Christmas Reconsidered


I am going to start this with a disclaimer.  I have absolutely no intention of saying Jesus was not the Messiah or the son of God.  Those things are a matter of faith.  And faith is something you have particularly when science and logic fails you.

The world 2000 years ago was such a different place from now.  That is not news.  But it is worth noting that the overwhelming majority of people were illiterate.  Until the invention of the printing press was invented by Johannes Gutenberg in 1450, history was largely kept by story tellers.  In the day of Jesus it was an actual job that people paid for.  These people could also be traveling musicians, merchants traveling to buy and transport goods, and, of course, military men.  For those most important events, leaders in the world at the time of Jesus employed scribes to write down things such as contracts, messages, and in the case of the Jews, the Bible.  It is likely this latter form of communication was used in the writing of the Gospels of the New Testament, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  These men were themselves likely illiterate but they recognized the importance of communicating what they saw.  And even so, the earliest writings of these Gospels in our possession today was not written for at least 50 years after the death of Jesus.  That means the likelihood of a witness passing of first-hand knowledge is quite unlikely.  But does that mean the information is unreliable?  Of the four gospels only two deal with the birth of Jesus, Matthew and Luke.  Is is curious that Mark and John did not write on this subject.  Or is it a case where their transcription of the event have been lost?  It would seem a very important event that all proponents of the new religion would relish and talk about at some length.  But nothing should be implied from this lack of information.

The answer to that is a qualified no.  The qualification goes to the language of the Jews of that day, Aramaic.  The Aramaic language had roughly 5000 words in its entire lexicon.  Compare that to the roughly 250,000 words in today’s English language and you can begin to understand that there were innate limitations to the descriptions offered.  One such limitation comes with the use of the word “virgin” when referring to Mary, the mother of Jesus.  The word is “almah” which in the Hebrew tradition meant “a young girl worthy of marriage.”  It was the Greeks who translated that version into their word “parthenos” which means virgin.  I am not suggesting that Mary was not a virgin, but simply the liberal translations that were made from Hebrew/Aramaic to Greek.  Another such example exists relative to Mary’s husband, Joseph.  He is referred to as a carpenter but considering the lack of wood in the area he was more likely a mason, or some similar trade.

No one knows from certain how old Mary was at the time she was pregnant but Hebrew theologians suggest that she was between 12 and 14 as those were the years fathers married off their daughters.  This was a matter of financial expediency as women did not help keep the household clothed and fed.  That practiced was continued even into 19th Century America when New England farmers sent their daughters to work in the textile mills and send money home.  But fathers of those days in Israel were equally interested in a son-in-law who might help provide for the family.  This usually meant the daughter married a man considerably older than she.  Again, this is thought to be the case for Joseph.  He was an older and successful craftsman.

Theologians and historians generally agree that Jesus was likely not born in December but more likely in the late winter or early spring.  The reason for this is the mention of there being lambs at the birth.  Sheep bear their lambs in the later winter and early spring.  But also, it is known that Cesar Augustus had called for a census which happened in the early spring of the year Jesus was born.  Likely the early church did not like having Jesus being born and dying at the same time of year, so they co-opted the Roman holiday of Saturnalia and assigned it to the birth of Jesus.  There are numerous occurrences of this happening in the history of the Christian church.

Another tradition that was adopted by Christianity was that of lights being an important part of the Christmas tradition.  In Roman times, as Saturnalia was celebrated, they lit candles to symbolize the coming of more light at the darkest day of the year.

And so Joseph leaves Nazareth for Jerusalem with his pregnant wife Mary in tow.  These people were absolutely poor.  It is unlikely they had any intent of paying for a place to stay in Bethlehem, if such a place even existed, it was there for people of greater means than Joseph.  That Augustus had called for a census made available lodging extremely rare and undoubtedly Joseph knew he would need an alternative, but what was it?  That he may have tried to find room at an Inn only to be turned away is quite understandable under the circumstances.  Joseph, being an attentive and a newly wed too, likely desired the best for his new wife but knew his attempts would fail.  He likely noted where herds of sheep or goats were kept and knew he could likely get out of the elements with people of a social standing similar to his own.

If you look at a map you will discover that Bethlehem is a little south of Jerusalem.  But where were Joseph and Mary coming from?  Nazareth?  Nazareth is almost 70 miles from Bethlehem, a journey that would have taken several days at least, and particularly in Mary’s condition.  It is not a reach to consider that this great distance travel, and on a donkey as some like to view, would have been particularly hard on Mary and could possibly have induced her into giving birth.  The fact is, we do not know if Jesus was born immediately upon their arrival or a week after their arrival.  Remember now, this story could only have been related by Mary and Joseph, undoubtedly illiterate, to the story tellers to pass it through the ages.  But this also means that time elapsed time between the birth of Jesus and the earliest telling of the story is at least 100 years, probably more.  Like any event, the first retelling of the event is the most important as that is when it is freshest in the mind.  It is likely the first retelling of the story did not happen until Jesus started his ministry, some 30 years after his birth.  This is supported by the fact that we know virtually nothing of those first 30 years of His life.  There is only a single mention of him as a young boy, and even that is very short on detail, Jesus talks with the rabbis.

Scientists believe the “star of Bethlehem” was actually a comet, misinterpreted by an unsophisticated people as a star.

And what about the three wise men, the magi?  Sometimes they are referred to as the 3 kings.  But what is generally agreed is that they were likely astrologers from Persia and had come to Jerusalem to sell their wares, gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  They may well have been wealthy merchants who would have seemed like kings to the Jews of the day.  Their knowledge of astrology translated as wisdom.

That the actual events surrounding the birth of Jesus likely are vastly different from what was written does not diminish from the story as told at all.  My guess is that the actual story is likely far more interesting and lively from what we have today.  An a historian, I am compelled to question source material.  That we have no first hand accounts of the birth only serves to reinforce the impact the birth of Jesus had on the people of the day.  The absolute charisma and importance of the man makes the case for the miracle of just how much was related for future generations.

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