“And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” — John 1:14 (NASB)
I didn’t want to let the Christmas season go without a Christmas-related post, so… I went back to my discussion on an old marketing forum with a gentleman who referred to himself as “Michael the Heathen Gnostic”. (You may have read other posts I adapted from this discussion.) We hit several topics about religion in general and Christianity in particular, (un)reliability of the Bible, (in)consistency of Gospel accounts, Church dogma, Gospel of Thomas, what it means to be “gnostic”, etc. Not surprisingly, when I asked for examples of “contradictions” in the Bible, Michael referred to familiar “Christmas” and “Easter” accounts. (I’ve blogged about these in the posts “Are The Gospel Accounts of the Nativity Contradictory?” and “Bible Contradictions at the Empty Tomb, Parts 1 & 2“.)
In discussing the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth & childhood, Michael espoused a theory I hadn’t heard before about why the traditional Nativity story promoted by “the Church” has Jesus & family in the lowliest of settings. I don’t know if it was original to him, or not. One quickly sees his conspiracy-minded suspicions of the early Christian Church (especially Roman Catholic leadership) and their supposed manipulation of “duped” believers from the get-go in order to maintain power. Unfortunately for him, there is no real evidence to back it up.
We begin with Michael (whose comments are always preceded by “>”) giving an example of a never-to-be-questioned dogma of “the Church”, followed by my responses:
“> For instance… the accepted
> “truth” of the birth is that
> Joseph and Mary stayed in a barn with the
> animals and Jesus was born and slept in a
> animal food troff. BUT, not all four Gospels
> say this.
Actually, only two of the Gospels describe any of the circumstances around Jesus’ birth.
Regarding the accounts of Jesus’ birth, living quarters, and visit by Magi, I hope my post of a couple weeks ago has shed a little more light on this apparent discrepancy.
> Thus, the Church has chosen what must be the
> most lowly description possible to put forth.
> MY opinion is to the draw attention away
> from the true status of Mary, Joseph and
> Jesus, lest the “flock” begin to
> question the Church’s authority.
> That is… if the Gospels showed that family
> to be anything other than peasants of no
> importance, readers of the Gospels would
> question why the Church was the authority on
> the religion and not its founder or those
> more closely related to the founder.
OK, let’s see if I follow you… You suggest that “the Church” emphasize(d) the born-in-a-stable and lay-in-a-manger parts from Luke’s Gospel, rather than the found-at-a-house-by-Magi account in Matthew, in order to stress the “lowly origins” aspect. The idea is that somehow this makes “the Church” a more important source of authority. Is that about it?
Interesting theory, though I wonder what your evidence for such intent is — either by a particular bishop or Pope or a concerted effort by “the Church”. (If I read you right, by “the Church” you generally seem to refer to the Roman Catholic Church and the earlier “catholic” Church prior to Pope Leo I.) I also just don’t see this as a strong argument at all for “the Church” to make for such a claim. Btw, at what point in church history did this particular effort supposedly begin? Part of the original corruption or later?”
So, for Michael, it’s all a massive power-play. As I acknowledged to Michael, there has indeed been corruption within the Christian Church — somewhere, to some degree — probably throughout all time periods and traditions. Often it is about power. Some people, as groups and individuals, let the lust for acquiring & retaining power guide their actions. Sad and shameful, but true. No argument.
But, the idea that there was and has been a concerted effort by the dark overlords of “the Church” to hide the fact that sacred texts were (re)written to emphasize Jesus’ lowly origins in order to somehow strengthen the authority claims of “the Church” is baseless speculation from a mind that is generally skeptical and suspicious of all organized religion. I’ve done a bit of reading on textual criticism and the origins of the Biblical manuscripts and come across nothing to back up Michael’s assertions. To come up with something like this, one has to accept the revisionist historical fiction of Dan Brown (The Da Vinci Code) or maybe Michael Baigent et al. (Holy Blood, Holy Grail), whose books Michael likes. In other words, “the fringe”.
My next few remarks were about the fact — which Michael and I agreed on — that the Magi likely did not visit Jesus at the manger, despite traditional and commercial representations showing them there. Of course, to Michael, this is all part of the Church’s plot to confuse & deceive the unwashed masses (pardon the pun). Because the Magi found Jesus at a house (not a stable), he thinks Joseph & family were not really poor. (I addressed the timing of the Magi’s travels in the above-linked post.)
“As to confusion regarding these passages, it certainly isn’t relegated to those in the R.C. Church. I see a similar thing among many in Protestant churches, too. In general, this is probably due to less-than-careful readings of the accounts in question (if read at all), and it is re-inforced by kids books, cartoons, plays, Nativity scenes, etc., that include the Wise Men at the stable scene. “Story compression” to simplify things? Laziness and/or misunderstanding? Or CONSPIRACY to maintain control (or the legacy thereof)? In any case, what has been the true impact on the overall gospel message? Negligible, I’d say.”
“Incidentally, if Church leaders essentially made the N.T. (including Jesus’ sayings in the Gospels) to say just what they wanted it to say, why didn’t they “clear up” the inconsistencies? In the above example, why didn’t they change or just remove the Magi episode altogether?
Why would they leave in embarrassing things, like the Twelve [Apostles] squabbling amongst themselves? Or Peter’s constantly speaking & acting impulsively?
Why not “straighten out” or change the difficult teachings that Church leaders (and laypersons) have disagreed on and argued over for centuries?
Why not make it undeniably clear that the Church of Rome is most important and that the Bishop of Rome (later the Pope) should have supreme religious power, etc?”
I thought these were reasonable questions, considering the accusations & assumptions being made, but Michael never responded to them. Maybe he realized that he didn’t have any good responses? I don’t know. (If I’d thought of it at the time, I would’ve also pointed out that one of Jesus’ brothers, James, was a leader in the primitive Church. And Mary herself was obviously well-revered.)
From what I could gather, Michael is/was a decent chap — basically “good”, according to the common understanding. He had some bad experience during six years of religious (presumably Roman Catholic) schooling in his childhood/youth, and it left a bad taste in his mouth for the Roman Catholic church in particular and organized religion in general. (He was quite fond of the idea of gnosticism. Though, in the course of our dialogue, I had to correct his misunderstanding of what this involved. (I.e., not just a pursuit of knowledge.)) This, coupled with a natural skepticism and desire for independence, had made him rather accepting of gnostic texts and alternate explanations of the origins of Christianity.
So, it isn’t really surprising that he would be intrigued by and prone to such theories as this. Unfortunately, this is an example of an otherwise bright & rational individual resorting to wild and unsubstantiated speculations in order to “disprove” orthodox Christian teaching and allow him to live his life without obligation to a Higher Authority. (Of course, left to our own devices and desires, this is what we would all prefer.) He had (has?) a real hunger for knowledge but chose to paint Christianity — particularly “the Church” — with a malevolent brush and refused to see & accept where the actual evidence leads from fair & rational investigation. More importantly, I think it blinded him to the true Gospel message and the significance of the Incarnation.
“…but [Christ Jesus] emptied Himself [i.e., set aside his divine privileges], taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” — Philippians 2:7,8
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” — John 3:16-18
“Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” — Romans 8:1,2
Happy New Year, all!