For unto us a child is born

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past year you will now that 2009 is the 250th anniversary of the death of George Frideric Handel, the great composer who was born in what is now Germany but who moved to London in 1712 and became an adopted Englishman, taking up Britisch citizenship in 1727. BBC Radio 3 has been celebrating all year, and I’ve heard lots of Handel’s prolific output for the first time thanks to them. I am a bit ashamed that I have put any Handel on here so far. I certainly don’t mean to imply that I don’t like his music – far from it, in fact – he’s so good that I can even put up with the harpsichords. Sometimes. I guess it’s just that I never got around to it and wasn’t sure what to pick.

Anyway, it’s time to correct this error of omission. This is an appropriate time of year, in fact. Like many brought up in England (or Wales), one of the essential rituals of Christmas time is listening to Messiah. This is a little strange because it was originally intended to be performed at Easter. Another strange tradition is that everyone (orchestra, choir and audience) stands during the famous Hallelujah Chorus. Legend has it that this is because King George II stood when he heard it and, following Royal protocol, everyone else had to stand too. For some reason, over two hundred years later it still happens. It’s just one of those things that stuck.

However, after much thought, I decided not to use the Hallelujah Chorus here, but not because I don’t like it. It’s a thrilling piece and full of nostalgia for me too. The reason is that for many people it’s all they ever hear, and there’s a lot more to Messiah than that. So I’ve gone for another piece, which suits the season especially well and also exemplifies Handel’s gift for vocal and orchestral writing. This sprightly and engaging version was performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Colin Davis.

My compliments of the season!

17 Responses to “For unto us a child is born”

  1. Alan Heavens Says:

    I love Handel, too. An amusing alternative version of the Hallelujah Chorus is at

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    And also to you. Playing an Easter piece in midwinter is actually no odder than celebrating Jesus’ birth at this time of year; when pagans grumble that the church stole the midwinter festival from them I always agree. As to what season Jesus *was* born – there are a few clues in the Bible, some religious, some secular. Autumn is my best guess, but more important for Jesus’ followers is the fact that nowhere in the New Testament is the season stated clearly, and nowhere is there any command to celebrate the event annually (or even Easter – in fact St Paul says that all calendric observance is voluntary).

    Haendel and Bach complement each other as kings of the baroque in my opinion. When I hear the Dead March from Saul or the slow movements of Bach’s violin concertos I can’t believe that anybody should think baroque has no emotion; when I hear the climax of Royal Fireworks or the Water Music, or Bach’s larger-scale organ pieces, I can’t believe anybody thinks baroque has no wellie (to use a technical musicological term). Geniuses, both. Wonderful music.


    PS From a child’s school nativity essay: “There was no room at the inn because it was Christmas.”

  3. Anton Garrett Says:


    Bach and Haendel were surely familiar with each other’s scores.


  4. telescoper Says:


    Handel actually took up citizenship in this country, so I think he was a naturalised Englishman by the time he died. It’s true also that Handel was very wealthy at some times, but at the time he wrote Messiah he was heavily in debt. His operas had become regarded as old-fashioned before he turned to writing oratorios.

    As for him being gay, I don’t think there is any direct evidence about that, but homosexuality was far from unusual in 18th Century London, especially in theatrical and musical circles.

    Many music critics claim that Handel was a pale imitation of the Italian baroque composers that he certainly based his early style upon. But you just have to look at the depth and variety of his work – and how much has entered our national consciousness – to know what a great composer he was.

    As for Anton’s comment about people thinking Bach is unemotional, I don’t think anyone who has ever heard the St Matthew Passion can possibly think Bach is unemotional. I was completely overwhelmed by it when I first heard a full performance.


  5. Anton Garrett Says:


    Where are the newborn lambs in the nativity story? Luke is the only gospel to mention the shepherds and says sinply that they were guarding their flocks (Greek: poimnen) – from wolves or from straying, as shepherds did. Middle Eastern shepherds knew all of their sheep individually and they would respond to him – it is not like today with sheepdogs. Some claim that the fact the sheep were outside at night means it cannot have been winter; it is true that sheep were generally indoors overnight in winter, but Bethlehem provided the sheep for sacrifice in the Temple in nearby Jerusalem and those sheep had different treatment. That would be apt in view of the description of Jesus from Bethlehem as the sacrificial “lamb of God”.

