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?

Is truth more important than facts?

In the coin section of my wallet, I carry the tag from an old teabag. It’s a quote from French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire: “A witty saying proves nothing.” Amen.

We love clever sayings—even if they don’t make sense, even if our own life experiences have demonstrated something to the contrary, and even if we don’t fully understand the implications of the claim that is being made. We just pass these sayings to others on without thinking, especially if it threatens us.

In the e-mail world, this is done by clicking “forward.” I’ve repeatedly received a Bible verse claiming that Jesus said something judgmental and threatening. Each time I’ve received it, I ask the sender if she (it’s always a woman) really believes that Jesus would say something so unChristlike. Those who respond always say that they hadn’t thought about it. That’s the part I don’t understand. It’s the thinking faculty that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom.

Some of the other oft-repeated sayings that fill me with wonder are those surrounding the spiritual Law of Attraction. These witticisms preach that you can have anything you want: Think it, believe it, visualize it, hold it as a dominant thought, and it will manifest out of thin air. That is the message of these sayings. 

Some not only believe that this is true, they believe that repeating these witticisms actually gives others some hope that they can turn things around. Is it hope or a headache that they’re giving them?

According to the Law of Attraction prophets (many of whom are focused solely on profits), you can have anything you want—even if it’s not yours. You can have anything you want—even if it is not for your Highest Good to have it. You can have anything you want—even though your soul desires something totally different. You can have what you want—even if there’s only one of it, and more than one person wants it. Then that leads to the “blessed and highly favored” sayings that imply that Our Father plays favorites.

Witty sayings prove something if they are true 100% of the time for 100% of the people. If it happens for some, but not for everyone, it’s a possibility, not a truth. And they should be regarded as possibilities and nothing more.

How about this saying from the Loud Mouth: “What’s yours, you will get—at the right time and in the most perfect way—and no one can keep you from it.” While I have no proof that this happens 100% of the time for 100% of the people, there is some empirical evidence that reveals that it’s more probable than “you can have anything you want.”

Anyone who’s ever had a disappointment had to have anticipated a specific outcome: They visualized it, made it their dominant thought, and they believed that it was going to happen. But it didn’t—or it happened for someone else.

Two weeks ago, hardly anyone knew who Kesha Ni’Cole Nichols was. In her world, in her mind, and according to her plans, she was going to be honeymooning with  NBA star Richard Jefferson right now.

This young woman had planned a $2 million wedding day. (The thought of a woman spending that kind of money for a ceremony and celebration that were going to last a few hours might have made any young man choke: Would he have enough money to sustain her for the rest of the year?) But I digress:

How many times do you think Ms. Nichols visualized herself proudly walking down the aisle with a church full of high-profile folks looking adoringly at her ridiculously expensive wedding gown? In this scene, the love of her life was always waiting at the end of aisle, eagerly waiting to say, “I take this woman.” Not once did it cross her mind that Jefferson would dump her the night before. In order to spend that kind of money, you could not have spent time thinking about anything but that wedding day. It was certifiably her dominant thought. And look what happened.

Ms. Nichols is not an exception. These things happen all the time. Heck, they’ve happened to you. It would be crass and untrue to say, “If you want to make God laugh, just make plans.” But you have to admit that it’s witty–and o are clever motivational sayings and formulas touting dominant thoughts, visualizations and other predictors of success, prosperity, and wellness that cannot be proved.

In fact, experience has proved otherwise. With the misperception that we are merely mortal creatures, and that acquiring stuff while we’re in these bodies will make us happy, these witty sayings steer us in the direction of material joy.

In actuality, peace of mind is what truly brings joy. Few things disturb our peace of mind more than getting, having stuff and keeping stuff. What we need are some sayings that give us peace of mind when we can’t pay our bills or when we face health challenges–sayings that have nothing to do with changing the circumstances, but understanding why we created them in the first place. Hmmm, how about: “Trust that whatever you are experiencing is designed by your soul for its Highest Good. Allow it to fulfill its purpose.”

I admit, it might not be very inspirational, but if I know that I am eternal and that the problem I’m facing is not, I am more likely to relax and trust that the soul and the God Spirit within me know what they’re doing.

Maybe it’s the Virgo in me, but I like to understand and analyze my experiences. Based on my belief that things don’t happen to me, they happen for me, I always ask the God Within: “Why did I create this situation, and how does it serve me?” Invariably–usually within 24 hours because I’ve practiced this so long–it is revealed why I am having that experience, and how it is benefitting me. As a consequence, I am rarely disturbed when things happen. I accept that it is happening for my growth and Highest Good. That doesn’t mean that I am delighted that I’m having the discomfort. For added measure, I frequently say something like, “I am open to experience something more pleasant, at the earliest and most perfect time.”

