Where did Luke get his Bethlehem story from?

Previously on RejectingJesus:

Matthew creates his nativity story, specifically Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, from Micah 5.2, which prophesies that a ‘ruler over Israel’ will be born there. This prophecy is imposed on Jesus who was not a ruler of Israel – though he may have aspired to be – and certainly was not the Messiah envisaged by the creators of such prophecies. I suggest that subsequently, Luke embroidered Matthew’s fairly basic story and contrived to get Jesus born in Bethlehem by inventing a Roman census that required his parents to travel there.

A Christian commenter (let’s call him Don) then challenged this scenario by claiming, without offering any evidence, that Luke did not have access to Matthew’s gospel, so must have known that Jesus was born in Bethlehem from an independent source. (Christians are fond of attributing suspect gospel material to oral traditions and the hypothetical Q. Don is no exception.)

In fact, a number of scholars, including Michael Goulder, Mark Goodacre, Richard Carrier and others, think that Luke did know Matthew’s gospel. This is the so-called Farrer hypothesis, named after Austin Farrer who first proposed the idea in 1955. As well as his plagiarising 55% of Mark, these scholars show that Luke also used material from Matthew, including the Bethlehem story. The structure of Luke’s version and some of his phrasing is identical to Matthew’s. It is unlikely this would be the case if Luke wasn’t lifting directly from Matthew’s account.

Luke goes further and replaces some of the details in Matthew’s story that don’t suit his purpose (e.g. the magi) with his own (the shepherds), which is why the two accounts diverge. Nonetheless, both versions of the story stem from the ‘prophecy’ in Micah 2.5. Luke doesn’t cite it explicitly but then he is non-specific elsewhere in his gospel about events that supposedly fulfil prophecy. Unlike Matthew, Luke was writing for a gentile audience who would not be as familiar with Jewish scripture; he didn’t need to be as explicit about the source for his stories that were based on these scriptures. Nonetheless, the two nativity accounts, Matthew’s and Luke’s, likely had the same basis (the Micah prophecy) with Luke adapting the narrative that Matthew had already created from it. Moreover, the differences in detail between Matthew and Luke’s accounts demonstrate clearly that both authors were inventing their respective stories. As Neil Godfrey puts it,

Luke, attempting to adapt Matthew’s Bethlehem as the place of birth of Jesus to his more universalist theme, feels obliged to concoct a silly story of everyone being required by imperial edict to return to their places of birth for a special tax registration. Not to mention the necessary anachronism of his Quirinius timing, too. It is not hard to see that Luke is struggling to incorporate Matthew’s Bethlehem setting into his own tendentious narrative.

It’s possible, of course, that all of the scholars who think Luke knew Mathew’s gospel are wrong, but even so, this doesn’t rescue Luke’s nativity from its fictional moorings.

First, it could be argued that both Matthew and Luke knew about Jesus’ birth from their respective sources. Our Christian commenter would say, and does say, that the details of Jesus’s birth were well known in the early, pre-gospel cult (he disputes that Jesus was in any way famous beyond this select few) and that these details were preserved in a reliable oral tradition or in Q. If the former was the case, however, the two nativity accounts would not differ to the extent they do, unless the oral traditions weren’t as reliable as our commenter likes to say they were. On the other hand, Q, if it existed at all, was comprised primarily of sayings and certainly did not include any Bethlehem narrative.

Second, Don will no doubt say that all of this is mere atheist grumbling and is therefore entirely fallacious. He believes that God inspired his anonymous agents to use prophecy, foreshadowing and typology to point the way to Jesus and his birth in Bethlehem. Don believes that both Matthew and Luke had independent knowledge of Jesus’ birth there, which means it must’ve been his birthplace. Of course it indicates nothing of the sort. If Matthew and Luke settled on Bethlehem independently, it would demonstrate only that they had independent knowledge of Micah 2.5.

