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Your Annual Reminder to Stop Harmonizing the Nativity

🎄 Back on my bullshit...

Fair warning: this is one of those posts where I'm a bit freer with my disdain for certain aspects of Christianity, so if that's going to upset you, maybe give this one a pass.

It's the holiday season, so it's time for me to dust off an old hobby horse of mine. You're familiar with the Nativity story. The Angel of the Lord appears to Mary and tells her she will have a child who will be called Emmanuel (he isn't actually called that anywhere in the New Testament, but that's neither here nor there). Mary gets pregnant demi-god style prior to her marriage to Joseph. There's a census, so Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem. There's no room at the inn so they stay in the stable. Jesus is born and laid in a manger. Angels sing, shepherds come, as do wise men from the East with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Joseph, et al, then head off to Egypt to avoid Herod's baby-killing before landing back in Nazareth.

Cool. Now can you tell me what book of the Bible that story comes from?

This is a trick question.

Okay, it's not much of a trick. Most people familiar with the New Testament can tell you that the Nativity story is found in both Luke and Matthew. What they probably don't realize is just how different the two accounts are. The visit from the angel is only in Matthew. The census is only in Luke, as are the stable and the manger. The wise men are only in Matthew, the shepherds only in Luke. Herod's killing spree is only in Matthew. Basically, aside from Jesus being born in Bethlehem to people named Mary and Joseph, at least one of whom is allegedly a virgin, the two stories have nothing in common.

I have ranted about this at length before. But this time, I want to devote some ink to why the narratives are the way they are.

The first Gospel to be written was Mark, and it contains no nativity story at all. It starts with Jesus as a grown-up. By the time the authors of Matthew and Luke (whom, for expedience, I may refer to as Matthew and Luke respectively even though the texts are unattributed and it's quite unlikely that they were actually written by people named Matthew and/or Luke) got to writing their versions of events, using Mark as a blueprint, they realized there was a problem with the narrative. There was a plot hole that needed to be retconned. Namely, there was an expectation that the Messiah would be born of the line of David and in the city of David, i.e., Bethlehem.

Jesus of Nazareth, however, was--somewhat famously--from Nazareth.

So how do you reconcile this? Well, the two authors took it upon themselves to invent a story to explain this. And let's be very clear about that: They were making this stuff up. They didn't have a passage from Mark or another text to build on, so they let their imaginations run wild. And we know that this was made up, because both of them cite major historical events that verifiably did not happen. There was no census that required people to go back to their homelands. There was no slaughter of the innocents under Herod. There was no star over Bethlehem that preoccupied scholars. I suppose it's possible that they weren't inventing things out of whole cloth so much as capturing folk origin stories, but out of Jesus's entire recorded life, the two things we can be quite certain are ahistorical are these nativity narratives.

And let's be clear about another thing: the nativity stories' lack of historicity does not actually matter. No one in the year 100 CE cared about how historically accurate their gospels were. The gospels were about trying to capture an understanding of God, not about trying to reproduce literal events. The historicity of the Bible is a much more modern concern than many Christians realize, I think. It's the same reason the gospels over-emphasize the role of the Pharisees, who were not really much of a big deal around the late 20s CE when Jesus was active, but were a major competitor to Christianity after the temple was destroyed circa 77. These stories were written with a purpose and audience in mind. And the nativities are trying to imagine a way that Jesus, a Nazarene, might have been born in Bethlehem that was narratively cohesive to the story they were trying to tell.

So what story were they trying to tell?

I'm going to have some shit to say about Matthew, because it's terrible, so let's start with Luke. The Jesus depicted in Luke is a servant to all humankind. He's a man of the people, but not like in a capital-P Populism kind of way. This is a common theme that runs through the book of Luke and into its direct sequel Acts. And Luke's opening reflects that. He gives a genealogy of Jesus that goes all the way back to Adam. He uses a census as a narrative device because it emphasizes that Jesus is in many ways just another person. Mary and Joseph have to stay in the stable because humility. When Jesus is born he's laid in manger--a fancy word that means "feeding trough"--because it is emblematic of him being a literal sacrifice. He's attended by shepherds, and if you can't figure out the symbolic significance of the shepherds... then I can't help you. No kingly gifts, no star, no Egypt. The only concession to his divinity is angels announcing his birth to the shepherds. It's a narrative that is rich in theme and symbolism. Matthew, by contrast... sigh...

