Does Christmas belittle Jesus’s mission?

Egyptian god Horus

Horus of Egypt, son of a human virgin and a god.

I’ve often wondered whether we have done Jesus a great disservice by assigning him the same birthday as ancient gods. In mythology, Horus of Egypt (c. 3000 BC), Mithra of Persia (c. 1200 BC), Attis of Greece (c. 1200 BC), Krishna of India (c. 900 BC), Dionysus of Greece (c. 500 BC) and others were “born” on December 25.

All are the alleged offspring of virgin mothers and powerful gods. As legend has it, these illustrious demigods healed the sick, raised the dead, and were murdered by the establishment. Each one was resurrected after three days.

While it’s possible that December 25 was Jesus’s birthday, no one can pinpoint anything, anywhere that cites that date or justifies claims that he is “the reason for the season.”

Despite that, hundreds of songs have been written, thousands of pageants have been performed, and millions of gifts have been exchanged on December 25th. The Pope’s latest book says our Christmas traditions are based on myth. If you want the Cliff notes version, Yahoo! News outlines “Five Surprising Facts about Christmas” in this post.

How many times was Jesus born?

Many contend that to be a Christian, you must absolutely positively believe the Bible’s accounts of Jesus’s birth and death. Fair enough, since religion typically requires unquestioning belief. But which accounts are we required to believe: Luke’s or Matthew’s? (Were you brave enough to take the poll in my previous post, Manger or Mary’s House?)

As discussed in that post, most of us haven’t noticed that the Bible cites two different locations for Jesus’s birth. Bible scholar Bart D. Ehrman says it’s because we read the Bible as we read other books: vertically, from the top of the page to the bottom, when it’s often more insightful to read it side-by-side.

To help his students glean more from the text, Ehrman asks them to list all the facts in a Bible story, then compare them with facts stated elsewhere. It’s a technique also used by the Rev. Gaylon McDowell, my New Testament teacher at Christ Universal Temple.

What I discovered when I did that exercise is that both narratives began and ended the same, but nothing else matched:

Contradictory Birth Narratives

If you’re interesting in learning and growing, I’d suggest that you try this technique with the Bible’s accounts of Jesus’s death and the days that followed. I think you’ll find it as insightful as the fact that the Book of James, written by Jesus’s brother, contains neither of these accounts.

How we missed it the first time

More fascinating, try this technique with the Great Flood story in Genesis, which claims that God couldn’t think of a better solution for man’s wickedness than to kill every living thing—including innocent infants, animals, fish and fauna. According to Bible and Torah scholars, five flood myths were woven together to Genesis. Because of that, you’ll need more than two columns on your page because the “facts” frequently contradict each other from one verse to another, not simply from one chapter or book to another.

Because we are told that the Bible is the inerrant “Word of God,” we typically dismiss or ignore inconsistencies. In other books, we’d consider it implausible for someone to be born in two different places. We’d easily notice that facts are changing from one sentence (or verse) to another.

With the Bible, we negotiate and reconcile blatant contradictions. That’s why we often see the star in Matthew’s story positioned over the stable and shepherds in Luke’s story. The wise men, who went to the house, are curiously standing near the shepherds and manger.

Why the facts don’t line up

Many believe the gospels were written by Jesus’s disciples. But based on the dates their gospels were written, Bible scholars agree that neither Matthew nor Luke ever met Jesus. They also note that the Book of James, written by Jesus’s brother, doesn’t mention the miraculous virgin birth involving his very own mother.

Matthew and Luke, however, were fervently committed to converting more followers to Judaism’s new sect, Christianity. Matthew crafted his birth narrative to attract more Jews by including as many elements as possible to link Jesus to the Jewish prophesies about the Messiah. In particular, it was important to establish that he was born in Bethlehem and from the lineage of King David. For good measure, he drew a parallel to Moses, who escaped the Pharoah’s mandate to kill newborn boys.

Luke’s aim was to convert everybody, Jew and Gentile. His birth narrative used imagery of common folk, shepherds, who rejoiced at the birth of the Messiah.

Both men realized that they needed a device to get Jesus to Nazareth after the birth. After all, he was known as Jesus of Nazareth, not Jesus of Bethlehem.

Does myth matter?

Completely lost in these tangled fables is the real significance of Jesus’s life: His message for us to love unconditionally and forgive untiringly, as exemplified by the father in the Prodigal Son parable. Another casualty: His admonitions for us to avoid judging and condemning each other.

