Movie Review - The Nativity Story

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Does the movie line up with the Bible?

“All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.” - the Apostle Paul1

I think there are many people who— fully convinced of the wisdom and providence of God— still wonder every now and then why he chose to give so much detail about the temple and the tabernacle, rosters, land boundaries and all manner of other things we’re all occasionally tempted to skip over, and why he gave so little detail about something as significant as the nativity story. Probably, the best answer is that God chose the details that were most profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction and instruction in righteousness, and we should pay more attention to them than we do. However, it’s possible that God also chose to include the details that we were most likely to get wrong, if left to our own speculations. The dimensions of the Holy Place we really wouldn’t have guessed on our own. Mary and Joseph’s thoughts and feelings? Those we might be able to figure out, given a good imagination. Besides, we all know we’d rather speculate about the nativity than about the exact number of Israelites who returned from Babylon. We’re people who would rather deal in relationships and emotions. Hence, I think, the popularity of movies like The Nativity Story.

Speculation about all those vague or missing details in the Bible biographies can be helpful and even fun, and, personally, I’m a strong advocate of it for both purposes. Speculation, if done right, opens the mind and gets it unstuck from extra-biblical traditions, which, in the case of the First Coming of Christ, are pretty strong. There is a difference, however, between wondering aloud to your family and friends about the unanswered questions about Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus— and putting all that conjecture into a movie. Actually, there are several differences. One is that conjecture can look a lot like fact when you put it on film, especially if you’ve done your research about a lot of the things that really are fact. After all, there’s no appealing way to let your audience know during the course of the movie which things are just speculation and which aren’t. Another difference is that when the speculation is just among friends, it doesn’t have to be so comprehensive, which means that you’re less likely to make mistakes about the points where the stories happen to intersect with those detailed rosters and ceremonial law passages. Most significantly, perhaps, the difference between wondering about the details, and putting your guesses into the powerful medium of the movies, is that none of us would think it was acceptable in ordinary conversation to change the truth of God into a lie.

I’ll freely admit that The Nativity Story probably did a good job of showing us what it might have been like for Mary to be a young teenage girl without any real say in her betrothal to a man several years older than she; what she must have felt at being disbelieved by her parents when she was found to be with child; what fears and doubts she herself would have dealt with, and what a journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem would have been like on donkey-back. The good thing about it is that it tries to go outside the box a little bit. The bad thing is that it still perpetuates a lot of those extra-biblical presuppositions we tend to take for granted, anyway. You can’t speculate about what it must have been like for Mary to go through all this as a teenager, without presupposing that she was a teenager at the time. It’s not that big of a deal, but, for the record, we don’t know that Mary was a teenager; we don’t know that her parents didn’t believe her; we don’t know that she and Joseph weren’t actually childhood sweethearts; we don’t know how long they were in Bethlehem before Jesus was born; we don’t know that Jesus was born in a stable; we don’t know how many wise men there were; and we don’t know that Mary ever touched a donkey in her life. Movies like The Nativity Story— by their very nature— set forth a lot of fiction as fact. That’s something we just have to be careful about, when it affects our understanding of the biblical account.

With most of those speculations, however, we could say that there is at least an historical basis for them. Girls usually married at that age back then, and the ordinary means of transportation were donkeys, and so forth. So we’ll all be aware that those things are possible, or probable, but not certain, and we’ll get on with the movie. And we’ll run into another kind of speculation.

It’s the kind of speculation that just doesn’t take into account a few of the details that are there, and ends up distorting the facts or at best giving a wrong impression. Placing Mary’s Song2 at the end of the movie, rather than in the context of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, is, I think, technically within the limits of orthodoxy, because the movie didn’t try to convince us that she didn’t sing it when the Bible says she did… well, it doesn’t exactly do that. The problem is that, with the director’s choice to showcase the fear and uncertainty Mary might have been going through, the song, with its free and joyful praise to the Lord for his mercies, wouldn’t fit in the time frame it belonged. Technically, the speculation and the editing choices were both legitimate, but, together, they communicate something different from the biblical account. Speculating that Herod was already worried about the prophecies of the Messiah had the same effect. On its own, it helped the audience think beyond the traditions of a Herod who was taken off guard by the whole thing. However, because of that speculation, it no longer made sense in the movie for Herod to be ignorant of the significance of Bethlehem until after the arrival of the wise men3. Not including Mary’s “Behold the handmaid of the Lord”4 in her reply to the angel might have been acceptable, I suppose, except that it allowed her to wonder, later in the movie, why God had “asked” her to carry the Messiah. Skipping over the dedication of Jesus at the temple, forty days5 after his birth, was understandable, since it would have distracted from the climax of the film. Of course, it also saved the filmmakers from raising questions in the minds of the viewers when Mary and Joseph, who had just received the expensive gifts from the magi, bought and offered birds6— a sacrifice prescribed only for those who couldn’t afford a lamb7. You see, speculating about the timing of the wise men’s visit brings its own difficulties.

