The Christmas Story and Other Redeeming Myths

The Christmas Story and
Other Redeeming Myths


By Nick Gier,
Professor Emeritus, University of Idaho">(


See also "Pontius
the Pilot and the Flight to Egypt


A myth is a tale that
tells truth�Anonymous


At the risk of being a
Grinch who ruins Christmas, I would like to go behind the Christmas Story and
relate what scholars know about the biblical texts involved. I hope that the
result will be a more enlightened perspective on the role of such stories in the
common life of humankind.


In the second chapter of
Matthew we read the story of wise men who came from the East to worship the baby
Jesus. These men are called magoi (Greek for magicians), and scholars
have identified them, if they were there, as Zoroastrian priests from Babylon. 


There are several
problems with this story.  If they were following a star in the East, they would
have traveled East not West to Palestine.  (If they just
happened to be in Rome, they would have sailed rather than ridden camels.)
That means that they would have been
heading in the direction of the birth of a Hindu savior, not a Jewish one.  But
most likely, they would have been searching for their own savior, one named


The Jewish historian
Josephus hated King Herod and chronicled his life in great detail, but it is
very odd that he never mentions the slaughter of infants found in Matthew 2:16. If
there was no command to kill all new born children, then there would have been
no reason for the Flight to Egypt.


Could the
slaughter of the infants
be an element of what I call the �Savior Archetype,� common patterns
of events that are attributed to many of the world�s saviors? In their various
scriptures the saviors are said to have had royal genealogies and miraculous
conceptions; they worked miracles and escaped the clutches of death.  Jesus,
Krishna, and Zoroaster were also threatened in infancy by demon kings. 


Returning now to the
beginning of the story, there is no record of Caesar Augustus’ decree that "all
the world should be enrolled" (Luke 2:1).  The Romans kept extremely detailed
records of such events.  Not only is Luke’s census not in these records, it goes
against all that we know of Roman economic history.


In Josephus’ account of
the Roman census in 6 C.E., he writes that those people taxed were assessed of
their possessions, including lands and livestock.  But Luke has Joseph and Mary
making a three-day journey, away from their home and possessions in Nazareth, to
register in their alleged ancestral home in Bethle�hem.


An Egyptian papyrus
recording a census in 104 C.E. states that "since registration by household is
imminent, it is necessary to notify all who for any reason are absent from their
districts to return to their own homes that they may carry out the ordinary
business of registration."  For more on Luke�s census see this link.


Imagine a system of
taxation based on people returning to their ancestral homes, going back a
thousand years in the case of Joseph.  By this time the Jews were spread out all
over the known world.  Can we seriously believe that the Romans would have
re�quired them to come back to Palestine, carrying everything they owned? 


In The Rise of Christianity Bishop E. W.
Barnes remarks:  "The Romans were a practical race, skilled in the art of
government.  It is incredible that they should have taken a census according to
such a fantastic system.  If any such census had been taken, the dislocation to
which it would have led would have been world-wide."


We can now understand why Jesus never mentions
his birth in Bethlehem; and that, except for the birth stories, Jesus is always
connected with Nazareth.  The authors of the Gospel of John apparently do not
know of Jesus’ alleged birth in Bethlehem.  Nathanael does not know it (7:46),
and no one answers the challenge of the crowd when they say: "Is the Christ to
come from Galilee? Has not the scriptures said that the Christ…comes from
Bethlehem?" (7:42).


But are we sure that Jesus actually lived in
Nazareth?  Some Bible scholars have doubted this for over a century,
beginning with a Professor
T. Cheyne,
who wrote: "It is very doubtful whether the beautiful
mountain village of Nazareth was really the dwelling-place of Jesus" (Encyclopedia
, "Nazareth," 1899).  The basic problem is
that archaeological evidence indicates that the town did not arise until after
the Jewish revolt of 70 CE.  See a recent book on the subject by Rene Salm
entitled The Myth of Nazareth: The Invented Town of Jesus (Kevalin Press,


At this point some
readers may be saying: �Way to go, Gier, you�ve just spoiled Christmas more than
any commercial enterprise could ever do.� 


Let me tell you another
story about a wise woman in an African village whose job it was to instruct the
children in the tribe�s myths.  She began each session with the following
disclaimer: �The stories that I will tell you are not true, but they are the
most important stories that you will ever hear.�


In India it is the
grandmother�s task to teach Hindu mythology to the children.  These are
fantastic tales of great heroes and heroines, but also much violence, death, and
sex.  Their graphic �in your face� style, not too different from Grimm�s
Fairy Tales
or many Old Testament stories, has a very important
socio-psychological purpose.


In Europe and America,
where we pride ourselves (even very religious people do) by living without myth
and legend, we still pay huge sums to psychotherapists to help us recover from
unresolved experiences of violence, death, and sex.  I�ve always thought that
Hindu mythology serves as a fairly effective substitute for a mental health
program that the New Delhi government cannot afford.


This Sunday I will
enjoy, and be redeemed by, the performance of Handel�s Messiah, and in
the choir of my Unitarian church, where most members think they have left myths
far behind, we will be singing hymns to a miraculous child, born in the darkest
time of the year, who brings the light of hope to a broken world.


Each night a
child is born is a holy night.

A time for

A time for

A time for

Each night a
child is born is a holy night.


Lyrics by
Unitarian Sophia Fahs.

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