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The New Testament Scholar Who Stole Christmas?

By James F. McGrath
Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature
Butler University
December 2011

I was tempted to try to write this article in pseudo-Seussian verse but decided that I probably lacked the skill needed to see such an endeavor successfully through to the end. But I think that the same point can be made in ordinary prose. While many religious believers view “liberal” scholars as antagonistic to their faith, some view even relatively conservative scholars as exhibiting “Grinchy” characteristics, as far as their work on matters related to the Christmas story are concerned. Like the Grinch in the famous Dr. Seuss story, historians and scholars are sometimes felt to disappear up the academic chimney, taking with them many of the beloved trappings of and beliefs about their favorite holidays.1 The same could be said about many holidays, in many religious traditions that emphasize the importance of historical events as the grounding for their celebrations. But as Christmas is drawing near and relates to my own field of New Testament, it seems to provide an appropriate example to focus on.

Scholars and historians who ask awkward historical questions are probably considered the “worst offenders” when it comes to allegations of grinchiness. While churches host pageants which nonchalantly combine details from Matthew and Luke into a cute little drama, with adorable kids dressed as magi, shepherds, sheep, historians are prone to point out that Luke dates the birth of Jesus to the time of the census under Quirinius, around 6 CE, while Matthew dates it to sometime prior to the death of Herod the Great in 4 BCE, leaving us with a contradiction between the only Gospel to feature shepherds and the only one to tell of the visit of the wise men. And while in Matthew’s Gospel the family’s story begins in Bethlehem in a house, and they seek to return there from Egypt, in Luke’s Gospel they start in Nazareth, go to Bethlehem and, after Jesus is born, within a month or so (compare Luke 2 with Leviticus 12) are in Jerusalem and then heading back to their home town of Nazareth. The chronologies of the two accounts, both in terms of when they are set and the geographical movements depicted, are historically irreconcilable.

But even relatively conservative and Evangelical scholars can get into trouble at Christmastime, not for questioning the historicity of the infancy stories, but for questioning the popular understanding of them, based on the Biblical accounts themselves and their cultural and historical background. Most recent commentaries on the Gospel of Luke will point out that the word traditionally rendered “inn” in Luke 2:7 is not the term used for a commercial inn elsewhere in Luke (in 10:34), but is the same word rendered “upper room” in the account of the last supper. When we add to this linguistic consideration the unlikelihood that Bethlehem had a commercial inn in the first century, the fact that people normally relied on hospitality rather than inns (note that in Acts, despite all Paul’s travels, he never checks into a hotel), and the fact that many peasant homes would have mangers inside the house rather than in a detached stable or barn, much of the modern way of understanding the story in Luke seems to be called into question.

To counter accusations of grinchiness and to help churches not merely cope with but embrace these insights from scholarship, Kenneth Bailey (who played a significant role in bringing relevant Middle Eastern cultural information to bear on this topic) composed a Christmas musical drama reflecting this different and hopefully better interpretation.2 And while some have embraced his new perspective, I suspect that at least some would respond to his gesture with an emphatic “Bah, humbug!”

New Testament scholars can seem like adult versions of the older brother who naughtily whispers to younger siblings that Santa Claus isn’t real. This comparison itself may have something instructive to tell us. The reaction of many to the insights of scholarship regarding their religious tradition, its beliefs, and its Scriptures, are akin to the reactions of children to their first inkling that Santa might not be real: horror, shock, denial, and anger. Such experiences are apparently unavoidable as children enjoy stories and myths as children and, growing up, discover that they are not factually true, or that the way the stories depict the world is not one that real life consistently lives up to. But when adults respond in the same ways, it suggests that we may have been clinging to a childish approach to religion. Despite the fact that many feel it is a religious virtue to cling to that sort of childish approach, the Bible itself encourages us to “put away childish things” (1 Cor. 13:11). And while it may be countered that the Bible also encourages “childlike faith,” it is surely a mistake to understand such faith to denote an unquestioning acceptance of what we are told. If children assume in their early years that what adults tell them is true and correct, children also question everything, and are the ones most likely to dare to say that the emperor has no clothes.

I recently saw a sign which described the four stages of life in relation to Santa Claus: one goes from believing in Santa, to not believing in Santa, to being Santa. (The fourth stage is that one looks like Santa).3 Perhaps this is a process that one naturally goes through in relation to other stories and beliefs, including those which biblical scholars study, and that it is normal and healthy to go through. Work in the domain of psychology of belief suggests that it is a normal part of the maturing process to go from naïve literalism, to disappointment on discovering that our beliefs are wrong and our authorities fallible, to a “second naiveté” which allows us to appreciate again on other levels those things that we once took for granted, and then discarded because we could no longer do so.

Perhaps it is those who insist that the only way to really celebrate and appreciate Christmas is to treat the infancy stories as factual, historical accounts, who are posing the biggest threat to faith, if what we mean is a mature faith.

The Grinch discovered that Christmas in Whoville wasn’t something that could be stolen. I wish those reading this a Merry Christmas, and the discovery of a meaning to Christmas that does not disappear as a result of historical or other scholarly analysis.


1 Dr. Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, was published by Random House in 1957, and was famously turned into a television cartoon special as well.