Only two Gospels actually have the Nativity story: Matthew and Luke. John starts right at the beginning of time – "In the beginning was the Word" – and in Mark, Jesus first appears as an adult, being baptized. Those early Christian writers all locate the start of Jesus’s life in different ways.
A Christian doesn’t have to be committed to a literal view of the birth narrative stories. The version that we have now at carol services and you see in schools is really a combination of the accounts in Matthew and Luke and various traditional elements. That’s how we came by the Nativity scene that we are all so familiar with.
"The version that we have now at carol services and you see in schools is really a combination of the accounts in Matthew and Luke and various traditional elements."
I think the Nativity is a literary attempt to depict the uniqueness of Jesus. The important thing is the fact that God comes down to Earth and embraces the human condition – and does it not with the rich and powerful but with ordinary, poor people. God is right with us, which is unique amongst religions. In most religions, God is distant from us.
Occasionally churchmen have expressed doubts whether the Nativity actually happened. In 1963 the Bishop of Woolwich, John Robinson, did so in a book called Honest to God, which generated a stir. Then in the 1980s, David Jenkins, who was the Bishop of Durham, said that he doubted the virgin birth had happened. It caused quite a media backlash –as it still would if a bishop said it today. I’m certainly not going to say it now!
There are obviously Christians in the popular devotion who take the Nativity story entirely literally. Matthew and Luke were certainly at pains to locate the story historically and place it right after the census. One reason that evangelical churches are doing so well at the moment is that they offer believers certainty – this is the truth, this is what happened, the virgin birth is a fact.
The Nativity can read like a fairy story because of some of the elements within it, such as the Three Wise Men bearing gifts. In actual fact, the New Testament just says there were wise men, bearing three gifts, which is less specific. And the gifts are symbolic – gold for a king, incense for a deity – and tell us in a coded way who the writer thinks Jesus is.
"The Nativity can read like a fairy story because of some of the elements within it, such as the Three Wise Men bearing gifts. In actual fact, the New Testament just says there were wise men, bearing three gifts, which is less specific."
That’s what the Nativity is – writers in the early Church trying to express who Jesus is, in a language that they could understand and their readers could understand. It says that Jesus was born, and that is the only narrative that counts.
At the end of the day, who is to say that the Nativity didn’t happen? Who is to say that Mary and Joseph weren’t travelling from Nazareth to Bethlehem because of the census? The Nativity is like a lot of legends – there is often a kernel of historical truth at the heart of them.
If I were preaching on Christmas Day, I would talk about the Nativity in terms of God’s gift of himself to us. I would also draw attention to the fact that a couple of days after Jesus was born he became a refugee. Mostly I would emphasise the point of the story: that the Nativity identifies Jesus as the Son of God, coming into the world as a human being. It is God amongst us– and if we want to find God in the world today, that is where we need to look.