status

The Historical Santa and the Historical Jesus Pt 2 – The Jesus of History

As we take up the second part of this brief two-part series comparing the Historical Santa and the Historical Jesus we now turn to consider Jesus Christ. For many scholars doing work in the area of the Historical Jesus, the parallel between Santa Claus and Jesus Christ is indeed an apt metaphor. Our goal is to look at the development of both individuals, in this Christmas season, and see how they relate to this larger issue of the Historical Jesus.

You can read the previous post, The Santa of Faith, by clicking here.

Though the term “Historical Jesus” is often a dirty word in evangelical churches, we should admit that the three, or four, quests have at least produced this benefit: we have a better understanding of the Jewishness of Jesus in His Second Temple era than before. Because of the pushback from rigorous scholars who have questioned the inculturated Jesus of their day, we now have a better view of who Jesus actually is and was in His day. Though there have been excesses and, let’s be honest, completely ridiculous side trails by a few scholars, the various quests have produced some compelling scholarship.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Just like our previous inquiry about the Historical Santa Claus, the Historical Jesus is indeed rooted in an actual individual who lived in antiquity. Of the few things scholars of all camps generally agree on, Jesus Christ was an actual person who lived in Palestine during the late Second Temple period, had followers/disciples, and was crucified by Pontius Pilate. Outside of these facts there is little agreement down the scholarly line. Of course, once we get to the evangelical side (where I do align myself) we see a broader acceptance of biblical reconstructions of Jesus’ life.

Not to get too waylaid by the scholarly discussion, one of the realities about the Historical Jesus is that when we look across the timeline of history to see how Jesus Christ is portrayed there is a different result than when we consider the evolution of Santa Claus. Granted, there are certainly some terrible representations of Jesus that exist even in our day (i.e. Talking Jesus Action Figure…I have this on my office shelf for funsies.) Yet, in orthodox Christianity (small “o”) over the centuries between the death of Jesus Christ and now, the representation of Him (not necessarily the artistic one) theologically and liturgically has remained steadied in Christianity.

Of course, this is not the primary concern of Historical Jesus quests. Instead, they have sought to uncover (not deconstruct) the actual historical figure from amid the tattered depictions in the primary source documents: the Gospels and New Testament.

Jesus Christ is unique from Santa Claus in that there is an established corpus of literature that still remains as the sources for understanding how He was received and understood by His first followers. While the latest developments in scholarship showing the early veneration of Jesus by these followers is not entirely relevant to this discussion, it does bear some influence on how we understand the Gospels depictions. The Santa of faith relies almost entirely on translated traditions and oral transmissions of his story across 16, or so, centuries with varying depictions. The Jesus of history relies on a set of documents written within a generation, or two, of His death by both eyewitnesses and devoted followers.

With the evolution, or translation, of Santa Claus, we see a figure who entirely loses the original image between his fourth century historical life and his present day depictions. Gone is any attachment with a Catholic Bishop from the Middle East. Only visible is the overweight, bearded Scandinavian bestower of gifts from atop a sleigh pulled by eight tiny reindeer…and Rudolph. The present day image of Santa Claus bears no resemblance to the fourth century St Nicholas.

Yet the present day Jesus Christ, and the Jesus Christ of the Gospels, is very much in line with the Historical Jesus. He remains ensconced in His Second Temple era amid struggling Jewish socio-political identity. A prophet and rabbi who came into this world through miraculous means (even if this is disputed by present day scholars) and died on a Roman crucifixion stake, still is found to be as Jewish today as He was in the middle first century representations. Though some have attempted to understand Jesus in their present milieu or through a lens of theological liberation, the orthodox Jesus of History remains settled in the Gospel depictions of Himself.

Unlike Santa Claus, who is very much taken out of his original historical figure, the Historical Jesus that we know today looks very much like the first century Jewish messianic figure who is presented in the Gospel witnesses. As these Gospel authors are either eyewitnesses or relying on eye witnesses testimony, their unique purpose for writing and framing the actions of Jesus Christ still present a figure who is faithful to the historical figure that lived and died between sixty and forty years prior to the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

The Jesus of history that we have been able to recover aligns closely with characteristics of the Jesus of faith that has been venerated and celebrated in the liturgies and worship celebrations of the Church and churches since the first generation of Jesus’ followers. Regardless of where we stand on other issues around Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, the depiction of Jesus in the Gospels still stands as a historically faithful representation that has stood the test of time. Unlike the Santa Claus of faith, the Jesus of history remains attached to the historical, first century Palestinian Jew who lived among the tumultuous times of the late Second Temple period.

