A reader sent me the following story:
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. Archbishop says nativity ‘a legend’
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.”
The Archbishop went on to dispel other details of the Christmas story, adding that there were probably no asses or oxen in the stable.
He argued that Christmas cards which showed the Virgin Mary cradling the baby Jesus, flanked by shepherds and wise men, were misleading. As for the scenes that depicted snow falling in Bethlehem, the Archbishop said the chance of this was “very unlikely”. advertisement
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.”
Fr. Dwight Longenecker has some interesting comments about the Anglican Archbishop’s comments.
Archbishop Rowan Williams has publicly debunked the traditional Nativity as ‘legend’. Anyone who has read the New Testament in detail will know that the stuff of medieval paintings, crib scenes and Christmas cards include a good deal of non-Biblical ’embroidery’. However, one doesn’t need to deconstruct all of that to somehow prove one’s intellectual credentials.
The Archbishop presents himself as an intellectual Anglo Catholic, but all his recent comments do is prove his Protestant mindset. The liberal Protestant is essentially a critic. He is a critic of the Bible, a critic of tradition, a critic of traditional Christian morality, a critic of anything that is the received religion. The liberal Protestant feels obliged to pick it apart, reduce it to facts and submit the mysteries of the faith to human reason.
What interests me is that many of our conservative Evangelical friends want to distance themselves from the liberal intellectual reductionism of the Archbishop of Canterbury, but when it comes to Catholicism are they not just as critical, just as rational, just as reductionist as the ABC? In fact, Protestantism has in its very genetic code the same rationalism, reductionism, individualism and humanism which is exhibited by the Archbishop’s comments–it’s just that in Evangelicalism it comes to move ‘conservative’ conclusions.
It is certainly true as Fr. Longenecker said that there is a lot of non-Biblical ’embroidery’ on the Nativity story, but really what has happened over time is that events have been compressed just as what often happens when a book is turned into a movie. What we have in Matthew is a mentioning of wise men who first visited Herod, later gave gifts to Jesus and then being warned in a dream left without seeing Herod first. The great Catholic apologist Frank Sheed argues in his book "To Know Christ Jesus" that they must have appeared after Mary’s Presentation in the Temple since her and Joseph paid a poor mans sacrifice of "a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons" which they wouldn’t have done if they already had the gifts given by the wise men.
So in reality the Christmas Card view of the Nativity doesn’t fit reality and we just don’t even know for sure the number of wise men. Though surely the traditional number of three wise men is because of the gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh along with the Trinitarian overtones. The ideas of them being Kings instead of astrologers though is surely an addition. But this type of reductionism would ruin great songs and who wants to sing "We undetermined number of wise men who are probably astrologers and not kings coming somewhere from the East though sometimes after Jesus’ birth are,"
What is so silly and needless about the Archbishop’s remarks is that surely he knows how his remarks will be portrayed and seen as not only casting doubt on aspects of the Nativity story, but also on the birth of Jesus. To make these remarks just before Christmas plays right into the media’s hands. The BBC has the audio of the interview with the caption ” Simon Mayo talks to the Archbishop of Canterbury and asks if he really believes that there’s a Big Wizard who lives in the sky?”
Early in my blogging career another Church of England bishop concerned about the accuracy of the Nativity gave me the opportunity to pun away.
A Church of England bishop has attacked "sentimental" Christmas card portrayals of the Nativity, saying that Jesus’s family were asylum seekers and the three Wise Men were part of an assassination plot.
The Bishop of Lichfield, the Rt Rev Keith Sutton, said the shepherds were not the lovable characters depicted in Nativity plays but were on "the fringes of society" and that, for most people, Christmas was a chore.
Did Herod the Great contract out a hit to three foreigners for plausible deniability? How did this assassination go awry? Did King herod say "Go and murder him" and they thought he said "Gold and myrrh to him"?, frankly that makes sense.