I remember watching The Nativity Story at a cinema in Pittsburgh with my first and only girlfriend in 2006. It is the best film adaptation of the nativity gospels, if you ask me.
What is it that makes those gospels so great, such that they are embraced almost universally, regardless of background and religion?
I think the primary reason is that they are, at their core, good stories. Imagine Joseph. I believe he must have been scared to his core, scared to raise a child that he knew nothing about.
Imagine Mary. I think she must have been scared to her core, scared to commit to the stranger that had been appointed to her.
I think they found each other through the fear, while they both, each in their own way, showed immense strength and courage.
Joseph and Mary are idols, not just for marriage, but for how people should behave, full stop.
Imagine the magi. The travelled across half of the known world for something that they believed in. At the same time, they managed to fool the bad guy of the story.
Imagine Herod. A man so consumed by hatred, so power-hungry that he was indirectly responsible for killing all of the firstborn in a city the size of half of Oslo. I think you’d have trouble coming up with a better baddie if you tried.
You can say many things about the Bible. But the nativity gospels are good stories, about humans facing inhuman situations, humans standing up for what they believed in and inhuman humans of epic proportions. Everything sat against an exotic backdrop. That’s the kind of stuff good stories are made of!
Interestingly, both Matthew and Luke’s stories about the nativity are laughably short. Many scholars and theologians agree that the gospels were written down a good few years after Matthew and Luke had passed, and in light of this it could seem as though many years have been spent trying to peel away everything superfluous in the original stories, so that what was actually recorded was the essence of the essence.
We aren’t even privy to the details surrounding Mary and Joseph’s marriage – all we know about this is based on historical science.
This is amazing storytelling, even if taken to its extreme. If the stories were to have been written as a novel today, they would still be great stories, but shallow to the point of naivete.
Perhaps that says more about current storytelling traditions than it does about the nativity gospels.
After all, why spend six hundred pages trying to say something that could be said in fifty?