Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Dark Side of the Manger

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Dark Side of the Manger

Article excerpt

Once more the season is come upon us. At its heart stands a tale of 2,000-year vintage, the Christmas story. Or perhaps we should say the Christmas myth.

When post-Enlightenment scholars turned their critical tools on the tales of Scripture, the birth of Jesus to a virgin in Bethlehem was one of the first subjected to sceptical scrutiny. Not only was the notion of a virgin birth deemed unhistorical on general principle, the other familiar aspects of the story were seriously called into question.

The story comes to us as a conflation of episodes found in only two of our Gospels, Matthew and Luke. (The Gospels of Mark and John begin with Jesus as an adult, and give no information about the unusual circumstances of his birth.) Combining these accounts into a mega-story for an annual Christmas pageant bears a cost, as they are very much at odds with one another.

Matthew alone has the wise men bearing gifts, Luke alone has the shepherds "watching over their flocks by night". Matthew alone portrays the wrath of Herod, foiled in his attempt to destroy the child when an angel warns Joseph to flee with his family to Egypt. Luke alone mentions that the "whole world" is to be taxed by Caesar Augustus, forcing Joseph and the pregnant Mary-both from the town of Nazareth, in the northern part of Israel - to return to Joseph's ancestral home of Bethlehem to register. It is while they are there that Jesus is born, and the three return home a month later.

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These two versions of events cannot be reconciled. In Matthew, Joseph and Mary live in Bethlehem before, during and after the birth; they leave to escape the king's wrath and only later relocate to Nazareth.

Not so for Luke, who introduces the census precisely to take the couple to Bethlehem so that the child can be born where the Hebrew prophet Micah had predicted. Moreover, if Matthew is right that the holy family fled to Egypt, Luke can scarcely be right that they returned home just a month after the birth.

Star treatment

Not only are the accounts at odds, each is problematic on its own terms. Matthew introduces the star leading the wise men to Jesus, a "star" that moves, stops over a city, disappears, reappears, moves again and finally stops over a small town, directly over a particular house.

This was no star, comet or supernova; and this is no historical narrative. So, too, with Luke's tax by Caesar requiring a worldwide census. Joseph registered in Bethlehem because his ancestor King David came from there. But David lived a thousand years before Joseph.

Are we to believe that everyone in the Roman empire returned to the homes of their ancestors often centuries earlier? They all knew where to go? …

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