Okay y’all, buckle up for How to Ruin the Christmas Pageant.
Mark’s gospel starts with Jesus as a full adult at the shores of the river Jordan. John’s gospel starts with the beginning of the universe, and then goes straight to adult Jesus also.
The two birth stories of Jesus are found in Luke 1:26-2:20 and Matthew 1:18-2:23.
(A side note: “Matthew” and “Luke” are not actual names given anywhere within the gospels themselves, and are probably later attributions to key disciples to make the gospels seem more authentic, and likely arose out of the traditions of a community rather than one eyewitness, BUT “the community of the gospel attributed to Matthew” takes up a lot of space to write each time, so I’ll be saying just “Matthew” and “Luke.”)
A typical Christmas pageant usually has: Mary gets the message from Gabriel that she’s to bear God’s son; Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem for the census; Mary gives birth in a stable; shepherds and wise men arrive; everyone sings Silent Night & Joy to the World.
It’s a beautiful story and I’m here to wreck it for you.
First: the two gospels do have SOME points of agreement. Matthew and Luke both write that
through the Holy Spirit
Jesus was born
to a virgin and her betrothed
then raised in Nazareth.
BUT: how the virgin finds out about her pregnancy, how the baby gets born in Bethlehem, and how the family ends up in Nazareth are two VERY DIFFERENT STORIES.
In Luke’s gospel, “a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered,” so Joseph has to take his pregnant fiancée on an eighty-mile trip from their homes in Nazareth to his hometown of Bethlehem. She gives birth (I’ll circle back to this), the shepherds arrive, about 40 days later they head for Jerusalem to dedicate the baby (Luke 2:22-38), and then they go home to Nazareth in Galilee (Luke 2:39-40).
In Matthew’s gospel, they are LIVING IN Bethlehem when the story starts. Not Nazareth. There’s no census, no travel, no donkey (to be fair Luke also has no donkey–the pack mule is assumed but not recorded in the story). Mary just … gives birth in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:1).
Then the wizards show up (I WILL GET BACK TO THE WIZARDS) and ruin it all by expecting a king to be born in a palace, so they alert the power-hungry Herod the Great, who thus slaughters every child in Bethlehem under the age of 2 (Matthew 2:16-18).
Baby/infant Jesus and his parents escape to Egypt, and then eventually move back to Judea after the death of Herod the Great, but fear his son Herod Antipas and move to Nazareth instead.
The gospels have to answer the question: how do we get a Messiah who is born in Bethlehem (according to an interpretation of Micah 5:2) and is Jesus the Nazarene (as known from his life and based on a non-Hebrew Bible passage cited in Matthew 2:23)? They solve it TOTALLY DIFFERENTLY.
Maybe we can bring the stories together to some extent: keep the census from Luke, have the baby born in Bethlehem, the parents stay for a bit, then the assassination is ordered and they have to flee to Egypt. Check, check, check…
WAIT, I can ruin even more of it.
Remember the census? The empire-wide census? There’s no record of Augustus trying it, and it would have caused mass chaos throughout the empire (imagine an airport at Christmas but now everyone’s on a donkey and the airport is made of dirt. Kind of like O’Hare). There *was* a census taken by Quirinius under Augustus, in 6 CE (AD, for our traditionalists. CE is Common Era, and = AD without the religious connotations). Problem is, Luke places his story within the reign of Herod the Great (Luke 1:5), who died in 4 BCE (Before the Common Era).
So: where does this empire-wide census come from? Is Luke hyperbolizing and backdating Q’s 6CE census to highlight Jesus’ vulnerability and status with the marginalized? Is Luke recording an oral tradition that didn’t keep strict historical records? We don’t know.
DON’T WORRY, I’ll ruin more for you.
Remember the inn? Where there’s no place for Mary and Joseph?
There’s no inn, either.
I mean, inns existed. But the word in Greek in Luke 2:7 is κατάλυμα, which is more accurately “guest room” — like in Luke 22:11: “Where is the guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?” (The word for “inn” is πανδοχεῖον, which we find in Luke 10:34, the story of the good Samaritan. Roughly translated it means “where all may stay.”)
So Mary and Joseph show up in Bethlehem for the nonexistent census and don’t have a guest room to sleep in. They’re not looking for a hotel – they’re looking for friends or family to stay with, but no one’s got a guest room available. Maybe the guest room is already full. Maybe they weren’t expected and the clean sheets aren’t on the bed. Maybe they’re not welcome inside since, you know, they’re pregnant out of wedlock (would YOU believe your cousin showing up with his near-birth girlfriend if he said it was God’s son?). So they give birth somewhere with animals (don’t worry! the manger IS in the story, I will not mess with the manger). It’s probably not the stable of a large inn but a normal house. Most houses of the day had one large room for eating, sleeping, etc, and the animals were brought into a lower front room overnight – so it would be warm and private-ish, albeit with goats and chickens around.
