Wed | Dec 7, 2016

The latest war on Christmas

Published:Sunday | December 28, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Palestinian officials arrive to inspect the grotto beneath the Church of the Nativity, revered as the site of Jesus' birth, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. - File

Ian Boyne, Columnist

At Christmas, all the big American media usually come out with their most sceptical articles and features on Christ and Christianity. Time magazine, Newsweek, as well as the big dailies - the New York Times and the Washington Post - usually do their thing along with the major networks.

Christmas is when all we were taught in Sunday school gets assaulted, not affirmed. It is getting worse, depending on your perspective. Now the atheists are getting more militant and there is an active war in the United States particularly against even saying "merry Christmas", with many substituting that with "Merry Xmas" or simply "Happy Holidays". Stores are being lobbied to drop the Merry Christmas signs for that supposedly violate America's strict separation of church and state.

The American Atheists organisation has been putting up billboards especially in the religious South, with this Christmas wish to Santa: "Dear Santa, all I want for Christmas is to skip church. I am too old for fairy talks". Accompanying the words is the photo of a pre-schooler. Conservative media man Bill O'Reilly has been hopping mad at this and other indications of atheist militancy: "Every Christmas season there are people who try to diminish the celebration of Jesus' birthday. We all know it but we do have a whole bunch of war on Christmas deniers who say that I and others are making the whole thing up".

Long history of opposition

Mark you, there has been a long history of opposition to Christmas, including from Christians themselves, and not just cultists (as they are classified) like the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Armstongites. Orthodox Christians have strongly opposed Christmas celebration.

In the 1580s in Britain, Phillip Stubbes, a Puritan, wrote trenchantly: "That more mischief is that time committed than in all the year. Besides, what masking and mumming whereby robbery, whoredom, murder and what not is committed? What dicing and carding, what eating and drinking, what banqueting and feasting is then used more than all the year, besides to the great dishonor of God and impoverishing of the realm." Christmas at one time was outlawed — and I am not talking about under a communist state!

The great Evangelical preacher Charles Spurgeon in his sermon on Christmas eve 1871 said, "Certainly we do not believe in the present ecclesiastical arrangement called Christmas. First, because we do not believe in the Mass at all and secondly we find no scriptural warrant whatever for observing any day as the birthday of the Saviour, and consequently, its observance is a superstition because not of divine authority. Superstition has fixed most positively the day of our Saviour's birth, although there is no possibility of discovering when it occurred".

In the scholarly journal Bible Review (December 2002), Andrew McGowan, seminary president, says in an article titled "How December 25 Became Christmas": "Celebrations of Jesus' nativity are not mentioned in the Gospels or Acts. The extra-biblical evidence from the first and second century is equally sparse: There is no mention of birth celebrations in the writings of early Christian writers such as Irenaeus (c130-200) or Tertullian (c.160-225). Origen of Alexandria (165-264) goes as far as to mock Roman celebrations of birth anniversaries, dismissing them as pagan practices—a strong indication that Jesus' birth was not marked with similar festivities at that time and place. As far as we can tell, Christmas was not celebrated at all at this point". McGowan says that stands in strong contrast to the early celebration of Jesus death. So Christmas, unmistakably, was not celebrated by Jesus' earliest disciples.

Some Christian sectarians have gone to town over the years in pulling out all kinds of sources showing that Christmas was adopted from pagan sources and was rebaptised to appeal to pagan Rome. But this year, there is an even more radical reason being offered for nullifying Christmas celebration: That there very likely was never ever a person who really lived named Jesus. This view is called in scholarly circles the mythicist view. It was held by a few persons, mainly outside the scholarly community, but this year it gathered momentum with the publication of atheist classicist Richard Carrier's 696-page magnum opus, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why we Might Have Reason For Doubt.