Challenges build muscle, teach lessons and stimulate growth. The last person you want to be around if things go wrong is someone who has not faced a challenge or a disappointment before. Problems are good. Disappointments are good. Not getting everything you want is good. Learning from every experience–and seizing the growth or practice opportunities they present–is even better. 

What advice have you been given, based on a motivational saying, that was fact but not truth? How did you respond? Would you like to share so that we can all grow?

I Wish Jesus Had Dropped Bread Crumbs

Humans are a lovely and loving lot—except when we forget we are. And that memory lapse scripts all human drama.

From the missives in my e-mailbox, there’s many a beautiful soul out there who believes that it is his or her mission to save the rest of us from eternal damnation; and by golly, they’ll do it by force, in the name of Almighty God. They’ll shake us, insult us, slap us and zap us until we abandon our belief that God is infinitely bigger—and better—than the ancient scribes portrayed. If we really loved God—I mean really, really loved God—we’ll forward their guilt-tripping e-mails to everyone in our address book, and know that a blessing is on the way.

I have no doubt that these wonderful people really mean well. They truly believe that when God does things that are judgmental, inhumane, punitive and…er, ungodly, it’s for our own good. Hey, drastic times call for drastic measures. That’s why they practice Coercive Christianity. If they didn’t, the rest of us would go to hell in a hand basket.

I received an e-mail yesterday that pimp-slapped those who believe the claims in hoax e-mails, but don’t believe that the Bible is the inerrant word of God. (It didn’t address the group that believes neither.) This type of e-mail used to irritate me. I guess I’m mellowing. Now, I simply wonder how closely these beautiful people have read the Bible—or what’s left of it—before imposing such harsh judgment on others.

In his utterly fascinating book, Misquoting Jesus: The Story behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, renowned biblical scholar Bart D. Ehrman says, “[T]he vast majority of Christians for the entire history of the church have not had access to the originals, making [the scribes’] inspiration something of a moot point. Not only do we not have the originals, we don’t have the first copies of the originals. We don’t even have copies of the copies of the originals, or copies of the copies of the copies of the originals. What we have are copies made later—much later. In most instances, they are copies made many centuries later. And these copies all differ from one another, in many thousands of places.”

You don’t have to be an historian or biblical scholar to notice that there are several versions of the Noah and the Ark story clumsily squeezed into the book of Genesis. Close your eyes and let a child read it aloud. You’ll be surprised to hear things you haven’t noticed in all the years you’ve been reading the Bible or repeating that story. You’ll discover that the details and numbers conflict, from one verse to another—repeatedly.

The New Testament has its issues, too. There are four conflicting accounts of Jesus’ birth, life, ministry, and even his death. That’s because Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John had different perceptions of Jesus and his mission, were talking to different audiences, and trying to convince those audiences of different things.

Matthew was speaking to religious Jews, and made an effort to connect Jesus to Jewish scripture. He portrayed Jesus as fulfilling Jewish prophesy—royalty, the King of Kings. Mark addressed the Romans, presenting Jesus to them as servile, the bearer of man’s burdens. To Luke, the erudite Gentile (non-Jewish) physician, Jesus was the perfect and sinless son of man. Luke was believed to be a friend of Paul. His book targeted a non-Jewish Christian audience. By contrast, John’s message was for the common man, particularly the needy. John viewed Jesus as the perfect son of God. Needless to say, the four covered all the bases.

For many millennia, schools of theology have taught our ministers truths about the Bible that many have forgotten to pass on, including the fact that none of the gospel writers actually knew Jesus. Despite the similarities in their names, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were not the Apostles. In addition, few men were literate in Jesus’ day. Consequently, the New Testament never contained direct quotes, and neither do our current red letter editions.

Ehrman, who became a born again Christian as a teen, tells a humorous story about how his theological studies fine-tuned his beliefs. (At least, I thought it was funny.) At the urging of the young teacher responsible for his enlightenment, he decided to study Scripture full time. Following high school graduation, he entered Moody Bible Institute in Chicago.

Ehrman considered Moody’s curriculum as “hard core Christianity, for the fully committed.” It was there that he first learned that “none of the copies of original scripture is completely accurate, since the scribes who produced them inadvertently and/or intentionally changed them in places.” All the scribes did this, he was taught.

Despite this insight, Moody students and instructors were required to sign a statement declaring that the Bible was the inerrant word of God. No one else seemed to have a problem with viewing the inaccurate copies of copies as the inerrant word of God, so he accepted it, too.

Ehrman was fired up, following his three year Bible immersion at Moody. He wanted to evangelize to the secular world. He decided to earn degrees that would enable him to teach in secular settings. First step: a bachelor’s degree. He selected Wheaton College in suburban Chicago, alma mater of famed evangelist Billy Graham—ignoring warnings from Moody colleagues that he’d find no “real” Christians there.

