I’ve always been interested in how we arrive at the Christmas scene we see year after year, especially as quite a lot of our traditions and what we think happened isn’t even in the bible.
The Christmas scene we have arrived at is usually set in snow. Mary is on a donkey and Joseph is standing by, leading the donkey with a staff in his hand. They arrive at Bethlehem on 24thDecember (year 0) the night before Mary gives birth and are frantically going round town trying to find a room in an inn. Talk about ‘last minute dot com’. Eventually they manage to find a stable, clear out the trough, put some straw in, just in time for Mary to give birth and lay the baby in the trough. To make the night even stranger they are visited by some smelly shepherds who look like they have seen a ghost and 3 rather regal looking chaps with big beards, bringing gifts, muttering something about following a star. They have been rather busy to go star gazing though.
The problem with that scene is it is probably quite a long way from what actually happened. Let’s look at the clues and use our imagination a bit;
There is nothing in the bible to say Mary was on a donkey. Their journey was 90 miles and it was unlikely she would have made that Journey ‘full term’ In Luke 2:6 it says “And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth.” That sounds like they had arrived well in time. The census would have been known about in advance given the logistics of getting everyone to their ‘home’ town. They were very poor and riding a donkey was the cheapest option (besides walking) so it is possible, but not guaranteed. They may well have travelled with other family members because they were all in the same situation and they repeated this journey every year after this to get to Jerusalem for the Passover (Luke 2:41). Bethlehem is only 5 miles from Jerusalem.
Because of the census including family members, they probably stayed with relatives. The bible doesn’t mention Inn’s and innkeepers (the word inn is better translated guest room). The family rooms were all taken (likely by older relatives who would have had priority) so their likely resting place was a part of the house where animals would have been kept. Usually people stayed on an upper level and animals were kept on a lower level. Animals were kept inside for a variety of reasons;
· To keep the house warm on cold nights
· To stop them getting stolen
· Their dung was often used for fuel
· The milk they produced would be easily accessible.
Imagine today having a house full of people and the only place someone can stay is the garage, that sort of idea. The bible doesn’t say Jesus was born in a stable, just that he was placed in a manger. It would be very difficult to be born in a manger as Mary would have had to have been an extremely talented gymnast! A manger was a sort of feeding trough, but with a bit of creativity could have easily been converted into a cot.
The shepherds arriving would have ensured that it wouldn’t have been a ‘still’ night and I doubt very much that Jesus didn’t cry (the phrase in the carol “no crying he makes” has always bothered me). Imagine the scene; a house full of guests, a mother giving birth, unexpected smelly shepherds arriving unannounced and clearly quite excited. This was a stressful night and I imagine Jesus did a fair bit of hollering. To make the picture complete a drummer boy appears banging his drum! Nah, that almost certainly didn’t happen.
At least it was extremely unlikely that the 3 kings arrived on that night. For starters they were not kings but wise men (magi) and there is no indication how many there were. It is assumed 3, because 3 gifts were presented, but the number is never actually stated.
It is actually quite likely, given the circumstances that when the wise men arrived, Jesus was anything up to two years old. The bible calls Him a child and not a baby. If it was a long period of time after Jesus’ birth, they would have visited Him in Nazareth, as Mary and Joseph left Bethlehem for Nazareth soon after Jesus’ birth. The main account of this is in Matthew 2 which states that Herod had ascertained from the religious leaders that the child would be born in Bethlehem. Herod had assumed that He was still there. Even though Mary and Joseph were in Nazareth, it was still a good idea to escape to Egypt, because they could quite easily be traced from Bethlehem back to Nazareth.
Next week we will continue this theme and ask if Jesus really was born on December 25th or not.