Updated: Dec 27, 2019
The other day, as I was driving to finish some last minute Christmas shopping, I saw a bumper sticker that said: Put the Christ back in Christmas! I’m not going to mince words. I absolutely hate that phrase. Every time I encounter those words, my blood starts to boil, but not for the reasons you might think. The origin of this phrase derives from certain conservative Christians feeling that Christmas in America has been co-opted by non-Christians and turned into a secular holiday. In other words, the primary focus of Christmas is no longer Jesus’ birth.
To be fair, they are not wrong. Christmas consumer spending is major part of American economy. The emphasis of Christmas in America is far more about the money you spend on gifts than the celebration of Jesus’ birth. Ironically, capitalism is not the reason why these Christians use the phrase: Put the Christ back in Christmas! Their gripe is that American society has become so politically correct that you can no longer assume that everyone will be celebrating Christmas.
For instance, for the latter half of the 20th century, many cities and towns would erect large nativity scenes for pedestrians to enjoy while they went about their Christmas shopping. However, those nativity scenes have slowly been dismantled and removed from the public sphere due to an increasing awareness that we live in a pluralistic society. Contrary to what many Christians may assume, America is not a Christian nation and not everyone cares about the birth of Jesus.
I, for one, am glad they have removed these nativity scenes from public view. Not because I’m particularly concerned about being politically correct. Rather, these scenes irk me because they are historically inaccurate. In fact, the entire Christmas story has skewed the Christian faith in such dramatic fashion that it has destroyed the very foundations of what Christianity was meant to be. Putting the Christ back in Christmas means upending everything you’ve ever thought about Jesus, God and the universe. So without further ado, let’s talk about Jesus’ birth.
The First Mention
If we were to group the texts of the New Testament in chronological order (according to the dates they were written), the first reference to Jesus’ birth in the New Testament comes from a man named Paul. He makes brief mention of Jesus’ birth in a letter he wrote to a group of churches he founded in area known as Galatia:
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law…
Galatians 4:4 (NRSV)
This rather unremarkable verse is actually quite important. Paul wrote this letter around 55 A.D. Jesus had been dead for close to 25 years at this point. What this verse reveals to us is that Paul is unaware of the virgin birth. To say that Jesus was born of a woman, under the law simply means Jesus was born to a Jewish woman. If Paul had been aware of the virgin birth, then he certainly would have made mention of it in this verse.
What is also significant about Paul’s lack of reference to the virgin birth is that Paul is the only author in the New Testament who has had interactions with Jesus’ original disciples. Since Paul never knew Jesus when he was alive (Paul states that he had an interaction with the resurrected Jesus), he would have been dependent on Jesus’ disciples for biographical information about Jesus.
The fact Peter, James and John never mentioned this to Paul means they had no knowledge of the virgin birth either. Indeed, if anyone would know about the virgin birth, it would be James, Jesus’ brother, the leader of the mother church in Jerusalem. Clearly, James never mentions this to Paul. Therefore, this one verse from Galatians tells us that, by 55 A.D., the virgin birth was not a known biographical fact about Jesus’ life.
The First Gospel
By itself, this one verse may seem insignificant. Perhaps Paul simply never heard that particular story about Jesus’ life? However, what supports the thesis that the virgin birth was not a commonly held belief in the early church is the first gospel written about Jesus’ life. The gospel of Mark was written around 70 A.D. If you open Mark’s gospel to chapter 1, you will notice that it begins with John baptizing Jesus as an adult. There is no account of Jesus’ birth. We are told nothing about what he was like when he was a child. For Mark, what’s critical about Jesus is his ministry during the last 2-3 years of his life.
And yet, Mark is aware of certain biographical components of Jesus’ family. When Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth, the villagers in Nazareth refer to Jesus as the “son of Mary.” (Mk. 6:3) This is highly unusual. Normally a Jewish male is identified by his paternal lineage. Therefore, Jesus should be called, “the son of Joseph.” The fact that Jesus is called the “son of Mary” is an enormous insult in Jewish culture. Calling someone by their mother’s name insinuates that Jesus was an illegitimate child born out of wedlock.
Furthermore, in same verse where Jesus is called the son of Mary, we find out that Jesus has all these brothers and sisters: James, Joses, Judas and Simon to name a few. We don’t know if Jesus was the first-born or if he’s in the middle. For all we know, he could be the last. Mark never tells us. What’s more, it seems in Mark’s gospel that Jesus’ family doesn’t understand what Jesus is doing. They think Jesus has lost his mind and try to restrain him. (Mk. 3:19b-21) Mary, Jesus’ mother, has no real concept of Jesus being the messiah, so it’s clear that Mark knows nothing of the virgin birth.
Again, some conservative scholars claim that the virgin birth was a known fact, Mark simply wasn’t aware of it when he was writing his gospel. However, this seems unlikely given that 15 years earlier, Paul too had no knowledge of the virgin birth. Therefore, if Mark was written in 70 A.D., the first 40 years of the Christian movement operated without any belief or need for the virgin birth.
From Illegitimate Child to God’s Son
Within fifteen years of the writing of Mark’s gospel, Christians would attempt to distance themselves from Jesus’ sordid past. Both Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels explain that Jesus is the first child born to Mary. Moreover, God is the one who impregnates Mary, sending angels to explain that God intends for Jesus to be the messiah. (Mt. 1:18-25, Lk. 1:26-38) Matthew’s gospel was written in 80 A.D. and Luke’s gospel was written in 85 A.D. Hence, the earliest reference to the virgin birth is 50 years after Jesus’ death and 80+ years since Jesus’ actual birth.