If Jesus’s mission was to teach us that we are one with the father and to save us from committing sin by loving, forgiving and being nonjudgmental, have we belittled that mission by dedicating ourselves instead to errant words, unrelated traditions and worshiping the life story of mythical gods? If we haven’t honored Jesus’s teachings, as urged in his brother James’ book, what on Earth are we celebrating?

Manger or Mary’s House: Why does myth matter?

I saw an interview with theologian and bestselling author Dr. Bart D. Ehrman, who mused about polling his students on the first day of class at the Bible Belt university where he teaches. His first question: How many of you believe that the Bible is the inerrant word of God? Practically every student’s hand shoots up.

Da Vinci Code Cover

More thoroughly read than the Bible?

Next, how many have read “The Da Vinci Code,” cover to cover? Again, almost every hand is in the air. How many have read the Bible, cover to cover? One or two.

It’s no surprise to Ehrman and other Bible scholars that people who haven’t read it or haven’t comprehended what they’ve read are the ones that believe it’s the inerrant word of God. Like him, I’m a bit fascinated by that phenomenon, although I’m sure we both understand that the language in the text can often be challenging.

Add nuances such as ancient ritual, cultural idioms and good old-fashioned hyperbole to the mix, and it’s even more difficult to separate fact from fiction. Jesus, Interrupted coverPlus, as Ehrman pointed out in his latest book. “Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them),” we tend to read the Bible vertically, from the top of the page to the bottom—the same way we read other books. And that could be a problem.

A problem? Yes. It’s probably the reason most who call ourselves Christians totally miss the fact that there are contradicting narratives of Jesus’s birth and death published in the Bible.

Most of us are confident that we know basic details about Jesus. Certainly, we know where he was born. More than likely, we don’t. Pretty weird, especially since we’ve attended dozens of Christmas pageants, even if we haven’t actually read the narratives in the Bible.

I’ll reveal the answer as we continue to explore whether myth matters, in the next post in this series.

What happened to Jesus’s dash?

It’s been said that it’s not the dates of a person’s birth or death that are important; it’s the dash between the two:  What did they do while they were on the planet?

As I witness the annual frenzy surrounding Jesus’s birth—weeks of preparations, billions spent on decorations, office parties, gifts, wrapping paper and bows—I can’t help but wonder: What happened to his dash?

Christmas Tree

Let’s not kid ourselves. Jesus is not the reason for this season. Nowhere in the scriptures is it said that Jesus was born on December 25.

What we do know is that it’s the same birthday as mythological gods and saviors who were born of virgin mothers. They all healed the sick, raised the dead, were brutally murdered at a young age by those who took issue with their talents and teachings, and were resurrected in three days.

We also know that pagans celebrated the all-important winter solstice at this time of year, with decorated trees and other vestiges of modern celebrations. In fact, these grand festivities posed the greatest hurdle for those who were trying to convert pagans to Christianity. The Jews had Hanukkah in December. The pagans had Solstice. The Christians had, well, nothing.

Wait! We can still have a party! How about if we call it Christmas?

Even if we don’t care to bone up on our ancient history or mythology, those who actually read the Bible know that there are conflicting narratives of Jesus’s birth. The Book of Luke, written by a gentile physician who wanted to convert gentiles to Christianity, claims that Jesus was born in a Bethlehem barn.

As the story goes, Jesus’s very pregnant mother’s husband, Joseph, made her ride 80 miles from their home in Nazareth on a donkey so that he could pay his taxes in Bethlehem. Why Bethlehem? Because Joseph was of the lineage of David, and Hebrew scriptures had prophesied that the savior would emerge from that lineage and that village. But  Jesus’s father was Invisible Spirit, God; so what was Luke’s point, exactly?

The Book of  Matthew, written by a Jew who wanted to convert Jews to Christianity, totally disagrees with Luke’s barn birth narrative. Matthew says that Jesus was born in  Joseph and Mary’s Bethlehem home. It is to this home that the brilliant star guided three wise men.

Archeologists recently discovered homes in that region, built during that era. They looked more like little caves, and were very close to each other. That starlight was either laser-focused or the wise men knocked on several doors before finding the savior in Matthew’s story.

Nativity Creche

Creches tend to combine the conflicting birth stories

Either confusion or compromise has resulted in a plethora of manger scenes and school plays that include the wise men and the star. Heaven forbid that future generations would think that Jesus was born twice, in different parts of town.

