Sifting for Truth amongst the Myths and Legends

Nativity – Image by Herbert Aust from Pixabay

Since we are still in the season of Christmas, this month I’ve decided to write about the Nativity (the story about the birth of Jesus).  As I start to write, it is yet to come, but as you read this, it has gone, and your attention has shifted to the New Year!  How quickly our attention switches!

The Christmas Story is probably the one story of the Bible that the greatest number of people are most familiar with — after a fashion.  We have a story about an angel visiting Mary who gets pregnant, and she, along with her “husband”, travel to Bethlehem.  We are told Mary rides a donkey (with go-faster stripes?), and, soon after arriving, she gives birth in a stable (or was it?), but the only bed the baby gets, is the feeding trough of the animals.  More angels also get in on the act as they tell some shepherds the news, and then three kings come following a star to worship (the infant?) Jesus. 

So, where is the Truth amongst the Myths and Legends?   I guess any Christmas cards you received that show the baby, will also have an ox and/or an ass depicted – nope, they wouldn’t have been anywhere near the baby.  If the baby really was born in a stable, it would have been mucked out, fresh straw laid, and the animals would have either been outside, or in a separate stall.  That’s not to say there wouldn’t have been a farming odour, clearly there would.  But where you have oxen you have liquid poop, so any idea that Mary went into labour amongst cattle, or donkeys, is complete nonsense.  Besides, the Bible narrative doesn’t mention oxen were present, nor donkeys, or any other animals for that matter.  It is possible they might have been sharing the space with other human guests though.

Are Christmas Carols more accurate?  Not a bit of it.  Most are historically erroneous if you have Matthew and Luke open beside you.  Other than that, you have some carols referring to the winter, or snow, and that baby Jesus didn’t cry, or that Mary gave birth “silently”!  I’m happy to grant some poetic licence, but uncomfortable when so much of today’s narrative builds on Dickensian tradition rather than the facts.

Many tableaux depict an angel standing guard behind Mary and Joseph, then you get geese, cats and dogs, sometimes even Gabby the pink flamingo – if school plays are to be believed! 

Sorry to burst all those sentimental images.  The picture I’ve used above is very typical.  I don’t have any deep objections, but many of the characters just weren’t around in the “stable”.  See what you think about its accuracy at the end of the piece.

The Bible narratives about the nativity are found primarily in Matthew 1:18­­­­­­ – 2:23 and in Luke 1:26 – 2:39.  Either open your Bible at those passages or click that link, so you can follow the story.  Essentially the two narratives don’t easily mesh with each other and many feel that because the differences are so pronounced, we should treat them with caution.  For instance, both writers start their books with the genealogy of Jesus, but they are radically different.  There is some commonality between Abraham and David, but between David and Joseph both writers go their own separate ways, with barely anything in common.

To us this conflict presents a problem.  I was recently listening to a podcast where it was explained that in the second century there was an Assyrian Christian attempt to harmonise the Gospels, but “… it’s very interesting that that attempt to harmonise was very strenuously suppressed.  The Christians at that early time decided to live with the differences.  It wasn’t that they were stupid and couldn’t see that there are differences between the Gospels, but they decided that there was a point in those differences being there.  They believed in the inspiration of scripture in a way that we really don’t — even in the evangelical world.  It is interesting that the modern way of trying to express respect for scripture is to try to say, ‘yeah, it’s all seamlessly the same story’.  That’s not the way the Early Church did it, and they opted for authenticity rather than ease.  They thought that the Holy Spirit was making a point by deciding to encode these truths in this difficult way, and they worked on those difficulties, and in working at those difficulties, rather than brushing them under the carpet — and they got some great riches.”  [Transcript] Charles Foster interviewed on Unapologetic (Premier Radio) about his book “The Christmas Mystery”.

So, both Gospel versions can be true: Matthew tells the story focussing on Joseph, and Luke focuses on Mary and Elizabeth. 

