Friday, December 22, 2006

The Nativity Story?

In the 2003 film Love Actually, Emma Thompson’s character is surprised to learn that her daughter has been cast as the “First Lobster” in a nativity play. “There was more than one lobster present at the birth of Jesus?” she asks. “Duh,” replies her daughter.

I think many of us would share her shock. After all, even non-churchy types know the cast of the Nativity, from the dioramas that appear as centerpieces of First Amendment controversies about this time every year: there’s Mary and Joseph and the Holy Infant, of course, plus some shepherds and the three wise men. That’s how the Bible describes it, right?

Not exactly. Rather, the Bible presents us with two versions of the birth of Jesus. The Gospels of Mark and John don’t discuss it at all, but Matthew and Luke present two competing stories that over time have been morphed into a single familiar narrative.

The two versions aren’t just minor variations on details and wording, like so many other discrepancies in the Gospels. They are wholly separate stories. Only Matthew gives us three wise men and a star; only Luke gives us no room at the inn and a manger in a stable.

These stories present problems for Christians who insist the Bible is historically accurate. To make that assertion, one must piece together independent details not corroborated by any other source and make a claim for a textual unity that simply does not exist, and do so by deliberately ignoring elements of the story that are contradictory.

For example, everyone knows that Joseph and the pregnant Mary had to travel to Bethlehem from Nazareth to register for the census, and that because there was no room at the inn, Jesus was born in a manger in a stable. But Matthew doesn’t mention a census, and gives every indication that Jesus was simply born at home, though both agree Jesus was born in Bethlehem.

Luke tells us, after Jesus’ circumcision and presentation at the temple, that “they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.” But Matthew says they fled to Egypt to escape King Herod’s massacre of all children “in and around Bethlehem,” and that they only returned after Herod’s death. Because Joseph was afraid of the new ruler, Archelaus, “he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth.”

So the next time you see a nativity scene that includes the Three Wise Men, you may perhaps want to point out that there is every bit as much scriptural support for their inclusion as there would be for a lobster, or even this particular variation.

26 comments:

Elizabeth said...

The gospel doesn't even say *three* wise men, only that there were wise men, magi. It was probably a lot more than three.

Andy said...

D'oh! Missed that, thank you!

GaryDavisonJr. said...

Competing? What do you mean exactly by that?

I can see the differences as far as one reading that He was born in Bethlehem and the other giving more details.


“So the next time you see a nativity scene that includes the Three Wise Men, you may perhaps want to point out that there is every bit as much scriptural support for their inclusion as there would be for a lobster” Whatever, Andy. You know better than that: .

GaryDavisonJr. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
GaryDavisonJr. said...

I must have my head up my butt. I can't get a link to post. Here is the long way around. Both of those post should have had a link to:

http://www.gnpcb.org/esv/search/?q=Matthew+2

Andy said...

Actually, Gary, that statement is totally accurate. The "Nativity Scene" is invariably a manger in a stable, which is only supportable from the Gospel of Luke, who does not mention wise men. (And even so, tradition holds that the wise men did not reach Jesus until Epiphany, twelve days after his birth. If Mary and Joseph were really traveling to Bethlehem for the census, do you think they're still staying in the barn after nearly two weeks?)

Anyway, the point is, you can only justify both a manger AND wise men in a simultaneous setting if you are willing to string to individual elements together from separate stories.

Andy said...

Gary: from the link you provided me, check out Verse 11, "and going into the HOUSE." Matthew says Jesus was at home, not in a manger.

GaryDavisonJr. said...

yes, it says house. but, that word could mean (and i don't have a lexicon or concordance) a structure or something of that nature. Possibly an inn or a house [stable] ?

So the next time you see a nativity scene that includes wise men know that there is plenty of biblical support for that.

Matthew says:
"9 After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him."

You are making leaps by saying that Jesus was at home; especially when Luke says he wasn't.

Andy said...

