An Alternative Christmas Story

In the days of Herod, King of Judea, there was a man called Jo, a jobbing builder. He worked in the Roman city of Sepphoris, high in the hills of Galilee, and he lived four miles away in a tiny hamlet called Nazareth. The twenty or thirty families in Nazareth lived in caves with stone doors and windows built on to the front.

Jo’s wife was quite young and her name was Mary. They were practising Jews and first of their children was called Yeshua in Hebrew, though we would call him Jesus. He was a bright lad and when he was old enough he would walk with his father over the hill to Sepphoris to work on the fast-growing city. There he met a wide range of people – Jews, Romans and travellers from many countries.

Yeshua received his education from the local Pharisees, who did the teaching in the Jewish community. He got very interested in religion and there were many well-known teachers and leaders of different Jewish groups and sects around in the area at the time. Some were very holy and pious – like the Essenes at Qumran. Some were more like resistance leaders – like the Zealots. But they all wanted to bring the Jewish people back to their true faith and get rid of the Roman occupiers.

Yeshua came into contact with some of these and particularly with a group set up by a man called John. It’s thought that John and Yeshua were related. John was travelling around telling people that the Messiah – a great leader – was coming; that they should turn to God and be washed – baptised – as a sign of their new beginning.

It’s quite likely that Yeshua left his home in Nazareth and became a member of John’s group, which had its base further South on the banks of the Jordan, not far from the city of Jericho. But after some time he struck out on his own and started up his own group back in the North, on the shores of Lake Galilee. He gathered a group of followers around him and began teaching, preaching and healing. His aim was not to set up a new religion, but to renew the Jewish religion in which he had been born and brought up.

Well – that’s my alternative Christmas story. No Angels, shepherds or wise men. No star or stable. And – obviously – I’ve used my imagination. But most of it is based on historical fact, real places and real people. And my version is just as likely to be close to the truth as the versions which are read out in Church every Christmas.

I want us to be grown-up in our approach to the Christmas stories, which are not all that they seem to be, as Bible scholars, historians and archaeologists have been telling us for over two centuries.

The compilers of the gospels we attribute to Matthew and Luke obviously thought it was important to include the birth of Jesus. But they don’t agree on what happened. The Matthew gospel has nothing about an angel appearing to Mary – it’s Joseph who has the vision. There’s nothing about a stable or shepherds, but Matthew does tell us about some wise men. The Luke gospel has no wise men, but does have angels singing to the shepherds.

And what of the other two gospels – Mark and John? There’s absolutely no mention of the birth of Jesus at all.

So – is it possible to say anything with any certainty about the birth of Jesus as we celebrate his birthday each year? Well, we even get the date wrong. He was probably born somewhere around the year we would now refer to as 4 BC. Yes – 4BC. They miscalculated when they first started counting the years from his birth. And anyway – Herod died during 3 BC.

Most of the other parts of the Christmas stories may well be traditions that grew up for various reasons in the decades before there were any written gospels. Angels, shepherds, wise men, star, Bethlehem, the killing of babies by Herod, the flight into Egypt – all could be creative writing to make the birth of Jesus seem more significant and extraordinary, or to make things fit with Old Testament ‘prophecies’. And forget the census in the Luke gospel. There’s no record anywhere of the Romans holding such a census at around that time.

Let’s stick to the simple statement that Jesus was born. We can say little more.

But does that mean that we have to throw out all the Christmas pictures and traditions with which we’ve grown up? No – not at all. Because, in their own way, all these things – whether they are 100% historically accurate or not – are expressing deep truths about who and what that child was.

The story of the angel’s visit to Mary and the birth stories in Matthew and Luke could just be beautiful, poetic legends – or the invention of well-meaning 1st century spin doctors. But our faith doesn’t depend on whether Mary was technically a virgin or if Joseph was the natural human father of Jesus; or whether a group of Persian astrologers spotted a new comet in the night sky.

Our faith doesn’t rest on the Christmas card crib scene or on any of details of the things that did or didn’t happen in 4BC. Our faith rests on the reality of God alive and active in us and in his world right now. If we concentrate on the rather hazy events of 2000 years ago, the danger is that we get stuck in a rather sentimental and childish understanding of the significance of it all and of what it really means to be a 21st century Christian. Some people never get to grow up.

And growing up as a Christian means coming to terms with the whole of the Jesus story – Christmas Day, Good Friday, Easter Day – and today. We have to tell the full story – not just the nice, cosy bits. It’s a package deal. Jesus was born. Jesus died. Jesus lives again. That’s what we celebrate – not just at Christmas time, but every single day.

So let’s be grown-up about it. A childish approach to the Christmas story ends up the same way as Father Christmas. Rejected as a fairy story. The Jesus story is definitely not a fairy story. It’s real and it’s now.

(If you found this interesting or helpful, please pass on the link to others.)

3 Responses to “An Alternative Christmas Story”

  1. 1 marylhooper December 1, 2010 at 5:20 pm

    Thank you Geoff. A very interesting and helpful post. Your blog is an encouragement to me in my journey of faith.

  2. 2 Andrew Law December 1, 2010 at 10:41 pm

    Thank you, Geoff: another thoughtful posting which makes one stop and re-examine the too-familiar stories. It’s helpful to be reminded of the distinction between what is essential and what is helpful regardless of its provenance.

  3. 3 Rebecca Griffin nee Crago December 29, 2010 at 9:47 pm

    Great to see your web site. God bless you as you go in to 2o11. Wonder if we are related?!

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