by Alex McFarland,
The Los Angeles Daily News, December 24, 2004, p. 15

The Christmas season is accompanied by many things: mistletoe, evergreen trees and Santa Claus. And while most Americans accept the store-bought image of Christmas, there remains an ongoing debate on one of the season's most sacred symbols - the Nativity. Sooner or later, as Dec. 25 approaches, the same stories invariably appear.

This year, the stories made a splash on the covers of Newsweek and Time. Each year the media turn to "religious scholars" as they attempt to paint a very different picture of the first Christmas, one that was invented by early Christians using mythology as their mold.

The premise behind these stories is that the early Christian beliefs about Jesus were really just variations on older religious themes. Pagan "mystery religions" had emerged from Roman, Greek and Egyptian cultures, with teachings that focused on mythical hero-gods such as Osiris, Mithra and others. Some writers suggest that Jesus was an invented figure, patterned after such gods.

It is hypothesized that Christian doctrines developed through a repackaging of legends. The recent Newsweek feature article asserts that the New Testament writers were "confronted with a literary problem that had to be solved" and thus created the story of Christ's birth. The apostle Paul is also frequently cited as a likely reviser and partial "founder" of Christianity, allegedly having meshed prevalent paganism with teachings about Jesus. The implication is that the core beliefs of classical orthodoxy are inventions of men rather than revelation from God.

But the New Testament deals with actual persons and historical events open to investigation. The mystery religions dealt with mythical figures, having no historical ties whatsoever. In contrast, the birth of Jesus is tied to such things as real people (Herod of Judea), real places (Bethlehem, Egypt, Nazareth), and actual events (a census by Caesar Augustus), and it is corroborated by verifiable details ("when Quirinius was governor of Syria"). Further, none of the myth-based ancient religions ever claimed to be reported via eyewitnesses, as does the New Testament's presentation of Christ.

The belief that early Christians borrowed from the paganism of their times rests on the assumption that mystery religions were pervasive and influential in Palestine during the first century. But even the skeptical Albert Schweitzer concluded of those who interpret Christianity in this manner, "They manufacture out of the various fragments of information a kind of universal mystery religion which never existed, least of all in Paul's day."

Why is it important that we consider such things at this time? The difference between Christianity and ancient myth is worth noting, because it illustrates that the Christian message is truly unique. Even 2,000 years ago, the mystery tales were known to be fables. On the other hand, Christmas reminds us that at a precise point in history, Christ came, bearing the gift of Himself.

In 2 Peter 1:16 we are told, "For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty." Here we have eyewitness testimony to actual events. It does not matter that many years separate us and the earliest Christians; we, too, may personally meet history's most important figure, who bears life's most relevant message.

The Gospels present a genuine savior, demonstrating genuine love, coming to a world possessing genuine spiritual need. None of the so-called "savior gods" of the myths died for someone else. It is important to note also that Jesus died once and for all. The mystery religions portray gods that died repeatedly, depicting cycles of nature. Unlike the mythical heroes, Jesus died voluntarily, and his death was a triumph, not a defeat. Christ's death provided atonement for sin, a concept utterly foreign to the mystery religions.

The Christmas story is that God loved people enough to come into the world and be their savior. Almost 2,000 years ago, Christ quietly entered human history through a manger in Bethlehem. Today, Jesus [can be known] through simple faith. In this way, historical fact can become present reality for all who will believe.