There is an old and trite joke — with many variations — which goes something like: “There are two types of people in the world, those who divide the world into two types of people, and those who don't.” Just for now I am with the former; I am going to divide the world, for the sake of argument, into two types of people. One type says that the Bible is the basis of faith.
We read the stories of scripture, believe they are historically accurate, and because of that come to have faith in God. For many people the nativity stories of Jesus found in Matthew and Luke function this way. It is the historical truth of these stories which creates the intellectual framework for people to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, the Messiah.
As we enter Advent and begin to prepare for the celebration of the Incarnation of Christ, and hear again those very important birth stories, I realize more and more that I just don't see the relationship between scripture and faith in this way. The historical relationship between scripture and faith is not that scripture is the presupposition of faith, it is that faith is the presupposition of scripture. Long before there was any sacred literature whatsoever there were people who believed in God and told stories to illustrate that faith. Over time those stories were put together in what became a single library of many books by people who already believed in God. It wasn't that these people believed because they put the Bible together, they put the Bible together because they believed. That is true both with the Hebrew Bible, which we Christians call the Old Testament, and with the New Testament. Without a living and powerful faith that was prior even to the earliest of Paul's letters there would be no New Testament. Only because people believed in the first place did they first create and then collect those stories and letters which became the New Testament. For early believers the stories did help shape and inform faith, but they didn't create faith. Rather, faith created scripture. That is how it is with me.
I don't read the Bible in order to decide if these stories are plausible enough for me to have faith in God. I read the Bible because I first have faith in God – that God is real and present – and then because I have faith I seek to understand this literature and what it is telling me about God, about us, and about the world in which we live. What matters to me therefore is not whether or not the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke are history, nor do I care whether or not they can even be harmonized successfully. What I care about is what these stories say about God and the world. Matthew declares that in Christ the covenant God made with the Jews is universalized, it is now for everyone, all are chosen.
Luke says something different, but equally significant, that the presence and power of God is made known not in marching armies and royal palaces, but in a baby dispossessed so completely that his mother had to give birth to him in a stable. Luke and Matthew didn't hear those birth stories and then come to believe in the revelation of God in Christ. The first believed in that revelation, and because they believed they wrote those stories.
So, the question for me at Christmas is not: “Are either or both of these stories history?” The question for me is: “Are either or both of these stories true?” Do they tell us the truth about where God is in this world and who God is for? Though I don't believe either story is history, I deeply believe both are true; they tell us where God is in this world and who God is for in this world. Where people believe because they are convinced the Bible is history, historical research, critical studies and scientific advances will always be a lurking danger. Where faith precedes scripture, and informs our reading of it, such things will always be a welcome sign of a growing understanding of God and God's ways with people.
Rev. Bill Ellis is dean of St. John’s Cathedral. He has a bachelor’s degree in history, a Master of Divinity and holds an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree from Church Divinity School of the Pacific.