It is fascinating to look at the Christmas story and see that actually the real Christmas story has been wrapped up in tinsel and wrapping paper and so strongly covered that we are in real danger of making the Christmas story only fit for children.
Only two of the Gospels look at the birth narrative, Luke and Matthew, so I want to look at some of the things that we can tell or deduce from the Christmas story (hint: look away now if you want to stay with the “traditional” reading of Matthew and Luke!)
There are a whole series of different things that we could look at but the birth narrative is one of the key elements that has some strange things in it.
The traditional story that we see performed each year actually derives from a document written around the year 200 – The protevangelism of James – this has such details as Mary giving birth as soon as they arrived in Bethlehem and giving birth in a cave; he describes the journey from Nazareth as going through a desert. But the reality, as described in Luke especially, is very different.
Joseph and Mary arrive in Bethlehem because there is a census and Joseph was of the House of David. The traditional story says that they couldn’t find any room to stay and so they end up in a stable behind an inn because there was no room.
But is this true?
Well the answer, I am afraid is no. Very romantic but untrue.
The reality is that Joseph was of the House of David and he would have been welcomed in Bethlehem and the culture would have ensured that a pregnant woman was looked after. Two key things unlock what really happened. The word for “inn” and the “manger”. The word for a commercial inn is the greek word pandocheion, the word used in Luke is katalyma. Luke uses this word in Luke 22:10-12 and it refers to the upper room – which was obviously a guest room in a private house. Therefore we can deduce that there was no room in the “guest room”. The outline of a typical house in Bethelehem can be shown below (from Kenneth Bailey’s Jesus through Middle Eastern eyes):
What this shows is that instead of being born in a stable behind an inn because no-one cared we see a different idea. The truth is that Jesus was born in the main room of a house because there was no room in the guest room. It was the guest room that was full rather than an inn! He was placed in a manger in that room and not in a cold and lonely stable.
Of course, Mary didn’t wear blue. It was far too expensive (made from grinding the semi-precious stone lapis Lazuli) and was used later in art to indicate her set-apartness.
The birth narrative is often portrayed as being “in the bleak mid-winter”. Now I love carols but I don’t turn to them for my theology! Since the shepherd were minding their sheep in the hills around Bethlehem we can be pretty certain that it wasn’t winter time. It is far more likely to have been at a warmer time of the year.
Then there are the Wise Men. Now we don’t know how many there were we are only told that there were three gifts. Usually we celebrate their arrival on the 6th January, a few days, after the birth! But given that Herod ordered all children under the age of two killed their arrival could have been when Jesus was a toddler!
But where did the Wise Men (or Magi) come from? Well we get some idea from Isaiah 60:5-6
The wealth of the nations shall come to you.A multitude of camels shall cover you,the young camels of Midian and Ephah;all those from Sheba shall come.They shall bring gold and frankincense,and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.
Sheba is in the Southern Arabian peninsular. So, Matthew is pointing out that even the gentile arabs are coming to the promised to Messiah (rather than the traditional Babylonians).
So, what are we left with? Well actually a far deeper story than a children’s pantomime.
The writers of Luke and Matthew are trying to tell the story of the long promised Messiah coming and fulfilling the promises to Israel made centuries before. Sometimes, we want to make it so extreme to exclude the people of Israel, but the writers of the Gospels are very clear that Jesus came to the people of Israel. What this story says is that Jesus comes to His people and in that coming also includes the shepherds (seen as unclean and on the margins of society) and the gentiles. In other words where in the past it has been possible to interpret the story in an anti-Jewish way that is no longer possible.