I originally posted this a couple of Christmases ago, but I thought I would do it again--for obvious reasons. I'd appreciate any thoughts, critiques or additional contributions.
How Well Do You Know the First Christmas?
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.
1. What is the traditional biblical story of the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem?
The traditional picture has a tired and desperate Mary & Joseph trudging/rushing into Bethlehem. They are all alone, there’s no AAA Roadside Assistance, there’s no hospital, they know no one. All the Inn’s or Motel 6’s have No Vacancy and so thanks to the backhanded generosity of a sour innkeeper, Mary & Joseph are banished to the barn where she is already in labor and almost immediately has the baby Jesus. Then the Shepherds appear following a star because not far behind them are the 3 Kings bearing gifts. They all form a nice little huddle around the Manger and the baby Jesus.
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.
Second, Bethlehem was full of travelers—they had to get there somehow—they would have used the same roads that Mary & Joseph used.
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 Jerusalem when J & M left for home. They were traveling in such a large group, they couldn’t see Jesus and assumed He was running around with someone else.
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 Bethlehem and sometime before they went home, Jesus was born. Luke was a very precise writer—and even though he’s giving a quick summation of some things—if there was a panicked rush to get to Bethlehem, he could have said so. The language is of a much slower series of events. So the idea that she was in labor as they ran into Bethlehem, desperately pounding on doors is not particularly accurate. So they may have been there for a few days or even weeks before she went into labor.
Given the later accounts of the Magi in Matthew—it’s obvious that J & M stayed in Bethlehem for a long time.
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 Bethlehem? What is the likelihood that they knew anyone in town?
The traditional picture is them alone and afraid. But why were they going to Bethlehem in the first place? It was their family home. They both were of the line of David. Not all of the family would have moved away from Bethlehem. Some of them stuck around—and they would have had some good records or tradition of who is related to who and where they are in the line of potential successors for David’s throne. Family relationships and connections were important for that culture and Joseph or Mary probably had relatives that still lived there that they could have gone to and asked for a place to stay or help with the pregnancy.
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 “Inn”? Is there any other possible meaning?
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 Bethlehem motel for several months.
But if the word is not translated “Inn” but guestroom, then the situation changes. If they really had family in town, then that would have been the place they would have gone for lodging. And if the family’s upper room/guest room was full—it was probably full of other family. There’s a reason why all those family members would have been there in Bethlehem, which I’ll get to in just a moment. But it’s very likely that these people were not strangers but cousins, aunts, uncles, and others who would be traveling to Bethlehem.
8. Typically we see Mary & Joseph as being banished to the stable. How could it have been a good thing for them?
The 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. Not to mention all of the ceremonial uncleanness that a birth brings with it (I don't have time to look it up right now)
Similarly, since the birth 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 Bethlehem was crowded would not have just been because of the census—but because of all the travelers going to Jerusalem for Passover. It would have made the roads packed with faithful Jewish men and women who were required to go to Jerusalem for the observance. So the image of the lone travelers is even more unlikely. It also makes the ceremonial uncleanness of the birth all the more significant--perhaps even excluding Joseph from assisting her if he intended to participate in Passover.
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 Bethlehem with his regular/annual trip to Jerusalem.
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?
Ironically, even though the shepherds provided the most important element of the festival, by this time, shepherds were not high on the social ladder in Jewish society. They were the fringe elements, not a part of the upscale, city community.
These were the elements called to be the first witnesses and first testifiers to the Messiah. Why them? In many ways, it was a call back to or a reminder of their roots. Shepherds may have been outsiders to the community, but they were the original foundation of the community. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob were all shepherds. As was Moses—as was the great King David.
To reject the shepherds was to reject their roots. The community had not grown past them, they still needed them and in many ways, needed the simplicity of faith and trust in God they represented, which the Jewish community had once had, but had in many ways lost.
11. How did the Shepherds find Mary, Joseph & Jesus?
The traditional nativity scene has M & J, the shepherds and the wise men all gathered around a manger. Often, when you ask this question, many will say the shepherds were guided by the star, just like the wise men. But as we’ll get into in the next question—they didn’t get there on the same night of the birth (for that to happen, the “star” they saw would have to have appeared months before Jesus’ actual birth—God could have done this, btw).
The shepherds were just told about the 2 signs—wrapped in cloths & lying in a manger. They didn’t get an address, a street name, or a general vicinity of where they would actually find the baby. There was no star mentioned in Luke that guided them to the right house.
So, how did they know where to go? At most Bethlehem was a few thousand people—maybe they listened for the cries of a newborn. Maybe they looked for the only ones with a fire still lit. Maybe God picked them on the side of the town that they would reach first. Maybe they tried several places before finding the right one.
Or, speculatively speaking, since this was M & J’s family town—what if these shepherds were relatives and merely went home first, or relatives who already knew they had a visitor who was expecting a baby. Shepherds returning from the fields probably would go into the animal’s room first. Interesting possibility.
12 How many Magi were there?
We sing, “We Three Kings” so it must be three, right? Tradition even gives us names. But Scripture never says how many Magi came, just that they brought 3 different types of gifts—gold, frankincense and myrrh. Ancient depictions, stained glass and such—teaching tools with limited room depicted one person to hold a gift each representing the different types.
But again, by custom, most traveled in large groups. These were practically ambassadors and political representatives, as evidenced by the fact that they first went to Jerusalem and sought Herod. A small entourage, would not do for such dignitaries.
The amount of their gifts was not necessarily something one man could carry despite the many inescapable pictures that suggest otherwise.
I’m of the mind that there wasn’t only 3 representatives, but more.
13. When did the Magi arrive?
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.