    Various proposals have been made about the Star of Bethlehem and astronomical records, the best two being a comet found in Chinese records and a triple conjunction of Jupiter, Saturn and Mars. Before dismissing the former, read ancient descriptions of comets, for context; as for the latter, the astrologers – magi – who came to worship Jesus would have been mightily impressed at this once-in-800-years event. But again there is no decisive argument and believers are aware that the phenomenon might have been supernatural.

    An apparently better line of argument is this. Luke’s gospel records that Mary became pregnant with Jesus six (Jewish, ie lunar) months after Elizabeth, who conceived (shortly) after her husband Zechariah returned from duty in the Temple. There is no suggestion that Mary’s pregnancy was unusual in its duration: nine months. So there were roughly 6 + 9 = 15 months from Zechariah’s duty to Jesus’ birth. Luke also states which of the priestly subtribes Zechariah was from (Abijah) and 1 Chronicles 24 sets out the order in which the 24 subtribes served. Jewish tradition records that around Jesus’ time a tour of duty lasted one week, and that the rota was run through twice each year (the festivals partly made up the missing time). This gives two windows for Jesus’ nativity, centred around late January and late July but with a large uncertainty of several weeks. Part of the uncertainty is because the Jews added an extra month every few years to keep their lunar calendar tuned to the solar calendar, and we do not know the mismatch in whichever year Jesus was born. So nothing is decisive in this argument.

    Luke’s record that there was no room in the inn at Bethlehem is often presumed to be because of travellers for the census, for which people had to register in their home town (Luke 2:1-3). But registration had to be done *by* a particular date, not on a particular date. So the census is unlikely to be the cause of the overcrowding, whereas the three Jewish festivals for which all Jewish men were supposed to be in Jerusalem crammed the Jerusalem area. Rabbinic Jews believed (then and now) that their Messiah will come in power at one of these, the autumn festival of Tabernacles. Some Christians take this to be a reference to Jesus’ Second Coming (his crucifixion was at Passover and the coming of the Holy Spirit was at Firstfruits, the other two festivals); in that case his first coming would surely also have been at Tabernacles, to give faithful Jews the chance to identify him as Simeon did.

    But it is obvious from the silence of the gospel writers that the season of Jesus’ brith mattered a lot less to them than to many Christians today. That is why I prefer to de-emphasise Christmas, to the occasional perplexity of both secular and Christian friends.


  6. Anton Garrett Says:


    What nationality would your proposal assign to people still alive?

    Personally I think that Bach’s unaccompanied violin music is the finest thing he wrote. I simply cannot believe the beauty of it.


  7. Anton Garrett Says:

    A postscript to my comments above about the season of the nativity: What about extrabiblical sources? By two centuries after the event, Christian writers, including Clement of Alexandria, were saying that the season had been lost. (Recall that the first believers in Jesus were Jews and that Judaism suffered great upheavals in AD70 and AD132-5 at the hands of the Romans.) Assertions of a midwinter date come from well after Clement’s time, and the church had good internal communications, so there is no reason to believe this date – and it would make sense that the church, politicised after Constantine’s era another century later, simply superimposed Christmas onto the pagan Sol Invictus and Saturnalia celebrations to try to transform them.


    • Anton,

      Is it possible to assign a solid date to the census which was supposed to be the reason for him being born in Bethlehem?


  8. Anton Garrett Says:

    Peter, Phillip,

    For more about the census (including extrabiblical references to it from the time) see


  9. Anton Garrett Says:


    By far my favourite recording of Bach’s unaccompanied violin is by Josef Suk. I once went to a concert of this music where the performer played from a photocopy of Bach’s original score, because he said it contains minor ambiguities and he didn’t trust any of the editors. Of course he had to make his own decisions, presumably in advance.


  10. […] In the Dark A blog about the Universe, and all that surrounds it « For unto us a child is born […]

  11. Bryn Jones Says:

    It’s really nice to see the video of the LSO and Chorus with Sir Colin Davis. I have heard the orchestra conducted by Davis in the hall shown (the Barbican in London) on many occasions, but I missed that performance of Messiah a few years ago. That performance has been released on CD on the LSO Live label, I believe.

    The London Symphony Orchestra has issued a number of recordings on their own CD label over the past several years, including that Messiah performance. They tend to perform concerts in pairs a few days apart, giving sound engineers two recordings to cut and paste to produce a final version free from coughs, sneezes and fluffs. It is a sensible policy: they recorded Sibelius’s Kullervo a few years back. The baritone soloist had vocal problems at the performance I attended and walked off stage, never to return, leaving the orchestra, conductor, chorus and mezzo soprano standing there wondering what to do.

