December 20, 2015
Dear Rev. Know-it-all,
I heard in a lecture at my church that the whole story about Jesus being born in Bethlehem was just mythology. Could this be true?
Nathaniel “Nat” Yvitei
I suppose it could be true, but I, for one, doubt it. To understand what is going on here you have to go back to the Age of Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was a European philosophical movement in the 18th century. The gulf between the aristocracy and the poor reached a tipping point in Europe, and much of the hierarchy of the Church seemed to be just part of the aristocratic government. Reason, scientific progress and the questioning of state and church authority were at the heart of the enlightenment. In most countries church and state were anything but separate. The Enlightenment was all about free individual thought, experience, and empirical knowledge. Religious orthodoxy was particularly mistrusted by the philosophers of the enlightenment.
So it was, that the Bible, the sacrosanct text on which the culture of the West was built, became fair game for critical scholarship. The enlightenment began in 1715, the year Louis XIV died and it exploded onto the European and American stage in the years following. The enlightenment begot the American Revolution, the American Revolution begot the French Revolution which begot Napoleon which begot the Franco-Prussian War which begot the First World War which begot the Russian revolution which begot the Second World War which begot the Chinese Revolution, etc. etc.
When Napoleon spread the Revolution to much of the rest of the world, it found its way into the established religious world as well. Catholicism was almost obliterated by the French Revolution, but survived because Napoleon thought it wise to make peace with the pope. There was no pope in non-Catholic northern Europe, whose Christianity was based on the principle of sola scriptura, Bible alone. When the lens of the enlightenment was focused on the text of scripture, the result was earth-shaking.
The enlightenment philosophers did not easily believe in things supernatural, and so discounted the miraculous nature of the Christian faith as a remnant of Dark Age superstition. Combine Bible Only theology and Enlightenment skepticism and the Bible becomes problematic. In 1804, or thereabouts, Thomas Jefferson, one of the great lights of the Enlightenment in the Americas, wrote “ The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth”, also called the “Jefferson Bible”, as representing the true teachings of Jesus in which he cut out sections of the New Testament. He removed all the miracles of Jesus including the resurrection and any passages which supported the divinity of Jesus. He created a New Testament acceptable to the most materialist enlightenment thinkers. Fast forward two centuries to the aftermath of World War I.
In the 1930’s, the post-World War I turmoil in Germany produced Hitler as well as a movement for a German Christianity purified of its Jewish influences. This movement in turn, produced the “ Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Church Life.” In 1941, the Institute published “Germans with God: a German Catechism.” It left out miracles, the virgin birth, incarnation, resurrection, and portrayed an Aryan Jesus, just a human being who died martyred by the Jews. They wanted to make the faith acceptable to the Nazis, but the Nazis were opposed to Christianity even in its mildest most materialist forms. The Nazification of the Bible was of a piece with prevailing Christian enlightenment thought however. The enlightenment spawned numerous attempts to conform Jesus to the prevailing political and cultural need, to create an acceptable form of Christianity that a well-educated post enlightenment man could use to occupy his Sunday mornings. The Scriptures were not a superior revelation, but to those who were enlightened, it was a text like any other, something that they could purify of its unenlightened catholic superstitions.
The German theologian Rudolf Bultmann was not a collaborator with Nazis. He was especially opposed to their anti- Semitism, but nonetheless he was part of the move to demythologize the Scriptures. In his 1941 book “New Testament and Mythology” he claimed that it is no longer plausible for Christians to believe the mythical view found in the New Testament – “We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament.”
New Testament mythology must be replaced by a more human understanding that “…discloses the truth of the kerygma (a Gospel proclamation) as kerygma for those who do not think myth logically…. There is nothing specifically Christian about the mythical world picture, which is simply the world picture of a time now past which was not yet formed by scientific thinking.”
It was after the Second World War that Catholics really started to pay attention to the enlightenment currents in Scripture study. Many adopted the prejudice that miracles are impossible, and thus seemingly accurate prophecy must be an anachronism, a later text written as if previous to the event, or if a prophecy, such as the prophecy regarding the birth of the messiah in Bethlehem, it must be invented. These scholars point out that the journeys and place changes between Bethlehem and Nazareth are impossible, and that the possibility of a virgin birth is completely nonexistent. These ideas rest entirely on the assumption that people who went before us were stupid or dishonest or both. The effort to rescue a sort of Christianity from the swamp of stupidity that they believe the Bible to be, just seems sad to me. If it is just a pile of myths with a few good slogans, why not give up the whole thing? (unless of course you are a tenured professor of theology with a nice office and a good parking space on campus.) In a fit of enlightenment honesty, most of Europe has given up its belief in the Jewish mythology that is the Bible. And Europe is dying.
I was rigorously schooled in the enlightened demythology of the 60’s, that hold-over from the pro- and anti-Nazi demytholigizers of the early twentieth century. I half believed them till I met someone named Amer, a tour guide from the Holy Land who was a graduate of the University of Albuquerque, New Mexico. He convinced me that Jesus really did multiply loaves and fishes and that he really was born in a cave in Bethlehem. I’ll tell you about him in my next installment.