We don’t know from the story if they’re staying with family or friends (it is Joseph’s hometown, after all) or if strangers took them in (which they should based on hospitality codes of the time). But it seems they stayed for 40 days (Luke 2:22-24 and Leviticus 12:1-8). Then Simeon prays over the child and mentions that a sword will pierce Mary’s soul too. (This is probably why we end our pageants with Silent Night and not with Lord Now Let Your Servant Depart in Heavenly Peace.)
So that’s Luke’s story. Matthew does it COMPLETELY DIFFERENTLY. In Matthew’s version, Jesus is born in Bethlehem where his parents live. There’s nothing in the story to suggest travel to Bethlehem (and scholars disagree about whether Matthew or Luke was written first, so we can’t guarantee Matthew was just adding on to Luke).
Then wizards show up (I told you I’d get to the wizards). They’re called magi, which has the same root as “magician.” There are not three of them. They are not kings (although they bring kingly gifts — so at the least they were very wealthy). They are astrologers, star-gazers.
Except the star? You know, the big one? There’s no record in other historical accounts of a cosmological event — especially one that appears to have guided them for two years (Matthew 2:7, :16). There were eclipses and star alignments, but nothing two years long.
(A translation rant: the wizards came from the east. They followed a star they saw “in the East” (KJV, NASB, NRSV). This doesn’t work, geography-wise. You can’t come from the east and follow a star east and wind up in Judea. Correct translation should be “at its rising.”)
The wizards show up in Jerusalem expecting the King of the Jews to be born in the capital city. King Herod is not pleased with this–there’s no new king there. (He also has apparently not noticed the star?) Directed by Micah 5:2, the wizards head for Bethlehem. They find the child in a house — not a baby in a manger, and no shepherds to be seen. Based on the timing, Jesus might be two years old by now. He and his family are definitely living in Bethlehem — not traveling there briefly for a census.
Warned by angels in dreams, the wizards head home & the family flees to Egypt. In his rage, Herod slaughters all children under age 2 (“children” in Greek is neutral so the text doesn’t say it’s only boys, but it’s probably only boys). There’s no other record of this massacre. Herod the Great was a pretty awful and violent king, so it’s not impossible that he could have ordered a slaughter. But it’s important to note that no one else records it.
So why include it? Well, Matthew’s gospel consistently sets Jesus up to be the new Moses — and escaping child slaughter affirms that. There also could have been a slaughter in the small town of Bethlehem that was not recorded in surviving accounts; it was a violent time. Again — this is why we end our Christmas pageants with Joy to the World and not A Voice Was Heard in Ramah.
Okay, with all that said: NOW WHAT?!
Well, we can “harmonize” the gospels–make it all fit together somehow. Maybe Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem and the star only led the magi to Jerusalem and then the baby was born in the stable of a family home and the magi got to Bethlehem just after that?
We can mythologize the gospels, and say “It’s mostly just a good story with little basis in fact, but what is it trying to tell us about God and humanity and love and salvation?” and go from there.
We can try to find the “historical Jesus,” which is to use archaeological evidence and non-Christian historical records and try to determine “what REALLY HAPPENED” (empire-wide census no, star maaaaybe, Jesus born definitely yes).
All of these methods have flaws, as does “ignore all this and just focus on the cuteness of the kids’ Christmas program.”
The birth story of Jesus, the story that was so widely imposed that its celebration now grinds the world to a halt each December 25, is a mess. And honestly? This mess is what I love.
I come to scripture as someone bearing wounds from it. If scripture is “infallible” and “inerrant” — key words used in church doctrine to indicate that I, a queer woman, am not welcome — the inconsistencies in the nativity stories turn that claim upside down.
The mess of the nativity stories, for me, is an incarnation of the promise that scripture is not perfect.
I no longer expect scripture to match perfectly with history — it doesn’t even match perfectly with itself. That gives me freedom to wrestle, to study, to question, to pin down the text until it gives me a blessing.
That blessing, at Christmas, is that despite our inability to write it down correctly, despite the way the world reacts to a newborn baby with terror and violence — knowing the stakes, God chose to become incarnate. To be born among us, in our weak and fragile human body, to an unmarried mom and her boyfriend, under the threat of Roman oppression and a poorly wedded political-religious Judean king.
God chose to be born among us, knowing how badly we would understand, at the very least anticipating how violently we could misuse the story to dominate the world until the Messiah returns in glory to set things finally and truly right.
God chose to be born among us, the hands that worked the first atoms of the universe now clumsy and clinging to his mother’s breast, to open our eyes to God all around us — in every poor child, every hungry mouth, every wanting hand.
That’s my gift at Christmas. To take apart a story already shaking at the seams and find God there, chuckling at our messy earthly patchwork, gently and quietly paving the way for a redemption for all the universe.
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