Mysteries of Christmas
By Bruce Gerig

Recently someone asked me whether the two Nativity accounts in Matthew and Luke could be combined into a single story. This immediately brought to mind other questions that are often raised, as well, about the wise men, the star, the census, etc. So, maybe it would be interesting to take a fresh look at the Infancy narratives, in Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2 (along with related commentary material) to see what we can discover. One thing that is striking, of course, is that the two accounts are very different. Matthew focuses on Joseph's side of the story, and Luke on Mary's. Matthew describes three angelic dreams that Joseph had (1:20-21, 2:13, 2:19-20), instructing him to take Mary and the child as his own and later how to protect them (the last two dreams related to the Magi's visit and Herod's reaction). God accomplishes his will despite the opposition of the wicked.1 In contrast, Luke focuses on Mary's experience with her "irregular" pregnancy, receiving care from Elizabeth (1:39-56) and confirmation that she is carrying the Saviour from the lowly shepherds and from aged Simeon and Anna in the Temple. It may seem sometimes like God does not hear the cries and prayers of his people, but when the time is right He comes with a great blessing.

Modern interpreters often view the Infancy narratives with skepticism. It has been claimed, for example, that the two accounts are "so contrary to each other" that neither could be considered "completely historical."2 But this contrast probably only shows that the two Evangelists had different primary "sources," one emphasizing Joseph's role as head of the family and the other an intimate account that clearly came from Mary. In ancient times, it was commonly held that the birth and death of great leaders were heralded by the appearance of a star or some other heavenly phenomenon; also travelers coming from afar to pay homage to a king was a common motif in ancient stories. However, such parallels only show that Matthew's narrative is not foreign to his age and may allow for some indirect influence (an increased interest in including such details); but such similarities neither add to nor subtract from the historicity of the Biblical account. In fact, Joseph and Mary appear here as very real people, confronted with a most understandable dilemma.3 Other details, such as shepherds gathering their flocks together at night, gifts that Magi would have had available to bring, and Herod's all-too-typical slaughter (of the infants) also have a ring of truth about them. Modern scholars often suggest that the Evangelists added fictitious and supernatural details to the Nativity story, to bring out the greatness of Jesus and to make it appear as if prophecies were being fulfilled. Yet, as Morris notes, there is "a large subjective bias in such reconstructions." It is much more likely that the Evangelists started out with what they knew happened, including the supernatural aspects, and then slipped in certain relevant OT prophecies.4 Although the supernatural and prophecy are problems for many modern interpreters, these certainly were not so for the ancient Jews or early Christians. But are the stories reconcilable? Actually, the two Nativity accounts can be quite easily combined, into ten episodes:

1. Gabriel announces Jesus' birth to Mary (Luke 1:26-38) – By Jewish tradition, girls were often betrothed as young as 12-14, upon reaching puberty; and young men usually married around the age of 18-20 (Jewish rabbis probably stressed marrying young to avoid temptation).5 Many have thought that Joseph was quite a bit older than Mary, since he disappears from the scene after Jesus' visit to the Temple, at the age of twelve6 – but dying young back then was not unheard of (cf. Luke 8:41ff, John 4:46ff, John 11:1ff), from killer diseases such as malaria, typhoid and meningitis.7 One can imagine, however, how frightened Mary must have been as only a young teenager, with the archangel's appearance and message (Luke 1:30).

Getting married in ancient Palestine was different than today. First, an engagement between two young children was arranged by their parents or a matchmaker, sometimes without the children even knowing each other.8 Then, in their teen years, the children entered into a betrothal, where they gave formal consent before witnesses; a "bride price" (money or animals) was given to the bride's family and thereafter the couple were called "husband" and "wife" (cf. Matt 1:20,24), even though they still lived apart. A betrothal could be broken only by a formal "divorce" (e.g., if the wife was unfaithful); and it was concluded about a year later when the bride was taken to live in the groom's family home. During the betrothal period, when the couple met (rarely and usually chaperoned), the "wife" would have kept her face covered with a veil.9 Finally, a festive wedding was held (cf. at Cana, John 2:1-11), usually a large, week-long celebration. But the wedding of Joseph and Mary was nothing like this. Probably Joseph sneaked the heavy Mary out of seclusion for as private and quick a ceremony as he could arrange. And still, there was the scandal of the bedsheet, since Joseph refrained from having sex with Mary until after Jesus was born (Matt 1:25). According to tradition, older relatives from the wife's family would wait outside the special tent where the couple spent their "wedding night," to retrieve the bloodstained sheet afterward ("the evidence of her virginity," Deut 22:15), so that everyone would know that the family had given their daughter in marriage as a virgin.10

