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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

New Testament Tales - Out of Bethlehem

Out of Bethlehem

  1. When was Jesus born?
  2. Where was Jesus born?
  3. Where did Jesus’ family come from?
  4. How did the shepherds find Jesus?
  5. How did the wise men find Jesus?
  6. How many kings were there?
  7. What’s the significance of the gifts the wise men gave?
  8. When and why did Jesus’ family go to Egypt?
  9. Which children were killed?
  10. What did Jesus’ family do when they returned to Israel?

The calendar switches from 1 BC (one year “before Christ”) to 1 AD (first “year of the Lord”) with no zero in between. While this makes logical and literary sense, it’s kind of confusing mathematically. Is Jesus meant to be born in the first year before Christ, or is he zero years old in 1 AD? Actually, Jesus’ birth is probably in a completely different year. Herod the Great, who killed the innocents in Bethlehem, died in 4 BC, suggesting Jesus was born before 4 BC. But Quirinius conducted a census in 6 AD, suggesting a later date. (Luke describes this as “the first census when…” so he could have conducted an earlier one too.) Halley’s Comet appeared in 6 BC and could possibly be the same heavenly body as the star that led the wise men (in which case Jesus was born in summer).

Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judah (City of David), as opposed to Bethlehem of Benjamin (Rachel’s tomb), though the two may be the same location absorbed into the larger tribe’s land. We’re told Jesus was laid in a manger, but it’s not clear what sort of stable this implies. Traditional houses would have stables as an integral part of their ground floor, rather like the modern walk-in garage. And traditional hospitality would demand that some distant relative provide lodging for Joseph and Mary, since they were both members of the house of David (a sub-tribe of Judah). Perhaps they were looking for more space because of Mary’s pregnancy, but ended up sharing stables and living rooms with everyone else. Or perhaps, as others have suggested, they stayed in caves outside Bethlehem that doubled as burial chambers and accommodation for sick lambs (in which case the swaddling cloths Jesus was wrapped in might even have been burial cloths.)

Shepherds were not part of polite society when Jesus was born. There would have lived and worked in the hills around Bethlehem, where angels told them of Jesus birth and gave directions to the manger (rather than the stable.) Meanwhile wise men, often called kings, came from the East – the Orient. They could be Babylonian philosophers following prophecies given when the Jews were in exile. Despite their supposedly heretical reliance on astrology, they were welcome at the manger. We should perhaps be wary of being less welcoming than Jesus’ family. The number of wise men is unknown, though three gifts are mentioned, gold for a kind, incense for a god, and myrrh for burial.

Not surprisingly the wise men started out by visiting the local king, Herod. After finding the prophecies about Bethlehem, Herod plotted to kill the infant king—not so much an evil act as a politically expedient one, and not out of character for the time. The number of children killed (fulfilling the prophesy of Rachel crying) was probably quite low since the town was small. Jesus may well have been two years old by this time, living in a house with family in Bethlehem. His parents probably delayed moving back to Nazareth, where they came from, till their child was older. Warned of Herod’s treachery in a dream, Joseph flees south to Egypt where he stays till he hears of Herod’s death. Then the family move back to Nazareth, to Joseph’s business as a carpenter.

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