After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “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.”
After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 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.
– Matthew 2:1-2, 8-11
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 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. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 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.
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 cloths and lying in a manger.”
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
– Luke 2:1-20
In teaching the Video College of Biblical Knowledge for roughly fifteen years, I had to scramble to have a different Christmas video each year. As a result, I had to repeat a few times. What I learned was that most of the story that we are told in Sunday school and depicted in the creche, or Nativity Scene, is either wrong, misleading, or simply jumbled.
There were three notable videos that changed my thinking of a few things in regards to the birth of Jesus. Kenneth Bailey, a noted missionary to Lebanon and very familiar with the Holy Land, had a scholarly presentation on VHS. I do not know if it is available in DVD form. Ben Witherington III did a series of stories as he travelled the Holy Land. He went into less detail than did Rev. Bailey, but he showed video of archeological sites. Then there is the Star of Bethlehem DVD by Rick Larson. Using modern computer software, he examined the night sky from Babylon and Jerusalem during the period when Jesus might have been born, slightly before the death of Herod the Great. The key elements of his presentation are available on-line.
Let’s depict the typical Nativity Scene. You have Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus in a manger, made of wood and filled with straw. You have shepherds. They either have a shepherd staff or one might be carrying a sheep. Thus, easy to spot. There are three wise men bringing gifts. There might be a camel or two. Then there are farm animals scattered around, ox and donkey as a minimum. Of course, there are ‘angels’ floating overhead.
But where are they? Sometimes, they are under a few palm trees. Sometimes they are in a cave (the suggestion that a cave exists a couple of miles outside modern Bethlehem). Most place the scene in a stable, with anything from no roof to a few sparse boards. Not a nice place for a baby’s first night.
Nativity scenes have been around a long time, but the first live Nativity scene is attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi in the 13th century. Some suggest the introduction of the wide range of animals occurred at this time of the first live Nativity scene since Saint Francis liked animals.
Where was Jesus born in Bethlehem? A Stable? A Corral?
The problem with the traditional Jesus birth story comes from a mistranslation from the Greek in the KJV. The Greek word that is translated as “Inn”, bringing thoughts of a Hotel to mind, is only used one other time in the Gospels, but is translated as ‘upper room’. An upper room is a lot different than a hotel.
Rev. Bailey provided sketches in his presentations, while Witherington went to an archaeological dig. Both show the floor plan of a last century BC home. In each case, the larger of the ancient homes was built on three levels. There was no third level in the smaller homes. The entrance was at the lower level. The family’s livestock stayed there. Moving toward the remaining portions of the house, you come to a half-wall, at a perfect level to act as a feeding area for the livestock. The top of this wall formed the floor for the main portion of the home. In fact, the floor would often be scooped out to form ‘mangers’, or simple bowls in the main home floor, to place the feed for the animals. There are steps up to the main floor, usually no wall between these two rooms. The floor level change defines that this is two separate rooms in the same house. The more affluent families had a third room. This room usually had a wall and door, maybe even a second door for access to the outside. This was the guest room. It could be at the same level, but was often elevated, making it literally, an upper room, with walls and a door for the home owner’s guests to have privacy. Our modern split-level ranch homes are similar, but usually a garage instead of an indoor corral.
With modern wooden construction today in some remote locations, the livestock are on the first floor and the farmer’s family sleeps on the second floor. The body heat from the livestock helps to heat the family home. In Germany in the late 70s, I took the shortest route to work once, but only once. I lived in Karlsruhe, but I was working for a few months about one and a half hours away near the Saarland, in Rheinland-Pfalz. Driving a very hilly road, I stumbled upon a village at the wrong time. The farmer was herding his cattle from his house to the field for grazing. He figured no one in their right mind would be on the road at that time of the morning, except me. I drove the more travelled roads after that picturesque trip as cattle poured from the farmer’s front door into the street, more interested in my car than in strolling to the fields.
Rev. Bailey and Rev. Witherington both argue that Joseph was a simple carpenter, but he was not dull. He was not socially inept. His intended handling of a quiet divorce so that Mary could have her baby and not be stoned to death was an advanced concept for the social norm of that time. So, would a socially conscious, intelligent man travel a great distance to stay with family and not have a plan? Of course not. There’s only one problem. Everyone is gathering in the traditional homestead for a family reunion – the census, and Joseph’s cousins don’t have pregnant wives that slow down their progress. I could fill a few pages with stories about my wife and I when she was pregnant – especially her frequent need to go to the bathroom. It adds time to any journey, and riding a donkey was not a smooth ride over a smoothly paved road – if the donkey even existed. Ever mentioned? I don’t think so, but again, Joseph wasn’t stupid. The ‘guest room’, as the NIV uses above, was full with all the cousins. Joseph and Mary were staying with the family in the main room. When the baby arrived, they had no crib, bassinette, or car seat. Someone was a quick thinker. “Hey, these dished out mangers in the floor are just the right size!” It was probably Joseph, since carpenters have good spatial reasoning. Instant crib, once they cleaned out the ox and donkey drool. Straw beneath the baby? That gives the donkey and ox ideas. Again, Joseph was not stupid.
Hopefully this clears up how Jesus got from the ‘stable’ in Luke to the ‘house’ in Matthew. Luke only mentions ‘manger.’ ‘Stable’ is not mentioned.
Who Was There When Jesus Was in the Manger?
The angels appeared to the shepherds in the fields. The shepherds went into Bethlehem to investigate. There is no mention of angels near the manger, but you can bet that many of God’s messengers were there, just not seen near the manger by most of those in the house.
What about the wise men, Magi? We have blended the two visitations together more for convenience than accuracy. The Matthew and Luke stories are quite different stories that could have happened months apart.
When was Jesus born?
For this, we could look at the Larson video and see that Jupiter was circling the feet of the virgin in June of 2BC. This is a guess, but other scholars agree that Jesus was probably born in late Spring, early Summer, June or July. The Magi, according to Larson, arrived on December 25, 2BC. Due to retrograde motion, a star can seem to stop (Matthew 2:8-11) while we look at the star on a moving platform, earth, that is spinning and travelling around the sun and the ‘travelling star’, or planet, is making its own trip around the sun. (Refer to Larson’s site for more information.)
Thus, if Larson is correct, and some scholars agree, the shepherds and wise men were not there at the same time and the manger was probably replaced by a crib for the wise men visit. Remember, Joseph is a carpenter and this was six months or so later.
How many wise men?
This is often mentioned in sermons these days. There were three gifts. No one wants to show up to a party empty handed. There are at least more than one, because the plural of the word is used. So, the answer is “We don’t know, just more than one.”
If someone cleared up the inaccuracies in the ‘myth’ versus what the Scriptures really say, the Nativity scene would look kind of odd, since we have had centuries of seeing like it is. But whether we change our Nativity scenes or not, understanding what probably happened versus what is portrayed gives us greater understanding of what really happened. It puts Joseph in a much better light. And when the llama is not available, the pageant can go on without it.
The important thing is that God, in human form, was born, a baby. God left Heaven, outside time and space, to enter time and space in order to save us from our sins. The Nativity scenes of today may not get the details correct, but they bring focus to one of the greatest miracles of human existence and the reason for it happening – Peace on Earth to those whom God Favors.
Soli Deo Gloria. Only to God be the Glory.