Questioning Christmas – the gospel accounts

The annual festive season is well and truly upon us, so it’s probably a reasonable time to ask ourselves what we’re really celebrating and why. As we dust off the crib and the figurines of Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus with their motley entourage of donkeys, oxen, shepherds, angels and kings, it’s an opportunity to dust off the original story too; to see what’s really there under a twenty-centuries-thick patina of tradition and legend.

Of course we all know by now that there may well not have been a stable or inn in the traditional senses. We all know that the three kings were probably actually an unknown number of astrologers, who probably arrived not hot on the heels of the angels and shepherds but anything up to two years after Jesus’ birth. And of course we’re all well aware that there wasn’t any snow and it probably didn’t happen in December, or even in the year 0 BC/AD. And there may not have been a little donkey, which is a great relief to any who can’t stand that particular carol; and the ‘little Lord Jesus’ probably did do some crying. (In fact, you can safely discount two-thirds of the content of most carols.)

I’m not sure how much any of this actually matters, but we’re in little doubt that the historical story isn’t quite the same as the Christmas-card and Nativity-play versions we’ve grown up with. So what do we actually have when we look at the original birth narratives, stripped of their accretions?

Narrative differences

When we start looking at the original Christmas story as told in the gospels, we immediately encounter two problems. The first is that two of the four gospels are entirely silent on Jesus’ birth. In both Mark’s and John’s gospels, Jesus arrives on the scene aged 30, with little or no earthly backstory – perhaps implying that to these writers, the circumstances and details of Jesus’ birth either weren’t of huge importance, or just weren’t known.

The second – and more major – problem is that we soon find that in the remaining two gospels we don’t have one coherent story, but rather two almost entirely different stories which we’ve subsequently mashed up together. Apart from a handful of crucial shared details, Matthew’s and Luke’s versions have so little in common that in many respects they appear to be relating unrelated sets of events.

They do both share the most basic details: the virgin birth announcement (only differing slightly in whether the angel speaks to Mary or Joseph); Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem; the family’s subsequent move to Nazareth. Otherwise they have few similarities. Both accounts do feature a long and possibly urgent journey, but in Matthew it’s from Bethlehem to Egypt to escape Herod, whereas in Luke it’s from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the census – and birth (and actually in Luke’s words there’s no real indication of any kind of rush or urgency). In Matthew, Mary just happens to be in Bethlehem when the birth happens, and the context makes it sound like she and Joseph already live there, or nearby in Judea. Both accounts also feature genealogies of Jesus, neither of which however bear any resemblance to each other.

From Matthew’s account (and from there alone) we get the Star of Bethlehem, and the Magi or wise men who it guides. We also get Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, and the Holy Family’s consequent flight into Egypt. None of these elements feature in Luke’s account, somewhat surprisingly given their dramatic nature and huge apparent significance.

From Luke alone we get the Angel Gabriel (unnamed in Matthew’s account), Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth, and the details surrounding the miraculous birth of John the Baptist. From Luke alone we get the census and the resulting journey to Bethlehem (not necessarily by donkey, and not necessarily in a hurry), culminating in the ‘no room in the inn’ story (though it may not have been an inn), the manger (not necessarily in a stable), and the angels appearing to shepherds. Finally we get Jesus presented in the temple to be circumcised on the 8th day. None of these elements appear in Matthew at all, or indeed anywhere else; which again seems a little odd given how important they now seem to the overall Christmas story that we all know and love.

So Luke’s account concentrates on the context and lead-up to the birth, and then on the circumstances of the birth and the wonderful events of the next few days. After this, he has the family return immediately to their Nazareth home, from which he says they travel each year to the Jerusalem temple (including the incident when Jesus is 12 and stays behind in ‘his Father’s house’). So there’s apparently no fleeing to Egypt as long-term refugees from Herod’s persecution.

Matthew by contrast skips straight from annunciation to birth, missing out all the details of the birth week (the ‘no room in the inn’, the manger, the shepherds, the temple). He then apparently fast-forwards a year or two to the Star and the visiting Magi. By this point in Luke’s narrative the family have long since returned to Nazareth, but in Matthew they’re still in Bethlehem, now seemingly in a long-term family house. And whereas in Luke’s version Nazareth in Galilee has always been their home, in Matthew they only end up in Nazareth several years later almost by chance, because their home in Judea (perhaps Bethlehem or nearby) still isn’t safe.

What are we to make of the differences?

