What's the Real Nativity Story? Kid, You Don't Want to Know

Giveaway 1Last week, my daughter was looking at a copy of The Christmas Story: The Brick Bible for Kids, author Brendan Powell Smith’s LEGO depiction of the Christian nativity (which I'll be giving away as part of a promotion next Monday). The book is fun and funny, and I figured she'd love it. But, when she got to page 11, she slammed it shut.

“I don’t like this book,” she announced.

“You don’t like the story?” I asked.

“No," she said. "I like the story."

“You don’t like LEGOs?” I asked.

"No," she said. "I like LEGOs.”

"Then why don’t you like the book?”

“Because," she said. "It's not right. Mary came to Bethlehem ON A DONKEY.”

I opened up the book. Sure enough, there was Mary and Joseph walking to Bethlehem.

The Christmas Story

“Actually," I explained, "the Bible never says anything about a donkey. That part was added in later by other people.”

“No!" she said, all pissed off. “MARY RODE A DONKEY!"

Then she slammed the book shut again.

Wow, kid, I thought. You’re going to have a hard time when I tell you the rest of it.

•••

Historically speaking, it’s highly — and when I say highly, I mean HIGHLY — unlikely that Jesus was born in a stable, or placed in a manger, or visited by three magi. Because it is highly unlikely that Joseph and Mary made that trek to Bethlehem in the first place — on a donkey or otherwise. According to scholarly research on the subject, Jesus was probably born near his hometown of Nazareth, and it was probably not in December, and the birth was probably pretty unceremonious. After all, historically speaking, Jesus didn't rise to prominence until he grew up and started his traveling ministry.

In fact, there is surprisingly little we know for certain about Jesus. Some would say that nothing is certain, but exhaustive scholarly research suggests otherwise. Most scholars agree on these three facts:

1. Jesus lived. 2. Jesus was baptized by John (the, um, Baptist). 3. Jesus was crucified by the Romans near Jerusalem.

But, dude, that’s it. That’s all we know. Even taking the supernatural stuff out of the equation (that he was the son of God, that he performed miracles, that he rose from the dead, that he ascended to heaven), there is still so much open to interpretation, speculation and guesswork.

The most fascinating part to me is that, according to many scholars, numerous details from Jesus' life were invented after his death in order to match him up with the Old Testament version of the Jewish Messiah. Written 500 to 700 years before Jesus' birth, the books of the Old Testament mention a coming Messiah something like 300 times. And let me tell you: They got really specific. So all the New Testament stories about Jesus weren't creative storytelling so much as they were a recounting of these old messianic stories. For example, the Old Testament said the Jewish Messiah would:

 Be born of a virgin: "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel." Isaiah 7:14. 

• Preach the 'good news': "The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners." Isaiah 61:1-2

• Enter Jerusalem on a donkey: "Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey." Zechariah 9:9

• Be betrayed by a friend: "Even my close friend, whom I trusted, he who shared my bread, has lifted up his heel against me." Psalm 41:9

• Be crucified: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads... He trusts in the LORD; let the LORD rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him." Psalm 22:1,7-8

Now, most Christians would say that the scholars have it all wrong. Jesus' story "matches up" to the Old Testament because Jesus was the Messiah. But some of it is just too convenient. In a historical context, it doesn't fly.

Let’s go back to the nativity, for example.

In the Old Testament, the Messiah is described as being from Bethlehem — the birthplace of Jerusalem, the place where King David established his kingdom, and the city in which the "People of Israel" got their start. It was said that the Messiah would be a descendent of David himself and therefore have a rightful claim to the throne. Consider Micah 5:2, written in 750 BCE: "But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times."

In other words, it was vital that Jesus have a connection to Bethlehem if he were ever going to be passed off as the true Messiah.

The thing is, it makes no sense whatsoever that Joseph and Mary would leave Nazareth and head to Bethlehem to register for a Census when Mary was 9 months pregnant. Not just in the dead of winter — but ever. Jesus' family hadn't lived in Bethlehem in hundreds and hundreds of years; to trace his family back to the city of David, Joseph and Mary would have had to go back 42 generations. (If you've ever tried to map out your own family tree, you know how unlikely that is.) Furthermore, as researchers have pointed out, even if they could trace their family heritage back that far, no emperor would force all his people to return to their ancestral cities to register for the Census. It's not rational. And the emperor at the time, Emperor Augustus, apparently was known as a rational man.

•••

So who was Jesus? A charismatic leader? A philosopher? An activist? A prophet? A man with a mental illness? Anything is possible, I suppose. But one thing is all but certain: The Christmas nativity, as we know it, didn't happen.