This would put Jesus a year old or more by the time of their arrival—they had to wait for circumcision, they have to wait 30+ days for Mary to be purified so they could offer their sacrifice. When Herod later gave the orders to kill any boy under 2 years—you’ve got to figure that this is an effort to cover His bases and not miss anyone.
14. Why Magi and why would they care what was going on in Jerusalem?
For some reason, these Magi—practicing astrologers, interpreted their signs to point to the Kingdom of the Jews. But why would that sign have sent them off on such a long and uncertain journey? Hey, a new king in Israel… that’s nice… somebody hand me the remote. Why would they care so much about the goings on in Israel that they would go there?
It’s important to remember where they were supposed to be from. It is generally understood that these men from the east were in the Mesopotamian river valleys… between the Tigris & Euphrates rivers. What would have been prominent territories in the biblical kingdoms of Assyria, Babylonia & Persia. In other words, modern day Iraq and Iran
This is the general area and territory where the Jewish exiles were taken by different governments. Most of the Jews never returned home even after they were given special permission by King of Persia. They didn’t leave, but stayed with many keeping their faith, their traditions and even Scriptures. So there was an Old Testament witness and community where these Magi were from. If I’m not mistaken, even today some of these countries have a small Jewish population.
So if nothing else, these Magi would have had access or awareness of Jewish teaching and Scripture—making the homeland important. With the influences of people like Daniel or Esther in high government—some may have begun to take them very seriously.
Of course, another powerful possibility is that these men were themselves Jewish or had some Jewish heritage. In other words, their ancestors had watched other Jews pack up and go back to Jerusalem because they had a desire to be restored to God. I’m sure there were many who talked about it for generations, many who wondered what it would have been like if they had returned. In reading the scriptures, the psalms, the laments, the prophets and their heart for the land, the Temple, the Promise of God—even these Wise Men may have had their hearts wondering about the glory of the Temple.
If they were themselves Jewish—it is an awesome reminder of God’s call to come home.
Even though most stayed behind and didn’t return with the remnant, God still found a way to reach out to them—that hope that they had heard of, the promise of a Messiah for their people—was still something God would remind them of.
And so their hearts—longing for the fulfillment of God, longing for the homeland, wondering if God would still be faithful to His promise, wondering if God would still allow them to be a part of it—drove their hearts to make such a long and uncertain Journey.
15. Why did they go to Herod first?
It’s no wonder they went to Jerusalem first. Jerusalem was the center of religious and political power. A future king would more likely be born to the current king. But God doesn’t work the way we think He should—the obvious is rarely what He uses.
So they went to Jerusalem, alerted King Herod, gained further specifics from scripture—Micah 5:2 that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem and continued.
But there’s something else interesting here. It seems the star that started their journey did not guide them all along the way. If so, they would never have stopped or turned aside to Jerusalem. Maybe they couldn’t interpret what a stopped guiding star would look like. But in any event, they were asked by Herod to make a careful search for the child. If they were relying on the star at that point, then why would they have to “search”.
But upon leaving Jerusalem, something changed—now the star was much more specific. In fact it led them and hovered over a specific house. This is no longer something high up in the sky unless it is using a powerful spotlight—but gently hovering over the exact place where they were staying.
Again, Mary & Joseph had to stay for a while in Bethlehem. This would be an expensive venture if they had to “rent” or buy a place to stay, but would be easily accommodated by family. But the star directed them directly to their destination.
This was the guidance of God they had hoped for.
But I’ve always wondered, were they the only ones who could see the “star”? Wouldn’t Herod or his officials seen it and followed it to the baby Jesus?
Which leads me to consider whether, at least this second, localized guidance was not a literal “star” but a manifestation of the Glory of God, perhaps the Holy Spirit alighting on the place like He did later at Jesus’ baptism, or possibly an angel. The original sight that started the journey could easily be too.
Which could mean that only the Magi saw it. They eyes of faith were needed as well as the choice of God and whom He chooses to reveal it to. There's a common phrase--some say they have to see it to believe it--but some things have to be believed to be seen.
Remember, those on the road to Damascus with Paul had a vague sense of something happening, but couldn’t really tell you much about it, whereas Paul’s awareness was very acute and specific.
But the Wise men were called home to Worship just as the Shepherds had been called. Both great and small were bowing before Jesus—God drew both the heritage and the remnant back to their Savior, the Messiah.
16. What is the significance of the gifts?
While I have seen several possible meanings of the gifts, I have a preference. This doesn’t mean the others are wrong or should be written off—after all, since the Scripture doesn’t itself assign meaning, it’s all an educated guess.
Remembering also that we don’t know the amounts of the gifts involved—the depictions of the men carrying a small box doesn’t seem to fit with travelers from such a great distance. I’m of the mind that 2 of the gifts declare WHO Jesus, and His role is and the third declares What He will do to accomplish the will of God in those roles.
Gold—a gift fit for a King. Jesus is called the King of Kings and Lord of Lords in the New Testament.
Frankincense—incense in the Old Testament was used in prayer and worship in the Temple—the smoke represented the prayers of the people. The one who administered this incense and smoke was the Priest. This is another aspect of His identity and role in the world. The book of Hebrews tells us Jesus is the Great High Priest in the order of Melchizedek—greater than the Levitical/Aaronic priesthood—and able to enter the very Presence of God and grant us access in His Name.
Myrrh—was a burial spice. Many ancient cultures began preparing for their eventual death very quickly. The Pharaohs of Egypt began building their monuments immediately. But for this gift to Jesus, it signifies the death and burial that is in Jesus’ future in His role as Messiah—He will lay down His life on the Cross, shed His blood, take away our sin, and prepare a place for us in eternity. His death and subsequent resurrection is the fulfillment of God’s plan in sending Jesus in the first place.
Again, 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.
May God truly bless you and your family this Christmas.
Pursuing Answers to Questions of Faith & Life,