as launching points for examining religion through a critical idiom that asks similar questions and suggests alternatives to traditional understandings of religion.


Rudy V. Busto, University of California, Santa Barbara

Bruce M. Sullivan, Northern Arizona University

Susan L. Schwartz, Muhlenberg College

James McGrath, Butler University

Robert Geraci, Manhattan College

I’m not sure what happens if you are an SBL member and “crash” an AAR session, but I invite all the SBL members who are sci-fi fans and who are reading this to try it and find out! 🙂

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