Is it possible that the Matthew-Luke variances just come down to a difference of source material and of theological focus? Perhaps to an extent, but I don’t think we can discount all the discrepancies so easily. We can (if we wish) harmonise the two accounts to a reasonable extent, simply by virtue of the fact that they largely seem to deal with entirely different sections of the story – so for example we can have Luke’s angels and shepherds followed later by Matthew’s star and magi. But it’s hard not to wonder why the two accounts share so few crucial details and events in common. And we do also need to question the very different accounts of how, when and why the family ended up in Nazareth.

If I had to judge which account was more likely to be historically accurate, my money would be on Luke – though there’s a question mark over his census, which it seems no-one’s been able to connect satisfactorily to a known historical event.

So what are we to make of the differences? Do we just discount the parts of the story that don’t occur in both accounts, leaving us only with the annunciation and the virgin birth in Bethlehem? Do we try to combine and harmonise them, in which case what do we make of the apparently irreconcilable endings? Do we reject the whole lot as myth invented after the event, and join Mark in skipping straight on to the start of Jesus’ ministry?

I don’t know for sure; in many ways it’s up to you what you make of it. For me, I can’t simply write off the birth narratives, but nor can I any longer simply swallow them whole as indisputable historical fact. For me they contain important truths and convey a compelling human-divine drama without which I think both Christianity and humanity would be poorer. Whether that makes them historically and factually ‘true’ or not in all details, I’m not quite so sure. For now I’m willing to believe most of the elements of the stories, but provisionally, keeping a question mark over many of them.

Of course, all this is deeply problematic to anyone who has to see the Bible as a perfect, seamless divinely-crafted entity, or as factually accurate in every detail. I used to struggle terribly with passages like these (and also the resurrection accounts), trying desperately to reconcile the irreconcilable for the sake of my evangelical theology. I don’t feel that need now. I’m content to let the Bible be what it is and say what it says, in all its messy, rough-edged and fray-ended glory. It doesn’t all have to tie up neatly like a mathematical formula. I can’t be completely sure exactly what happened at and around the birth of Jesus, nor indeed around his resurrection. Both ends of his earthly life are surrounded with a degree of mystery. But that’s okay.

Supernatural stuff

And what about all the weird stuff, the supernatural and miraculous elements of the Christmas story – the Virgin Birth, the Star of Bethlehem, and all the angelic appearances? In a scientific age, can we really unquestioningly accept them all to be true, and does it matter hugely if they turn out not to be?

Again, I do still broadly accept most of these supernatural elements, but I think we’re perfectly justified in querying the evidence for them. I’ll look at the virgin birth next time.

Postscript on paganism

Finally, moving aside from the original Nativity story for a moment, what do we make of all the pagan elements that have crept into our Christmas celebrations – Christmas trees, mistletoe, Yule logs, the 25th December date itself? Should we strip them out and ‘get back to the Bible’? Not in my view. I welcome these additions as enriching our celebrations rather than diluting the Christian message.

One of the great things about Christianity is its generous ability to welcome and find room for the best elements of the cultures it enters. For Christianity itself (unlike some Christian missionaries) brings no cultural baggage of its own, so it is free to adopt and use elements of other cultures, baptising and redeeming them, giving them new meaning and a new place.

C.S. Lewis incorporated many elements of pagan mythology in his Narnia stories, because for him the old myths pointed, and were truly fulfilled in, Christ. So re-embedded in a Christian context, these old pagan stories could take on new significance, enriching our imaginative understanding and appreciation of the True Story.

I’ve no desire to be a bah-humbug Christmas party-pooper. I love the Christmas story whether it’s entirely factual or not, and I’m quite fond of many of the pagan additions too. Above all Christmas is about generous incarnation, Word made flesh, God with us, love come down, heaven’s light shining into our darkness. And of course word can be enfleshed in story and symbol too.

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Bible, Christmas, Church calendar, Liberalism, Theology and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Questioning Christmas – the gospel accounts

  1. James Pruitt says:

    Thanks. Good post. In reviewing the nativity accounts in Matthew and Luke, I’ve often wondered about the connection to Nazareth. I read Pope Benedict XVI’s book recently, Jesus of Nazareth The Infancy Narratives. He suggests Matthew may not have known that Joseph and Mary were from Nazareth. He has them going there after their stay in Egypt to avoid the violence of one of Herod’s sons in Judaea. The family “came and resided in a city called Nazareth; that what was spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He shall be called a Nazarene.'” (Matthew 2:23. Additional note: I know of no particular scripture to which Matthew could have been referring.) Luke has them leaving Nazareth before Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:4-5) and returning to “their own city of Nazareth” after he was born (Luke 2:39). I love the diversity of the gospels.

