“Christmas & the Bible (part 3 of 3)”
The last two articles examined the origins of Christmas - not the cultural celebration that many believers and none believers enjoy but the religious holiday. The facts of history challenge many popular beliefs about Christmas, not least of which, that Jesus was probably not born on December 25th and that Christmas was not celebrated as a religious holiday until the 4th century.
Where was Jesus born?
Matthew 2:1 says that "Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king." But where in Bethlehem? Luke 2:7 tells us that the infant Jesus was "wrapped... in swaddling cloths and laid... in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn." Thanks in large part to nativity plays and popular culture, most of us think of a manger as being a rustic basinet, possibly lined with hay. But a manger was a feeding trough made of clay mixed with straw or stone and held together by mud. Sometimes mangers were carved into stone. The word "manger" or "crib" can also denote a stall for an animal by metonymy (Lk. 13:15; cf. Prov. 14:4; Isa. 1:3).
Where was the manger?
The manger could have been right next door to the inn, in a lower-level room outside the inn or a stall for animals attached to the living quarters of a private residence. Jesus could have been born in a stable but we simply can't be sure. In AD 160, Justin Martyr wrote, "Finding no place in the town, Joseph took his portage in a certain cave in the village." Unfortunately, there is no way to verify his words. Jesus may have been born in a cave, but even Justin Martyr was more than 100 years removed from the event.
Jerome, who eventually settled in Bethlehem near this cave in AD 385, recorded that the cave had been “defiled” from the time of Hadrian (AD 135) to the time of Constantine (early 4th century). Hadrian’s men had intentionally desecrated all the places that were sacred to Christians, erecting pagan altars in their place. Later, Constantine made efforts to cleanse these sites. If you visit Bethlehem today, you will see what is known as the "Church of the Nativity," a building constructed in the 4th century over this traditional cave site in Bethlehem.
Although we can be sure that Jesus was born in Bethlehem according to prophecy and laid in a manger, we can't be sure exactly where the manger in Bethlehem was. As mentioned in the previous articles, we must focus on what details Luke and Matthew include and not the ones they leave out.
Luke's account of Jesus' birth
There are only two biblical accounts of Jesus’ birth but, for whatever reason, we have a hard time getting them straight. Here is a basic chronology of the events:
- The birth of Jesus in Bethlehem (Lk. 2:1-7; cf. Mt. 1:18-25).
- Angels visit shepherds with the good news (Lk. 2:8-14).
- Shepherds visit the infant Christ in Bethlehem (Lk. 2:15-20).
- After a period of eight days, the infant Christ was circumsized (Lk. 2:21; cf. Lev. 12:1-8).
- After a period of 33 days, the infant Christ was presented to God at the Temple in Jerusalem (Lk. 2:22-38; cf. Lev. 12:1-8).
Notice how the traditional nativity scene deviates from Scripture. We are used to seeing a stable and above it a shining star. On one side, shepherds are bowed in adoration, while on the other side, three wise men offer their gifts to the infant Christ. Mary and Jesus sometimes have halos above their heads. And finally, angels are above the whole scene singing. The problem with this scene is that it never happened. The shepherds and the wise men never appear together. The star didn’t shine above a stable. The angels didn’t sing above a stable. They announced the good news and praised God to the shepherds out in the field. Then the shepherds came to the place where Jesus was, showed their reverence and left "glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen." (Lk. 2:20)
Matthew's account of Jesus' early childhood
Matthew’s account gives us other details after the birth narrative. As chapter 2 opens, possibly two whole years have passed since the birth. "Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem." (Mt. 2:1) How many "wise men" (or "magi") were there? We don’t know but, because "men" is plural, there must have been more than one.
These "magi" came from the "east" which makes sense historically. "Magi" was a term that referred to a priestly caste of people from Persia. They became known as practitioners of the magical arts who also studied Astrology and Astronomy. This explains why God used a star to lead them to Christ (Mt. 2:2). If they came from the east, possibly as far as Persia, they could have traveled more than 900 miles (about the distance between Washington, DC and St. Louis, Missouri). Such a journey would have taken weeks, if not months. Therefore, it would have been quite some time from when they first saw the star until they finally arrived in Jerusalem (Mt. 2:1).
In Jerusalem, the wise men inquired about this "king of the Jews." Herod, in fear of a king usurping his power, gathered the Bible scholars together to find out where the Christ was to be born. Quoting from Micah 5:2, the chief priests and scribes said that his birth would take place in "Bethlehem," a small, insignificant village noted as the home of Ruth and Boaz, and the birthplace of their great-great grandson, King David. (Mt. 2:3-6)
A star guided the wise men from Jerusalem, 6 miles southwest to Bethlehem, where, instead of an "infant" wrapped in swaddling cloths lying in a manger (Lk. 2:12), they found a "child." (Mt. 2:7-11) The family was not in a stable still entertaining shepherds but in a "house" (Mt. 2:11) in Bethlehem. The wise men brought their gifts into the house, worshiped the child and left for home by another way (Mt. 2:12).
Herod wanted to know exactly when the star appeared (Mt. 2:7). When he found out he was deceived by the wise men, he had all the male children in Bethlehem under the age of two killed (Mt. 2:16). This tells us something about what he heard: it must have been a considerable time since the star appeared signaling the birth of the Messiah. This is supported by Matthew's use of the word "child" in verse 9. Whereas Luke's word "infant" (Lk. 2:12) can only mean a fetus or newborn baby, Matthew's word "child" (Mt. 2:9) can also mean a more advanced, mature child. Jesus escaped with his family to Egypt where they stayed until the death of Herod, eventually returning to settle in Nazareth (Mt. 2:13-15, 19-23).
We don’t know how much time elapsed from Jesus' birth in Bethlehem to the visit of the wise men, but it was less than two years. We don't know how many wise men there were, but there were at least two. We do know that the story didn’t happen the way so many millions of people think it did.
For a season, at least, much of the world's focus is on Jesus. Sadly, this focus is not always informed by Scripture. Our Lord's entrance into this world is a story worth studying reverently and celebrating joyfully because it climaxes in his sacrificial death, triumphant resurrection and glorious ascension. Christians celebrate Jesus - his life and his death - not once a year nor even once a week in the Lord's Supper, but their whole lives.