I’ve mentioned before that this blog is nothing if not up-to-date. So I’d like to turn the clock back a year to a widely-reported interview with The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams. The interview itself was broadcast on the BBC’s Radio Five on 19th December 2007. By the time the Daily Mail got hold of it the following day, the headline was
Three Wise Men are just a legend, says Archbishop of Canterbury
And that paragon of faithful reporting adds with horror:-
Dr Rowan Williams says there is no evidence for the Magi
Dr Williams is also said to deny that Jesus was born in December, in a snow-covered stable, where he was visited by three wise men bearing gifts. Where will it all end? Before we know it, he’ll be denying the existence of Santa himself.
In other words, he ‘debunked a large part of the Christmas story as a myth.’
‘He dismissed the idea that the star of the North stood still in the night sky – because stars just don’t behave like that.’
Many readers will by that point have gleefully put the Archbishop down as a heretic, missing the rather important qualification that comes later in the article:-
Despite this apparent debunking, Dr Williams’ views are in fact strictly in line with orthodox Christian teaching, as he is sticking exactly to what The Bible says.
Exactly. Dr Williams may not have expressed himself very clearly, or explained himself very fully, but the ‘legend’ that he is ‘debunking’ is the Christmas story as typically told on Christmas cards and in nativity plays, not the Christmas story as told in the Bible by Matthew and Luke.
You can read what the Archbishop actually said here.
Let’s be clear:-
Dr Williams did not say there is no evidence for the Magi. He said the idea that there were three of them, that they were kings, and that one was black and two were white, was legendary (which it is).
As for the ‘star’, well, there was no reference at all in the interview to the strange notion of ‘the star of the North’ (Matthew says that the star appeared in the East, and implies that it was later seen in the South). Dr Williams is clearly open to the possibility that the ‘star’ was not a literal star at all (because, as he said, literal stars don’t behave like that) but some other astronomical phenomenon. If we, in our scientific age, can refer to meteors as ‘shooting stars’, then we should not be surprised if in pre-scientific times a variety of objects in the night sky were referred to by the generic name ‘star’. There is nothing strange or heretical about this. Dr Williams recognises that there is a range of interpretations, but he doesn’t deny that the Magi saw something striking in the sky and that it was this that led them to Jerusalem and ultimately to Bethlehem. (See here for more on the Star of Bethlehem, with support for the idea that it was actually a comet).
But let’s not be too hard on the Daily Mail. Other papers joined in the pantomime.
Reporting the same interview, The Telegraph announced, ‘Archbishop says nativity “a legend”‘. Oh no he didn’t!
According to The Times, ‘It’s all a Christmas tall story’. Oh no it isn’t!