December 23, 2013
(All scripture is from the New King James Version unless otherwise indicated.)
We come to that wonderful account of the first Christmas when the Savior was born. Let’s look at Luke 2:1 through 7:
And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus
that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while
Quirinius was governing Syria. So all went to be registered, everyone to his
own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth,
into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of
the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary his betrothed wife,
who was with child. So it was, that while they were there, the days were com-
pleted for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and
wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger; because there
was no room for them in the inn.
A lot has been supposed and added to the popular Christmas story because of what is written – or what is not written – in this account.
• The trip from Nazareth – in the mountains of Galilee, to Bethlehem – was about 70 miles “as the crow flies,” the old-timers used to say. Joseph and Mary went “…up from Galilee…into Judea, to…Bethlehem….” But if they followed the normal route avoiding Samaria, they would have traveled probably 100 miles!. They would have gone down the mountain from Nazareth and into The Great Plain, following it southeast to Scythopolis. Then the route south would have taken them through the Jordan Valley to Jericho. From Jericho it was a steep climb, then over the Mount of Olives and into Jerusalem. It was then on to Bethlehem, six miles south of Jerusalem. These miles were on well-used roads, for the most part. But they were not like the roads we have today!
• If it sounds strange to say, “up from” in Luke 2:4 rather than “down to,” it is because Bethlehem to the south is 2,543 ft above sea level – 98 feet higher than Jerusalem – while Nazareth is 1,050 feet above sea level. So the destination of the trip was almost a third of a mile higher than the beginning!
• The trip would have taken about a week, and Joseph and Mary probably would have been part of a group of pilgrim travelers. After all, King David had lived a thousand years before – and his descendants would number in the thousands and were scattered all over Israel! Most likely, there were many Galileans who were part of David’s family line and had to travel south to register for the census. Mary would presumably have ridden upon a donkey while Joseph walked.
• Mary – being almost nine months pregnant – did not have a comfortable trip! The jouncing and bouncing on the back of a donkey for a week may have even helped initiate her labor!
• Jesus’ birth – almost always portrayed as happening in a stable – more probably occurred in a house! “…no room for them in the inn,” could be translated “…no room…in the guestroom.” Bethlehem – being off the beaten track – most likely did not have a commercial inn. But many houses had a guestroom in the rear of the house, off the main room for the family. People and animals would enter by the same front door accessing the lower stable level. The livestock would remain on this first level – central heating for the house! – with perhaps access to an additional stable area of a cave underneath some houses. But people would climb steps to a family living area about four feet higher than that for the animals. A manger was often carved into the floor of this upper level, near the edge where a cow or donkey could nibble hay or grain out of it. This may have been where baby Jesus was placed – on fresh hay and the livestock shooed away.
• Privacy issues for the birth were quite different in first century Palestine. It does not say in our Lucan passage that Joseph and Mary were alone for the event! Even the men might have been seated in the living area away from the midwife activity of the women.
• Some see major problems with Luke’s description of a world-wide census in the days of Caesar Augustus and Quirinius. It is too lengthy an issue to properly discuss here. But I found good arguments in favor of the gospel account at the website, christianthinktank.com/quirinius.html
New insight into the Christmas story, yes – but the central fact remains: as St. Paul wrote in I Timothy 1:15: “…Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners….” Let us rejoice and celebrate this Christmas that indeed He did come into the world!