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Okay, let’s imagine that it’s the Christmas season and you want to write something that’s Christmassy (or Christmasy, or Christmasie, or…). Well, something with more of a yule flavor to it. So what do you do?
I went to Sunday School.
It’s been about five years since the last time I went to Sunday School. I’m pretty reliable in attending our church service, but Sunday School requires me to actually set an alarm clock, something I’m loathe to do on Sundays. But last week, they announced at church that Pastor Bill would be teaching a one-week class on Christmas, sort of a Bible Christmas history class if you will. Pastor Bill has forgotten more than I’ll ever know about the Bible, so he’s a pretty good source for all things theological and his own source material relied heavily on Dr. Jim Martin, who was a major contributor to the Archaeological Study Bible.
So I was up in time to make it to class and got to be present as Pastor Bill breathlessly flew through 63 slides in a little less than an hour, despite the fact that one of his students (you can probably guess who) managed to keep him stuck on the very first slide discussing Roman censuses (Censi? Censii?). In fact, he seemed to be a little concerned that we weren’t asking enough questions as he kept asking us if we were falling asleep (Pastor Bill teaches a class at the local JuCo, so I’m sure students falling asleep is something he’s familiar with). After the first slide, I was too busy taking notes to ask much else. The following is what I managed to glean from my notes. And, yes, I did ask Bill for permission to write this, although he might have thought I was joking. Does anyone out there know a good lawyer?
1) Mary and Joseph – Preliminary
Writing styles were much different two thousand years ago and much different from one culture to another at that time. Fortunately, one of the gospel writers (Luke) was a Greek, which is closer culturally to us than, say, first-century Palestine. He still wasn’t too worried about things like chronology (almost no one was), but he was worried about tying his story to readily known facts. For instance, we know from Luke 2:1-3 that, when Joseph and Mary took off for Bethlehem, Caesar Augustus was still emperor in Rome and that, presumably, Quirinius was governor in Syria, and that a census had been ordered by the Romans. In the Gospel of Matthew, we learn that Jesus was born during Herod the Great’s rule in Judea. This creates some problems with our current Julian calendar, in which the year zero is supposed to be a dividing line between historical periods that’s drawn by Christ’s birth. Herod died in 4 B.C., so there’s no way Jesus was born in year zero and was probably birthed in 6 B.C. However, that creates problems with Quirinius, who didn’t, as far as we know, take over as governor of Syria until around 6 A.D. One possibility is that Quirinius might have been governor twice and we simply don’t have a record of his first governorship. Another more likely possibility is that there’s been a small mistranslation. The quote in Luke is “This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor…”. The Greek word for “while” is often translated as “before”, so it’s likely that Luke was presenting the birth in a time that predated Quirinius.
The census also creates problems, as no historian specifically mentions a census around 6 B.C. However, the Romans were pretty obsessive about collecting their taxes. After all, they had a massive empire to persecute and that takes a lot of money. At that time, the Romans collected two types of taxes. One was a tax on agricultural produce and a second tax was what was called a poll tax, which shared a small resemblance to our modern-day property tax. Around about 9 or 10 B.C., Augustus demanded that people in Roman-controlled territory pay a tax on all possessions and that the taxpayer actually had to submit the data on his possessions personally. According to Matthew, Joseph was descended from Judah, so he quite likely owned property in Judea, a province that included Bethlehem. Registering as required by law would force Joseph to make an annual trip back to Bethlehem to register and pay the tax. This made the tax a de facto census, allowing the Roman government to keep track of all of its people, their possessions, and their points of origin.
So, if Joseph owned property in Bethlehem, what was he doing in Nazareth, a small town about 135 miles from Bethlehem? Well, we know that Joseph was a carpenter (actually, the Greek word translated as “carpenter” should be more accurately translated as “craftsman” and it’s possible that Joseph might have been a stone mason), so he was likely doing what craftsmen have been doing for thousands of years, finding work and getting paid. The Sea of Galilee was the site of several construction projects before and after Jesus’ birth, so that could be one explanation for the presence of the families of both Mary and Joseph in that part of the country.
2) Mary and Joseph – How did we get into this mess?
Matthew says that Mary and Joseph were “betrothed,” a word that has one meaning today and had another meaning two thousand years ago. Betrothal for Mary and Joseph was more a contractual obligation, rather than a verbal promise to marry. As the concept of romantic love was still about 1500 years away, these contracts were usually transacted by the families years before the participants would be of an actual marriageable age and had a heavy financial component to them. Since it was a legal contract, it tended to be binding and broken engagements were rare. The future wife did have some say in the matter and could refuse to marry when the time came, but the refusal probably meant a great deal of embarrassment for the woman’s parents. As the woman was probably between the ages of twelve and fifteen, it would have taken a lot of gumption to say no. The man could be as young as thirteen, although the Talmud recommended an age of around 18 for the male, since he was supposed to own his own home by the time he married. There were exceptions. One tradition about Joseph is that he might have been previously married and was now a widower, but there’s no evidence of that Biblically.
Of course, as adultery was potentially a capital offense, Mary’s pregnancy before the marriage was consummated was a huge deal, and Joseph was forced to make some major decisions rather quickly. One possible solution was to “divorce her quietly,” which likely meant sending Mary to a home somewhere that was isolated enough to spare both families the resulting disgrace. Mary and the child would be outcasts for the rest of their lives, but at least they wouldn’t be dead and it would limit the social damage that the families might incur. We are told that Joseph had a dream directing him to take Mary as his wife and that’s what he did.
