“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world” (Luke 2:1).
When a movie is made of a Biblical story, it is subject to the interpretation of the director and screenwriters. When it is made of a story with little dialogue, the interpretation is even more prominent. Such is the case with the movie, The Nativity Story starring Keisha Castle-Hughes and Oscar Isaac.
It is such a familiar story that many look for the traditional items we sing about and see in various forums. As such, there are going to be differences of opinion concerning the facts of the story itself.
First, this movie is a good movie about one of the most famous events in history. We see each of the characters in light of what we know about the story. It primarily centers around Joseph and Mary and their life together before the birth of Jesus. Since Joseph doesn’t speak in scripture, this is difficult to know, but we do see Joseph acting, and that is important. We are told that Joseph was a righteous man and a God fearing person. Read the texts before you see the movie; it will help set the context (Matthew 1-2; Luke 1-2.).
The movie brings to life the setting of the Jewish world at the birth of Jesus. From what I understand, the screen writer and director consulted both Jewish and Christian scholars to present a culturally accurate portrayal. For instance, the houses of Nazareth and Bethlehem were small. One scene shows Mary’s family sleeping in one room, adults and children together. The doorways were low and the houses made of stone. Animals were around, some even inside.
The conflict between Mary and her parents and Joseph about her pregnancy highlights some of the movie. While a popularly arranged marriage in the beginning, the town sees Mary’s pregnancy as a disgrace and her family shamed. At one point there is even a threat of stoning. Friends turn against her but Joseph, after a dream, decides to be her husband and protects her. His choices are not always easy. In one scene, a woman suggest that the baby will reflect in physical features Joseph, at which he grimaces at the thought. When leaving Nazareth for Bethlehem, with the people watching, Joseph says to Mary that they will miss them, implying they will have no one to talk about.
The one hundred mile journey to Bethlehem is difficult, especially for a pregnant woman. We see them walking with others, sometimes alone. They sit around a fire with others or alone. They go down to the Jordan River, cross, then through Jericho and up to Jerusalem. The road is rugged and dangerous. Food isn’t always available. Jerusalem is an exciting place for the couple who might never have been through it before. When Joseph passes the Temple and sees the money changers and sellers, he comments on what should be a place of worship. We should not be surprised that others saw what Jesus saw as well.
When they arrive in Bethlehem, it is night. Mary is ready to deliver and Joseph desperately seeks to find a place to stay though there was no inn, finally settling on a cave with animals in it, one of several traditional ideas of the manger (2). After Jesus is born, a star shines brightly on the manger and the shepherds from the field and the Magi all appear to see and worship. This is in keeping with the traditional view of the birth of Jesus.
One can make criticisms here and there about this movie. Positively, I thought it captured the cultural aspects very well. Such might surprise some. Biblically, where it quoted scripture, it was accurate. Bringing everyone to the manger is traditional but not Biblical yet this scene doesn’t take away from the power of the movie. They compacted the events after the birth of Jesus into a few minutes. We know that the Magi came to a house sometime after the birth of Jesus. Luke tells us that they had been to the Temple to offer the appropriate sacrifice and saw Simeon and Anna, neither of whom appear in the movie. The angel speaks to Zachariah rather than appearing to him. He does appear to the shepherds but we do not have the heavenly host praising God, something I would like to have seen. However, I was impressed with the shepherds leaving their flocks and heading to Bethlehem.
Herod is seen for the distrustful person he was, seeking to destroy the new king. How much he knew about the prophecies is questionable. In the movie he appears familiar to some extent with them. When the Magi appear, little is said about where the Messiah would be born. In Matthew’s account, this appears to be the first Herod heard about it, though the movie suggests otherwise. We also see Herod conniving to find out who and where the new baby king was so that he could kill him.
The Magi come from somewhere in the East. Some think Persia, others Arabia. The movie gives them a comical element of friends who spar with one another, something I enjoyed. They study both the stars and the scriptures. I’m one who thinks that these people, however many there were, were not astrologers but something more. We know that there were God-fearing people in the Greek world, why not in the eastern world as well? I think that these Magi were influenced by Jews and the Hebrew scriptures. And why not? Daniel and his three friends could well have been early Magi, at least in the eyes of the eastern world of Persia.
We do not know how many there were. The Nativity Story has three, and I can live with that. They too travel over rough terrain toward there goal. Did their contemporaries see them as crazy for undertaking such a journey? When they arrive at the manger, they give their gifts. Gold is for the new king, frankincense for the priestly elements, and myrrh is for the sacrifice. The screenwriter might have gotten this more from the song We Three Kings of Orient Are then from the Bible, but it was still impressive.
This movie is worth seeing and is safe for children. Any violence is suggested but not seen. It will give one a glimpse into a world we are not familiar with yet sing about at this time of the year. The Nativity Story is an enjoyable interpretation of a love story between Joseph and Mary. Likewise, while we might quibble over some points, the interactions and the scenery is impressive. One reviewer thought that it might become a seasonal classic.
Why does the birth of this one Person invoke such controversy? While the movie doesn’t answer that question, it does point us to asking the question and looking further for answers. These people were real in the real world. They could be humorous and serious, thoughtful and worshipful. This comes out and it is something we need to see and think about, especially at this time of the year.