During this Christmas season, tales of stars and donkeys, shepherds and kings will be told by Christians around the world. Most are fully aware that the three kings are in fact an unspecified number of wise men and only appear in Matthew’s Gospel. The shepherds are only found in Luke’s gospel and as for innkeepers and publicans, they arise from a mistranslation of guestroom. There was no room in the house so Mary and Joseph were invited downstairs to sleep with the animals. (See No Room at the Inn ) The controversy of the Virgin Birth can also be understood within the context of differing interpretations of the description of Mary as a “young woman”.
The evangelists John and Mark don’t contain descriptions of the birth at all and furthermore, many church-goers accept the whole narrative canvas of Christmas stories as fictional. This does nothing to diminish power of those stories; on the contrary, it renders them ever more powerful, enduring and inspiring.
This Christmas, besides seeking to offer hospitality, to be generous in our giving, to recognise the divinity in each other, to be humble in giving birth to the things of God, let us celebrate the work of biblical scholars who over the last two hundred years and more have unpicked different sources within the Old Testament books, brought to light the relationships between the gospels, highlighted the creativity and characters of the biblical writers and their communities, and freed us to interpret their stories in ways that are relevant to us and our times.
Above all, let us seek not to belittle the intelligence of our congregations young and old by pretending we know nothing of this rich history.
In hundreds of Christmas Nativity plays across the land innkeepers and innkeepers’ wives are turning away a dejected holy family with the familiar words “No room at the inn”.
Many of my readers will know as well as I do that in the gospels, in fact no such inhospitable publican exists. In the tale of the Good Samaritan in Luke’s Gospel, there is an inn and an innkeeper but when he tells the Christmas story he doesn’t use that word for inn. The word he uses means more simply room, guest room or place.
Mary and Joseph travel to their family home for the census and stay with relatives. As they are betrothed they are given the guest room – most houses had one. However when the baby is due, there isn’t enough space in the guest room for all the midwives and women to help with the birth, so they would have been moved into the larger downstairs family room. As in most dwellings at the time, this would be where the animals and the manger were kept.
All this, by the way, is not a modern discovery; it was known at the time of the Spanish Inquisition when one hapless Francisco Sánchez de las Brozas was brought before the Inquisitors for teaching it to his students!
Every year some newspaper columnist would tell us that the real Christmas story isn’t like it is in the nativity plays, and every year a well-meaning parishioner would draw my attention to such an article with indignation; do journalists think Christians to be naive and deluded? Do they think we don’t take our biblical studies seriously?
The reality is – in religious terms it’s all of little consequence.
We don’t live and die by the historical accuracy of the Christmas story but by the truths about human life written into it and by the spirit it imbues into our lives. Unless the telling of the Christmas story, the singing of the carols and the coming out in the dead of night for a midnight mass make some difference to our understanding of who we are, it counts for nothing.
If there is one thing that the Christmas story teaches us it’s that the things of God – love, life, happiness – come to us like tiny babies that have to be swaddled and cherished, nurtured and disciplined. Such is the way we should cherish every little bit of love and life and happiness that comes our way.