His study of Greek at Wheaton highlighted his concerns about the biblical translations. As he approached graduation, he was compelled to devote himself to studying the New Testament. The world’s leading expert taught at Princeton Theological Seminary. Ehrman headed in that direction, ignoring warnings from friends at Wheaton that he’d have trouble finding any “real” Christians at Princeton.

He recalls that he reached a turning point during his second semester at Princeton, after writing a final term paper for a much revered and pious professor. In that paper, he examined a passage in Mark 2, in which the Pharisees catch Jesus and his disciples eating grain during the Sabbath. Jesus defended himself and his apostles by citing 1Samuel 21:1-6, which told the story of King David and his men. The scripture says that they went into the temple when Abiathar was the high priest, and they were so hungry that they ate bread that was exclusively for priests.

Scholars who have studied the Bible in conjunction with other historical texts say this scene actually happened when Abiathar’s father, Ahimelech, was the high priest—a factual error. Ehrman faced this challenge by writing a lengthy and admittedly convoluted argument that the names in 1Samuel and Mark 2 were indeed incorrect, but the Bible itself is inerrant.

His pious professor minced no words, writing on Ehrman’s term paper: “Maybe Mark just made a mistake.” (That’s when I laughed.)

Laypersons such as myself might not be able to spot the thousands of conflicts that scholars have found, but we can clearly see the obvious ones. For example, Matthew’s “inspired” story of Jesus’ birth, written 38 to 68 years after the crucifixion, says that Jesus was born at Mary and Joseph’s home in Bethlehem, and a brilliant star in the East led three wise men to the newborn and his mother. He writes: “Going into the house, they saw Mary and the baby, and fell down and worshipped him.” (Matthew 2:11)

Luke was inspired to relate a totally different birth narrative. In it, Mary and Joseph didn’t live in a house in Bethlehem. They traveled to the city (presumably from Nazareth) to pay taxes. The reason for the trip, Luke claims, is because Joseph belonged to the lineage of King David.

In Luke’s version, it was not the three magi, but shepherds who were led to newborn Jesus—and not by a star, but by an angel: “Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger”. (Luke 2:12)

Historians have been unable to find any evidence of such a mandate for taxpayers to travel to their ancestral home to pay taxes—ever. Tax time wasn’t recorded to be in December, either. Personally, I’m looking for the rationale for making a pregnant woman travel by foot and donkey to watch her husband pay taxes.

But Luke had to devise a way to get this family from Nazareth to Bethlehem, because Hebrew Scriptures portended that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Jewish prophesy also said that the Messiah would be a descendant of David, so Luke claimed that Joseph was that descendant.

(Cue the screeching brakes) Does this mean that Christmas pageants and Nativity plays the world over are portraying Joseph, not God, as Jesus’ father?

So much for the biblical issues surrounding Jesus’ birth. Let’s look at the Gospels’ dueling versions of his death. Mark, who was the first to chronicle Jesus’ life, 35 to 45 years after his death, claims that Jesus was crucified the day after the Passover meal (Mark 14:12). By contrast, the Gospel of John, which scholars say was written 25 to 30 years after Mark’s version, claims that he was crucified the day before the meal (John 19:14). There are also conflicting reports of the series of events that followed his death. The contradictions are too numerous to mention here.

As the Reverend Dr. Evelyn Boyd-Castillo, one of my favorite teachers at Christ Universal Temple, says, “There’s a lot of truth in the Bible, but everything in the Bible isn’t true.”

For one thing, Jesus can’t be born in different places or die on different days. But more important, believing that the Bible is inerrant doesn’t make us “real” Christians. Reading it for guidance in practicing the teachings of the Jew named Yeshua, whose name was changed to Jesus in one of the many translations, is what makes us “real” Christians.

Yeshua brought good news that has long outlived his time on Earth: God is not the sun or an object, as believed by Roman pagans. And God is not the intervening, score-keeping Bogie Man who angrily smites, vengefully commits genocide, heinously demands the live sacrifice of animals, as described in the Old Testament.

Even though Yeshua’s actual words were never recorded verbatim, their essence was this: God is Love. God is Spirit. God is unconditional forgiveness. God is within everyone. God is good all the time; and all the time, God is good. That was his story; and he stuck to it, no matter what.

For three very challenging years, Yeshua dutifully served as God’s PR person. That’s an awfully short time to change centuries of firmly entrenched images and perceptions of what divinity looks like, especially if the religious establishment virulently opposes you. He knew that mere words wouldn’t do; so he put on a show and took it on the road. He demonstrated what it looks like to exude the real power of the Loving, Living God that is within us: a power that compels us to treat others the way we’d want to be treated, love and forgive unconditionally, and honor free will, forcing no one to do anything.

He issued no commands. Instead, he gently and lovingly extended an invitation for us to mimic his thoughts, beliefs and behavior beyond his space and time.

“Follow me,” he urged.

Sigh. If only he had dropped bread crumbs.