(Helen Bond) Readers in the UK and Canada (or with access to BBC iPlayer) may have seen the first of a new four-part adaptation of the nativity story which aired last night. I acted as ‘historical consultant’ for the film and, as my role was infinitessimally small, I can say without any embarrassment that it is a beautifull, thought-provoking and quite moving retelling of the story by writer Tony Jordan (who has credits such as Life on Mars and Hussle to his name).
Of course, acting as historical consultant on a retelling of the birth stories is quite a tall order. Like most biblical scholars I’m rather sceptical of the historical veractiy of the stories as they now appear in Matthew and Luke. My brief, though, was to put my uncertainties to one side, to accept a broadly harmonised story-line, and simply to add local detail and colour where I could.
I always find projects like this interesting as they make me look at the texts in a rather different way. Two things in particular struck me as I worked through the harmonised version.
The first is that while it is possible to some extent to link the accounts in Matthew and Luke (ignoring the fact that in Matthew the holy family seem to live in Bethlehem), the real difficulty is accounting for a Roman census under Herod. I don’t think any modern argument explains this in a credible way. Tony Jordan’s suggestion is that Augustus was checking up on Herod, that he suspected that Herod’s land was worth more than the King had claimed. This is just about possible, particularly in the later years of Herod’s reign when relations with Augustus were decidedly poorer, but is still fundamentally unlikely (and we haven’t even touched on the extremely odd detail that people returned to their ancestral homes!). With the best will in the world, explaining a Roman census on the land of a still-honoured client King is problematic.
A second thing which struck me has to do with Jewish messianic hopes at the time. The film follows the actions of three main groups of characters: Mary and Joseph, the Magi, and a shepherd. Overarching the whole thing, though, is the idea that events are following a blueprint already laid out in Scripture. The Magi, right from the beginning, realise that the prophecies of their predecessor Balaam are coming true, and throughout the film characters quote passages familiar to Christians from Matthew’s proof-texts or traditional carol servies. I did point out quite clearly that Jewish messianic hopes were much less clear than all of this supposes and that many of these texts only became ‘messianic’ after the event. In many ways, though, Tony Jordan was entirely right to ignore my criticisms: for a modern (broadly) Christian audience there is huge dramatic and religious potential in seeing Jesus as the fulfilment of a set of prophecies and allowing characters in the story to point foward to his future role (we’re told already that he will be a light to the world, that he has come for the poor, and that he will die to take away sin). Furthermore, the bare story with no sense of prophetic fulfilment would read very oddly: a girl pregnant before marriage, a trip to a distant small town, visits by eastern astronomers and shepherds. This very strangeness, however, convinces me that the story cannot ever have existed apart from the proof texts, in fact that it was the proof texts that gave rise to the story. Deleting the scriptural texts, then, might have been truer to first century Jewish messianic hopes, but would not have produced a ‘historically accurate’ account of what happened. The prophecies and the story were intricately linked from the start.
I went down to London last week to see a screening of the whole film and I don’t think anyone was left unmoved by it. If it helps to fill in the Christian story for those who know little about it, and makes those that do think a little more about the characters involved, I think it will have achieved something really useful.