AU biblical studies scholar: Jesus was not born in Bethlehem, the New Testament is part fan fiction, and the Christmas story? Rags to riches.

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He walked the earth. Jesus. But the narrative of his birth in the Gospel of Luke is a rags to riches tale. Kasper Bo Larsen, a biblical studies scholar at AU, himself a Christian and the son of two missionaries, is interested in the historical origins of Christianity.

2018.12.20 | Lene Ravn

Historian of religion Kasper Bro Larsen has drawn critique from both conservative Christians and atheists for his approach to the historical Jesus. All photos: Colourbox

Who’s who: Kasper Bro Larsen

Photo: Aarhus Universitetsforlag

Kasper Bro Larsen is an associate professor of theology at the School of Culture and Society, where he studies the origins of Christianity.

He is the son of two Christian missionaries, but describes himself as “a typical Church of Denmark Lutheran”.

His bookJesuswas published this December in the Reflections series by the Aarhus University Press. 

The subject of Larsen’s book is the historical Jesus and what facts about his life scholars have been able to establish with certainty. 

Larsen himself describes his book as a detective story, because it centers on a mystery: We know the convicted criminal, Jesus, and the judge, Pontius Pilate. And we know the punishment: crucifixion. But what was Jesus’ crime?

“And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes...”

Anyone who’s ever dozed through a midnight Christmas service as a child can probably hear the pastor’s voice recounting the Christmas story in their inner ear. But according to Kasper Bo Larsen, who studies the historical origins of Christianity, the Christmas story is probably best understood as a Christian fiction invented by Jesus’ fans about 80 years after his birth. 

But this is not to say that Jesus himself was a fiction...

What do we know about Jesus?

"Not much. We know that he existed,” says Larsen, who adds that it’s difficult to be certain of very much at all 2000 years after the fact.

A controversial statement in some quarters – for example the Danish Atheist Society, which has been criticizing him on Facebook since the publication of his bookJesusearlier this month. But it can’t be otherwise. 

Attempts to uncover the historical Jesus are subject to the same standards of research practice as every other aspect of his day and age. Neither more nor less, Larsen asserts. 

Jesus of nowhere

So what else do we actually know about Jesus the man?

“It’s also fairly certain that he was crucified between the years 30 and 36 AD. We also know that he was from Nazareth. He was judged by Pontius Pilate. He was crucified. And he was a disciple of John the Baptist who decided to go solo at some point.”

And what evidence support this? Well, there are a lot of details here that were not exactly convenient for the first Christians. These facts must have been included in the Bible because they were unavoidable. In other words, according to Larsen, their inclusion speaks strongly in favour their veracity – according to what he calls “the criterion of the inconvenient”. For example, Jesus’ crucifixion was inconvenient for the first Christians. After all, being executed is not exactly the fate that saviors typically meet. But there was no getting around it. Everyone knew about it, and so the evangelists were forced to record it. 

Similarly, it was not exactly convenient for the first Christians that their savior came from Nazareth:

“Theologically speaking, that was nowhere. Because it had been written in the Old Testament that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem.”

So the evangelists presumably embroidered the truth a little. They recorded that he was Jesus of Nazareth– but added that he had been born in Bethlehem. And so there you have it: the Christmas story as we know it.

 

Were there three – or 150 – wise men?

If you go to church on Christmas Eve, you’ll hear readings from the Gospel of Luke. But the Gospel of Matthew also recounts the story of the birth of Jesus. This version just never became a bestseller.

“In the Book of Matthew, Jesus is also born in Bethlehem. But when King Herod hears that Jesus has been born under the Star of Bethlehem, which is a sign that he is the Messiah, Herod is afraid that Jesus will challenge him as king. He decides to kill the child, and Jesus ends up a refugee in Egypt. You might say he’s resettled in a neighboring country,” Larsen says with a touch of irony.

He continues:

“In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is the poor child who is laid in a manger. While he’s a Jewish refugee child in Matthew.”

Despite these plot differences – and even though the nativity plays you may remember from childhood are based on Luke’s version – at least one important detail from Matthew’s version has been incorporated into the standard Christmas story: the Three Wise Men. 

But even this bit has been tweaked a little:

“Matthew writes that the wise men brought three gifts. But the text doesn’t say anything about how many wise men. There could have been 150 wise men, but we always portray it with three,” says Larsen.

In other words, in our collective memory we’ve agreed that there were three of them.

“It doesn’t say that Jesus was born in a stable in any of the gospels, either. It just says that he was laid in a manger. Just as there isn’t any mention of a donkey.”

In fact, much of what most of us think we know about the Bible is embellishment.

“Take a look at this brand,” Larsen says, pointing at the Apple logo on his computer.  