The book of Matthew is a goddamn hate crime.

I said what I said.

Compared to Luke, the theme of Matthew is a quite direct. The author is asserting that Jesus came to save the Jews, but since they rejected Him, salvation is opened to all humanity. And to drive that point home, he completely vilifies the Jews. This is a book where Herod murders every infant and toddler in a major metropolitan area, but the real bad guys are the Jews. Matthew goes out of his way to exonerate Pilate--who by all historical accounts was a big fan of just killing folks--and lays blame solely on the Jews. And lest you think I'm exaggerating, let's remember that verse 27:25, "His blood be upon us and upon our children", has been justification for literal millennia of anti-Semitic oppression that has included no small amount of theft, torture, and murder.

It's also terrible on the literary merits, which is a bit more germane to our discussion here. Matthew elevates Mark's language and fleshes some things out, but his M.O. is to prove that Jesus is the fulfillment of messianic prophecy and he does so quite clumsily. He misattributes quotes, ignores context, and basically pulls anything from Jesus's life that looks like it might have something to do with the Old Testament if you squint at it just the right way and calls it a fulfillment of prophecy. Although, let's be fair, Mark and Luke do some of this as well. All three interpret Malachi 3:1's reference to a messenger as being about John the Baptist, never mind that the name Malachi means "messenger" and it's pretty clearly the prophet referring to himself. But Matthew's stumbles are extra hilarious. My favorite example is when he misunderstands a verse from Zachariah about the Lord riding "a colt, the foal of a donkey" as "a colt and the foal of a donkey" [emphasis mine] and depicts Jesus riding two animals on his way into Jerusalem.

And this is the approach he takes to his nativity narrative. Joseph and Mary already live in Bethlehem when Jesus is born because of course they do. He is attended by wise men bearing kingly gifts--and it's no coincidence that these wise men are foreigners, because thematically this is a book about Jesus being rejected by his own people. Then there's Herod's slaughter of the innocents, a clear nod to the birth of Moses, so Joseph and Mary flee to Nazareth--whoops, actually they flee to Egypt for no reason other than Matthew wants to throw in a quote from Hosea that is clearly referencing Israel but if you squint at it sideways kinda seems like it might be about the Messiah. Then they return, not to Bethlehem once the coast is clear, but all the way to Nazareth, which is not anywhere near Egypt but is on the far side of Bethlehem. Seriously, you basically pass by Bethlehem on the way the Nazareth. I don't know... maybe they took a boat.

As I said above, the two stories have almost nothing in common. Additionally, they are thematically dissonant with each other, and also don't really cohere narratively, and occasionally flat-out disagree with each other. So why do we insist on harmonizing them into a single narrative?

Well, part it is because we only tell these stories one day a year, so we're gonna cram 'em both in. But more broadly it has to do with the liturgical tradition of the church. During a Sunday service, you're not going to hear a long passage from one book and a discussion on its meaning and context. Instead, you're going to hear a lesson that is then supported by various passages from different books, context be damned. This is a pretty bad way to approach literature, and it's also the only way many church-goers engage with the scriptures. I mean, it's not completely without merit, I guess. I'm sure there's a Shakespeare scholar out there looking at Caesar's death scene and Hamlet's death scene to analyze how the Bard writes death scenes, but most Shakespearean scholarship is concerned with whole plays at a time.

So why shouldn't we approach the books of the Bible the same way? Look at a book in toto and discuss themes and symbolism in the context of the larger work without constantly cross-referencing other books or insisting that every detail must be true. Whether they admit or not, these are books of literature, not histories. You find capital-T Truth by reflecting on them as complete works, not by looking at individual snippets in isolation. Yes, there are exceptions, like the Psalms, but the books of especially the New Testament were meant to be read in a single sitting. Ergo, church services should look at passages as part of a narrative instead of simply mining them for proof-texts. Obviously, that will take more than twenty-five minutes, but you can spread it out over several services, right? Most church-goers attend multiple weeks in a row.

And then when it comes to the yearly Christmas service... chuck Matthew and just read Luke's account. It's better. And also not a hate crime.