It’s known as the Greatest Story Ever Told.
When it comes to The Nativity of Jesus, most of us are familiar with the basics - angels, shining star, baby in a manger - but what about the rest of it?
Not to mention that if this were a Hollywood script, we’d be looking at some serious inconsistencies, with various gospels and texts disagreeing with one another on everything from how many wise men there were to where exactly Mary gave birth.
In the spirit of the season, Dr Meredith JC Warren, a Canadian biblical scholar and lecturer at the University of Sheffield, has been doing a little festive digging and has stumbled across a few things about the birth of the son of God she thinks would surprise us all.
The 33-year-old, who is a self-confessed fan of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, has been leading an Embodied Religion themed research project at the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies, exploring the life and times of Jesus and the way religion is experienced in and on the body including what people wear and what they touch, smell, and taste.
“The Gospels in the New Testament only tell part of the story of how the earliest Christians envisioned Jesus’s birth,” she reveals.
“The stories I found are from books left out of the Bible, that feature in ancient texts called ‘Apocrypha,’ and they’re truly fascinating...”
Read on for Dr Warren’s top pick of Things you Never About the Birth of Jesus...
1. Mary’s virginity was tested.
We’re familiar with Matthew’s version of how an angel explains Mary’s pregnancy to Joseph, but Luke only depicts Mary as being in on the plan, whereas Joseph seems happy without an explanation!
A second century AD text, Proto-Gospel of James, describes a test Mary had to undergo when her pregnancy was discovered by the local authorities. Both Joseph and Mary were made to drink a potion to reveal whether they have committed adultery. If they had, they would have experienced all sorts of physical ailments and pain. Joseph and Mary, however, returned unscathed and so their examiner believed their story. Later, after Jesus is born, a midwife verified that Mary had retained her virginity - even after giving birth!
2. A pain-free delivery
With no proper birthing room - let alone an epidural - one might think Mary had a tough time during labour. Matthew and Luke skip over the birth, mentioning it only off-handedly, but some Christians were curious about the labour. As opposed to Luke’s mention of a manger, Matthew doesn’t say whereabouts the birth took place on the way to Bethlehem. The Proto-Gospel of James describes Mary giving birth in a cave. As soon as Mary enters the cave, it shines with bright light. A midwife, arriving too late to help, is shocked when she sees the minutes-old Jesus standing on his own two feet, with no blood on him. Mary is said to have experienced no pain at all.
3. Following a star can take a while!
In the New Testament, only Matthew includes the story of the ‘magi’ - more commonly known as wise men or kings, though the word doesn’t actually imply royalty, or even anything about their gender. In the story, the magi follow a star to Jerusalem, looking to worship the King of the Jews. Matthew isn’t specific on when the magi arrived, but traditionally people see them arriving after Jesus’s birth. The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, from the seventh century AD, says it was two years later when they finally arrived to give their gifts to Jesus, who was by then a toddler. A text written before the fifth century AD called The Revelation of the Magi, tells the story of the star from the perspective of the magi themselves. After expecting the star for many years, it finally comes down from the sky and takes the form of a human being. The magi follow the star-child, making progress across an enormous distance; they don’t become tired or run out of food, since the star’s light causes their supply to always replenish.
4. How many wise men were there?
Matthew doesn’t say how many magi came to give gifts, only that there was more than one. Possibly because three specific gifts are named - gold, frankincense and myrrh - tradition settled on three as an appropriate number. The magi don’t have names in Matthew. They get names around 500 AD: the Western churches call them Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar. But in many early churches, especially in Syria, there were twelve magi visiting Jesus and bringing him gifts. .
5. The donkey, the sheep...and the dragons!
Today Christians sing carols describing how the animals around the manger recognised Jesus and worshipped him, even though the New Testament never mentions it - but we rarely hear songs about Jesus and dragons!
In Pseudo-Matthew: while resting from their travels, Mary, Joseph, and a two-year-old Jesus are surrounded by dragons. Jesus, unafraid, walks over and stands in front of them. The dragons worship him and then leave in peace.
Well there’s something you don’t hear every day.
For more interesting nuggets of information, follow Dr Warren on Twitter, @DrMJCWarren or @UniShefSIIBS.