Aside from agreeing that Jesus was crucified, the Bible’s death narratives are just as argumentative, which to this Christian lends credence to the claim that it’s really not the circumstances surrounding Jesus’s birth or death that matter, it’s his dash. Most Christians disagree, some more vehemently than others.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told that I’m not really Christian unless I believe Jesus’s birth narrative. Which one, exactly?

And, they say, I’m really not Christian unless I believe that only three years into Jesus’s “good news” ministry, God had him  murdered in a manner that can only be described as satanic. Let me get this straight: Our Father is going to brutalize me eternally unless I believe that He inhumanely subjected the innocent Jesus to sadistic torture instead of me.  Yes, they say, and if I was really a Christian, I’d be grateful.

I generally don’t celebrate when an innocent person is executed so that the guilty can go free. Instead, I celebrate a God that is bigger, better and less barbaric than portrayed by ancient scribes for whom live sacrifice was normal. I also celebrate Jesus’s dash, which overshadows the curious narratives about his birth and death.

During his dash, the religious rebel and rabbi Jesus taught us how to heal ourselves and our relationships. He taught us not to judge or condemn each other; he urged us to love our enemies and love ourselves. He taught us to forgive 70 times seven. He also taught that God is the unconditionally loving father of prodigal children who celebrates our return, even after an errant lifetime away from home. He taught that he is One with the Father, and we are One with him.

In our focus on Jesus’s beginning and end, we’ve given short shrift to the dash. In the dash, Jesus cautioned against putting new wine in old skins: Combining the ancients’ view of God as vengeful, punitive, angry, judgmental, distant, male, genocidal and hard-to-please with the “good news” that Our Father is spirit, is love, is forgiveness, is within. As a result , we’ve created a bi-polar God who loves us—but will satanically brutalize us if we don’t toe the line.

Many Christians I know believe that it’s not enough to live a life that emulates the lessons Jesus taught. Good people will be sent to hell and robbers, thieves and murders who confess with their mouths that they believe the birth and death narratives will be spared God’s horrific punishment.

Perpetrating beliefs such as that not only demonizes God; it dishonors the good news of Jesus’s wholly empowering dash.

News Flash from Nazareth!

The Associated Press reported this week that archaeologists have found the remains of a home in Nazareth, Israel that can be dated back to the era when the New Testament says that Jesus lived. This is a discovery that could provide tremendous insight into the lifestyle of the people who lived in the city at the time that Jesus is believed to have been a child.

Here’s what we know so far: Nazareth sat on only four acres of land and comprised only 50 homes. According to the Gospels, the Messiah grew up in one of them. For that reason, the timing of this discovery is especially meaningful to Christians. According to Father Jack Karam of the nearby Basilica of the Annunciation—where Christian tradition says an angel told Mary that she would give birth—finding this ancient home during the Christmas season is “a great gift.”

For centuries, theologians have debated whether the man known today as Jesus actually existed. Not only does the Bible contain no firsthand accounts of him or his miraculous acts, they say that his virgin birth, execution and resurrection suspiciously mirror the life narratives of ancient mythical gods. Some say that Jesus might actually have been a metaphor for the Christ spirit within all of us. Others speculate that a traveling rabbi did exist who understood the divinity of man, embraced it, and uplifted others by spreading the word.

Since none of the gospels was written by men who actually knew Jesus or lived during his time, any of these possibilities exist. If someone who was half-human, half-Divine Spirit did walk on the planet, ancient history does teach us that he wasn’t born in December. The Bible doesn’t make that claim and it doesn’t declare that Jesus came to start a new religion.

According to some religious historians, the real reason for the season is that Christian converts, who were accustomed to participating in Jewish or pagan celebrations during the winter solstice, wanted their own holiday during that time of the year. Mythologists also note that December 25 was traditionally the birthday of mythological heroes said to have been the offspring of virgin mothers and pagan gods.

Certain stories and facts are often repeated in the Bible, highlighting the fact that scribes and storytellers liberally borrowed from each other. Remember, this was long before plagiarism laws. Matthew and Luke, for example, copied most of Mark’s book verbatim, but they thought the story was incomplete. Mark hadn’t established Jesus as the Messiah, the only begotten son of God. Matthew and Luke “fixed” that problem by adding birth narratives to Mark’s text. These narratives, written decades after Jesus’ death by men who didn’t know him, intentionally matched Jewish prophesy. Among other things, it was prophesied that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, so both set Jesus’ birth in that city. But that’s where the similarity ended.

