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The myths and magic of Christmas

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SO it’s time once again for the story of Christmas which everyone knows so well. The three kings, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, go to the manger and offer their gifts to Mary and the baby Jesus. When they get there, they see the shepherds, guided by a star, have already arrived. Well none of those things happened – not according to the Bible anyhow.

There are, of course, four gospels: St Matthew, St Mark, St Luke and St John and each recounts the life of Christ in his own way. Actually, there is no mention of three kings anywhere in the gospels and we are certainly not told their names. St Matthew records the visit not of kings but of wise men and he doesn’t say there were three of them. We have simply assumed there must have been three because of the mention of the three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. St Matthew tells us the wise men were led by the star, but he doesn’t mention the shepherds at all. That is left to St Luke. And St Luke doesn’t mention a star but an angel and ‘with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host’.

There are many wonderful paintings of the Annunciation in western art: Mary in her blue dress being informed by the angel Gabriel that she is to bring forth the heavenly child. But that part of the story appears only in St Luke’s gospel. St Matthew has an unnamed angel make the announcement of Jesus’s birth – though he doesn’t announce it to Mary, but to Joseph. St Matthew traces Jesus’s ancestry back as far as Abraham, but St Luke traces Christ’s origins right back to Adam.

St Mark and St John don’t tell us anything about the birth of Jesus or of his childhood. St Mark introduces him in the first chapter of his gospel as a grown man: ‘And it came to pass in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptised of John in Jordan.’ St John’s gospel begins not with a piece of adult biography of Christ but with a profound philosophical prologue: ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God.’

I’m citing these differences among the gospel accounts not to debunk the Christian message, but to show that the four writers had different perspectives on the same series of events. I don’t find their differences a hindrance to believing the story. If they had all produced exactly the same account of Christ, I should have become very sceptical – as the police would be if four witnesses to a crime all reported exactly the same details. The Old Bill would think they had colluded over a put-up job.

St Mark was the first of the four gospels to be written – about 30 years after the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. It is also the shortest gospel and it concentrates on Jesus’s miracles of healing and actually includes only a very little of his teaching. St Matthew and St Luke produced their gospels about 20 years after St Mark’s account. By this time most of those who had actually known or met Jesus would have been dead and so Matthew and Luke were writing for a new generation of Christians who naturally wanted to learn some details about the birth and childhood of Christ. Surprisingly, there is only one story in the whole of the gospels about the childhood of Christ and it is in St Luke: the account of how, when he was 12, Jesus went up to the Temple with his parents and stayed behind there talking to the Elders and asking them questions.

The story of the life of Christ becomes all the more fascinating when we discover that there were a great many so called ‘gospels’ written which did not find a permanent place in the Bible. The Bible is a collection of 66 separate books. And it was the Church, over long discussions at ancient councils, which decided the books to be included as worthy of the name Holy Scripture as well as those to be left out. The ones that were finally excluded are known as apocryphal writings. They do not have the same authority for Christians as the Bible, but many of them are interesting in their own right and add to our general picture of Jesus Christ and his first disciples.

For example the apocryphal gospel Pseudo-Matthew has an alternative version of the Nativity. In this version an angel tells Mary to dismount on her way to Bethlehem and to enter a dark cave. Joseph goes looking for a midwife and returns with two: Zelomi and Salome. Zelomi believes that Jesus is the Christ-child. Salome does not believe and her arm withers – but she is healed by touching the swaddling clothes.

Later, Mary rests with Jesus in her lap. Suddenly dragons emerge from the cave. The child Jesus stands up before the dragons which fall down and worship him. The writer of this apocryphal tale says that this was in fulfilment of a prophecy in the Book of Psalms where it is written: ‘Praise the Lord out of the earth, ye dragons and all deeps.’

In the Gospel of Thomas there is the story of how the child Jesus went to gather straw with his brother James. A viper leapt out of the grass and bit James and he fell down, as if dead. When Jesus saw what had happened, he breathed on the wound and James was made well again.

Some of these stories are far-fetched, to say the least, but they do have a certain charm. I especially like the one in which Jesus is climbing on the roof of a house with some other boys. I like this because it makes Jesus out to be a proper lad – not some pious image in a stained-glass window. Anyhow, one of the boys falls from the roof and lies unconscious on the ground. His parents arrive and accuse Jesus of pushing him off. Jesus stands over the boy and calls him by name: ‘Zeno, Zeno, arise and answer: did I make you fall?’

Whereupon the boy stands up, restored, and says: ‘No, Lord, you did not!’ The parents are relieved and all ends happily.

I’m glad we’re not required to believe everything which appears in the apocryphal gospels. In one story, Jesus makes some sparrows out of clay on the Sabbath day when children are not supposed to be playing out on the street. The Rabbi comes and gives him a telling-off. Jesus claps his hands and the clay sparrows miraculously take flight. That’s rather naughty, don’t you think, as well as altogether preposterous?

The great scholar M.R. James, who translated these strange writings from the original languages, tells us that ‘apocryphal’ has wrongly come to mean ‘spurious’ or ‘outrageous’, but that it properly means ‘secret’ or ‘mysterious’. I think we should regard these tales as colourful legends – like the stories about Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. As accounts of the childhood of Christ they are very far from being true. But they do tell us a lot about the mindset of those who invented them. There is something in all of us which enjoys what is fantastic and imaginary. No doubt there is a grain of truth in even the weirdest legend.

Happy Christmas!

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Peter Mullen
Peter Mullen
Peter Mullen is a Church of England clergyman, writer and broadcaster

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