Third, if the circumstances of Jesus birth in Bethlehem were so remarkable – miraculous, even – then why does Mark not mention them? According to Don (though no serious scholar shares his view) Mark’s gospel is comprised of the recollections of Peter, Jesus’ closest, dim-witted pal in the synoptic gospels. Did Jesus never mention his birth to Peter? Did Peter then fail to pass the details on to Mark? Did Jesus’ mother Mary, who treasured memories of the miraculous birth, never allude to them when she and Peter reminisced together over a glass of water wine? (Yes, Don, I know this is in John’s gospel, but they are meant to be the same characters.) Why does the Bethlehem birth only emerge in Matthew, who built much of his gospel around ‘prophecies’ from scripture, and in Luke, who, in all likelihood, copied from him?

We can be fairly certain that Jesus was not born in Bethlehem. Someone somewhere, other than these two, would have mentioned it outside of symbolic stories that owe far more to myth and legend than they do to fact.

Christmases With Grandad: Christmas Past (1960)

Part three of a three-part Christmas story written for BBC Radio Cumbria.

It was still really dark when I woke up. Really dark. Very, very quiet too. I knew it must still be the middle of the night but I couldn’t see my clock. Even if I could have done I might not have known what time it was because I was only just learning how to do that. I didn’t know if Father Christmas had been. I wriggled my feet down to the end of my bed where it was really, really cold, to see if I could hear any paper rustling down there. I wasn’t very sure I could. I was a bit worried then. If Father Christmas hadn’t been yet, he might not come at all if I stayed awake. I closed my eyes to try and get to sleep again but I couldn’t.

I thought maybe it’d be a good idea to sing one of the songs I’d learnt at school. We’d done a nice concert about a baby being born for our mummies and daddies and we’d learnt some songs for it. I’d had a piece of paper to read too. It said Mary and Joseph had to go to Bethlehem to have a baby, but as I couldn’t really read I just remembered what it said. Then we had sung Little Donkey. So I sang some of that in my head and then O Little Town of Bethlehem because we sang that too, but I could only remember the first bit so I did that two times.

When I finished singing in my head it was still dark, and still quiet and cold. I couldn’t think of anything else to do, so I decided I’d switch my light on. I got out of bed as quietly as I could, tiptoed across the cold lino and reached up to the switch. That’s when I saw that Father Christmas had been after all! There were my presents at the end of the bed. I pulled the red crinkly paper off the first one. It was the train engine I wanted! And the next one was some railway line. I got the rails out of the box and tried to fit them together but it was hard. I must’ve made too much noise because the next thing I knew was my mummy and daddy came in to my room. My mummy sat on the edge of my bed wrapped up in her eiderdown because there was ice on the inside of the window and she was very shivery. She said, ‘Neil, it is still only half past five. It’s far too early,’ but she didn’t mean it because she didn’t make me go back to bed. My dad fitted the railway line together into a big circle and we wound up the little engine and watched it go round and round the track. I knew then it was going to be a lovely Christmas.

A lovely Christmas to both my readers.

Go easy on the wobbly juice.

Christmases With Grandad: Christmas Present (2021)

Part two of a three-part Christmas story written for BBC Radio Cumbria.

I’m sure this piece goes here,’ says Granddad, doing his best to force a yellow plastic chute into a red tower. He has a construction in front of him that is designed to take coloured marbles through various tubes and chutes down to a collecting tray at the bottom, but which looks more like a Heath Robinson contraption. ‘Yes, that’s it,’ he says triumphantly as he wedges the yellow chute precariously in place.

”That’s not right,’ says Lana, hands on hips.

Granddad Neil looks at his handiwork. ‘Of course it is,’ he says. Lana picks up a marble and drops into the top of the red tower. When it reaches the yellow chute it falls out and lands on the floor. ‘See?’ she says. ‘It’s upside down.’

‘Granddad!’ Eva says with all the indignation a two year old can muster.

‘He’s had too much wobbly juice,’ Lana explains and takes herself off to the kitchen to complain to her mum that he’s not up to the job.