The Gospel of Luke claimed that Jesus was born in a Bethlehem barn because there was no room in the inn for his Galilee-bound parents. Matthew’s gospel claimed that Mary and Joseph actually lived in Bethlehem, and Jesus was born at home. As theologians have reminded us throughout the centuries, it really doesn’t matter that Matthew and Luke set Jesus’ birth in two different places. After all, when Constantine the Great gathered religious leaders in Nicea to decide which of the hundreds of known manuscripts should be included in the book they would call the Holy Bible, few of those books—and none of the 27 selected for the New Testament were written as or perceived to be historical documents. But once the Council declared this collection to be the “gospel,” perceptions of their veracity began to shift. Complicate that with the fact that none of the original manuscripts existed when the Council met in 325 A.D., and thousands more copies were re-created by hand and translated (never flawlessly) for another thousand years.

So does it matter whether you believe everything in the Bible is the “word of God”? Not really. Over time, Thinkers have figured out that Jesus couldn’t have been born in two places at once. History has revealed that tax time in that region did not occur during December and that Joseph wouldn’t have been required to travel from Nazareth to Galilee to pay taxes at any time.

Now we learn that Jesus of Nazareth  grew up in a city that was a mere four acres in size, leading us to conclude that if the Messiah went missing, it would not have gone unnoticed and there would have been no 18-year gap in the record of Jesus’ life. There probably would have been a town-wide search party; residents in neighboring towns might have joined in, and the mushrooming posse would have been so unprecedented that one of the few literate citizens would have written about it.

What does it all mean? Many have leaped into the numerous credibility gaps in the Old Testament to declare that there is no God. But what if it only reveals that the ancient storytellers were recording their limited idea of what God is and what God does, and their stories don’t capture the essence of the real God?

Many have leaped into the numerous credibility gaps in the New Testament to declare that there was no Jesus. But what if ancient storytellers were merely creating an allegory about what humans would be able to do if they loved each other unconditionally, treated others the way they’d want to be treated, were aware that their souls were perfect, healthy and complete, and that the spirit of God was within them?

Maybe a man named Yeshua did exist who had this awareness, and lived it daily. Maybe he spent three years of his life teaching others what he knew. Maybe his empowering message enraged the Romans and they murdered him in a most humiliating way, and maybe decades later, writers edified this profound man’s teachings by encasing them within the framework of Jewish prophecy and pagan god myth.

At this point, we know more about what didn’t happen than what did. But do any of those facts mean that we have nothing to celebrate on this Christmas Day? Absolutely not.

Whether we believe Jesus was God, man or myth, we can celebrate the Christ Consciousness that has lived since The Beginning and resides within each of us right now. We can celebrate the birth of a period when Christians were defined by how they behaved rather than by the stories they believed.

Today we can celebrate the opportunity to totally transform our lives by patterning our behavior after that of the indisputably legendary Jesus: We can love unconditionally, bring a healing presence to every room and every relationship that we’re in, judge and condemn nothing, forgive everything, and do nothing to anyone that we wouldn’t want done to us.

It’s called non-religious Christianity, a transformative and powerful way to change our lives and save our souls from the consequences of errant choices and hurtful actions. It makes this day and every day a…

Very Merry Christmas!

News Flash from Nazareth!

The Associated Press reported this week that archaeologists have found the remains of a home in Nazareth, Israel that can be dated back to the era when the New Testament says that Jesus lived. This is a discovery that could provide tremendous insight into the lifestyle of the people who lived in the city at the time that Jesus is believed to have been a child. 

Here’s what we know so far: Nazareth sat on only four acres of land and comprised only 50 homes. According to the Gospels, the Messiah grew up in one of them. For that reason, the timing of this discovery is especially meaningful to Christians. According to Father Jack Karam of the nearby Basilica of the Annunciation—where Christian tradition says an angel told Mary that she would give birth—finding this ancient home during the Christmas season is “a great gift.”

For centuries, theologians have debated whether the man known today as Jesus actually existed. Not only does the Bible contain no firsthand accounts of him or his miraculous acts, they say that his virgin birth, execution and resurrection suspiciously mirror the life narratives of ancient mythical gods. Some say that Jesus might actually have been a metaphor for the Christ spirit within all of us. Others speculate that a traveling rabbi did exist who understood the divinity of man, embraced it, and uplifted others by spreading the word.

