We all know the Christmas story. Even those who are not Christians get it drummed into them this time of year. Mary, a virgin, conceived, which might seem like an issue already, but then in her ninth month she and Joseph, her celibate husband, had to go to Bethlehem to be entered on the tax rolls, and she gave birth in a stable because there wasn't a hotel room free anywhere. The baby, Jesus, was shortly visited by shepherds, who'd been told about him by an angel. Less than two weeks later, three kings arrived from the East with rich gifts, having been following a star that stood over the stable. Evil King Herod wanted to kill the future King of the Jews that the three eastern kings told him about, but Mary and Joseph escaped into Egypt.
The story of course has its roots in the Bible, but the version everyone knows, the version I just gave, is a composite of two stories written to be quite different from each other. It was medieval thinkers, who just knew that the Bible told a single, unified story, who put them together in the form we now take for granted. This was the story they had carved on their churches. And who are we to argue with them? After all, Christianity is far more than the Bible. Medieval thinkers assumed that a thousand years or more of tradition also had validity, or God would not have allowed it.
(Below is a twelfth-century carving of Mary and Joseph escaping into Egypt.)
Get out your New Testament and follow along as we look at the roots of this tradition.
The story of Jesus's birth (the Nativity) is in only two of the four Gospels, Matthew and Luke. Mark and John start with Jesus as an adult. The name Jesus, by the way, is a variation of Jesse, the name of King David's father. Everyone agreed that Jesus was of the house of Jesse. Curiously, although Matthew starts with the line of descent from Jesse to Jesus, it goes not through Mary but through Joseph. What about the virgin birth? After all, it fulfilled a prophecy. Let's keep moving.
Matthew clearly wrote to persuade the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah who had first been foretold some five centuries earlier. He kept on noting that aspects of Jesus's birth fulfilled an aspect of the old prophecies. Medieval thinkers said, Well, of course it did. No surprises there!
In Matthew, Jesus was born in Bethlehem because that's where Joseph and Mary lived. They had a house. It's also where prophets had said the ruler of God's chosen people would come from. Off in the East, some wise men (or mages, magi, the Bible doesn't call them kings and doesn't say there were three of them) had their own prophecy about the king of the Jews. It took them maybe a year to figure it out and get to Judea, following a star. They stopped in Jerusalem to ask directions, where King Herod (a puppet of the Romans, history tells us, though Matthew doesn't go into detail) was distraught to learn of the birth of a King of the Jews, which, naturally, he found threatening.
Herod sent the wise men on their way with false comments about wanting to worship the baby king himself. In Bethlehem they presented their gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh, three gifts that probably led to the conclusion that there were three magi, rich enough that they were considered kings. The magi were warned against Herod so didn't go back to Jerusalem to tell where the baby lived, but Herod decided to kill all babies in Judea under the age of two anyway. Mary and Joseph and toddler Jesus escaped into Egypt, fulfilling two prophecies, one about death of children, the other about "out of Egypt." When they came back from Egypt, they settled in Nazareth, not wanting to go back to Bethlehem in Judea, where Herod's son was ruling.
Luke's story is very different. It starts with John the Baptist's parents (a section usually not read during Christmas Eve service) and has a long section on the Annunciation, where the angel tells Mary she will conceive of the Holy Spirit, details not in Matthew, which is much more from Joseph's point of view (though both agreed on the virgin birth). According to Luke, Mary and Joseph had a house in Nazareth, rather than Bethlehem, though they were there in Bethlehem, in the stable, because of the proclamation about tax rolls. Jesus clearly came from Nazareth, so all stories had to have him grow up there, but he had to be born in Bethlehem because of the prophecy.
Very shortly after Jesus's birth according to Luke, the shepherds showed up at the stable, told by an angel that the Messiah was born. Although nowhere in the Bible is the Nativity dated, Luke's comment about shepherds watching their flocks by night suggests he thought it was in the spring, lambing season. You will notice there are no wise men in Luke, just as there were no shepherds in Matthew. The shepherds in Luke spread the word, but apparently word never got to Herod, because Mary and Joseph went to Jerusalem without any problem a little later, to sacrifice at the Temple according to Jewish law. Herod in this version doesn't slaughter anybody, and Mary and Joseph went peacefully home to Nazareth.
For more on Christmas and how medieval (and modern!) people celebrate it, see my ebook essay, available on Amazon and other e-tailers.
© C. Dale Brittain 2017