December 23, 2014

What really happened on the first Christmas?

As a little girl one of my favorite things to do in preparation of Christmas was to take out the Manger scene and put the baby Jesus and animals and wisemen and shepherds on display.  And I would hum the Christmas carols about baby Jesus and I would remember the flannel boards I saw in Sunday School. 

But as I got older I began to wonder other things like:  How could anyone be so mean as to turn away a very pregnant woman?  Why did Joseph take Mary on such a journey just before she gave birth?  Did Joseph know how to deliver babies or was it customary for women to give birth without any midwives or help of any kind?

This post is my attempt to help clear away some of the myths I wrestled with in the past and hopefully inspire  people to "dig" for answers they're seeking too.  The further you go into your research the more alive the Bible becomes.  Its really cool!

I began with the issue of a pregnant woman traveling to Bethlehem from Nazareth.  Upon doing some research I learned that traveling from Galilee to Judea back in the day was quite a distance.  No vehicles.  No nicely paved streets.  No air conditioning or heat.  Just donkey power... maybe.

Bethlehem was and remains today a mountainous region.  Estimates say it would have been anywhere from 80-100 miles or so traveling straight from Galilee in the north to Judea in the south.  Two and a half days walk at least.  That path would have taken travelers through Samaria but the Bible does not tell us which path they chose. It is possible that travelers preferred to avoid Samaria, effectively doubling travel time, because of the prejudice between the Jews and the Samaritans.

Just a side note here:  Jews disliked Samaritans and considered them "low-class" because they married non-Jews and did not live according to the strict Jewish laws.  Later in his life Jesus would stand against this prejudice with parables (Luke 10:25-37) and a beautiful demonstration of love and concern for the Samaritan people via the woman at the well (John 4:1-42). He even rebuked his own disciples for their prejudice and judgmental attitudes towards the Samaritans (Luke 10: 51-56).

Anyhow, Joseph and Mary would not have been alone on their travels to Bethlehem because of the threat of attack by ruffians and the like. During those days most travelers joined others on the roads to create impromptu caravans.  Safety in numbers and all that. But it was also possible that Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem with family and friends, being that Joseph and his family all came from ancestors who were from the City of David.

Luke tells us that the reason for Joseph and Mary's trek was due to a Roman census which required all Jews to return to the city or town of their ancestors, which would be considered their taxation district.  (Luke 2:2-4)

The streets of Bethlehem are very narrow.
Bethlehem itself was not a big city, more like a village (Micah 5:2), even though it was significant to the Jews because David was born and anointed king there (John 7:42).  Some cultural historians have offered the possibility that because of the small city size only people who had relatives already living there would be able to stay for any extended period of time.  It has also been stated that it was not customary or beneficial for small cities, that were both out-of-the-way and unimportant to most travelers, to even have a hotel.  Most travelers would not be visiting Bethlehem if they didn't personally know anyone living there.

In Luke 1:39-41 the Bible tells us that Mary's relative, Elizabeth, lived in the hill country of Judea.  This area would not have been too far away from Bethlehem so Joseph and Mary could have visited her relatives if they had no place to stay.  But it is most likely Joseph had relatives in Bethlehem who welcomed them.

A widely accepted misconception is that Mary and Joseph traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem during her final days of pregnancy.  There is no proof to solidly back that up.  It is more likely, given that cultural historians know their stuff, that what is stated in Luke 2:6 which begins: " While they were there,..." implies that there was a significant passing of time.  This could have been several weeks before her due date.  Mary could have been in her final trimester but certainly would have taken care not to do anything to endanger the life of baby Jesus in her womb.

The belief that Mary and Joseph arrived only hours before her imminent birth and that they presumably arrived at night have become popular today because of paintings, songs, and people taking artistic license for greater emotional impact.  Traveling at night was generally avoided except for the most dire of circumstances. A prime example is found in Matthew 2:13-14 when the angel warned Joseph that Herod the king was sending soldiers to kill Jesus and instructed him to flee to Egypt during the cover of night.

It has also been widely believed that Mary and Joseph did not have a place to stay when they arrived at Bethlehem.  I already stated earlier that this situation is unlikely given the evidence presented by multiple historical culture experts.  But the belief has also stemmed from a misunderstanding in translation over what the word "inn" really means in the Greek word Kataluma.  The translators in this case did not understand the cultural context behind the word's meaning.

The early Christians who were translating from the original Hebrew texts into Latin, Coptic and the like never once translated the greek word Kataluma to mean "inn." If that had been the case then the Greek word Pandocheion would have been used.  Kataluma's meanings are: living accommodations, guest room, or even dining room depending on context.

To better understand how Kataluma did not mean an "inn" as we think of a motel or hotel today, we must go back and study the cultural context Luke was assuming all readers would know.  You see, back in Luke's day most homes in Bethlehem had two main levels.  An upper level where everyone resided and a lower level.

Usually homes would have a room set aside in the upper level either for an eldest son recently married, or to serve as a guest room (Kataluma).  But the Kataluma didn't have enough room in Joseph and Mary's case.  This could have simply meant that there would not be enough room for all the female relatives who would lend Mary a helping hand during the birthing process.  Something the men would usually not take part in and who were expected to remain separate.

A guest room in ancient Jewish homes. Sometimes these were built on the roofs.
Animals and beasts of burden were brought indoors at night and stayed on the bottom floor level, usually built into lime caves. These were not large caves but they provided enough room for the animals to reside at night.  They provided safety, protection from the elements, and were easily cleaned in the morning when all the hay and debris was simply swept outside.  These lower levels also had mangers, or feeding troughs, usually built/carved into the floors.

The wooden mangers and barns we see in manger scenes today began with Francis of Issisi who built manger scenes based on his cultural surroundings and not 1st century Israeli culture.

Once a birth took place it was traditional for newborns to be cleansed in a mixture of olive oil and salts and then wrapped or "swaddled" in strips of cloth to give the baby a sense of security and to keep him warm.  Laying a baby in a manger padded down with clean hay would have been ideal and very comfortable too.

I like the idea that Jesus was born in a peaceful setting, surrounded by family, pets, and the humble atmosphere of those who have what they need. He wasn't born in a royal setting but He also wasn't born in abject poverty or rejection either.  God set Jesus in a family that loved Him and I think that is so beautiful and powerful.

Hopefully something here has tickled your curiosity and encouraged you to seek out answers you may have on this or other events in the Bible.

However the events surrounding Jesus birth really took place it is the incredible gift God gave humanity that remains the most important fact of all.  And I am happy to say that the Bible has lots and lots to say in reassuring us that God's love is very real and has not changed since the beginning of time.

I hope that all you readers have a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Below is a sampling of places I have visited in the past.  Feel free to check them out.

childbirth in the ancient world
Life in Ancient Bethlehem and Nazareth
Biblical Archeology: The Manger and the Inn
There Wasn't Any Inn


Jenny said...

This was really interesting to read and learn about. I can tell you put a lot of research and work into this. (: Merry Christmas!


SuperLux said...

Aw. Thanks for this thorough blog post. Happy holidays to you! :)