Christopher Howse

That old Bethlehem story

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The Nativity: History and Legend

Geza Vermes

Penguin, pp. 177, £

If you tell people there was no ox or ass in the stable where Jesus was born, they sometimes become quite irate, especially if they are convinced Christians. They believe in the marvellous Christmas story, and to deny the ox and ass seems tantamount to denying the Babe of Bethlehem.

Of course, the ox and ass are not in fact mentioned in the Gospels. The artists painted them in, not just because Jesus lay in a manger, but on account of the words of the prophet Isaiah, ‘The ox knows its owner and the ass its master’s crib.’

Geza Vermes mentions these beasts as examples of extra-evangelical elements, along with the ‘three kings’, who are not called kings in the Gospels, but magi. That there were three is simply inferred from their threefold gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Our only real sources for the nativity of Jesus are the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, since Mark starts with the grown-up John the Baptist, and the evangelist John starts with the transcendent Logos becoming flesh. Geza Vermes thinks that the two nativity narratives were nailed on to the prototype Matthew and Luke, which do not refer back to them. He also concludes, from the difficulty in reconciling the two accounts, that much is included because it was the sort of thing that seemed suitable to such an elevated subject. ‘The nature of the birth stories and the many fabulous features incorporated in them, angels, dreams, virginal conception, miraculous star,’ bring Dr Vermes to the view that the Infancy Gospels are ‘not the stuff out of which history is made’.

But it is not the miraculous details that are always the most troublesome to fit in. There is the flight to Egypt, to avoid the massacre ordered by Herod (a man much given, according to a few other sources, to murderous violence). It is mentioned by Matthew, but Luke gives no hint that after the presentation in the temple (40 days after birth) the baby Jesus faced anything more arduous than a return to Nazareth.

For Jesus to come out of Egypt fitted Matthew’s idea of him as a new Moses. It fulfilled the prophet’s words, ‘Out of Egypt have I called my son.’ It is a pity that Vermes has little room to develop this fascinating theme, since on the one hand Sigmund Freud was not alone in arguing that the original Moses was an Egyptian, and on the other the children of Israel plainly defined themselves and their God in contradistinction to Egypt. Anyway, it is not that the child Jesus has to race into Egypt and back in time for the presentation in the temple. Herod had all children killed below the age of 18 months, so exile could fit in later, after the magi had come and gone.

Those magi were not written in to make the narrative more acceptable. Early Christians, Vermes makes clear, were deeply suspicious of magicians, and the magi were not helped by their connection (as the influential early Church writer Origen supposed) with the ambivalent figure of Balaam, who provides an oasis of interest, to a modern eye, in the book of Numbers (chapters 22-24), then disappears.

The connections that Vermes follows up are interesting enough, but the trouble in general with hypotheses on the historicity of Gospel narrative is that they vary with fashion. For most of the past century, Mark was regarded as the first Gospel to be written, but the maverick John (Honest to God) Robinson was convinced of the priority of John. Vermes is an admired scholar (if not quite ‘the world’s most respected Biblical historian’, as the blurb on the back claims). He is known for the insights gained by relating the life of Jesus to its Jewish context. As a Jew himself and, moreover, a former Catholic priest, he is sensitive to both sides of the biblical tradition.

In the increasingly futile search for the ‘historical Jesus’ that biblical scholars set themselves in the 20th century, any miraculous element was automatically discounted. From what little remained, the most likely elements were ingeniously selected. So Vermes himself thinks it ‘likely’ that Jesus was born in Nazareth, not Bethlehem.

But likeliness is not always the measure of truth. Say you came across the name Bobinson in a 19th-century register. The more likely name would be Robinson. But then, why should someone have entered the less likely name Bobinson? Or take Lloyd George, known by everyone as a Welshman. He was in fact born in Manchester. Everyone knew Jesus was from Nazareth. But where was he born? We have only Matthew and Luke, or speculation of what is likely, to go on. It seems to me that the ox and ass, the existence of which is likely enough but not stated by the Gospels, are emblematic of the efforts of speculative biblical history.

Vermes’s own conclusion is that the ‘sweet and simple’ Christmassy side to the nativity narratives is given by Luke, while Matthew has a ‘spoiling effect’ with the ‘fear, panic and tears caused by Herod’s edict threatening with untimely extinction the life of the Son of God’.