We can be thankful that instead of a benevolent saint who merrily grants wishes and bestows gifts to children, the Jesus of history is one who came into this world for a purpose and can be seen in the passages of Holy Christian Scripture as a savior who is given for the world for all days.

status

The Historical Santa and the Historical Jesus Pt 1 – The Santa of Faith

As we approach the most joyous time of the year when we, goodly Christians, celebrate the birth of Jesus. During this annual celebration, our malls and much of popular culture also bring in Santa Claus among other secular icons. It is an opportunity to see two historical figures who have had their pasts differently developed.

When we think of our present day incarnation of Santa Claus, there is a historical figure who stands behind our current picture. Along the same lines, when we think of our present day evolution of Jesus Christ, there is also a historical figure who stands behind our current picture.

So how much of the historical Santa relates to he historical Jesus?

In considering the origins of Santa Claus we must go back the fourth century and a young bishop named Nicholas who, having inherited his parents’ estate after their death early in his life, became known for acts of mercy and charity in his parish of Myra. Following his death, many stories about his ministry became known throughout Christianity, to the point that Nicholas was venerated as a saint and given a feast day on December 6th. Nicholas became a famous sainted figure in Christianity and his name, acts, and feast carried across many cultures. For instance, when Columbus was exploring the New World, one of the first ports he discovered was promptly named St Nicholas. Nicholas’ story of giving and charity embodied the idea of Christianity (James 1:29) and his feast is a time for thoughtful reflection of these themes.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Even in the massive whitewashing of relics and statuary during the Reformation, Nicholas remained a favorite figure in Christianity. His feast day was still merrily celebrated by Catholics and Protestants alike. From the medieval period through the early reformation time the stories and character of Nicholas transitioned from his Middle Eastern roots to a more Scandavian representation and the name Sinterklaas. Being fused with German paganism (through the celebration of Yule) also moved Nicholas out of the purely Christian arena and into the secular one as well. His attire and mode of transportation also shifted to reflect the cultures in which Nicholas was moved into and his story was told. He was given new names, Kris Kringle and Father Christmas. St. Nicholas remained part of the idea of Sinterklaas, but became almost unrecognizable in light of the growing mythos around this changing figure.

Yet Nicholas remained, mostly, in the representations as a charitable bishop of the Catholic Church. Only in the early 1800s, mostly through the works of Washington Irving, Sinterklaas was brought to America and given a new name: Santa Claus. Not long after this an anonymous poem, later attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, titled “A Visit from St Nicholas” (later retitled “The Night Before Christmas“) captured the cultural lore in America and propelled this version of Santa Claus forward. Soon, the patron saint of travelers and merchants became the saint of the poor and needy in America. Thomas Nast, a popular cartoonist with Harper’s Weekly, soon took Santa Claus and began giving him the form which we know today. His drawing of a pipe smoking saint of giving in 1881 gave Santa much of his present day form.

Once the 20th century came, Santa was firmly embedded into the America identity for the Winter Solstice festivals. The famed American artist, Norman Rockwell, added to the growing lore around Santa with his famous covers for The Saturday Evening Post. Santa identified in numerous publications and even appropriated for military interests. Santa suddenly had a wife, though oddly no children, and plenty of other parts of the story began to evolve. Yet nothing had quite the cultural ramifications of what happened in the post World-War II era when Coca-Cola crafted a version of Santa that has lasted until today. With the massive cultural exportation the followed, Santa became a worldwide phenomenon. Soon enough, Santa Claus became as much part of the Christmas celebrations as Jesus Christ’s infancy narratives.

Children await the arrival of the Christmas season and write notes of faith, strategically given to their parents, to Santa Claus about the hope they have in his impending arrival with gifts galore. These same children are made aware that Santa is a benevolent soul who monitors their faithfulness throughout the year. We take our kids to the mall to see Santa and tell him about their hopes and dreams. Indeed, for most under the age of 12, Santa is the reason for the season.

Yet this version of Santa is much different than the Historical Santa of the fourth century. Indeed, the origins of the present day Santa-myth, though rooted in a historical figure, are much different than the actual figure they represent. So much different is this present day Santa, that one must wonder if it matches up with the historical figure who began all of this, the Bishop Nicholas in the fourth century?

The present day, popular Santa (the Santa of faith) is indeed mightily different than the Santa of history. If for no other reason, the historical Santa (St. Nicholas) is Middle Eastern and the Santa of faith (Santa Claus) is Scandinavian. Other major issues abound.

In much the same way, scholars in the field of the historical Jesus often make statements that make the historical Jesus to be as far from the Christ of faith as we see in the Santa demonstration above.

So, does the historical Santa represent a parallel narrative to the historical Jesus? Are there sufficient parallels between St Nicholas’ story and Jesus’ story in our present day churches and broader cultural narratives?

Check in tomorrow for the second, and final, part of our inquiry.

UA-40705812-1