November 24, 2020

Riffs: 12:20:07: Religion Reporters Do Love Their Christmas Legends

nwise120.jpgUPDATE: Check out what Williams really said when he used the word “legend.” Talk about a hit piece. Sad.

Here’s the Transcript. Check out the deliberate misquoting.

UPDATE II: Here’s Williams just a few days ago when asked if he believed in the virgin birth.

Yes; I believe that the conception of Jesus was a moment when the creative action of God produced a reality as new in its way as the first moment of creation itself. And I believe that what opened the way for this was the work of God through human history over centuries, coming to its fullest moment in Mary’s consent to God’s call. The recognition of the uniqueness and newness of Jesus is a recognition of the absolute freedom of God to break the chains of cause and effect that lock us into our sins and failures; the virginal conception is an outward sign of this divine freedom to make new beginnings.

Religion journalists. There simply is no word for them when it comes to Biblical ignorance. Well….how about ignorant?

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams knows his Christmas texts in Matthew and Luke, but don’t let that disturb the outraged media. They prefer the Christmas card version ™.

I do this same thing with my students every Advent and get the same jaw dropping reactions.

So let’s just cover the bases.

He said the only reference to the wise men from the East was in Matthew’s gospel and the details were very vague.

Correct. There is virtually nothing to work with in real history on these “wise men.” Whatever Matthew is telling us, there is no major secular history backing it up.

The Bible never says they were Kings. That’s fiction. They are called wise men, whatever that means.

The Bible never tells us where the “east” is. It could be Syria, Arabia or China. The word “orient” is never used

They studied astronomy and Old Testament prophecy (Numbers 24) enough to come to Israel….and go right to Herod looking for his son, apparently.

The star is never identified in a way that matches us with any celestial phenomenon. A star that moves over a house is probably, for my money, an angel, not a heavenly body or astrological event.

We have no idea how many magi there were other than the fact that there were at least two. The names assigned to them are fiction. The pictures of them on camels are legendary.

We have no idea what they thought the gifts meant. IWe know they worshiped Jesus. In Matthew, most scholars assume the gifts honor Christ as king, priest and sacrifice.

There’s more.

There is no innkeeper in the story, probably because the greek in Luke means “guest house,” not inn. (HT to Ben Witherington.) There is no donkey. There are no animals. There is no stable. A manger could have been placed anywhere.

The wise men were not there on the night Jesus was born. They came up to two years later, came to a house where the holy family was residing in Bethlehem, and saw a child, not a baby.

The angels were not a choir. They were an army. They never sang. They spoke.

There is (almost) no snow in Israel except on mountains. The census isn’t verified in history so it could be anytime. Most likely with shepherds in the fields at night it’s spring.

No little drummer boy. No lambs brought by shepherds.

If Luke is correct, Joseph and Mary were betrothed, but not married, when Jesus was born. Matthew is unclear, but seems to say they were married before the birth. I’ll let the harmonizers work that one out.

If you don’t like what Rowan Williams said, then please avoid the Bible. Stick with the Christmas cards and songs.


  1. Kletos Sumboulos says

    Regarding the manger, Ken Bailey says that the floor of houses in that time and area had two levels, lower/unfinished for the family animals and higher/finished for the people. He says that there is evidence that a depression was carved out of the upper level close to the edge in which the animal feed was placed so that the animals could reach by sticking their heads over to the higher side. No mention of hay either, I might add.

  2. “If you don’t like what Rowan Williams said, then please avoid the Bible. Stick with the Christmas cards and songs.”

    Great article, iMonk, although I do take issue when he says the story of the visit of the wise man is just a “legend”. ? How could he know that? Matthew states that it happened and that’s good enough for me.

    But all the rest of it – yes, you are correct, most nativity scenes get it wrong. Our pastor actually preached on that last weekend, making the point that at his house they put nativity scene wise men on the other side of the room, because they are “on their way”.

    Again, good article. But the magi aren’t just a legend. Clergy . . . *sigh*

  3. Boy, you gotta love the headline, though. “Archbishop says nativity ‘a legend'” certainly gives the impression that Archbishop Williams is saying that the Biblical stories of Jesus’s birth are legendary in their entirety. (Witness the comments on the original article, where outraged Christians accuse Williams of heresy alongside the usual “Jesus is a myth” neo-pagans.)

