One of my first classes was The Gospels: Life of Christ, taught by Dr. Hulbert, with whom I later had the privilege of traveling to Israel and walking "in the sandals" of Jesus and his disciples. My favorite part of the semester, though, was the beginning, when Dr. Hulbert showed us from the Scriptures some things about Christmas that I had never put all together, but which made it much more real to me. I share them now with you.
- Jesus wasn't born December 25. I'm sure that's no news flash. The shepherds wouldn't have been watching their flocks in the fields in the coldest time of the year. Most Bible scholars agree that Jesus was born in late spring instead.
- Jesus probably wasn't born the night they arrived in Bethlehem. The passage in Luke only states that "while they were there" Jesus was born. Most of the movies show a desperate Joseph leading the donkey with Mary already in labor, knocking on every inn in town, hoping for a place for Mary to give birth. It could have happened - but probably not.
- Joseph and Mary weren't turned away by a selfish innkeeper. Bethlehem was a very "little town" and was not likely to have had an inn, especially with Jerusalem so nearby. Anyhow, the Greek word used there is kataluma, which is used later in Luke 22:11 to talk about the place where Jesus and his disciples shared his last Passover. It referred to a guest room, which many homes would have. Most likely, "there was no place for them in the kataluma" because Joseph's relatives (remember, his family was from Bethlehem), already had filled their guest room with other family members coming for the census.
- Jesus probably wasn't born in a smelly, dirty stable. The Scriptures don't say they were in a stable, only that Jesus was laid in a manger. With the guest room full, Joseph and Mary were given a place to stay in the part of the home that would normally hold the animals (who were out in the fields because, remember, it was spring) - hence the availability of the manger. Joseph returned to Bethlehem because that is where his family was from, and Middle Eastern hospitality would never turn away a family member, especially one about to have a baby. The wonderful thing about being in that part of the home is that it was a place the shepherd felt welcome when they came seeking Jesus.
- Joseph and Mary weren't alone when Jesus was born. They were probably with family (see above), and Mary would have been attended to by a midwife. Luke shares that the when they saw the baby, the shepherds told others about what the angels had told them. Some interpret this to mean that they went throughout the town of Bethlehem, but it also could refer to the ones who were there (their relatives) when Jesus was born.
- The Magi (more than one but not necessarily three) did not come at the same time as the shepherds, who didn't see a star over the stable. Luke doesn't mention a star or Magi; they are introduced by Matthew, and King Herod's decision later to kill all the boys in Bethlehem age two and under indicates that Jesus was not a newborn when the Magi arrived. (Being a stickler about this, when we set up the nativity at home, we always put the Magi on the other side of the room - on their way, but not there yet.) The Scriptures don't say how many there were, only that there were three gifts, all of which likely were used to finance their flight to Egypt when Herod tried to find Jesus to kill Him.
Dr. Hulbert's class made me see Christmas, and all of Scripture, in a fresh way. I saw Mary and Joseph and the other characters in the Christmas story as the real people that they were, embedded in a real culture and real extended family. Jesus' coming to us at Christmas was not a fantasy, not a fairy tale that doesn't make sense. It was real. And His incarnation would usher in the age of truth and grace (John 1:17), making it possible for us to have peace with God and eternal life, both here on Earth and in Heaven. That is my focus in Christmas 2013. I hope it is yours, too.