Sunday, 19 December 2010

Debunking the Nativity

The Christmas Nativity story is well-known the world over and at this time of year it is told and re-told, in school plays, in films, on advent calendars and on Christmas cards.

Some people might be surprised to discover though, how many of the traditional elements are actually quite different from the 2 Biblical accounts (which are the only historical evidence we have of these events): one in the Gospel of Matthew and one in the gospel of Luke.

These are the main examples that come to mind:

No Room at the Inn?
This part of the story comes from Luke, who records that after Jesus was born, Mary "wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room in the kataluma".  "kataluma" is a Greek word which can be translated as "inn" or "guest room" depending on context.  In a small house, a "kataluma" might not even be a room - it could just be a small space set aside for guests.  Elsewhere in Luke, and also in Mark, it is translated as "guest room", but on this occasion many (although not all) English translations have favoured "inn".  It is actually much more likely though, that Mary and Joseph were staying with relatives, since Joseph's family were from that area, and the "kataluma" was full because other family members were also staying due to the census.

Luke's account doesn't even say that Jesus was born in a stable - only that Mary placed him in a manger because it was the only space available.  Small houses at that time were often built on 2 levels, with animals housed on the lower level - so a suitable manger might have been quite close to hand!

Finally, the sense of urgency in the traditional Nativity stories - i.e., "quick, find an inn, I'm about to have a baby!" - doesn't quite equate to Luke's more laid back version: "While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born".

We Three Kings?
Matthew records that the visitors were "Magi from the east" (Luke doesn't mention them).  We don't really know anything about them except that they were probably astrologers and had presumably travelled a long way.  This and the nature of their gifts suggests they were likely to have been men of wealth and influence but almost certainly not kings.

We don't know how many there were as Matthew doesn't record this information.  Neither does he record any of their names - "Melchior", "Caspar" and "Balthazar" all come from later church tradition.

Finally, the Magi almost certainly did not visit (as is commonly portrayed in Nativity plays, cards and calendars) on the same night as the shepherds.  The shepherds' visit is recorded by Luke and the Magi by Matthew.  According to Luke, the shepherds visited while Jesus was still pretty much a new born.  Matthew doesn't say how old Jesus' was by the time the Magi found him, only that they came to "the house" and "saw the child with his mother".  After realising the Magi have double-crossed him and are not going to tell him where Jesus is, Herod then issues a decree to kill all boys in the vicinity who are "two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi".

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