Granddad has to concede that the girls may well be right on both counts. He chastises himself for having had more than one glass of wobbly juice. He turns back to the precarious marble construction and realises that if the yellow chute is upside down, then several others parts must be too. He wonders as he starts to remove them, why it has fallen to him to fit the marble tower together in the first place. Construction is definitely not one of his better skills.

He looks round at the other adults. Dad is asleep on the couch. Dennis, who always enjoys doing the washing up, is helping mum clear away the dinner dishes. Uncle Mikey is half watching a film he’s downloaded, which, although it is an animation, is far from suitable for children. Fortunately, both Lana and Eva gave up on it after five minutes, which leaves him to entertain them. He feels he has let them down with his inability to put together a child’s toy. Uncle Mikey, finding his efforts more entertaining than the film, announces it would be better if he sorted it out.

Lana meanwhile has taken herself off to the front room, the toy room as she calls it, and is setting out her doll’s tea set, the one Santa brought with Alice In Wonderland characters on it. She arranges her dolls and teddies around it and shouts for Granddad Neil. All is forgiven! The two of them sit at the table having an imaginary tea party. Lana pours while she explains how last night Santa left very muddy bootprints in the hallway. When, much later, mummy appears at the door and asks what the two of them are doing, Granddad Neil says, ‘we’re having a lovely Christmas.’ And indeed they are.

Christmases With Grandad: Christmas Yet To Come (2041)

This three-part story was written for BBC Radio Cumbria this Christmas. Here’s the first instalment.

Lana will wrap the last of her presents, the ones to give to the family on Christmas morning. She will like doing it herself even though the online providers with their one-hour service, would wrap them for her in reconstituted all-natural paper-substitute that automatically recycles itself after 5 hours. She will be pleased with the low energy-use holographic display device she’s bought for her sister Eva. She will have already programmed it to display family members in rotation, as they appear in her ancient photos preserved on the universal cloud.

She’ll laugh as she finds some of her granddad Neil from 20 years earlier; Christmas 2021 according to the information embedded in the image, when she was 5 and Eva almost 3. She will think how strange Christmases were then! When a crisis closed down her school after she had only just started it, and you could only have one or two visitors on Christmas Day. All the same, she will have warm, vague memories of that time, when granddad Neil and Dennis would come on Christmas day and play tea parties and try to put together whatever game they’d got from Santa. She will think how peculiar it was that the game would probably have been made of plastic, long since outlawed.

Then she will tell the hologram device to power down and will put it in its little box. Her mum and dad and Eva will join her and her family first thing the next morning when they will drink a toast to Granddad Neil and Dennis. It will, she knows, be a lovely Christmas.

The Jesus Story v. Reality

Recycled picture, new post

Whenever the Jesus story comes face to face with reality, it fails. The nativity stories, which only Matthew and Luke think to invent include, are a case in point.

  • Luke tells us the Emperor Augustus decreed there should be a census in what we now know as 4BC. He didn’t. The closest Roman census was in AD6, ten years later and it didn’t entail hordes of people trailing back to their ancestral village.
  • Matthew claims that Herod was so enraged about the birth of the ‘royal’ baby that he killed all little boys under two years old. Except he didn’t. This never happened.
  • According to the same story, a host of supernatural beings appeared announcing that a young woman who’d never had sex with a man had given birth, while a wandering star shone directly over her house.

Where in reality do these kinds of things happen? That’s right: in myths and stories. They are typical literary tropes found in fantasy fiction. The ‘miraculous’ events of the nativity are of this genre.

