Almost two thousand years ago, a remarkable child was born. But even before he was born, his mother was told by a heavenly visitor that her son wasn’t going to be a normal human being—he would be the son of God. There were supernatural signs surrounding his birth and as a child, he showed himself to be a prodigy. In later years he performed miracles to demonstrate that he wasn’t a mere mortal and his followers believed him to be divine. He healed the sick, cast out demons, and raised the dead. Eventually, his enemies tried him before the Roman authorities because of his subversive ideas. Some people claimed to have seen him alive after he’d ascended to Heaven, and this convinced them that there was life after death. Some of his followers went on to write books about him.
His name was Apollonius of Tyrana.
Professor Bart D. Erhman, New Testament Scholar, and head of Religious Studies at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, teaches about this pagan philosopher—a worshiper of the Greek gods. Apollonius and Jesus lived during the 1st century of the Common Era, each having followers who thought the other was a hoax. As strange as such events sound to us today, people in the ancient world were familiar with stories about divine men who had a connection with the divine realm.
Tom Harpur, theologian and former religion editor of The Toronto Star, has a radical take on the subject in his controversial book The Pagan Christ. He claims there was no such historical figure as Jesus Christ and that his entire existence is a fabrication, based on Egyptian mythology. Harpur writes, “The compilers of the New Testament missed the point entirely that the whole thing was meant allegorically.” He goes on to say, “What all of this means is that the manger of the Christmas story existed in Egyptian mythology as the birthplace of the messiah, or anointed one.”
How do these insights affect people’s beliefs about the birth of Jesus?
Harvard graduate, Christian author and pastor, Dr. Mark D. Roberts, says in his blog series The Birth of Jesus: Hype or History?, “If I didn’t think this really happened, if I thought that the early Christians invented this crazy idea, then I wouldn’t be able to preach the good news on Christmas Eve, or at any other time either.” He continues, “This isn’t just a nice story made up by some creative early Christians. It’s the true story of what God has actually done “for us and our salvation.”
There are over a billion Christians in the world today, many who believe in the literal virgin birth along with the angels, the wise men, and the star of Bethlehem. Every Christmas the Nativity story is presented in all its glory at church pageants and on stages like Radio City, where live animals feed into the spectacle. Priests and Ministers preach about the birth of Jesus, often conflating the accounts of the Gospels, which tell different and sometimes conflicting versions of the story.
The former Prime Minister of Britain and devout Catholic, Tony Blair, recently debated the prominent atheist Christopher Hitchens in Toronto about whether religion is good for society. Tony Blair claims religion inspires people to do good. Hitchens says it’s all bunk and very destructive (but he does have a Christmas tree in his home).
Whichever way we look at it, we cannot deny that Christianity has influenced Western Civilization more than any other religious or political institution in the world. Whether we believe that an anointed child was born in a stable that day, or that the seed of a new religion was planted around that time, we cannot avoid the message that the Christmas season brings—peace, love and goodwill to all.