  4. Read What Williams actually said:

    Well Matthew’s gospel doesn’t tell us that there were three of them, doesn’t tell us they were kings, doesn’t tell us where they came from, it says they’re astrologers, wise men, priests from somewhere outside the Roman Empire. That’s all we’re really told so, yes, ‘the three kings with the one from Africa’ – that’s legend; it works quite well as legend.”

    You can get more outrage here.

    Ridiculous distortion. Williams is, best I can tell, a solid Biblical scholar. I wouldn’t agree with him on everything, but he’s getting a hit job with this.

  5. According to Matthew there is no indication that Joseph and Mary ever lived in Nazareth until after they returned from Egypt, it’s Luke that says they traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem and then back to Nazareth.

    Likewise in Luke there is no mention of them ever going to Egypt or the slaughter of the young children.

    We can “harmonize” these accounts but we should admit that is what we are doing and that the New Testament doesn’t present it as neatly as we do.

  6. If you want a really good laugh, read the comments posted under the Telegraph article. . Why is it thta every time a relion related article is published in the press the extremes at both ends of the spectrum take it as their opportunity to abuse everyone they’ve ever met .. . .

  7. My favorite is one that my pastor tells every few years. He got a Christmas card one year that had part of a Scripture verse on the inside:

    …make merry, and send gifts to one another…

    Sounds pretty Christmas-y, doesn’t it?

    Just one little hitch. The verse is Revelation 11:10 and refers to people’s reaction to the murder of the two witnesses that God sends.

  8. I read a biography of G.K. Chesterton that says that when he visited the Holy Land at Christmas it snowed. He said that he always thought those Christmas cards with manger scenes in the snow were fiction, until he saw the Bethlehem snow himself. (He was not on a mountain.) So although we don’t know that it snowed on the first Christmas, it is possible. Just as there is snow once in a great while in our southern states.

  9. Thanks Michael

    Well, I didn’t read his original transcript (of course – me . . . *sigh*) and the person who wrote the article left out the crucial clause: “so, yes, ‘the three kings with the one from Africa’ – that’s legend;” between “That’s all we’re really told” and “it works quite well as legend.” So there was some really bad reporting there. Or they did it on purpose to gin up muss.

    And, just in case I came across that way, I wasn’t and aren’t (ain’t?) outraged.

  10. I agree: there’s not a lot, if anything, to reject or protest in what the ABC has said about this matter.

    Oh, I might take issue with his notion regarding the star, but that’s tangential and hardly worth arguing about. You, Michael, think it might have been an angel; I think it might have been the Shekinah glory. What it was isn’t nearly as important as what it did: point to the King being born.

    I suppose some, however, who disagree with the ABC about other things feel it necessary to vilify him on everything. Quite unfortunate and, sadly, quite common: such people just might have a great deal to teach us on a variety of matters.

  11. I was refering to media outrage.

  12. I still can’t get over how he was misquoted. They deliberately removed parts of his quote to make it sound like he believes the visit of the wise men to be a legend.

  13. Selective quotations… misrepresentation… religious ignorance… blatant unfairness…?

    Welcome to the British newspaper industry. Yes, I dare say it is a bit of a shock if you’re not used to it. 😉

    Seriously, why do you think ++Williams took care to make sure his answer to the Spectator began with the word “Yes”? He’s been around long enough to know how the British media would pick up on it if he began his answer any other way – they were merciless to him in his earlier days as ABC, when he still thought he could get away with just giving intelligent, thoughtful, nuanced answers in complete sentences.

    Now he can still do that, as the Spectator response (and indeed his comments on the nativity) show, but he’s learnt to get that “Yes” in first, to let the papers know there’s no story for them today.

  14. Michael,

    I don’t know if you have read Ernert Martin’s book, The Star That Astonished the World” or not. It is available at Amazon and a variety of other places. It’s an easy but interesting read.

    Martin says the star was actually a conjunction of planets that was astronomically significant to the wise men.

    He also says Jesus was born on September 11, 3 B.C.

    I believe there are a number of planetariums that offer programs on the star. I saw a wonderful program about the star in the early 80’s at the Griffith Observatory in California.

  15. Matt 2:9 “…and once again the star they saw when it rose led them until it stopped above the place where the child was.”

    This seems like something moving differently than other stars. I know of no star that stops, esp over a “place.”

    I’ve seen those presentations at the EKU planetarium.