Well, I'm not so sure about. Luke is very specific that it's a "stable"; Matthew uses the word "house." Matthew also makes no mention of Mary and Joseph having to travel anywhere until after the appearance of the wise men, when they flee to Egypt. He agrees that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but sure makes it sound like Mary and Joseph had never lived in Nazareth until after they got back from Egypt. Luke says they came from Nazareth, and went directly back there.

It's not impossible that both accounts are largely correct and that these details do dovetail historically; but if you read both accounts carefully, you will see clearly that they tell separate stories. Other than Mary, Joseph, Jesus and Bethlehem, there are no shared elements whatsoever.

GaryDavisonJr. said...

I agree that it is two different accounts of the same story. I think there is an harmony in the two though; I don't read them and think that they are competing. I am not blind to the difficulties that you bring up either.

I read this on another blog. You might find it interesting; I liked it.

BTW, Andy:

Merry Christmas to you and yours!

Andy said...

Yeah, "competing" was a poor word choice; I shouldn't be implying that Luke and Matthew had opposing agendas, because I don't think they did. They probably, for their own reasons, went with the oral tradition they were most comfortable with.

Andy said...

Oh, and yes, thank you -- likewise merry Christmas to you and your family.

kr said...

Hello, OK, reality check: a woman should not travel by foot or donkeyback or any other jumpy stressful way for at least some days if not some weeks after birth.

Stables commonly in caves, not buildings, back then in that locale, as far as I've heard. But obviously Joseph would have moved his wife and her baby into better accomodations as soon as possible--he was, duh, trying to achieve that BEFORE the birth, so we know he had money or whatever.

Three wise men ... mmm... believe that number (+ names + ethnicities) is a midieval Catholic tradition, based on older writings ... maybe those non-canonical "Lost Books of the Bible" I keep meaning to read ... . I love that the scholars came from the East and yet we always have an African-heritage person among them: not impossible, and certainly a great tradition to have, but odd.

Actually, Luke and Matthew were always understood to have competing--well, different--agendas. Matthew is justifying Jesus as Messiah to the tradtionalist Jews (hence all the OT citations), Luke was communicating the story to a Gentile audience. Even both working from the same written text, they might have pulled different details as important--or not worth mentioning. Egypt would be very significant to the Jews, as would important figures from other nations bowing before the Pomised One ... not so much for a non-Jewish audience, I'd guess.

So yes, the wise men would not have ended up at the stable. And if "the star" was so easy to follow, they shouldn't have had to ask Herod.


Interesting side note, it is at least a commonly held story if not the truth that St. Francis of Assissi (who of course originated the nativity scene concept, in the 1400s) was the product of a long hard labor that didn't end until some disreputable-type woman came to the manorhouse and told them that the laboring Lady would have to go to the stable to give birth ... which she did. For whatever that's worth ; ).

Andy said...

Actually, Luke and Matthew were always understood to have competing--well, different--agendas.

Yes, exactly! But I wouldn't, on second thought, really say "competing," even though there were those (Peter) who thought that Christianity was for the Jewish community, and those (Paul) who argued that Jesus was for everyone, *especially* the Gentiles. Peter then, in Acts, had his vision about the tablecloth and changed his mind, apparently.

Anyway, I still don't see these as "competing" versions of the nativity. We have to remember that the Evangelists in that historical context were not writing to convey a biography or an accurate history, but more an accurate "portrait" of Jesus, and, like any artist, used their medium to point up certain aspects that, to them, were the most important. And this completely explains the discrepancies. Matthew went to great lengths to show Jesus as fulfilment of Hebrew prophecy; Luke aimed to show Jesus as the social revolutionary, the anti-establishment rebel. Just like Genesis, these stories do not have to be literally true or historically contiguous in order to contain the kinds of truths necessary to salvation.

Future Geek said...

Is this part of the war on Christmas, Andy?

Anonymous said...

