You know that whole “The Star of Bethlehem is Just Mythology” thing?

You know that whole “The Star of Bethlehem is Just Mythology” thing? December 19, 2012

Turns out not so much as you might think.

Here’s the thing about the gospels. There really is nothing quite like them in the annals of world literature and the sooner you confront that fact, the less chance you have of the media making you stupid about them.

On the one hand, the gospels clearly have a sacramental and theological view of the world.  It is a world charged with meaning and sacramental power.  So every detail they record has symbolic significance.  Jesus is born, not just anywhere, but in Bethlehem, the House of Bread.  He is laid in a manger–a feed box, and Luke notices that because Jesus is the Bread of Life.  Luke will make the same eucharistic connection at the other end of his gospel by recording that he was made known “in the breaking of the bread”.  So it becomes easy, once you have gotten used to reading the gospels for all their massive amount of sacramental symbolism, to start imagining that the symbols are being invented and not reported by the authors.

Only here’s the thing, the gospel writers absolutely insist that they are reporting, not inventing this story.  The action takes place not in cloud cuckoo land, but in various locales around the Holy Land.  It happens not once upon a time, but “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberi-us Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysani-as tetrarch of Abilene, in the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas”.  Indeed, Luke explicitly tells us, “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, 2* just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, 3* it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely * for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4* that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed.”

Sorry, but this ain’t the language of myth even though the events reported have a mythic quality.  This is the language of an ancient chronicler. Moreover, it is the language of an ancient chronicler who is quite careful to get his facts straight and has been shown, on repeated occasions, to know what he is talking about *better* than modernist scholars who are ready to dismiss him as having made crap up.

That’s why it’s so hilarious that when the Atheist Human Toothache Brigade turns out in full force, worshipping and not using their intellects and managing to not only gratuitously offend Christians and even non-Christians at Christmas, but doing it in a way that reflects maximum stupidity. Behold the “Keep the Merry, Dump the Myth” ad campaign:

What image do the geniuses of American Atheists choose to illustrate the “myth” of Jesus? Not even the Star of Bethlehem or the Visit of the Magi or much of the other trappings of Christmas which have long been fodder for people who want to mythologize the gospel, though this too is not nearly the slam dunk you’d think). No: the Way Smarter Than You American Atheists take the one thing about Jesus most emphatically agreed upon as definitely a fact of history–his crucifixion–and declare *that* a myth. Brilliant, guys.

Here’s some reality: actual biblical scholarship by real, you know, scholars (even, by the way, unbelieving scholars) laughs to scorn the notion that “Jesus never existed”. What is quite clear is that the gospel are eyewitness accounts of a very real Jesus of Nazareth. And what is most solidly and definitely established by any reasonable assessment of the records we have is that, in the words of Tacitus, “Christus… suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus.” Only a crank–or a member of American Atheists–denies this.

Are the gospels theologized (that is, sacramental) accounts which regard historic events–particularly the historic event we call the Incarnation–as charged with the grandeur of God and filled with spiritual meaning and connections to the Old Testament? Sure. But the evangelists absolutely deny they are making the story up and (what is more) the internal details of the gospel make the claim that they are inventions or that Jesus never existed simply incredible. All sorts of details nobody would invent–Jesus being tired, hungry, thirsty, terrified, and forsaken; statements like “Why do you call me good? There is none good but God”; Jesus professing ignorance–not to mention quirky details that have the stamp of historical memory all over them–all these things scream “chronicle” not myth. It frankly takes far more faith to say Jesus never existed than to acknowledge the obvious fact that he did. That’s why none of Jesus’ earliest enemies, Jewish or pagan ever attempted to deny his historicity. They called him a magician, demon-possessed or the product of a rape. But they never called him a myth. It took the folly of postmoderns swelled with pride over their superior reason to embrace this supremely unreasoning… myth.

For a bit more along the same lines, Fr. Dwight Longenecker writes on the gospel of Mark here. Also, if you are interested in delving into the very impressive scholarship of Richard Bauckham and getting your information about the New Testament from somebody who knows what he’s talking about and not from ignorami with a big poster in Times Square, I highly recommend his Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. We are now living in age when the basic assumption is not the factuality of the gospels, but that they are total frauds. It is fun to be part of a counter-culture speaking truth to power and Bauckham supplies some very powerful intellectual backing for those who use vs. those who merely worship, their intellects.

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  • Paul

    Atheist Human Toothache Brigade? LOL!

    • Confederate Papist

      I love that….LOVE it, I say!

  • “We are now living in age when the basic assumption is not the factuality of the gospels, but that they are total frauds.”