I have been following this issue closely and must say that Carrier's work is the most formidable challenge to scholarship which has been mounted questioning whether Jesus really existed. Even the most liberal, skeptical and atheistic scholars have always accepted that Jesus was a real person. Most atheists do. In fact, the leading Christian Biblical scholar turned atheist, Bart Ehrman, has written a book to debunk those who say Jesus never existed, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Arguments for Jesus of Nazareth (But Carrier has already published another book resoundingly critiquing that book, titled Bart Ehrman and the Question for the Historical Jesus of Nazareth: An Evaluation of Ehrman's Did Jesus Exist?

But this is the new line the atheists have been pushing. In the Washington Post just this past Tuesday, atheistic Australian lecturer in religious studies, Raphael Lataster, who wrote the book There was No Jesus and There is no God, had an article titled, 'Did Historical Jesus really exist? The Evidence Just doesn't add up'.

This theory is now making the rounds. And the Internet spreads these ideas fast. I won't say like a virus. It has even spread to Jamaica. Our own local agnostic, medical practitioner Dr Michael Abrahams, on Monday in his Gleaner column was repeating a number of the common objections recycled over the Internet about Jesus' being just one of those dying and rising saviors of the world, one of the many virgin birth Messiahs in history. Then he added the latest theory: "Regarding the life of Jesus Christ, there is a paucity of information outside of the Bible itself, and the Gospels, which many follow religiously, were written decades after his death was reported to have occurred. There are no eyewitnesses accounts of Jesus. Zero. The best known non-Biblical writers of the era who wrote about Jesus, Josephus and Tacitus, were actually born after his death".

'No proof that Jesus existed'

Abrahams' fellow American skeptic, full-blown atheist Jeffry Tayler writing on Monday on Salon.com on this Christmas issue says, "It is not surprising that Jesus' birthday should be so hard to pinpoint. Some 2,000 years after the alleged event, religious scholars, despite their best efforts have still found no proof that Jesus even existed. Although it might seem reasonable to suppose such a one as he walked the earth in the Middle East, historical records kept by the Romans... and contemporary chroniclers make no mention of him. The Gospels are not historical records and don't count: They were composed decades afterward". On September 1 this year, too, Salon also carried an article titled '5 reasons to Suspect that Jesus Never Existed'.

The theory is that Jesus was first imagined as a mythical being who lived and died in the heavenlies and only afterward he was historicised and made a real person. This follows other mystical characters like Zeus and Romulus, who were once said to be real beings, tough they started as mythical figures. Richard Carrier, one of the most rigorous atheists alive (I try to get everything he writes) makes the best case for that theory so far, but he himself admits his theory is not decisive and that he has offered no knock-out arguments. Notice even the sub-title of his book: "Why we might have reason for doubt"

Carrier is also one of the most honest and irenic atheists around. He is a civil debater and is very respectful of theists. For those shallow atheists who are using his theory to say he has debunked the historicity of Jesus, I quote from the book itself, where Carrier outlines a more modest aim: "Though I shall argue it's likely...that Jesus did not, in fact, exist, I cannot assume it has been conclusively proved here. In fact, it may be proved false in future work using the very methods I employ... here the point of the book is not to end the debate. " The most learned people are usually those with epistemic humility.

If you want to see Carrier seriously challenged on his view, then you must go on YouTube and watch his recent debate with
Catholic apologist Trent Horn. Then you will see high-level, civil
scholarly engagement. You also need to read the scholar Maurice Casey's
book, Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist
Myths?
, which is a bold attack on mythicist
views.

So hot is this topic now of whether Jesus
really existed that Biblical Archaeology Review
features it on its cover in its latest issue (January/February,
2015).

Christians
unprepared

Christianity continues to come under severe
challenge, and I am afraid most Christians are completely unprepared to
give a defense of their faith. They have undervalued apologetics and
intellectual work for too long, preferring the much less-demanding
experientialism and praise and worship.

Comedian Dr
Michael Abrahams will be taken seriously when he continues to attack
Christianity, for, tragically, Christians will simply plea for us to
have more faith and "not blaspheme". I fear Christians won't be having a
happier New Year at all.

Ian Boyne is Ian Boyne is a
veteran journalist. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and
ianboyne1@yahoo.com.