Finding “unbelievable fullness of meaning” in the Christmas stories?

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by Neil Godfrey

Very strange. I don’t understand how an atheist or agnostic (Bart Ehrman in this instance) can “absolutely adore” the Bible’s stories of Jesus’ birth and find them “so deep … and so unbelievably full of meaning”.

Is the Christmas Story a Myth?


Even so, I have to say that I absolutely adore these stories. They are simultaneously so simple and so deep, so matter-of-fact and so unbelievably full of meaning. As is this season. Even for me as one who personally stands outside the Christian tradition. Or do I? I suppose I’ll always be inside it. It’s in my DNA. I completely resonate with it. I relate to it. In my own secular way I embrace it. I’ll say more about that in my next post.

What deep meaning can there possibly be in those stories unless it is one for those who believe God became incarnate? That message has no meaning, surely, for anyone who is not a Christian, certainly not one for any atheist.

To me the stories have no meaning at all except as part of our cultural heritage, like May Day or having weekends off. Christmas is certainly no part of my DNA. I suppose I am expected to find the answer in the next post Bart Ehrman promises. Since I refuse to play his game of justifying the maintenance of a paywall around access to his knowledge I guess I’ll remain in ignorance. Maybe a kindly disposed reader who does have access will be able to pass on the message of how a secular-minded person can bring absolute adoration to the bible stories and find unbelievable fullness of meaning in them. Very strange.

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Neil Godfrey

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27 thoughts on “Finding “unbelievable fullness of meaning” in the Christmas stories?”

  1. Ehrman has to do something to pacify the flock. Being that he claims to be an agnostic/atheist. Plus this will be good for his books and ensure job security.

  2. I expect it’s a matter of childhood associations. I’ve been an atheist for 50 years, and I despise both the commercialism and the maudlinism of Christmas. But there are certain scenes centered on readings of the stories, that can fill me with romantic longings for the hope instilled by the “good news”.

    1. Soon after I left a tight-knit religious cult or sect I found myself attending a local theatre performance of Fiddler on the Roof. The play stirred in me a very strong longing to become a Jew, to join the local Jewish community and I even checked out Jewish associations and roots in my town. Our church had been very Jewish in its flavour and I found myself missing that strong sense of belonging to such a family. I was looking for a family substitute. But that experience told me nothing about the meaning of the myths or stories that had been our focus; it only told me what I was missing psychologically. I would be surprised if Ehrman’s views of meaning in Christmas are of a similar kind.

      1. You wouldn’t be surprised [if Ehrman’s views of meaning in Christmas are of a similar kind], Neil??

        It was interesting when Ehrman extended the trilemma (made famous by CS Lewis) “Jesus is either a lunatic, a liar, or Lord” to add ‘legend’. However, he seems to have backed away from that. Bart’s second] wife is religious and attends church, well, religiously.

    2. I like the commercial and hedonistic elements of Christmas. What I hate are the people who take all that ‘muhFamilyGathering’ and all that shitty music seriously. “It’s the Christmas spirit, give your money to hobos!” Fuck you, get a job. I’d much rather spend Christmas with my friends and a half pound of hashish than hang out with a bunch of old people I have nothing in common with and would never even want to see.

    1. I take it that you believe in God, then.

      (William Blake wrote of seeing heaven in a wildflower. The idea of the gods appearing in lowly figures is a very ancient – pre-Christian – trope.)

          1. Much research by psychologists in recent years has been opening up whole new vistas of understanding everything from beliefs in supernatural beings to communal ritual behaviours. I began posting on some of the older research (e.g. Religion Explained by Boyer) and have so much reading to catch up on that has been published since.

  3. Ehrman just says stuff like this. It’s part of his schtick. He likes to cultivate readers across all demographics, and not offending believers + inviting them to identify with him is one of his methods. I admire him as a communicator, so I accept that he does it, without accepting that he means it as much as he says.

  4. I don’t see any deepity about the nativity stories – unless you read them as a choose your adventure type experience as they contradict each other so much.

  5. Well, Bart Ehrman has surprised me. He truly does share his posts on his Christmas thoughts with goodwill to all; no paywall to read his second part in which he explains the “incredible fullness of meaning” of Christmas: Christmas Reflection 2017:

    The image of God it conveys. The God of Christmas is not a God of wrath, judgment, sin, punishment, or vengeance. He is a God of love, who wants the best for people and gives of himself to bring peace, joy, and redemption. That’s a great image of a divine being. This is not a God who is waiting for you to die so he can send you into eternal torment. It is a God who is concerned for you and your world, who wants to solve your problems, heal your wounds, remove your pain, bring you joy, peace, happiness, healing, and wholeness. Can’t we keep that image with us all the time? Can’t we affirm that view of ultimate reality 52 weeks of the year instead of just a few?

