The Real True Story of Jesus’ Birth
By Staff Minister Brandon Steenbock
Years ago at a church in Minnesota I was in charge of an annual Live Nativity event. We had a massive set made by a member recreating Bethlehem: village walls with doors and windows and decorations and a steeple-roofed stable with a manger for the baby Jesus. I would play the Innkeeper, gruffly turning away Mary and Joseph and then relenting to let them into the barn. Lonely Mary gives birth, with only Joseph to help. Later I would return in wonder as shepherds and wise men alike bowed before the Christ-child. One year, a member said after the show, “Now it feels like Christmas!”
This scene plays out across the world at Christmas-time and in our Nativity sets at home. Recently, the Chosen TV series made their own high production version, and the story plays out as expected, with an added wrinkle about swaddling clothes.
For years articles have floated around online about what is truth and what is myth in the Christmas story. Maybe you have seen some of these, and maybe like me you have doubted their agenda or accuracy. Are they just trying to ruin Christmas? Jesus’ birth is remarkable, spectacular, miraculous! The details of his birth just show how special he is!
Being the guy I am, I have to research these things. What I’ve discovered is that the details really do matter, but for reasons I didn’t expect. After years of digging into this, I am ready to share with you the Real True Story of Jesus’ Birth. Ready? It goes like this:
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.
So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. (Luke 2:1-20).
Surprised? Of course not, you’ve heard it many times before! And your mind is replaying all the classic images I painted above, right?
Hold on. I said the details matter, so let’s look at them one at a time.
Why did Joseph go to Bethlehem?
Why does a carpenter from Nazareth have to take his pregnant wife on a nearly 100 mile hike to register for a census? The whole point of a census is to find out where people are, right? Luke says that everyone went to their “own town,” so Joseph had to go to Bethlehem. This implies that Joseph is from Bethlehem. So what’s he doing in Nazareth?
In Luke 1 Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth in “the hill country of Judea.” That’s right around Jerusalem, close to Bethlehem. If Joseph’s family lived in Bethlehem, it’s likely they knew Zechariah and Elizabeth, and very possible that Joseph either met Mary some time before and decided to marry her, or their families arranged their marriage for them. Joseph may have been in Nazareth for Mary, taking seriously what God says in Genesis 2:24, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife.” He may have had other reasons to move to Nazareth as well, but Luke never says Joseph is from Nazareth, only that he took Mary from there to Bethlehem, his “own town.”
The most important reason, though, was to fulfill prophecy. Scripture said that the Savior would be born in Bethlehem, so God arranged that Joseph, a man from Bethlehem, would take Mary, the mother of the Savior, to Bethlehem.
Why didn’t they just stay with family?
They probably did. Luke never mentions an inn or a barn. He says that there was “no guest room.” We assume he means the inn is full, but that’s not what Luke wrote. In the Greek he uses the word kataluma, which refers to a room attached to a family home for honored guests or travelers. Luke uses the same Greek word in chapter 22 when Jesus asks for an “upper room” to celebrate the Passover.
There is a word for an inn: pandocheion. Luke uses that word in the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10. If Luke had meant there was no room in the inn, he would have used that word. He’s saying that when Joseph and Mary arrived, none of the family had an open guest room in their house. Maybe no one in Joseph’s family even had a guest room. Maybe they were all lodging other travelers, or family elders (who would have had more claim to a guest room than a young couple).
Some have speculated that Joseph’s family didn’t give them lodging because of embarrassment. Joseph hadn’t been married to this girl long enough to get her pregnant if everything was on the up and up. That seems unlikely. Even if they felt shame about Mary’s pregnancy, in a culture where hospitality is paramount, children are a treasure, and family is future, it would have been much more shameful to refuse lodging to a pregnant woman.
Why did they put Jesus in a manger if it wasn’t in a barn?
The typical small town family home in Judea didn’t have barns, but the house had a main floor room for the animals, with a short set of steps leading up to the main room where the family lived. This way animals could be led into the house at night, where they are safe and their body heat helps to warm the house. Feeding troughs, or mangers, were stone basins either standing next to or built into the connecting wall, where food scraps could be swept into them. If Mary and Joseph were staying with family, but the family had no space in the guest room for them, the next most logical place is the area where the animals are kept. Warm, close, and safe.
Why did they arrive just in time for the baby to be born?
Luke doesn’t say that. “While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born.” The verbiage indicates that sometime after they arrived Mary went into labor. He doesn’t give a timeframe, but also doesn’t imply it was an emergency. There’s no reason to believe Joseph helped deliver the baby. Chances are slim that Joseph was even present during the birth; no self-respecting Jewish family would allow him to be, or let a young woman have her first child without the aid of other women. Joseph would have been ushered out, and ushered back in to name the baby.
Were the swaddling clothes a special sign that Jesus is a lamb of sacrifice, like they say in the Chosen?
With my apologies to Dallas Jenkins and the rest of the Chosen team, there is no evidence to support this. Luke uses a verb that means, “to swaddle an infant in strips of cloth.” The idea that he was referring to special ceremonial wraps for sacrificial lambs comes from Alfred Edersheim, a 19th century writer who wrote a book called The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. In it he speculated this idea based on Jewish literature from around 200 AD. It was later promoted by the televangelist Jimmy DeYoung in his “Day of Discovery” TV program. But Edersheim’s speculation is shaky at best, and there is no other evidence.
The angels told the shepherds that they would find the baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger so that they would know to look for a newborn. After all, the angel said, “Today the Savior has been born.” In a tiny town like Bethlehem, the only baby born that night was Immanuel.
When did the Wise Men show up?
The wise men visited while they were still in Bethlehem, but we don’t know how long after Jesus’ birth. Some speculate a couple of years. In the whole messy scene with Herod, he orders all males in Bethlehem over the age of 2 to be killed. Matthew says they came to the “house” where the child was, and some think this implies Mary and Joseph had settled in. But it might not have been that long. Herod was known for being excessive, and it might have been weeks before he realized the Wise Men weren’t coming back; killing everyone 2 years old and younger might have just been a safe bet. If Mary and Joseph were in the house of a family member, the Wise Men could easily have arrived shortly after the birth and still “come to the house.” The important thing is not when they came, but what their coming means. It is a fulfillment of the words of Isaiah the prophet: “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (Is. 60:3).
Many of the details of Jesus’ birth that we hold so dear were invented over time, some from misunderstandings of the text, some from well-meaning believers looking to make Jesus’ birth sound more remarkable, more spectacular, more miraculous. But here’s why it’s important to get the details exactly as the Bible gives them: The Bible goes out of its way to say that Jesus is a human being like all of us, and that nothing in his appearance would have made him stand out. Even the details of his birth, as given in the Bible, don’t sound all that remarkable when we look at them closely. What is remarkable is who he really was, what he would say, and what he would do. That is what the Bible asks us to focus on. To see the salvation he brings as our perfect substitute, God with us as one of us.
You don’t have to throw out your Nativity set or burn your Nativity Story or Chosen DVDs. If they help you focus on Jesus, good. But remember that God often works his greatest glory through the unremarkable, the common, the mundane, and the birth of Jesus was exactly that.
*Credit to Kenneth Bailey for many details and references used to write this post. See more in Jesus Through Middle-Eastern Eyes.