No wise men, says Archbishop of Canterbury

Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has picked apart the historical accuracy of the story of Jesus’ birth.

…including how a star rose high in the sky and stood still to guide the wise men to Jesus’s birth place.

Stars simply don’t behave like that, he told the BBC during an interview.

Dr Williams said there was little evidence that the three wise men had existed at all. Certainly there was nothing to prove they were kings.

He went on to say that while he believed in it himself, new Christians need not leap over the “hurdle” of belief in the virgin birth before they could join the church.

He said the virgin birth was “part of what I have inherited”.

And on the timing of Jesus’s birth, he said the son of God was likely not born in December at all.

“Christmas was when it was because it fitted well with the winter festival,” he said.

This is kind of cool on the surface. The virgin birth is one of the obstacles (roadsigns?) I encountered during my deconversion, with the controversy around the translation of Isaiah 7:14. And he’s right that there just isn’t a lot of historical support for the story as described in the gospels.

But Dr Williams said almost everyone agreed on two things – that Jesus’s mother was named Mary and his father Joseph.

The archbishop said his approach was to stick strictly to what the Bible says.

But I have to interject with some minor concerns. Maybe there was a journalistic snafu here, but how is what he’s said so far “strictly… what the Bible says”? Wasn’t he just talking about how some of what the Bible says is probably a myth?

It sounds suspiciously like he’s trying to have a bet both ways. I’m not an all-or-nothing Biblical literalist (although if I was, I’d be in the “nothing” camp :) ), but it has to be said that once you start poking holes in the Bible’s credibility, the basis for a lot of Christianity starts to fall apart. Jesus’ resurrection, for example, is such an outlandish claim that I can’t see how you could take it seriously at all if your only source is a book that you’ve admitted is shaky in other places.

Ugh. Maybe I’m too much of an ex-fundamentalist. I know there are people who don’t see Christianity in those black-and-white terms. But I don’t see what else would convince you that it makes any sense. And I suspect that what Dr Williams is doing here (intentionally or otherwise) is inoculating Anglicans against the shakiness of the rest of the Bible. It seems like he’s saying “Sure, there’s some weird stuff in there, and some of it’s probably wrong, but don’t let that worry you that any of the important stuff is wrong. It’s okay to question some bits and still have unshakable faith that Christianity is still fundamentally right. Look at me, I do it every day.”

Can someone explain to me how you can doubt the accuracy of the Bible and still believe in, say, the resurrection, or Jesus’ miracles, or… whatever you do believe in that is still identifiably Christian? I know I’ve asked this before, but I’m doing it again, ’cause I’m thick and I still don’t get it.

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