  • Christians who delude themselves into thinking theirs is an intellectual faith concede the nativity is mythical, its events symbolic. They’re not usually so hot on what they’re symbolic of but say the story conveys truth. Still, they insist, the rest of the Jesus story is true. Evangelicals go even further and say it’s literally true. So, Jesus walking on water really happened (or if your faith is, oxymoronically, intellectual faith, it didn’t.) After all, the illusionist Dynamo walked across the Thames a few years ago (see it here), and if he could walk on water then how much more capable of doing that was the Son of God. Except the modern illusionist‘s feat was – yes, you guessed it – an illusion. So even if Jesus did the same thing, his trick was also an illusion. Those who say the story is included in Mark and Matthew because it’s actually only a parable about faith (or something) are conceding, again, that it didn’t actually happen.
  • Likewise when Jesus turns water into wine, calms the storm, raises the dead, chats with apparitions of long dead Jewish folk-heroes and does every other ‘miracle’ he’s credited with. If they’re only symbolic then, by definition, they didn’t happen. Nor did they happen, if, as Evangelicals believe, they’re being passed off as real events. ‘Miracles’ do not happen in reality. Never have, never will. They happen only in stories.

Well, okay, more enlightened Christians might say, but nonetheless Jesus conveyed to the world what God wanted us to know. He was wise and compassionate and told us how our sins could be forgiven. Except his wisdom comes directly from Jewish scriptures; he had nothing new to say. He was no more compassionate than anyone else and could in fact be an absolute s**t. He was inconsistent across the gospels about how sins were forgiven and much of his teaching in the original Gospel (Mark’s) is lifted from Paul or reflects the beliefs of the early Christ cult. Jesus the holy man is a construct – or rather a series of constructs, a literary device, not a real man.

So, okay; the nativity didn’t happen as depicted. The astounding feats attributed to Jesus didn’t happen and Jesus is whoever the various gospel writers and Paul want to make him. Nothing we’ve seen so far is factually, historically or really (as in reality) true.

But, the crucifixion and resurrection are! Oh yes. The rest is made up, but these two events most certainly are not.

  • Even though Jesus’ trial is historically inaccurate and is, as a consequence, highly implausible.
  • Even though there was no-one to record Jesus’s snappy repartee (or silence depending on which gospel you read) with Pilate or Herod.
  • Even though there was no such Roman custom as releasing a prisoner on the Passover.
  • Even though the synoptics have Jesus crucified on Friday while John says it was a Thursday.
  • Even though characters like Barabbas, Joseph of Arimathea, Mary Magdelene and the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’ are evidently and entirely fictional.
  • Even though there was no eclipse of the sun that lasted for hours.
  • Even though there was no earthquake that shook zombies loose from their graves before Jesus had a chance to rise and shine himself.

Such things are not historical. They’re not even feasible. They did not happen in reality. Well, if not the crucifixion per se, Christians say, then definitely the resurrection: that most unlikely of all unlikely events. That really happened.

  • Even though the reports of it are completely at odds with one another.
  • Even though angels are involved once again.
  • Even though Jesus behaves entirely like a ghost, walking through closed doors, altering his appearance and vanishing at will.
  • Even though he levitates into the clouds.
  • Even though some of the disciples find it impossible to believe he’s back.
  • Even though dead people rise only in stories, myths, legends and fantasies.
  • Even though, in reality, dead people do not come back to life after three days, which is why Jesus didn’t either.

Still, I’m sure I’ll be told when I go to a carol service with my friends in a few days, that the story of Jesus’ birth, emotionally powerful as it is, is true from start to finish. Why? Because people’s capacity for believing fantasy stories knows no bounds.

A Christmas Murder Mystery

I do love reading a good whodunit at Christmas time.

Here’s one I discovered recently, called 

And One For The Dame

by Agnetha Crispin

Obscured by the large Christmas tree in the drawing room, Miss Palmer put down her knitting and listened intently to the conversation going on in the hallway outside. 

Listen Lucinda,’ a ridiculously plummy male voice said, ‘if that old bird keeps asking questions she’s going to rumble us, don’t you know.‘

Oh Rupert, darling, don’t be silly. She’s completely ga-ga. In any case, she’s not interested in us. She thinks she’s here to find out how dear old uncle Bertie died. All she’s really succeeding in doing is getting under the inspector’s feet. He told me so himself.’

