Bishop sends the three wise men packing

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DAVID JENKINS, the Bishop of Durham, yesterday publicly demolished key parts of the Christmas story.

Fresh from proclaiming the non-existence of Hell, Dr Jenkins shot down the star in the East, the three wise men, their gold, frankincense and myrrh, and even the swaddling clothes and the manger at Bethlehem. He dismissed them as 'poetical myths' on the BBC Breakfast with Frost show.

Dr Jenkins's comments provoked more than the usual expressions of outrage at his past denials of some central tenets of Christianity such as the Resurrection, which he has described as 'a conjuring trick with bones'.

John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, who resigned from the General Synod over the ordination of women, said: 'It will be a relief when great festivals of the Christian year are not hijacked by the Bishop of Durham and his personal publicity machine.

'He undermines the faith of Christian people and I am sad that he should not understand the role of a bishop, which is to confirm the faith.'

Dr Jenkins said: 'I know there are all these new articles every year that there was a star of special brightness and all the rest of it. It's just about possible. How can you say it didn't happen? But the stories fit so well in this mythical, poetical, way that they look like compositions to express the faith that already existed.'

The bishop, who has upset churchgoers who prefer a literal belief in the Bible, confessed that as he got older he believed in 'less and less detail but more and more depth'. He said he believed in Jesus as a real, historical person, but did not believe He was the product of a virgin birth.

Asked whether he believed there were three wise men who delivered their gifts, Dr Jenkins said: 'On balance I have to be frank and say no. I think these stories are so splendidly symbolic and pick up so many echoes both from prophecies in the Old Testament and to make the point, here are people coming from outside. I think they are stories composed by the early Church out of their faith, out of the Old Testament.'

Christ's birth was 'an amazing act of God' but it was not recognised as such at the time of Jesus' birth. He added that he 'began to wonder' whether Jesus was wrapped in swaddling clothes and was born in a manger because His parents could find no room in the inn.

'We don't know. It looks the sort of thing that could have happened. Who knows, really?'