The real nativity

Christianity in England is clearly doomed because as few as 1 in 8 people know details of the nativity story. Given the data, I’m suprised it’s as many as that.

The “nativity story” – as it’s being called – is a bit of a strange one in the bible: dealing, as it does, with the birth of Jesus, you’d think that getting the details right; especially if it’s going to be celebrated every year for 2,000 years with nativity plays (cough). The questions, then:

Q.1 According to the story in the Christian Bible, where was Jesus born

The correct answer, according to Theos is Bethlehem.

Mathew 2:1 says “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem”. The astute reader will note, however, that at least two classical nativity scenes are missing from the Mathew story: there’s no census, no inn, and no shepards; Mathew is the only book that mentions the wise men.

Mark is strangely silent on the whole virgin birth, son of god, Mary, tax census, shepherds, wise men, escape to Egypt etc thing, with the first mention of Jesus being in 1:9 with, “And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan”. In Mark’s story, this is where we learn that Jesus is the son of God. But Mark – like John – refers to Jesus as coming from Nazareth. And, like John, without a nativity story to back it up, the clear implication is that Jesus was born in Nazareth.

Luke is the gospel that introduces us to the strangely un-Roman system of having people return to their place of birth for a taxation census. So, Luke concurs with Mathew on the place of Jesus’ birth; 2:4 “And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem.” Interestingly, however, Luke is silent on the details of the wise men, introducing the visitors to the manger as shepherds; yet the traditional nativity scene melds both gospels – with no good reason – into one story. As we’ll see, too, Luke is strangely silent on any escape to Egypt.

John, like Mark, escapes the whole contradictory story stuff, by simply – like Mark – setting the stage with a meeting between John and Jesus in 1:29, “The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” By omitting the story, however, John commits a grevious sin: in 1:45 he writes “Philip finedeth Nathanael and saith unto him, We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazarteth, the son of Joseph.” Without a nativity story, it is quite clear that John believes that Jesus was born in Nazareth. The Theos survey specifically marks this as a wrong answer. Hmm.

So, we have two votes for Nazareth and two votes for Bethlehem (and, incidentally, only one vote for shepherds and one (separate) vote for wise men). I’d call that a dead heat. Okay, on to Q2:

According to the story in the Christian Bible, who told Mary that she would give birth to a son?

Interestingly, Theos accepts as the correct answer just “an angel”. This is because only Luke refers to the angel Gabriel (1:26, “An in the sixth month [of the conception of John the Baptist] the angel Gariel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth) – to Mathew it’s just “the angel of the LORD” (1:20, “But while [Joseph] thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joesph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost”).

It’s just as well that Theos didn’t then ask, “To whom did the angel whatshisname apear?”, because even there the stories are contradictory. To Mathew, the un-named angel appears to Joseph, yet to Luke, the (named) angel appears directly to Mary (which, you would think, would be the decent thing to do); in 1:28, “And the angel came in unto her and said, Hail thou that are highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women…..[1:31] [after considerable groveling] And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS”.

So, Mathew has an un-named angel appearing to Joseph, Mark and John are silent on the whole virgin birth and angels thing, while Luke has a specified angel appearing – somewhat more decently, I suppose – directly to Mary. On to the next question:

Q.3 According to the story in the Christian Bible, who was Jesus’ cousin

Methinks that this is the deliberate trick question added to allow them to come up with the scary “1 in 8” figure. It’s a trick question because only one of the three gospels mention that John the Baptist is Jesus’ cousin, and then only in a roundabout fashion. At no point in any of the gospels does it say, “An lo, Jesus of Nazareth came unto Galilee to meet his cousin John”. What Luke says is:

[1:5] There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judeae, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abia: and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth.

[1:13] But the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John.

[1:30] And the angel said unto [Mary], Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. [1:31] And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus.

[1:36] And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren.

In this round-a-bout way we reach the answer that (and I had to look this up!) John was Jesus’s first-cousin-once-removed. Of course, when most people think of “cousin” they’re thinking of first-cousins – in which case Elisabeth would have had to have been Mary’s sister. Interestingly, to further skew the results, Theos notes:

Although some claim that James could also have been Jesus’ cousin, James does not feature in the Christmas story, according to the Christian Bible, on which this research is based, and so was not deemed to be a correct answer

In other words, this was purely a, “guess what I’m thinking” question, where the answer is somewhat convoluted; the results of which (I’m not qualified to say) I strongly suspect skewed the results.

Then there’s the final question:

Q.4 According to the story in the Christian Bible, where did Joseph, Mary and Jesus go to escape from King Herod when Jesus was a young child?