2. Mary visits Elizabeth, who is also pregnant (Luke 1:39-56)
– Elizabeth was an older relative of Mary who, like Hannah (1 Sam 1:1-20), had been barren a long time, but then miraculously was given a special son by the Lord (John the Baptist, like Samuel). Luke's narrative focuses wonderfully on the role of women11 – and Matthew's genealogy (1:1-17) also includes Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba ("Uriah's wife"), although all were "tainted" women (by incest, prostitution, bad ancestry, or adultery). Yet, did not Christ come to redeem sinners and raise up the marginalized? It has been suggested that by the first century A.D., the Jews had "whitewashed" these women's reputations12 – but it is not at all certain that Matthew held this view; rather one suspects that he had Mary and her "irregular" pregnancy in mind and sought to show how even earlier God had used the strange, irregular, and unexpected in preparing the way for giving his greatest gift, his Son, to the world.13

Mary's Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) – named after the first word of this song of praise in the Latin ("Magnifies my soul the Lord…" - italics added) – recalls Hannah's similar response (1 Sam 2:1-10). We should not dismiss the creative talent of even a poorly-educated girl who, reflecting upon what has just happened to her, may have composed this song on her 50-70 mile animal ride south from Nazareth to visit Elizabeth in "the hill country of Judea."14 If Joseph divorced Mary – which she could fully expect under strict Jewish law and custom relating to adultery – she would not only be left with a child to care for but this would ruin any future chance for her ever to marry, a horrible fate in such a male-centered society where a woman's honor, status and support derived from her husband.15 Yet Mary provides a wonderful example of one who, finding herself in an extremely stressful situation, on various fronts, "magnifies the Lord" and "rejoiced in God my Savior," accepting his will, trusting in his mercy, and counting on his mighty deeds (Luke 1:47-55).

3. An angel announces Jesus' birth to Joseph (Matt 1:18-25)
– G. Kinnaman, for his doctoral dissertation on angels, cast a wide call in Roman Catholic, Pentecostal and other Protestant groups, asking people to share any encounters they might have experienced with angels – and he was surprised to receive back about a hundred "angel stories" – many of them described in his book Angels: Dark and Light (1994). Some angels appeared in long, white robes or with a light-blue, semi-transparent form, while others appeared in normal human form and clothing, but with individual traits (like red hair, hair of different lengths, and different builds). They could look male or female or genderless. Sometimes they were seen by one person in a room but not others. They rarely had wings – but they were often big, standing 8-9' tall; and they usually communicated through eye contact and telepathy, not normal speaking.16 Christians have also reported angels appearing to them in dreams, no less real and moving.17 Angels appear in every part of the Bible – bringing communication, comfort, protection, provision, and deliverance to God's people. Their presence (to believers) is usually very reassuring and comforting.18 Still, in the Nativity story, it was probably a shaken Joseph, who after he "woke up [from his dream,] did what the angel … commanded" (1:24, NIV) and took Mary home to live with him.19

Not only Mary but everyone around her faced a serious situation. An unfaithful wife in first-century Palestine shamed her father especially if she was betrothed. And Mediterranean culture as a whole looked with scorn on the weakness of a man whose love for an unfaithful wife kept him from repudiating and divorcing her; and if a man married a pregnant woman, he was shamed by the neighbors' belief that he was the one who had gotten her pregnant. Jewish courts in first-century Palestine would not have applied the death penalty proscribed in Deut 22:22-24 nor would there have been a public lynching, but the shame would have been intense. A "private" divorce (before 2-3 witnesses) was less embarrassing, but still not secret.20 Jews would later concoct the story that Mary had shacked up with Panthera, a Roman soldier, and that Jesus, to save face, had made up the tale of being born of a virgin.21

