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Exploding Fenella Souter’s Myths of Christmas

Last Saturday, the ‘Good Weekend’ magazine published by the Sydney Morning Herald (and the Melbourne Age?), ran an article by Fenella Souter entitled “Truth, Lies and Santa Claus: Exploding the Myths of Christmas” (not available online).

It was highly sceptical towards the narratives surrounding the conception and birth of Jesus recorded in the Bible.

Retired Bishop Paul Barnett, PhD, lecturer in Ancient History at Macquarie University, and Visiting Professor, Regent College, Vancouver, a published specialist in the field of New Testament history, has already responded on his own website, and I commend his article to you.

You can download a much better formatted 2 page PDF version of his article courtesy of the Anglican Church League here.

But I had a few additional beefs with Fenella Souter’s article…

Sure, she pointed out some issues with later Christmas traditions, e.g. Mary riding on a donkey, the fact that Dec 25 seems to have been chosen as the date for Christmas celebrations a few hundred years later, Mary’s perpetual virginity and immaculate conception. But these are not in the Bible and, as such, raise no issues with the Bible’s truthfulness. Biblical Christians should have no trouble rejecting these beliefs as false or irrelevant as well.

But here are some of Souter’s mistakes or undocumented claims…

1. She says it’s a surprise “how many believers, eminent biblical scholars have struggled with the logic and contradictions of this simple Christian staple, so taken for granted”.

However she does not name a single such scholar at this point of the article (and only three in total later on, none of whom have qualifications in ancient history, as we shall see).

How can any of her readers check whether these unnamed scholars really say what Souter claims in her sweeping statement, and if so, whether their arguments stand up to scrutiny?

2. In noting the different features of the birth narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, she says Luke has Mary and Joseph travelling to Bethlehem “with a heavily pregnant Mary on a donkey”.

Luke says no such thing at all. There is no mention of a donkey in their journey to Bethlehem or anywhere else in the birth narratives of Luke’s Gospel. Souter is wrong.

3. She also claims Luke has “Mary and Joseph travelling to the stable in Bethlehem”. Once again, she is incorrect, since Luke nowhere mentions a stable (and nor does Matthew).

(The stable is a presumption of others later, presumably on the basis that since a manger [or food trough] is mentioned as the place the baby was laid, then it must have been in a stable out the back of the inn (also mentioned). However, anyone familiar with farming knows that there can be food troughs both indoors and outdoors, and since it was warm enough for the shepherds to be living in the fields nearby keeping watch over the flocks at night (Luke 2:8), then it is not totally inconceivable that Jesus spent his first night with his parents outdoors under the stars.)

But the big point is that Luke never says anything about stable. Once again Souter was wrong to say otherwise.

4. Souter claims “a virgin birth would have been a far less preposterous idea then. The ancient pantheon bristles with them.” Oh yes?

She then claims others greats said to have been conceived without sex include the Hindu god Krishna, Buddha, Mithra (sun god of Persia, from 600BC, who allegedly had many other parallels with Jesus, including crucifixion and resurrection to atone for sins); with Pythagoras and Plato retrospectively given supernatural arrivals. She does not supply any references to the ancient texts which supposedly make these claims about these characters.

What many readers may not realise is that the supposed parallels are not nearly as close as is often claimed. Just do some google research – check several articles – and you will see the alleged parallels between Jesus and Mithra are pathetically weak. In some cases, where parallels do arise, the parallel in the pagan religious document appears to post-date the Gospel writings. (In other words, authors writing about some of these other characters many have pinched ideas from the Gospels that were beginning to circulate.)

The best thing to do when someone claims this is to ask them to please be specific with references to primary documents from ancient times, about other human characters from history which pre-date the Gospel accounts of Jesus, and were said to be born of a virgin, miraculously conceived by a deity, and who also healed the sick and were executed to be resurrected again.

I very much doubt you will get a flood of answers!

5. Souter quotes “British novelist and historian Marina Wariner” for her explanation that the early Christian scholar Origen said God foreshadowed the Incarnation of his Son with a sequence of beliefs and creed and symbols (which she at least implies includes those found in pagan religions too) that made it easier to accept.

My point here is not to discuss what Wariner says Origen said. My point is to tell you that Wariner has no qualifications at all in history that I can discover.

Her own website confirms that she has an MA in Modern Languages (French and Italian) from Oxford. That is her only graduate qualification I could see mentioned. Wariner is a writer. She is also a Professor in the Department of Literature, Film and Theatre Studies at Essex University. Certainly she has been given multiple honorary doctorates, but as far as I can see they tend to be DLitts. Nothing is mentioned about the field of history.

