Part One: Is the Story Myth or Fact?

By Robert Stackpole, STD

A poet laureate of England, the late Sir John Betjeman, summed up the question in the hearts of many when he wrote:

And is it true? And is it true,

This most tremendous tale of all,

Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,

A Baby in an ox’s stall?

The Maker of the stars and sea

Become a Child on earth for me?

A solid majority of biblical scholars in the academic world today, both Catholic and Protestant, would probably answer Betjeman’s question with resounding diffidence.

“Yes,” they might say, “it is true — in a sense. Not literally or historically true, of course. No doubt the story of the Nativity of Jesus in the Gospels contains mostly just early Christian legends, but that story still can convey to us today, in mythical, fictional form, the main theological point it was always intended to illustrate: that God was acting in the life of Jesus in a decisive way for the salvation of the world.”

Around Christmas each year, expressions of this scholarly perspective often appear in summary form in mainstream news magazines and television specials. On Dec. 13, 2004, for example, the cover story of Time magazine bore the title “The Secrets of the Nativity,” and the article inside carried the heading: “Behind the First Noel: How the Story of Christ’s Birth Came to Be.” Predictably, the article informs us that scholars do not really know for sure how the story of the Nativity of Christ came to be, and in particular, how the popular legend of the conception of Jesus in the womb of his virgin mother Mary arose. Most of the scholars quoted in the article simply see these tales as the product of what they call the “theological creativity” of the early Church (a phrase inferring that the earliest Christians used fictional literary genres at times in order to package and communicate the main truths about Jesus that they wanted to get across to their audience).

Does it Really Matter Whether it Happened Long Ago?

Again, many theologians and biblical scholars insist that it simply does not matter whether the tale of the journey to Bethlehem and the Baby in the manger, the shepherds and the wise men, the miraculous star and the massacre of the innocents is literally, historically “true” or not. These stories were meant to convey “truth” at another level. Whether these things really happened is largely beside the point.

To some extent, Catholic believers can concede this. Yes, we can still meditate on, and be inspired by the message of the beautiful Nativity story, even if many of the details are fictional, or at least uncertain. For example, in the final stanza of the Christmas carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem” the author of the lyrics, Anglican Bishop Philips Brooks, wrote:

O Holy Child of Bethlehem

Descend to us; we pray;

Cast out our sin, and enter in; Be born in us today.

We hear the Christmas angels

The great glad tidings tell:

O come to us, abide with us,

Our Lord Immanuel.

Brooks conveys to us here one of the central messages of the whole story of the Nativity: that the Child who was born so long ago was Immanuel, God with us (Mt 1:23). Because He is the divine Son, even now He can be born in our hearts (so to speak) and abide within us to enable us to overcome the sin and guilt that ultimately keeps us from sharing in the peace and joy of Heaven (Lk 2: 14). All this is certainly true, whether or not all the details of the Gospel story of the Nativity are historically accurate — whether or not the baby was really born in Bethlehem, or the Christmas angels really sang to the shepherds, abiding in the fields by night — indeed, whether or not the whole tale is just a fictional celebration of the divine gift of the sending of the divine Savior into the world.

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On the other hand, we tread on dangerous ground if we take this too far. The Gospel story as a whole was not meant to be just “good advice,” communicating spiritual truths to us in mythical or symbolic form; above all, it is “good news” (the actual meaning of the word “gospel”), telling us, first of all, what God has actually done for us in human history to reveal his love, and to rescue us from sin and death. Timothy Keller explains the difference in his book Hidden Christmas (2016):

Advice is counsel about what you must do. News is a report about what already has been done. Advice urges you to make something happen. News urges you to recognize something that has already happened and to respond to it. … [T]he Greek word for messengers is angelos, angels. The messengers do not say “Here is what you have to do.” They say rather, “I bring you good tidings of great joy.” …

The biblical Christmas texts are [intended to be] accounts of what actually happened in history. They are not Aesop’s Fables, inspiring examples of how to live well. Many people believe the Gospel to be just another moralizing story, but they could not be more mistaken. … The shepherds, the parents of Jesus, the wise men — are not being held up to us primarily as examples for us. These Gospel narratives are telling you not what you should do, but what God has done. The birth of the Son of God into the world is a gospel, good news, an announcement. You don’t save yourself. God has come to save you. (p.21-23)

