The last couple of Wednesdays, our small group has been taking a careful look at the Birth Narratives of Jesus and comparing them to the traditional mental picture we get around Christmas time with the various Manger scenes and other popular depictions. Some of this may be new to you—so I hope it is enlightening. The answers seem to get longer as it goes—and, I still can't figure out how to make this formatting consistent--sorry about that!
How Well Do You Know the First Christmas?
1. What is the traditional biblical story of the journey from
The traditional picture has a tired and desperate Mary & Joseph trudging/rushing into
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this picture—it’s the most popular—but is it the most accurate to the biblical texts?
2. Were they traveling alone? What biblical evidence do you have to support this?
We get a few clues to suggest they were not traveling alone.
First, in Luke 2, since everyone had to travel to their own hometown to register—it’s safe to assume that other people had to do some traveling to register as well.
Third has to do with the time of year the events actually occurred which we’ll get to later—let’s just say that in order for them to get to Bethlehem, Mary & Joseph had to pass through Jerusalem (Bethlehem is about 5 miles South of Jerusalem whereas Nazareth is considerably north of Jerusalem)—Jerusalem was the center of political and religious life in Israel so pilgrims of all sorts were on the roads to Jerusalem all the time.
Fourth, most people traveled in family groups or with friends whenever possible. You see evidence of Joseph & Mary doing this just a few verses later (Luke 2:41-44) when Jesus was 12 years old. Jesus stayed behind in
3. When was the baby born?
a. Mary barely made it into town
b. The first night
c. Some time later
Luke 2:6 says “while they were there, the time came for the baby to be born”. The implication of that statement is that M & J arrived in
Given the later accounts of the Magi in Matthew—it’s obvious that J & M stayed in
4. Does that change the nature of the location of Jesus’ birth if it happened some time later—in other words, couldn’t Joseph had found some other place after a while?
If they had been there for a few days at least, then the likelihood that Joseph couldn’t find any place to stay is a stretch. After some time, he would have been able to find something and they would not have been cast out to the animal pens. Why would they go there then? We’ll talk about that later.
5. Were Mary & Joseph alone while in
The traditional picture is them alone and afraid. But why were they going to
Yet if that were the case, why would they have to go out to the animals? That would be affected by several things one being the nature of the place they were staying. First, let’s look at something that isn’t obviously related, but it is.
6. Luke 22:10-12—What was this room like?
In this passage, Jesus is preparing for the Passover feast and He sends Peter & John in to find the right place—He says—“He replied, "As you enter the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him to the house that he enters, 11 and say to the owner of the house, `The Teacher asks: Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?' 12 He will show you a large upper room, all furnished. Make preparations there."
This “guestroom” was a large room that many houses had for family gatherings, meals, or visiting relatives—it was big, generally open and several families could sleep there at the same time.
If you didn’t know, Luke uses some of the best Greek in the New Testament, fitting for his life as a physician. He is precise in his words and this is important.
7. Back in Luke 2, what is meant by the word “
Interestingly, the word that Luke uses in ch. 22 translated “guestroom” is the same one used in ch. 2 translated “inn”. The problem is that “inn” carries many different connotations—our mind pictures something like a Motel 6—large building with many small rooms that you can rent for the night. If Joseph was there for an extended stay—at least 33 days according to Leviticus 12 for Mary’s purification (Luke 2:22) this would quickly become an expensive venture.
As shown by their sacrifice of 2 small doves in the temple and not a lamb—they may not have been well off financially—much less able to stay in a
But if the word is not translated “
8. Typically we see Mary & Joseph as being banished to the stable. How could it have been a good thing for them?
They problem wasn’t that they were alone and desperate, or that there were cruel, heartless innkeepers who wouldn’t bother to find them a spot—the greater problem was that there was a lot of people—and even a lot of family and friends is no place to have a baby! How many women do you know that want to have a baby in a crowded room where everybody and their dog could watch. Sure, some have given birth on a plane, in the mall, but certainly that wasn’t their first choice!
So going to the room for animals—likely something built onto the house itself or even under the upper room—was a good thing, a helpful thing, a privacy thing. There, they won’t have to worry about people watching, kids tripping over them or all the other inconveniences a woman in labor would want to avoid. Similarly, since it didn’t happen the moment of arrival, I’m sure they had the opportunity to make sure the place was cleaned up or prepared for Mary to have a baby down there. Going to the stable was a good thing for Mary.
The stable would have given privacy, if they were really around family, then Joseph would not have been the only attendant Mary had, but other related women who had been through the process before themselves. They may even have known a local mid-wife to assist in the delivery.
9. Was Jesus really born on December 25th?
Most of you know that December 25, was a chosen date that co-opted a pagan religious winter festival. If you didn’t know, there you go. The likely time that shepherds would be out in the fields at night is springtime, while the lambs were being born. The shepherds were out to guard and assist their flocks in their deliveries. That would put Jesus’ birth closer to Passover.
In which case—the reason that
The census was taken over a period of time (even years from its issuing) so there was not a hard deadline for Joseph to meet—so presumably, he combined his registration in
The other interesting imagery is the fact that one of the titles Jesus is given in Scripture is the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”. To participate in Passover, Jewish family had to sacrifice a year old male lamb. These sacrifices were to Atone for the sins of the family. The sacrifice only covered the sin—the unintentional sins. There was no sacrifice for deliberate sins and they certainly didn’t take away sin or it’s consequence. But that is what Jesus, the Lamb of God was promised to do.
The very lambs that the shepherds were watching born in front of them would be next year’s offering—but they were able to bear witness to an even better Lamb, that could do even more.10. Why is it unusual for shepherds to be witnesses to this event?
12 How many Magi were there?
As mentioned, unless the star appeared months before Jesus’ actual birth, there’s no way they could have been there the night of. In the east, the wise men saw a star that pointed them to a King being born to the kingdom of the Jews. They would have to see it, interpret it, decide what to do about it, prepare for the journey and then make the trip up the Euphrates river, west along the fertile crescent, then south through Syria and the coastal territories—a several month long journey.
13. When did the Magi arrive?
14. Why Magi and why would they care what was going on in
There is so much in these birth narratives that we miss or read over because we think we know the story already or because our mind has been so cluttered by the popular depictions that we don’t study carefully what the text actually says. If you’ve made it this far, I hope that you have benefited from this breakdown of the text and related cultures.