  16. One of the things that troubles me is the rush among Christians to find a natural – rather than supernatural – explanation for the star. Sure, you can do all kinds of astronomical and historical gymnastics to “explain away” the miracle, or you can define the miracle as God causing these events to naturally take place.

    I prefer the supernatural explanation, i.e., that it was an angel or the shekinah glory that was witnessed in the sky. Isn’t that explanation enough?

  17. Spot on (as they say), and many conservative, well informed Anglicans would agree. They just feel Williams was a bit tactless.

    I think the guy’s a bit lukewarm as well as liberal. He’s backpedaled from liberalism in the past for political reasons and no one’s really sure what he thinks. But I must confess, I’ve always had a bit of warm spot for him in my heart.

  18. Liberal archbishops who believe in the Virgin birth? How do you think our ECUSA Bishop would answer that question? Williams is one of the good guys.

  19. Having been a reporter, I have lots of firsthand experience with this sort of thing. Reporters tend to be more knowledgeable than the public, usually ’cause we keep up on current events, and have to know all the back stories as part of our jobs. Unfortunately this makes many of us think we’re nigh-infallible. So when we make a mistake, some of us can’t conceive of the possibility that we’ve done so. (And people wonder why we come across as arrogant.)

    So I’m not surprised Dr. Williams was misquoted. As far as biblical matters are concerned, reporters have some pretty profound idiots among us. I remember one NPR interview in particular, with one of the translators of the TNIV. The reporter wasted a good two minutes of the interview just dumbfounded that Matthew was never referred to as “St. Matthew” within the text of the scriptures. He was convinced that the translator must be wrong about this… despite his obviously never having read a bible.

    I went to Israel back in ’98 and visited the Church of the Nativity. The church’s tour guide basically said everything Williams had said and then some. I’m sure the guide gets groups from every English-speaking denomination (our group certainly was a blend) and none of them make a fuss about how the facts shatter our Christmas traditions. In fact many of them are happy to have the facts. As any earnest seeker of truth should be. Any fuss raised is totally fabricated to sell tabloids… which is to be expected of the British press.

  20. Nicholas Anton says

    There are no superlatives recorded surrounding Christ’s birth. Most everything we imagine are extra textual embellishments, that have been added throughout the centuries. Those for whom this Gospel was written, were not inhabitants of the land in which the recorded events occurred, and hence may not have know the hills of Palestine, the weather conditions, nor the town of Bethlehem and its layout, and possibly, not even what a Bethlehem stable might looked like, nor what type of animals it might contain. No shepherds are described other than, that they were in the field, and that they were afraid. No angel is named or described. The text does not even state whether they appeared to the shepherds in the sky, or on the earth. It only states that they appeared to them, delivered a message and praised God. Mary and Joseph are not described, Jesus is only described as a Savior, in the form of a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger. The rest is left to our imagination. Or is it? Could it be that we are to leave the rest alone because it becomes a distraction from the message, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ The Lord”? That message is good enough for me.

  21. One point to remember about Rowan Williams: he is not a “liberal cleric” if by liberal you mean “boo-word-throwing-the-doctrinal-baby-out-with-the-bath-water” kind of liberal. He is completely and fully orthodox in his beliefs and teaching (for example, check out his enthronement sermon, available here where he preaches, simply and movingly, Christ crucified). He may be liberal in his personal political beliefs, once describing himself as a “hairy leftie”, but the hermeneutic direction is always Scripture -> Doctrine -> Praxis, and never the other way round.

    The other thing to remember (ok, so I misled you) is that Williams is Welsh, and this influences his rhetoric. The way Williams speaks is almost always more enlightening than what he says. I think of Williams’s teaching a bit like a musical score: on the printed page it only really makes sense to those who have profound musical gifts, who can “hear” the music just be seeing the notes. When his teaching is spoken (and preferably in person) then it is as if the piece is being performed by the best musicians in the world, and it is capable of moving and enlightening everyone who hears it.

    I have heard Williams speak many times, sometimes in groups of four or five, sometimes in cathedral congregations of a thousand. Every time I am struck by being in the presence of a holy man, someone who has stood and seeks to stand in the presence of Christ.

  22. I’m with you on Williams’ thoughts being distorted. He did not say anything heretical.

    My only criticism is that RW is so used to being in the academy that he forgets how people hear what he says. Think of all the Christmas pageants going in the Church of England with all the dear sweet little kids celebrating the nativity, etc. and then the ABC uses the word legend in context with the nativity.

