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Sunday, December 19, 2010

12 Days of Christmas, Part V: The Real Nativity Story

For today's installment on the history of Christmas we take a look at the historical validity/invalidity of one of the most treasured symbols of the Christmas season: the Nativity. As we all know from our Sunday School lessons, Mary and Joseph made their way to Bethlehem, which was completely overcrowded due to Caesar Augustus' decree that "all the world should be taxed." Upon their arrival, Joseph was unable to find shelter for his wife and soon-to-be infant son. As a result, Mary gave birth to Jesus in a stable. Soon thereafter, three wise men came from the east bearing gifts, as did a number of shepherds and other onlookers.

Seems straight forward enough, right?

Not quite. Oh, how often popular culture loves to distort historical fact!

And while popular culture is often more appealing to our emotional side, I maintain that historical integrity, no matter how different it is from our preconceived notions, is and always will be superior. So, with this in mind, let's dissect the Nativity story shall we!

To begin our quest for a better understanding of the Nativity we must first understand the historical records available to us, along with their context and significance. As can be expected, the majority of the material surrounding the birth of Jesus comes from the Bible, but you might be surprised to know that it only comes from the books of Matthew and Luke. Mark and John, for whatever reason, are completely silent on the birth of Christ. In addition, it is also important for us to recognize that the records surrounding the birth of Jesus in Matthew and Luke are actually quite contradictory. The only general consensus we can glean from the two is that Mary gave birth to an infant son in Bethlehem, and that his birth was hailed as a miracle by those who witnessed it. We will discuss these differences between Mark and John further in a moment.

In addition, it is important for us to understand when and why the documents surrounding the birth of Jesus were written. For example, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, which contain the biblical stories of Jesus' birth, were actually written many years after the actual birth of Christ. Matthew for example, was written somewhere between the years 70-100 A.D., while Luke's date (which is debated by scholars) is most likely between 37-70 A.D. This is important to consider because we must keep in the back of our minds that these records were written many years after the fact, and relied heavily upon heresay and second hand accounts. In addition, virtually all of the early writings by the earliest Christians (including the stuff not added to the Bible) centered specifically on Christs teachings, death and resurrection. Little to no emphasis was placed on his birth. Simply put, it wasn't a priority for the earliest Christian writers.

The Birthday of Jesus
Now, with the actual documents in hand, we must attempt to reckon the traditional Nativity story with historical fact. The first point to consider: the year of Christ's birth. As tradition and the early church tells us, Jesus was born in the year 1 A.D. This date, however, is a complete and total historical impossibility. For example, the gospels tell us that Jesus was born in the days of Herod. History proves that Herod died in the year 4 B.C., which would make any birth of Jesus after that date a historical farce. In addition, Luke makes mention of Cyrenius, who was "governor of Syria" according to Luke (see Luke 2:2). Cyrenius was actually not the governor per se, but had been sent to Palestine by order of Augustus to oversee the Roman census of 8-7 B.C. Thus, Luke would have naturally seen Cyrenius as the head honcho of sorts, since he was essentially acting as the governor at that time.

Another additional detail that helps us know the date of Jesus' birth is the Roman Census. In Luke, it states that a decree went up that "all the world should be taxed." This is actually not 100% accurate. It was a decree for a census, not a tax. Roman taxes were never collected in this fashion. All of the historical data indicates that this was a census. And when was that census? Augustus issued two different census counts (in 8 and 4 B.C.) As mentioned above, the most likely census that Joseph and Mary attended would have been 4 B.C.

And one final piece to the puzzle. The "star" in the heavens, which guided the Magi (wise men) to the location of Christ's birth. Modern astrology has revealed that during the same time as the Roman census of 4 B. C., both Jupiter, Saturn and Mars crossed in front of one another on three different occasions, which would have created a cosmic site to behold for ancient man. However, there is another likely scenario. From April to June of 6 B.C., both Jupiter, Saturn and Venus crossed paths, creating a spectacular cosmic "new star," or so it would seemed to ancient man. In addition, this "new star" would have appeared directly over the land of the Jews if you were viewing it from the perspective of the Persian east. And from where did the wise men (Magi) come? This all would have had huge significance to the eastern magi, since they were literally obsessed with the stars. It therefore comes as no surprise that Herod would inquire of them regarding the "star's" significance (Matthew 2:7). Oh, and on a side note, the idea of THREE wise men is pure legend. Nobody has a clue how many of them there actually were.

