So the Archbishop of Canterbury called the nativity scene a legend. If you break down what he says, you'll find some things he said are true (but unpopular), some are unsupportable, and some are just remarkable when you consider they come from a leader of a supposed Christian group.
The Archbishop of Canterbury said yesterday that the Christmas story of the Three Wise Men was nothing but a 'legend'.
Dr Rowan Williams has claimed there was little evidence that the Magi even existed and there was certainly nothing to prove there were three of them or that they were kings.
Dr Williams argued that the traditional Christmas story was nothing but a 'legend'
He said the only reference to the wise men from the East was in Matthew's gospel and the details were very vague.
Dr Williams said: "Matthew's gospel says they are astrologers, wise men, priests from somewhere outside the Roman Empire, that's all we're really told. It works quite well as legend."
Well, let's take a look.
Mat 2:1-13 ESV Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, (2) saying, "Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him." (3) When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; (4) and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. (5) They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: (6) "'And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.'" (7) Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. (8) And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him." (9) After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. (10) When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. (11) And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. (12) And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way. (13) Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him."As you can see, scripture doesn't even tell us that much. The archbishop's position that there is little evidence of the existence of the wise men only works if you take the position that the Bible cannot be relied upon barring outside corroborating evidence. That would not be a surprising position for an atheist, but for the leader of a Christian church, this is a truly flabbergasting position. (Unless you've been following what passes for theological debate amongst the "intellectuals" in many churches, the Anglican Union included.)
However, there certainly is no evidence in scripture that these men were kings. This is strictly supposition. Further, he's right that there is no evidence that there were three of them. This tradition is based largely on the fact that there were three gifts (gold, frankincense, and myrrh). While not an unreasonable supposition that three gifts meas three men, it is still just an inference.
However Dr. Williams makes his own set of inferences from Matthew's gospel. He says, "Matthew's gospel says they are astrologers, wise men, priests from somewhere outside the Roman Empire, that's all we're really told. It works quite well as legend." It's somewhat difficult to understand where he gets this information, but it's not from the text.
Here is what Strong's Hebrew and Greek Dictionary has to say about the word translated "wise men":
Magos: Of foreign origin; a Magian, that is, Oriental scientist; by implication a magician: - sorcerer, wise man.Given that the wise men followed a star, it's not unreasonable to surmise that they were astrologers, but as far as I can tell, that's still just a supposition. Mathew doesn't appear to say anything that indicates the men were priests. This also is not unreasonable, but certainly not clearly stated. Further, there's absolutely nothing to indicate, beyond supposition, that they came from beyond the Roman empire, other than the time factor which we'll talk about later. In short, while complaining that people are extrapolating much out of the ambiguous descriptions of Matthew, he certainly seems to be doing much the same thing.
While we're discussing the wise men and the nativity scene, he totally ignores a rather obvious point. Nativity scenes typically depict both the shepherds and the wise men appearing in the stables. This seems an an unlikely interpretation of the scriptural timeline.
Note that in verse 11, Matthew clearly states that when the wise men appeared, they came to the house to see Mary and the child. Note further, verse 16:
Mat 2:16 ESV Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.
We'd previously seen that Herod inquired of the wise men when they first saw the star. Now, when he realizes they aren't coming back, he orders the death of every boy two years old or less. When you combine the fact that Mary and Joseph had apparently found more permanent accommodations with the fact that Herod clearly didn't believe he was looking for a newborn, it seems likely that some time had passed since the birth of Christ until the wise men appeared. They certainly weren't in the stable. (The only reason from scripture to surmise that the wise men came from beyond the Roman Empire was that it apparently took them quite some time to arrive.)
In contrast, Luke makes the appearance of the shepherds appear much more immediate:
Luk 2:10-16 ESV And the angel said to them, "Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. (11) For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. (12) And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger." (13) And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, (14) "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!" (15) When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us." (16) And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger.
Note that the angel tells the shepherd that the Christ had been born this day. When the arrived, the child was still in the manger. Based on scripture then, the traditional image of the shepherds and wise men both being present at the same time in the stable is hard to understand.
The Archbishop went on to dispel other details of the Christmas story, adding that there were probably no asses or oxen in the stable.It is difficult to understand how he could possibly know this. Nor can I understand why he thought it all relevant.
He argued that Christmas cards which showed the Virgin Mary cradling the baby Jesus, flanked by shepherds and wise men, were misleading.As you probably would guess, I have no quarrel with this position.
As for the scenes that depicted snow falling in Bethlehem, the Archbishop said the chance of this was "very unlikely".
He's probably right, but again, how is this relevant?
In a final blow to the traditional nativity story, Dr Williams concluded that Jesus was probably not born in December at all. He said: "Christmas was when it was because it fitted well with the winter festival."
There is no real clue in scripture regarding the time of year Christ was born. (Unlike his death which is fairly easy to pin down due to the proximity to passover.) Based on my understanding of the development of the holiday, this is probably accurate.
OKAY, that's what I wrote before I hit the actual transcript.
Now let's talk about the transcript of the interview.
Would you know from the article that this was not unprompted? In fact, the reporter asked him to comment on a traditional Christmas card and say which elements are crucial to Christian faith. This fact makes the remarks that seemed irrelevant on first read make more sense. In fact, he did not actually comment on what kinds of animals were present. Instead, he said it wasn't relevant.
He does say that the shepherds and wise men don't appear together in scripture, but does not explain why. Then, of course, they left out this bit:
SM So if we're pulling back even further then, is there a star above the place where the child is?
ABC Don't know; I mean Matthew talks about the star rising, about the star standing still; we know stars don't behave quite like that, that the wise men should have seen something which triggered a recognition of something significant was going on; some constellation, there are various scientific theories about what it might have been at around that time and they followed that trek; that makes sense to me.
Ah yes, Matthew must have been mistaken because we "know" things don't work that way. Of course, as Christians, we believe all sorts of things happened that we "know" don't work like that. Little things like, I don't know, the people rising from the dead.
On balance, the Archbishop still comes out looking rather bad. Specifically referring to the nativity as a legend rather than stating that legendary items have crept into the "traditional" view definitely gives the wrong impression.
On the other hand, the Telegraph's characterization of the interview, relying heavily on paraphrase and out-of-context quotes doesn't make them look so good either.
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