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  • Writer's pictureLaurie Larsen

A Clarifying Look at Jesus’ Birth

Ahhh, the story of Jesus’ birth!  We all know it, don’t we?  We decorate our home during the Christmas season with Nativity sets complete with Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus, born in a wooden manger stuffed with hay, peaceful animals all around beneath the bright star, the shepherds looking on, the Three Wise Men in their finery offering strange gifts.

We read the story from the Gospel of Luke every year, either at home or in church.  We sing the carols; we may even have performed in our church’s Nativity production.

We love this story and it’s certainly earned its way into our Christian lexicon. After all, it’s the story of the birth of Jesus!

But today I’d like to offer up a few clarifying details that may stray a little bit from those that you thought you knew.  Rest assured that nothing that my research has uncovered will change a single thing about the meaning of Christmas and the birth of God’s son.  But maybe a few details will make you go “hmmm.”

Joseph and Mary’s trek to Bethlehem: Luke’s gospel, chapter 2 starts this way: In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world … And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. (New International Version)

How far was this trek that the two made to fulfill the decree?  We know that the distance from Nazareth to Bethlehem was (and still is) about 90 miles. There are several routes that they could have taken, but considering the two most likely traveled by foot, at times both walking and other times Joseph leading a donkey that was carrying Mary, the trip would’ve taken a week or more.

Joseph and Mary would most likely not have traveled alone.  Because, as the Bible says, everyone went to their own town to register, there was more than likely a caravan of travelers going together.

Imagine that – and I’m speaking mostly to the ladies here.  Have you been pregnant?  We know Mary gave birth shortly after arriving in Bethlehem, so we have to assume she was in her final month of pregnancy during the trip.  Do you remember how unnaturally big you felt, how your muscles and joints ached even with normal movement, how you couldn’t eat much, either because there just wasn’t room in your stomach, or you felt nauseous trying to digest?

Now imagine walking for a week straight, or worse yet, riding a donkey (not known for their smooth luxurious ride) – not to mention camping out along the way, sleeping on the ground, trying to make yourself comfortable atop tree roots or rocks.

To say that the trip was miserable for Mary is most likely an understatement.

Was there really no room at the inn?  Depending on the translation of the Bible you’re reading, you could be led to believe that there was no room at the inn in Bethlehem. Which is certainly understandable.  The book of Micah in the Old Testament tells us that Bethlehem is the smallest town in Judah.  Scholars estimate the town had no more than 3000 residents at the time of the census. With people flooding into such a tiny little town for temporary lodging, what ever hotels or inns the town offered would be filled to the max.

Luke 2:7 in the King James version reads, And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

However, that same verse in the New International Version reads, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

Do you see the subtle distinction?  The first one says there was no room for them in the inn.  The more modern translation says there was no guest room available for them.

I believe Bible scholars have begun to more accurately understand the true reason Mary and Joseph gave birth to Jesus in a stable.  Bethlehem houses at that time were two-room structures called a cataluma, that were built over a one-room cavern-like basement, sometimes called a grotto.   

It was likely that Joseph and Mary had tried to make plans to stay with a distant family member in Bethlehem, but in all likelihood, had not been able to confirm the plans amidst all the other Nazareth travelers heading that way.  Let’s imagine Mary and Joseph completing the exhausting trip and arriving at the two-room home of Third Aunt Martha Twice Removed  -- only to find out that other guests beat them there and were staying in the cataluma.

So, what did they do?  They made due with the grotto or basement.  But guess what the grotto was typically used for in Bethlehem homes of the time?  The family’s livestock were brought into the grotto each night to prevent them from being stolen, especially the animals considered most valuable such as cows and goats.

What did the stable look like? Sometimes we see illustrations of the stable where the Holy Family started and it’s a beautiful bucolic setting with a stall surrounding by wood; clean, sweet hay up to the animals’ knees; cows mooing while the Star of Bethlehem shines down on the peaceful scene.

Probably not. These works of art were certainly influenced by western artists’ view of a modern barn or stable. Instead, the family probably made a temporary home in the stone-lined basement beneath the home that housed the people upstairs. The grotto more resembled a cave than a barn. The couple would’ve had to use whatever fabrics or pillows they brought with them to make Mary comfortable for the childbirth.

Mangers were stone watering troughs that animals drank from. The stone would’ve been effective in keeping the water temperature cool for the animals, and it would’ve been much more durable than anything wooden would’ve been.  Ladies, can you imagine placing your newborn baby in a stone cradle?

Why were the shepherds the first ones to be notified of Jesus’ birth? In Luke 2:8-12: And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you: he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in clothes and lying in a manger.” (NIV)

In Jesus’ time, being a shepherd was considered a lowly profession, even so far as social outcasts due to their humble status in society.  Imagine for a moment the personal hygiene of men and boys who slept outside, away from the ability to bathe, always smelling faintly like the animals they guarded.  Yet the angels of the Lord appeared first to the shepherds to announce the birth of the Messiah.  Just like the odd start that the glorious Son of God arrived in a borrowed grotto, laid in the stone watering trough of farm animals after His parents had traveled far from home. By doing so, God made it clear that his precious Son, the Messiah, was coming for “humble folk.”  Not the rich and royal.

