By now, I think it’s clear that I regard most of the details of the Nativity story as told in Matthew and Luke to be chiefly “myth.” But today, I want to dive deeper into what I mean when I use that word.
For instance, let’s look at the story of the Adoration. Here is Luke:
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah,[a] the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host,[b] praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”[c]
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men[a] from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising,[b] and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah[c] was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd[d] my people Israel.’”
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men[e] and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising,[f] until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped,[g] they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Now, obviously, I don’t think this is a factual retelling of a historical story. What I mean is, if you were writing a sort of “Witness statement” of what happened at the birth of Jesus, these things wouldn’t be in there.
Now, there are a lot of reasons I think that, many of which can be deduced from the last two posts in this series. In short, if Mary wasn’t married, and thus didn’t travel to Bethlehem and stay in a stable to give birth, then consequently, the tales of wise men and shepherds visiting her there wouldn’t have happened either.
But, none of that means that these stories aren’t important, or that they don’t mean something crucial to Christians, or even that they shouldn’t be recounted or included in the canon. Quite the opposite. I think they are absolutely crucial to understanding the nature of Christ as the Gospel writers are recounting it. It all comes back to that word, “myth.” What do I mean there?
The grandest explanation of myth within the Christian paradigm was provided by the incomparable Paul Tillich in his book Dynamics of Faith. In the chapter “Symbols of Faith,” Tillich first explains the nature of symbols vs. signs this way:
Sometimes such signs are called symbols; but this is unfortunate because it makes the distinction between signs and symbols more difficult. Decisive is the fact that signs do not participate in the reality of that to which they point, while symbols do. Therefore, signs can be replaced for reasons of expediency or convention, while symbols cannot.
This leads to the second characteristic of the symbol: It participates in that to which it points.
This important because, as he says:
The language of faith is the language of symbols.
Faith can only be described by symbol. Finite human beings cannot adequately comprehend or describe the majesty and ultimacy of God. We can only point at the nature of God through something as powerful as symbols. For instance, the idea of God as the Father has meaning not because God is a literal father, but because of what the symbol father says about the relation of one being towards another. In this case, “father” indicates the nurturing, protecting, strong figure of a classic father in patriarchal structures.
Now, naturally, many of us (myself included) reject the misogynistic view of God operating chiefly (or solely) as a father. We prefer to also refer to God equally as mother, because of the things the symbol mother conveys. Nevertheless, God is described in these symbolic ways because these are the only ways we can begin to comprehend of the nature of God.
This expands into myth, as Tillich continues:
Myths are symbols of faith combined in stories about divine-human encounters.
Myths are always present in every act of faith, because the language of faith is the symbol…
…It puts the stories of the gods into the framework of time and space although it belongs to the nature of the ultimate to be id beyond time and space. Above all, it divides the divine into several figures, removing ultimacy from each of them without removing their claim to ultimacy.
This is where I’m coming from when I say “myth.” Did these things “really” happen? No. Do the stories have crucial meaning about who God is and what God’s nature is? Absolutely. These myths-the Virgin Birth, the Adoration-reveal the nature of God through Christ by telling a story with scenes that have meaning to the larger picture. The authors draw on real life situations (for instance, a Roman census) with small changes that fit them into this story to help tell the story in a way readers will comprehend and understand.
The Bible as a whole is full of myths. But this doesn’t mean the Bible is only myth. The Bible is a collection of many different works, written by men thousands of years ago trying to recount the nature of God as they and their people were experiencing it. To do this, they used history and song and lamentation and geneaology and court records and letters and apocalypses and yes, sometimes, good old fashioned myths to do so. To reduce scripture to nothing but myth is as blasphemous as reducing it all to science book or literal history of the physical world, as some fundamentalists aim to do. Tillich explains:
All mythological elements in the Bible, and doctrine and liturgy should be recognized as mythological, but they should be maintained in their symbolic form and not be replaced by scientific substitutes . For there is no substitute for the use of symbols and myths: they are the language of faith.
To make the stories in the Bible “science” is to demythologize them, as Tillich describes, “the removal of symbols and myths altogether.” The attempt to resist the identification and interpretation of myth in favor of the myth being reality leads to command and control structures of faith, in which the goal becomes not reading to become better understand the human relationship to God, but instead reading to affirm the power structure that claims a monopoly on interpreting the Bible (even if they don’t recognize what they are doing as such.)
Reducing Scripture to nothing but the “infallible, inerrant Word of God” negates the power of it’s variability. To give full respect and deference to the Bible and it’s writers, we must grapple with the multiplicity of form and intent we find therein. To make the Bible unquestionable and infallible is to make the Bible God, is to practice that most deadly of sins according to Paul, idolatory, in the form on Biblolatory.
Recognizing the stories of the Nativity as “myth” isn’t to reduce them in importance or power or meaning. Instead, it is to recognize and acknowledge their true forms, and thus to recognize and acknowledge the kernel of Truth trying to be described. Analyzing these myths and the symbols that make them up is to give them their proper due. It is the work of better understanding the Divine.