On Christmas Humbug

Our friend, Mr. Webster, defines humbug as false talk or behavior. Now, I’m among the first to point out the differences between the historicity of the so-called Christmas story and the traditional and usually historically suspect practices associated with the holiday. And, if you’re keeping score at home, I’m firmly on the side of the tradition over the history. However, in the spirit of fun (if not the holiday), let’s examine some Christmas humbug.

There were three Wise Men who visited the baby Jesus. Well, we don’t really know how many there were. The Bible doesn’t say. It does, however, say that there were three gifts: Gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Tradition simply extrapolated the number of wise men based on these three gifts. So, the reality is that there were anywhere from two to infinity number of wise men.

Mary rode into Bethlehem on a donkey. This one’s gotta be true, right? I mean all those Christmas cards of her and her betrothed, Joseph, in silhouette, riding into Bethlehem with the start behind them can’t have lied, right? Well…we don’t know that she rode at all. In fact…

Yeah, well, but for sure Jesus was born in Bethlehem. No way this one is humbug. Or, is there? Here’s the deal. We keep trying to look at the Bible as a history book. It’s not. I’m reminded of the Lincoln statue that depicts a freed slave at Lincoln’s knee with his chains broken in two. Did that event actually happen? No, but the symbol absolutely did. It’s sort of the same with the Jesus born in Bethlehem thing. That village was the village of Israel’s greatest (not most powerful but most symbolic) king–King David. So, if Jesus is a king greater than David, he had to be born there, right? So, Luke’s Gospel creates a Roman census that requires everyone to stop what they’re doing and return to their ancestral land. First of all, imagine the economic disaster such a decree would cause. People would have to travel for weeks or months in some cases. More importantly, we have no record of any such Roman census being ordered by Augustus during that time. We have records of how much a bushel of wheat cost about that time, so you’d think we’d have at least some evidence of an earth-changing event like a massive world-wide census. We don’t. Besides, he’s Jesus of Nazareth–not Jesus of Bethlehem.

Jesus was born in a stable surrounded by the animals (and probably a drummer boy). Insert game-show wrong answer buzzer here. The Greek word for “inn” is better translated as “guest room,” so that’s probably where Jesus was born. You think Joseph is traveling home and forced to stay in a Motel VI? No. It’s probably meant to be that small room and definitely not a stable. And if you follow the timeline of the birth stories in Matthew and Luke (Mark and John don’t have them), you’ll see that the little family stays in Bethlehem about 3 years before skedaddling for Egypt to escape the supposed massacre of all the male children of the village under the age of 3 by King Herod–another major event for which there is no historical evidence.

So, if all of these are humbug, what are we left with?

We’re left with giving to each other our time, support, forgiveness, and love, and we set aside a season for doing so once year. Even if we didn’t have the Jesus traditions, we would do well to set apart a season for giving to each other those things that are beyond price, and give them with grateful hearts.

The world would be a better place if we did.

Merry Christmas. Happy holidays.


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