The New Testament begins with four books known as the gospels: Mathew, Mark, Luke and John. Each book records the life of the Saviour from a different perspective and should each be considered testimonies rather than biographies. The books are certainly not consistent in what events they record. The vast majority of the material in the Book of John, 97%, is unique to that book, on the other hand, only 7% of Mark is unique to itself. There are, to my knowledge, just 11 events that are recorded in all four gospels, and these include the baptism of John, feeding the 5,000, the crucifixion and resurrection. If you want to learn about the Saviour’s early years, only Luke records his birth and early childhood, and only Matthew records the arrival of the wise men and subsequent slaughter of innocent children. Mark and John start right into his ministry.
Often when we see a crèche seen around Christmas time, we find Jesus in a stable surrounded by animals with the wise men off to the side brining their gifts of gold frankincense and myrrh. Many Christmas hymns perpetuate this and other misconceptions. Most bible students know that the scene is inaccurate, but it serves the function of portraying the beginning of a marvellous work and a wonder that this Child would bring to mankind. Being the week before Christmas, I felt it apropos to examine the text and provide some insights that you may have forgotten, or if I am lucky, you may not have heard before.
The story begins in the time of Herod wherein all the citizens of Palestine have been called to be taxed. More properly, this is interpreted to mean a time of registering tax payers with no actual money trading hands. It was a census. We do know that Rome was of the habit of respecting the local traditions and practices of their kingdom – not out of benevolence but out of centuries of experience of past empires that collapse then satellite states revolted from excessive oppression. The Jewish practice was to return to the land of their forefathers when an accounting is to take place, so Mary and Joseph, being decedents of David, returned to the city of David, known as Bethlehem. The one challenge with this common narrative is that there is no record of a Roman census at this time, and even if there where, Joseph would have been required to register in the principal city of his taxation district which, being from Nazareth, would have been somewhere in Galilee. Further, evidence suggests that Roman censuses did not even occur in client kingdoms. It may have been that Bethlehem was Joseph’s family home rather than his ancestral home, and there is some evidence that census’s did take place in some client kingdoms so this is not an insurmountable problem.
A second challenge is that the evidence suggests that Quirinius (Cyrenius) was not governor of Syria at the time of the alleged census as Luke claims. Josephus states he became governor after Herod’s death. It is clear, however, that Quirinius was in powerful positions in Syria prior to being names governor. The reality is, historical records are often contradictory and frequently historians take about turns as new evidence is uncovered. There may be a long lost ancient scroll that will flesh out the history and make the apparent conflict melt away. We also have to understand that Luke wrote his testimony decades after the event and, not being a witness of the birth, may have gotten some of the facts wrong. I would challenge anyone reading this blog to record the historical details of the date of your own birth without using any reference material. Not knowing the details does not mean you were never born.
Luke goes on to say that Jesus was born in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn. From this brief description, entire movies, songs, and artwork have emerged depicting Joseph knocking in vane on the door of a hotel with a very pregnant Mary sitting forlorn on a donkey. The reality is, there is no evidence they even tried to find proper lodgings in town. Bethlehem is in a valley and, during such gatherings, it would become very apparent well before arriving at the city gate that it was full. There would have been encampments’ leading up to the town filled with people. The word ‘manger’ is what leads to the assumption of a stable filled with animals. A manger is a feeding trough, which means when the baby was about to be born, they improvised with what was available and turned the feeding trough into a crib. They may have been under a makeshift inn, or more likely in one of the many caves located along the route to Bethlehem. I do not imagine, however, they were surrounded by animals. The baby Jesus would not have survived the filth.
As the theologian Ian Paul argues, Inn would better be translated as ‘place of hospitality’, or the guest room. A typical home in Palestine would have three rooms: the stable, the family room, and the guest room. If there was no room in the guest room, Mary and Joseph would have had to reside with the family that hosted them, likely relatives. The animals would often be brought in at night, so the mangers would be in the living quarters. (Keneth Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes – Culture Studies in the Gospel). Paul goes on to explain “This kind of one-room living with animals in the house at night is evident in a couple of places in the gospels. In Matt 5.15, Jesus comments: Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. This makes no sense unless everyone lives in the one room! And in Luke’s account of Jesus healing a woman on the sabbath (Luke 13.10–17), Jesus comments: Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the manger [same word as Luke 2.7] and lead it out to give it water? Interestingly, none of Jesus’ critics respond, ‘No I don’t touch animals on the Sabbath’ because they all would have had to lead their animals from the house. In fact, one late manuscript variant reads ‘lead it out from the house and give it water.” Jesus was not born in a stable
So no, unlike my children, Jesus was not born in a barn. This also gives a nice tie in to the arrival of the wise men who found the young child living in a house. Possibly the same house where he was born.
