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?
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.
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.