Christmas, Christianity and the Greek Myths

by Rachel Shields

It’s December, the season typically known for its Christmas bells, nativity plays and general good cheer.  Frosts deepen, children count down the days before Christmas and parents puzzle how to turn a bath towel into a realistic Joseph. Or do they?

During a conversation with friends this morning, it struck me that in the last 12 years of attending school Christmas plays with my children, I have not seen a single traditional nativity story enacted for us parents. Gone, seemingly, are Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus; in their place reside grumpy sheep, bashful fairies and the odd lost Christmas light searching for its sparkle. What are we to make of it all? Is the Christmas story simply a bygone myth, a quaint story of yesteryear that has served its purpose, of no more relevance to the 21st century than the Greek myths of long ago?

The charge that the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and death have been borrowed and adapted from earlier pagan mythic sources is one often levied against Christianity.  Its proponents point to apparent lines of convergence between the gospel stories and ancient myths, and conclude that, since the Greek myths pre-date the claims of the early church, these must be the authentic material from which the Christian writers sought their inspiration.

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Muthos” , the ancient Greek word for “story or narrative”,  is the linguistic root from which our English word “myth” derives.   Originally it meant simply that, a story or narrative; only later did it begin to take on the connotations we attribute to it today, of “fable, fiction or lie”.  This explains why C S Lewis was able to refer to Christianity as “God’s myth”; he was attributing to the word its original and precise meaning, although this has at times been misunderstood by a later reading public.  When Lewis employed the category of myth, he intended us to understand this as “true myth”, a true, narrative account of an actual happening.

By the time of the early church, however, myth had begun to adopt the characteristics we lend to it today, of fiction and make-believe.  The distinction between truth and fiction was real enough to Paul, who warns Timothy to “have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths” (1 Tim. 4:7) while the writer of 2 Peter clearly differentiates between truth and falsehood when he writes “we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.”   Clearly, this writer believed in the absolute truth of what he proclaimed; he had both seen and experienced the power and resurrection of Jesus in time-place history and is concerned to draw a clear line of demarcation between myth and truth in his statement…

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Christmas, Christianity and the Greek Myths – Saints and Sceptics