The Bible is full of these "same story" confusions.
It's amazing that a book so full of conflicting facts on the same stories, became the basis of the greatest movement of mankind. There's just to much questionable material to use it as the "master" guide of faith.
The debate has been going on for thousands of years, and will go on for thousands of more years. Partly because of the inconsistent facts about an entity that can not be proven, until after death.
Traditions grow out of the re-telling of the same stories with opposing facts.
So it's no surprise that traditions change, as generations move on, and interpret these facts in a way that is comfortable for them.
These changes should have little effect on the basic belief that God exists and is the creator of all things, if you believe that. If you don't, then it only adds fuel to the debate of those non-believers.
It's hard (understandably) for non-believers to accept such a factually flawed text; as evidence of a God and creator of all things, the guide to the only moral way to live, and thus acceptance to eternal life.
Those are big conclusions to come to, based on such flawed texts.

Andy said...

Anon: they're only flawed if you hold them to a standard they weren't aiming it. It sounds strange to us today, with our culture of total-access information, fact-checking, etc., but the Gospels weren't written with the intent of serving as a biographical reference or accurate historical report. I know, we've all been taught that's what they are, but they weren't meant to be understood that way. The authors had an agenda to advance, that is sure, and in our era of propaganda, we are immediately suspicious of that. But the difference here is that the authors did not intend to deceive their readers, they did not intend for readers to think this was literal history. The style of writing at this time and place -- as evidenced from the "lives" of other contemporary figures that were written -- was to craft a story that communicated more the "idea" or "persona" of the person than a regurgitation of facts. The Gospels are hopelessly contradictory if you try to take them as literal history; but if you take them as artistic portraits of Christ, the picture that emerges is complex and challenging but completely coherent.

Jim said...

Actually, homes in that region and time *were* divided into upper living quarters (the "inn" or "upper room" or "house") for humans and downstairs "stables" for animals during the night. The heat from the animals often kept the upper levels warm (smelly yes.....if only someone remembered the damn incense). Also, it's very likely that Joseph and Mary stayed with relatives who all gathered during the census, hence the lack of room at the "inn," or the upstairs.

Andy said...

Those are some pretty crappy relatives to make a pregnant lady give birth in the barn.

Jim said...

There was probably just more room to thrash downstairs.

Jim said...

And hay is just fabulous for sopping up placental juices.

kr said...

I agree with Andy.

And 'thrashing' is a result of stupidass Western "medical" practices,* btw. Natural births, barring serious complications, simply don't involve that sort of thing.

If she was with or near any female relative, they would have been supporting her, from what I understand of those cultures. Not to mention that the strength of the well-known cultural host/guest relationship expectations casts serious aspersions on a homeholder who relegated such a gravid woman to a barn ...


* "medical" practices: laboring/delivery on her back (yes, they still make women do this in some American hospitals: WTF?? dumbass aristocratic, patriarchal idiocy that has not only NO medical support, it is measureably counterproductive to both mother and baby); constant monitoring/interuptions (this is just stupid); strangers, and especially male strangers, being anywhere near the laboring woman ... these things are just starters, ignoring technological medical interventions like shots and monitor belts ...

sorry, jim, if I come on too strong, but speaking so casually/derogatorily of birth is really very offensive ... messy it is inherently, but stupid it is only because "civilization" has made it so.

Jim said...

I have said nothing offensive. Birth can be messy, and birth can require room. That's all I meant. The word "thrash" was used humorously. Birth and humor can go together.

kr said...

Non-Poles shouldn't make Dumb Pollack jokes, only lawyers should make lawyer jokes, only blondes should make blonde jokes. And of course each of those groups, like blacks with n-word "jokes," is struggling to decide whether the "funny" is worth even minor propigation of the negative stereotype. Because, let's face it, if the negative stereotype didn't seem at least a little true to us still, the jokes wouldn't work.

To suggest that a brithing woman would be [oh so inconveniently to the household] "thrashing" is derogatory towards birth and birthing women, represents societally imposed anti-woman prejudices and abuses, and implies that birth and birthing women should be shunned or excluded.

Humor and birth? Sure. I was even willing to admit your placental juices comment as kind of funny, although grosser than I usually prefer with humor--but the grossness was at least a reflection of real life. (You should hear mothers talk about placentas sometime--you bet we get to laughing.)

The "thrash" comment, not so much, and it was to that I objected.

Andy said...

placental juices

*(scream)*

kr said...

(sorry--just quoting : P )