The Greatest Story Ever Told By Andy Lewis
How can I teach the Nativity a little bit differently?
● Which Gospels tell the story of the nativity? ● How many Magi were there? ● Who mentions the shepherds? Despite the Nativity being one of the most frequently told, and certainly the most acted out, stories in the Bible, it is often inaccurately told and its complexities overlooked. Few realise that it only features in two of the four gospels, that the Magi probably visited anything from six months to a year after Jesus was born (they had three gifts, so we presume there was three of them), and that only Luke refers to the shepherds. Even Pope Benedict XVI felt the need to address the commonly held Nativity beliefs in his book, Jesus of Nazareth - The Infancy Narratives (2012). He pointed out that there was no mention of animals in the place where Jesus was born and the angels spoke and didn’t sing as many carols suggest. The word Nativity has its roots in the Latin nativus ‘arisen by birth’, and gives the start point of Christianity; the moment “God became flesh through Virgin Birth”. This monumental occasion deserves the attention of all those teaching RE, yet at times, lessons can easily become tired and dull, or incredibly superficial. My Approach - I studied New Testament papers at university as a Theology and Religious Studies undergraduate and so I still cultivate a love a scripture study. Anyone who says the Bible is boring really hasn’t bothered to invest any time into understanding it’s rich and varied cultural, historical and poetic content. I also teach in a Catholic school where I have five lessons per fortnight with classes, which allows a mixture of the rigorous and academic, as well as the creative. An example of its intricacies are the Nativity accounts. One could look at the two accounts and dismiss their differences as clear evidence that they are inaccurate. However to look a little closer, with even the most basic background knowledge, it becomes evident that they are far easier to reconcile than on face value. Luke is writing to a Roman official and Matthew is writing to Christians who were formerly Jews. In simple terms, Luke is writing to the oppressor and Matthew is writing to the oppressed. This is vital to any understanding of the Nativity and its perceived inconsistency. Luke carefully omitted those things that would upset the Roman official, Theophilus, or any other Roman official that Theophilus might show Luke’s gospel. This included the Roman atrocity of Slaughter of the Innocents and the highlighting of Jesus’ Messiahship, which could be considered a political
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threat to the Empire. The mentioned shepherds were lowly, marginal visitors and so permitted for inclusion. Matthew has similarly left out those things that would upset Jewish Christians. He only briefly deals with the virginal conception and birth of Jesus and then rushes on to the Magi. This story, with gifts of exotic and expensive gifts would have impressed a Jewish audience. Luke doesn’t include it as the Romans may have suspected that the Christians were making alliances with powerful people beyond the empire. This prudence is not sinful as St Paul says, “...try to fit your answers to the needs of each one.” (Colossians 4:6) and as Jesus instructs, “... be cunning as serpents and yet as harmless as doves.” (Matthew 10:16). Only after we have got our head around this do we move on… Ask your students to describe their school day. What do they tell their friend? What do they tell their parent? What do they tell their teacher? Just because the stories are different, does it mean they are necessarily false? Activities for KS3 - Often we create an overview with three columns; Luke, Matthew and Both. We may discuss the possible existence of ‘Q’ with more able or interested classes. Once the basics have been mapped out, we try to work out why Matthew included what he did, and likewise with Luke. A creative task from this may then be a ‘Luke Christmas Card’ with a piece of exclusive scripture on the front. Or obviously a ‘Matthew Christmas Card’. The opposite is also possible, collecting a selection of religious Christmas cards and categorising them in to: Luke, Matthew, Both or Neither! The ‘Neither’ pile includes those that have the shepherds AND the Magi, or feature a donkey... It is important to remind students, that despite this, a consistent story can be constructed if we recognise the different audiences that the writers were trying to win over. They were writing the truth as they knew it, but at no point proclaimed that their accounts were legal testimonies, nor the whole truth. I also like to look at Jewish expectations of Messiahship within the Nativity, as it is a really hard thing for many students to grasp. A Church in New Zealand have come to my help here! “The Unexpected Nativity” (bit.ly/uked14dec23) is one of the most loved of my Christmas videos and I urge you to watch it and find a way to include it somehow! A modern retelling can be another interesting approach and Mary and Joseph’s time in Egypt can lead to careful consideration of asylum seekers and immigrants in the UK. My Y9 students have just done some detailed diary accounts of this part of the Nativity: new language, new culture, no job, no place to call home, young baby… However I am not entirely comfortable with the ‘Chav Nativity’ image as a respectful and useful start point. There are some great video stimulus for writing, particularly to put into a modern context, see the ‘Mary and Joe’ videos (bit.ly/uked14dec24). After reading the Gospel accounts, it can be interesting to try and match scenes in the video and make connections to life 2000 years ago in Palestine to life today in the UK. For those who like to use social networks to retell narratives, there was a few videos produced that share the story this
December issue of UKED Magazine - Festive theme