Maxine is going to be crushed.

 

What's Wrong with a Nativity Scene Made out of Dead Cats?

When my mom was in college at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, she had a sorority sister who interned for the local newspaper. One day, the intern was rummaging through the morgue (which, in pre-Internet days, is where they kept old  clips) when she found a file labeled "Funny Brides." The file was pretty self-explanatory; it was filled with stories about tasteless weddings and photographs of homely, unseemly or otherwise humorous-to-look-at brides and their grooms. Of course, she wasn't about to keep this find to herself, so she brought the file back to the Sorority House, where the sisters pissed themselves laughing. And, thus, a tradition was born. Today, some 55 years later, my mom and a close circle of her old friends have a Funny Bride Book of their own. It's filled with clippings from newspapers around the country. Sometimes, it's just the photos that are funny. But more often it's details of the ceremonies that prove the most hilarious. One couple, for instance, were married in front of a water fall. During their vows, a rock flew out of the water fall and hit the groom in the groin.

"It was reported," my mom told me, "that the bride and groom were able to consummate the marriage.... Now, isn't that more information than you really want to know?"

It wasn't just Funny Brides that caught her fancy, though. The Des Moines Register used to print "Funny Names" as a regular column. Both my parents have committed a great number of those to memory. Let's see, there's Tackaberry McAdoo, Munsing Underwear Johnson, and my least favorite of all of them, Mary Moist.

The point is that my mother's fascination with goofy newspaper stories is why I have in my possession a 1999 article about a school-sanctioned high school nativity scene in Elizabethton, Tennessee, made completely out of cat cadavers.

The Elizabethton Star, Tennessee

 

I know, I know. Christmas was so last month. And yet, I couldn't help but share this one with you. If you're not able to read it, click here — where I found an online-version of the story. And here, you'll even find a Letter to the Editor about the thing. Apparently PETA eventually awarded its annual Kind Student Award to the boy who was SUSPENDED FROM SCHOOL for daring to take the scene down. And what, you ask, would lead him to vandalize such a holy display?

Well, because it smelled bad, the boy said. And because it was disgusting to look at.

Sacrilegious little shit. They should have expelled him.

Favorite line from the editorial: "That students in Elizabethton placed a formaldehyde-soaked dead cat in a cradle as baby Jesus and inserted sticks into the rectums of cats to make them stand up as Mary, Joseph, and the wise men is shocking..."

Especially when superimposed over this line from the Elizabethton Star:

"The decorating contest 'gave students an opportunity to work as a team with their homeroom teacher with a holiday spirit activity," Alexander (the principal) said in a press release. He said most reaction so the cat cadaver display were positive."

Research Shows Baby Jesus Crazy Popular

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For the last few weeks, I've been prepping for the first edition of Relax, It's Just God's Shopping Guide, which, if all goes according to plan, will appear here on Thursday — just in time for the Christian and Jewish month of giving. (See how I timed that? Aren't I clever?) The guide will give reviews and buying information about my favorite "props" — including toys, books, movies and music — all of which are intended to help parents talk to kids about religion without confusing them, scaring them or boring them to tears. Feel free to let me know if you have favorite books or movies you'd recommend — and be sure to point out any of your favorite science-centered resources, as well. As interesting as it is for kids to hear how world religions answer the Big Questions of the universe, it's just as interesting (and even more important) to hear about how science has gone about answering those same questions.

One thing I thought would make a great prop — particularly for "cultural Christians" who are celebrating Christmas in their homes this year — is a nativity set. There are not a lot of things better for the under-10 community than little figurines that can be "played with," and nativity sets certainly lend themselves to that. I even went online a couple of weeks ago to see if I could find one for Maxine. I figured I'd store it with the other "special holiday toys" that only come out at Christmas time. Just to be clear: The nativity set wouldn't be a decoration in our home, but rather an educational toy that is kept in Maxine's room for one month out of the year. Anyway, I went online thinking I ought to be able to find something that would suit, and was quickly and completely overwhelmed by the options. Apparently, and I say this as a result of my tireless research into this area, this country loves itself some Baby Jesus.

On Amazon alone, I found a little something for everyone. Here is a tiny fraction of what you can find.

For those with toddlers...

 For those with a puppet theater...

For those loyal to Playmobil...

For those loyal to Lego...

 

 

For those on a budget...

 

For those not on a budget...

 

For those short on storage...

For those who love vintage...

 

For those who love handmade...

And for those prone to nostalgia...

The question is: Which one do I buy?