  12. Re: Anton and the Biblical census.

    Readers may wonder why Anton chose a link to a small Lutheran church in Kentucky for info on the census. A possible reason is that if you put “census Christ Augustus” into Google, that site comes up top.

    For a more NPOV, the following comes via other sources, including Wikipedia.

    Only Matthew and Luke give accounts of the birth of Christ. Matthew does not mention the census, and seems to imply that Mary and Joseph were resident in Bethleham at the time of the birth of Christ, and only later moved to Nazareth.

    Luke says “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.). Now Augustus records in his The Deeds of the Divine Augustus that he held censuses of Roman citizens in 29 BC, 8 BC and 14 AD. The 8 BC date would fit, as according to Matthew Christ was born while Herod the Great was king, and Herod died in 4 BC. However, such censuses did not require people to return to the place of their birth, much less that they went to their ancestral home, as Luke describes that the reason for the move to Bethleham was to go to the place of the ‘house of David’.

    Further, Luke goes onto say that the census was when Cyrenius was governer of Syria. Now we do have information on that census as the Jewish historian Josephus writing in 75-94AD described a census by Cyrenius, but in 7 AD. Also this was a local, not an ‘all the world’ census.

    A reasonable conclusion is that Matthew and Luke were trying to establish that the prophecy of the Messiah being from the house of David had been fulfilled, not that these were actual historical events.

    BTW, for non-Christians, Luke’s Gospel is an interesting read as it from a different POV to the other Gospels, and is not much used in contemporary teaching. The Parable of the Corrupt Steward is especially problematical, ranking up there with the tenth-century forgery of the Parable of the Woman Taken in Adultery, to be found in John.

  13. Anton Garrett Says:


    I chose that reference for the census for two reasons: because it was high in an internet search (as you found) and because it gave explicit reference to ancient sources outside the scriptures. What matter its origin?

    NPOV is a nebulous concept. I accept the gospel accounts, although I know that many people don’t and I have no problem with that.

    “Luke’s Gospel is an interesting read as it from a different POV to the other Gospels.” Could you clarify? John is generally held to be the ‘different’ one of the four gospels in the New Testament – Matthew, Mark and Luke are categorised together as the ‘synoptic gospels’. Matthew, fairly obviously, is written for ethnic Jews rarther than gentiles, as it has by far the greatest concern to connect Jesus to the Old Testament, which would be of interest to Jews specifically. Luke’s is the most detailed gospel.

    For a plausible exegesis of the parable of the corrupt steward in Luke 16, see:

    I’m away from my books at the moment and will say more about this later if you wish. As for the Woman Caught (King James Bible: “Taken”) in Adultery in John 8, the earliest reference to it is in the Codex Bezae (which I have personally seen) dated to the 4th or 5th century. I do accept that there are question marks over whether this encounter is authentic, but it is not theologically inconsistent with the rest of the gospels. As with the coin in Matthew 22:15-21 it is a trick question that the Pharisees ask Jesus. If Jesus says they should not stone her then he has denied Israel’s law which was believed to have given by God (Leviticus 20:10, Deuteronomy 22:22), whereas if he says they should stone her then they can report him to the Roman authorities for demanding her execution without Roman permission (John 18:31). As usual Jesus turns the tables on the Pharisees.


  14. Anton Garrett Says:


    Hard to stage one’s birth in Bethlehem for that reason!

    Did you enjoy Julia Fischer’s concert?


  15. Re: Anton and the census

    I doubt that anyone is reading this except Anton and perhaps Peter as this blog is moderated, but just for an idle moment … Also I make no comment as to the values of believers. There are Christians amongst the people i most admire. This is just a discussion of some of the contents of the Bible.

    I see Anton makes no response to the census part of my post, so I assume that he does not dispute the contradictions between Luke and Matthew and between Luke and the historical censuses.

    To his response to my last paragraph on Luke and on the Unjust Steward and on the Adultress Woman, it is rarely useful to discuss the emotive subject of religion with one who says “I accept the Gospel accounts”, but for Peter’s sake I will put in some more info.