4. Augustus orders a census, involving Quirinius (Luke 2:1-3) – Caius Julius Caesar Octavianus, who ruled as Roman emperor between 27 B.C.–A.D. 14 under the title of "Augustus" ("Revered"), instituted census-taking throughout the empire, to regularize the collection of taxes.22 In general, the apographe that Luke describes registered every inhabitant (age, occupation, wife, and children), to determine head tax and military service (although the latter was not applied to Palestine).23 Yet Luke's census here is very controversial, since documentation outside the Bible only records Publius Sulpicius Quirinius, a high-ranking Roman official and close friend of the emperor, being legatus (governor, administrator) in Syria-Judea and taking a census there in 6-7 A.D. (from Josephus). On the other hand, Herod died in 4 B.C. (also based on Josephus and a date widely accepted by scholars); and allowing time for the Magi to travel and for the stay in Egypt before Herod's death, Jesus could not have been born later than 6-5 B.C. Because of this twelve-year gap, many scholars accuse Luke of error. At the same time, documents name the legates serving in Syria at the time of Jesus' birth as S. Sentius Saturninus (9-6 B.C.) and P. Quintilius Varus (6-4 B.C.).24 Yet, Luke says he "investigated" matters "carefully" for writing his Gospel (1:3, NIV) and, even being of the next generation, he had access to much fuller, widespread information about affairs in Palestine than scholars living 2,000 years later, working with only the debris of history that has survived.

Luke's reference to "all the world" (2:1) was standard official language for the whole Roman Empire,25 although not all provincial censuses were initiated at the same time26 and "decree" here may be a general reference to Augustus' overall census-taking intent and direction. Fitzmyer notes that the Greek for "was governor of" (2:2, NIV) may also be translated, more generally, as "was in charge of."27 Luke's mention of a "first" census means this is not to be confused with the later census that Quirinius ordered in Judea (which Luke also mentions, in Acts 5:37).28 Some scholars have suggested that "This was the first census" (2:2, NIV) should be translated as "This census was before [Quirinius was governor]" (italics added in both cases),29 but others feel that such a revision overstretches the Greek.30 E. Stauffer suggested that Quirinius served (in a long line) as Roman commander-in-chief of the Orient (Eastern provinces) from 12 B.C.–A.D. 16 (with the exception of Gaius Caesar, between 2 B.C.–A.D. 4) and that, as relations between Augustus and Herod deteriorated during Herod's last years, Quirinius was sent in to take a census for the emperor in Palestine at the time of Jesus' birth.31 Others will only acknowledge that Quirinius served as a special legate in Syria (alongside the ordinary legate) or that he was appointed a special legate to conduct the 6-5 B.C. census in Palestine.32 Whatever Quirinius' exact position and mandate, it hardly seems likely that Augustus would have waited until the second-to-last decade of his long reign before taking a census (6-7 A.D.) in the province of Palestine.

5. While the couple is in Bethlehem, Jesus is born (Luke 2:4-7) – Located about 6 miles down the road from Jerusalem, Bethlehem was nestled among the Judean hills in the fertile countryside, hence its appropriate name meaning "House of Bread." Although it had a rich past (here Jacob buried Rachel, Ruth married Boaz, and David was born and grew up),33 it later became an insignificant town.34 Still, there was Micah's remarkable prophecy (5:2) which said that someday the Messiah would be born here.

The Greek word katalyma (Strong, #2646) for "inn" (v. 7) refers vaguely to someplace where a man could unburden his animal and lodge for the night.35 It is not the standard word for "public inn" (pandocheion, #3829), which Luke knows and uses for the place where the Good Samaritan took the robbery victim (Luke 10:34). Elsewhere Luke uses katalyma to refer to the "guest room" in the private home where the Last Supper was held (Luke 22:11). So, Bovon thinks also that Joseph was seeking "a room in a private house."36 Moreover, Brown notes that public inns in the first century were not only dangerous places but they offered only a large, single room where travelers slept on cots on the floor, perhaps on a raised terrace with their animals tied up nearby on a lower level.37 Brown translates katalyma as "lodgings" (2:7) and the New English Bible as "house." Certainly a public inn crowded with people all lying around in one large room would have been a horrible place to give birth! Since Bethlehem was Joseph's hometown, he surely had hoped to stay in the guest quarters of relatives or friends or someone, as the Jews' emphasis on hospitality led them to maintain such quarters for the benefit of strangers, as guestrooms in private homes and at public community sites. But Joseph found all such places filled.38 Yet, God had reserved for Joseph and Mary an animal stable somewhere, that would give them both shelter and privacy. Justin Martyr (c.100-c.165), an early Church father who came from nearby Bethlehem, recorded that Jesus was born in a cave near the town (Dialogue with Trypho, 78, 304); and this information may be correct.39 In any case, the humble feeding trough (manger) provided a sturdy crib with soft hay, at the same time emphasizing Jesus' humble birth and the fact that he had come to serve, not to be served.40


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