Bearing in mind those comments I have tried to write a version of the Nativity story that makes sense of what we are told in the two narratives — at least at the normal human level, and where there are issues, I’ll point them out!  So, if I were writing a screenplay for television or radio, I would take on board the following:

  • Firstly, Mary and Joseph would have been betrothed from about the time when Mary was slightly older than twelve, maybe twelve and a half.  Betrothal was effectively a promise, or community recognised commitment that these two people would eventually become what we understand to be a husband and wife, though in the early stages, Mary and Joseph would continue living with their respective parents, so there would be no “consummation” at this stage.  Joseph would have paid the “bride price” to Mary’s father at the betrothal and they would be regarded as legally married, so the only way the betrothal could be broken would be by death or divorce.  In the meantime, the husband would be expected to build a home for himself and his wife, and once complete, convention indicates he would call on his wife to bring her to his home, at which point there would be 7 days of feasting.  The marriage would normally be consummated during this period.
  • Mary was probably not much more than 14 or 15, when Jesus is born.
  • Joseph may have been as young as 18, or as old as 25-30.  There is a possibility he had been married previously and been widowed (deaths in childbirth weren’t uncommon) which would place him in the older range, because most men were married by the time they were eighteen. In any case, we are not told.
  • Luke 1:26 tells us that Gabriel, one of God’s chief angels went to Nazareth where Mary was living, as was presumably, Joseph (with his own family), although his family line came from Bethlehem.  Joseph probably still had relatives in Bethlehem.  Some writers think Joseph also lived there, but for me it doesn’t work, and I’ll explain shortly.  Gabriel’s message was that Mary was to give birth to Jesus, the Son of God, and that he would be the Saviour of the world, “and you probably don’t know, but Elizabeth is also pregnant”.
  • At the Visitation, Mary is a virgin, probably aged around 13-14yrs, and there is no sensible reason to doubt her virginity, given her likely age.  In addition, no-one alive at the time of the Early Church questioned it.  It was one of their earliest doctrines.  Later on, Mary goes on to have further children so, doesn’t remain a virgin.  However, some traditions hold that Mary was a perpetual virgin, but that presents more issues, since she would not have borne other children.  It also presents Joseph with a huge problem: not only is Mary pregnant with a child that isn’t his, but he could never have sex with her in the future and continue his own family line – one of the major reasons for marriage.
  • Luke 1:39 tells us she soon travelled to visit her relative Elizabeth, who was pregnant with a baby who was destined to become John the Baptist.  Why didn’t Mary stay with her family — the angel hadn’t instructed her to go.  She is barely an adult, so did her father give her permission to go?  Why go to an elderly relative?  Did Mary tell her family she was going to have a child?  Did she say Joseph wasn’t the father?  One can imagine there would be one hell of a stushie!  Or did she just say nothing, and leave to see Elizabeth before anything became obvious, since she knew what the reaction would be?  That doesn’t sound likely because Matthew 1: 18-19 uses the expression: “she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.”  How was she “found to be pregnant”?  The passage doesn’t say that “she found herself to be pregnant” meaning she knew before anyone else.  The passage seems to hint that “others” found out.  Maybe, the family recognised Mary’s morning sickness symptoms, causing the story to come out, and Mary was packed off to Elizabeth.  This would give time to think things through, and for the immediate hostility and danger (with Mary potentially being killed), along with the obvious family embarrassment, to die down.  Alternatively, did she tell her family about the angel?  Imagine how you’d react if your fourteen-year-old daughter told you this stuff today.
