Christmas Question Time

And the answers shouldn't surprise you

Posted on December 11, 2018

For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

Luke 2:11

Was Jesus born at night?

I think we assume it because the shepherds were watching over their sheep at night. But actually the angels that speak to the shepherds tell them that "this day" a baby has been born. So was Jesus born at night? Probably not.

Was he born immediately after a long journey?

No. Who knows where this came from, but both birth narratives imply Mary and Joseph had quite a bit of time in Bethlehem before Jesus was born. (Luke 2:6 says "And while they were there the time came for her to give birth")

Was Jesus born in the winter? 

In the bleak midwinter? No. Not if the shepherds were watching over their sheep (Luke 2:8). In the cold winters of the hill country farmers would bring their sheep inside during winter nights, so shepherds would only do overnight watches for them from about May to September.

Was there a donkey?

No. No mention at all. In fact Matthew's birth narrative doesn't even have a journey to Bethlehem.

Was there an innkeeper?

No. There wasn't even an inn. The Greek word that has been translated as 'inn' more likely refers to a guest room (it's the word katalumo, Luke 2:7). Bethlehem was also probably too small, and too insignificant to have any public accommodation at all. 

Was he born in a stable?

No. This is assumed because of the use of a manger (Luke 2:7). But the most likely situation is that Jesus was born in the main family room which would also house a few animals overnight. This makes a lot of sense when you read that there wasn't any space for them in the 'guest room'. So Jesus was probably born in the main room of a house belonging to one of Joseph's relatives. Not in a secluded stable or cave.

Was Mary from Nazareth?

We don't know. Matthew makes no reference to Nazareth to start with, and then just mentions that Jesus was born in Bethlehem (Matt 2:1). Later on, when they move to Nazareth it is only because as they come back from Egypt it was no longer safe to go back to the area of Judea (Matt 2:22). Nazareth appears to be a new place for them to move to, a plan B.
But Luke's account has them living in Nazareth to begin with,  he makes no mention of the flight to Egypt, or of the dangers of living in Judea. On this particular issue the two birth narratives are so different it's impossible to figure out a really clear picture.

Were Mary and Joseph poor?

I think that seems to be most people's assumption. But there is nothing in scriptures to hint that they were particularly more impoverished than anyone else. From what I can see, if they had a supportive family (which they did) and if they had the time and ability to travel around (which they did) then they probably were doing okay. Were they poor? Probably not.

Did three kings from the Orient really visit?

No. But wise men did! Not from the Orient and not specifically three of them. It doesn't say how many, but they are referred to as 'magi' which could refer to anything from scientists to sorcerers. I think we assume 3 because there were 3 types of gifts given. But it's more described as a joint present, not from each person.(Matt 2:11)

Was baby Jesus quiet and perfect as a baby?

No. As any midwife will tell you, a baby that isn't crying is a concern. Jesus was as normal as you and me. 

Quiz finished, put your pens down

Wow! After all that... Is there any song at Christmas you can still sing with integrity? Without having to change the words? Well yes, there's still quite a few. And some are better than others. Go look yourself, it's interesting to discover how much of our impression of the Christmas story is based on old victorian hymns rather than the bible.

And what do we do about the rest? What about the Nativity story that we re-enact every year? And what about the pictures on all our Christmas  cards? Once we know that we are perpetuating a false impression of Jesus' birth story, can we really keep on doing it?

What are we communicating to the world by doing this? That we are happy to let truth and romanticised myth mingle together, as long as it's under the banner of 'tradition'?

And what are we missing out on, by not communicating a more accurate and honest account of the birth narratives. Well I can think of at least 3 benefits to telling a better story:

  1. It lets people know we take the bible seriously. It's not something we allow to be skewed by passing trends or long-held tradition. The Bible has authority only when it has integrity.
  2. It gives a more honest account of the real Jesus. A person that we are still getting our heads around. He is not a superhero saviour with a super humble 'origin story'. He was (and is) a 1st century Jew who grew up in Roman occupied territory, steeped in Jewish traditions and middle Eastern culture. To expect Jesus to have been born in a lonely stable in a town where we know Joseph has relatives, is just not being faithful to the cultural context that the story is set in. People kept their animals in the house with them, they didn't have stables. And people looked after travelling strangers... Especially pregnant ones that they were related to!
  3. It allows us to grasp a better picture of what God was doing in the incarnation. We can focus on the main points without being cluttered up with all the unnecessary tinsel. Jesus, the son of God was born of Mary in Bethlehem and grew up in Nazareth. His birth and childhood, whilst being prophetically foretold and with one or two unusual moments, was mostly an unremarkable one. Jesus grew up as one of us and lived a life just like one of us. His relationship to his Heavenly Father was unique and inspirational, his empowerment by the holy spirit was unique and aspirational. But his life was a recognizably human one. He identified with us, he can truly represent us and mediate for us. He is one of us. God with us: Emmanuel.

There are still plenty of aspects of the birth story that we can focus on. There is still shepherds and wise men and angels and stars and Herod and mangers and the odd animal. There is still Bethlehem just as the prophets said. But we will need to think intelligently and act intentionally if we are to let the Jesus of the bible be the one we worship at Christmas time.