Oh, Luce,’ Rupert Hayes-Hickson whispered softly. ‘You really are a first-rate sort of chap.’ The two of them drifted down the hallway and out of earshot. Miss Palmer resumed her knitting. She resolved to catch up with Inspector Petherbridge… or was it Carmichael? – these token policemen really were interchangeable – at the earliest opportunity. Ga-ga indeed!

* * * * * *

So you see, inspector,’ she said, ‘It’s becoming so much clearer who poisoned Bertie. When you think how like Colonel Arbuthnot he was…’

Colonel Arbuthnot?’ the inspector said with requisite weariness, ‘Who is Colonel Arbuthnot?’

Oh dearie me, yes,’ murmured Miss Palmer absently, as she purled another stitch. ‘Such a difficult man, you know.’

Colonel Arbuthnot or Bertie Mallowan?’ asked the inspector, irked with himself for showing interest in the old lady’s seemingly inconsequential remarks.

Arbuthnot, of course,’ she replied with gentle disapproval. ‘He moved into the old manor house in my quintessentially English village, St Mary-Westmacott. Dear me, no; Colonel Arbuthnot was not loved at all. It came as no surprise when my friend Dotty Lumley discovered him dead in his study with multiple gunshot wounds. Goodness me, the blood!’ she exclaimed. ‘That one took some sorting out, I can tell you.’

Miss Palmer, I really don’t see…’

Come closer, inspector,’ she said. The inspector reluctantly drew his chair up to hers. ‘It’s most suggestive, you see,’ she continued. ‘Yes, most suggestive.’ She turned towards the inspector, ‘So I really would prefer it if you did not address me as Anna.’

I don’t recall…’ began the inspector.

You know, it isn’t quite the thing to call respectable elderly spinsters by their Christian names, inspector. It is also as I say, much too suggestive. It all but announces how like an anagram my name is.’ She leant into him conspiratorially, ‘You do take my point, don’t you?’

The inspector’s eyes glazed over. He gurgled as the blood forced its way up his throat and into his mouth. ‘Yes, much too suggestive,’ repeated the old lady, withdrawing the knitting needle from between his ribs and wiping it on his pristine breast-pocket handkerchief.

Gathering up her wool, Miss Palmer glided surreptitiously from the room. There would have to be at least two more grisly murders – quite possibly Lucinda and Rupert’s – before she would reveal how poor old Uncle Bertie had met his end.

 

Why I’m not watching the News any more

I’ve reached the point where I can’t watch or read mainstream news reports. I’ve had difficulty with them throughout the pandemic with their incessant reporting of Covid cases and deaths completely devoid of context (how many cases were serious enough to cause hospitalisations? How many deaths were ‘of’ Covid rather than ‘with’ it? How many of the deaths were excess deaths; how many people die in any given period normally?) Ignoring context, the media became intent on fostering anxiety and panic. Their reporting was not independent; in the UK at least they parroted uncritically and relentlessly the government’s position. This, in turn, was shaped by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) and in particular the predictions of computer modeller Neil Ferguson. Ferguson, regularly interviewed on BBC news programmes, was, as he now admits, wrong on every occasion. Very wrong. The pandemic was nowhere near as drastic as he repeatedly said it was going to be (I’m not disputing how serious it was. It was not, however, anywhere as near as bad as he kept predicting it would be). Yet the government and the media continued to rely on his predictions as if they were fact.

All of which is the reason I reduced my watching, listening and reading of the news to a minimum. Headlines only. Early in the summer of this year, the UK government felt the need to restore some normality to society, it asked the mainstream media to reduce its reporting of Covid statistics. All media outlets immediately complied. Conservatives can never say again that the BBC in particular is biased against them; it has done their bidding throughout the pandemic.