  • An alternative reason for Mary’s journey, was to verify what she had been told by the angel.  Elizabeth had kept her pregnancy quiet for five months. So, because no-one knew, if Mary found Elizabeth was pregnant, this would verify the message.
  • Did Mary tell Joseph she was pregnant before she went to Elizabeth, or when she came back?  We aren’t told.
  • Elizabeth’s exact relationship to Mary isn’t clear.  In places she is described as a cousin, and elsewhere she is regarded as an aunt.  In any case she is much older and post-menopausal.  We don’t know exactly where she lived, but it was in the hill-country of Judea, so probably around 5-miles from Jerusalem, since her husband was a priest serving in the temple.
Israel During the Time of Jesus –
  • What is remarkable is that Mary (probably aged around 14yrs) travels by foot seemingly on her own, a distance close to 80 miles, from Nazareth (level with the bottom of the Sea of Galilee) to a village in the hill country, near Jerusalem.  (Some say the distance is 65 miles and some nearer to 80 miles — it depends on which route you take and how direct.  And don’t forget the steep hills, and they didn’t have tarmacked roads and tracks!)  If she had a travelling companion, we aren’t told, and clearly, they didn’t get to stay with Mary and Elizabeth.  Then, three months later, and around the time Elizabeth gives birth, Mary, who would have been noticeably pregnant by then, walks the 70/80 miles back again to Nazareth (with a chaperone?).  What were Mary’s parents thinking?  Were they happy Mary went away?  Why did Mary return at that point? Was she safe travelling?  What were they thinking when she came back with a baby bump?  Why didn’t she stay longer to help Elizabeth with the new baby?  She must have been in a protected environment with Zechariah and Elizabeth.  We simply don’t know the backstory.
  • Let’s come back to Joseph, using Matthew’s account, and once again we don’t have nearly enough information.  We don’t know when he learned of Mary’s pregnancy.  Was it before she left, or on her return from Elizabeth and Zechariah?
  • We are told he “Did not want to expose her to public disgrace”, which might have involved Mary being stoned to death, because she must have “been with a man” who wasn’t her husband.  He planned to divorce her quietly (Matt 1:19).  Joseph must have been quite a troubled man at this point, burning up inside, knowing that Mary was pregnant, but that he wasn’t the father.  After all it is completely impossible for someone to get pregnant without a man being involved somewhere in the story.  Joseph is completely reasonable to have assumed Mary had been “indiscrete” with someone.  When does God ever make someone pregnant without a man being involved — throughout human history (billions of lives), it has only happened once.  Why did it have to happen to him?  He knew Mary doesn’t lie, but she must be lying, because she’s pregnant, and he wasn’t the daddy!  Finally, an angel appeared to him in a dream to tell him “Stop worrying — Mary hasn’t betrayed you.  This is a very special baby from God, so you really must marry her, it’s important.”  Why did I use the word “finally” to start the last sentence.  It’s because we have a problem.  For both the Elizabeth story and Joseph’s dream to work, there must be time lapse, because at the end of Joseph’s dream narrative, Matthew 1: 24 says: “When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.”  There is an immediacy involved.  It simply doesn’t fit that Mary was found to be pregnant, then Joseph has his dream, takes Mary home and marries her and then she goes away for three months to Elizabeth.  The narrative fits much better to think that Mary was found to be pregnant, and goes away (or, was sent away, possibly without even telling Joseph, initially) to Elizabeth for three months.  Joseph finds out, and then agonizes and wrestles about what to do, and finally (that’s why I used it!) near the end of those three months the angel appears to Joseph with the reassuring message.  He then travels to collect Mary from Elizabeth’s to bring her back to Nazareth, so the next stage of the betrothal could commence, which would explain why she didn’t stay longer to help the soon-to-be new mother. 