    Why the hell do we need to get all gooey in the tummy over the thought of a loving god when there are real people on this real planet who do very loving and caring things. It’s also nice to dream nostalgically of our stories of Peter Pan and Wendy and to enter a surreal fuzziness trying to keep in mind the joys of wanting to believe they were real when we were children. Time to put away childish things and get real.

    I’d rather be thinking of the Palestinians right now in Bethlehem, some of them dressing up as Santa Claus, in their struggles for justice.

  6. I think Ehrman is still a closet-christian. Much like a certain type of gay person who gets married to appear respectable while on the side he is … to quote Life of Brian …. Up and down like the Assyrian Empire.

    When he says things like this he just makes himself to look like a bloody fool.

    Happy xmas , Neil.

    All the best to you and yours.

    1. There are lots of people who behave exactly like this. They depend for their livelihood on Christians, even if it doesn’t seem that way. Who do you think buys his books?

  7. Hey, I love Christmas, too, so I’m not going to rag on Bart for getting all warm & fuzzy.

    But I was astonished by this:

    “In my judgment the biblical accounts have virtually nothing historical about them, other than that Jesus was born to two lower-class Jewish peasants somewhere in the land of Israel during the reign of Caesar Augustus.

    For those two historical assumptions are based on the gospels! If Jesus wasn’t the son of a carpenter from a tiny fishing village, why presume he was a ‘lower-class peasant’, and not some erudite scion of a prosperous family? Without Matthew or Luke’s nativities (pick one), or Luke’s “about thirty years old“ correlated with the presence of Pilate, there is no way to fix so much as a range for Jesus’ year of birth.

    1. You misread my post, Matt. I nowhere bagged Bart for loving Christmas (god, when I was living in South-East Asia I was thrown back the way everybody there — no matter if they were Buddhists or Muslims or whatever — loved Christmas!). Please notice that my befuddlement is over his claim that the bible stories themselves are so rich with fullness of meaning!

      How many classicists say the same sorts of things about Hesiod’s Theogony?

  8. “This is not a God who is waiting for you to die so he can send you into eternal torment. It is a God who is concerned for you and your world, who wants to solve your problems, heal your wounds, remove your pain, bring you joy, peace, happiness, healing, and wholeness.”

    So genuflect, or, indeed God WILL send you into eternal torment. Curious that this self-appointed secularist, who loves his Christmas and its ‘loving’ God so much, would forget about the whole eternal torment thing. Why, if I did not know from Ehrman’s own mouth that he is not a bit of an apologist, but is instead an independent, objective scholar – nay a historian! – , I might mistake his statement for something else. I suppose his loving God would forgive me my error, considering Ehrman’s educational history:

    Moody Bible Institute,
    Wheaton College
    Princeton Theological Seminary
    currently the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

    There’s gotta be some high-level, independent, objective, secular graduate-level historical methods coursework in there somewhere, right?

  9. So many Christians seem to turn their faces away from the intent of the Nativity- God sends his own son as a blood sacrifice, to be tormented and murdered in propitiation for the sins of humanity.

    I’m reminded of the words of Sam Harris:

    “The notion that Jesus Christ died for our sins and that his death constitutes a successful propitiation of a “loving” God is a direct and undisguised inheritance of the scapegoating barbarism that has plagued bewildered people throughout history. Viewed in a modern context, it is an idea at once so depraved and fantastical that it is hard to know where to begin to criticize it. Add to the abject mythology surrounding one man’s death by torture—Christ’s passion—the symbolic cannibalism of the Eucharist. Did I say “symbolic”? Sorry, according to the Vatican it is most assuredly not symbolic. In fact, the opinion of the Council of Trent still stands:

    ‘I likewise profess that in the Mass a true, proper and propitiatory sacrifice is offered to God on behalf of the living and the dead, and that the body and blood together with the soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ is truly, really, and substantially present in the most holy sacrament of the Eucharist, and that there is a change of the whole substance of the bread into the body, and of the whole substance of the wine into blood; and this change the Catholic Church calls transubstantiation. I also profess that the whole and entire Christ and a true sacrament is received under each separate species.’

    Of course, Catholics have done some very strenuous and unconvincing theology in this area, in an effort to make sense of how they can really eat the body of Jesus, not mere crackers enrobed in metaphor, and really drink his blood without, in fact, being a cult of crazy cannibals. Suffice it to say, however, that a world view in which “propitiatory sacrifices on behalf of the living and the dead” figure prominently is rather difficult to defend in the year 2007. But this has not stopped otherwise intelligent and well-intentioned people from defending it.”

    ‘Joy, peace, happiness, etc.’- Yeah, RIGHT.

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