Excerpt of Interview on the Nativity with Simon Mayo, BBC Radio 5 live
Wednesday 19th December 2007During a wide-ranging interview with Simon Mayo for BBC Radio 5 Live, the Archbishop was asked about the differences between modern representations of the nativity, and what the Bible teaches us about it
Simon Mayo: It comes round every year that we're not being Christian enough or people don't know where Bethlehem is, people have never heard of Mary and so on, so this is a sort of an almost a tradition of Christmas, isn't it really. But I wonder, if people have got a traditional religious Christmas card in front of them, I just want to go through it, Archbishop, to find out how much of it you think is true and crucial to the believing in Christmas. So start with ... the baby Jesus in a manger; historically and factually true?
Archbishop of Canterbury: I should think so; the Gospel tells us he was born outside the main house, probably because it was overcrowded because it was pilgrimage time or census time; whatever; yes; he's born in poor circumstances, slightly out of the ordinary.
SM: The Virgin Mary next door to him?
ABC: We know his mother's name was Mary, that's one of the things all the gospels agree about, and the two gospels that tell the story have the story of the virgin birth and that's something I'm committed to as part of what I've inherited.
SM: You were a prominent part of a Spectator survey in the current issue which headlined' Do you believe in the virgin birth?' there are some people in this survey who would say they were Christian who don't have a problem if you don't believe in the Virgin birth;' how important it is it to believe in that bit?
ABC: I don't want to set it as a kind of hurdle that people have to get over before they, you know, be signed up;, but I think quite a few people that as time goes on, they get a sense, a deeper sense of what the virgin birth is about. I would say that of myself. About thirty years ago I might have said I wasn't too fussed about it – now I see it much more as dovetailing with the rest of what I believe about the story and yes.
SM: Christopher Hitchens and many others make the point that isn't the translation for young woman rather than virgin? Does it have to be seen as virgin; might it be a mistranslation?
ABC: It is... well, what's happening there one of the gospels quotes a prophecy that a virgin will conceive a child. Now the original Hebrew doesn't have the word virgin, it's just a young woman, but that's the prophecy that's quoted from the Old Testament in support of the story which is, in any case, about a birth without a human father, so it's not that it rests on mistranslation; St Matthew's gone to his Greek version of the bible and said "Oh, 'virgin'; sounds like the story I know," and put it in.
SM: So you've got the Virgin Mary, Jesus: Joseph?
ABC: Joseph, yes, again, the Gospels are pretty consistent that that's his father's name;
SM: So we're panning out now'; shepherds? They're with their sheep and the oxes and asses?
ABC: Pass on the oxes and asses; they don't figure very strongly in the gospels, so I can live without the ox and asses.
SM: And the wise men with the gold, frankincense, and Myrrh – with one of the wise men normally being black and the other two being white, for some reason?
ABC: Well Matthew's gospel doesn't tell us that there were three of them, doesn't tell us they were kings, doesn't tell us where they came from, it says they're astrologers, wise men, priests from somewhere outside the Roman Empire. That's all we're really told so, yes, 'the three kings with the one from Africa' - that's legend; it works quite well as legend.
SM: But would they have been there?
ABC: Not with the shepherds, they wouldn't. So if you've got shepherds on one side and three kings on the other, there's a bit of conflation going on.
SM: And pulling back further – snow on the ground?
ABC: Very unlikely I think; it can be pretty damn cold in Bethlehem at this time of the year, but we don't know that it was this time of year because again the Gospels don't tell us what time of year it was; Christmas is the time it is because it fitted very well with the winter festival.
SM: Just as a side issue on the kings and the wise bit; do you have a problem with astrologers being seen as wise men; there'd be many people in your church who would think, actually, astrology is bunk and should be exposed as bunk and the idea of saying that they are wise is somewhat farcical.?
ABC: Well I 'm inclined to agree that astrology is bunk but you're dealing there with a world in which people watched the stars in order to get a sort of heads up on significant matters and astrologers were quite a growth industry; people who were respected and had a kind of professional technical skill and were respected as such., the thing here if course is what's the skill about? Well it's all bringing them to Jesus; it's not about fortune telling or telling the future, it's about a skill of watching the universe which leads them inexorably towards this event, so I don't think it's a justification of astrology.
SM: So if we're pulling back even further then, is there a star above the place where the child is?
ABC: Don't know; I mean Matthew talks about the star rising, about the star standing still; we know stars don't behave quite like that, that the wise men should have seen something which triggered a recognition of something significant was going on; some constellation, there are various scientific theories about what it might have been at around that time and they followed that trek; that makes sense to me.