Still, the Nativity stories do have the literary “feel” of beautiful myths, legends, and fairy tales: a miraculous star, angelic emissaries, a supernatural dream that leads to a midnight escape from the murderous soldiers of an evil king, etc. And all this has led many Scripture scholars to conclude that at least here in the New Testament accounts of the life of Jesus, the Gospel writers were using fictional means to convey spiritual and theological truths. Making that concession does not necessarily mean casting doubt on the general, historical veracity of the rest of the story they tell of the life and ministry, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

We can easily distance ourselves from this claim, however, in two ways. First, the Gospel writers themselves do not make any explicit distinction between the kind of literary form they are using in the Nativity stories and the kind they are using throughout the rest of their accounts of the life of Jesus. As St. Luke tells us, he intended to inform his readers of “the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses …” (Lk 1:1-2). He makes this statement just a few verses before he begins his version of the Nativity story! Second, if the evangelists were just writing beautiful and inspiring fiction in their Nativity accounts, why is it that not a single one of the early Fathers of the Church (who lived in the same Greco-Roman culture as the Gospel writers and spoke the same Greek language), recognized the fictional nature of the Nativity accounts? They all assume that the Nativity stories tell us what really happened, long ago. 

In short, the Gospel writers who tell us the story of the birth of Jesus intended to tell us what really happened. The spiritual and theological truths that this tale also conveys are confirmed and illustrated by what God actually did in Bethlehem, 2,000 years ago.

Myth and Fact Can Coincide

Again, however, we need to tread carefully. Any claim that the Nativity stories are “fact, not myth” would be as misleading as the claim that the accounts are “myth, not fact.” 

The truth is that, rightly considered, “myth” and “fact” are not mutually exclusive categories. A story can be completely made up of historical reportage and yet have the main features of a good “myth” as well. Drawing upon the thought of the great Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, Cardinal Christoph Von Schonborn of Vienna addressed this subject in his book The Mystery of the Incarnation (1992):

Today we are continually being faced with this either-or: “Is the statement, ‘Jesus is the incarnate Son of God’ to be taken literally or in a symbolic, mythical sense? Was Jesus born of the Virgin Mary in a literal or metaphorical sense? … What if the substance expressed in so many myths like the echo of a great yearning, a shadowy presentiment, has actually become a reality? (p. 16, 23)

For Lewis, as for Cardinal Schonborn, a “myth” is not necessarily something completely false, because reality does not consist solely of “cold, hard facts.” Reality itself is “mythopoetic.” 

No doubt many factors were involved in the creation of the great myths (psychological, social, and cultural influences to be sure, perhaps also supernatural elements), but in part, great myths are an imaginative contemplation of the objective, mythopoetic dimension of the world in which we live. 

As Lewis wrote: “Myth in general is … at its best, a real though unfocused gleam of divine truth falling on human imagination” (Miracles, 1947 edition, p. 161). A good myth conveys “the quality of the real universe, the divine, magical, terrifying and ecstatic reality in which we all live” (George MacDonald: an Anthology, p. 10). For example, ancient peoples could not help but observe the patterns of “dying” and “rising” that permeated the natural world around them: the rising and setting of the sun, the waxing and waning of the seasons of the year, the descent into earthen slumber of vegetation in winter, and the rising to new life again, so to speak, in the spring. Is it any wonder, then, that ancient peoples intuited that one clue to the mystery of the real universe in which we live may be found in the mystery of death and resurrection? And so they told myths about dying and rising gods. The stories were not literally true, of course, but they conveyed something that, at its core, was objectively true enough to anyone with half a brain: that whatever powers lie behind this universe must be responsible for signifying and expressing, throughout the natural world, the mystery of dying and rising. 

Again, ancient peoples (just like us) experienced ineffable desires for something that nothing in this world can ever seem to satisfy: transcendent longings that poets, storytellers, and artists know all about. Is it any wonder, therefore, that they told myths about other worlds where, somehow, those longings might be fulfilled, and gave us imaginative glimpses of Valhalla, Mt. Olympus, and the Elysian Fields, even as writers do today when they take us to Narnia and to Middle-Earth? 

