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The Nativity


Most of us will be familiar with the Christmas Nativity story - the census, travelling to Bethlehem, no room at the inn, stable, manger, star leading 3 wise-men, shepherds with sheep, lowing cattle and all the rest. It's what is set out in the Biblical narrative that thousands of kids act out at schools up and down the country right? But, ignoring the fact that state schools make kids of other religions and none act out a religious scene as though it was fact, how much of it is based even on the account itself? Well much of the familiar story has been created in much more modern times. For instance the Bible only ever says "Magi" for the wise-men, no mention of three of them. Similarly with shepherds. Their number remains unspecified.

The account is only in 2 books of the Gospel (the four books that are the account of Jesus's life). Matthew and Luke give different but similar accounts. Mark (the oldest and the basis for Matthew & Luke) never mentions it, neither does the latest book, John. Matthew tells of the Magi following the star. According to the account they knew it was to Bethlehem they needed to go as they told Herod that's where they were headed, but they kept following the star until "It rose [and] went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was". Now ignoring the fact that most stars are huge gaseous bodies distances at measured in light-years and could not point out so precise a spot as a single house, it is strange that no one else ever mentions this. Nor do they mention the betrayal of Herod (74 BCE-4BCE) and his subsequent mass baby killing. Nobody; not even the other gospel writers nor any subsequent biographers of Herod. Because we know Herod died 4 years before the birth of Christ, if Herod was part of the narrative this would put Jesus as being born 4 years before Jesus was born.

Luke tells the story of the census - which it claims happened in the rule of Caesar Augustus (27 BCE to 17 CE) and during the Governorship of Quirinius (appointed Legate of Syria in 6CE to 12 CE and he did hold a census shortly after assuming office). Of course, it was ridiculous that a family would have to return to another city to be counted and there's no evidence this was done. Nonetheless both authors place the birth in Bethlehem; Matthew just starts the story there, and Luke makes them walk from Nazareth, 90 miles away. It seems the only two accounts we have for the Nativity are contradictory, fantastical, and there's no good reason to imagine either actually has any warrant. So enjoy the story, take the moral lessons you want to take but remember, it is as real as all the other myths and legends from ancient antiquity.

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