And what do you make of the fact that as Jesus ministered to people later, he was known as “The Good Shepherd,” and often used parables and analogies about a shepherd caring for his sheep?

Who were the Magi, how far did they come and when did they arrive? Matthew is the only gospel writer to mention the visit of the Magi, or Wise Men, in the story of Jesus’s birth. Chapter two in Matthew’s gospel describes the Magi from the east arriving in Jerusalem and asking “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” (verse 2) This worries King Herod, and also sets into place Herod’s plan to murder Jesus before he ever has the opportunity to grow up and become a problem.

Scholars feel that the Magi or the Three Wise Men described by Matthew can best be described as priests, interpreters of omens, astrologers, or royal counselors. They were thought to originate in Persia, or modern-day Iran.  Research suggests a range of 500 up to 900 miles as the journey made by these travelers to see the Christ Child. 

Considering they were traveling most likely by camel, probably in a caravan of way more than three, including security to keep them safe, cooks to provide them with something to eat and wagons to hold their tents and extra clothes, it is commonly determined that the journey took two years to complete.

So although our holiday Nativity sets may include the “Three Wisemen” the night of Jesus’ birth, they wouldn’t arrive until the baby Jesus is a toddler.

What was the meaning of their gifts to the baby Jesus?  Matthew 2:11 reads, On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. (NIV)

Note the family was no longer in the stable or the grotto – they had moved to a house and were residing in Bethlehem before their escape to Egypt to avoid Herod’s murderous search.

As for the gifts the Magi brought for Jesus, what do they mean?

I saw a funny graphic on social media that said something like, “If the Three Wisemen were women, they would’ve asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole and brought practical gifts!”

Because the Magi clearly understood the importance and destiny of this child they’re visiting, the three types of gifts are symbols of three key aspects of Christ’s identity.  The gold is a precious metal and points to Jesus’ royalty. The frankincense is an expensive perfume or fragrance and points to his divinity, and the myrrh was used as an embalming fluid to prepare a body for burial, and it points to his humanity. Their gifts told the story of how God himself came down from Heaven as our King (gold) to fulfill his priestly duties (frankincense) and eventually died for our sins (myrrh).

My thanks goes to the Christianity (dot) com article, The Gifts of the Magi: Spiritual Meaning and Significance for this information.

In what year was Jesus born?  And was it really December 25?  It’s pretty much agreed by everyone involved that Jesus was not born on December 25. Why? First of all, the Bible does not mention the date or even the month that Jesus was born. But shepherds would not have typically been out in the fields at night with their flocks in December due to the cold. This leads scholars to believe Jesus was actually born in the spring. 

When church officials at the end of the third century settled on December 25, they likely wanted the date to coincide with existing pagan festivals honoring Saturn (the Roman god of agriculture) and Mithra (the Persian god of light). That way, it became easier to convince Rome’s pagan subjects to accept Christianity as the empire’s official religion. (Thanks goes to Sarah Pruitt’s article, Why is Christmas Celebrated on December 25?)

Okay, so the date is wrong, what about the year?  BC means Before Christ, so was Jesus born in 0 or 1 AD?

No.  It takes a little bit of puzzle solving, but there are several known events in history that can help us deduce when Jesus was born.  We know that Herod the Great died in 4 BC. But he’s the king who called the Magi to him for help in locating Jesus so he could kill him before he could fulfill the prophecy.  In other words, Herod was still alive when Jesus was two years old.

Also, the Roman Census that called Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem during the final weeks of her pregnancy has been historically proven to have taken place in 8 BC.  So, a “good as any” guess is that Jesus Christ was born approximately seven years before Christ (BC). 

What does all this mean to our Christmas celebration?  So --- Joseph and Mary stayed in a stone basement full of animals instead of a stable.  The Magi didn’t appear till two years later.  It wasn’t Christmas Day as we know it, and our holiday was placed on the calendar based on pagan gods and rituals.  The resulting calendar is off track at least seven years for all time.

But does it matter?  Not to me.

The birth of Jesus, despite all the inconsistencies I brought up today, is still the most awe-inspiring event in human history. Beginning with Jesus’s birth, God made a new covenant with his people, offering up his only Son who had been by His side since he created the world, to come to earth in human form, not to condemn this world full of sinners, but to love us and redeem us. 

It’s a beautiful celebration every year, even with all its misinterpretations, and one worthy of being repeated over and over.  When Christmas rolls around again, maybe give a tiny bit of thought to what we covered today, but don’t let it change a bit of your joy and awe as you celebrate the birth of Jesus.

Let’s pray:  Dear God – we’re humans and therefore we make mistakes and yes, we’ve even made mistakes for thousands of years in our celebration and understanding of the birth of your son. But that doesn’t stop us from understanding the wonderful gift you’ve given us and continue to give us.  Help us to stay focused on you and Jesus as we live our lives until we join you in Paradise.  Amen.



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