Oh that Christmas story

Just hang on a minute! It is hardly the beginning of advent and already I’m dripping with lies. Forget the context, just pile up the colourful myths – the unwelcome couple, the child born in abject poverty, the cold shepherds, kindly sheep, lowing cattle, all in the thatched little stable “out the back”. Turn off the tap of waffle about the stable scene. Those ripping yarns for the unsuspecting visitors in overheated Christmas services are in serious need of re-imagining.

Probably most of it is not true.

Firstly, the bible story doesn’t say they were unwelcome, just that there was no room. You had to be there for the census if you wanted your patrimony to stay on record. Proof of identity and lineage was a big issue in the first century, just read Matthew 1 and Luke 3.

We know almost nothing from outside scripture about this census, how or when it was to be conducted. It may have taken years, region by region, but the story suggests that this was done on Jewish patrilineal lines (2.4), not on a street by street basis. So, at a few key centres, there was going to be widespread convergence of people (Lk 2.1-2). And with no fax or email booking system, you set out on your journey and hoped for the best, and were probably blessed with adaptability. Mary and Joseph may have been welcomed to Bethlehem like the long lost cousins that they were, but there was still no room. Forget the “unwelcome” tag, there is no evidence for it.

Secondly, the “inn” of those times were normally built in a walled courtyard arrangement, today called a ‘khan’. Not a motel or hotel with lots of rooms for each guest. Caravan animals were bedded down inside the courtyard, not farmyard animals. So camels and donkeys, yes, not cows goats sheep or horses. Few people slept in rooms, only the very wealthy, and most were under the verandahs, to keep an eye on their goods and animals. In Luke 2, it says, this whole menagerie was full at the time they needed to give birth ( 2.7).

They may have camped there in the courtyard for a long time before the crucial moment came. We don’t know how long they had been in Bethlehem before the child’s time came. If the call to census came at month six, for instance, and they travelled at month seven, they would probably have had to wait in Bethlehem until after delivery. Until then, they probably camped out, as pilgrims did near Jerusalem during festivals there. We are making it all up beyond that.

And when you made plans to deliver, would you want to be camping out or would you look for some place a little more out of the weather? Better to find a cleaner place where a midwife can attend. Tradition says they found a cave on the edge of Bethlehem( Lk 2. 15), and Joseph presumably found or made the manger. It may not have been a sign of their poverty – it might have been what everybody did – lots of cultures in the world don’t make nursery furniture. They might have used straw, but the story actually mentions cloth ( 2.12). If it was a sheepfold cave, of the type still evident around Bethlehem, the sheep were not in it. The story says they were out in the fields (2. 8). You can’t have it both ways– the sheep at the manger softly crooning, and the sheep in the fields getting amazed! To preach otherwise is either distortion or contortion, but not real.

Thirdly, the Magi see a child in a house (Matt 2.11), not a baby in a manger. The shepherds are long gone, the baby is now a toddler. We don’t know why they stayed in Bethlehem so long, why travel may have been prevented, or why they may have preferred to stay there. Presumably, Joseph has employment. The magi had told King Herod how long its been since they saw his birth-star, and Herod despatches a squad of soldiers to kill all males under two years old. There’s the confirming clue on how long it has been since the shepherds visited – just under two years. The orthodox churches are right to separate Christmas and epiphany. And there were three kinds of gift – gold, frankincense and myrrh – no clue as to how many gifts or how many magi. Next time the Sunday Club has a few spare children for the nativity scene, throw in six more magi!

Maybe there is a place for helping people to imagine the story, and for adding new twists or points of view (the local cat, a wandering mouse, the baby donkey ). But they have as much connection to the actual events as The Da Vinci Code. Jesus (Yeshua – Saviour) was really born – blood, mucus, pain, danger, poo, vomit – and by this we are really saved. That other Christmas of wild waffle is a fable, and so too is its salvation.

People deserve a real gospel that can be lived out in the real world. Imagine that!