    Yep, that’s probably true. I suppose it’s because the overall media culture presents this as fact. I read an interesting article in Time about Dungeons and Dragons. It asked the question how, in a day when the biggest money makers are movie franchises about comic book heroes and Hobbits and boy wizards, a game that seems to combine all of these things has the simultaneous status of being ubiquitous and a pariah. Conclusion: because it’s part of the media landscape. It’s assumed. If you asked young people to say why they would never be caught dead playing the game, they couldn’t tell you, except to say it’s for losers. Yet they would do that after spending an evening playing World of Warcraft or going to see The Hobbit. It’s the power of the media narrative. If the media latches onto something it can convince quite a few folks that squares are round. And that’s probably why, despite clear and overwhelming evidence to the contrary, a growing number of people assume that the Gospels were just a bunch of myths.

    • But it’s more than that, because the media doesn’t set their own agenda. The media themselves are looking for a narrative, a myth, that will justify the moral assumption that is primary in our society: let every individual do what he wants to do and define his own life for himself … as long as it doesn’t really hurt someone else too much.

      Therefore, people, including the media, will latch on to whatever narrative or description that provides some grounds for absolutizing this assumption and refuting those of us who say that no, there is a moral truth about man that we are beholden to and which it is our responsibility to find out and conform to, no matter what we may want or feel like doing.

    • It is quite common to see thoughtful people believe in the media narrative in every area except for areas where they have personal expertise. There, they know that the media is babbling more often than not. But it is much less common to extend this very common observation that the media are getting a lot of things wrong and the narrative is also very often wrong in areas where you don’t have the facts at hand to check and correct for them. To do so is to strike out into deep waters without a backup plan. It is very scary but it unfortunately is true. We have an awful media that does not gather basic facts well and we are largely living our lives informed by narratives that are at least as likely to be wrong as they are to be right.

      Don’t believe or disbelieve what I say. Check! And then act according to what you find.

      • I have but one “like” to give for this comment.

  • Beadgirl

    Then, of course, there is the image they chose for “merry” — Santa Claus. So Jesus is a myth, but Santa is not. Okay.

    • Confederate Papist

      I was thinking the same thing….although…Santa is not really a myth, either….Saint Nicholas was the basis of the Santa story… but I am preaching to the choir. 🙂

      • Beadgirl

        Hah, I thought to myself “well but Saint Nick was in fact real,” but that would have made my point long and convoluted. And I doubt the atheists in charge of this billboard even know who Saint Nicholas was. Which brings me back to my point — how did they not see this contradiction? Don’t they often compare God to Santa and the Tooth Fairy as ways parents lie to their children? Why didn’t they use an image of a Christmas tree (pagan!) or a present instead? What does it say about them that I, a life-long Catholic, could come up with more coherent atheist propaganda?

        • Confederate Papist

          Many of these folks are intellectually challenged, if not downright shallow. They accuse us of being sheeple, but I believe they’re guilty of that more than we are. I mean, what kind of liturgical discussions can atheism have? 🙂

  • SteveK

    We have the Bethlehem Star DVD and watch it every Christmas. It really is interesting stuff.

    • Tom Anthony

      I personally consider the Bethlehem Star DVD theory to be bunk. I liken it to Harold Camping’s recent predictions of the end of the world. Having said this I will tell you I am a believer in Jesus Christ, I claim Him as my Savior and I believe that in the not too distant future He will return again.

      For those who believe that there were and will be signs in the sky that coincide with great spiritual events, which I myself believe, I challenge them to acquire a basic understanding of the ancient Hebrew Calendar. You see this was not a calendar instituted by man but rather it was a Calendar instituted by the Lord Himself. This Calendar is referenced in Exodus chapter 12 but it is not explicitly defined in the Bible.

      The Jews during the time of Christ understood the rules of this very simple Calendar but they did not understand its ultimate significance. The Hebrew Calendar is a Calendar that makes use of a central day and that day is the 14th day of the 1st month, the day the original Passover lambs were sacrificed. The 14th day of the first month was a day the Lord instructed His people to commemorate each year as an everlasting ordinance. The Calendar is realigned about 7 times every 19 years to make sure that the 14th day of the 1st month always coincides with the day of the first full moon in spring. Let me point out one more significance to this day. As can be deduced from the gospel of John (John chapter 19 refers to it as the day of preparation of Passover which is the 14th day of the 1st month), it was the day the Lord provided His own Passover Lamb for the sake of the entire world!!!

  • James H, London

    The stupidity of these idiots never ceases to amaze. It’s too late for the Progressive Apes (see Mythopoeia), but for those on our (winning) side of history, go have a look at:

    And a particularly devastating review of a particularly rubbish book (by an atheist!):

  • Dante Aligheri

    I really do enjoy Richard Bauckham. Thanks for the video.

  • Joel

    But the census of Quirinius happened 10 years after Herod died.

    A wise approach to scripture needs to account for such gaffes in the Gospels.

  • Free Thinker

    I visit an atheist blog every now and then, for a weird type of fun.
    I got to thinking that I should somehow try explaining the Bible in almost secular terms so that atheists could see the Bible in a new light.
    So this is what I came up with:

    If there is a God and He created everything from nothing (which is what the Big Bang seems to indicate) then this all powerful, all knowing, infinite God would know how everything works best.

