The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has stirred up a contentious debate over the truth or otherwise of the Nativity story from the Bible. He quite flatly denies that the story ever happened as generally imagined. Christ was probably not even born in December, according to the Archbishop. This might come as a shock to certain Christians, particularly those brought up on the popular retelling of the story. As the leading bishop of the Anglican community, this is no anti-Christian demagogue. His opinion as a scholar and believer needs to be taken seriously.
The basic nativity story, retold in various popular guises, has been expanded upon over many centuries of retelling and elaboration. What the Bible account leaves unsaid, ingenious authors have embellished. The core story is of a newly-married couple travelling to Bethlehem for a tax census, a virgin mother giving birth in a stable, laying her swaddled child in a manger, the adoration of the Magi (or Three Wise Men) who were guided by a star in the East, an angry King Herod seeking to slaughter the new-born child, an exodus to Egypt, and an eventual return to the Holy Land.
The gospels of Mark and John never mention the nativity. The relevant passages come from Matthew chapters 1 and 2. Luke gives a completely different story, adding the detail about the tax census ordered by Augustus, and the story of the shepherds visited by angels, but making no mention of the Magi, Herod’s massacre of the innocents, or a star in the east. Indeed, he precedes the story with the miraculous birth of John the Baptist to Elisabeth and goes to great pains to draw a connection between his birth and that of Jesus.
So why the differing accounts?
One clue to the mystery is Matthew’s continual reference to the fulfillment of biblical prophecies.
In Matthew 1:22-23 he says
22 Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying,
23 Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.
5 And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet…
14 When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt:
15 And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son.
Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet…
And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene.
In Robin Lane Fox’s book, The Unauthorised Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible, he says that the Nativity is generally accepted by theologians and historians to be a post-facto myth. Here’s an excellent on-line account by a Bibilical authority, Geza Vermes.
What they agree on, in essense, is that the story was born from the urge to see Old Testament prophecies fulfilled and to assimilate the birth of Jesus to the existing mythical framework of a sun-king born on or near the winter solstice. Early gentile Christians – seeking confirmation of the significance of Jesus’s life as divine – were eager to link his birth and death to earlier prophecies.
But while this suggests a motive for distorting (or inventing) the nativity story to suit preconceived notions, it does not conclusively prove that the story is false. Indeed, I imagine that many Christians will still say that they believe it literally.
However, even aside from belief in the literal word of the Bible or not, the contradictions between Luke and Matthew on such basic details as Herod, the Magi, and a flight into Egypt, should make anyone – fundamentalist Christians included – stop and consider.
Let’s take just one basic question: did Mary and Joseph flee to Egypt or not? It is such a large claim to make. It could not be misunderstood or considered to be incidental. The claim is that Joseph received a visit from an angel, in a dream, warning him of Herod’s wish to see Jesus killed, and telling him to flee to Egypt until the coast was clear. In Luke, Joseph and Mary take their child to Jerusalem and to the temple: hardly the actions of a family trying to flee the King’s wrath.
Matthew claims one thing, but Luke contradicts him flatly. Since neither Mark nor John mention any detail of Jesus’s life before adulthood, they cannot be used to separate them apart.
So which “literal truth” are Christians meant to believe?
Geza Vermes flat-out denies the story:
We are led inescapably to this conclusion: that the awesomely influential Nativity story in the first book of the New Testament is a speculative, rather than a historical text. Far from being a report of a literal happening, it is an amalgam of flawed Greek-Christian scriptural references, and of “birth tales” current in Judaism in the first century AD. The story with which we are all so familiar is not fact, but folklore.
So there you have it. The Nativity story is a convenient tale, a wonderful story of prophecies fulfilled, the birth of a king or Son of God, and the magical happenings of an extraordinary birth. But none of it is literally true.