One more example: Ancient peoples observed (just as we do) that true human greatness is never the result of natural effort alone. Rather, it involves the mystery of extraordinary gifts and talents, coming together at just the right moment and in just the right way, with good fortune and providential help — something well beyond mere coincidence. Hence, they imaginatively attributed to their heroes and greatest emperors extraordinary births and supernatural portents — signs of the element of divine gift and providence that must have been involved in those lives from the beginning. And were they not right in thinking so? Cardinal Schonborn reflects on all this in the light of the work of Lewis:

Surely, the reason why the great myths of the nations have something in common with the story of the Son of God who came down from heaven for our sake is that there is a trace, in the imagination of the great pagan teachers and myth-makers, of the very Incarnation which, according to our faith, is the core of all cosmic history.

The distinction between myth and Christian history, therefore, is not simply between false and true; myths are not false simply because they are myths. C.S. Lewis sees the relationship between myth and Christian history as the difference between “a real event, on the one hand, and blurred dreams and [imaginative] intimations of this same event on the other hand” [Lewis writes]:

The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens — at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person, crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle. (Lewis, God in the Dock, p. 66-67)

Lewis encourages us not to be afraid if we find that Christianity has parallels to myth. Would it not be a pity if Christianity, in order to assert its truth, had to reject all prior intimations of its truth? If Christianity is to fulfill the “longings of the nations,” it does not need to reject the expression of this longing as it is found in the myths. It sounds like a theological manifesto when Lewis says, “we do not need to be afraid of the mythical luminosity which attaches to our theology” ….

It is not a question of setting myth against reality; because of a defective understanding of “reality” this leads inevitably to the repression of the symbolic dimension of the Christian message, what one might call its “mythical luminosity.” But it is equally mistaken to reduce the historical reality of the events of the Incarnation, Cross, and Resurrection to a “merely” symbolic significance, as Gnosticism did. Rather, we must say that the history of Christ is the “highest myth” because in it myth has become a reality. (Schonborn, p. 17-21)

Applying these reflections to the story of the Nativity of Jesus, we can see that too many contemporary New Testament scholars essentially take the same position that the Gnostic heretics did long ago: The story of the Son of God who “came down” from Heaven and was “born of the Virgin Mary,” they say, is “merely” a symbolic and imaginative expression of abstract truths about the “significance” of Jesus or about His “closeness to God.” On the literal level, these stories are just early Christian myths and legends, borrowed in part from pagan mythology, but those Christian myths nonetheless convey profound theological truths.

No doubt they do. But at best, this reduction of the Nativity story merely to a profound myth is no more than a half-truth. For what if what was hinted at and imaginatively anticipated (even yearned-for) by the pagan myth-makers really happened once? What if the pagan myths are actually the copies, and the original was what really happened when the angel came to Mary in Nazareth and the Child was born on Christmas night in Bethlehem? In short, what if God was working in the hearts of the pagan myth-makers from the beginning, whispering to them the wonder of what He would do for His world someday to prepare the Gentile world for the real coming of His Incarnate Son, just as He was working in the hearts of the Hebrew prophets to prepare His chosen people for the coming of the Messiah?

In this web series, I will argue that, after considering all the evidence on hand, the Nativity stories in the Gospels still can be seen as largely historically accurate and that Christians should resolutely cling to them as such, for the factual truth of this story helps clarify and confirm central spiritual and theological truths of the Gospel. What really happened on the First Christmas, as far as fair and judicious historical research can say, is pretty much what the Gospels tell us happened.

But again: The Nativity story is not just historical reportage. It is “myth that has become fact,” as Lewis would say, “without ceasing to be myth” — just as the eternal Word became flesh without ceasing to be the Word. Reality is not just a series of cold, hard facts that can be captured in verbal propositions. The real world is also a story: a beautiful, exciting, miraculous, sometimes tragic and terrifying story, one in which each one of us has an important part to play. And the “turning point” of that true story, the truest myth of all (simply because it is also fact) — indeed, as Lewis would say, the central chapter of the story, without which whole narrative of natural and human history does not make sense — that turning point occurred 2,000 years ago when a prophecy inspired by the Creator of all began to come true, in real life: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name ‘Immanuel,’ which means ‘God with us’.”

Next Time: Making Sense of the Census

Robert Stackpole, STD, is the director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers.

Photo by Greyson Joralemon on Unsplash.

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