The Christmas Fairy Tale.
Among the many traditions that we adhere to at this time of year there is one for which I have a good deal of fondness. It is the tradition of retelling old stories and fairy tales. It is the time of the year when we dust off all our favourites to tell the c***dren; Snow White, Cinderella, Peter Pan, the wonderful tales of Scheherazade and the one thousand and one Arabian nights, Alice in Wonderland, the stories of the b*****rs Grimm or Hans Christian Andsersen, Charles Dickens and so on and so on; the list is endless. Many of the stories are ancient, some more modern and some are old but reconstructed into newer versions. The stories come to us from all over the world out of many different cultures. We tell them to our c***dren, resurrect them in c***dren’s books, continuously remarket them into movies and television dramas. In Britain, Canada and Australia we even have a ritualised form of theatre in the pantomime that retells the stories according to an old traditional form of live entertainment. We love our old stories and it’s almost as if this time of year we revert back to an ancient past when the telling of old stories was a major feature of the midwinter festival long before the advent of modern media.
One such story that has become particularly associated with the time of year is the story of Santa Claus and all the rich associated tales that accompany it. This, at its roots, is a very ancient tale possibly deriving from the old Norse God Odin. In the early years of Christianisation of the Germanic world this figure was morphed into the figure of Saint Nicholas (Sant Niklaus in German or Sinterklaas in Dutch) but it didn’t really take on its more modern version until it was transferred across the Atlantic with the waves of German and Dutch settlers in North America in the early years of the 19th century. The tradition of Santa living at the North Pole surrounded by elves and flying reindeer can be traced back to around 1820 in America and (with a little help from the Coca Cola company) eventually took on the form of the well loved story we tell our c***dren to this day. It has become a cultural icon of our age; a completely fabricated story which we nevertheless pay homage to in our festive celebrations.
There is another tradition that turns up every Christmas. It is the time of the year when inevitably some pompous preacher, possibly an archbishop, priest or even pope, gets up to patronisingly warn us that, through our excessive indulgence in good food and drink, we risk losing sight of the “true” meaning of Christmas! Now I don’t know about you but I find that a bit rich! The midwinter festival predates Christianity by many centuries. It was entirely appropriated by the Christian church in the 4th century AD and corrupted into a propaganda celebration of its deity’s birthday; as audacious a robbery of a culture’s heritage as it would possible to imagine. So I find it just a little hypocritical for the church to then protest that, by adhering to the age old traditions of the season in eating far too much and drinking ourselves into a stupor, we have in some way corrupted the “true” meaning of the midwinter festival by not rigidly following its own religious dictates.
Central to the church’s appropriation of the midwinter celebrations is naturally its own fairy story. This is of course the Nativity; the story of the birth of Jesus. Now not even the most diehard Christian is going to actually claim that Jesus was born around the time of the winter solstice. Most theologians calculate that he was probably born sometime in early summer. The declaration of the 25th of December as his birthday is completely arbitrary and was only imposed to usurp the pagan midwinter festivities; and to capture the festival for the church’s own purposes. Nevertheless the church has been successful in inserting this story into our celebrations and the story of the birth of Jesus has become a part of our heritage at this time of year. The fact that it has about as much basis in reality as Santa Claus is entirely irrelevant.
Now don’t get me wrong. I actually quite like the nativity story. As these things go it is a pretty good yarn and, as anybody who follows my blogs and stories will know, I have a deep affection for ancient stories and myths. But it is just a story; recreated out of earlier myths, retold many times and altered out of all recognition to its earliest sources. The only thing that distinguishes it from any other myriad of ancient myths is the claim that it has the authority of Holy Scripture; it comes to us from the Bible and therefore is the immutable and incontrovertible word of God. It must be “true”. It comes as a surprise to many people therefore just how fragile a basis we actually base this story on. Most people who claim the authority of the Bible seem never to have bothered to read it. It might shock many people who do read it to discover that the nativity story in the bible is not exactly the story they’ve always fondly believed.
Everybody knows the nativity story. We put little nativity scenes in our houses and churches; the baby Jesus in a manger in a stable surrounded by donkeys, sheep and goats being worshipped by shepherds, the three wise men and a bright new Star shining in the heavens. We all know that his mother was a virgin and that he was born in Bethlehem because his f****y was obliged to return to the city of their birth due to the census and that, since there was no room at the inn, they were f***ed to stay in a stable where the baby Jesus was born. We hear how Mary was visited by an angel telling her that she would bear a c***d despite being a virgin, how the wicked King Herod ordered the deaths of all newborn c***dren for he feared a the rising of a new king. We’ve had this stuff thrown at us since we were k**s. But it must be “true” because it’s in the Bible! Is it?
Well to begin with the entire story of the Nativity that we all know appears nowhere in the Bible. Instead there are two stories of the nativity; two DIFFERENT stories! Of the four canonical gospels of the life of Jesus only two relate the circumstances of his birth and in many respects they not only give different accounts they actually even contradict each other on occasion. The whole nativity story that we know is in fact a compilation of two entirely separate stories with the more dubious elements either overlooked or conveniently dismissed. The writers of these two stories, Matthew and Luke had their own axes to grind and most of their stories are historically dubious at best and downright fictitious propaganda at worst.