  • With that in mind, Mary’s time with Elizabeth might have been very difficult (emotionally terrible?) because her reputation is in tatters, and there would be the worry about whether Joseph would go through with the marriage.  The angel had only promised a baby, not that Joseph would stay and be her husband.  Would she be a divorced single parent?
  • As I mentioned earlier, some sources believe Joseph and his immediate family lived in Bethlehem.  I’m not convinced about that.  The narratives give the impression that Mary and Joseph were poor people from poor families.  If Joseph was living in Bethlehem in the province of Judea — even if Mary’s family had a distant connection with Joseph’s — why would his parents pick the daughter of another poor family in the province of Galilee, 70-80 miles distant, more than half the length of the country away?  It’s like a poor family living in Harrogate 200-years ago, looking for a wife for their son, and they decide to check out someone distantly related in Lincoln and ignoring any options in Leeds and the other towns in between.  There must have been a prospective wife in Bethlehem, or even in Jerusalem, which is very close by.  I therefore think Joseph must have been staying in Nazareth, as it seems far more logical.
  • Now we step back to the Luke account focussing on chapter 2.  Before we dig into the text, I must mention the timeline.  By way of explanation, Jesus’ birth year is thought to be anywhere between 4BC and 7AD, possibly later, though 4BC is frequently mentioned.  We can’t know for sure.  Luke dates the Nativity as when “Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.  (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.)  Matthew’s clue about the dating, is the star that led the magi, who we’ll come back to later.  The astral object could be a comet (Halley’s Comet was kicking about in 11BC), or a planetary alignment (such as that between Mars, Saturn and Jupiter occurring in 7BC), but they don’t tie up nicely with the census.  There is some difficulty with the census, but a possible one is that which occurred in 7AD.  If you are interested in the history, have a look at this link which asks “Was there really a census during the time of Caesar Augustus?”  The historical markers that Matthew and Luke use therefore seem to conflict with each other.  I don’t really think it should be an issue to worry about unless you like your Bible to be 100% literally true – see Charles Foster’s earlier comment.
  • So, Luke 2 records that Joseph went with Mary, from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  Bethlehem is further on still from Elizabeth’s house, about 4 days walk at 20 miles per day from Nazareth, but with Mary being heavily pregnant by now, probably a few days longer.  Did they stop for a rest at Elizabeth and Zechariah’s on the way through?  We always see pictures of Mary riding a donkey, but because they were poor, they would not have been able to own one themselves.  It is possible someone lent them a donkey for the trip, but it cannot be regarded with any certainty.  Perhaps they travelled with a small group of others who had a donkey, and Mary was able to hitch a lift for some of the journey.  Bear in mind that Mary and Joseph weren’t in Bethlehem for just a few days, but for possibly two years — and maybe longer.  So, if they had borrowed the donkey, returning it to its owner would be a problem.
  • We aren’t told how long they are in Bethlehem before Mary deliver’s her son, but we are told that He is lain in a manger because there is no room for them in the κατάλυμα / katalyma (or kataluma), which gets translated as inn, or guest house.  That word gets used for several different types of accommodation and it is difficult to proscribe exactly what was available.  Other definitions are “guestchamber”, “a halt for the night” or “lodging place” but these places are where strangers would stay.  Joseph is thought to have had relatives there, so it’s likely their shelter would have belonged to them, albeit not Travelodge quality!
