The Christmas portions of the gospel are, perhaps, the most beloved, and the most belabored, texts in the New Testament. Like works of art that have been lacquered with coat after coat of varnish, the original stories are hardly visible any more. Today, it is difficult to conceive the Nativity without an ox and ass, for example, although neither Matthew nor Luke mentions animals. (Rather, St. Francis, the great medieval lover of animals, is credited with building the first manger scene complete with live animals.) The three wise men are also permanent fixtures in our image of the Nativity, although they don’t arrive, according to Matthew 2, until several days after the birth of Jesus (the epiphany to the shepherds does, however, take place the same day).
Perhaps revisiting the story from a historian’s point of view may remove some of these mistaken impressions, these layers of lacquer, and let us see the masterpiece in its brilliant original colors.
Part of the problem today is that we tend to conflate Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts into one Nativity story. To counter this, in this column we will confine ourselves to a few verses from Luke.