We shouldn’t be too harsh perhaps for both Luke and Matthew were more concerned with a symbolic narrative and the establishment of the credentials of Jesus as the Jewish messiah than they were with any form of historical accuracy. Nevertheless their two stories are remarkable for the questionable details in them and their inconsistencies. In fact, for many centuries, errors in the Bible were more or less taken for granted by Biblical scholars although it seems in more recent times the growth of fundamentalism has fostered a hardening toward the absolute unquestionable belief in every single word of the book. It’s hard for such a dogmatic viewpoint to actually see that, on numerous occasions, the Bible is quite clearly and demonstrably wrong.
One thing you will note in many instances when reading the Bible is just how often the ancient stories within it take earlier myths and legends and morphs them into their own legends. The story of the virgin birth is a case in hand. Nearly all cultures and religions have some form of miraculous birth interwoven into their mythology. Significantly, some of the earliest are stories from the Middle East and thus part of the general mythology from which the Bible stories take their roots. The Akkadian creation myths of Assyria and Babylon are likely predecessors of the virgin birth in the gospels and the account of the conception of Horus by Isis in Egyptian mythology is uncannily similar to that of Mary, so much so in fact that early Christianity often took images of Isis nurturing Horus as that of Mary nursing Jesus. Horus became identified with Ra the sun God. There’s this old story of a great leader and divine being who was born of a virgin, had twelve disciples, walked on water, performed remarkable miracles, delivered a sermon from a mount, was executed alongside two thieves, rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. Sound familiar? That was a brief resume of the life of the Egyptian God-King Horus! An uncomfortable amount of the life story of Jesus sounds like downright plagiarism!
There’s a bit more of this Egyptian connection in the nativity story. In Matthew’s account of the story the new f****y flees into Egypt from the tyranny of Herod who has ordered the death of all newborn babies. Luke never mentions this at all. Matthew however seems keen to establish Jesus as a successor saviour to Moses and again there are uncomfortably close parallels between his account and the early years of Moses who was also born in a miraculous fashion and was threatened by a tyrant king (an Egyptian one in this case) who orders the death of all newborn babes because he feared that one would become the saviour of the Jews. These old stories get revamped time and again.
In fact it is vanishingly unlikely that King Herod ever did anything of the sort. There is not one single historical source, other than Matthew’s gospel, for this decree to kill all newborn babies. Even Luke completely fails to recount what one would have thought to be a fairly significant factor in the infant Jesus’ early days. Herod himself had a historical biographer in the shape of the historian Josephus who goes into pretty exhaustive details of his life. Josephus despised Herod as a tyrant and does a damn thorough condemnation of the King’s misdeeds. It would be remarkable for him to fail to mention such a glaring example of Herod’s wickedness as a massacre of the innocents yet not one word of it does he write. The truth is probably that Matthew simply borrowed details of the early life of Moses and grafted them into his narrative.
One reason perhaps why Luke never mentions this detail is that Luke completely screwed up his time scale. There are few clues to the actual dates of the events described in the two gospels but one of them is a clear reference from Luke that the birth of Jesus took place during the Census of Quirinius who was the Governor of Syria at the time. This is one of the nativity’s most embarrassing historical contradictions. Matthew is quite adamant that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod and naturally we still adhere to the tradition that The wise men came first to Herod’s court and as a result Herod ordered the massacre of the innocents. Herod died in AD 4. Quirinius did not become governor until ten years after his death! Either Luke or Matthew was dead wrong. The incontrovertible word of God is becoming more than a little inconsistent you might feel.
It was of course this infamous census that brought Joseph and the expectant Mary to the town of Bethlehem. As we have seen Luke says it was the census of Quirinius. Matthew on the other hand claims it was a decree by the Roman emperor Augustus who ordered a census of the entire empire. The most baffling part of this story is the claim that in this census everybody was obliged to return to the place of their birth for the census. Now firstly there was no general census of the Roman Empire at that time. We have perfectly good historical records for the era and something as massive as a census of the entire empire simply could not have escaped the historical record other than the obscure scribblings of a Christian fanatic. It just didn’t happen.
In any case it would have been unprecedented for the emperor to demand that all citizens were to return to their birthplaces for the census. The Romans were pretty rational about these things and Augustus especially so. There is not one other account anywhere of a Roman census being conducted in such a fashion. It would have been madness for one thing. Until relatively modern times the population of the Roman empire was one of the most mobile in European history. Citizens were dispersed throughout the empire, often to far flung corners. To call them all back to the place of their birth would have thrown the entire administration and organisation of the empire into chaos. It would have taken years to sort the mess out! I didn’t happen; it just didn’t.
So why then are both Luke and Matthew so insistent that Joseph and Mary returned to Bethlehem because Joseph hailed from there and was obliged to do so as a result of this non-existent census? It is after all one of the few points in the story they agree upon. The answer is of course that they absolutely needed Jesus to be born in Bethlehem. Now according to Luke, Joseph and Mary lived in Nazareth when Mary became pregnant. Matthew is not so sure. He only states that they came out of Galilee and that they settled in Nazareth after returning from exile in Egypt. The one clear fact however is that they did NOT live in Bethlehem.
