I'm working on my next books in the Five-Minute Bible Bible Story series for Cape Arago Press, and turning my research and attentions to the New Testament. Today we celebrate Christ's death and resurrection, and next week in our Coffee Break Bible Study Group, we'll look back and the birth and childhood of the real-world, real-history person who died to give us life. In a generous (and powerful) gesture to encourage me with my research and writing, my Coffee Break friends asked me to lead the next few studies based on what I'm learning, so here, for anyone who's interested, are my questions for our first New Testament class: The birth and childhood of Christ.
Stories of Jesus’ Birth and Childhood
1. When was Jesus born? The simple answer would be 0BC or AD, but Roman numerals didn’t have a zero. In fact, the BC/AD calendar was created with the “original intent” that Christ’s birth should be recorded in 1AD.
Read Matthew 2:1: Herod the Great was king of the Jews from 37BC to around 5BC. So Jesus must have been born before 5BC. Herod tried to eliminate Jesus by killing all children under the age of two, so we can guess Jesus was 1-2 years old when the massacre occurred. That would mean Jesus was born around 6 or 5BC
Read Luke 2:1-3: Augustus was emperor from 27BC to 14AD. When Herod the Great died, his territory was divided between his sons. Antipas ruled Galilee and Archelaus ruled in Judea until he was deposed by the Romans in 6AD. Then Quirinius was appointed governor. There is evidence of a census taking place around 6AD, which is consistent with Jesus being born around 6AD, rather than 5BC.
Read Matthew 2:22: Archelaus ruled until 6AD, so the family must have returned from Egypt before 6AD. Now we’re back with a 5BC birth day.
Read Matthew 2:2: What about the star? Jupiter and Saturn were very close in the sky in 7BC, but probably not close enough to seem so important. Halley’s comet was visible in 12BC which is too early for a birth day. But there’s some evidence from China and Korea of a nova visible in 5BC.
What if the passage in Luke is translated wrong? When Luke says “the first” census, the same Greek words could mean “the prior census,” i.e. the one before the one when Quirinius was governor. If we translate Luke that way instead of the traditional way, all the dates and references come together and Jesus was born around 5BC. What the Bible says doesn’t change, but perhaps how we interpret it might as more information comes available.
2. When was John born? Why was he called John?
Read Luke 1:26: John must have been about six months older than Jesus. (If Jesus was born in winter, John must have been born in summer, but the Bible doesn’t tell us about the time of year—see 4.)
Read Luke 1:13: John’s birth was prophesied to his father, Zacharias, while he was in the Inner Temple. Zacharias would have served two weeks a year at the Temple with his group of priests. Lots were taken to determine who would carry coals from the altar of sacrifice to the altar of incense in the Inner Temple. No priest was allowed to do this more than once in his lifetime, and Zacharias’ name finally came up. The angel stood by the altar of incense, just outside the curtain to the Holy of Holies (the same curtain that was torn in two at Christ’s death).
Read Luke 1:60: In the Old Testament we’re often told the meaning of names. In the New Testament it seems to be assumed that readers will understand. In Hebrew, John is believed to have meant “God is gracious.”
Do you choose your children’s names to mean something? How would you feel about someone calling their child Charity for example? When people look up the meaning of their name, how is that different from looking up their horoscope (which presumably is not approved in the Bible)?
3. What happened when Jesus’ mother met John’s mother? Did Mary write a psalm?
Read Luke 1:46-55: Does this remind you of 1 Samuel 2:1-10?
Is it fair to assume Mary knew Hannah’s song? If so, why might she have been thinking of Hannah? How might all three women—Mary, Elizabeth and Hannah—be connected? And how do you feel about the idea of women writing psalms?
4. How well did Jesus and John know each other?
Read Luke 1:26: John is probably six months older than Jesus. They would have lived near each other during Jesus’ first two years, until his family went to Egypt. But they may not have seen much of each other in later years. Presumably Mary (and her mother) knew Elizabeth well enough to be comfortable with Mary staying there just before John’s birth. So it’s possible the boys still met each other fairly regularly, perhaps whenever Mary and Joseph came to Jerusalem.
Do you think John’s prenatal recognition of Jesus persisted after he was born? Did John know who Jesus was at his baptism?
5. What time of year was Jesus born?
It’s popular to claim that Christmas takes place in December because of Christians trying to take over pagan festivals. But that may not be true. Planting crops at the right time would be very important in ancient civilizations, so it’s not surprising that most civilizations celebrate the solstices. But Christmas doesn’t fall on the solstice.
There is a Jewish tradition whereby creation and redemption should occur at the same time of year. Early Christians may have used a similar theological concept in determining Jesus’ birthdate. If Jesus died at Passover, then Mary should have conceived him at Passover also. In 200AD Tertullian calculated that Jesus died on the 14th of Nisan, or March 25th. Thus March 25th became the date to celebrate the Annunciation, and December 25th the date of Jesus’ birth. Meanwhile the Eastern church translated the date of Jesus’ death to April 6th and therefore celebrate Christmas on January 6th. Our twelve days of Christmas come from combining the two dates.