What this tells us, very obviously, is that the virgin birth is made-up. It’s a mythology. The reasons for its creation are many. As I just stated, the virgin birth helps to cover-up and smooth over Jesus’ origins as a child born out of wedlock. Another benefit of the virgin birth is that it helps to explain Jesus’ powers of healing, creating food, controlling the weather and coming back from the dead. Jesus can do all of that because of his divine origins.
Another important factor was how the people who claimed affiliation with Christianity were beginning to view Jesus as the messiah. Whereas the Jewish people never expected the messiah to be divine, the second generation of Christians were not as familiar with the original understanding of Jewish messiahship. When they began to view Jesus as divine, the virgin birth helped to explain these divine origins. Indeed, this perception of Jesus being divine would continue to gain traction until you get to John’s gospel (written in 90 A.D.) where Jesus is said to be present with God at the creation of the universe. (Jn. 1:1-4)
If you’re sitting there, scratching your head, thinking to yourself, “I thought that Christians believed that Jesus was divine from day one?” trust me, you’re not alone. The reality is that the belief in Jesus’ divinity evolved over time. In fact, the story of the virgin birth originates around the exact same time that Christians start believing in Jesus’ divinity. The two go hand-in-hand.
So how was Jesus conceived? Like everyone else, he was the product of normal sexual relations between a man and woman. In all likelihood, Jesus was born out of wedlock, which means Jesus would have grown up without a father figure. Furthermore, his status as an illegitimate child would have made him ineligible for arranged marriage, which is perhaps why we never hear about Jesus being married.
The Consequences of Virgin Birth
The issue that is most salient in all of this is what the virgin birth did to the ways Christians think about God. If you have attended a Christmas Eve service where a pastor preaches on the virgin birth, an oft spoken line is something like this: “When Mary became pregnant with Jesus, God became one of us. God entered into our world through Jesus so that God could walk alongside us and understand the human experience.”
The implication behind this statement is that, prior to Jesus’ inception, God had no idea what it was like to be human. Thanks to Jesus, God can now commiserate with the plight of humanity by walking in our shoes. Jesus helps God to understand human nature along with all of the joys, hardships and temptations of human life. Why couldn’t God understand all this before Jesus? Glad you asked!
God being perfect in every way means that God can have nothing to do with sinful humans. Our sinfulness prevents God from being able to fully appreciate the human experience. Therefore, an added benefit of God becoming human through Jesus is that Jesus can live a sin-free life and become a sacrifice that allows God to forgive humans of their sins once and for all.
Now, let’s take step back and analyze the logic behind this explanation. The first assumption behind the virgin birth is that God exists apart from the universe. In other words, God exists outside of space and time. The reason why God has to become human through Jesus is that God is not really part of the universe. In essence, God is detached from the world and has to make a very specific decision to enter into creation by becoming human.
Of course, this entire way of thinking of God makes zero sense in the context of how the Jewish people understood God in Jesus' day and time. Although the New Testament is written in Greek, Jesus spoke in a language known as Aramaic. The word God in Aramaic is Alaha. The best translation of Alaha is “Sacred Unity” or “the All” or “oneness.” In our modern English, we would say God is everything. You, me, all existence is God because God is what makes existence possible. Therefore, it is impossible for God to enter into the fabric of space and time. God is the fabric of space and time.
What this means is that God doesn’t need Jesus to understand what it’s like to be human. God already knows what it’s like to be human because God is the very essence of what allows us to exist in the first place. What’s more, this conceptualization of God has several major implications that impact the way we envision God working in the world beyond the virgin birth.
For example, when we pray, we are often praying that God would intervene in the world to change the outcome of a particular situation. For instance, if someone is dying of cancer, we pray God would cure the cancer and save the person. The idea behind this kind of prayer is that God exists outside the universe and, by temporarily entering into the universe, can manipulate the cells in our body. It’s as if our universe is a clock and God is a master clock maker. God can open the clock and fix the broken part. Where this analogy breaks down is that it misses the larger point of Alaha: God is the clock.
When you are suffering from cancer, God is right there with you. There’s no need to invite God in because God has always been there. What this also means is that God is not repulsed by our imperfection. If God is the clock and the clock is imperfect, then God is imperfect. Indeed, God is the reason why our imperfection exists at all. Therefore, if God is right in the middle of everything that happens to us, then our job as Christians is to recognize the God who has been walking alongside us all along.
Put the Christ back in Christmas!
For me, if you want to put the Christ back in Christmas, then we need to acknowledge that everything Christmas represents in our modern world is completely misleading. Those nativity scenes are not only historically inaccurate, but they reinforce a version of God that controverts the very foundations of the Christian faith.
I know that removing the virgin birth from Christmas would seem to strip the holiday of its meaning, but, in fact, the exact opposite is true. When we remove the virgin birth from Christmas, it allows us to celebrate the real reason why Jesus’ birth is special—the purpose of Jesus’ life is not to be the vessel that allows God to become one of us, but rather to point us to the God that is already within us.
That is an important reminder I need most every year. Merry Christmas!