  • The word “stable” however, doesn’t appear anywhere in the text, but is a derivation because Jesus was said to have been lain in a manger (vv7, 12 and 16).  By way of clarification, various scholars have argued that Mary and Joseph may have stayed in the reception room of a relative’s home.  Under the customs of the time (notably the rules of hospitality), relatives had an obligation to help out.  Palestinian homes tended to be built over the top of a lower room where animals were brought in overnight.  If Bethlehem was crowded (its normal estimated population was just a few hundred people), it’s entirely likely that this area would be cleared out and used by people who had nowhere else to stay.  The manger isn’t likely to have been the wooden feeding trough we usually see depicted, but a stone hollow cut into the ground and on this occasion, lined with straw.  If they didn’t stay in this type of building, we know that there were other crude shelters typically built so that either people or animals could stay under shelter.  If you want to read how Rev Dr Ian Paul (who I’ve quoted in my main essay Changing Minds – A Thorough Exploration of the Issues To Reconcile being LGBTQ with the Bible) wrote about this in his blog, “Jesus was not born in a stable” you can find it here, on the Guardian website.
  • Wherever it was it wouldn’t have been very private.
  • Luke goes on to tell us that this is the moment God does the big reveal, and sings about the birth of the baby using angels, who appear to shepherds who were minding their own business, looking after the sheep.  Why shepherds?  This is consistent with the whole Bible narrative, because shepherds were the lowest of the low, possibly with the exception of swineherds.  If you were the child of a sheep farmer or were incapable of doing anything else, you became a shepherd.  They would stay out in the fields for days at a time, so hygiene wasn’t a major issue.  No coming home after work, taking a shower, and putting on a new set of clothes.  As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 1: 26-29, God chooses the downtrodden to have the special place in his Kingdom.
  • Eight days after his birth, Jesus is circumcised and officially given the name “Jesus,” in line with God’s instruction.
  • Then after 40 days, the little family go to Jerusalem for Mary’s purification after giving birth — in accordance with the Laws of Moses, and to present Jesus to the Lord.  To demonstrate how poor they are, they offer “a pair of doves or two young pigeons,” because they couldn’t afford a lamb. 
  • In the Temple the family meet Simeon, who had been prompted to go to the temple that day to meet the future salvation of God.  It’s a joyous meeting and well worth reading if you haven’t yet.  See Luke 2: 25-35.  Simeon offers a blessing on Mary and Joseph and gives Mary a warning about the future.  They also meet up with another old saint called Anna, who is probably around 104yrs old (married for 7 years; lived as a widow for 84yrs, presumably originally betrothed at 12/13yrs old) and she can’t stop talking about the child to any who will listen!  It’s ironic how geographically close Herod came to meeting Mary, Joseph and Jesus — read on.   If he only knew!
  • Now we run into another verse that kicks the timeline all over the park again.  Luke writes that after they had done all the purification stuff, they “returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.”  That doesn’t fit Matthew’s narrative, so let’s see where Matthew takes his narrative. 
  • Matthew doesn’t describe anything relating to the journey and stay in Bethlehem.  He starts the main part of his story with what happened after Jesus was born, and he begins with the visit of the Wise Men, which is generally accepted to be two years after the Nativity.  So, if we are two years after the birth and the family are still living in Bethlehem, why did Luke say that they “returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth” — just 40 days after Jesus was born? recognise the problem because, when they comment on the phrase “they returned into Galilee” they explain that they hadn’t travelled from Galilee, “but from Bethlehem, where Mary gave birth, and her time for purification was now just expired: nor did they go now directly to Galilee; or, if they did, they soon came back again to Bethlehem, since here the wise men found them two years” [later].  That doesn’t sit comfortably, because there are unanswered questions:
    • why go to Galilee only to return to Bethlehem — remember the distances we talked about earlier, and Nazareth was their home anyway?
    • Or, as Bethlehem is close to Jerusalem (about five miles), why not simply return from the Temple to Bethlehem?