Next we learn that when the baby was born, angles appeared to shepherds who were tending their flocks nearby. It is very telling that angels appeared to the most humble of Jews. When the shepherds went to visit the Savior, they would not have brought their flock with them because the animals would have been spooked by all the people and would have been scattered. They also would not have all come at once because they would not leave their flocks unattended. Consequently, they would have come in shifts, watching one another’s flock so each could visit the new born king.
Another significant event that occurred at his birth was the appearance of new star which ‘appeared in the east’. It is unclear what this means, and also unclear what the star was. The text implies that it was close enough to the earth at some points that it was possible to identify the very city it shown over. I do not know of a natural phenomenon that could cause this, and since I am of the view that God works through natural means, I suspect that the text is taking some liberty. I theorize that it may have been an angel who appeared, much as the angels that appeared to the shepherds and this angel led them to the home of the child. Jesus is named as the morning star Rev 22:16 so referring to an angel as a star is a reasonable assumption I think. If a new star did appear, however, it was likely a distant star that went super nova and shone brightly long enough for all to see. Since this event was prophesied, those who were familiar with the prophesy would have known its significance and would have headed to the source, being the city of David.
Luke then explains that, when the child was 8 days old, he was presented at the temple which was the custom of the day. Two people, Simeon and Anna, paid homage and these two people warrant further discussion that perhaps I can cover another time.
For the rest of the story we turn to Matthew chapter 2 that records the wisemen who came from the east did not arrive until Jesus was a young child, at least 2 years of age. By this time, Joseph and Mary were living in a house which, as I stated earlier, may have been the same house where he was born or perhaps they were able to secure their own home. The fact that two years later they were still living in Bethlehem suggests that this was in fact their home town, and they only moved to Nazereth to begin with while Mary was pregnant. They then returned to Bethlehem for Mary to give birth and likely with plans to live there to raise their family.
We do not know how many wisemen arrived, only that they brought three types of gifts. Folklore has produced three names, but they are entirely fictional. There may have been two, there may have been 200. When they arrived in Israel, they first went to the ruler of the land since the child was born to be king. When they asked where the child would be born, the king directed his scribes to search through the records. They found it in short order and directed them towards the city of Bethlehem, whereupon the king asked them to let him know where the baby is so that he too could go worship him. The wisemen left the king and once again, the star appeared leading them to the home of the Son of God to present their gifts. Again, this must have been an angel in radiant glory. After their visit, they were then warned in a dream not to return to the king because the king planned to kill the child, so they left without alerting the authorities. Joseph and Mary had the same dream and fled to Egypt. The generous gifts were no doubt sufficient to sustain them on their journey.
Gold , frankincense and myrrh were standard gifts to honour a king or deity in the ancient world. These same gifts were offered to the god Apollo by King Seleucus II Callinicus in 243 BC. The gifts were foreseen by Isaiah in Chapter 60:6. Gold is a precious metal representing kingship, frankincense is a perfume or incense used to anoint for a priestly role, and myrrh is anointing oil used for embalming and is a prevision of his death. The well known Christmas carol ‘We Three Kings’ composed by John Henry Hopkins Jr. composed in 1857 explains it much more poetically than I can:
Frankincense to offer have I
Incense owns a Deity nigh
Prayer and praising, all men raising
Worship Him, God most high
Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes of life of gathering gloom
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.
Herod was enraged that the wise men did not return so, not knowing who the new king was, he resolved to kill every male child 2 years of age and younger in Bethlehem and its environs. Bethlehem was a small town with a population, according to renowned archaeologist and biblical scholar William F Albright, was about 300 so at most, 6 children were killed. Although still a horrific tragedy, it would hardy have been noteworthy considering the scope of Herod’s other atrocities.
The young family remained in Egypt until word came that Herod had died. Their plan was to return to Bethlehem which supports my view that this was their home; otherwise their first plan would have been to move directly to Nazareth. When they returned to Bethlehem, however, they learned that Herod’s son was reigning in his stead, so they continued on until they reached the small backwater town of Nazareth where they remained until Jesus was about 12 years of age. This seams a reasonable choice since they moved their when they were first married.
I did not cover all the details of the story, but hopefully I raised some points that you had not considered before. There is a lot of tradition that has evolved over the centuries, and much of it has found its way into our traditional hymns, but we need to see what the actual text says and be willing to put aside what we have been learning on the radio and in Sunday School. At least, that is the way I see it.