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Birth of Jesus: History and Faith

The moment we try to make it a myth or legend it will be removed from the purview of scientific history and thus Jesus the human being will lose all the dynamic significance and will turn into one of those stories from the imagination to teach a moral for people.

Birth of Jesus: History and Faith

By Joe Palathunkal
We live in times when history is in danger and in India it is especially true where mythology is turned into history and history is turned into mythology aggressively and furtively by social and political leadership for cheap gains. It is in this context we need to guard the birth of Jesus Christ earnestly and diligently from being turned into a non-history.

Jesus was born during the reign of the first Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus who ruled the vast empire from BC 27 to AD 14. People who try to mythologise the birth of Jesus and thus turn it into a fiction can do immense harm to the undeniable reality of Jesus who was born into a particular time and specific geographical region to human parents Mary and Joseph.

The moment we try to make it a myth or legend it will be removed from the purview of scientific history and thus Jesus the human being will lose all the dynamic significance and will turn into one of those stories from the imagination to teach a moral for people.

This mythification can take place through even good people like Mahatma Gandhi who spoke on Jesus in a ship on the Christmas of 1931 while returning from England:

“I may say that I have never been interested in a historical Jesus. I should not care if it was proved by someone that the man called Jesus never lived, and that what was narrated in the Gospels was a figment of the writer’s imagination. For the Sermon on the Mount would still be true for me.”

A visual of Sermon on the Mount

This one statement from the greatest Indian, though positively accepts the vision of Jesus by giving the highest approval to the Sermon on the Mount, still can do immense harm by denting the historical dimension of the one who lived in Nazareth and preached in Galilee.

To say that not being ‘interested in a historical Jesus’ is tantamount to denying the existence of Jesus on the Earth about whom John emphatically spoke in his first chapter itself: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

Throwing aspersions on the historical reality of Jesus turning him merely into a character in the faith story is a slur on the dynamic history of Jesus that can lively and penetratingly question and challenge whatever is inhuman in our own history. So, I feel it would have been better if Fulton Oursler had authored the greatest history ever told than the greatest story. The term story always transports us to a sphere of fiction and unreality.

When we take the birth of Jesus as a historical reality, it will question our sociology and psychology. Joseph accepting Mary as his wife answering the call of his conscience because he knew what a barbaric society it was for woman and this simple carpenter tells us that it is the voice of your conscience that is supreme, not the inhuman mores and morose laws that a male chauvinistic society made to subjugate and silence women.

The good news of that birth went to the shepherds, the lowest rung of the society, again telling us that God is with them, not with the Pharisee types who claim to have a hotline with God and are the custodians of everything that is divine but this event changed all that.

Birth of Jesus is historical and therefore we have to accept a great reality that God intervenes in human history and will intervene to set our history right and the birth of Jesus was the greatest historical intervention in human history by God to change the course of that history for all generations to come.

Because of the birth of Jesus humans have got a historical perspective of God and faith which is extremely important at a time when conscious and unconscious efforts are on to take faith to the level of myth and Christians should not fall into that trap.

There is no problem in accepting the virgin birth of Jesus but through that we should not undermine the historicity of the birth of Jesus. Even our only prototype Christian martyr Stephen in his speech before Sanhedrin (Acts 7) spoke only of the intervention of God in Israel’s history starting from Abraham. Appropriately Stephen’s feast is celebrated the next day of Christmas.

Read those thought provoking historical books on Jesus like the following ones: The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide by Gerd Thiessen and Annette Merz, The Historical Figure of Jesus by E. P. Sanders, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus by John Meier, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony by Richard Bauckham, Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict XVI, and Jesus and Freedom by Sebastian Kappen.

Pope Benedict XVI holding his book Jesus of Nazareth

Christmas, therefore, tells us the greatest intervention of God in human history to tell us through Jesus that he is indeed fully human and fully divine and has dwelt among us as a powerful historical reality. Every attempt to mythify Jesus must be resisted because if he is made a myth, then Christianity itself will become a myth. Beware!

(Joe Palathunkal is Associate Editor, Living in Faith)

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