- 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.
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 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 stimuli 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 were a few videos produced that share the story this way (although they have dated slightly now). They can help students realise that the story still brings hope and joy to millions of Christians globally and that it is still something of relevance (bit.ly/uked14dec25). Also, it can provoke questions about how the story of Jesus spread pre-social media.
Other Ideas – Using my PLN of Twitter (via #REchatUK and #REteacher) and via Facebook, I’ve brought together a few other ideas for teaching the Nativity. Some of these are variations on the ideas that I have used, while some of them I would be wary of using in schools with limited RE time as the opportunity cost is great, with the little theological outcome:
- You could look at the different birth narratives and ask pupils to write a nativity story as if it was happening today and create a modern-day version (Jesus coming for the poor, marginalised, foreigners, asylum seekers etc). You could do it as a Twitter feed maybe? As a plenary I often get pupils to create a Google doodle based on the story, works well for lower ability. For GCSE classes, I do a Christmas jukebox task with lots of hymns and contemporary songs to analyse the meaning of Christmas/the Nativity. – Helen Elizabeth
- We do a guided meditation. We also looked at the true meaning of Christmas and have students decide which Advent Jesus would approve of. – Sarah Doughty
- I often use a big selection of Christmas cards and pupils work in teams to sort into categories: ‘In the narrative’ (e.g. inn, star, wise men), ‘Non-religious’ (eg robins, snowmen), ‘Unsure’ (eg donkey – not mentioned in the gospel, but traditional). I then challenge students to retell the story using their own version cards which they design (like a storyboard). The juxtaposition of Christmas and Easter in the Graham Kendrick song ‘Thorns in the Straw’ is also of use (bit.ly/uked14dec26) as is The Bethlehem Rhapsody (bit.ly/uked14dec27). Also, see TS Elliot’s “The Journey of the Magi”.- Gerry Cohen
- I have used the Nativity to discuss migrants and refugees with KS3 – Hannah Koller
- Mary and Joe videos [see page 20]. I work in a school that serves a community which has had socio-economic problems and I always try to cover the meaning of Christmas as not being about how much money is spent. – Kimberley Heavey
- The Lego Nativity is good for low ability KS3 / Primary. I also have masks for each of the characters and get the class to act it out having prepared a script. – Marged Williams
- A ‘Has Christmas lost its religious meaning?’ lesson. Children have to keep a tally when sorting a selection of Christmas cards and then make a graph with the data. More able classes will collect data from the whole room and we analyse it. They then write an extended answer on whether they think Christmas has lost religious meaning based on the results. – Hannah Downs
- I use the Picturing Jesus resource [RE Today] for this one – awesome! – Aljo Gibbs Jones
- How about giving the pupils roles and retelling from that perspective? E.g. shepherds, innkeeper, Mary etc. Then have an interviewer ‘TV-style’ to give their view on the event which could be recorded and edited. – Sue Nurse
- For KS3, I used to get them to make a crib scene out of clay modelling. Also, they writing ‘Mary’s Diary’ and ‘Joseph’s Diary’. The Nativity Story film was pretty good for the traditional story. At KS4 it’s nice to start looking at some of the theology; family trees, comparing genealogies even get in some exegesis of John 1. At KS5, I’m going to hit them with some Karl Barth’s “The Miracle of Christmas”. To do some more creative activities, try writing poems and songs. – Tristan John S
- Half the class create a Christmas card based on the account in Matthew and the other half Luke. They then compare images; a way in to discuss the two different accounts with no stables! – Lorraine Abbott
- We have made labyrinths in KS3 with different stations, which have focussed on the nativity. Also, with KS3 we got students to analyse Christmas carols and songs, and then picked out the best lines and put them together in order to tell their own most accurate telling of the Nativity. We mixed sound clips of the lines and put them together to make up their own song – we then played it in assembly. – Sarah Cobbold
- Using the good book company’s Christmas book, we’ve gone through the story and talked about how different people within the story might have been feeling. We’ve sequenced the story and linked it with the children’s Nativity play and then they have made their own Nativity story zig-zag books with detailed pictures and key events. Also, looking at symbolism, we’ve talked through the story and looked at key events within the life of Jesus. I asked the children to consider the gifts that wise men brought the stable and we’ve had a class discussion about why those gifts were symbolically linked to his later life. After reading the story we’ve discussed key events and sequenced them using picture cards (linked with some of Lat Blaylock’s work), then we made wooden Nativity scenes using cut lollypop sticks. Sometimes we have told the children the story and then used oil pastels to draw a scene from the story, with children all given different scenes. Hot seating activities also work; children take on the role of one of the people from the nativity and then talked about key events and feelings. – Katie Freeman
Find time to revisit the Nativity. It doesn’t have to be boring and ‘same old’; find a new angle for your students and you may find yourself enjoying it too! Whatever level you teach, there is something new to be discovered. Perhaps start by trying to find out why Jesus’ birth was almost certainly September or October? Merry Christmas!
Andy Lewis was Assistant Subject Leader in RE, Head of Y10 at Sacred Heart of Mary Girls’ School, Upminster and is a lead for TheLondonREHub.com. Find him online at mrlewisre.com and on Twitter @iTeachRE.