As we celebrate Christmas this year, it will be healthy to put the Christmas story in its proper perspective. There are so many half-truths that crept into the Christmas narrative and many of them are taken to be from the Bible. The problem is that people do not take time to check what the Bible says and what it does not say.
One of the things the Bible does not say is that three wise men came from the East to honour the baby Jesus. And yet from the earliest age, children are taught that three wise men visited baby Jesus. Many nativity plays depict three visitors and some respectable Christmas songs also mention three men (or three kings) that came from the East.
One of the verses in the famous carol, ‘The First Noel’ says “three wise men came from country far”. Another reasonably well known carol starts with “We three Kings of orient are..” From these and other songs or sketches, people begin to believe that three oriental visitors came to see the baby Jesus.
The account of the Magi’s visit is given in Matthew’s Gospel. The number of the visitors is not mentioned. Three gifts of gold, myrrh and frankiscence are mentioned. The assumption taken by many people is that each visitor presented one of the three gifts.
Another widely held tradition is that Jesus was born in a stable. Some have go so far as suggesting that he was born in a cattle pen. I have grown up with the misinformation that Jesus was born m’khola la ngo’ombe (literally in a cattle kraal). Many celebrated Chichewa Christmas songs mention m’khola la ng’ombe and the neither the singers nor the listeners question that.
The Gospel writer, Luke, mentions that when Jesus was born He was laid in a manger. He does not mention where the manger was, nor does he mention which animals were fed from that particular manger. The manger could have been in a stable, or in a home or in a cave. We simply do not know, because the Bible does not say.
Luke says in the second chapter of his Gospel that when Jesus was born, there were shepherds living out in the filed. He does mention what they were shepherding, but he says they were keeping watch over their flock by night. It is more likely than not that these were shepherding sheep. If they had been shepherding cattle, the word used would have been ‘herd’ not ‘flock’. And yet in Malawi, what we have come to know and believe is that these were cattle herders (abusa a ng’ombe). Perhaps it is because, unlike in the Middle East, we do not have a tradition of shepherding sheep in this country.
The problem is that some over-enthusiastic people have gone ahead to constructs religious absolutes on these half-truths. One assumption has led to another assumption and a whole doctrine has emerged on what really amounts to shaky ground. It has been assumed, for example, that Joseph and Mary lived in abject poverty, which is why their baby was born in a stable or in a cattle kraal.
It is a convenient interpretation of the Christmas story, which can help a preacher portray Jesus as somebody who the poor can identify with. He did not come for the well-to-do people—the likes of King Herod—but for materially less well off.
When converts are won on the basis of half-truths and they later discover that the Bible does not say the things the preacher had claimed, they lose faith in their new life in Jesus.
It is true that Nazareth, the home of Joseph and Mary, was not a well-to-do town. Within a walking distance from Nazareth was a much bigger and wealthier town called Zippori. To use a modern illustration, one was like Manje Township and the other like Namiwawa. Joseph and Mary were from the equivalent of Manje. But like we know there are many people who ply different types of trades and fend for themselves and their families in the townships. Joseph, too, had a trade: he was a carpenter. It is, therefore, misleading at best, and rude at worst, to describe Joseph as somebody who lived in abject poverty.
We need to appropriate balance all aspects of the Christmas characters so that we portray an accurate picture of what actually surrounded the birth of Jesus. To know what the Bible does not say is just as important as to know what it says. Failure to diligently search within Scripture leads to the propagation of half-truths.