I realise that’s a shocking opener. And when I first came across the idea a few months ago, I was initially quite shocked at the mere suggestion that such a long- and firmly-held tradition might not be true.
Yet you’ll find plenty of credible scholars willing to assert that they do not believe Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The main argument is that the writers of the gospels of Matthew and Luke needed to put Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem to cement his royal lineage (Bethlehem is known as the city of David), but that the idea of a census in which people had to travel to their birthplace in order to be registered was completely far-fetched, even in the ancient world. If you want to register people for tax purposes, you register them where they live and work, not where they were born.
It seems entirely plausible, if not likely, then, that Luke dreamed up the idea of a census-required journey simply as a narrative device for getting Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem.
In fact, when you think about it, the nativity story is full of elements that are impossible to verify and might legitimately be considered fantastic, from Jesus being born in a stable or cave, to an angelic host appearing to shepherds, to magi journeying from the East, to Herod ordering the massacre of every baby boy in Bethlehem under two years of age…
However, the point of this post is not to try to convince you that various elements of the nativity story may not have unfolded as reported in the gospels. It honestly matters little to me whether or not you hold firm to the traditional version of events. For myself, I’m undecided on various aspects of the nativity story.
The point I want to make is this: it doesn’t matter all that much to me whether Jesus was born in Bethlehem; whether he was born in a stable, a cave or a house; whether shepherds saw and heard a choir of angels and came to worship the newborn king; or whether wise men came bearing gold, frankincense and myrrh. These traditions could be accurate. However, they could equally be authorial inventions, or indeed the product of years of oral tale-spinning (remember that the gospels as we know them emerged decades after the death of Jesus, let alone his birth). If they are either of the latter, I’m quite happy with the idea that the authors of these traditions wove the narrative the way they did in order to make a point. And the point they wanted to make was not that these things happened exactly as reported. Rather, they wanted to emphasise that the coming of Jesus was a world-changing event, and that this child whose birth we now prepare to celebrate was no ordinary child, but a saviour-child deserving of an angelic choir and of the bended-knee worship of both working class folk (shepherds) and the intellectual elite (magi).
[As a slight aside, I realise that if your doctrine of scripture requires you to see the Bible as the inerrant Word of God, you’re going to have a mighty problem with the merest suggestion that perhaps Jesus’ birth didn’t actually happen as recorded in the gospels. Since I view the Bible as a divinely inspired but very much human collection of writings about God, I don’t have any such problem.]
But the really important point is why it doesn’t matter to me whether or not these things happened exactly as reported. And the reason is this: the particular social, geographical and chronological circumstances of Jesus’ birth are incidental to its greater significance for humankind.
You see, what really matters is why Jesus came, and what his coming teaches us about God. Because here’s the thing: it’s entirely possible to believe in the veracity of the various nativity stories recorded in the gospels while completely and utterly missing the point of what Jesus was all about.
For me, Jesus came to show us that God always has been, is now, and always will be with us, and to fully and finally answer the question “What is God like?”. He came to both teach and demonstrate that God is all about humility, compassion, non-violence, forgiveness and reconciliation. These are the essentials of what Jesus’ coming was about. To a degree, everything else – where and how he was born, what specific events preceded and followed his birth, and so on – is tinsel.
You might proudly and fastidiously believe in all the ins and outs of the various nativity accounts, but if your life and worldview have not been touched and shaped by the humility, compassion, non-violence, forgiveness and reconciliation Jesus came to model, you may as well be a clanging cymbal. You can sing all you want about little donkeys travelling to Bethlehem, three kings of Orient, and shepherds watching their flocks; if you yourself haven’t bowed your knee before the Word made flesh by laying aside your prejudices, abstaining from marginalising and excluding others, and committing to the Nazarene’s way of peace, then you may simply be distracting yourself with cute Christmas sentimentalities while largely avoiding the actual message the Christ-child came to embody.
I don’t want to put a downer on Christmas. So please, join in the traditions and sing carols all you like – I certainly will be. But please make sure you don’t define what it means to be a follower of Jesus by insisting on the historical veracity of a disparate collection of ancient narratives while largely disregarding the overarching message of the life, ministry and death of Christ. Instead of obsessing over the narrative details, how about we just kneel together and ask the holy child to cast out our sin, enter in and be born in us today?
[ Image: wbeem ]