“Adam and Eve ate the apple and gained knowledge of good and evil, so if you buy this, you get knowledge. But the Bible doesn’t say anything about an apple. It says that they ate of the fruit. We’re often more familiar with retellings of the Bible than the actual text.”

The wrong side of the tracks

Nonetheless, Larsen believes that much of what’s written in the Bible has its roots in reality. But not the Christmas story – the Bible story most people know best.

For example, take the representation of Jesus as a poor Jewish child from a poor city in a backwater of Israel. 

“He was from the wrong side of the tracks. Jesus was definitely not born under a lucky star,” Larsen states, and continues:

“Everything indicates that the story about Jesus being born in a stable was probably the most luxurious place that could be imagined, Jesus’ background considering.”

And as for the details of Jesus’ birth, we can only guess. Was Mary alone? Was it cold or uncomfortable? Did she have access to medical help? 

According to Larsen, one place we shouldn’t look for answers is the Bible: 

“The Christmas story is a critique of power. It’s a story about how God does not reveal himself as a king in a palace, but in a small child in a manger. In the beginning, everything in the story highlights Jesus as this big loser, but then he turns out to be God’s son. It’s pure rags to riches.”

We change religions like we change tires

According to the biblical scholar, we don’t know at what time of year Jesus was born either. When the Romans adopted Christianity, they simply merged his birthday with existing pagan solstice celebrations. And conversely: here in Scandinavia, we celebrate St. John’s Eve, the summer solstice – a tradition we no longer associate with Christianity, but which is actually the old saint’s day for John the Baptist. 

It’s all rather confusing, to be honest. But Larsen has an explanation: 

“In Denmark, we change our religion like we change our tires. In the winter, we celebrate Christian winter Yuletide on snow tires, and in the summer, we celebrate secular humanist St. John’s Eve on summer tires.

In this sense, we have two national religions: Christianity and secular humanism. And the question is how Islam will fit into that partner dance.”

Danish Islam  

Larsen himself is the son of two Christian missionaries. His mother was a nurse, his father a pastor. And as a child, Larsen accompanied his parents on their missions in Bangladesh and Nepal, where they trained clergy and helped the poor.  

In Muslim Bangladesh, there was room for everyone:

“The Muslims always came to our house at Christmas, and we always ate with them during Eid.”

They participated in each other’s religious festivals without blending their cultures, which is what Larsen considers the ideal situation  – for Denmark as well.

“People can visit each other’s religious festivals instead of wiping out everything in some kind of globalized, anonymous, generic shared culture. You can be a secular humanist, a cultural Christian and a cultural Muslim.”

Do you think we’ll have official Muslim holidays in Denmark?

“It depends on how many Muslims there are in the country. But at some point or another, a need will probably arise to incorporate that culture into the shared Danish culture. Maybe it will start with an Arabic love song in the next Folk High School Song Book.”

Are you a believer, a nutjob, or what?

Larsen’s book about Jesus has generated controversy on two fronts: 

“The debaters on the Danish Atheist Society Facebook page are apparently loosing their childhood faith in Jesus as some kind of fictional Peter Pan, and on the other side, there are op eds in the Christian Dailyarguing that I shouldn’t be allowed to educate the clergy of the Church of Denmark,” he says.

But is Larsen himself a believer?

“That’s difficult to answer. Because for some people, that question really means ‘Are you a nutjob?’ or ‘Do you support abortion rights?’”

At bottom, Larsen is probably just an ordinary Dane with a not-so-ordinary passion: 

“You could call me a typical Church of Denmark Lutheran. I believe in the Christian message, and I’m deeply interested in the man who said that we should love our enemies.”

And he celebrates Christmas like most Danes:

“I’m very attached to the Christmas hymns and what goes on at church. Butnisser(mythological gnomes associated with the Christmas season throughout Scandinavia, ed.) leave me cold, and I always lose interest in the Christmas calendar show on TV after a few days. And yet. I did watch ‘Jesus and Josefine’ – out of scholarly interest.”

Who’s who: Kasper Bro Larsen

Kasper Bro Larsen is an associate professor of theology at the School of Culture and Society, where he studies the origins of Christianity.

He is the son of two Christian missionaries, but describes himself as “a typical Church of Denmark Lutheran”.

His book Jesus was published this December in the Reflections series by the Aarhus University Press.

The subject of Larsen’s book is the historical Jesus and what facts about his life scholars have been able to establish with certainty. 

Larsen himself describes his book as a detective story, because it centers on a mystery: We know the convicted criminal, Jesus, and the judge, Pontius Pilate. And we know the punishment: crucifixion. But what was Jesus’ crime?

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