As I have written in two earlier posts, the biblical accounts of the birth of Jesus are not actual history. They are stories told to indicate the special nature of Jesus. Which means, we shouldn’t read them as history (ἱστορία). The Christmas story isn’t history. The Christmas story is myth (μῦθος).
As myth, the story points to important truths. It orients us to the claim that God is involved in human history. It sets the foundations for hearing the narratives about Jesus as accounts which resonate with God’s intentions for humanity.
The stories told at Christmas are located in specific human situations, and point to specific human needs. Outsiders and outcasts are included in the story told by Luke. Shepherds, despised for their work and marginalised from society, appear front and centre in his story. Strangers travel from distant foreign lands in Matthew’s narrative, bearing gifts to pay homage to the infant Jesus.
Women, not men, play central roles in the opening chapters of Luke’s story. Elizabeth, cursed as barren, blossoms into pregnancy, and speaks where her husband is struck dumb. Mary, young and virginal, receives startling news from an angel; she holds her own stands up to the angel, commits to the task, and then sings powerful words of justice, signalling in advance the revolutionary message that will be spoken by the child whom she is bearing.
Both Luke and Matthew include the gritty reality of the refugee situation in their accounts. Luke has a pregnant Mary undertake an enforced journey with Joseph, from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the hometown of his family line, only to be forced to give birth in precarious circumstances. There is no historical evidence for the census that occasioned this journey, but the story provides a compelling vision of what refugees faced then, and still face today.
Matthew has Mary and Joseph, with Jesus now a two-year-old toddler, making an even longer forced trek, from Bethlehem into Egypt, because of the excessive reaction of the king of the time. There is also no historical evidence for the slaughter of all boys aged two and under in Bethlehem at that time, but the story in Matthew’s Gospel again highlights the tenuous situations faced by refugees, then as now.
Matthew’s Moses typology leads him to place the slaughter of the Innocents right at the heart of his narrative. He grounds the story of Jesus in the historical, political, and cultural life of the day, when a tyrant could exercise immense power, when the sensibilities we have about human life seem absent. It provides a dreadful realism to a story which, all too often in the developing Christian Tradition, became etherealised, spiritualised, and romanticised.
We need to remember the Christmas story as an important pointer to the counter-cultural, alternative-narrative impact of the person of Jesus. It is not history, but it offers a powerful myth. It grounds our faith in a revolutionary understanding of reality, and in actions that establish an alternative reality. The story is not to be domesticated and coated in syrup; its stark reality and honest grappling with life needs to be grasped and valued.
As we sing songs of this story, let us not reify the story (that is, turn the narrative into “a thing”, like history) … let us not collapse the story into a surface “real history”, but let us allow the story to speak in a deep way of who we are as humans, and of the reality of our lives today. That is how the story functions, as myth (μῦθος) — not in the sense of myth being “not true”, but rather, in the sense of myth plumbing the depths of human existence.
Myths are the stories we tell that convey deep-seated and fundamental insights about life. Whether they “actually happened” is not the point. More fundamental is that they help us to make sense of our lives. They draw us out of our comfort and preoccupations, and challenge us to see a different reality, to live a different life.
Bernard F. Batto (Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at DePauw University, Indiana), writes: “In everyday usage today, myth carries a meaning of something untrue, a fable, a fiction, or an illusion. Anthropologists and historians of religion, however, use the term ‘myth’ with a quite different meaning. For them myth refers to a traditional story, usually associated with the time of origins, that has paradigmatic significance for the society in which the story is operative.”
So, this Christmas, let’s rejoice that we have this foundational and paradigmatic story which is not history (ἱστορία), but which functions as myth (μῦθος). And as myth, this story stirs our imaginings and challenges our presuppositions, giving us a different perspective on the realities of life in this world, indicating to us how God engages with us and interacts with our world.