The Christmas Story
The people who espouse these sentiments assume that they have found the truth; that they are getting back to basics and returning to their roots. They feel that they have rediscovered the true meaning of Christmas, but that is not the case. Listen to Origen, a “Father” of the early Church who lived just a few generations after Jesus was born. He wrote, “In the Scriptures, no one is recorded to have kept a feast or held a great banquet on his birthday. It is only sinners who make great rejoicings over the day in which they were born into this world”. A surprising statement that suggests we still have a lot to learn about the story of Christmas.
Consider those nativity scenes that pop up all over the place in December each year. The people who design them will understandably use a degree of artistic license, so we don't expect every nativity scene to be exactly the same. Neither do we expect every Christian to remember all of the details about all of the characters depicted. Regarding the basic story, however, there will be no debate:
There is a stable, of course, filled with “heavenly” light, and we can see the baby Jesus, lying in a manger and flanked by his doting parents, Mary and Joseph. Three kings from the east have tethered their camels outside the stable and they kneel before the manger, offering gifts to the newborn child. The humble circumstances of the holy family are emphasised by the sight of the ox and the ass inside the stable. Also fussing around and about are the two midwives who assisted Mary during her labour - and the shepherds, of course, peeping shyly through the doorway while their sheep graze nearby.
Almost every Christian on the planet would be aware of these facts, and the more fanatical among them would be able to provide even more information about that first Christmas. They would know, for instance, that Joseph was 89 years old, while Mary was little more than a teenager. They would know that the midwives were named Zalom and Salome; that Zalom was the first to recognise that Mary was a virgin; that Salome did not believe, and her arm was instantly “withered”. These educated Christians would also know quite a lot about the three kings from the east: Melchior, king of Persia, an old man with white hair and a flowing beard who offers a gift of gold symbolising Christ's kingship; Casper, king of India, a clean-shaven young man who offers a gift of frankincense symbolising prayer, and Balthazza, king of Arabia, a middle-aged man with dark hair and a short beard who offers a gift of myrrh symbolising the bitterness of Christ's death on the cross.
But wait. Let's not just accept what people tell us. Let's go back to the bible and find out what it has to say about the birth of Christ.
According to Matthew (chapter 2), “there came wise men from the east...and when they were come unto the house, they saw the young child...and they presented him with gifts; gold, frankincense and myrrh.”
In the second chapter of Luke we are told that Mary “brought forth her first born son...and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn.” Then an angel appeared before some shepherds “and the glory of the Lord shone round about them.” The shepherds left the fields and went to Bethlehem where they “found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.”
And that's it!
No ox. No ass. No midwives. No withered arm. No hint of the ages of Mary and Joseph. Not even a stable - Jesus was born in a “house”. And “wise men from the east.” Were they kings? Were there three of them? Did they arrive on camels? The bible doesn’t say. No names. No physical descriptions. No mention of their countries of origin. No mention of who brought which gift, and no hint of what those gifts symbolised.
OK - so the Christians have added some fanciful details to their Christmas story, but at least we know when Jesus was born, don't we? It was December 25th in the year “zero”, right?
Wrong! In the first place, there was no year zero, because our calendar goes directly from 1BC to 1AD, but more surprisingly, there is no biblical reference to December 25th as the birthday of Jesus. The New Testament authors give us very few hints about the timing of the Nativity and what they do tell us leads to the startling conclusion that the Nativity could have occurred in any one of four different years.
Matthew (2:1) says Jesus was born while Herod was King of Judea and, since Herod ruled from 37BC to 4BC, it is clear that the Nativity occurred during this period. The experts who accept Matthew's story have guessed that perhaps Jesus was born in 6BC.
In Luke (2:2), however, we are told that Jesus was born at the time of the census when Quirinius was Governor of Syria - and the historical record shows that this occurred in 6AD.
But the same Luke also tells us (in Luke 3:1-23) that John started baptising “in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar,” when Jesus was “about thirty”. That 15th year was 29AD, which means that Jesus was born in about 1BC.
But when we turn to John 8:57 we discover that “The Jews said unto him (Jesus), Thou art not yet fifty years old.” It’s a fairly vague statement, but surely they’ve got to be talking about someone over forty (and probably closer to forty-five), in which case Jesus could have been born as early as 15BC.
And the contradictions don’t end there. Matthew tells us that on the same day that the wise men came to the house where Jesus was born, Joseph packed up his family and fled into Egypt, where they stayed “until the death of Herod”. Luke, however, tells a completely different story. He says the holy family spent eight days in Bethlehem before going to the temple in Jerusalem “to perform the ceremony of purification” and, having done so, “they returned to their hometown of Nazareth in Galilee.” No mention of a journey into Egypt.
Which is the true story? Which is the lie? If it is a lie, why is it in the bible? These questions, of course, are purely rhetorical. It is obvious that the Christmas story is not based on fact - it is a myth.
Yes, I know: Christian apologists try to overcome the problem by “harmonising” the gospels: They say the family spent eight days in Bethlehem (Luke), went to Jerusalem for the ceremony(Luke), and then fled into Egypt (Matthew). They remained there until the death of Herod (Matthew) and finally, several years after his birth, Jesus arrived in Nazareth for the first time (Luke). That’s what the apologists tell us; it’s not what the bible says.
So where did the "extra" stories come from?
What happens is that most Sunday School teachers add the extra details (the midwives, the kings, the ox and the ass) in an effort to make the story more exciting for their pupils and those pupils grow up thinking that such details are actually included in the bible - but they are not. They come from the apocryphal gospels which are not included in the holy scriptures. If they actually read their bibles they would know that - but they don't read and so they don't know.
Just as a matter of interest, here is the story of the midwives from the 14th chapter of the apocryphal Gospel of James:
14 And the midwife went out from the cave, and Salome met her. 15 And the midwife said to her, "Salome, Salome, I will tell you a most surprising thing, which I saw. 16 A virgin has brought forth, which is a thing contrary to nature." 17 To which Salome replied, "As the Lord my God lives, unless I receive particular proof of this matter, I will not believe that a virgin has brought forth." 18 Then Salome went in, and the midwife said, "Mary, show yourself, for a great controversy has arisen about you." 19 And Salome tested her with her finger. 20 But her hand was withered, and she groaned bitterly, 21 and said, "Woe to me, because of my iniquity! For I have tempted the living God, and my hand is ready to drop off."
And here is a fresco showing the midwife Salome (and the ox and the ass) with baby Jesus. It was painted by Giotto in about 1305AD and is currently on display at Cappella Scrovegni (Arena Chapel), Padua.