Let's play Highlights Magazine! How many errors can you spot in this picture?
Have you made your list? Good, because here I go:
1. Mary is blonde!
2. Mary, Joseph, Jesus, the shepherds, and two of the wise men are white!
3. The other wise man appears to be of African descent!
4. Jesus is getting a Faberge egg for his birthday!
5. The wise men and the shepherds are there at the same time!
I'm cutting it off right there, because the last is what this post is really about. But before I tackle it, I will quickly take on the first three errors, all of which are grounded in the anti-Semitic movement of the nineteenth century, which sought to bleach Jesus' complexion to make him more acceptable to the world-dominating Europeans who also used the Bible to justify slavery, colonization, and social Darwinism. Caucasians ruled the world because we were destined by both God and nature to do so; which meant the foundational stories of the Bible had to be retrofitted with whiteness.
Historically speaking, this approach is ludicrous beyond belief. Jesus was born in Palestine. He probably looked like modern day Palestinians--and no, I'm not talking about the European Jews who founded the modern state of Israel, but the Arabs who live in the West Bank. That's right, boys and girls, if you want a good idea of what Jesus really looked like, call up a file photo of Yasser Arafat. As for putting an African in the company of the magi: the Bible says they came from the east. Look at a map, people. East of Palestine is Asia. Africa is to the south and west. It's conceivable they came from India, in which case they would all have darker skin; but that's getting away from the main point of this essay, which begins with error number five:
Having the wise men and the shepherds together in this scene is like having Dr. Who appear on the Enterprise. It's a crossover. It might be good for ratings, but it utterly destroys the continuity of two very different stories, corrupting the message of each. It also reveals the most fundamental problem of both: their total lack of historicity.
In brief, the wise men appear in Matthew's nativity story, while the shepherds appear in Luke. Matthew's nativity is operating in the service of the writer's central point that Jesus has come to share good news with gentiles, while Luke's good news is for the poor. Both see this is the beginning of a new age and a fulfillment of prophecy. Apart from that, the stories have almost nothing in common, except for one final thing: they're made up.
We'll get back to that in a moment. Right now, I'm addressing the crossover issue, a problem with every nativity scene, play, pageant, tableau, and play set I've ever seen. Most paintings get it right, by the way: artists have tended to know their subject matter far better than modern depicters of these stories, and have opted (the above depiction excepted) for either one or the other set of visitors to the manger. That's as it should be. Putting the wise men, with their kingly gifts, in the scene with the shepherds is like having Santa shove them aside so he can get a better look at the baby. The two themes are incompatible.
The church has dealt with this conflict by separating the two stories into two different holidays. Luke is a story for Christmas; Matthew is for Epiphany. This seasonal harmonization removes the immediate dissonance of having two contrary versions of the birth narrative, making it possible to celebrate both, but does not eliminate the fundamental problem with their coexistence.
Historically, we know very little about the life of Jesus. We've got a rough idea of when he died, we're fairly certain he was crucified, and we've got some teachings that most likely came from him. Beyond that, the stories of his life are largely artifice, constructed by writers to contain all the many things that were believed about him. Many of the stories of his ministry are questionable, but there remains the possibility that some were handed down from people who actually lived with him. The birth stories, however, are completely ahistorical, verifiably so. They've been made up by their authors to...
Actually, I'm not going to say with certainty why these two stories were written, though Matthew does frequently state a purpose for the stories he tells: fulfillment of prophecy. It's important to Matthew to prove that Jesus is the Messiah, and to do that, he has taken bits and pieces from the Hebrew scriptures and stitched them together into a body of evidence that is beyond question. Unfortunately, when one makes up stories (like the nativity, the visitation of the wise men, the slaughter of the innocents, the flight to Egypt, and on and on and on) to prove a point, the point is not, in fact, proven by those stories. It does sustain the belief of the gullible in the point, often long enough to accomplish whatever it is the lying proclaimer wishes to do. Witness the horror stories told about the invasion of Kuwait leading up to the Persian Gulf War, most of them subsequently disproved, but far too late to stop the conflict. In the case of Matthew's prophecy-fulfilling lies, hundreds of generations have accepted them, often taking them to the next logical step of hating Jews for rejecting their Messiah, and finally committing genocide in the name of the Prince of Peace.
But I get away from my central point here. There is another, far more powerful, approach to the fictional nature of the nativity stories: parables. Parables are works of fiction that reveal a deeper truth than punditry can. Write an op-ed about an actual societal problem, and there may be a few people moved by the power of one's rhetoric. Tell a moving story about people caught up in that problem, and whether or not it's true, one's audience will be instantly wrapped up in the underlying reality, overhearing the truth far better than they could ever hear it directly. That's why so many great philosophers and teachers, including Jesus and Buddha, have used parables.
The nativity stories, I believe, are parables illustrating deeper truths. Matthew's deep truth is that of Jonah: God is bigger than the petty lines on maps humans use to divide ourselves from each other. Luke's deep truth is that God cares about all people from the bottom up, and is especially concerned about the poor and oppressed. These truths are not necessarily in conflict with each other, but the stories do not mesh well. There is a terrible irony in having poor shepherds and rich wise men appear together; one can almost feel the twin forces of church and commerce tearing at the baby, battling over who really owns this holiday.
How about you? Have I hurt your feelings by telling you both these stories are just that, stories? Have I upset you by insisting they be kept separate from each other? Or have I, perhaps, opened your eyes to new ways of looking at this annual oxymoronic festival? I'd like to know, though please don't try to debate me (or others) in your comments. Let's hang onto at least the semblance of peace.