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How true is the Christmas story?

It’s Christmas Eve.

You are sitting in a traffic jam, feeling hassled. The snow is falling. You turn on the car radio just as a boy soprano starts to sing with a pure, soaring sound, “Once in Royal David’s City”. You are moved.

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The service from King’s College, Cambridge takes you back to the carol services of your childhood. It’s years since you’ve been in a church; you gave it up when you found yourself losing the will to live during services, and realised that – unlike the Queen in Alice in Wonderland – you couldn’t even believe one impossible thing before breakfast. But now you are a bit teary, surprised to have been ambushed emotionally by a young boy singing an old carol.

Jolted out of your reverie by the blasting of a car horn, you look in the rear view mirror to see a snarling, gesticulating driver. You move off quickly, with an apologetic acknowledgement. Welcome back to the real world.

You turn off the radio and concentrate on the road ahead. But something impels you to switch it back on. A plummy voice comes over the airwaves. “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; you shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”

You are touched again, this time by the majesty and the rolling cadences of the King James Version of the Bible. You used to know some of these texts off by heart. Used to. Not now. Something is missing in your life, but you hardly have the language to articulate it. What you do know is that there is no way back to that old state of innocence. The gates of the Garden of Eden are locked. You are in exile. You are far from alone.

A great piece of literature cannot be produced by a committee. Right? Wrong. The King James Version (KJV) of the Bible, one of the glories of the English-speaking world, was fashioned by a committee of more than 50 people. The efforts of this diverse and sometimes quarrelsome group had a major shaping impact on the English language itself, and inspired many generations.

Next year sees the 400th anniversary of the publication of the KJV (also known as the Authorised Version). The translators, working in separate groups in different parts of the country on the various Hebrew and Greek manuscripts, produced a work of religious genius. All translations of sacred texts are, to some extent, political projects driven by a particular agenda – the KJV was no exception – yet the finished product not only satisfied the demands of its commissioner and paymaster, but transcended them in a magnificent, memorable text.

The KJV can lay claim to be the greatest work in prose ever written in English. The new Bible came out of the struggles of the early Jacobean age. King James VI of Scotland, who laid claim to the throne of England after the death of Elizabeth, was extremely literate theologically, and he was well used to having his lug bent at court by loquacious Scottish Presbyterian divines.

The commissioning of the Bible in 1603 was part of James’s attempt to unite a kingdom. He wanted an authoritative biblical text which would avoid the extremes of the high church “Bishops’ Bible”, which emphasised the importance of episcopacy, and the Geneva Bible beloved of the Puritan tendency.

James’s ecclesiastical policy, as governor of the Church of England, was to allow a broad church, and only to persecute those on the high and low church extremes who refused to sign up to the mainstream project. Given the fractiousness and persecutions of the era, it was an enlightened policy.

The translating committee was divided into six nine-member subcommittees called “companies”. Each geographically-based company was given a section of the Bible to translate. The instruction was to use the Bishops’ Bible – which was loathed by the Puritans – as a basis. However, the Bishops’ Bible was such a poor translation that it actually contributed no more than 8% of its phraseology to the KJV. Much more influential was the translation made by William Tyndale – an astonishingly brilliant 1530s version made by a single Protestant martyr who was on the run for much of his life.

When the six companies had produced their final versions, copies of their work were circulated to the other subcommittees for comment. At a final conference of the whole group, the text was read aloud. This was important, since the KJV was, above all, intended to be the authorised version of the scriptures to be read at public worship. Aural fluency was important: the book had to appeal to what TS Eliot later called “the auditory imagination”.

The final version, published in 1611, was a marvel. It was a rich, multi-layered text, a powerful work of religious imagination.

In terms of beauty, inspiration and memorability, Jamie the Saxth’s version beats its rivals out of the park. There is more inspiration to be found in government pamphlets about winter heating allowances than in some modern translations of the Bible. The grandeur and richness of the old text, particularly when read aloud in a public space with associated rituals of birth, marriage and death, can turn the hearing of the incantatory words into an epiphany, a moment of revelation.

But is the KJV an accurate rendering of the text? And is accuracy more important than style? Questions like this bring us back to Christmas and the difficulty, or otherwise, of believing in a fabulous story.

No-one actually knows for sure when Jesus was born. All we know is the approximate year of his birth – around the fourth year BC. How could Christ be born “Before Christ”? Well, blame a sixth century Scythian monk by the name of Dionysius Exiguus (Dennis the Small). Wee Dennis screwed up on the calculations front.

There is no evidence to suggest that Jesus was born in the winter. The much-loved hymn, “In the bleak midwinter, frosty minds made moan”, is fanciful nonsense. The Church took over a pagan midwinter festival and baptised it.

Many people live under the illusion that they know the basic facts about Christmas. Asked how many wise men there were, most will say that there were three. But the New Testament doesn’t mention the number at all. The wise men weren’t kings, but astrologers. There is no mention of animals in the stable. And there wasn’t a robin, a Christmas tree, or even a lurking Max Clifford to be seen.

