Monday, December 04, 2006

"The Nativity Story" - Hagiographic Retelling of the Greatest Story Ever Told

The Nativity Story conveys both one of the most realistic treatments of the nativity ever filmed and one of the most fawningly hagiographic. Never has Bethlehem or Nazareth appeared so gritty and realistically Middle Eastern. Seldom have the characters ever looked their parts better than in this movie, all the way down to the scruffy shepherds. Never have I seen Joseph represented with such faithfulness to the emotions he must have been feeling at the news of Mary's pregnancy. Even the treatment of Herod as a sinewy schemer rather than an obese oaf has something to commend it.

Yet, in the climatic scene, the movie resembles not so much a faithful retelling of the biblical account as a video representation of a home nativity scene one might purchase at Wal Mart. At the manger we find Joseph, Mary, and the infant Christ, surrounded by the shepherds, sheep, camels, and three wise men. Even the Magi carry the names tradition has assigned to them. Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, the identifications of the Magi derived from an early sixth Century Greek manuscript in Alexandria, arrive on the scene at approximately the same time as the shepherds, giving a nod to Christmas lore rather than biblical or historical scholarship.

Yet, despite the historical and artistic liberties, The Nativity Story is a reverent and moving film to be enjoyed as part of one's Christmas celebration. Some reviewers have carped that in preaching to the choir, the director has only succeeded in putting the choir to sleep. An Academy Award nominee it "ain't," but if you have been touched by the actual story of the incarnation, you will probably walk away blessed and a little misty eyed in the process of seeing it retold on the big screen.


Amill-Presup said...

Any historical reason to believe that the Magi couldn't have arrived alongside the shepherds? The NIV says they got to Jerusalem, "after" Christ was born in Bethlehem, but the Greek doesn't really bear that translation out. The "historical fact" that the Magi arrived at the home of Mary, Joseph, and a two-year-old Jesus has just as much tradition to it as what we saw in The Nativity Story, only the tradition followed in TNS was a lot older... After all, how do you fix the timeline to have Mary, Jospeh, and Jesus in Judea (i.e. near Jerusalem), not yet having fled to Egypt (or having returned) and Herod the Great ordering the slaughter of innocents based on their information, with Jesus escaping?

Maybe there's a reason our nativity scenes look the way they do...

Dennis E. McFadden said...


Of course you are correct that ALL views of the Magi depend upon arguments from silence, full of inference, involving speculaton and the like. There is widespread disbelief about the historicity of the pericope (cf. Brown's Birth of the Messiah). Even some evangelicals (cf. my former NT and Greek prof, Robert H. Gundry) believe that the Magi are merely the gentilization of the shepherd motif, not historical personages.

However, among those of us who believe in their historicity, the majority seem to favor a visit by the Magi subsequent to the initial nativity visitation by the shepherds.

1. Luke tells us that there was no room in the "inn" (κατάλυμα), yet the Magi found the infant Christ in a "house" (οικία), presumably after the crowd had left Bethlehem.

2. While the term "child" (παιδίον) can have the meaning of newborn or infant, it more commonly describes a child beyond the newborn stage. Luke's "baby" (βρέφος) more properly denominates an infant.

3. Luke's account does not mention the Magi appearing nor does Matthew's narrative reference the shepherds. While this does not rule out simultaneity, it certainly does little to support it.

[Cf. Hendriksen,Utley, Boice, Blomberg, although Hagner opines that Matthew "apparently does not know of the Lukan tradition"].

Amill-Presup said...

Dubious Greek in light of the context...

Again, the following is as conjecture-filled as your own three points, but I make no claim of anything except that we don't know when they arrived (and therefore, any depiction that could fit the text should be seen as valid).
1. κατάλυμα often denotes the "guest room" of a house in Semitic writings. Considering that Joseph had family in Bethlehem, it has been suggested that there was "no room" for a pregnant couple that were not yet formally married to stay in the guest room. Instead, they were relegated to the lower room where the animals were kept (usually within the house proper as well). Or else, because of the census, the stranger to whom Joseph went already had filled up the guest quarters of his house but, out of compassion, allowed Mary and Joseph to lay their heads in the warmth of the lower room. (I suppose this differs from the Nativity Story movie itself, but oh well). Either way, the Magi arrive at the oikia (a less specific term) in which Mary, Joseph, and the baby are sleeping. When my high school rock band was practicing in the garage, the police were sometimes dispatched to the house where we were playing (pesky noise ordinance). That doesn't mean the police caught up with us later on when we had left the garage and gone into the house, as the latter includes the former in its broader sense.

2. As you concede, paidion can mean infant. My BAGD and Louw & Nida are in my study at church, but Strongs defines paidion as "properly an infant, or (by extension) a half-grown boy or girl." This would indicate that paidion is a perfectly normal word for the baby in the manger--a word that we would expect.

3. Argument from silence. We see the phenomenon to which you refer throughout the Gospels. Two angels by the tomb in one Gospel; only one mentioned in the other. Does that mean the angels came at different times? If you believe in Markan priority (which I don't) or the existence of a Q document (which I also don't), one could argue that the author of each Gospel took what was important to his own purpose in writing about Christ (i.e. Matthew and Luke didn't feel the need to include this). Ultimately, though, no refutation is needed. I mean, Revelation chapter 9 "certainly does little to support simultaneity" as well. But, so what?

Anyway, it's not positive biblical evidence one way or the other, but a lack of a cohesive timeline that could include the Magi visiting a toddler Jesus that really makes me think the nativity scenes may have it right.

Dennis E. McFadden said...


OK, we've both demonstrated we can read (even some Greek). I still accept the majority opinion on the timing of the Magi, you don't. But, then again, you feel no compulsion to accept the majority view of Markan priority either. Can we split the difference? I'm with you on Q.

Amill-Presup said...

The Greek I'm good at. The Hebrew is what's slipping (already)...

Merry Christmas.


P.S. Don't even get me started on how Paul wrote Hebrews!

Dennis E. McFadden said...

Fair enough! Thanks for the interaction.

Merry Christmas!

Italian-Swamp-Yankee said...

(love it)