Thursday, 20 December 2007

Three (Christmas) Cheers for Rowan Williams

There are some really terrible headlines in the papers at the moment about what Rowan Williams 'said' about the Christmas story:

"It’s all a Christmas tall story" The Times
"Three Wise Men are just a legend, says Archbishop of Canterbury" The Daily Mail
"Archbishop says nativity 'a legend'" Daily Telegraph

I'm sure there's plenty more around like this. The only problem is, none of it is true. Instead, one 'journalist' seems to have fed on another. (So no surprise there, then.)

The story is based on a lengthy interview with Simon Mayo on Radio 5 live. You can hear the whole of it, which is very wide-ranging, here. You can read a transcript of the relevant bit of the Archbishop's conversation here. And you can see the bit where he overlaps with Ricky Gervais on Youtube here.

You'll notice the Archbishop uses the word 'legend' as follows (Simon Mayo is describing an archetypal Christmas card - manger, Jesus, Mary, Joseph, shepherds, star, three kings, snow):

SM 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?

ABC 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.

SM But would they have been there?

ABC Not with the shepherds, they wouldn't. So if you've got shepherds on one side and three kings on the other, there's a bit of conflation going on.

Notice the difference? Matthew doesn't tell us the 'legendary' bits. Matthew does say 'they're astrologers, wise men, priests from somewhere outside the Roman Empire.' If you're still not convinced, listen to the whole interview. Earlier, we get this critical question:

SM It comes round every year that we're not being Christian enough or people don't know where Bethlehem is, people have never heard of Mary and so on, so this is a sort of an almost a tradition of Christmas, isn't it really. But I wonder, if people have got a traditional religious Christmas card in front of them, I just want to go through it, Archbishop, to find out how much of it you think is true and crucial to the believing in Christmas. So start with … the baby Jesus in a manger; historically and factually true?

ABC I should think so ...

And from a man not given to dogmatic statements, read in the context of everything else he says in the interview, I'll take that as a 'Yes'.

So credit where it's due, and three cheers for RW!

No comments will be posted without a full name and location, see the policy.


Deane said...

Although you rightly show that Rowan was misreported, he would still have done better to acknowledge the 'legendary' elements within the nativity stories. If they aren't legendary, I don't know what is!

Both stories are best understood as unhistorical birth legends, as explained here. No other interpretation so successfully explains each text.

Revd John P Richardson said...

Deane, your comments are of interest, but please note the policy on posting: "No comments will be posted without a full name and location, see the policy."

LocoOwl said...

The papers in question definitely did a disservice to the Archbishop in how they covered this interview with simon Mayo. The Times actually pulled in some summaries from other articles which were not really part of the interview itself.

I have not read the other two papers which you have linked. But I would not be surprised if they have not done somewhat the same thing.

All in all, Dr. Williams was most careful in what he said; unfortunately he was not specific enough to prevent misinterpretation and distortion by a somewhat hostile media.

Allen Lewis
South Carolina, USA