This is not, however, the reason I am abandoning the news, giving up even on headlines. I am tired of predictions, conjecture, speculation, forecasts and extrapolation. None of these is news. They are attempts to see the future, something that we are incapable of doing. Of course we need to be aware of potential consequences of decisions or actions, our own, governments’ and society’s. But reporting those possible consequences as fact, as outcomes that are inevitable, fait accompli, like Neil Ferguson’s hopeless predictions, is not what news reporting should be about. Its job is to tell us what has happened, how, where and possibly why (analysis). That it extends itself well beyond this by determining for us what a particular development means ‘for the future’ or ‘’in the long term’ is nothing more than supposition. It also, dangerously, leads to some self-fulfilling prophecy, such as we’ve seen in the reporting of recent supply chain difficulties. That these were restricted to specific areas was not reported but the possibility that these difficulties could, possibly, maybe, result in food shortages was. Result? Panic buying and food shortages in some areas. The same happened with supposed fuel shortages. Christmas is now in danger according to the UK media.

With Covid largely off the agenda, the news media find themselves in need of something else with which to fill schedules; some alternative source of doom and gloom. The mainstream (in the UK, at least) has opted for climate change, replete with forecasts of catastrophe, destruction and extinction. Of course it’s possible that if we do not act collectively to reduce the human contribution to climate change, that these outcomes will come to pass. It’s possible but it isn’t certain to be the case. Who remembers the media reporting that by this point in the 21st century we would be living in an ice age because of climate change? (This speculation is still about and has traction in some quarters).The news is that climate change is happening. That’s it. What we might do about it is for some other source that doesn’t claim to be delivering news.

I am tired of the narrative of the day, be it #MeToo, Brexit, BLM, Covid, climate change. Tired of its promotion by the media, of the prediction and conjecture that goes along with it, but only while it attracts sufficient viewers or readers. When something more ‘newsworthy’, sensational and alarmist comes along, what was once narrative of the day is dropped. There’s a new bandwagon to jump on! This time though, I’m doing the dropping first.

 

Christmas Story

 

This story featured on BBC Radio Cumbria a few years ago. It is, I like to think, a timeless tale. Very nearly... 

Mary sat shivering in the corner. It had been a terrible journey. She was cold and wet and could feel the baby moving inside her. She knew it wouldn’t be long before he’d be born and of course she’d always known it was going to be a boy. Joe reappeared with a cup of steaming something and handed it to her.

‘Here, drink this,’ he said, ‘it’ll warm you up.’ He put his arm round her and pulled her close. She smiled weakly at him and took a sip; some sort of herbal concoction, bitter and sweet at the same time. Joe lifted the shawl back round her shoulders. She wished she was at home and that they hadn’t risked the journey, not at this time of year and in her condition. Now here they were on the outskirts of the town Joe’s family had originally come from and a long way from their village and the little house they’d set up together,

He took the cup from her as she felt the first of her pains and said he’d go and find the landlady to help her with the birth. She’d said she would when they arrived, apologising that because of the time of year and the big occasion that had brought everyone into town she couldn’t offer them one of her decent rooms; they were all taken, she explained, except the one they now found themselves in. It was cold and had no running water, but was still far better than being outside where the mist was now thicker and icier than it had been only minutes earlier.

‘Hello?’ Joe called out across the yard, ‘Can you give us a hand here?’ The landlady, who’d introduced herself as Beth King, scurried from the kitchen of the main house, wiping her hands on her apron. The mist parted like the red sea as she passed through it.

‘Is it time?’ she said. ‘I’ll fetch the towels and hot water.’ Joe had never known why these things were necessary whenever a baby was about to be born but, as they were always called for, he guessed they must be. Beth disappeared again into the swirling fog, emerging again moments later with what turned out to be a box of towels and cloths, followed by Mr King with an urn of scalding water.

‘Now don’t you men get in the way’ Mrs King commanded, taking charge. ‘Make yourselves useful by…’ she paused as she helped Mary make herself more comfortable, ‘by making yourselves scarce.’

‘C’mon son,’ Mr King said to Joe, ‘we’ll leave them to it. Come and warm yourself up in the kitchen.’ Joe had thought he wanted to be with Mary as she brought their son into the world, and was shocked, now it came to it, at how easily he allowed himself to be talked out of it.