3) Jesus’ birth
Everyone knows that Jesus was born in the first century equivalent of a stable, and it sure does make for some beautiful artistic interpretations, but it probably didn’t happen that way. Luke tells us that Mary laid Jesus in a manger, because “there was no room for them in the inn.” Except that Bethlehem at that time was tiny and probably didn’t have an inn. As it happens, the Greek work used here for inn is “ketaluma” which can mean inn and can also mean guest room. Jewish homes in and around Bethlehem had a pretty unimaginative architecture. There was a main room where almost everything interesting happened and there was a secondary room around the main room that was used for storage and was sometimes used to keep animals. It was also used for visitors, and is likely the ketaluma that Luke is talking about. Some homes in Bethlehem were also situated above caves, which could be used for livestock and also guests in a pinch. This is probably where Mary and Joseph would have ended up if the guest room was full. This would have been convenient for another reason. After the birth of a male child, the mother was considered unclean for seven days, as was anything else she came in contact with. The stone ceiling that separated the cave from the rest of the house was considered a type of force field that kept the rest of the house from being unclean.
Oh, and later in his gospel, Luke mentions another inn in the story of the Good Samaritan. But in that story he uses a different word for inn, “pandocheion,” lending some credence to the guest room theory.
One final item; the manger that Jesus was laid in was probably stone and not wood.
4) Christmas in July?
We just don’t know for sure when Jesus was born. Luke states that shepherds were out in the field with their flocks. After the wheat harvest, farmers would let shepherds move their flocks into the fields to eat the remaining stubble. That simplified the process of getting the field ready for the next planting and also provided for a ready supply of fertilizer. The wheat harvest was in June, so the shepherds would have been out in the fields in the late summer and early fall months.
Really, though, Jesus could have been born just about any time of year. December 25th got picked by early Christians because it was close to several pagan Winter Solstice holidays that were being celebrated throughout the Roman Empire, most especially Sol Invictus, or the “Unconquered Sun” which was celebrated by the Romans. The Christians were trying to usurp those holidays for their own benefit.
5) Shepherds – The Unwashed Masses
Shepherds didn’t exactly have the best reputation in Jesus’ day. They were treated as social outcasts by almost everyone. There was one exception, that being the shepherds for the Temple flocks who, as it happens, tended their flocks just a few miles east of Bethlehem. Still socially despised, these shepherds at least got paid a little and were considered somewhat trustworthy. It was to these outcasts that God chose to announce the birth of Jesus.
6) The Wise Guys
Just about everything that is generally accepted about the wise men (or Magi) is probably wrong. Maybe there were three of them or maybe there were two or ten of them. The Bible doesn’t say and the tradition that it is three Magi is based solely the fact that three gifts are listed.
There was no little drummer boy. Sorry. Nice song, though.
Long-distance travel in those days was a difficult undertaking, perhaps even worse than dealing with TSA agents. The trip from the “east” (probably Babylon or Persia) was a long and arduous trip that was riddled with banditry. These guys were extremely wealthy (gold, frankincense, and myrrh are all ridiculously expensive), so it’s likely that they hired a fair-sized private army to make the trip with them. Matthew 2:3 says that Herod was “disturbed” by their presence. I’m sure that was putting it mildly. Herod had only driven out the Persians from the area thirty years earlier. Now here was an army possibly coming from Persia with its leaders wanting to give gifts to a new king. It’s a wonder that a war didn’t break out.
Incidentally, it is quite possible that the Magi were Jewish. Hundreds of years earlier, the Jews were kicked out of Israel by the Babylonians and forced to resettle in Babylon. Eventually, the Persians overthrew the Babylonians and many Jews ended up there. The Persians eventually let the Israelites resettle in Israel, but many Jews had gotten comfortable in their new surroundings and decided not to go back. These Jews kept their faith over the years and would have been on the lookout for any signs that the promised Messiah had finally come. The star was just the sign they were looking for. It is interesting that the Magi were said to have visited Mary and Joseph at their house. Observant Jews wouldn’t let foreigners into their home lest it become unclean, but they might let foreign Jews into their home.
7) Herod Really was Wacko
There is nothing outside of the Bible that mentions the event known as the “slaughter of the innocents,” the murder of every male child under the age of two. There could be any number of reasons for this, but most likely it was a numbers game. Bethlehem was probably no larger than a couple hundred residents, so it likely involved the murder of a dozen kids at the most. Was Herod capable of such a terrible act? Absolutely. He’d already murdered two of his sons and two of his wives. He did feel really bad about one of the wives, though, so he had her embalmed in honey.
When Herod knew he was about to die, he ordered several distinguished men to come to Jericho, with the intention of slaughtering all of them upon his death. He wanted to ensure that Israel was in mourning when he died. His successor countermanded the order.
I hear he was a lot of fun at parties, though.
Well, there ends your history lesson for this week. I wrote this for the sheer fun of doing it and without any intention of convincing anyone of anything. If you thought the Bible was fiction or erroneous or missing some factual details, I’m sure you still feel that way. If you think all the legends are true, then feel free to believe the little drummer boy was there making music with the talking donkeys. If you want to impress your friends with your newfound knowledge on the birth of Christ, I hope your friends are easier to impress than mine are.
And Bill, if I got anything wrong, call my lawyer.Published in