Saturday, 15 December 2012


Christmas is fast approaching. We are all familiar with the traditional Christmas story, but often do not realise how contradictory are the scriptural accounts of the birth of Jesus, and how much of the story is based on tradition alone.

The gospels of Mark and John make no mention of the nativity at all, and Luke and Matthew tell wholly different stories. Neither puts a date on the year of Jesus's birth, presumably because they did not consider this to be very important. Indeed, Matthew confuses things by bringing King Herod into his story, since by Roman chronology Herod died in 4 BC! Luke tells us that John the Baptist began his preaching "in the 15th year of the Emperor Tiberius" (AD 28-29), and that Jesus met him "when he was about 30 years old". The only point of agreement about the nativity is the Jesus was born in Bethlehem; which is in itself a little puzzling, since Jesus clearly began his ministry in Nazareth, by the Sea of Galilee, a long way to the north of Bethlehem. Matthew and Luke give completely incompatible genealogies for Jesus. They cannot even agree about the name of Joseph's father (Matthew gives it as Jacob; Luke as Heli) - which in any case seems a bit pointless, since both stress that Jesus was not Joseph's son anyway. Neither of them says at what time of the year the nativity took place: it is only a tradition that it was at the end of December; though it seems fitting that the God-child should be born just after the shortest day of the year: a time of renewed hope.


It is Luke's account which is the best-known. He begins his story with the miraculous birth of John the Baptist to Mary's elderly "kinswoman", Elizabeth. Then we have the Archangel Gabriel appearing to Mary; "the decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed", "when Quirinius was governor of Syria" (which appears to refer to a census taken in 6 AD) causing Joseph and Mary to travel to Bethlehem; the lodging in the stable, and the adoration of the shepherds after they have seen the angel. After the nativity we have the circumcision of the baby Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem, accompanied by various prophesies, and the return to Nazareth.

Matthew's story is quite different. There we have an angel appearing to Joseph, and there is no mention of a stable for the birth in Bethlehem. The most famous part of Matthew's story is the appearance of the "wise men" or "magi" before King Herod, enquiring about the Christ-child, since they "have seen his star in the east". Matthew nowhere calls them kings, nor does he even tell us how many they were: the notion that there must have been three of them is only a deduction from the fact that they presented the baby Jesus with the three symbolic gifts. There seems to be some confusion about the whole story of the star. Around 6 BC there was a major conjuction of the planets, which astrologers would have interpreted as predicting an event of major importance. (Some scholars have speculated that it might refer to the appearance of Halley's Comet in 12 BC). The New English Bible translates "magi" as "astrologers", which is appropriate. Herod, angry and alarmed, orders the slaughter of all children in Bethlehem (an action which, though lacking support from any other historical source, would have been quite in accordance with what is known of Herod's character!), but Joseph and Mary are forewarned in a dream and escape into Egypt. They do not return till Herod is dead, when they decide to settle in Nazareth, because it is safer. This appears to contradict Luke's story that they came from Nazareth in the first place, and does not tally with Luke's account of the circumcision in the Temple, which Matthew does not mention at all. (Neither, incidentally, makes any reference to the Holy Family travelling on a donkey, which forms such a touching scene on so many Christmas cards)

It is clear that we have here two completely different accounts of the nativity, which cannot be reconciled.
I have been told that, for a Jew, the notion that God could descend from the heavens to beget a child on a human mother would be horribly blasphemous. The Greek and Roman gods, by contrast, did this sort of thing all the time; which perhaps helps to explain why the early Christian missionaries met with great hostility from Jews, but were more successful in converting gentiles.

The Nativity has inspired great art over the centuries. The first picture here is by Piero della Francesca (c.1420-92), the second by Sandro Botticelli (1444-1510), the third by Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506), and the fourth by Gentile da Fabriano (1370-1407). All have certain features in common, quite apart from the rustic setting. The Virgin Mary wears her traditional colours; a blue cloak over a red dress; and Joseph is an old man; often rather detached from the scene. The baby Jesus, oddly enough, always appears to be several months old; certainly not a newly-born infant!

At a very much lower artistic level, illuminated Santa Claus figures are going up all over buildings even as I write, but I have yet to see any portrayal of the Christian Nativity at all. Perhaps this is as it should be: we are celebrating a consumerist festival called "Xmas", and for this Santa Claus is a suitable multi-faith symbol: perhaps the only supernatural figure that all children are encouraged to believe in. Every year around this time there are reports of teachers being officially censured for telling their little charges that he doesn't really exist! So Santa's red and white (the Coca-cola colours!) have rightly replaced the Virgin Mary's red and blue as the colours of the festive season.

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