Every Christmas, we are surrounded by images of the much-loved nativity scene: the infant Jesus, in a cradle, with his mother Mary sitting and his father Joseph standing nearby, surrounded by animals (cows, most often), with a group of shepherds (perhaps with their sheep) to one side, whilst on the other side three colourfully-dressed men stand with presents in hand: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
We see this image everywhere. But it is not an accurate portrayal of what was happening at the time when Jesus was born. For one thing, it is not a photograph of an actual event. Far from it. It is not even based on a written report from the first century, telling that this was what happened.
The traditional scene that we see today did not come into being until it was invented by the medieval friar, Francis of Assisi. Before that, it did not exist. And no Gospel account actually tells of cows mooing beside the newborn child, or of the newborn infant making no crying sounds, or of the sheep baaing alongside the cows, that we see in the traditional nativity scene.
Francis is the most popular Catholic saint in the world. He is the one who preached to the birds; blessed fish that had been caught, releasing them back into the water; and communicated with wolves, brokering an agreement between one famous ferocious wolf and the citizens of a town that were terrified of it. There is no surprise, then, that Francis used real animals when he created the very first, live, Christmas nativity scene. As a result of all these stories, Francis is the patron saint of animals and the environment. And he is the inventor of the familiar nativity scene.
Actually, this scene is a compilation of two quite discrete stories, told decades later, offering very different perspectives on the event, providing two somewhat different emphases in the story of the birth of this child. The nativity scene merges and blends the story found in the orderly account constructed by Luke, and the book of origins compiled by Matthew. Wise men and shepherds sit on each side of the family group, at the same time, in the same place, in this traditional scene. But not in our biblical accounts.
In the opening chapters of Matthew, we encounter the pregnant Mary, the newborn infant Jesus, his father Joseph, a bright star in the sky, visitors from the east, the tyrannical rule of Herod, and slaughtered infant boys. In this story, Matthew is working hard to place Jesus alongside the great prophet of Israel, Moses. The early years of Jesus unfold in striking parallel to the early years of Moses. The parallel patterns are striking.
Luke tells a more irenic version of the story than what is found in Matthew’s Gospel. The story told by Luke (usually represented through idyllic pastoral scenes and sweetly-singing angels), actually tells of a widespread movement of the population that meant a pregnant Mary, accompanied by Joseph, had to travel afar and find lodging in a crowded town just as the most inconvenient time.
There are historical problems with this story: identifying the census as an actual historical event, and locating it accurately in time, both present challenges; the fact that Herod, ruling in Matthew’s account, died in 4BCE, but Quirinius, who ordered the census noted in Luke’s account, began as Governor in 6 CE. However, the combined story has entered the popular mindset as a real event and provides a clear and compelling picture of the holy family as refugees, because of decisions made by political authorities, whether Herod or Quirinius.
We overlook, perhaps, that the shepherds who came in from the fields to pay homage to the newborn child would have been despised for carrying out a lowly and unworthy occupation. They were outcasts, considered impure and unclean, placed outside the circle of holiness within which good Jews were expected to live. In the Mishnah, a third century work which collects and discusses traditional Jewish laws, shepherds are classified amongst those who practice “the craft of robbers”. These are not highly valued guests!
Even though this is not an historical story, it is important for theological reasons. It is part of the foundational myth of the Christian faith. The writer of Matthew’s Gospel wants to make strong correlations between Jesus and Moses, not only in the mythological account found in the opening chapters, but also throughout the following chapters of the Gospel. The writer of Luke’s Gospel hints at his key themes in the opening chapter, and the develops a strong political and economic message throughout his Gospel: God reached out to the poor and powerless, and harshly judges the wealthy and powerful.
As myth, the tradition points to important truths. Matthew’s account of “the Slaughter of the Innocents”, for instance, although generated by his Moses typology, still grounds the story of Jesus in the historical, political, and cultural life of the day, when tyrants exercised immense power. Even though we recognise Matthew is not reporting an actual historical event, his narrative provides a dreadful realism to a story which, all too often in the developing Christian Tradition, became etherealised, spiritualised, and romanticised.
By the same token, Luke’s recounting of the visit of the outcast shepherds to the infant child and his family indicates that those on the edge were welcomed by Jesus throughout his ministry. He grounds the message of the Gospel in the heart of the needs of the people of his day.
So even as we recognise that the Christmas story is not history, we can appreciate the insights that it offers us as a mythological narrative. It is worth celebrating: not as an actual historical event, in the way it is traditionally portrayed, but as the foundation of the faith that we hold: in Jesus, God has come to be with us.
You can read a more detailed discussion of my views on this story at https://johntsquires.com/2018/12/19/what-can-we-know-about-the-birth-of-jesus/