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    • Thanks – and sorry for not replying sooner! I don’t think anyone has ever found what scripture Matthew might have been referring to in chapter 2:23 – but then the writer of Matthew is sometimes a bit random and shaky in his Old Testament quotations! I’ll be picking up on that point in my post on the Virgin Birth in the next day or so.

      The other tricky thing of course is the chronology – Luke appears to link Jesus’ birth to the Quirinius Census which apparently took place in 6/7 AD, whereas Matthew puts the birth in the time of Herod the Great who died in 4 BC. Though Luke on the whole seems to be the better historian, there’s no evidence that the Romans did ever require people to return to their birthplace or ancestral home for a census, and it seems highly unlikely that they would have done so.

      So it seems there’s a bit of a question mark over why Jesus was born in Bethlehem if his parents didn’t already live there or nearby, and if they didn’t need to travel back for a census. Shouldn’t be a major problem to anyone’s faith – just a small unresolved query.

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  2. smellofburntwiggle says:

    Thanks Harvey and James. I hadn’t noticed the belonging-in-Nazareth differences before.
    Re neither account talking of urgency travelling to Bethlehem, is some measure of disorganisation / flusteredness implied by there being no room for them with Joseph’s family? But then perhaps there’s ‘no room for them’ metaphorically (like last year’s BBC Nativity film’s perspective) because of the shame of Mary’s pregnant out-of-wedlock state.

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    • Yes, given that the ‘inn’ may just have been a guest-room in a family home, it could well be that there was ‘no room for them’ because of Mary’s shame, and instead they were made to stay in the space where the family’s animals were kept/fed. Certainly an interesting alternative take on the story!

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  3. dsholland says:

    Just did a quick search relative to Matt 2:23. This makes sense to me…
    Wesley –
    “2:23 He came and dwelt in Nazareth – (where he had dwelt before he went to Bethlehem) a place contemptible to a proverb. So that hereby was fulfilled what has been spoken in effect by several of the prophets, (though by none of them in express words,) He shall be called a Nazarene – that is, he shall be despised and rejected, shall be a mark of public contempt and reproach.”

    Clearly this is in harmony with the account. Guess it just depends on what you are looking for.

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    • Well, maybe. It’s a good attempt by Wesley, and certainly plausible, but it feels to me like a rather long stretch of interpretation just to make Matthew’s reference work. And unfortunately Matthew isn’t always very accurate with his quotations (Matthew 27:9-10 being the worst case). I don’t find this problematic, but for an inerrantist it’s slightly embarrassing.

      Even if we do accept Wesley’s explanation though, it still doesn’t really help us harmonize Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts…

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      • dsholland says:

        Didn’t you say, “We can (if we wish) harmonise the two accounts to a reasonable extent, simply by virtue of the fact that they largely seem to deal with entirely different sections of the story…”

        On a not unrelated point I have a friend who has worked for many years for Wycliffe. I may have mentioned previously the challenges she pointed out to me WRT to something as simple as the way animals are used in the Bible. Foxes may be seen as wise and eagles are carrion birds. Nevertheless the I do believe (as does she) that the Bible is divinely inspired. If it is that, then looking for the harmony rather than the discontinuity might not be a bad place to start. I think it depends what you’re looking for.

        That said you always make me think, and that is a good thing.

        David

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        • I did say that… but I also went on to say ‘…we need to question the very different accounts of how, when and why the family ended up in Nazareth.’ For ‘very different’, read ‘effectively irreconcilable’.

          From the harmonisation perspective, there’s also the problem of chronology which I raised in my reply to James above: that Luke links Jesus’ birth to the Quirinius Census which took place in 6/7 AD, whereas Matthew puts the birth in the time of Herod the Great who died in 4 BC.

          I can very much sympathise with your approach that looks for harmonisation first – that’s the approach I took for many years, as it seemed to me that it was required if I was to believe in the Bible’s divine inspiration. The problem is that in some cases, there simply cannot be any satisfactory harmonisation – or at best, to make accounts harmonise requires stretching credulity to breaking point. This bothered me for a long time.

          For myself, resolution has come in taking a different approach to understanding divine inspiration. I don’t now require everything in the Bible to be precisely, factually, historically or scientifically accurate in order to accept that it is (in a certain sense) divinely inspired.