So why is Souter quoting her as an authority in the area of ancient history?

6. One scholar Souter quotes is a Richard Trexler. He was actually an historian, a Professor of History at Binghamton University, New York. But his area of specialty was Renaissance Italy, especially Florence, not ancient middle eastern history. Likewise the only other scholar cited by Souther is John Shelby Spong, who trades on his denial as an episcopal bishop of all the fundamental tennets of Christianity. To my knowledge, Spong has no qualifications in the field of ancient history.

Why does Souter not quote any specialist ancient historians of the Middle East or of its surrounding areas and religions?

Conclusion:

There is no doubt that qualified scholars differ in their historical judgments about the reliability of the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke. There are some puzzles like reconciling parts of the geneaology each provides for Jesus.

However Souter’s own bias is obvious from sentences such as this one describing Christian believers as “people accustomed to suspending disbelief, something of a prerequisite when reading the Bible”.

Paul Barnett has shown how Souter glosses over the similarities between Matthew and Luke, as well as some briefer incidental corroborating material in other NT sources such as Paul, John and Peter’s writings.

I add that in judging the gospel birth narratives as lacking credibility, Souter’s article also fails by making factual errors and unsubstantiated assertions, while citing as experts scholars who have no qualifications in the primary relevant field of ancient history.

13 thoughts on “Exploding Fenella Souter’s Myths of Christmas

  1. Sandy,
    Thanks for pointing this out. For those who don’t read SMH regularly – it doesn’t have the most recent Ohio sports scores – this helps me keep up on the media’s attacks on Christianity.

    And, many thanks for the hard work of adding to Professor Barnett’s response. It was very helpful indeed.

    I was just talking of the historical accuracy of our Christmas traditions the other day with a keen-minded Christian friend. He noted how he used to make his wife put the wise men from the nativity scene out in the garage so that it was accurate display (to scale, of course!) of the actual Christmas event.

  2. Unfortunately, the people who took the article at face value aren’t the ones who will be reading this blog post.

    I think Christians (and all people in general really) need to learn critical thinking, and learn not to take things at face value. I know I’ve been caught out not looking up Bible verses while reading certain books or articles because “Surely they wouldn’t lie about what the Bible says – anyone could check that out” and then been caught out with wrong beliefs because the verses were taken way out of context or were dependent on a specific wording from one obscure translation.

    How can we train ourselves, and encourage others to also, in critical thinking and Biblical thinking, applying all of Scripture to our interpretation of Bible passages but also in other fields of study?

  3. Thanks for the encouragement, Marty! Maybe your mate should put his nativity scene up in the back yard now!

    Liz, you are so right that our friends who lap up articles like Souter’s won’t be reading this.

    That is, unless their Christian friends ask them to do so. You could also print off (or forward via email) the PDF version of Barnett’s 2 pages ready to distribute.

    In fact, I would encourage Christians in and around Sydney to take the initiative to raise the matter. “Did you see that article in the Good Weekend? What did you think? What did you think of the standard of investigation? Of the balance?” And after listening to the reaction of others, no doubt you can share your perspective…

    I am going to try and condense my article into a Letter to the Editor. Good Weekend asks for them to be under 100 words. Ha! Ha!

    More broadly Liz, you are spot on about the need for Christians and others to become better at critical thinking. Check the sources. Question the logic. Look for the gaps. Greg Koukl’s book Tactics (which I reviewed here points out the importance and usefulness of asking good questions.

    Kara Martin also reviewed a new book on ethics by Justin Denholm. In challenging ethical positions he suggests asking some clarifying questions:

    * How did you come to this position?
    * Do you think that that is true in every situation, or are there exceptions?
    * Have you always believed that?
    * Do you think motivation matters, or is it about what we do?
    * Do you think that being a member of a particular religious/cultural group makes a difference to how you think about this question?

    These are good sorts of questions to remember. On matters of history, you could add questions like:
    * Have you checked the sources?
    * Do the ‘experts’ you cite have proper qualifications in the relevant area?
    * Are there any gaps in your evidence/theory?
    * For the sake of ‘getting the other side of the story’ what experts have you consulted who hold a different point of view?

  4. I tried to access SMH to post my opinion on Souter’s article but the article was not accessible online. Very disappointing. Anything worth writing about should be open to being refuted, in my mind.

    I was angered by the article. Right from the start it is blatantly obvious that the writer has a jaded slant to Christmas (one only need read between the lines in her description of her less than joyful Catholic upbringing).

    Souter writes, with criticism and scepticism of the Christmas event, from a Western mindset – which of course will lead to problems when dealing with something that happened firstly, in a different culture and secondly, thousands of years ago.

