LONDON – Shortly after the head of the worldwide Anglican Communion drew fire for dismissing one popular aspect of the nativity story as a "legend" the week before Christmas, a Christian author and speaker defended the church leader and criticized British media for going "berserk."
"I heard the interview yesterday and at no point did Rowan Williams deny the historicity of the nativity accounts – he just tried to point out what they actually say, as opposed to what people think they say," wrote Nick Page in a web log Thursday.
In an interview with BBC Radio Five, Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams had indicated that Scripture does not describe the magi as commonly depicted in nativity stories and scenes.
"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," he said. "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."
The next day, the London-based Telegraph newspaper published an article with the headline "Archbishop says nativity 'a legend.'"
"All he (Williams) does is point out what is actually in the Bible and some pinheads who pass for journalists at the Telegraph go berserk. (One of whom, apparently, is the Editor -in-chief of the Catholic Herald. He really should know better.)," pointed out Page in the archbishop's defense.
"Actually reading the Bible, as opposed to glancing at the Christmas cards, reveals that not only was there no kings, there was no stable and, in all probability, no inn," he continued, noting that the word usually translated as "inn" actually means "guest room."
This week, Page released his latest book – "Whatever happened to the Ark of the Covenant?" – in which he asserts that Jesus was not born in a stable and that Mary and Joseph were not turned away by a hard-hearted inn-keeper.
"Every nativity play, every nativity scene, every Christmas card – they have all got it wrong," says Page, whose latest book looks at over 30 "mysteries" of the Bible.
"The actual Greek word used by Luke doesn't refer to an inn at all, but to a guestroom. Most likely Mary and Joseph were lodging with relatives. There wasn't enough room, so they were sleeping in the place where the animals are kept," he explains.
"In peasant households of the time, animals were kept in the lower part of the house, partly so the animals wouldn't be stolen, and partly because the heat from their bodies provided a kind of rudimentary central heating."
The idea of the stable, Page notes, is just one of the things that society has gotten wrong in the traditional rendition of the Christmas story. He also argues that Mary was probably only fourteen, that Joseph was not much older and that both came from very poor backgrounds.
"The trouble is that the stable and all that tends to turn the whole thing into a kind of fairy-tale," he says. "But the gospel writers weren't just highlighting the miraculous nature of the events, they were pointing out that the whole thing took place against a background of poverty and hardship.
"To them, the idea that Jesus was born to a peasant household and laid in an animal's feeding trough was as amazing as the star and the angelic choir."
Page stresses that the facts really do matter "if you care about the history and want to get to the reality of what actually happened."
"And I think it's good news for inn-keepers everywhere. There never was an inn and there never was a hard-hearted innkeeper. These guys have had nearly two thousand years of bad PR, all because we translate the word wrongly," he adds.
In addition to separating nativity facts from the myths, "Whatever happened to the Ark of the Covenant?" tackles some of the other big questions thrown up by the Bible, including where the Ark of the Covenant really ended up, how tall Zacchaeus was, and why Judas kissed Jesus.
"These are questions that have always bothered me," commented Page, who has authored over 60 books. "I think the answers give us a fascinating insight into the times of the Bible. Or maybe I should just get out more...."
Other books authored by Page include "Church Invisible," "The Bible Book," "Lord Minimus," "The Tabloid Bible" and the more recently published "Explorer's Notes: The Bible."
Christian Post Correspondent Jennifer Gold in London contributed to this report.