          I do look for discontinuity at the moment, because I’m asking people to take a critical approach to their theology and hermeneutics – to realise that the Bible doesn’t present itself as the perfect, precise book we might want but as something far more real and interesting. Not everyone’s ready for that, which is fine. And I certainly don’t want to undermine anyone’s faith.

          All the very best as always,
          Harvey

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  4. dsholland says:

    Interesting, I naturally did a quick search and according to Josephus Herod died in 4BC and more importantly (to me) there is no extra-biblical account of Matt 2:16-18. As I say you always make me think. This is what I thought…

    The Bible claims that scripture cannot be broken (John 10:35), not you or I or some televangelist (when did that become such a dirty word?).

    Do you remember “Higher biblical criticism”? It has changed a lot since it was started, mostly I think because the foundation of it’s claim (no written language when things were supposed to have been written) turned out to be false. The science of archeology caught up. When I first read about Higher Criticism (you have got to love that name) it shook me to the core. I stopped and almost ran out of the library. Then I re-read what I was reading. That’s when I realized it was based on complete conjecture – none of the documents the theory was built on existed even though the theorists presented the ideas as if they did. It wasn’t until later I learned about the archeological evidence. “Higher” criticism has matured and I think adds real value today.

    Why mention this? Because if the Bible isn’t what it claims to be it can be little more than philosophical myth. Of less value than than the Tau or the writings of Confucius which at least don’t presume divine inspiration (in the Biblical sense).

    Does that mean we cannot examine it critically? Not at all, critical evaluation is essential to avoid the excess of overzealous interpretation. What it does mean (at least to me) is that if the Bible is in fact “divinely inspired” (and in the Biblical sense) we need to remember that in the ranking of information regarding its interpretation. How we do that depends to a great deal on what we are looking for. A fact on which I think we agree.

    As always,

    David

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    • Dear David,
      Thanks as always for engaging with me on these issues!

      I didn’t quite follow your point about Josephus and Matt 2:16-18 – I wasn’t sure if you were disputing the generally accepted chronology (i.e. Herod dying in 4BC, and Quirinius’s census over a decade later in 6-7AD)?

      It just seems to me that there are some elements in the four gospels that simply can’t be harmonised with one another (exactly as you’d expect with authentic eyewitness accounts). There are also one or two places where an author has clearly made a mistake of sorts, such as Matthew’s ‘potter’s field’ Jeremiah quotation. I’m not sure what your position is on these human imperfections in the Bible? For me, I have to accept that they are present and then work from there towards re-understanding concepts such as biblical inspiration, infallibility, inerrancy and so on.

      I think we need to be careful in our assumptions about what the Bible is and what it claims for itself. I’m not entirely sure what Jesus means when he says ‘the scripture cannot be broken’, and that needs careful consideration, but I don’t see it as a blanket statement of the literal inerrancy of the Bible – which of course didn’t even exist in its current form till long after those words were spoken. Other verses used as proof-texts of inerrancy are also subject to different interpretations.

      All of which is not to say that the Bible is wrong, or not inspired, but just to say that a divinely-inspired set of texts may not look or work quite the way we would assume.

      This is something which I want to look at in much greater depth and detail in the New Year, with a series of posts on the Bible, inspiration, inerrancy and interpretation.

      All the best,
      Harvey

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      • dsholland says:

        Was not contending the record on Herod.

        I agree there are extreme views on Biblical infallibility, but I think it is important to keep divine inspiration at the front of the discussion (which was my point). The big reason for this is our tendency to “lean on our own understanding”, which when it comes to understanding whatever message was divinely inspired is probably not the best idea 😉 As a result I would prefer to err on the side of scripture (since its a good bet I’m erring on one side or the other).

        I look forward to your thoughtful work in the new year.

        David

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        • Thanks David. I genuinely appreciate your perspective, and I think it’s healthy that we’re coming from different places on this but can still engage in friendly and open dialogue. For me, a lot of it is about being at different phases of the journey – which is absolutely not to say that one phase is ahead of another or superior to another. I’m at a ‘critical’ phase at the moment, feeling the need to re-examine what I’ve been taught and to find new approaches that work for where I currently am.

          I also think it’s important that God has made different kinds of people, who need different kinds of answers and approaches. Engineers, lawyers and mathematicians tend to appreciate right answers and neat systems. Arts graduates may prefer mystery, metaphor, and answers that are open to a variety of interpretations and meanings. I suspect you may fall more in the first camp, and I more in the second.

          Either way, the Bible will remain the Bible whatever I throw at it, and God will remain God. Hopefully they can both take my questioning.

          All the very best,
          Harvey

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