Birth of Jesus
- Main Text: Luke 2:1-20
- Accompanying text: Psalm 96:7-10
Some revisionist thinking has challenged traditional versions of the story of Joseph and Mary’s arrival in Bethlehem. It is to the effect that the community would surely have found somewhere for them to stay, bearing in mind the important lineage that Joseph had. After all, he was descended from King David himself, and Bethlehem was known as the City of David. Joseph and his pregnant wife would not have been left out on the street or moved to a cold stable. Mary herself had a cousin (Elizabeth) in a nearby village and they could have gone there had there been no place for them in Bethlehem. In any case the birth may not have taken place on the same night as their arrival. The “inn” would not have been like a commercial hotel but would have been a guest room like the upper room of Luke 22:12 where the same Greek word is used. The guest room would have been in a typical house of the time. The manger would have been in the house’s family quarters adjacent to this guest room which was occupied already with other guests. Therefore, the offer made to Joseph was an invitation into the more intimate family quarters, where favoured animals would be kept in a separate area. The shepherds would have gone to the see the manger in the type of house with which they were familiar — a sign that would be for all people, including shepherds who were regarded unfairly as being on the lowest rung of society, “those of humble estate” (Luke 1:52 ESV). This also fits well into the account of Matthew 2:10-11 and the arrival of the wise men from the east, “When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him”.
Kenneth Bailey puts it this way: “The traditional events of the Christmas story are well-known to all Christians. The birth of Jesus includes three wise men bearing gifts, shepherds in the fields in mid-winter, a baby born in a stable and ‘no room in the inn’. These aspects of the account are firmly fixed in the popular mind. Is there a critical distinction to be made between the text and the traditional understanding of it?…To summarize the problems of the traditional interpretation of Luke 2:1-7, Joseph was returning to his home village where he could easily find shelter. Because he was a descendant of King David nearly all doors in the village were open to him. Mary had relatives nearby and could have turned to them but did not…How could a Jewish town fail to help a young Jewish woman about to give birth?…the child was born, wrapped and (literally) ‘put to bed’ (anaklinō) in the living room in the manger that was either built into the floor or made of wood and moved into the family living space…The host family graciously accepted Mary and Joseph into the family room of their house…The child was born in the normal surroundings of a peasant home sometime after they arrived in Bethlehem, and there was no heartless innkeeper with whom to deal…the manger was in a warm and friendly home, not in a cold and lonely stable…we must re-write our Christmas plays, but in re-writing them, the story is enriched, not cheapened” (1).
Thoughts re application today
In his book, The Godless Gospel, Julian Baggini discusses the question, Was Jesus a Great Moral Teacher? In his introduction he writes, “But does it make sense to reject Jesus as a divine figure and hold on to his teaching? Not if we take the Gospels to be the definitive record of Christ’s teachings…Reading the Gospels closely, it becomes clear that the ‘supernatural’ elements make up almost half…Christians have never seen Jesus as a man like any other. For almost all who fill the pews, Jesus remains, in the words of the Nicene Creed, ‘the only Son of God’ who ‘for us and for our salvation…came down from heaven’ and ‘by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man’…There is, however, a way we can extract a secular moral philosophy from the religious teachings of the Bible…what emerges is richer and more interesting that I expected…it rescues us from the literally infantilising image of the meek and mild baby in a manger who comes to bring peace. The moral philosophy of Jesus is often challenging and radical, for believers and infidels alike” (2).
To Christians Jesus is so much more than a moral philosopher with allegedly mythicised or questionable beginnings. We regard the biblical narratives of the birth of Christ as being miraculous, accurate, valid for salvation, the fulfilment of messianic prophecies and authentic in their historical settings. Luke presents his own credentials for noting down the details of the Gospel stories in Luke 1:1-4: “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught”.
There was much excitement when the birth of Jesus was announced to the shepherds. There was a sound and light display, so to speak, and the shepherds were afraid. After they had seen the baby Jesus, “they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them” (Luke 2:17-18).
Let’s do same. Let’s proclaim with them. Let’s bring everyone we meet the “good news of great joy that will be for all the people”. For to them was born “a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord” (2:10-11).
- Isaiah 60:1-6
- Matthew 2:1-12
Footnotes and references
- Kenneth E Bailey, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels, published by SPCK, UK in 2008:25,28,34,36.
- Julian Baggini, The Godless Gospel: Was Jesus a Great Moral Teacher? Granta Publications, UK, 2020/2021:5,11.