    You must understand the Jewish culture of 2000+ years ago to understand why the Bible was written the way it was. Jewish culture records major facts that affect the story in its whole, not little details like a western record keeper may do. Words are also different. ‘Inn’ for example does not actually mean a hotel but more than likely a dwelling place where all the relatives of Joseph would have stayed together. It was also customary, in that time (correct me if I am wrong) for some dwellings to have the people upstairs and the animals downstairs (the buildings were built that way and you may still see some like that in old towns in the Middle East). In this regard it would make perfect sense for Mary and Joseph to have to stay ‘in the stable’ as the upstairs part may have been very full with relatives? Food for thought.

    When it comes to “Joseph only being betrothed” as Souter writes, it is also helpful to understand Jewish culture. In Jewish culture to be betrothed was regarded as being legally married but without sexual union. So for the Bible to record that Joseph planned to break with Mary upon finding out she was pregnant shows that he obviously was not the father of Jesus. Further, to then decide to marry her and face the social issues of an unwed mother and assumed ‘bastard’ child shows that he obviously had some kind of amazing encounter to warrant his change of mind. This makes the story more plausible and beautiful in my eyes and adds weight to the ‘differing’ versions of Matthew and Luke. Luke was far more interested in Mary (due to being a Doctor and marvelling at a virgin birth?) and Matthew (being a Jew and very much aware of the prophesies relating to the Christ child) was far more interested in Joseph and his genealogy (Christ had to come from a specific line and be born in a specific place). The story was the same but the accounts slightly different as both were recording a different facet. Modern day courts of law would not throw out slightly different versions focusing on different characters, why should Matthew or Luke’s accounts be thrown out so eagerly simply because they are not carbon copies of each other?

    Souter failed to adequately research the Bible for what it had to say (OT prophetic words and declarations) regarding the events surrounding the Christ’s birth (which add weight to both Matthew and Luke’s Christmas account). She did not look into the Old Testament at all.

    Souter also did not look into astronomical history that notes/records significant planetary alignments around the approximate time of Christ’s birth (Google it – very interesting even if unrelated (the ‘star’ the Magi saw could have been an angel after all)). This may have helped her in her issue with Christ’s official D.O.B. (brought about at a much later date by the church, not by Jewish history keepers).

    The Jewish calendar, even today, is very different to that of the western calendar. The ‘official’ date of Christ’s birth, in my mind, is irrelevant. The fact is that the Bible was very specific that he (Christ) would be born and was then specific that he (Christ) was (born). The Bible (recorded by Matthew) went to great lengths to list his genealogy (in keeping with prophecies that Christ would come from the line of David) and birthplace. The exact date was probably not, in Jewish culture, considered a necessary recording? No one else listed in Bible records is given an exact date of birth or death.

    Just a thought…does anyone actually argue about how a president got somewhere?.. or is it understood he got to where he needed to get to and then did what he had to do before going home. To say the president drove a limousine when he actually drove a jaguar? Who cares?! Anyone arguing about that would be considering troublesome and, frankly, boring. – why argue about Mary’s mode of transportation? She got there. The Bible records that she got there.

    Souter writes how the Matthew and Luke gospels contradict; “Matthew…has the flight to Egypt” whereas “in Luke the family calmly stays on in Bethlehem for the circumcision ceremony”. In Jewish culture circumcision takes place 8 days after birth, giving more than enough time for Herod to wait for the Magi (travelling back from Bethlehem), then grow suspicious, then discover the Magi aren’t coming at all and then send his army in to kill all boys under two years of age. More than enough time for Joseph and Mary to do what they had to do and then leave to stay in Egypt. Assumptions about rough time lines (weeks and even months) are made elsewhere in history and are not refuted. Why so much here?

    Souter writes about the virgin Mary and the problems she has caused for women for thousands of years to follow….forgive me Souter but I thought we were talking about the Christmas event here?.. Not the problematic pedestal that mankind, many years later, put Mary, a young girl of 13/14 on? Is your beef here with church (organised religion) or with the actual Christmas event?

    Souter quotes the writer Spong, “a clear eyed lover of scripture” who suggests that Christ was not divine “He [Jesus] was a nobody…No one seemed to know his father”. Well I declare then(!) that Spong is not really a lover of scripture but merely a reader of it and one that likes to take away interpretations and cynicism from his readings rather than to believe that what the Bible states is truth. Or perhaps Souter has quoted him out of context? Without reading his writings in the fullest I wouldn’t know. I wonder if Souter would have quoted a ‘lover of scripture’ if that ‘lover of scripture’ wrote in favour of a divine Christ child rather than vehemently opposed it?