    Methinks the man has a bit of a pastoral tin ear.

  23. “No little drummer boy. No lambs brought by shepherds.”

    Right. And I bet next you’re going to tell us Nestor the long eared donkey wasn’t there either. You historical revisionists disgust me!

    (I would have given a sarcasm alert but that sort of ruins the fun. 🙂 )

  24. MS, RR I stand corrected, although he did, a decade or so ago, have a liberal view of sexuality, but has shifted right since then. I guess I was just expressing my exasperation at his ineffectual handling of the current situation in the AC. As a matter of fact practically everyone (on both sides) perceives him to be a weak leader who probably should have stayed in the academy.

  25. This whole episode is a good reminder to read the Bible with fresh eyes, and to forget all the things we add to it. I teach preschoolers at a church-owned school, and in teaching them about the visit of the wise men I show them how the books made for children are wrong. So many picture books about Jesus’ birth show them in the stable alongside the shepherds.
    Our 3- and 4-year-olds are learning to go back to the source: what does it actually say in the Bible? Young children are capable of telling the difference between the truth, and someone’s fanciful idea of what may have happened. I told them that the people who make the kids’ books don’t always read the Bible carefully, and some of them suggested they need better glasses.

    Why does the fact that only one of the gospels describes Jesus’ birth, and only one describes the magis’ visit, supposedly make those events less credible? The four gospels are essentially eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ ministry. The disciples weren’t around for his birth but relied on second-hand accounts of them. The events surrounding Jesus’ birth were important enough to be included even though they hadn’t personally witnessed them. I think the fact that the gospels have so few events that the disciples could not have witnessed actually makes them more credible. These men were honest reporters, who wrote what they saw.

  26. Just in case someone makes it this far down, check out the following resources for more historical perspective:

    1. “The Manger and the Inn: The Cultural Background of Luke 2:7”, by Kenneth E. Bailey (Theological Review, II/2, 1979, pp. 33-44)–This is a scholarly theological journal article on the cultural and etymological issues surrounding where Jesus was born and laid. Bailey provides strong evidence that it was a “guest room,” and that the “manger” is a feed trough in the main room of the house possibly cut into the floor.

    2. “The Star of Bethlehem,” a new DVD from Genius Entertainment produced by Stephen McEveety (The Passion of the Christ) based on extensive research by Rick Larsen–This presentation is unlike any you have ever seen on the star. It was indeed a natural event, and it occured exactly as the Bible describes it. Larsen brings together biblical references, astronomy, cultural insight, and the use of technology in the most convincing presentation I have ever seen. You can also access his research at The DVD is widely available.

    Merry Christmas!

  27. I am a Christian who has studied extensively the roots of “Christ”mas, and have reluctantly given up ALL the traditions of this so-called Christian holiday. We all know about the pagan beginnings of Christmas, and if you study God’s ordained holy celebrations – the Feast of Trumpets, Tabernacles, First Fruits, Passover, etc., you know that Jesus was most likely born at the end of September. Yes, the Gospels outline the scenario of his humble birth, but it is nowhere to be found that He asks us to celebrate this event annually. I, for one, am filled with joy when I think of His birth, and I teach my son this, but when it comes to Christmas, we just have fun, we don’t worry about “Jesus is the reason for the season”, or whether they’ve outlawed Nativity scenes in the town square. Santa comes to our house, and we buy presents for those we love, donate to charities and give to those less fortunate, bake cookies and deliver them to people, and just have a great time. I don’t believe that Jesus ever was a part of the celebration, and I don’t believe that He wants to be. Do I miss Christmas pageants and all the trappings of the season? Yes, of course I do, but those are traditions that make void the Word of God. I don’t judge those who still have Jesus in their Christmas celebrations, but my family and I have chosen to take him completely out of the hoo-haw, and make Christmas a holiday like Thanksgiving – totally secular, and a celebration of family and good cheer. I have become a pariah of sorts among my family and friends (well, not really, they just think I’m weird), but this is how I truly believe. But as to the journalist writing that stuff, I just say that he’s totally missing the point. It’s like at my son’s Christian school when the “Spiritual Committee” outlawed Santa and the Easter Bunny from classroom decorations, saying that was detracting from the true meanings of these holidays. I just had to smile to myself, thinking how silly it all was.

    In faith,

    C. Hays