‘You go,’ Mary said, teeth chattering. ‘We’ll manage.’ She had reached the point that she didn’t care whether he was there or not. She just wanted it over with.

Frank dragged two old chairs across the flagstones and up to the range. He passed Joe another of his herbal infusions. ‘Not a night for travelling,’ he said.

‘No, indeed,’ agreed Joe. It was madness really to have attempted it but they’d felt they’d had no choice. They’d felt compelled to make the trip back to the little town from where the Carpenter family hailed. Everything had been fine when they’d left that morning, with a couple of bags each and one for the baby, even though neither of them thought he’d make an appearance quite this early. He wasn’t due for another week or two so they were fairly confident they’d be back home before he arrived. It had been a sunny day, if a little chilly, when they’d set off and although Mary found the journey uncomfortable, they were sure they’d arrive before nightfall. But they hadn’t counted on the mist that had started to roll in in the late afternoon. Before they knew it, they couldn’t see any further than a few feet in front of them, the sides of the road completely obscured. Joe was frightened for his fiancée, her fingers digging deeply into the side of her seat, and for their unborn child. He didn’t know what to do; he couldn’t stop where they were, wherever that was, but it would be equally dangerous to carry on. So he was relieved when, through the mist, he could just make out the lights from the farm where even now he sat warming himself. Cautiously, he’d steered them down the track towards the building, somehow avoiding the dark, mist-shrouded ditches on either side and reached the farmhouse without incident or accident. Frank answered his desperate knocking and called his wife once he’d explained that, yes, they did usually have rooms, but that on this night, of all nights, they were all taken. ‘But you must come in,’ Beth had said. ‘We can surely sort something, Frank.’ And she had fussed about preparing the room in the outhouse, explaining how it wasn’t normally used in the winter. But for Joe and Mary it was a godsend, saving them from returning to the road, and a place for Mary finally to rest.

Now, in the drowsy warmth of the kitchen, Frank busied himself stoking the fire and clearing away dishes, while Joe, exhausted after an eventful day, dozed by the fire.

He woke suddenly. A cry from the squat little building outside – a baby’s cry. He rushed out into the yard, bumping into Beth in the still swirling mist. ‘You have a beautiful baby boy!’ she cried. ‘Mother and baby both well. Come and see.’ Joe pushed passed her and into the tiny space where Mary and his new son waited for him. He kissed her, feeling guilty he had felt so tired himself after the greater ordeal she had gone through, and picked up the little bundle, the baby wrapped in the towels Beth had insisted on earlier. ‘Take him into the house, keep him warm’ she said. ‘His mum and I will be there soon.’ If, as he crossed the yard again, Joe had looked up he would have seen the solitary light directly above him, moving slowly across the night sky, the only thing visible through thick, clammy fog. Intent instead on the new-born cradled in his arms, a sense of peace such as he’d never known before had overwhelmed him.

He re-entered the kitchen to be met by a veritable host of people: Frank had rounded up his other guests – Mr and Mrs Sheppard and the D’Angelos – to greet the new arrival. ‘Oh, he’s lovely,’ murmured Agnes Sheppard. ‘Such a beautiful bambino,’ cooed Gabrielle D’Angelo, as heavenly voices drifted through the air, the angels themselves marking the birth of this remarkable baby. On the Welsh dresser, next to the radio from where the strains of ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ came, the kitchen clock showed it was well after after midnight. Christmas Day; Mary and Joe had a Christmas baby.

Mrs King brought Mary into the kitchen and Joe passed their son to her. Agnes produced a toy lamb from somewhere and perched it next to the baby in the crook of Mary’s arm. ‘It was for my granddaughter,’ she said, ‘But I can knit her another one.’

‘So,’ said Mrs King, ‘what are you going to call him?’

‘Well, there’s only one thing I can call him,’ Mary said. ‘He has to be J.. J… J,’ she stammered as nerves and exhaustion finally got the better of her. ‘We’re going to call him J-Justin,’ she said, ‘after my favourite singer. Aren’t we, Joseph dear?’