JESUS, HIS BIRTH AND THE CHRISTMAS STORY

JESUS AND THE CHRISTMAS STORY

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Ethiopian Leaf from
Gunda Gunde Gospels
Scholars don't know for sure when Jesus was born. They believe his birth took place sometime between 4 B.C. and 7 B.C. The Gospel of Mathews says that Jesus was born in the last two years of Herod's reign, which would place his birth around 4 B.C. Some scholars believe the reference to Jesus being born at the time of the first registration in Judea around 7 B.C. or 6 B.C. is probably more accurate. Although a big deal is made about Christmas and the virgin birth what happens after Jesus died lies at the heart of Christianity.

Jesus was probably born in the spring, summer or the fall, which is when shepherds [are] abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks." There is a reference to shepherds watching over their flocks at night, something they usually do in the hottest months of summer or during the lambing season in spring not in winter. In the winter the animals were kept in corrals. The December 25th date was ascribe to Jesus's birth in the 6th century ostensibly to coincide with local winter solstice festivals.

According to the BBC: “Jesus' birth, known as the nativity, is described in the New Testament of the Bible. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke give different accounts. It is from them that the nativity story is pieced together. Both accounts tell us that Jesus was born to a woman called Mary who was engaged to Joseph, a carpenter. The Gospels state that Mary was a virgin when she became pregnant. In Luke's account Mary was visited by an angel who brought the message that she would give birth to God's son. According to Matthew's account, Joseph was visited by an angel who persuaded him to marry Mary rather than send her away or expose her pregnancy. Matthew tells us about some wise men who followed a star that led them to Jesus' birthplace and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Luke tells how shepherds were led to Bethlehem by an angel. [Source: June 22, 2009, BBC |::|]

“According to tradition, Joseph and Mary travelled to Bethlehem shortly before Jesus' birth. Joseph had been ordered to take part in a census in his home town of Bethlehem. All Jewish people had to be counted so the Roman Emperor could determine how much money to collect from them in tax. Those who had moved away from their family homes, like Joseph, had to return to have their names entered in the Roman records. |::|

“Joseph and Mary set off on the long, arduous 90-mile journey from Nazareth along the valley of the River Jordan, past Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Mary travelled on a donkey to conserve her energy for the birth. But when they arrived in Bethlehem the local inn was already full with people returning for the census. The innkeeper let them stay in the rock cave below his house which was used as a stable for his animals. It was here, next to the noise and filth of the animals, that Mary gave birth to her son and laid him in a manger. |::|

See Christmas, Holidays

Websites and Resources: Christianity Britannica on Christianity britannica.com//Christianity ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/christ.htm ; History of Christianity history-world.org/jesus_christ ; BBC on Christianity bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ;Wikipedia article on Christianity Wikipedia ; Early Christian Writing earlychristianwritings.com ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Christian Answers christiananswers.net ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library www.ccel.org ; Early Christian Art oneonta.edu/farberas/arth/arth212/Early_Christian_art ; Early Christian Images jesuswalk.com/christian-symbols ; Early Christian and Byzantine Images belmont.edu/honors/byzart2001/byzindex ; Jesus and the Historical Jesus ; Britannica on Jesus britannica.com Jesus-Christ ; Historical Jesus Theories earlychristianwritings.com ; Wikipedia article on Historical Jesus Wikipedia ; Jesus Seminar Forum virtualreligion.net ; Life and Ministry of Jesus Christ bible.org ; Jesus Central jesuscentral.com ; Catholic Encyclopedia: Jesus Christ newadvent.org ; Bible and Biblical History: Bible Gateway and the New International Version (NIV) of The Bible biblegateway.com ; King James Version of the Bible gutenberg.org/ebooks ; Bible History Online bible-history.com ; Biblical Archaeology Society biblicalarchaeology.org ; Internet Jewish History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) ccel.org

Is the Christmas Story True?

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Bosch's Adoration of The Child
Kristin Romey wrote in National Geographic: “The Church of the Nativity” in Bethlehem “is the oldest Christian church still in daily use, but not all scholars are convinced that Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem. Only two of the four Gospels mention his birth, and they provide diverging accounts: the traditional manger and shepherds in Luke; the wise men, massacre of children, and flight to Egypt in Matthew. Some suspect that the Gospel writers located Jesus’ Nativity in Bethlehem to tie the Galilean peasant to the Judaean city prophesied in the Old Testament as the birthplace of the Messiah. [Source: Kristin Romey, National Geographic, November 28, 2017 ^|^]

