Express Carries Bogus Complaint Against BBC Nativity Programme

Back on Sunday, the Express carried a thundering article by media hack David Stephenson:


In The Nativity, written by EastEnders scriptwriter Tony Jordan, 15-year-old Mary is attacked by people who do not believe her claim that she is pregnant by the Holy Spirit.Her husband Joseph accuses her of “whoring” and even suggests that her pregnancy might have been the result of rape.

…Stephen Green, of the ministry Christian Voice, said: “There is no justification for any of this in the gospels. They do say Joseph was suspicious, but that was it.

“It doesn’t suggest any physical or verbal abuse.

“It’s typical of the fertile imagination you need for something like EastEnders.

“The kids that do nativity plays in school will be perplexed that someone has come up with this revisionist, puerile idea.

“The BBC can’t help themselves. Three quarters of our population are Christian. At the BBC, this proportion is reversed.

“You have a huge proportion of militant, liberal atheists who are keen to dump on Christianity.

“They wouldn’t mock the birth of Muhammad , or anything to do with his life story. They wouldn’t ridicule Hinduism or Sikhism, but Christianity is their big target.”

A quote follows from Jordan defending the integrity of the programme, although the lack of quotation marks around “Insult” show whose side the Express is taking.

I’ve blogged on Stephen Green before, although MediaWatchWatch has the most extensive background. He is something of an ineffectual and clownish character, and he featured in the 2008 Dispatches documentary on the UK Christian Right. I blogged on this at the time.

The relevant episode of The Nativity went out last night; Joseph is portrayed as a young man who loves Mary deeply and who is devastated when he discovers she is pregnant. A bitter and tearful exchange follows:

J: [Incredulously] You’re carrying God’s son.

M: Yes.

J: Or is the truth that you went to Judah, had a few too many glasses of wine and ended up in bed with someone?

M: No, no

J: That you’re not the pious Mary that everybody thinks you are. That despite being betrothed, you’ve been whoring yourself in Judah.

M: Joseph, please…

J: Please what? Believe you’re a virgin and that you’re carrying God’s child? Or forgive your whoring?

M: What I told you is the truth.

J: So it’s not enough that you betray me. You want me to look like a fool as well.

M: I haven’t betrayed you.

J: I loved you.

This may seem rather more like a modern conversation (“glasses of wine”?) than an exchange that is likely to have occurred within a patriarchal society 2,000 years ago, but it has dramatic integrity and it’s certainly not an “insult”. The text from which it is imagined is Matthew 1:19:

Joseph her husband, being a righteous man, and not willing to make her a public example, was minded to put her away privily.

One wonders how Green had advance knowledge of what the programme contained – it’s doubtful that he’s on the BBC’s list for a preview DVD. Could it be that someone tipped him off simply for the purpose of getting a stupid quote that could be used to whip up hysteria against the BBC? Richard Desmond, who owns the Express, is a vulgarian pornographer who was put on this earth to make Rupert Murdoch look  classy, and he shares Murdoch’s hatred of the BBC; Green, for his part, would have no qualms about being used for Desmond’s purposes – in 2008, Green faced personal bankruptcy after a failed attempt to have the BBC’s Director General, Mark Thompson, prosecuted for blasphemy.

Jordan gave an interview about the programme on the BBC’s Radio 4 Sunday programme, which can be heard here. The part of The Nativity I personally struggle most with concerns the Magi, who are shown obsessively poring over star charts, measuring things and drawing lines as they consult the heavens and talk excitedly about “a bridge between earth and heaven”. They give the impression of having wandered in from a fantasy film or an episode of Dr Who, although the actors (including the great Peter Capaldi) manage to keep it deadpan.

It seems that Jordan was particularly influenced by an Early Christian idea that the Magi were inspired by a prophecy of Balaam, given in Numbers 24:17:

…there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel…

This text has been used as Messianic proof text by both Jews and Christians, and some scholars have suggested that the author of Matthew indeed had the Balaam prophecy in mind in his account of the Magi. However, that’s not indicated in the Nativity narrative itself, and either way, it’s historically and textually strained. Despite an Early Christian notion of the Magi as “disciples of Balaam” (Balaam being identified with Zoroaster) (1), the figure of Balaam does not play a role in Persian religion, and Numbers 24:17 is not astrological: it’s clear that the “Sceptre” is metaphorical, and there’s no reason not to take the “Star” in the same way. Further, the rest of the prophecy refers to ancient Israel’s victories against enemies such as Moab and Edom; even if Persian astrologers had been aware of the text, there’s nothing in it that would have inspired them to travel to Judea to look for a baby.

Unhappily, the Express article also has Jordan making the common goof of referring to the Virgin Birth as the Immaculate Conception.

(1) See page 173 of Géza Vermès (1983) “The Story of Balaam” in his Scripture and Tradition in Judaism, pp. 127-177.