The Common Roots of Hanukkah and Christmas- Dec 2003

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 10 December 2003 0 Comments
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If, as you say, the stories of Jesus' miraculous birth are pious legends, what are the implications for staging a children's Christmas pageant in a small suburban church?


There is no reputable New Testament scholar in the world today, either Catholic or protestant, who regards the birth stories of Matthew and Luke as history. I say reputable because there are a few evangelical fundamentalists and pre-Vatican II Roman Catholics who have not yet caught up with the last 150 years of biblical scholarship.

Does that mean, however, that these beautiful stories have no eternal value? Of course not! They are great narratives and our lives would be considerably poorer without those shepherds and wise men, the manger and swaddling clothes, the star in the East and the angelic chorus. These stories are filled with interpretative meaning but they were never written to be understood literally. The star to announce the birth of a special life had a long history in Jewish piety. The story of the Wise Men was based on Isaiah 60. The story of Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus is based on the story of Joseph the
patriarch from Genesis 37:50. The swaddling clothes came out of the apocryphal book of the Wisdom of Solomon. The manger is from Isaiah 1:3. The story of Zechariah and Elizabeth having John the Baptist in their old age is a retelling of the Abraham and Sarah story from Genesis 15 to 34. We could go on and on. I developed all of these connections in a book entitled, "Born of a Woman: A Bishop Rethinks the Virgin Birth and the Place of Women in a Male-Dominated Church."

Does that mean when we learn that these stories are interpretative legends we discard them? I certainly do not. Our home has several creche scenes on display every holiday season and we normally attend at least one Christmas pageant a year.

The meaning of these stories is that in the adult Jesus, people believed that they had experienced the presence of the Holy God. That moment was so transforming that when they wrote it they said things like "the heavens rejoiced at his birth." Why cannot those themes be acted out in pageantry without telling the children that they are literally so. The great myth of Santa Claus/Kris Kringle does not disappear when children learn that no literal elf lives at the literal North Pole. The power of the Christ is likewise not diminished when the miraculous story of his birth is recognized as an interpretative myth.

So enjoy the holidays and welcome the birth of the one many of us acknowledge as our gateway into all that God means.

-- John Shelby Spong




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