    If this all knowing God gave some of His wisdom to us in the form of a book then that book would contain an infinite wisdom, a wisdom that is unfathomable – this matches the description of the Bible.

    In terms of wisdom, it comes as no surprise that all of the wisdom in the world can be found in the Bible.

    God’s wisdom is multi dimensional and it is no surprise that the Bible works on many levels – Literal – Allegorical – Moral -Anagogical Senses. No other book in the world can or does work in this way.

    Although many of us have done so, we all acknowledge that the best way to operate “a new toy” is to follow the manufacturers instructions, by reading the manual. By not following the makers instructions is risky.

    The Bible is our instruction manual.

    • Free Thinker

      (reworking of last paragraph)

      Although many of us have put together/operated a new toy “in a cross your fingers-I know what I am doing-who needs instructions-men never get lost and don’t need to ask for directions” approach, we all acknowledge that the best way to operate a new toy (or to get where we are going) is to follow the manufacturer’s instructions, by reading the manual, by referring to the road map.

      By not following the makers instructions is risky.

      The Bible is our instruction manual.

    • jacksnuz

      2 things: it is FUN to mix it up with the christian-resentment community! paul tillich is a rockstar in any a theist re-education.

  • Zeke

    Nice to see Mark take a break from Christmas shopping to build a big nasty atheist strawman for everyone to pile on! Are there atheists (or other religions) who dispute the historial Jesus? Sure, a few whackos, but surely fewer than the number of Christians who dispute the earth is more than 10,000 years old. The “myth” the billboard refers to are the Christian claims about the divinity of Jesus, not his existence. Had the billboard hinted that Muhammad never really rode to heaven on a winged horse, or that Joseph Smith likely didn’t receive magic goggles from the angel Moroni, but still encourage celebrating the ritual, you’d be nodding your heads along with the folks from American Atheists.

    • Mark Shea

      One of the wackos is right here on Patheos. His name is Bob Seidensticker. Physician, heal thyself and go confront him on his stupid “Jesus is a legend” stuff instead of trying to patch up that dumb poster with after-the-fact explanations about how its really attacking the divinity of Jesus. AA had a treasure trove of images they could have used. They made the stupidest possible choice–because they worship but do not use their intellects.

      • Zeke

        Meh. Seidensecker says nothing of the sort. I read his “Jesus a myth” posts and could find nowhere he denies the historicity of Jesus. If you point out where, I’d be pleased to heckle him. His point is the same – there is a great deal mythical about the gospel accounts of Jesus, and nothing that has happened in the past 2000 years gives us good reason to believe otherwise. Your Jewish and Muslim brethren also deny these same claims about Jesus without denying His existence, but somehow you manage to resist calling them stupid or accuse them of worshipping their intellect.

        C’mon Mark, they had a treasure trove of other images to use? Jesus on the cross is the trademark symbol of Christianity. Sure, I realize that the billboard pisses you off, but imagining that the American Atheist creed is that Jesus never existed is a weak attempt to fire up the choir with a fabricated reason to hate atheists.

    • JoFro

      Zeke, I find it hilarious you posted your comment on a Catholic blog to whine about the fact that a bunch of Christians argue that the Earth is not more than 10,000 years old! Ooohh, that was funny! 😀

    • Beadgirl

      Zeke, what about my point — the incoherence of contrasting the myth of (or, to address your point, the mythic elements of) Jesus with Santa, who has quite a lot of mythic elements himself? It seems to me a truly bizarre comparison, that undermines the point the atheists were trying to make with this billboard.

  • Zeke

    Incoherent or not, judge for yourself – from the American Atheist spokesman:
    “The true beauty of the season – family, friends, and love – have nothing to do with the gods of yesteryear. Indeed, the season is far more enjoyable without the religious baggage of guilt and judgmentalism.”
    Personally I don’t think the comparison is bizarre. We all believed in Santa until we were old enough to question the myth and realized that we had been deluded. It didn’t make Christmas any less special.

    Most American Christians fail to ponder the fortuitous circumstance that they happen to have been raised and indoctrinated into the “one true faith”. In fact the vast majority of the planet thinks you are wrong. Do you have any doubt that had you been born and raised in a Muslim country that you would be vehemently denying what Christians base their lives around? What a lucky break that you were born into a Christian culture, but kinda sad that the rest are going to hell.

    • Mark Shea

      Sure glad to hear that an organization dedicated to blaming 21st century Christians for the Crusades, Galileo and the conquest of Canaan is worried about guilt and judgmentalism.

  • This has been a popular documentary about the Star of Bethlehem it seems, but there are significant flaws that undo the the hypothesis, from dating the events to the astrological interpretation of the conjunctions to fitting what the Gospel of Matthew describes. You may enjoy considering those issues when viewing the documentary in the future: