Last year, the War on Christmas took a very sinister turn.
Not content with re-branding the festivities as "Winterval", banning fairy lights and insisting that all mince pies be kosher, the Political Correctness Brigade abolished the Nativity Story itself.
According to the Times our old friend Rowan Williams had declared that the birth of Jesus was:
ALL A CHRISTMAS TALL STORY
When the Daily Telegraph reported the story, it made use of quotation marks, a device that papers use to alert readers to the fact that they are being lied to:
ARCHBISHIP SAYS NATIVITY "A LEGEND"
The Daily Mail had no such scruples:
THREE WISE MEN ARE JUST A LEGEND, SAYS ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY
According to The Times:
"The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, dismissed the Christmas story of the Three Wise Men yesterday as nothing but 'legend'...."
According to the Telegraph:
"The Archbishop of Canterbury said yesterday that the Christmas story of the Three Wise Men was nothing but a 'legend'....The Archbishop went on to dispel other details of the Christmas story, adding that there were probably no asses or oxen in the stable."
And according to the Daily Mail:
"Jesus was born in December, in a snow-covered stable, where he was visited by three wise men bearing gifts, and was wrapped in swaddling clothes by his mother. Or rather he wasn't - according to the leader of the Church of England. Dr Rowan Williams yesterday debunked a large part of the Christmas story as a myth..."
Columnists and pundits rose to the theme. The Archdruid had denounced the whole Christmas narrative. Here is Gerard Baker in The Times:
"The retreat continues, despite the best efforts of the Anglicans to keep making concessions to disbelieving modernity, as the Archbishop of Canterbury did again this week with his observation that we were obliged to treat the Christmas Story really as just a legend. Like Alfred and the burnt cakes, I suppose."
And Simon Heffer in the Telegraph:
"But when the country's most senior prelate tells me that aspects of Christianity are simply 'legend', I wonder what that faith - and, of course, Christmas itself - must be about. After all, if the Christmas story is legend, then what is to be said about the rest of Christ's life? Are the miracles legend, too? I am no theologian, but it would seem to me that, if they are, then one of the main bases of Christian faith sustains something of a blow."
And someone called Rush Limbaugh, in Cloud Cuckoo Land:
"By the way, the Archbishop of Canterbury also said the nativity scene is a 'legend.' Not real, just a legend. So for those of you out there who feel compelled to take some of your Christian beliefs, discard the miracles, and replace them with modern science and thereby invent a new religion, go right ahead - and if this is what Dr. Rowan Williams wants to do, if he wants to throw out the things in Christianity that he just can't explain in his 'superior mind,' go ahead, Dr. Williams. But just don't call it Christianity... "
I am sorry to have to debunk such a much-loved fable, but this old traditional story of the Bishop who thinks the nativity story is only a legend is, itself, a legend....a myth....a conflation.... a work of pious fiction... a lie.
If we go back to the original text, we will discover that the story goes more like this:
On Dec 19 2007 well known theologian Simon Mayo conducted an interview with the Archdruid on Radio 5. He asked him what I take to have been honest questions about which parts of the Christmas story are "true and crucial to believing in Christmas" and which parts aren't. He made a list of items such as "the stable and the manger" and asked the Druid if they were "historically and factually true".
Quite uncharacteristically, the Druid gave straight answers to these straight questions. No, the Bible doesn't actually use the word "stable" but it does very strongly imply that Jesus was born in an outbuilding of some kind. It certainly says that he was laid in a manger. It doesn't specifically mention an ox, an ass, or any other kind of animal, although there might very well have been livestock in an outbuilding that contained a feeding trough. It doesn't snow in the Middle East, as any fule kno.
Interestingly enough, someone had fed Mayo the old lie about the story of the virgin birth being based on a mistranslation, but the Druid set him straight. Matthew and Luke definitely say that Jesus had no human father, but Matthew may have wrongly understood a passage in the Old Testament as foretelling that this is how the Messiah would be born. When asked whether the story of the Virgin Birth was essential or inessential, the Archdruid waffled a bit :
"....I don't want to set it as a kind of hurdle that people have to get over before they, you know, be signed up; but I think quite a few people that as time goes on, they get a sense, a deeper sense of what the virgin birth is about. I would say that of myself. About thirty years ago I might have said I wasn't too fussed about it - now I see it much more as dovetailing with the rest of what I believe about the story and yes..."
But, translated from the gobbledegook, it's clear enough what he was saying: "Yes, this is what Christians believe; and yes, this is what I personally believe, but no, if you are seriously looking into the claims of Jesus Christ for the first time, that's not the best place to start."
But what everyone focussed on is the bit about the Three Kings. Mayo asked if they were historically real, and if so, why one of them is usually depicted as a black man. The Archdruid told him what anyone in possession of a Bible could have found out in 30 seconds flat:
"Well Mathew's gospel doesn't tell us that there were three of them, doesn't tell us they were kings, doesn't tell us where they came from, it says they're astrologers, wise men, priests from somewhere outside the Roman Empire. That's all we're really told so, yes, 'the three kings with the one from Africa' - that's legend; it works quite well as legend."
And there you have it. From "The Bible says that there were wise men from the East, but not necessarily three of them, and certainly not kings" to "Three wise men a legend" and thence to "Nativity story a legend" in one easy step.
See also under "lipstick, nylons and invitations."
As everyone knows, the New Testament contains two different and incompatible stories of the birth of Jesus. In Luke's Gospel, his birth takes place in secret: only Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, some shepherds, and two holy people in the Temple realise what has happened. Matthew, on the other hand, presents it as a big, spectacular, cosmic event. (He always does: even hard-core fundamentalist have problems with his suggestion that the death of Jesus was marked, not only by a thunderstorm, an earthquake and an eclipse, but also by an invasion of zombies.) Jesus is born, like King David, in Bethlehem and there is a divine firework display, just as you'd expect when a new King is born. But the villain of the piece, Bad King Herod, the Royal Quizzling who sold out the Chosen People to the invading pagans, doesn't notice the light-show. A deputation of foreign wizards have to come and point it out to him. His own Rabbis – his own wise men, if you will – find that their Scriptures agree with the wizards' astrology: if a King is what you are after, Bethlehem's the place to look. Bad King Herod sees this new King is a potential usurper, so while the Pagan holy men are taking fantastically precious gifts to the prince, the Jewish King is arranging to have him murdered.
The visit of the indeterminate number of wise men is commemorated in churches on January 6th, the last of the Twelve Days of Christmas. There's no reason to suppose that the magi really did turn up in Bethlehem on 6/01/0002. The star is said to have appeared when Jesus was born, and it must have taken the Wise Men at least several weeks to get from The East to Herod: and more time for them to get from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Christmas cards always show the Magi finding Mary and Joseph in the Stable, with baby-Jesus still in the Manger; but presumably after twelve days, the crowds would have thinned out and they could have got a room inside the Inn. Miss Muir explained that it was OK for our class nativity play to have both shepherds and wise-men in it, because the shepherds would naturally have come back every few days to see how mother and child were getting on. But Matthew says that the Wise Men came to a house and found a child there: not a newborn in a stable. Herod orders the cull of ever child under two, which gives some idea of the time frame.
What has actually happened is that churches have decided that the story of the wise men is a good example of God being interested in the whole world, and therefore an appropriate passage to read out at "epiphany". The story of the wedding at Cana (arguably the first event in Jesus public ministry) was also occasionally used: no-one ever suggested that that happened on Twelfth Night. Another good January 6th passage is Psalm 72, attributed to King Solomon. The poem imagines a future time when Israel is Top Nation and people from all over the world will pay homage to one of Solomon's illustrious descendants:
The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents
The kings of Sheba and Seba will offer gifts
Yea, all kings shall bow down to him
and all nations shall serve him
So: is what the Archdruid calls a legend actually a misunderstanding? Simple folks heard the two passages being read out on Twelfth Night, and assumed that Matthew's magi and Solomon's kings were one and the same?
Solomon seems to be hoping for we-four-kings, unless Tarshish-and-the-Isles share a monarchy, like Great-Britain-and-Northern-Island. "Tarshish" seems to be used in the Old Testament to represent anywhere that's an awfully long way away. When Jonah wants to get as far from God as possible, its Tarshish he heads for. Father Mapple in Moby Dick says that learned men have discovered that it's in Spain; a quick trawl of the interweb reveals that many loopy fundamentalists are taught that it's in Britain. Seba may be somewhere in Arabia. Sheba (as in "the arrival of the Queen of") is usually identified with Ethiopia. So that gives us three kings: an Arab, an African and a European. Medieval geography tended to regard the world as being divided into three continents: Europe, Asia, and Africa. So, very possibly, the Magi mutated into the kings of Tarshish, Sheba and Seba and then into three symbolic monarchs: one European, one Asian and one African. The symbolism is clear enough: the whole world recognises that Jesus is King - only the King of the of the Jews can't.
Matthew's original version of the story draws a contrast between the Jewish wise men, hunched over their dusty scrolls but failing to notice the great big shiny thing in the sky; and the pagan wise men who've followed it for thousands of miles. In the traditional version the contrast is between the false King of the Jews who wants to kill the prince, and the pagan Kings who want to worship him. There is a certain comedy to the Biblical version; but if you are painting a Christmas card or producing a nativity play, the King-centered version has a pleasing thematic unity; and the contrast between the poor king in the stable and the rich kings who visit him is irresistible. This is presumably what the archbishop meant when he said that the story of the Kings "worked as a legend".
In 1930, people on T.S Eliot's Christmas card list received the text of a new Christmas poem, which was carefully not called The Journey of the Kings. It has since acquired an almost canonical status: a Carol Service that didn't include "A cold coming we had of it..." would be as unthinkable as one which omitted "The bells of waiting advent ring...". (Last year's Carols from Kings College also included a poem by Alan Titchmarsh, but I'm guessing they won't make that mistake again. Ever.)
Mr. Eliot set his imagination to work on Matthew's story of the Magi:
A cold coming we had of it
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow...
Camels? Well, there are plenty of camels in the Bible: they spend their time going through eyes of needles, being accidentally swallowed by Pharisees, and embarrassingly herded by Abraham several centuries before they'd actually been introduced into the middle-east. So Eliot and the Christmas card artists are simply making an informed deduction: if you were coming all the way from the Orient, let alone from Tarshish and the Isles, camels are the kind of vehicle you might be using.
Or not. Another good Epiphany reading is Isaiah 60 which specifically deals with the Jewish God revealing himself to the gentiles.
Arise, shine, for thy light has come
And the glory of the lord is risen upon thee
For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth,
and gross darkness the people:
but the LORD shall arise upon thee,
and his glory shall be seen upon thee.
And the Gentiles shall come to thy light,
and kings to the brightness of thy rising.
Lift up thine eyes round about, and see:
all they gather themselves together, they come to thee:
thy sons shall come from far,
and thy daughters shall be nursed at thy side. ...
The multitude of camels shall cover thee,
the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah;
all they from Sheba shall come:
they shall bring gold and incense;
and they shall shew forth the praises of the LORD.
So again: someone has put an Old Testament passage in which gentile kings bring Gold and Incense to God's Top King alongside a New Testament story in which Magi bring gold, incense and myrrh to Jesus. The camels have leapt from one text to the other.
The staff of Starbucks think that it is very important that, during December, I should listen to loud, poppy versions of Christmas songs with my coffee. (Has anyone in the world ever felt their life enhanced by hearing "Frosty the Snowman"?) As I write, a ludicrous, rappy version of the "Carol of the Drum" is blaring through the loudspeaker at me. The final stanza runs:
The Ox and Lamb kept time...
I played my drum for him...
I played my best for him...
Then he smiled at me...me and my drum.
This is of, course, a piece of 20th century fiction in which Matthew's Magi are accompanied to Luke's stable by a purely apocryphal little drummer-boy. (Did he bring eleven mates along, seeings as how it was the twelfth day of Christmas?) There's no particular reason why he wouldn't have found a lamb there. If we follow Miss Muir's reconstruction, the Magi arrived a few days after the Shepherds, and if we agree with Christina Rossetti, one of the shepherds may well have left a lamb as a present. (In the Mystery Plays, the shepherds are much less generous: they bring things like a bob of cherries, a caged bird, and a tennis ball.) But the version of the song I grew up with said "the ox and ass kept time". The lyrics have presumably been changed to stop the Bart Simpsons of this world giggling.
Christmas Carols are positively heaving with this kind of livestock: "why lies he in such mean estate, where ox and ass are feeding?"; "ox and ass before him bow, and he is in the manger now";"saint and angel, ox and ass, kept a watch together". The Archdruid, curiously, said that he could live without the ox and the ass because "they don't figure very strongly in the gospels". So far as I can see, they don't figure in them at all: but they do figure in Isaiah's prophecy - on the very first page of it, in fact:
"Hear, oh heaven
and give ear, oh earth:
For the Lord hath spoken
I have nourished and brought up children
And they have rebelled against me
The Ox knoweth his owner,
and the Ass his master's crib
but Israel doth not know,
my people doth not consider."
The New International version goes so far as translate "crib" as "manger", just in case we missed the point.
So: the Ox and the, er, Donkey, turn out to be an iconographic representation of the same theological point which the stories of the Wise Men and the Kings are making: when God comes to earth, pagans and foreigners and even farm animals recognise him - only the Chosen People can't. Which is, of course, exactly the point which John makes in the poem which opens his Gospel: "he came unto his own, and his own received him not."
The question about which parts of the nativity story are "historically and factually true" turns out not to be a particularly helpful one. The Camel isn't there to inform us of the historical facts about the Wise Men's mode of transportation: it's a sort of sacred hyperlink which says "When you read about Jesus, I want you to keep Isaiah's vision in mind: that the gentiles would one day acknowledge the lordship of YHWH." The artists and poets who turned the Magi into Monarchs weren't revealing a previously neglected bit of history: they were saying "When you hear the story of the gentiles spotting Jesus and the Jews missing him, remember the poem about how kings from all over the world came to worship the Messiah." The Ox and the Ass are there, not because we care particularly what kind of a barn the inn-keeper put Mary and Joseph up in, but to refer us to the Old Testament passage which says "God's chosen people have totally lost track of what God is like."
And yes: one might very well wish to go a lot further. Perhaps Matthew only put the gold and the incense into the story because he was familiar with the Old Testament passage about people on camels bringing gifts to the Messiah; perhaps he made the Magi tell Herod that they had observed the rising of the new King's star because he wanted a concrete illustration of the idea that Jesus was the "light" that Isaiah was writing about; perhaps Luke added a manger because he wanted to invoke the poem about farm animals being better at spotting God than holy people are.
This year, the big Christmas Is Cancelled story was about a survey commissioned by a trendy evangelical church in London: it transpired that 70% of the Great British Public did not "believe" in the traditional nativity story.
Well, a great deal depends on what you mean by "believe" and "nativity story". If by "nativity story" you mean the one that the Daily Mail is waxing nostaligic over -- the one in which Jesus was born in a snow covered stable, between an ox and an ass, surrounded by camel and lambs - and if by "believe" you mean "think that it is historically and factually true"; then the really surprising thing about be is 70% of people did believe in it. If you mean "believe in the message that the traditional iconography is putting across - that God came in secret and wasn't spotted by any of the professional God-spotters - then it's a lot stickier. St Helen's Church seemed to think that the doubting majority regarded the story is simply mythical, a fairy tale set in some never-never land, and have put out a little a video pointing out that Augustus, Quirinius and Herod are verifiable historical characters and that at least some classicists find the story of the census not implausible.
But the more interesting thing in the survey is that 22% of church-goers, and 28% of the general population don't believe that Jesus is both human and divine. The first figure isn't terribly surprising: any church must have a certain number of doubters, enquirers and hangers-on - they aren't meant to be members-only holy clubs, after all. But the second one - that nearly 7 out of 10 people believe in the central supernatural claim of Christianity, is astonishing.
At any rate "Is Jesus both God and Man" has much more to do with what's "true and crucial to believing in Christmas" than what kind of camel the wise men were riding on or how much snow there was on the stable. The Torygraph reported with glee that, in the last twelve months, the Archdruid has changed his mind on the Wise Men: he now thinks that the story is basically true, because there might well have been Jewish astrologers just outside the Roman Empire getting involved in the politics of Herod's last days in Jerusalem. Now, for all I know, he may be right: just as, for all I know, the annual article by an astronomer pointing out that a conjunction, a solar flare, or a comet might provide a rational basis for the Star of Bethlehem may be on to something. But I am actually much more scandalized by the Archdruid's attempt to rationalize the story as history than I was by his suggestion that it's a legend. Because political astrologers and stellar conjunctions tell us precisely nothing about what Matthew and Luke were trying to say.
If I submitted a film script about 21st century America in which a young George W Bush is chastised by his father for chopping down a cherry tree on the White House lawn, would anyone think to ask if that was historically and factually true? Wouldn't they all spot that I was saying, pictorially: "Dubya was as famous for his mendacity as George Washington was for his honesty?" If they started to write learned essays about whether cherries grow in Washington and whether the security men would have let him get his hands on a hatchet, wouldn't we think that they had just possibly missed the point?