Baker Academic

Thursday, December 19, 2013

An Alternative Christmas Nativity

For Christians who attend large churches, Christmas plays and live nativities are an amalgam of angels, stars, kings, shepherds, farm animals... even more farm animals. And depending on how many actors need parts, still more farm animals! No joke: I was at a Living Nativity two years ago that included live pigs. Yeah. Any student of the New Testament will know that this "traditional" scene is a modern harmonization of multiple narratives, misreadings of these narratives, and modern inventions. I will not detail the many, many bizarre additions to the biblical infancy narratives here, but consider this: the famous "magi" from the East are not in the same story as shepherds, are not kings, and are not three in number. Modern plays and nativities have distorted the magi (=astrologers?) about as much as the Christian West has distorted Santa Claus. We might as well depict them smoking rubber cigars.

For Christians who attend smaller churches, you tend to have less actors. If so, there is no reason to put the magi and shepherds together or construct the scene from Charlotte's Web. People of God, just pick a narrative and stick to it already! Why not two magi dressed as hippies? They can still bring three gifts. We don't know how long the holy family hid from Herod; so why not have an eight-year-old Jesus living in Egypt? What eight-year-old wouldn't want to play the role of Jesus instead of a sheep? A backdrop of pyramids would be so much cooler than that tired old barn!

Or if you're committed to a newborn-baby Jesus, why not use the infancy narrative of the Proto-Gospel of James?  If you base your nativity scene on this ancient text all you need is a husband-wife combo, an angel, a midwife, an additional actress to play "Salome", and a cave. I summarize this story in my book, The Wife of Jesus: Ancient Texts and Modern Scandals. Here are a few paragraphs from pages 33-34:

This alternative Christmas nativity might seem odd, but it is no less odd than three kings rubbing elbows with sheep in a barn. Of course, there is also the option of just reading the New Testament closely, as hard as that might be this time of year.



  1. If offered the role of the gynecologist in a Christmas nativity play, I think I'd beg to play one of the sheep.

  2. There is no need to construe reception history so negatively.

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