Most of the “facts” of Christmas turn out to be Dickensian hokum. There is no evidence that “the little Lord Jesus no crying did make”, and the exhortation that “Christian children all should be, mild, obedient, good as He” owes everything to Victorian social control and nothing at all to the biblical story.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, would have looked nothing like the pale, Italianate, young woman in a blue robe portrayed in Renaissance art. The real Mary would have been a swarthy 11 or 12-year-old – the normal age for betrothal – Jewish peasant girl. Luke picks up the story (in the words of the KJV): “And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be. And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus.”

But the story of the Virgin Birth has at its heart a mistranslation. The gospel writers were understandably keen to claim biblical warrant for their stories; the Old Testament prophet Isaiah’s words are translated as follows: “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” The Hebrew word “alma” actually means “young woman of marriageable age”. The Septuagint translation of the Hebrew scriptures into Greek translates “almah” as “parthenonos”, which means virgin. Hebrew actually has a specific word for virgin, “bethulah”; Isaiah didn’t use it. So the prophecy is that a “young woman” shall conceive.

The earliest gospel, Mark, doesn’t mention the birth of Jesus at all. Matthew and Luke do, but the two different accounts of the Nativity cannot be fully reconciled. (Some people worry about this; there would actually be more of a veracity problem if they were agreed on everything.) John, believed by most scholars to be the latest of the four gospels, speaks in more majestic philosophical and theological terms than the other three gospels.

Matthew and Luke present the birth stories as bald facts, but they incorporate legendary elements. Thus we have a star which stops right above a stable – was this the first ever GPS? – and the symbolic gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The gospel writers weren’t historians, as we understand that term; they were evangelists who expressed their theology in story form. There are miraculous births in other religions; these stories seek to elevate the subject of the story. (Exaggeration is not simply an ancient strategy; think of Tony Blair’s “sexed-up” document to justify the invasion of Iraq.)

What the Virgin Birth story is declaring in fabulous language is this: Jesus is special – so much so that new categories will have to be found to describe him. In fact, much of the New Testament, and indeed later theology, is about creating a new vocabulary about Jesus – he becomes described as a messenger from God, the Messiah (the “anointed one” of prophecy), the Son of Man, the Son of God, and God incarnate. As the Church raised the bar on the status of Jesus, it then had to reconcile the newer terminology with the Old Testament understanding of God.

Does one have to believe in a literal virgin birth in order to be a Christian? No. Some of the earliest Christians had no knowledge of this doctrine. Many Christians regard it as a metaphor for the high status of Christ. The downside is that the doctrine led in time to unhealthy cults of virginity and celibacy.

The modern understanding of Christmas – as a festival of children, as a midwinter act of defiance against the darkness – parts company from the biblical account at one crucial point: in the Bible, the shadow of the cross falls across the crib. The baby is born to be killed.

When people call for Christ to be put back into Christmas, I wonder if they know what they are saying. Mary’s boy child was seen as a threat to princes and prelates. He grew up to break the religious rules about insiders and outsiders. He ate with the outcasts, kissed the lepers and partied with prostitutes and sinners. His first recorded miracle in St John’s gospel was to create more booze for a wedding hoolie. Another time, when his mother and siblings came to take him away, fearing that he was going mad, he said he had no mother or brothers – only those who did the will of his heavenly father were his family. (Family values, anyone?) He told the religiously righteous that the prostitutes and tax collectors would go into the kingdom of God before them. He strode into the Jerusalem temple and overturned the tables of the money-changers.

The song attributed to Mary, Christ’s mother, is not one which would have brought a smile to the face of the Jerusalem Chamber of Commerce: it is a revolutionary hymn that predicts a new world order in which the mighty will be cast down from their thrones and the poor will be exalted.

If Christ is put back into Christmas, will this uncomfortable message be relayed through the shopping malls? Er, no. The Christ which many want put back into Christmas is a domesticated, toothless, religious pet. The anarchic prophet who was such a disturber of the peace that he was hung from a tree outside the city walls of respectability has been banished from decent society and replaced by a sanitised icon of mind-numbing blandness. The sentimentalised crib in the midst of the global shopping mall speaks of the corporate co-option of the radical message of Christianity.

Through a mix of history and legend, the gospel writers seek to convey the importance and meaning of a figure who will change history. In so doing, they are creating a foundational myth of stunning power. The figure at the centre of Christian faith is attractive and disturbing and challenging – so much so that church and state conspired to do him in. His message is uncompromising: to be part of God’s movement in history, you must change your life, you must be born again.

The gospel stories and parables are more poetry than science. Art, says Picasso, is a lie that makes us realise the truth. The King James Version of the Bible is more poetry than history – but what poetry! Despite some archaic words whose meanings have changed over time, it is a pretty accurate translation. Accuracy and style belong together.

On one level, Christianity is an imaginative human construct of stunning, staying power; the question is to what extent it reflects transcendent realities that strain human language to breaking point. Poetry is the language of theology. Creeds should be danced, rather than recited with furrowed brows.

At its best, Christianity is more like being in love than it is about beating others about the head with impossible certainties. Christmas still has the power to surprise, to subvert. It’s not over, not even begun, until the boy soprano sings.

Former minister of Orkney’s St Magnus Cathedral, Ron Ferguson has been awarded the degree of Doctor of Letters by Glasgow Caledonian University. His next book – George Mackay Brown: The Wound And The Gift – will be published next year.

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