Tomorrow many of us, perhaps most of the posters and readers of this blog, will be celebrating the birth of Our Lord. We will have been to Nativity plays, have seen cribs and what have you, but how accurate is the account we get from them? Let us take our own journey.
It is about eighty miles as the crow flies from Nazareth to Bethlehem, which would make it about a four-day journey; but with a pregnant wife, the journey would probably have been slower. Tradition has Mary travelling on a donkey, but despite a billion nativity stories, there is no evidence for this in Scripture; but it is the most likely mode of conveyance. There was a major trade route running near both towns, and it is probably, as they were Jews travelling in part through Samaria, that they travelled in a convey; if, as we are told, there was some sort of census, then it is probable that many were on the road at the same time, so safety in numbers would have been easily had.
Those same nativity plays have the family holed up in a stable because ‘there was no room at the inn’, but again, as with the donkey, this rather goes beyond what Scripture tells us. The Greek word used by Luke is ‘kataluma’, which might, indeed, be translated as ‘inn’, but it can also mean ‘guest room’ in a private house (the same word is used for the room in which the last supper was eaten). So it might be that Jesus was born in the room at the back of the house where people normally kept their animals – which would explain the manger just as well, or that there was no room there, and the birth took place in the main room. Does it matter? No, but it is a warning against Biblical literalism. There’s nothing wrong with the traditional representation – but it is just that. Anyone acquainted with Jews knows them to be a most hospitable folk, and if Joseph had family connections in Bethlehem, it would have been odd for them not to have offered him and his betrothed accommodation – unless, of course, they disapproved of the decision he had made about Mary in keeping her once he had discovered she was pregnant by another. We don’t and can’t know; so we add to what is there for the sake of a satisfactory story.
The same is true for those other sojourners to Bethlehem, the ‘Three Kings of the Orient’, or the ‘Wise Men’. Wise men is a good translation of the Greek “magoi” (from which we derive our word (‘magician’), but why do we suppose there were three of them? Well, there were three gifts - gold, frankincense, and myrrh – so it is a reasonable supposition; but it is just that. Neither, I fear, is there warrant for the Magi visiting that ‘stable’. Matthew 2:11 uses the word ‘oikian’ which is probably best translated as ‘home’, so it might well be that the supposition that the Holy Family were actually in a house is correct, or it might be that they visited some time after the birth. As Herod ordered all children under two to be slaughtered, it might even mean that Jesus was a small child by the time the wise men came. Again, we don’t know, so we smooth it out to a nicely-fitting narrative.
The good news for traditionalists is that there is no problem with the shepherds! So there’s some relief for us after all; I think my grandson, who was a fine shepherd at nursery this year, I am told, will be happy with that; and grandpa promises not to spoil any more Christmas stories.
But at this time of the year, as we all journey to our own Bethlehem, it is not the stories, but The Word who matters. The story of that first Christmas Eve is the dawn of our salvation, and I wish you all a holy and a happy Christmas!