Christ in the Stable

This article originally appeared in The Call in the last month of 2013.

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And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

Luke 2:1-7

The account in Luke’s Gospel of Mary and Joseph’s arrival in Bethlehem, and their having to be accommodated in a stable because there was no room at the inn, is as familiar a piece of modern culture as any Biblical extract could be. It is difficult to imagine how many schools and steeplehouses will have children acting out the story at this time of year.

It was this very cultural familiarity that made it stand out on the popular British TV show ‘QI’ recently. ‘QI’ is a kind of quiz show that celebrates pedantry. Quizzmaster is the erudite Stephen Fry, and the contestants are usually stand-up comics or other celebrities known for their quick wit. When Stephen asks certain questions, if one of the contestants comes up with an answer that perpetuates, say, a common ‘urban myth’ or wrong assumption, lights flash klaxons sound, and points are deducted for a wrong answer. On this particular occasion, Stephen asked why Mary and Joseph had gone to Bethlehem. One of the panellists said “To take part in a census”, and the lights started flashing and the klaxons sounded. Stephen Fry went on to explain that there had been no such census, and that the story had been included in order to legitimise Jesus as the Messiah, who, according to prophecy, was supposed to be born at Bethlehem.

In short, Stephen Fry said that Luke was a liar.

How likely is that? Gospel writers did not go in for writing their autobiographies, so very little is known of Luke. He was most likely a Greco-Syrian physician from Antioch. It is also possible that he was a Gentile rather than a Jew. If we ascribe to him the writing of the Gospel that carries his name, and also the Acts of the Apostles, it is clear that he was not of the generation that actually saw and met Jesus. Many academics have, however, praised the historical accuracy of his writing, citing his descriptions of towns, cities, and islands, and his correct use of titles. His writing is certainly partisan – he wishes to promote faith in Jesus Christ – and must be viewed through that filter. However, even if he was not a Jew himself, as a close companion of the Apostle Paul, he must have been well aware of the Commandment ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness’. Would someone like this tell an outright lie?

There have always been academic difficulties about the historicity of the Gospels. Luke’s account of the nativity places it at the time of the principate of Augustus, during the Syrian governorship of Quirinius (Cyrenius). This does clash with other Gospel accounts, which mention Herod the Great, who died in 4 BCE. There is no account of a census covering the whole of the Roman world at that time, nor even of a regional registration by a Governor. Most modern scholars give the opinion that Luke was mistaken. A generous interpretation would be that he was recording what he had been told by a source he trusted (scholars referred to this presumably oral origination as the ‘L source). In Western learning, however, oral sources have always been regarded with suspicion – for example, the assumption that because many African peoples had entirely oral histories, their accounts of their own history may be disregarded or treated as legend. Many a Christian has asked, “Why do people treat Jesus worse than they treat Socrates?” when the heritage of both has come down to us from their followers rather than directly.

In 1931, the academics J R R Tolkien and C S Lewis were discussing ‘myths’. At the time Tolkien was a Roman Catholic, and Lewis an agnostic (though he later became an Anglican).

“Myths are lies,” said Lewis.

“Myths are not lies,” replied Tolkien. Materialistic progress, he went on, leads only to the abyss, but the myths we tell reflect a fragment of the true light. The Christ story functions as a myth, just like the Scandinavian myths that he and Lewis loved, with one difference – the Christian myth was true. As Lewis put it later:

“What Tolkien showed me was this. The story of Christ is simply a true myth; a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with the tremendous difference that it really happened.”

Does this, then, solve the problem of the disputed accuracy of Luke’s nativity account? Should there be a concern that this particular circle should be squared? Let us look at it another way: does anyone reading this article doubt that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God? Is there any reader to whom this is not a profound and wonderful truth? Is there a reader to whom Christ is not a living presence, Lawgiver, King, Shepherd, Priest, Guide, Saviour, Light? Is there a reader to whom this is not the absolute, undilutable truth?

Luke’s account has Christ born in a stable in as humble circumstances as could possibly be. Shepherds, simple folk, come to see him, and in other Gospels he is visited by philosophers from the East, marking the beginning of his earthly existence with precious gifts. Few confuse the ‘truth’ of these accounts with verifiable ‘fact’, nevertheless they are true, this was the beginning of Christ’s life on earth.

If our focus continues on this, however, will we miss Christ’s heavenly glory? In an epistle to Friends in 1657, our ancient Friend George Fox said this.

“We must not have Christ Jesus, the Lord of life, put any more in a stable among the horses and asses; but he must now have the best chamber, the heart; and the rude, debauched spirit must be turned out. Therefore let him reign whose right it is, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost; by which Holy Ghost you call him Lord, in which Holy Ghost you pray, and have comfort and fellowship with the Father and with the son. Therefore know the triumph in it, and in God and his power, (which the devil is out of), and in the seed which is first and last, the beginning and ending, the top and corner-stone; in which is my love to you, and in which I rest.”

Amen.

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