Since none of the gospels was written by men who actually knew Jesus or lived during his time, any of these possibilities exist. If someone who was half-human, half-Divine Spirit did walk on the planet, ancient history does teach us that he wasn’t born in December. The Bible doesn’t make that claim and it doesn’t declare that Jesus came to start a new religion.

According to some religious historians, the real reason for the season is that Christian converts, who were accustomed to participating in Jewish or pagan celebrations during the winter solstice, wanted their own holiday during that time of the year. Mythologists also note that December 25 was traditionally the birthday of mythological heroes said to have been the offspring of virgin mothers and pagan gods.

Certain stories and facts are often repeated in the Bible, highlighting the fact that scribes and storytellers liberally borrowed from each other. Remember, this was long before plagiarism laws. Matthew and Luke, for example, copied most of Mark’s book verbatim, but they thought the story was incomplete. Mark hadn’t established Jesus as the Messiah, the only begotten son of God. Matthew and Luke “fixed” that problem by adding birth narratives to Mark’s text. These narratives, written decades after Jesus’ death by men who didn’t know him, intentionally matched Jewish prophesy. Among other things, it was prophesied that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, so both set Jesus’ birth in that city. But that’s where the similarity ended.

The Gospel of Luke claimed that Jesus was born in a Bethlehem barn because there was no room in the inn for his Galilee-bound parents. Matthew’s gospel claimed that Mary and Joseph actually lived in Bethlehem, and Jesus was born at home. As theologians have reminded us throughout the centuries, it really doesn’t matter that Matthew and Luke set Jesus’ birth in two different places. After all, when Constantine the Great gathered religious leaders in Nicea to decide which of the hundreds of known manuscripts should be included in the book they would call the Holy Bible, few of those books—and none of the 27 selected for the New Testament were written as or perceived to be historical documents. But once the Council declared this collection to be the “gospel,” perceptions of their veracity began to shift. Complicate that with the fact that none of the original manuscripts existed when the Council met in 325 A.D., and thousands more copies were re-created by hand and translated (never flawlessly) for another thousand years.

So does it matter whether you believe everything in the Bible is the “word of God”? Not really. Over time, Thinkers have figured out that Jesus couldn’t have been born in two places at once. History has revealed that tax time in that region did not occur during December and that Joseph wouldn’t have been required to travel from Nazareth to Galilee to pay taxes at any time.

Now we learn that Jesus of Nazareth  grew up in a city that was a mere four acres in size, leading us to conclude that if the Messiah went missing, it would not have gone unnoticed and there would have been no 18-year gap in the record of Jesus’ life. There probably would have been a town-wide search party; residents in neighboring towns might have joined in, and the mushrooming posse would have been so unprecedented that one of the few literate citizens would have written about it.

What does it all mean? Many have leaped into the numerous credibility gaps in the Old Testament to declare that there is no God. But what if it only reveals that the ancient storytellers were recording their limited idea of what God is and what God does, and their stories don’t capture the essence of the real God?

Many have leaped into the numerous credibility gaps in the New Testament to declare that there was no Jesus. But what if ancient storytellers were merely creating an allegory about what humans would be able to do if they loved each other unconditionally, treated others the way they’d want to be treated, were aware that their souls were perfect, healthy and complete, and that the spirit of God was within them?

Maybe a man named Yeshua did exist who had this awareness, and lived it daily. Maybe he spent three years of his life teaching others what he knew. Maybe his empowering message enraged the Romans and they murdered him in a most humiliating way, and maybe decades later, writers edified this profound man’s teachings by encasing them within the framework of Jewish prophecy and pagan god myth.

At this point, we know more about what didn’t happen than what did. But do any of those facts mean that we have nothing to celebrate on this Christmas Day? Absolutely not.

Whether we believe Jesus was God, man or myth, we can celebrate the Christ Consciousness that has lived since The Beginning and resides within each of us right now. We can celebrate the birth of a period when Christians were defined by how they behaved rather than by the stories they believed.

Today we can celebrate the opportunity to totally transform our lives by patterning our behavior after that of the indisputably legendary Jesus: We can love unconditionally, bring a healing presence to every room and every relationship that we’re in, judge and condemn nothing, forgive everything, and do nothing to anyone that we wouldn’t want done to us.

It’s called non-religious Christianity, a transformative and powerful way to change our lives and save our souls from the consequences of errant choices and hurtful actions. It makes this day and every day a…

Very Merry Christmas!