The Nativity Stories (i) Asking Questions

Now that December has come, it’s time to revisit the endlessly enchanting nativity stories found in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. I use the word “stories”, firstly because these are not historical accounts and, secondly, because there are two of them, even though the yearly ‘nativity plays’ join them up, and present them as one. If we do that, we create a third nativity story – Matthew’s, Luke’s and our own one – but that story isn’t found in the New Testament. This is not to say that we should ban the children’s versions, but that, as adults, we should read, enjoy, and value, each of the two separate stories for what they are, not for what they aren’t.

I don’t see myself here as being a negatively minded spoil-sport. If we think about another Christmas story, Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, it doesn’t matter that it didn’t actually happen, even though firmly located in mid nineteenth century London, nor that it includes a visitor from beyond the grave, supernatural ‘spirits’, and a succession of amazing happenings. All of these add compelling interest, colour and drama to a tale that has important lessons to teach us whatever our own time and place.

Why do I say that the stories are quite different from one another? The first reason is that they contradict each other (which is not a problem, unless it’s claimed that they’re history). Jesus’ parents-to-be, in Luke, live in Nazareth, and therefore must travel to Bethlehem. In Matthew, however, they have a “house’ in Bethlehem, so don’t need to saddle their donkey and set off on a long journey. Luke’s story focusses on shepherds and dazzling angelic choirs, whereas Matthew’s majors on wise men from the east and a guiding, hovering ‘star’. Two different writers, two different stories.

The second reason is that each has a very different time scale. In Luke, there is a journey to Bethlehem, the birth of Jesus, the immediate arrival of the shepherds,  Jesus’ circumcision, his presentation in the Jerusalem Temple, and the family’s return to Nazareth. The timescale here is around 6 weeks. In Matthew, however, Jesus is born and, some time thereafter, the ‘wise men’ appear. The family then have to flee to Egypt to escape King Herod’s ‘slaughter of the innocents’. After Herod’s death, they naturally head back to their house in Bethlehem but, being warned that it’s not safe, go north instead, and set up home in Nazareth. This timescale is considerably longer than 6 weeks. Two different writers, two different stories.

Matthew and Luke believe Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, the Son of God and Saviour of the World, and they want to boost their argument that this is the case. They each construct ‘genealogies’ to make Jesus a descendant of two key figures in the Hebrew Bible – the patriarch Abraham, and King David. Unfortunately, these ‘genealogies’ don’t square with one another, nor with other genealogical lists in the Hebrew Bible but then, who ever pays close, detailed attention (or any attention) to genealogies, unless they’re having difficulty in sleeping? 

An illustrious person ought surely to have had an exceptional birth, and it’s therefore fitting that Matthew and Luke should provide one for Jesus. Matthew, a Greek speaker, whose Bible was the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, finds ‘evidence’ there in a ‘prophecy’ about a ‘virgin’ giving birth to a son. Unfortunately, the original verse in the Hebrew Bible does not use the word for ‘virgin’, but one that simply means ‘young woman’. Matthew’s is a good, human interest, story, but if we try to turn it into history, the rug is pulled from under our feet.

This is not about rubbishing the nativity stories. It’s simply about recognising and acknowledging that stories is what they are. The key question is, what meanings can we draw from them?

Recommended Reading : 

“The Nativity : History and Legend”.  Geza Vermes.  Penguin Books.  2006.

2 responses to “The Nativity Stories (i) Asking Questions”

  1. It would have been interesting to read what you might have said if your last sentence had actually been your first. Then you might have considered the significances that the two gospel writers were actually trying to draw out in different ways (not to speak of the wonderful St John 1:1-14 which with its Logos seeking to penetrate darkness is as up-to date now as when written): this man who they believed with good reason that God had raised from the dead: what were the influences and shaping that played upon such a man’s birth,keeping it within the tradition they sought each differently to emphasise and yet moving beyond that tradition. The collective resources of myth and story have of course been blended into further inspirational material- the inspired acts to re-inspire(which is why the ancient book is never out of date)- in the nature of carols and nativity plays and Nine Lessons and Carols.Thank God-is what I-in contrast to the writer of this piece-would apparentlysay!.

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    1. My “last sentence”, Alan, isn’t the last. You may not have noticed that this post is number (i). Others will follow, though none I imagine will be to your liking.
      You mention what I “might have considered”, which probably means what ‘you’ would have considered. I limit myself to a maximum of 750 words, and therefore select, from many possibilities, the one I choose to focus on, which doubtless wouldn’t be your choice, but then it’s I who am the author.
      My focus here is on what I consider to be the easily evidenced fact, (though there are still those who think otherwise), that these wonderful [a precisely chosen word] stories cannot be regarded as history but, let us say, as ‘religious literature’ from which, as is the case with any form of literature, a variety of meanings can be drawn.
      I’ll get to that as this short series progresses, though I can’t imagine that your response to what I write will change. I have to say, however, that you are not the audience I’m writing for, and the response so far indicates that there are those who do ‘like’ what they’re reading.
      I do appreciate your comments, which aren’t, however, new to me. You’re aware of the fact that I was a conservative evangelical teacher and preacher. I’ve moved on since then, to my impoverishment you might think, but to my enrichment is my experience, and I’m happy to thus continue my travelling, as open-mindedly as I possibly can.
      I’ll thoroughly enjoy this Christmas season, which will include the nativity stories, my favourite Christmas carols, the Old Testament ‘lessons’ associated with many of them, my annual dip into Dickens, and some of my favourite Christmas poems, John Betjamin’s being one of them that never fails to move my heart when I read it. “And is it true?” Of course it’s true, not in the same way as for you, perhaps, but in a way that is, I’d dare to believe, equally deeply meaningful and emotionally moving.
      I’m sure the same will be the case for you, and I wish you and Isabel a very meaningful and memorable Christmas season.

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