CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA — COMPARED TO the magnificent nativity scene in New York's Metropolitan Museum, the little creche around our Christmas tree is no great shakes. Yet I found myself the other evening gazing at the tiny figure of the babe in the manger with an overwhelming sense of curiosity and awe.
Who was he? The question has haunted historians and theologians through all ages. Who was he? I ask the question not as a priest or minister might ask it. Matters of religious faith are off my beat. It is the who, what, where and when that absorb my reveries.
Think of this infant: He grew to be the man in whose name all the dates of history are divided. It is the Christian calendar that chronicles events B.C. and A.D. Nearly 2,000 years after his death, the various Christian faiths number more than a billion adherents around the world. There are twice as many Christians as Moslems, twice as many Christians as Hindus. Throughout the Western world, custom and law and codes of moral behavior reflect the Judeo-Christian ethic. No character in history, before or since, approaches the influence of this child upon the course of mankind.
Who was he? I was born a reporter; I cannot let the question go. That there was in fact a man known in his time as Jesus the Messiah no longer is much challenged. Whatever else he may have been -- son of God, savior, redeemer -- he was also mortal.
Over the centuries skeptics have contended that Jesus is the merest legend, as elusive and insubstantial as King Arthur and his knights of the round table. The 36 miracles are scorned as the products of mass hypnosis, or hallucinations, or imaginative witnesses.
Jesus sometimes is said to be a kind of paste-pot figure, put together in the image of Moses with other stories, allusions and parallels thrown in. A babe in the bulrushes, a babe in a manger; a cruel pharaoh, a cruel Herod; a parting of the waters, a walk upon water; tablets from Mount Sinai, a sermon from the mount. But when all the objections from scholars and agnostics have been considered, one fact about Jesus remains: He was. He undeniably was.
Yet who was he? We know a great deal about other towering figures who came before and after Christ -- Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula. We can study the lives of Vergil, Horace, Ovid and Seneca. Plutarch and Epictetus left tangible records behind. The last years of Pilate seem to be the stuff of ghost stories, but we know that a Pontius Pilate was procurator of Judea at the time of the crucifixion. Herod the Great was a real king.
Where is a biography of the man who inspired the Christian church? During Christ's lifetime, Matthew tells us, ''multitudes'' of people followed him. Word of his teaching spread everywhere. Jesus was a troublemaker, an agitator, a revolutionary. He was ++ news. Yet except for a fleeting reference in Luke to Christ's teaching in the temple at 12, we know nothing of the formative years. All is surmise. At 30 Christ emerges.
I look at the tiny figure in the straw-lined cradle and reflect upon millennial themes. In his name came the Roman church and the Reformation and the convulsions of history that were thus aroused. The history of Christianity is in part a history of bigotry and persecution, of slain martyrs and slain infidels as well. It is a history that embraces Richard Coeur de Lion and Torquemada, Cromwell and Cotton Mather, King Henry alive and Tom More dead. Not only much good but also much evil has been done in Christ's name.
But to insist on the reporter's question, ''Who was he?'' is to put form ahead of substance. It is not the biography that matters. Here at Christmas time, we of the Western world celebrate the birth of a child who would grow to become, at the very least, the greatest teacher who ever lived. He was possessed of every characteristic of a leader -- the commanding presence, the personal magnetism, the forensic skills. He could be furious, gentle, demanding and tender. He would have excelled as a lawyer, a doctor or politician. He left us a tough but rewarding code to live by.
On this day we say, ''What a child!'' For all ages we can say in awestruck admiration, ''What a man!''