There has been a lot of talk over the last two days about the words of Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. In an interview with Simon Mayo of BBC Radio 5, Williams answered some questions about the birth of Jesus and the validity of the observance of Christmas. The media has, true to form, taken his words and tried to sensationalize them.
- One advertisement on telegraph.co.uk claims “Archbishop says nativity ‘a legend.’
- Foxnews.com ran it as “Away with the manger?”
For some evangelicals and fundamentalists, Williams is dismissed with a flip of the hand and a hearty, “Oh, he’s a liberal anyway.” This comment is usually followed by a diatribe about one-world religion and the coming of Antichrist. Many liberals probably acclaimed the headline without actually reading what Williams said. And the confusion goes on.
Just for the record, and in case someone is wondering, I wanted to reprint what Williams had to say about Christmas. The reason I am doing this is that Williams has been on the forefront of leading the Anglican Church toward a more literal reading of the Scriptures. A number of Episcopal parishes in the United States have abandoned their denomination and sought direct affiliation with the Archbishop and the Church of England because Archbishop Williams has taken a stand on important issues like homosexuality and theological liberalism.
He has openly defended the faith and the Bible against liberal critics like John Shelby Spong. While we would not share all of his theology, I have recently applauded Archbishop Williams for his stand on the foundations of the Christian faith (the Virgin Birth, the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ) and a literal reading of Scripture. And that is really what this is about.
You see, what Archbishop Williams did was explain that many of the things people think are a part of the Christmas story but do not appear in the gospel records. Far from criticizing the Biblical account, he was defending it against added traditions and legends.
On the idea of Jesus being born of a virgin
QUESTION: So start with … the baby Jesus in a manger; historically and factually true?
ANSWER: “We know his mother’s name was Mary, that’s one of the things all the gospels agree about, and the two gospels that tell the story have the story of the virgin birth and that’s something I’m committed to as part of what I’ve inherited.”
“What’s happening there one of the gospels quotes a prophecy that a virgin will conceive a child. Now the original Hebrew doesn’t have the word virgin, it’s just a young woman, but that’s the prophecy that’s quoted from the Old Testament in support of the story which is, in any case, about a birth without a human father, so it’s not that it rests on mistranslation; St Matthew’s gone to his Greek version of the Bible and said ‘Oh, “virgin”; sounds like the story I know,’ and put it in.”
On the wisemen coming to visit Jesus
QUESTION: And the wise men with the gold, frankincense, and Myrrh – with one of the wise men normally being black and the other two being white, for some reason?
ANSWER: “Well Matthew’s gospel doesn’t tell us that there were three of them, doesn’t tell us they were kings, doesn’t tell us where they came from, it says they’re astrologers, wise men, priests from somewhere outside the Roman Empire. That’s all we’re really told so, yes, ‘the three kings with the one from Africa’ – that’s legend; it works quite well as legend.”
On the time of Jesus’ birth
QUESTION: And pulling back further – snow on the ground?
ANSWER: “Very unlikely I think; it can be pretty damn cold in Bethlehem at this time of the year, but we don’t know that it was this time of year because again the Gospels don’t tell us what time of year it was; Christmas is the time it is because it fitted very well with the winter festival.”
On the wisemen being astrologers
QUESTION: Do you have a problem with astrologers being seen as wise men?
ANSWER: “Well I ‘m inclined to agree that astrology is bunk but you’re dealing there with a world in which people watched the stars in order to get a sort of heads up on significant matters and astrologers were quite a growth industry; people who were respected and had a kind of professional technical skill and were respected as such., the thing here if course is what’s the skill about? Well it’s all bringing them to Jesus; it’s not about fortune telling or telling the future, it’s about a skill of watching the universe which leads them inexorably towards this event, so I don’t think it’s a justification of astrology.”
Time and again, Archbishop Williams defends a literal reading of the gospel accounts. All he was doing was presenting the simple truth of God’s Word as opposed to advocating all kinds of legend and hocus pocus. We should be applauding him for his stand on Scripture without addition and calling for a retraction from any publication that publishes his statements as if he was questioning the birth of the Lord.
The fact is that the popular depiction of Christmas does have more to do with fiction and legend and tradition than it does with the Scriptures, and we create a false observance all too often. We should be thinking critically about practices and comparing them to Scripture. The media has twisted things once again.