It’s that time of year again; the time when grinch-like spoil-sports (such as me) insist that the traditional version of the Christmas story may not be entirely accurate. I’m all in favour of bringing donkeys into school or church for nativity plays, but the Bible story doesn’t mention a donkey, or an inn-keeper, a stable or oxen. This article gives some good pointers if you want to get a better picture of the story.
But why do people, like me, get all bothered about this sort of thing? Why not just accept the traditional story; inn-keeper, stable and all?
There are two reasons, why I think we need to get the story straight.
Firstly, we have to resist the temptation to sentimentalism. An overly romantic nativity story, complete with a cherubic baby (“no crying he makes”) helps to reinforce the anaemic vision of Jesus dressed in a white nighty and floating over the ground that is all too common in our society. Jesus birth was a real event that took place in a real human society. Jesus birth was a real event; there was blood and pain and an anxious Joseph worrying about his teenage wife. Jesus birth wasn’t a picture postcard romantic event and neither was his life. The story of Jesus is gritty and earthy. It speaks to the suffering and oppressed, because of its earthiness. When we make the story sentimental, we rob it of its power.
Secondly, we have to get the story right because Christianity is a religion that claims to be based on historical events. If we are prepared to play fast and loose with the history – we undermine the basis the faith. If our version of the Christmas story is dubious, why should people trust us when we talk about the Easter story? Discussions about inn-keepers and donkeys may sound trivial, but there is a lot riding on the truthfulness of our story.
If you’d like an insight into how historical and biblical study can go hand in hand, this thirteen minute podcast by Mark Goodacre on Christmas in John’s Gospel is excellent (spoiler; there is no Christmas in John’s Gospel).
Update: Archdruid Eileen has just posted this wonderful response to this blogpost.