I was recently sitting with friends, discussing life and love, and invariably the subject of religion came up. This was not the usual “so, you don’t believe in god?” religion speak that I am so used to. No, in this room were four educated people each in their own stages of non-belief (or at least very liberal belief by most standards) where my atheism would neither be a shock nor a reason of concern for anyone present. Actually, I doubt religion would have come up at all if it weren’t for the fact that we were listening to Christmas music in a roomed decked for the holidays. A discussion started on our love and/or disdain for these holiday jingles when someone jokingly said “well, Jesus is the reason for the season”. That phrase really got me thinking. Is Jesus really the reason for the season? In America Christmas is a large part of our culture. It drives our retail economy and gives most of us a reason to see our extended family at least once a year. It encourages giving and makes hot chocolate a romantic alternative to cheap beer on a blustery December night. Things like these make me enjoy the holidays and I think that when it comes down to it, it’s what rings true for most Americans. But Jesus? Really?
Technically, I would argue that the reason for the season is the Winter Solstice. This is simply the shortest day of the year, where the sun is at its furthest possible point from the Earth. It has been celebrated by civilizations across the globe from as early as the Neolithic period and tends to signify the renewal or rebirth of the crop cycle. There is no doubt that the renewal of the crops would be a worthwhile reason for celebration to any agrarian society. Later this celebration would be adopted by any number of Pagan cultures and elaborate myths would be created around it to give their particular gods and goddesses of choice an active role in the process.
In Egypt (around 2500 BCE) the birth of Osiris was celebrated during the Winter Solstice. Osiris was the son of the god of Earth. He was born of a mortal virgin, died at the brutal hands of the state and was resurrected three days after his death to judge all of mankind in the afterlife. Osiris was one of the few “resurrected” Egyptian gods and many scholars believe that was added to the story to help re-edify the significance of the oncoming harvest.
In Greece (around 600 BCE) Dionysus was the winter solstice god of choice. He was seen as the son of Zeus who miraculously died and was “born again”. He was commonly known as the god of wine and was noted on multiple occasions for turning water into the magical substance making him a very special deity indeed. At this point I am assuming that most of you are noticing a pattern here.
The Persian god Mithras is quite possibly my favorite god born during the winter solstice mostly because he was present around 100BCE and was a major competitor to a new Jewish godman who stumbled onto the scene around the same time (some of you may be familiar with his work). Mithras was very popular in the Roman Empire during the First Century CE, because of his Zoroastrian concepts on good and evil. He too has a questionable birth that was prophesized by an unexplainable astrological event and was commonly celebrated by the drinking of wine to symbolize blood.
I use these examples only to argue that each of these gods should be recognized as at least part of the “reason for the season”. I mean they have just as much to do with it as Jesus right? Now assuming that most Christian apologists would read this and dismiss these “fake gods” just as easily as they would dismiss Islam and Scientology I am going to explain this from the only angle that will truly speak to their Christian sensibilities, through the use of scripture.
Believe it or not, the New Testament is basically the only “historical source” on earth that talks about Jesus. Sure there are a couple of early Roman historians that briefly mention things that could be construed to be talking about Jesus, but the validity of these writings are shoddy at best. For this reason, if you wish to learn about Jesus you basically have to look at the 27 books in the New Testament, most notably Paul’s letters and the gospels, to come away with a coherent understanding of the most influential human ever to exist. Since for this occasion we are talking about the “reason for the season” our list of references is going to be narrowed quite considerably. We basically have the gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke to shape our entire understanding of the Christmas Story. I find it quite interesting that Mark’s gospel would leave out the birth of Christ entirely, especially considering that it was the first gospel written, of which the other gospels borrow heavily from its contents. If Mark didn’t know about it or didn’t think it was important enough to mention, how exactly do the writers of Matthew and Luke justify their points of view from decades later? Either way, if we put the historicity issue aside, one could imagine that with two separate references that we have (assuming that they are both historically accurate) we should be able to come up with a pretty coherent understanding of the Christmas story. Or can we?
The first thing at issue here is that Matthew and Luke tell what should be the exact same story (if historically accurate) in very different ways and in some instances ways that directly contradict one another. They both have the virgin birth happening in Bethlehem, but Mathew says it happened during Herod’s reign, while Luke contends that it happened while Quirinius was the governor of Syria. We know this cannot be correct because all historical data from the period shows that these men ruled at least ten years apart from each other. Logically speaking, both accounts cannot possibly be correct. It can be one or the other, but that makes at least one of them completely false.
Another slight discrepancy between these two accounts is where the three of them (Joseph, Mary and Jesus) go after Jesus’ birth. In Mathew they flee to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod, but in Luke they go directly to their family home in Nazareth to register for Caesar Augustus’ census. Again, logically the two accounts cannot both be correct because they contradict one another entirely. In all actuality this a moot point because historically there is absolutely no evidence to back up the claim that Herod was slaughtering babies or that Augustus ordered a census, but that doesn’t change the fact that the two accounts contradict each other, deeming at least one of them completely false.
So why exactly are a couple of slight discrepancies so damning to this whole Christmas story anyway? Well, like I said earlier if Jesus has more of a right to be the “the reason for the season” than does Osiris or Dionysus, than he better have some concrete evidence to back it up. If that evidence is solely relegated to the Christian Bible (which it is) and more importantly the validity of his story as told by Mathew and Luke, then showing that one or the other is completely false might actually be saying something significant. If anything it proves that the supposed divine book is flawed logically as well as historically. If nothing else Mathew and Luke’s accounts are irreconcilably different in at least a couple of ways, which should make any logical reader question either of them as an authority on the subject.
In short, I contend that the reason most people give for this season isn’t reasonable at all. We in civilized society don’t tend to worship sun gods on New Years Eve or crop cycles during the solstice. We don’t think that ancient Egyptian Gods are saving us from damnation or that the Greek God of Wine deserves even an hour of thought, let alone an entire season. The fact that so many people believe in the Christ story over the multitude of others lends no more credence to its validity. Sure, it may have ended up being more significant to Western culture, but that fact alone does not make it any less of a myth. So, if you still feel that Jesus is your reason to celebrate, you’ll at least have to acknowledge that history is not on your side. As for me and my “reason for the season”….I’ll stick to food and drink with friends, decorating trees and kissing under mistletoe because those are the kind of Pagan traditions I can reasonably get behind.