Christ is Born(e)

Dec 18, 2014

By F. LeRon Shults

Where do babies come from? Why do parents keep them around? Although they may embarrass or annoy some of the adults to which they are directed, these are quite natural questions for children to ask. As the oldest of six, I had five rather obvious opportunities to pose them – and I learned over time that it was best to curb my curiosity about human reproduction in certain contexts. I did eventually get a straightforward answer and, as the father of three grown children, I have now had multiple opportunities to explain, maturely and directly, that infants appear in human populations as a result of, well, the same basic procedures that, well… you know.

Now, where did baby Jesus come from? At first blush, this appears to be another quite natural question. But in this case, children get a very different – supernatural – sort of answer:

Hark, the herald angels sing, Glory to the newborn king!
Late in time behold Him come, Offspring of a Virgin’s womb
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, Hail the incarnate Deity!

Seriously? Many atheists find it difficult to understand how so many of their adult friends and neighbors can believe that about two millennia ago a Virgin was visited by an ambiguous spiritual presence that “overshadowed” and “came upon” her (Luke 1:35), leading to the birth of a supernatural baby who would reveal a divine plan for ruling the world. Even relatively liberal Christians, who do not take the gynecological and cosmological aspects of the story literally, still typically believe that the man Jesus was in some sense the “Son of God” who disclosed the true meaning and goal of human life.

From the point of view of the bio-cultural sciences that study the evolution of religion, however, this is not so difficult to understand. In fact, the concept of “Christ” is just the sort of minimally counter-intuitive idea that scholars in fields like cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, archaeology and anthropology would expect to find widely shared among members of a religious in-group. We have to start by asking a different sort of question:

Where do gods come from – and why do people keep them around?

Scientists now have answers to these questions about religious reproduction that are as plausible as the answers to questions about sexual reproduction.


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11 comments on “Christ is Born(e)

  • Joseph got his leg over during the betrothal period. Mary’s reference to being a virgin was a reference to a person who was not married, not gynecological intact. Later this is mistranslated and subject to the spin doctors and the miraculous virgin birth. With virgin births being the de rigueur for gods during those times, Jesus’ management team leaked it to the media and let it roll on, by failing to issue explicit denials. The rest is history and trouble of course.

    There is a claim of descent for Jesus from King David, through his father Joseph, and grandfather Jacob Heli. This works in the reference to the King of the Jews, an earthly claim to a throne, misinterpreted by the faithful as a divine claim. However he was born out of wedlock, and thus, an illegitimate child. There was later tension in the movement with James, his younger legitimate brother and followers, who thought James was the legitimate King of Jews. This finally resulted in a split, with Jesus heading off to the west with the new christians and James staying Jewish, claiming King David’s throne.

    Nothing to see here folks. Move along now.

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  • Thats interesting but the way I heard it the claim to be of the line of David was retrospectively added to fulfill a prophecy along with the whole nativity myth because it was prophesied that the messiah had to be born in Bethlehem so a way had to be found to place his birth there.
    Certainly if you look at the genealogies mentioned in the Gospels of Mark and Luke you will see big differences – a sign that both were producing a shared fiction but coming up with different explanations.
    As we know there is no historic mention of a census during this period or of mass infanticide – something you would think would have been mentioned by a scholar.

    I don’t know if there was a historic Jesus but establishing facts about him is like trying to establish facts about King Arthur or Robin Hood – interesting to speculate but nigh on impossible to prove.

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  • WTF?! This porcelain(?) baby doll has some serious bling! When you’re not used to seeing weirdo Catholic idolatry, it’s quite striking… or funny. How could you stand in front of this and not laugh your ass off?

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  • ShesTheBeth Dec 19, 2014 at 3:29 pm

    WTF?! This porcelain(?) baby doll has some serious bling! When you’re not used to seeing weirdo Catholic idolatry, it’s quite striking… or funny. How could you stand in front of this and not laugh your ass off?

    It is a monument to cognitive dissonance when you consider it is supposed to represent the myth of a child born in poverty in a stable!

    Then there are the different versions of “interpretation-blinkers”!

    Deuteronomy 4: – Lest ye corrupt yourselves, and make you a graven image, the similitude of any figure, the likeness of male or female,
    What is a “graven image,” exactly? This has been the subject of a great deal of controversy between various Christian churches over the centuries. Of particular importance here is the fact that while the Protestant version the Ten Commandments includes this, the Catholic does not. A prohibition against graven images, if read literally, would cause a number of problems for Catholics.

    Aside from the many statues of various saints as well as of Mary, Catholics also commonly use crucifixes that depict the body of Jesus whereas Protestants typically use an empty cross. Of course, both Catholic and Protestant churches commonly have stained glass windows that depict various religious figures, including Jesus, and they are also arguably violations of this commandment.

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  • In the past couple of years we have had to re-evaluate the legacies of a goodly number if TV and music stars of the 1970s (Glitter, Savile, Harris etc) so I guess it’s high time we focused on the stars of the first century AD And last century BC, and question whether this encounter between Mary and this Holy Spirit character was entirely consensual, or whether he used his celebrity status to coerce her into infidelity.

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  • Of particular importance here is the fact that while the Protestant
    version the Ten Commandments includes this, the Catholic does not.

    Not being schooled in religion, Christianity or otherwise, this is one thing amongst many that I did not know. Very interesting. Thanks.

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  • ShesTheBeth Dec 22, 2014 at 9:08 am

    Ah! The disputes between Xtians wearing different versions of “faith-interpretation blinkers”!

    Another important issue of tension was the role of images in worship. The Protestant Reformation spurred a revival of iconoclasm, or the destruction of images as idolatrous. In eighth-century Byzantium, the use of images in worship had been condemned by Emperor Leo III (who reigned 717-741), who in turn was condemned by Pope Gregory III (who reigned 731-741) as a heretic. The Second Council of Nicea (787) settled the iconoclastic controversy by establishing a distinction between worship (latria – due to God alone) and veneration (dulia – offered to saints and images). Subsequently, the use of images in both the Eastern and Western churches continued unabated until the Protestant Reformation, when a rejection of tradition in favor of Scriptural literalism resulted in the rejection of the veneration of images as idolatry on the grounds that it was a clear violation of the second Commandment: “Thou shall have no other gods before me” (Exod. 20:4-6).

    Following the accession of Edward VI, royal injunctions ordered the removal of all images from English churches in 1548. Iconoclasm reached a fevered pitch during Edward’s reign, resulting in the defacement of baptismal fonts, the destruction of stained glass windows, the whitewashing of pictorial depictions on walls, the painting over, or actual removal of, mounted crosses depicting the crucifixion of Jesus known as roods. During the reign of Catholic Mary I, many images were restored and the Edwardian injunctions repealed. However, in subsequent reigns, iconoclastic activity returned, although it was more sporadic, and the re-established and moderated injunctions for the removal of images were not always uniformly enforced, revealing the ambivalence of the populace. Nevertheless, the destruction of images, as a subject of theological debate as well as an activity, remained an on-and-off issue from Edward’s reign to the Glorious Revolution as the English sought to construct a Protestant identity.

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