As to whether it “really” was winter that first Christmas, we can’t tell. Sheep might well have been on the hills in winter as long as it wasn’t snowing. It does snow near Jerusalem and in the hills, but not regularly and not every winter.
Is it a problem if traditional Christianity has co-opted a pagan celebration and combined it with Christmas? In the light of Acts 17:22-31 (Paul’s “unknown god” sermon) what advantages or disadvantages might there have been to Christianity choosing a similar date for Christ’s birth as the date of pagan celebrations?
6. Where was Jesus born? The simple answer is Bethlehem, but which Bethlehem, and why might it have been an appropriate place?
Read Joshua 19:15: There is a Bethlehem in Zebulon, about 6 miles from Nazareth. But this wouldn’t be Bethlehem of Judah. Bethlehem Ephrathah suggests Bethlehem was in the hill country of Ephraim, though it looks more likely to have been on the Judah-Benjamin border. Some say there must have been two Bethlehems there also—Bethlehemphraim and Bethlehemjudah—but cities within a territory didn’t always belong to the tribe of the territory (Levite cities of refuge for example, or Judahite cities in the territory of Simeon). Bethlehem is often called Bethlehemjudah in the Old Testament, presumably as much for its slightly unconventional location and population as to distinguish it from Bethlehem in Zebulon.
Bethlehem is where Rachel died giving birth to Benjamin (Genesis 35:16-19). It’s the ancestral home of Naomi, where Ruth meets Boaz (Ruth 4:3). It’s where David tended sheep (1 Samuel 16:10-12). And it’s where Micah prophesied the Messiah would come from (Micah 5:2).
There are lots of wonderful symbolic reasons why the Christ might be born in Bethlehem. Some people claim his birth story is just a story, but God frequently uses symbols to show a deeper meaning in events; Melchisedek’s bread and wine, Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, the Passover lamb, etc… How would you answer someone who says the story must be made up, and birth in Bethlehem is just a convenient fiction?
7. If Joseph belongs to the tribe of Judah, so why don’t Mary and Joseph live near Jerusalem rather than in Galilee?
Read Luke 1:39: Elizabeth lives in the hill country near Jerusalem—probably near Bethlehem too. It’s a logical place for a priest’s family to live—near to the Temple for Zechariah’s yearly service. But lots of priestly families left Judah before the birth of Christ, in rebellion against Roman corruption of religious rule. Mary’s mother (related to Elizabeth) may have belonged to one of those families. Traditionally she’s call Anne, and she may well have lived in Nazareth.
Read Mark 6:1-4: Jesus and Joseph were carpenters—or maybe stonemasons; the translation’s not clear. Either way, if Joseph and his family lived in Bethlehem (which we know is Joseph’s ancestral home), they would have been pressed into service by Herod the Great when he built his great fortification, the Herodium, near their home town. Perhaps Joseph’s family moved to Nazareth at that time to retain their freedom.
Read Matthew 2:22: Mary and Joseph probably stayed in Bethlehem after Jesus was born, perhaps waiting until he was old enough to travel, or perhaps meaning to settle there. After their stay in Egypt it seems they intended to return to Bethlehem, but Archelaus was a dangerous and violent man. Since they also had family in Nazareth they went there instead.
Do historical details like this make you more likely to believe the story’s not made up? Might they help when you talk to non-Christians about Christmas?
8. Was Jesus born in a stable? What sort of inn was there no room at?
Read Luke 2:7: The word we traditionally translate as “inn” could also mean “guest room.” Since Joseph was returning to his ancestral hometown, he must have had family in Bethlehem and he must have expected to stay with them. But, given the chaos of the census, the guest rooms may have been filled with other relatives. Still the family would insist on Joseph and Mary staying with them somehow, and the manger may have been in an adjoining stabling area—rather like a modern garage—attached to the house. It could have provided the most private place for Mary to give birth. Family members and the family midwife would probably have attended the birth, contrary to tradition. Rather than a smelly dark stable, we should probably imagine bedding down in the barn in Little House on the Prairie or the Waltons.
The stable was probably a stone with a hollowed out top. It sounds uncomfortable, but beds were probably stone blocks too—just slightly longer blocks. And a guest room may well have been smaller and colder than a stable.
The traditional view of innkeepers shouting “No room” and slamming the door in the face of the family is filled with symbolism and useful lesson material, but it’s also very offensive to middle-eastern Christians. How willing are you to let go of a traditional image in favor of something like the above interpretation? Would it worry you if your children or grandchildren were taught this version of the story?
9. Where did the shepherds come from?
Read Luke 2:8: Since the Jerusalem Temple required lambs for sacrifice, there were lots of shepherds in the hill country near Bethlehem (even in winter). Sophisticated Jews looked down on animal husbandry by then, just like the Egyptians did, so the shepherds were lower-class citizens.
Can you think of other times where God spoke to someone less well-respected rather than to a prophet or priest?
10. Who greeted Jesus on his first visit to the Temple?
Read Luke 2:21-38: Jewish law maintained that a woman was unclean for a week following childbirth. Afterward, if her firstborn child was a live boy child, she had to take the child to the temple. It wouldn’t have been a very long journey from Bethlehem.