    All four Gospels are written from a different POV, and Luke seems to be written by a Gentile for other Gentiles, so it is the most straightforward and least mystical of the Gospels. The versions of events in Jesus’s life are more direct than the other Gospels, but do not seem to be used much by Christians when talking to the outside world. Personally, I find Luke easier to understand than the other Gospels, but more harsh. for example, the version of the Parable of the Talents includes the extra verse

    “Wherefore then gavest not thou my money into the bank, that at my coming I might have required mine own with usury?

    which is pretty harsh on the poor servant. Also in the House Built on Sand it is quite explicit that I will go to Hell, since I have read his words and do not believe. I find that an impertinent and distasteful comment on me.

    The Unjust Steward: for those who are unaware of it, it goes

    Luke 16:01-08

    “And he said also unto his disciples, There was a certain rich man,
    which had a steward; and the same was accused unto him that he had
    wasted his goods And he called him, and said unto him, How is it
    that I hear this of thee? give an account of thy stewardship; for
    thou mayest be no longer steward. Then the steward said within
    himself, What shall I do? for my lord taketh away from me the
    stewardship: I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed. I am resolved what
    to do, that, when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive
    me into their houses. So he called every one of his lord’s debtors
    unto him, and said unto the first, How much owest thou unto my lord?
    And he said, An hundred measures of oil. And he said unto him, Take
    thy bill, and sit down quickly, and write fifty. Then said he to
    another, And how much owest thou? And he said, An hundred measures
    of wheat. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and write fourscore.
    And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done
    wisely: for the children of this world are in their generation
    wiser than the children of light.”

    Luke 16:09-13

    “And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of
    unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into
    everlasting habitations. He that is faithful in that which is
    least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the
    least is unjust also in much. If therefore ye have not been
    faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust
    the true riches? And if ye have not been faithful in that which
    is another man’s, who shall give you that which is your own? No
    servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one,
    and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise
    the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.”

    Now the first part is simple. A man steals from his master, but the master approves (also making an obscure comment on the ‘children of the light’). The second part is more difficult. Jesus seems to approve the theft, but then goes all complex and it somehow ends up with “ye cannot serve God and Mammon”. To call all this ‘problematical’ is an understatement. And it is no use Christian commentators trying to prove that it ‘actually’ does not mean that Jesus approves of theft. That carries about as much conviction as if someone cleverly proves that black is ‘actually’ white. No wonder you do not hear much of this parable.

    The Woman Taken in Adultery. Is this a ‘tenth-century forgery? Amongst all the innumerable manuscripts between the second and ninth centuries there is only one manuscript, the fifth-century Codex Bazae in the Cambridge University Library, that contains this. (It may be relevant that this codex contains much that is not in the canon and omits much that is.) In the even more innumerable commentaries there are only a limited number of fourth and fifth Latin (ie Western) church references to an encounter between Jesus and a woman accused of sin, but few of them place it as a Gospel account. It seems that some such story was floating around from some unknown non-canonical work, but overwhelmingly was not placed in the canon.

    Then in the ninth/tenth century it started appearing in many codexes and commentaries. A section that was not in the canon, was now in. It is as though the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas (say) had suddenly appeared in the canon. Also, it seems to be agreed that as it is written in a non-Johnine style, it was placed in the wrong Gospel. All this seems to fit the description of a ‘ninth/tenth century forgery’. I have not been able to find any discussion as to why this sudden insertion might have taken place at that time.

  16. Anton Garrett Says:


    Regarding the woman caught in adultery, I agree with you that it is uncertain whether this passage should be included in the gospels. (Although such a statement almost presupposes a believer’s definition of what “the gospel” is.) Also, whether or not the tale is canonical, it is consistent with Jesus’ theology, for the reason given in my post of Dec 28th above (about the Pharisees). This tale is much more ancient than the 9/10th century. Apart from the ancient Codex Bezae it is also in the Codex Fuldensis of the mid-6th century. As to whether the original Greek matches the style of John’s gospel – I am often amused by how New Testament scholars, expert in Greek, authoritatively pronounce on matters of this sort – some on one side, some on the other…

    Are some of your comments intended to wind me up? In any case I am happy to discuss the content of the Bible with anybody who is genuinely interested. My Dec 28th post did make a response to you about the census. Regarding contradictions between Matthew’s and Luke’s account of the Nativity – please be specific. Can you give me an statement that is asserted in one gospel account of the Nativity but is in contradiction with the other?

    I certainly agree tjhat the four gospels have differing POVs, because four people are writing about the same events for differing audiences.

    As for the unjust steward, I refer readers to the URL in my Dec 28th post.


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