    If Souter really wanted to write about ‘divine invention?’ (emphasis on the ‘?’) she would have gotten view points and evidence from both sides. Perhaps the article should have been titled ‘Divine invention.’ with no question mark at all. If this case were tried in court you would see one side but not the other. No defence was allowed or offered in this article.

    The nativity story could well have (and in my opinion has) been condensed and poetic license added to it (this is a love of western culture – unlike Jewish culture which is interested in facts). A western person would probably have written the Bible with great reference to feelings, food, scenery, body language etc but were the Bible written that way it would take thousands of years to read as it covers thousands of years! No, the Jewish way (and way of Luke who was a logical, deliberate and sober thinking Doctor and Gentile (please correct me if I am wrong on this one)) of seemingly leaving out important points like Mary’s mode of transport, how long they stayed in Bethlehem before Christ was born, exactly how many Magi there were etc was left out…..

    …..I suppose the author (GOD) was far more interested in the point of the story rather than minor details – That He “loved the world so much that he gave His only son” John 3:16.

    If Souter had written her article about her issues with religion I would have read it with interest and relish as I hate religion too. Religion has been responsible for much misery over the years. This is due to man trying to get to God (and, at times using God’s name for his selfish purposes). The word ‘religion’ actually means ‘to bind’ and it certainly does do this.

    The Christmas story is about giving. It is not about religion or man’s interpretation. It is about relationship. God gave. He gave Jesus, freely, wholeheartedly, lovingly. We never had to pay for it. We never had to ask for it. We were just given it – the greatest gift of all.

    I find it interesting and very, very sad that the author and many others that deny Christ’s birth and existence have missed the fact that the whole story of Christmas is not about arguing or rules or rites or recitations, it is about giving – God giving Jesus to us……perhaps they will be happier as they read through the rest of Good Weekend magazine to find something they can buy for Christmas from the multitude of advertisements on no less than 43 out of the 64 pages in the magazine. Because heaven forbid (sarcasm intended) we should actually get something for free this Christmas!

    • Hi Rebecca,

      The Greek word translated “Inn” in Luke 2:7 is katalumati. From memory, the other time Luke uses this word is in Luke 22:11 (kataluma) where it is translated as “guest room”. This supports the argument you’ve used in your fourth paragraph, and I know that Mike Raiter favours it.

  5. Hi Sandy,

    Here’s the letter to the Editor I submitted, which basically tried to condense Paul Barnett’s response:

    “Dear Letters Editor,

    Reading coverage of last weekend’s ALP Conference in today’s (5/12/11) Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian, I got different takes on the event, but both accurately conveyed what happened at the conference. The gospels of Matthew and Luke were written independently of each other, yet they agree at seven separate points regarding the Christmas story. Normally, two independent documents offering roughly the same portrait of an event would increase the plausibility of that portrait, so why, in the Divine Intervention article (Good Weekend, 3/12/11), do the differences between Matthew and Luke make the Christmas story so implausible?

    Regards,

    Roger Gallagher”

    • I couldn’t agree more Roger.

      It’s just like how so many dismiss the miraculous events surrounding the birth of Romulus and Remus as mere myth just because Livy and Plutarch don’t concur on every minor detail.

      • No they dismiss Livy’s and Plutarch’s accounts because they make assertions which are contrary to reason and because they were written centuries after the events they supposedly record. Whereas the Gospels were written by eye-witnesses or from those who had interviewed and been very closely associated with eye-witnesses, and ring true as the accounts of honest men of facts which they were able to substantiate and which do not contradict reason, and were written from one to at at most six decades after the events ocurred when hundreds or thousands of eye witnesses were still alive and attested to and did not deny the truth of what the Evangelsists wrote.

  6. Rebecca, thanks for your lengthy effort. I was especially struck by the point you made about the circumcision being only after 8 days, well within the range of time before Herod may have got his deadly hunt together. I also enjoyed your obvious love of the grace of the gospel of Jesus.

    Roger, great effort and good analogy. Did you submit the letter to the regular SMH letters page, or to the letters section of the Good Weekend. Just in case it is not clear to any readers inclined to write, I think you need to do the latter, since regular SMH page generally does not publish material re. GW.

    • Hi Sandy,

      I submitted it to the Good Weekend magazine itself. Haven’t heard a response from them yet.

  7. Pingback: Christmas Myths | Grace Transforms

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  9. Interestingly, this same article appeared under a different title in the Dominion Post weekend magazine in Wellington, NZ. The challenge for a Biblical Christian is to respond graciously & accurately to the inaccuracies & accusations made in the article regarding the One who said “I am the Truth.”

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