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The Christmas stories blend clear-eyed knowledge with grand fabulations — and there’s truth in both, says Ian Harris.
There are many Christmases tumbling towards us, and as many ways to celebrate it.
There’s the "thank God we’re on holiday" Christmas. The "what will Santa bring me?" Christmas. The retail bonanza as customers spend up large. The family reunion, with all its joys, tensions, and opportunities to overindulge. The atheists’ Christmas — they might demur on principle but will take the holyday anyway. The working Christmas for nurses, police and others who draw the short straw. Muslims will think of the prophet Jesus, born of a virgin under a date palm.
And Christians will again celebrate the birth of Jesus. Some will exalt him as the supernatural God in human form, others hail him as the very human son of a poor working family, born in the nondescript village of Nazareth in Galilee. Either way, he was destined to change history.
Born in Nazareth? Shouldn’t that be Bethlehem, as the Bible and carols say?
Modern scholarship says no. Bethlehem is there for its Jewish cultural and political associations, but as history it’s most unlikely. Today we must distinguish between what one writer calls "respect for clear-eyed knowledge" on the one hand, and "reverence for the grand fabulations with which we redesign this messy, cheerless world" on the other.
Clear-eyed knowledge is what science and verifiable historical fact tell us. The grand fabulations are the stories told to plumb the deeper meaning of events and our existence. Both are true, each in its own way.
Clear-eyed knowledge is respected when we register that the gospels of Matthew and Luke differ markedly in what they tell us about Jesus’ birth.
Matthew, for example, has Jesus’ family living in Bethlehem, so they have no need to look for an inn, and they move to Nazareth later. Luke has Mary and Joseph living in Nazareth. But he knows that Bethlehem, 130km south, is the right place for a messiah to be born, and needs a reason to get them there. He finds it in the census which the Roman governor of Syria, Quirinius, ordered in AD6.
That poses a problem or three. The Romans didn’t expect property owners to travel back to their ancestral birthplace to register for taxes "that would have created chaos and been of little use to the tax-gatherers" but to enrol where they had property to be taxed.
Well, was Joseph an absentee landlord with property in Bethlehem? Probably not, as he and Mary were poor folk. And if Joseph had a property in Bethlehem, that’s presumably where he would have headed — and without Mary, because census rules did not require a heavily pregnant woman to accompany him on such a long and difficult journey.
Then again, while Rome had given the Syrian governor authority over Judaea in southern Palestine, he had no responsibility for Galilee in the north, so his census would not have applied to anyone in Nazareth.
There’s one other wrinkle: Matthew and Luke both say Jesus was born while Herod was king of Judaea. Herod died in 4BC. Quirinius’s census was in AD6. Clear-eyed knowledge concludes that Luke’s device for linking Jesus with Bethlehem is not historically accurate. Most scholars today conclude that Jesus of Nazareth was born in Nazareth.
So why the grand fabulations, and what are we to make of them today?Jesus’ Jewish followers identified him as the king or messiah predicted in their sacred scriptures, who would restore the lustre of their people. That required a royal connection, and Bethlehem provided it. Matthew traces Jesus’ lineage back to Abraham, pivoting on the great King David. Bethlehem was David’s family home and the place where he was anointed king.
The prophet Micah had written that from Bethlehem would come "a ruler who will govern my people Israel". Matthew leapt on that, discreetly ignoring Micah’s description of this ruler as like a marauding lion devastating the Jews’ Assyrian foes. That’s a world away from Jesus, Prince of Peace.
Nevertheless, the text gave scriptural blessing to the grand fabulation: Matthew and Luke needed Jesus to be born in Bethlehem to add cultural resonance to their prime purpose of affirming him as the Jews’ long-awaited messiah.
When people realise this, they can see the stories in a new light, appreciating the grand fabulations for what they are, while concluding with the scholars that Jesus was actually born in Nazareth.
What matters from both perspectives is the man he grew up to be, and the hugely positive influence he still has on the hundreds of millions who follow him.
- Ian Harris is a journalist and commentator.