Folks lament how Christmas is all about money, but I’m always surprised to see people react to what scripture has to say on the subject. Often they’re shocked to hear Christ’s birth only appears in two of the four Gospels.
“What?” they say, “How is that possible?” And, of course, the embarrassing subtext….”How could I not know that?”
That inconsistency does not equal falsehood, that ignorance can lead one astray, that questioning is a useful tool on the road of faith.
Most scholars agree Mark was the first Gospel written sometime between the years 65-73. And many say Matthew and Luke borrowed from Mark and another source, “Q,” that’s been lost to history.
Mark doesn’t talk about Jesus’ birth. Heck, Mark never mentions Joseph and only mentions Mary as the name of Jesus’ mother in verse 6:3 (there is a Mary in verses 15:40, 15:47 and 16:1, but scholars argue if it’s the same Mary). And even less helpful is the Gospel of John, considered to be the last canonical Gospel (written between the years 90 and 100). It doesn’t contain anything about Jesus’ birth except to talk about “coming into the world” and “becoming flesh.”
“But,” you say, “just because it’s not in all the Gospels doesn’t make it less true. What happened is well documented in the other two. Things like:”
- There were the three wise men.
- There were wise men in Matthew, not in Luke, and no mention of how many.
- But there’s that song…’We Three Kings’!
- Kings? We got no stinkin’ kings!
- They were from the Orient!
- What book are you reading?
- Well there were shepherds and angels.
- Only in Luke, not in Matthew.
- And camels?
- Nowhere to be found.
- The stable?
- What stable? A manger is mentioned, but no stable.
- The ox and ass?
- Not here.
- But at least the donkey Mary rode into Bethlehem was there!
- Donkey? Where does it say that?
- But the Star of Bethlehem! It’s got to be there!
- Only in Matthew, not in Luke.
- Oh come on, man! The Bible says we’ve got to celebrate Jesus’ birth!
- Not once does scripture say to celebrate Christ’s birth. It does say to celebrate His death…and not just at Easter.
As amazing as it may be that the greeting card industry could have made such oversights, how could we, as Christians, not know this stuff? Isn’t this Christianity 101? Weren’t we taught these things in Sunday School? Aren’t these the stories we hear in the glow of candlelight at church, that we see the nativity scenes we’ve placed on our mantles, that we feel like we’ve read in the Bible a thousand times or more?
I’ve only scratched the surface of all the debates and criticism surrounding the birth of Jesus. What I’d like to do is simply bring it to your attention.
Over the years I’ve known too many people who are shaken when they discover their most concrete beliefs suddenly don’t look like such solid ground. They buy into the dangerous slippery slope of thinking that if something as ubiquitous as Jesus’ birth isn’t what they thought, then maybe the rest of scripture isn’t either. Maybe Christianity is just a hoax or a brainwashing. Worse still are people who get slapped in the face by these and feel like the church is responsible for the lie … or at least responsible for its perpetuation.
In my college years there were scores of debates where I found myself flat-footed when faced with these kinds of challenges to scripture. I wondered how I could have been so naive. It made me doubt myself and the church.
Worse, it made me doubt God.
And worse still, I started filling my mouth with these challenges and rattling the faith of others. Yep, I was showing these ignorant Christians how smart I was. I felt pretty sure no Christian in history had thought about these things. Yeah. Right.
So what’s a person to do?
There are two important things to keep in mind. First, if the Bible added up perfectly to everyone, all the time, then critics would assuredly blame its authors of being complicit.
Secondly, doubt and faith go hand in hand. “It is increasingly clear to me that doubt is, in fact, the most important faith of all,” said Jon Sweeney in a Huffington Post article I’ve never quite been able to forget. “Doubt invigorates faith, demands more of it, and causes us to ask more of each other. Doubt connects us to each other. Doubt binds my faith to yours. It makes me reach out. Discover. Explore. Question. Challenge. Learn. A person who doubts is one still on a journey.”
Isn’t that really how we keep Christ in Christmas? By learning? By reaching out to others? By challenging ourselves? Do we find God in stale repetition or instead in engagement with those different from us?
I find it difficult to carry on a conversation with people who agree with me implicitly. Instead, dialogue is best served when people have something new to bring to the table. So keep your conversations going this Christmas. Keep questioning. Keep discovering. Keep doubting. Keep the faith.