Bethlehem Happened

In case you haven’t heard, Dr. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, recently made the news for his comment that the account of the Magi is but “legend” and for calling into question other aspects of the Christmas story. Some observations:

(a) Dr. Williams’ apparent desire to “debunk” aspects of the Gospel narratives is not unique to the Church of England, but rather reflects a modernistic approach to divine Revelation that sadly is also found at times in some contemporary Catholic scholarship. I remember one Scripture class in seminary in the 80s, where our textbook taught us that Jesus really wasn’t born in Bethlehem. Rather, the authors of Matthew and Luke inserted that detail so that Micah’s OT prophecy would be fulfilled. I’m not kidding.

(b) Thank God for Pope Benedict XVI, who made this comment at this week’s Wednesday Audience: “Christmas is a commemoration of the incredible miracle of the birth God’s only son, born of the Virgin Mary in the cave of Bethlehem.”

(c) Dr. Williams wasn’t sure about the star. Of course, what would be the purpose if there were no Magi? Anyway, here’s an interesting article about a Notre Dame astrophysicist’s quest to find the star.

(d) Surely there are some details found in Christian art and creche displays that are not matters of faith (e.g., snow on the ground, the presence of particular animals, and so forth). However, the essentials of the Nativity narratives are not legends or merely the imagination of creative evangelists. For Church teaching on this issue, see CUF’s Faith Fact on the historicity of the infancy narratives.

4 responses

  1. Maybe an apology is in order. Mother always said, “Don’t believe anything you hear and only half of what you see”. See article from Chelmsford blog:

    Three (Christmas) Cheers for Rowan Williams
    There are some really terrible headlines in the papers at the moment about what Rowan Williams ‘said’ about the Christmas story:

    “It’s all a Christmas tall story” The Times
    “Three Wise Men are just a legend, says Archbishop of Canterbury” The Daily Mail
    “Archbishop says nativity ‘a legend’” Daily Telegraph

    I’m sure there’s plenty more around like this. The only problem is, none of it is true. Instead, one ‘journalist’ seems to have fed on another. (So no surprise there, then.)

    The story is based on a lengthy interview with Simon Mayo on Radio 5 live. You can hear the whole of it, which is very wide-ranging, here. You can read a transcript of the relevant bit of the Archbishop’s conversation here. And you can see the bit where he overlaps with Ricky Gervais on Youtube here.

    You’ll notice the Archbishop uses the word ‘legend’ as follows (Simon Mayo is describing an archetypal Christmas card – manger, Jesus, Mary, Joseph, shepherds, star, three kings, snow):

    SM And the wise men with the gold, frankincense, and Myrrh – with one of the wise men normally being black and the other two being white, for some reason?

    ABC 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.

    SM But would they have been there?

    ABC Not with the shepherds, they wouldn’t. So if you’ve got shepherds on one side and three kings on the other, there’s a bit of conflation going on.

    Notice the difference? Matthew doesn’t tell us the ‘legendary’ bits. Matthew does say ‘they’re astrologers, wise men, priests from somewhere outside the Roman Empire.’ If you’re still not convinced, listen to the whole interview. Earlier, we get this critical question:

    SM It comes round every year that we’re not being Christian enough or people don’t know where Bethlehem is, people have never heard of Mary and so on, so this is a sort of an almost a tradition of Christmas, isn’t it really. But I wonder, if people have got a traditional religious Christmas card in front of them, I just want to go through it, Archbishop, to find out how much of it you think is true and crucial to the believing in Christmas. So start with … the baby Jesus in a manger; historically and factually true?
    ABC I should think so …

    And from a man not given to dogmatic statements, read in the context of everything else he says in the interview, I’ll take that as a ‘Yes’.

    So credit where it’s due, and three cheers for RW!

  2. Okay, but what about his clear statement that belief in the Virgin Birth was not a necessary part of Christian doctrine if it becomes “a stumbling block” to faith?

    This seems an unpardonable, inexplicable, and clear departure from the faith of Nicea.


  3. And wait a minute, what did I say in the introductory paragraph of this post that wasn’t true? He has been in the news, he did refer to the account of the Magi as a “legend,” and he did call into question other aspects of the Christmas story in that particular interview. My “observations” weren’t so much a critique of Dr. Williams per se as it was a more general commentary on the pervasive effects of a minimalist, modernist approach to divine Revelation.

  4. Speaking about taking the Bible seriously and its story: I think that if Christians re-immersed themselves in the Bible in general and in the Old Testament in particular, and if they knew the lay of the land and what the main messages of the Old Testament were, their hearts would burn within them, and they would fall in love with Jesus all over again or for the first time.

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