Both of them were desirous to establish Jesus as the messiah and King of the Jews. This is different from establishing his divinity you understand... they were only concerned that he was the divinely ordained heir to the throne of the House of David. To be that he had to come of the line of David and accord with the prophesy that the line was of the city of Bethlehem. To have the future King born in the humble provincial village of Nazareth was therefore downright embarrassing. Joseph was therefore claimed to be of the line of David and to underline the plot it was necessary for Jesus to be born in the City of David. The census was nothing more than a narrative ploy to ensure this happened. They invented two different censuses to fit their stories to the prophecy. Of course if you’re paying attention you’ll have noticed a small sticking point here. Jesus claimed descendency to the House of David through Joseph! Think about it!
Once in Bethlehem the two stories diverge markedly. One of the enduring parts of the story says that, on arriving in Bethlehem, the desperate couple find that all the inns are full and are obliged to seek shelter in a stable. The source of this part of the story is in Luke’s gospel but it’s not quite as specific as that. He only says there was no room at the inn. Actually it is debatable that he even says that much. The actual word used in the Bible is the Greek word kataluma which can either mean “inn” or “guestroom”. It might well be that Joseph and Mary were obliged simply to take an inferior room because the guestroom was in use. It would appear so. Luke states that they were accommodated in a room with a manger. There was a manger in the room.... that’s all. Now it doesn’t mention a stable or straw or a****ls in it; simply a manger. It is possible of course that 2000 years or so ago that people in the rural Holy Land often took their a****ls (which were after all quite valuable) with them into their living accommodations and it might have been common to find a manger in a room. But nowhere is the word stable used.
Luke then goes on to describe the visitation of the angel to the shepherds who come to adore the baby Jesus. There’s no mention of this in Matthew of course. Matthew seems to have an endearing faith in the wisdom of sages and so his visitors consist of some un-named wise men from some unspecified land to the east who are apparently excited by some celestial apparition and come gaily tripping through to Jerusalem expecting the birth of a new king. That Matthew should include this detail is no surprise. This was an age that believed heavily in astrology. Of course Herod tells them of the prophesy of a great king to be born of the House of David in Bethlehem and off they trot to pay homage.
Now like all good stories the nativity improves with the telling. It has become traditional to state that there were three wise men or magi from the east at the birth of Jesus. We stick three of them in our nativity plays after all. We’ve even given them names; Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar. In some versions we even refer to them as three kings! But in fact nowhere does Matthew actually say how many there were or anything much about them at all. Our nativity is full of these later embellishments.
Then of course the two stories diverge even more with the flight of the new f****y into Egypt according to Matthew and not much at all according to Luke. Jesus pretty much disappears off the map until his appearance in the temple many years later.
So the two stories are different, heavily reliant on previous tales and frequently contradictory. Well there’s nothing wrong with that. Most ancient stories have undergone similar deviations from history and fact. Perhaps you’re wondering about that beloved nativity scene in the stable with the a****ls amidst the straw. In point of fact that is almost complete invention. The person most implicated in this retelling is the Christian Saint Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) some twelve hundred years after the event who compiled this fiction to underline the poverty and humility of Jesus in line with the ideals of the Franciscan Order he founded. It’s another embellishment and a religious political one to give credence to St Francis’ own philosophy.
It’s certainly not the only time the nativity story has been manipulated for the purposes of religious political power. In the fourth century the figure of Jesus was elevated to the status of divinity. In exactly the same fashion that Horus’ virgin birth was used as evidence of his Godhood as were so many other deities then so was that of Jesus and the nativity compilation of the two stories became important to establishing that divinity. Of course the practice of raising a person to the status of a God had a long history in the Roman world. Emperors were routinely awarded divine status; many of them while they were still alive. By doing so you placed the reverence and control of them in the hands of the priesthood. With the movement of Christianity now overtaking the Roman world it was imperative to take control over this Messiah figure, make him a God and thus place the power of his message firmly in the hands of the controlling church who would then go on to become the richest organisation in the world as a result.
There was one problem. Christianity preached a monotheistic creed. There was only one God. Elevating somebody to Godhood in a pantheistic religion was no problem. What’s another God after all when you’ve got flipping hundreds of them? But when there’s only supposed to be one God then it’s a little awkward when you want to make his prophet a God too! Well the preachers came up with a brilliant solution to this one. God could not only be a father, he could be his own son too at the same time! And just for good measure he could be some nebulous thing called the Holy Ghost as well! Genius! In one magical sleight of hand the church invented the trilogy to rule over a lesser host of archangels, angels and saints and gave the world a monotheistic pantheon!
But even if the story is a corrupted compilation of myths, legends and outright inventions it is still a nice story and we should cherish it in exactly the same way we cherish our tales of Santa Claus. The only real difference is that we stop believing in Santa Claus when we grow up.