Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Christmas Story Might Have Happened VERY Differently than We Think

The following is a wonderful explanation of how our traditional understanding of the Christmas story might be wrong - and I really like the overall picture it paints of Joseph and how he cared for his beloved Mary.  I have no idea how accurate it is historically, but I really like the thought experiment it represents and its conclusions: 

The “traditional interpretation” of the story of Jesus’ birth gets many obvious things wrong. The image of Joseph and a 9-month pregnant Mary, riding by themselves, pulling into Bethlehem during the snowstorm night of December 24th, going from inn to inn, and then Mary giving birth by herself in a stable, doesn’t work. Using Matthew and Luke, and the proper interpretation of words, we get the following:

1) Joseph puts everything on the line – reputation, standing in the community, etc – because of his love for Mary. He doesn’t want to make her “a public example”, so he puts her “away privily” (i.e. privately out of view).

2) The way he does this is by taking her away from Nazareth, probably before her 5th month or so when she really begins showing. Nazareth is in Galilee, Bethlehem is just outside Jerusalem and we know she is near Jerusalem because she meets with her cousin Elizabeth, who’s husband is a priest at the temple in Jerusalem.

3) We are told that Joseph traveled to Bethlehem because that’s were his “house and lineage” is, i.e. brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, etc. In the time of Mary, giving birth was the single most dangerous thing a woman would do in her lifetime. Joseph brought her down safely with his kin long before she was due, with people who loved him and would not mock Mary as they did in Nazareth.

4) From archaeological digs, we know that houses in the village of Bethlehem during the time of Jesus where typically 3-level, and often built into the hills. The lowest level was for the animals, the next level was for living/cooking. The top level was for sleeping and was referred to as the “inn”.

5) Mary, then, in the spring of the year – while surrounded with support and loved ones -gave birth to Jesus in the sleeping area of the home, who was then “wrapped in swaddling cloths”, taken downstairs and “laid in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn” (to sleep). 

Thanks, "Larryco" for sharing it. 


ji said...

There is so much about all the stories of the scriptures that we have idealized or romanticized or fantasized -- I suppose it is part of the human experience -- we hear a few details, and then we flesh it out ourselves. I'm okay with a little idealizing, but no one should present their version of the story as absoute truth. Mary and Joseph is one, but David and Goliath is another, and Abraham and Sarah is another, so forth and so forth. For all the scripture stories, we actually know so very little except for the little that was actually written -- and even that is possibly or maybe even certainly mis-interpreted by us in later times. But still, I love the scriptures because they help me have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

larryco_ said...

Wow, I am so honored! Thank you for reprinting my thoughts.

Papa D said...

Amen, ji.

Larryco, every Christmas Eve as a family we read the Christmas story narratives from the Bible and the Book of Mormon (the prophecies of Samuel, the Lamanite) and talk about them. Each year, I try to bring out some aspect of the stories that might be enlightening to my children - and this year I summarized your explanation for them.

We had a wonderful discussion about what such a perspective might have meant, if it is accurate. My daughters, especially, loved it.

Thanks, again.

larryco_ said...


Over the past year I have fleshed out some ideas that go along with this scenario:

1. I try to follow Matthew's short (v. 18-25)account closely; i.e. Mary is pregnant, it is made known to Joseph, while Joseph "thought on these things", the angel appears to him and explains everything.
2. "Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife". I'm sure we're being told here that Joseph went immediately and married Mary. From that moment, she and the child were his stewardship.
3. Now, going to Luke, I have always had problems with the depiction of Mary, a very young girl, traveling by herself the great distance from Nazareth to Jerusalem. This is seriously dangerous and it wouldn't have happened. Even if she was in a caravan, she wouldn't be unchaperoned. With Joseph at her side, the journey makes more sense. She will spend 3 months with her relatives (being cared for at the same time Elizabeth is being cared for), while Joseph is near in Bethlehem making preparations for where they would be living. Since Herod came looking for children 2 years old or younger, it is probable that they lived in Bethlehem several years before departing for Egypt.
4. Although Kevin Barney stated in his blog that he felt Joseph's family broke the rule of hospitality by not allowing them to sleep in the inn, I'm not so sure. Last year The History Channel showed a typical, 3-level, newly-excavated house from 1st century Bethlehem. With the warm, mediterranean climate of April and the flocks "abiding in the field", I could easily envision a suitable sleeping arrangement being set up in the lower-level, following the birth of Jesus in "Inn".
Again, like you said, who knows the actual details of how it all played out. But I feel no compulsion to follow a script that has developed for hundreds of years outside of the scriptures. Like your daughters, I'll opt for a safe Mary and a dutiful Joseph over the more dramatic - and more freightening - depiction that we are accustomed to.