One of the most objectionable things about The Nativity Story is that, while its speculation about something may be consistent with what the Bible says about that particular thing, there are times when it cannot be reconciled with the rest of the Bible. This is a problem.

The biggest problem with The Nativity Story, though, isn’t the little speculations that we might mistake for biblical truth, or even the speculations that can be refuted by other parts of the Bible. If that had been all, The Nativity Story, like all of those cantatas and church plays that unintentionally tainted the truth of Scripture by bringing in the wise men’s gifts too soon, might have at least been applauded for its attempt at biblical accuracy. The problem with The Nativity Story is that there are simply too many clear-cut errors in it for there to have been an attempt at biblical accuracy anywhere near earnest enough to be worthy of applause— or even, I would suggest, of watching. Chronologically:

In the film, the angel calls to Zechariah8 from within the incense. The Bible declares that he appeared on the right side of the altar9.

Given that the Bible says the angel appeared10, it is strange that in the movie he does not. His presence is instead manifested in certain movements in the smoke of the incense.

The Bible states that Mary entered Zechariah’s house and then greeted and was greeted by Elizabeth11. In the film, the meeting takes place beforehand.

At John’s circumcision and naming, the film has Zechariah being basically ignored while the womenfolk argue amongst themselves what the boy’s name should be— which means that the neighbors do not make signs to him and ask his opinion12; he gets a writing tablet himself, instead of asking for one13; and his written message isn’t noticed, so the neighbors are not amazed at him before he begins speaking again14. Zechariah also fails to immediately bless God in the film as he does in Scripture15.

The wise men arrive in Jerusalem before Jesus is born, as opposed to the biblical statement that they came when— that is, at or after the time— he was born16.

In the movie, Joseph, not Mary, wraps Jesus in swaddling clothes17.

According to the Bible, the wise men “rejoiced with exceeding great joy”18. In the movie, they just get sarcastic about each other’s lack of faith.

The angel appeared to multiple shepherds in the Bible19, and to only one in the movie. And “the glory of the Lord shone round about them in the Bible”20, and it simply didn’t in the movie. In the Bible, the shepherds were afraid of the angel before he told them not to be afraid21. Not so in the movie. In the movie, there is no “suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men,’”22 and the omission isn’t simply due to an untimely cut to the next scene, either. The movie shepherds do not by any means come with haste23, and when they see Mary and Joseph, and Jesus lying in a manger, they don’t make it known to anyone else24. As a matter of fact, for some inexplicable reason, they don’t find Jesus lying in a manger at all25. The babe lies wrapped in swaddling clothes in Mary’s arms, after the edited-in placing of Jesus in the manger.

The wise men in the film do not find Mary and Jesus in a house, and when they do find them, they do not fall down and worship the child26. Lastly, the dream which warned the wise men not to return to Herod has been taken out, and, for the sake of comic relief, traded for a line that places all the credit on the trio’s own instinct27.

At this point, I think it is best to just say it plainly: The Nativity Story is not a faithful retelling of the biblical account of Christ’s birth. I’ve just listed twenty points of Scripture that were changed to suit the director’s fancy. Even if we could explain as many as half of them away as oversight, we cannot possibly get past the fact that, for the makers of The Nativity Story, comedy is more important than accuracy— drama, more important than faithfulness— entertainment, more important than the Word of God. Now, can that be said of us, too?

Many of us may wish that God had given us more details about the true nativity story, and I think it’s a perfectly understandable wish. We do like to know the particulars about the people whose lives were documented in the Bible. We like to know the details when they please us, anyway. The plans Moses brought down from the Mount for the tabernacle still probably won’t receive the same kind of attention that the story of the Exodus will; and the Old Testament ceremonial laws may still get glossed over, even where they bear a direct relationship with the life of Christ in the New Testament. But let us at least make sure that in the places we believe we want more detail, we’re willing to accept the details we already have.

There were many more negative elements that could have gone in this review of The Nativity Story, in almost any of my usual content categories. The bottom line, however, is this: The Nativity Story, more than twenty times over, exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and having done that, it is not worth the time or attention of any Christian movie-goer.

12 Timothy 3:16-17, in the King James, or Authorized Version. Alternative translation from the English Standard Version: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.”
2 Luke 1:46-55
3 Matthew 2:1-6
4 Luke 1:38
5 Leviticus 12:2-4
6 Luke 2:24
7 Leviticus 12:8
8 Called Zecharias in the King James Version
9 Luke 1:11
10 Luke 1:12
11 Luke 1:40
12 Luke 1:62
13 Luke 1:63
14 Luke 1:63
15 Luke 1:64
16 Matthew 2:1
17 Luke 2:7
18 Matthew 2:10, King James Version. Alternative translation from the English Standard Version: “they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.”
19 Luke 2:9
20 Luke 2:9, King James Version
21 Luke 2:9
22 Luke 2:13, King James Version. Alternative translation from the English Standard Version: “suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!’”
23 Luke 2:16
24 Luke 2:17
25 Luke 2:16
26 Matthew 2:11
27 Matthew 2:12

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