Of the four gospels, we’ve already seen that two don’t handle this question at all, saying simply, “Jesus from Nazareth”, with no indication that he “escaped” anywhere. Luke is also silent on any escape. In 2:21-2:22, we read, “And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called Jesus which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb. [2:22] And when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord”.

It is, of course, possible to accuse me of shenanigans. Jesus is born in 2:4, and presented to Jerusalem in 2:22. What about all those verses in between? Well, quite frankly, read it yourself. The merry pair go from Bethlehem, then to Jerusalem and finally directly back to Nazareth. Of the four gospels, it is only Mathew that mentions a flight to Egypt, and a slaughter of the children of Bethlehem.

So here’s how the story told in nativity scenes works out:

  • Joseph and Mary move to Bethlehem in Mathew and Luke. Only in Luke is this because of a peculiarly un-Roman-esque census.
  • In Mark and John, Jesus is clearly identified purely as coming from Nazareth.
  • Only in Mathew are wise men/stars/flights to Egypt mentioned. No shepherds appear in Mathew.
  • Only in Luke are shepherds mentioned. No wise men are mentioned, and it is specifically stated that they go directly from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, and then directly on to Nazareth.

Of course, it is impossible for Mathew and Luke to see eye-to-eye: in Mathew, the so-called “wise men” (who don’t come across as all that “wise” to me…) tell Herod they’re looking for a “King of the Jews”. Idiots. Believing them, Herod decides to slaughter all the children in Bethlehem. Lacking the bumbling wise man, preferring the far more sensible shepherds, Luke can’t set up a reason for Joseph and Mary to go wandering around Egypt.

So that’s four loaded questions, one of which requires convoluted reasoning, none of which are fully supported by the bible. And that, folks, is the real nativity.

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4 Responses to The real nativity

  1. Blake Stacey says:

    I think the standard story for why all that stuff appears in Matthew but not the other gospels — even the other synoptic gospels — is that Matthew was writing for a Jewish audience familiar with Old Testament lore, and therefore he went out of his way to make Jesus’ story parallel that of Moses. Did Moses escape a slaughter of the innocents? Well, then, so did Jesus. Did Moses come out of Egypt? Well, then, so did Jesus. Jewish traditions are also noticeably more patriarchal than Greek ones (compare the women in the Old Testament against those of classical Greek mythology), so in Matthew, the angel appears to the father, while the evangelist Luke, writing from a Hellenized background, makes the mother the central figure.

    Of course, the virgin birth itself falls into the same category. It’s supposed to fulfill the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14, but the Hebrew word translated “virgin” in that verse doesn’t actually mean virgin — and even if you try to cook up some way in which it does, Matthew’s interpretation still doesn’t make sense, because in Isaiah 7, the prophet is trying to convince his king that he knows what he’s prophesying about, and you don’t do that by announcing that something will happen seven centuries later. Read on to Isaiah 8 to find out that the prophecy was fulfilled by Isaiah’s own son, anyway. . . .

    I’ve grown used to theists making a big to-do about people not knowing their Scripture, but what bothers me more is when atheists accept these sorts of polls as evidence that people are “culturally illiterate,” or ignorant of some grand knowledge base we supposedly need to understand European history, art and whatnot. First of all, name one king who based his divine right of kingship upon the claim that Jesus and John the Baptist were first cousins once removed!

  2. Blake Stacey says:

    In my last paragraph above, I was thinking of essays like this (sorry for not linking before), in which Polly Toynbee cites the same Theos survey dissected in this post.

  3. What I Value Most in Life

    I was just about to settle in with a slice of chocolate cake, fresh from the oven, and a DVD of Laura (1944), when I noticed that a new Carnival of the Godless had come online. While skimming the essays therein collected, I left a comment at John Wils…

  4. armchairdissident says:

    “I’ve grown used to theists making a big to-do about people not knowing their Scripture, but what bothers me more is when atheists accept these sorts of polls as evidence that people are “culturally illiterate,” or ignorant of some grand knowledge base we supposedly need to understand European history, art and whatnot”

    Here, here. I’ve never understood, and probably will never understand, this recent rush to applaud the bible as a great work of literature, whilst simultaneously deriding the concepts within it. The simple fact is that even as literature it’s naff. Good literature – say, Dickens or Shakespeare, is at least coherent; not a claim the bible could make. I’d be interested to see if the apparent trend towards not doing nativity plays is not so much political correctness, but simply because the story is so damnably dire.

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