The popular story of Christmas is a beautiful story about the birth of our Lord and Savior – the Son of God – Jesus Christ. However, while it is a beautiful story, a good deal of it is just that – a story. There are a number of details in the story that deviate from the written record – the Bible. Here are some of those “details”:
- Joseph and Mary were told the baby she was to have was of divine origin but, there is no note of anyone else being told. There is no report of anyone in Nazareth acknowledging or celebrating the coming Messiah. Not their families nor anyone else in or around the town of Nazareth. There was one exception – Mary’s cousin Elizabeth. She knew, but she lived some miles away in the country near Jerusalem. Mary immediately went there after the angel told her of her pregnancy. She stayed with Elizabeth for about three months.
- A decree requiring tax registration was made by the government. The registration needed to be done in the place of your family. In Joseph’s case that was the village of Bethlehem. That decree offered a great opportunity for the unwed couple to get out of Nazareth before Mary’s pregnancy became obvious and they had to explain it to a skeptical citizenry.
- Joseph was probably too poor to afford a donkey. In that case, the picture of Mary riding one on their journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem is not very likely.
- The donkey was probably put into the story to provide a way for a young woman in advanced pregnancy to make such a journey. However, we know that Mary’s pregnancy was at least three months along because of her stay with Elizabeth. She might not have been much further along than that when they went to Bethlehem. Recall that it is likely that no one in Nazareth knew of the divine nature of her baby. So it is likely the young couple could have left there almost immediately after Mary returned from her stay with Elizabeth.
- In the popular story Mary delivered the baby on the very day they arrived in Bethlehem. That’s not very likely. The Bible tells us only that ‘while they were there’ she gave birth. The young couple could have been in Bethlehem for as long as six months before the baby was born.
- The Greek word ‘kataluma’ is often translated as ‘inn’. That is where the idea of the inn came in. Most scholars agree that a better translation would be ‘guest room’. Bethlehem was a very small town and unlikely to have an actual inn. Joseph had family in Bethlehem and they would probably have, if possible, stayed with them.
- It was not uncommon for houses of that day to have an inside area for livestock. Since it appears the guest room was occupied, it may have been in a ‘livestock’ area like that where Joseph and Mary stayed. No animals are mentioned anywhere in the biblical account of Jesus’ birth, but we are told the baby was put in an animal’s feeding trough – a manger. It has been suggested that it was not an unusual practice for poorer families to substitute a handy unused manger for a cradle.
- The wise men did not visit the baby Jesus on the eve of His birth. It was, in fact, two to three years later that they came. Also, we don’t know how many wise men there were. There could have been two, three or twenty. We know the wise men were wealthy enough to attract the attention of king Herod. It would have been very risky in those days for wealthy people to travel any distance without the protection of an entourage. So their arrival in Jerusalem would likely have caused some commotion. They departed by a route that did not include the king’s palace – that would also have been noticed.
After the wise men left the king attempted to have the toddler Jesus killed. God had set the time and place for Jesus’ crucifixion before the world began. So Jesus’ birth and much of his life were ‘under the radar’ so such attempts on His life would not thwart His ultimate mission. The Apostle Paul makes note of this in 1 Corinthians 2:6-8 saying that “if they had understood, they would not have crucified Him.”
The announcement of the actual birth of the baby was not made to the whole world but only to a few shepherds. And how many would believe the stories of a few shepherds? In this way the arrival of the Messiah was both proclaimed and hidden.
In the gospel writings we see a number of instances throughout Jesus’ life where He had asked that His identity to be kept secret. This is why I believe the above considerations yield a more satisfying report. A couple of unwed teenagers hiding a pregnancy out of fear of public reaction seems to me to fit well into the narrative of the rest of Christ’s life – simultaneously hidden and proclaimed. The public reaction to Mary’s pregnancy could have resulted in her death and her baby’s death. After all, we see what happened later when the wise men leaked the information about His birth.
See John 1:10-14
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