Saturday, 8 December 2007

Christmas tradition


It's good to see that that old Christmas tradition, the "widespread ignorance of the Nativity" survey, is still going strong.

The survey, carried out for think-tank Theos, asked the usual thousand adults four questions about the Nativity story "according to the Bible".

This is how the Telegraph reported it:


A survey found 27 per cent of Britons aged 18 and over were unable to identify Bethlehem as Jesus's birth place, while the figure rose to 36 per cent of people aged between 18 and 24.

One in ten of those questioned thought the answer was Nazareth and a similar number said Jerusalem.

The poll also found that more than one in four people - 27 per cent - were unaware that an angel told Mary that she would give birth to a son, with some saying she was informed by the shepherds.

Most people surveyed believed that Joseph, Mary and Jesus fled to Nazareth rather than Egypt when they escaped from King Herod, and a few even said the holy family's destination was Rome.

The survey also revealed that just over half did not know that John the Baptist was Jesus's cousin.


Of course, you could turn it round the other way and express amazement that three-quarters had somehow acquired the basic information, which is something of a miracle if there's any truth in that other festive staple, the "multiculturalists ban Christmas" story. Which there probably isn't, of course. Indeed, regular churchgoers did little better than the general population, with only just over a third getting all four questions "right".

Interesting, however, that the survey should couch its survey in terms of what it says in the Bible, which led to that rather odd question about John the Baptist. No-one learns about the birth of Jesus from the Bible. They learn it from their parents, from school, from Christmas carols, by taking part in Nativity plays. Even, occasionally, from the church. Most of the story isn't even in the Bible, and the two gospel accounts, Luke and Matthew, not only tell entirely different stories but contradict each other at several points. Though they do agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, something that most modern scholars find highly unlikely.

Which I suppose explains those rather odd questions about Egypt and John the Baptist, and the widespread ignorance the survey claimed to find about them. Both are peripheral to the main event, extremely dubious historically, and play almost no role in the popular narrative. Stick to the Bible, as the survey tried to do, and you miss some of the most important details. Such as:

- the innkeeper
- the ox and the ass
- the three kings, along with their names Caspar, Balthazar and Melchior
- their camels
- the donkey
- the stable
- the date

The Nativity story in the Bible is only half the story. And not even the best half.