The new film The Nativity Story (December 2006) is worth seeing. It makes two concessions, one each to science and to history, and then after that is very faithful to the biblical story, treating it with great respect. It manages to be reverent without being pious. What could be better than that? Scientifically, the film assumes Kepler's theory is true that the Star of Bethlehem was the conjunction of Jupiter, Saturn, and Venus that occurred in the House of Pisces in 7 BC. It is perhaps the most intriguing of the theories about the star, for there is evidence that Chaldean astrologers would indeed have read such a conjunction as a sign that something divine was happening in Judah. The problem is that the movie has the Wise men several times refer to the planets "touching." But in every account of the conjunction I have read it is stresssed that they never did "touch," i.e., merge into one "star." In fact, at their closest, they were separated by the diameter of the moon for an earthly observer. The film gives the theory it adopts then more plausibility than it actually has.
Historically, the movie does what historical dramas almost always do: it conflates events and compresses the timeline for simplicity and dramatic effect. In order to get all three events in, it has the Shepherds and the Magi meeting at the stable (as do almost all Nativity Scenes or Creches in the world). But Matthew has the Star standing over a house, not a stable. The stable was obviously an emergency measure for the birth night, but Joseph would surely have found better accommodations for Mary and the baby pretty quickly. By the time the Wise Men showed up, they were apparently renting a house or a room in a house in town. A more serious conflation is the fact that the Slaughter of the Innocents is shown taking place the very same night, with the holy family barely getting out of town on their way to Egypt ahead of the soldiers. But Luke says that they were still in the area after 40 days for Mary's purification rite at the Temple in Jerusalem, when they met Simeon and Anna. (Bethlehem is a suburb of Jerusalem.) So we have events that took place over at least a month and a half compressed into one night.
If we are able to get past these two discrepancies, however, we will find very little to complain of from either a historical or a theological perspective. The supernatural element of the story is neither played down nor explained away, nor is it sensationalized. First-century Jewish village culture is captured very authentically. At this point the film succeeds very well at rooting the story of Christ in reality, helping us to imagine the very real family into which he was born. In that way I found it helpful in building my faith. Mary comes across neither as a Hollywood Madonna nor a Plaster Saint, but as a believable Jewish girl who made a sacrifice second perhaps only to that of her Son. When she said, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord," she was volunteering to be an unwed mother in a culture in which the stigma for that role was still at its height. The film handles the human drama believably, and thus can help us understand the Christmas story better, as long as we are not misled by the few historical jumps. Since I have two thumbs, I will hold them both up.