And let us not forget that there were "Shepherds in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night" (Luke 2:8). Why is this significant? It indicates that Jesus' birth probably took place in the spring or early summer, since this was the time that shepherds would tend to their flocks all night long.

So when was Jesus actually born? Based on the evidence, the "best guess" would be between April and June of 4 B.C.

"There was no room in the inn"

Ok, so the question of when Jesus was born can be better answered by appealing to the historical record. What about the where? Here is where the biblical accounts of Matthew and Luke seem to disagree. In Matthew there is no mention that Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem, but rather it sort of insinuates that they already resided in the city. Luke, however, clearly states that Joseph and Mary, "went up from Galilee, out of Nazareth" and into Bethlehem as part of the census (Luke 2:4). This seems a bit bizarre, since a Roman census would expect to include the actual location where a citizen chose to reside. Why would Joseph and Mary go to Bethlehem for a census? In addition, why would Joseph haul his VERY pregnant wife all the way to Bethlehem, especially when the last months of pregnancy a Jewish woman is expected to sequester herself with only the company of fellow women? And where do we get this idea that the birth of Jesus was somehow rushed? Almost like a quasi-emergency?

In addition to these questions, we also must eliminate a very large and thoroughly accepted myth surrounding the Nativity scene. In Luke 2:7 it states:
"And she brought forth her first-born son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn."
This verse is very telling from a historical perspective, but is also unfortunately very loaded with modern preconceptions. For a modern reader, this verse seems clear enough. Mary gave birth to Jesus, swaddled him to keep him warm, placed him in a trough of some sort, since all of the inn's were full that night.

Now let's try a reading from the ANCIENT world's perspective.

Mary (who's Aramaic name would have been pronounced Mariam or Maryam) is a young girl of 14-17 years of age. She's scared for her life because an estimated 30% of women in the ancient world die from child labor. As a result, she is surrounded by the women she trusts most in her life (possibly a mother, aunt, etc.) Childbirth is exclusively a woman's role in the ancient world, so Joseph is possibly waiting outside. Upon delivering the baby, Mary and the other women quickly wrap Jesus tightly in long strips of cloth to not only protect the baby but also as part of Jewish birth ritual. Mariam (Mary) possibly places Jesus in a hay-filled trough of sorts, but most likely simply holds the infant close. The manger, which comes from the Greek word Phatne is not mentioned because in all likelihood Mary, Jesus and everyone else is already IN the manger. Phatne is actually translated to mean stable or animal stall In the ancient world, peasant families usually lived in two level homes. The animals lived below in the dirt, mud, etc., while the people lived above in an INN. So, Jesus was born in the phatne (i.e. stable area below) because there was no room for Mary to give birth in the INN above.

This historical revision of the nativity makes much more sense, especially when we consider the reality that Bethlehem, in the time of Jesus, was a small town and would not have had INN's. Our modern reading is skewed in this regard. Joseph did not go looking for an INN. We seem to be under a delusion that the ancient world had a Holiday Inn or something like it in every city. They did not. This also makes sense when we consider that the wise men (Magi) came not immediately after the birth of Jesus, but possibly months or even years after the occasion took place. Naturally, they went to the home of Joseph and Mary, not some hotel or cave.

And while the popular culture's view of the Nativity story is more exciting, it is important to remember that even if history debunks the "myths" surrounding Christ's birth the most important of all factors remains: Jesus Christ was in fact born on the earth. Even if it wasn't in a cave off on the side of the road in Bethlehem, since all the hotels were full, the birth of Jesus was a miracle. Planets crossed paths at the exact moment, a young teenage peasant girl survived the rigors of childbirth, and a Savior entered the world. It can't get much better than that.

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