There are perhaps two explanations that seems to make sense:

  1. The couple made a brief “family visit” but didn’t stay because there was more work for Joseph in Bethlehem, and around Jerusalem.
  2. Luke doesn’t see the wise men and the trip to Egypt as that significant, and so skips forward through time and picks up his story again back in Nazareth. 

Both are equally valid.

  • Getting back to the star of Bethlehem – we have always assumed the star, was a bright stellar object that no-one could miss, but supposing that star was just a star with no unusual brightness, but that it was special because of its movement or position in the sky, or in a specific constellation.  The idea of a bright stellar object came to the fore in the paintings of the Middle Ages because Jesus was special and, after all, why wouldn’t God blow all the whistles and clang all the bells in the night sky, to announce Jesus’ birth.  It’s a bit like they also put halos around the heads of all the important people in their pictures.  We have simply unthinkingly followed their tradition.  To my mind, I like the suggestion it was an ordinary star – something only the experts would notice.  The magi knew and recognised what the skies looked like and didn’t need a big bright star.  You and I probably say: “Orion?  Where’s that in the sky?”  We would NEED a blinking great bright object!  Furthermore, the star doesn’t seem visible all the time, as they have to go to King Herod to clarify.  If it were permanently visible they’d go straight to Bethlehem. King Herod is extremely miffed to have a new rival King born on his doorstep – if he had only known they had visited Jerusalem a couple of years earlier! His Palace and the Temple are less than a mile apart.
    I’m not that bothered whether the story is tied up with a nice bow, because Luke isn’t writing a forensic report for us, but is writing an account for the people of his day, that they would be able to determine as true, having known the people and watched the events.
  • When they are [back in] Bethlehem, there are a few things to note: 
    • Mary and Joseph are no longer staying in a stable.  The text describes the wise men coming into the “house.”  So, all those Christmas cards with the “kings” in the stable, are wrong!
    • Jesus is referred to as a child (verse 11), not a baby, now.  No manger scene here!
    • The number of Wise Men is not limited to three.  The number three is assumed because of the three gifts (gold, frankincense, and myrrh) but it could have been any number, two, three, four, … seven.
    • They are not kings.  Forget that carol “We Three Kings of Orient are …” Another instance of not letting inconvenient facts get in the way of a good carol!  Instead, commentators variously describe them as Parthian Priests (or nobles), Astrologers, Zoroastrian priests, and one source described them as shamen.  Whatever, they were not your typical Christian worshipper, and probably wouldn’t be welcomed through the doors of many churches today!
  • God spoke to these (pagan) wise men and told them to skip the bit about going back to Herod and just head home, presumably to continue being astrologers — no attempt is made to get them to change their faith structure away from paganistic astrology.
  • On probably the same night as the wise men’s visit, Joseph is woken by God in a dream and told to flee to Egypt, or at least Egyptian-controlled territory, which would be about 50 miles or so further south — see the map above.  During the night, they pack their things and escape.  I’d love to ask what they did with the gifts they had just received from the wise men, but we aren’t told.  Many speculate that Joseph sold it to fund their trip to Egypt, and their later travels back to Nazareth.  We don’t know how much there was, but you can’t sell it in the middle of the night.  At this point, did Joseph have any donkeys to carry the gifts and his family (till the gifts could be sold)?  There wasn’t time for any delay, because Bethlehem was only a couple of hours walk from Jerusalem and a lot less than that by horse.  Did Joseph tell anyone where they were going?  Was he able to buy a donkey or two from his relatives, or a neighbour?  Or did the folks nearby, simply wake, and find them gone?
  • The moonlit flit was because Herod felt threatened by the baby and decided to do away with all the babies under 2 years old.  How many were killed?  One source writes: According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “The Greek Liturgy asserts that Herod killed 14,000 boys […], the Syrians speak of 64,000, [and] many medieval authors of 144,000.” However, this number of children is greater than the entire population of Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth.  The number of dead is more likely to have been between 15 and 30, but that’s still appalling, especially as this Herod only lived for between a few months and about 5-years after this, so the massacre was utterly pointless and appalling.  Jesus left Bethlehem before the massacre, but had other young families quite innocently also moved to other parts of the country in the intervening two years, thus avoiding the killings?  Again, we aren’t told.
  • Jesus was a refugee for either “a few weeks to a number of years”.  As a political side issue, that web link also goes on to make the comment that: “The Bible may not use the word ‘refugee,’ but they are certainly included when the Bible says ‘The foreigners residing among you must be treated as native-born.  Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt’ (Leviticus 19.34).  We may not know much about Jesus’ exile in Egypt, but it does remind us that we need to care for refugees, as Jesus himself was a refugee.”  Are you listening Mr Sunak, and Mrs Braverman?
  • When Herod died, the family travelled back to Nazareth.  During this journey Joseph gets his third and fourth messages from God in the form of dreams, and these tell him where to settle.  The language of verse 23 is a little odd.  It reads: “He came to a town called Nazareth and lived there.”  It sounds like the writer was introducing them to a place that was unfamiliar to them, and the reader — odd, since they (definitely Mary) had been permanently living there a few years previously.
  • I mentioned Joseph had received four dreams.  As a recap they were: 1) take Mary as your wife; 2) escape to Egypt right now; 3) It’s OK to go back to Israel; 4) Oh, about Judea, skip that, and go to Galilee. 

Maybe Joseph was more open to hearing God in dreams, and maybe when speaking to us, God just uses the method we are most receptive to, which today might be: through written text, conversation from a friend or pastor, audio via TV/radio/podcast, or even dreams, an angel, or something else. 

Whatever thing it is that makes you open to God speaking to you, please make time to listen for his voice.

May I wish you all a very happy New Year, and that you become increasingly aware of God’s presence with you, made possible by that first Nativity.