Simeon’s prophecy is familiar as the Nunc Dimittis but we’re not told many details of Anna’s words, just that she told everyone what she knew.
Did you notice, Simeon is happy to leave this world having seen a baby? He doesn’t feel the need to wait and see how things will play out. How trusting are we of God fulfilling what he’s promised when all that’s clear is a very small first step?
11. Where did the kings come from? The Bible says “the East” but where is the East?
Read Matthew 2:1-2,11: The word magi might mean oriental scientists or astrologers. It is also the title given to rulers in the Parthian dynasty, centered on Babylon where lots of Jews familiar with Daniel’s prophecies still lived. Parthians were Zorastrians and believed in astrology. They could well have been combining their own and Jewish beliefs to conclude that the Messiah had been born. Daniel 9:24-27, for example, predicts a time period between the Jews returning to Jerusalem and the death of Annointed One.
The journey from Babylon to Bethlehem would take several months, even a year or more, so, if the star was the one recorded by the Chinese, Jesus was probably a toddler by the time the magi arrived. Mary and Joseph may have been fairly settled in their own home in Bethlehem by then.
Why don’t we condemn the magi for following a star? Isn’t that astrology, and isn’t it forbidden in the Bible?
Epiphany is sometimes called the Gentile Christmas? How do you view God’s choice to announce the Messiah’s birth to Jewish rejects (shepherds) and Gentile leaders?
Traditional crèches assume three wise men because there were three gifts, often portraying them as being of three different nationalities. Does it seem likely that they came from such different nations? What symbolism do the different nationalities portray? And what symbolism might the three gifts carry?
12. Why did the family flee to Egypt?
Herod’s kingdom was pretty large under Roman rule. The family probably went straight to the coast and followed the Roman road southwest along the shore of the Mediterranean Sea until they reached Egypt. Herod would have no influence there, Joseph would be able to find work, and the family could disappear in an exile Jewish conclave in an Egyptian metropolis.
Does this mean it’s okay to run away from confrontation, or even from a potential witnessing opportunity?
13. Why does Matthew say “He will be called a Nazarene”?
Read Matt 2:23: Some say Matthew miswrote and meant Nazirite. But Jesus wasn’t a Nazirite—John was.
Nazareth was a pretty unimportant place, often scorned by inhabitants of Judea (perhaps even because refugee priests had fled there?), so calling someone a Nazarene might have been a colloquial way of insulting them. Matthew may have been paraphrasing passages that promise the Messiah will be rejected. Alternatively, Matthew may have been quoting a prophecy we no longer have access to.
Which explanation do you think more likely? Suppose you picked the second and then archeologists found the missing prophecy? How would that change your view of the Bible?
14. Was Jesus a child prodigy?
Read Luke 2:41-49: Jesus’ visiting the Temple at around age 12 was normal practice. He was almost a man and was studying for his Bar Mitzvah. Asking questions and being questioned by the priests was exactly what should have happened. Staying so late and taking it all so seriously was different though.
Apocryphal gospels tell of Jesus raising birds and friends from the dead and generally startling everyone around him with his miracles. The real gospel tells us of him surprising priests with his understanding of the Law. Which sounds more like the Jesus we read about later? Do you think the gospel writers—especially Luke—would have included childhood miracles if they were real?
15. Did Jesus have brothers and sisters?
Read John 19:26-27: As Mary’s oldest son, it was Jesus’ responsibility to provide for his mother. On his death, this responsibility should have fallen on the oldest of his remaining brothers. Since Jesus asks the disciple John to care for her, some Christians believe this means Jesus had no brothers, and probably no siblings. Others take Jesus’ handing his mother a disciple’s care as a demonstration of the fact that all believers are now his family.
Read Mark 6:3, Matthew 13:55-56: These verses suggest that Jesus has four brothers, James, Joses, Simon and Judas. John 7:5 mentions brothers who do not believe Jesus is the Messiah. Galations 1:19 mentions James, brother of the Lord, who eventually becomes Bishop of Jerusalem. These brothers could be the younger children of Mary and Joseph, or the older children of Joseph and a previous wife, or just cousins. No one can be sure.
Christian churches are divided over how they interpret the idea of Jesus’ brothers. Each interpretation includes a wealth of symbolism, but none can be proved. Do we, as brothers and sisters in Christ, really need to argue and prove a definitive answer, or is it permitted to “agree to disagree” on such topics—or even just admit that we don’t know?
16. Was Jesus really a son of David?
Read Matthew 1:1-17, Luke 3:23-38: The two genealogies are different—is Joseph Heli’s son or Jacob’s for example? One suggestion is that Luke’s genealogy really represents the background of Mary rather than Joseph (though that’s not what it says). Another is that Matthew’s very stylized genealogy with its repeated sets of fourteen is a Jewish “legal” genealogy, representing Jesus’ legal right to be called the Messiah, while Luke’s is more biological. Matthew would leave out various names and include the tribal leaders’ designation rather than the individual parent’s name, while Luke would look for real people, tying all peoples to the real Adam and God.
What do you think? Does it help or hinder your faith to find such apparent contradictions? Might the different emphases still have something of value to offer today?