“Archaeology is largely silent on the matter. After all, what are the odds of unearthing any evidence of a peasant couple’s fleeting visit two millennia ago? Excavations at and around the Church of the Nativity have so far turned up no artefacts dating to the time of Christ, nor any sign that early Christians considered the site sacred. The first clear evidence of veneration comes from the third century, when the theologian Origen of Alexandria visited Palestine and noted, “In Bethlehem there is shown the cave where [Jesus] was born.” Early in the fourth century, the emperor Constantine sent an imperial delegation to the Holy Land to identify places associated with the life of Christ and hallow them with churches and shrines. Having located what they believed was the site of the Nativity grotto, the delegates erected an elaborate church, the forerunner of the present-day basilica. ^|^

“Many of the scholars I spoke to are neutral on the question of Christ’s birthplace, the physical evidence being too elusive to make a call. To their minds, the old adage that I learned in Archaeology 101—“Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence”—applies here.” ^|^

Differences in the Gospels on the Story of Jesus’s Birth

There are a lot of discrepancies in the telling of the Christmas story. In Matthew’s Nativity, the angel’s Annunciation is made to Joseph. In Luke’s it is to Mary (See Annunciation below). Matthew offers the Three Wise and places the baby Jesus on a horse. Luke features shepherds and a manger. Mark and Luke place the birth in Bethlehem but have different stories on how that happened to be. The Gospels of Matthew and Mark describe the story of Jesus’s birth using different traditions. The “infancy narratives” that describe the Christmas story were prologues added to the Gospels of Matthew and Mark long after the other parts of the Gospels were written.

James Martin wrote in the Washington Post: “ Even knowledgeable Christians may expect to find the familiar story of Christmas in each of the four Gospels: the journey of Mary on a donkey accompanied by Saint Joseph, the child’s birth in a manger surrounded by animals, shepherds and angels, with the Wise Men appearing shortly afterward. [Source: James Martin, Washington Post, December 16, 2011, Martin is a Jesuit priest, editor at large of America and author of "Seven Last Words." |+|]

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Immaculate Conception
“But two of the Gospels say nothing about Jesus’s birth. The Gospel of Mark — the earliest of the Gospels, written roughly 30 years after Jesus’s crucifixion — does not have a word about the Nativity. Instead it begins with the story of John the Baptist, who announces the impending arrival of the adult Jesus of Nazareth. The Gospel of John is similarly silent about Jesus’s birth. |+|

The two Gospels that do mention what theologians call the “infancy narratives” differ on some significant details. Matthew seems to describe Mary and Joseph as living in Bethlehem, fleeing to Egypt and then moving to Nazareth. The Gospel of Luke, on the other hand, has the two originally living in Nazareth, traveling to Bethlehem in time for the birth and then returning home. Both Gospels, though, place Jesus’s birthplace in Bethlehem.

Annunciation and the Immaculate Conception

The Annunciation (“Announcement”) marks the announcement by an angel that Mary will become pregnant and give birth to Jesus. According to the Bible, Mary became mysteriously pregnant while a virgin betrothed to Joseph, who considered divorcing her.

In Luke the angel Gabriel delivers the news to Mary, greeting her with the often recited, “Hail, Mary, full of grace.” According to Luke 1:30-35, 38: "And the angel said to her, 'Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall give the him name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever.'"

"And Mary said to the angel, 'How can this be, since I have no husband?' And the angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you, therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the son of God'...And Mary said, 'Behold, I am a handmaiden of the Lord, let it be me according to your word.”"

In Matthew an unnamed angel brings news to Joseph. In Matthew 1:20-21: "an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, 'Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.'"

The idea of a virgin birth was nothing new. The Romans used the idea in a story about birth of Caesar and his conception by the God Apollo. According to a prophecy in the Book of Isaiah the Messiah, would be born to a “virgin.” Some historians have suggested the idea of the miraculous birth may been constructed to hide accusations that Jesus was a bastard and that he father was a Roman soldier named Panthera. The notion of Immaculate Conception, that Mary was preserved from original sin by virtue of a special grace from God, is a Catholic concept made infallible dogma by Pope Pius IX in 1854.

In his book What the Gospels Meant , the writer and thinker Gary Wills said it “is not gynecological or obstetric teaching, but a theological one.” The historical Jesus scholar Raymond Brown said, Matthew and Luke “regarded the virginal conception as historical, but the modern intensity about historicity was not theirs.”

Bethlehem and the Birth of Jesus

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marker for Jesus birthplace in Bethlehem
According to the Bible, Jesus was born in a grotto or a stable in Bethlehem in the present-day West Bank only five miles away from Jerusalem. According to a passage from the second chapter of Luke: "And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger.” A manger is generally thought of as a stable. A manger, according to one dictionary, is a box or trough where cattle eat.

Joseph and Mary, who was in the later stages of her pregnancy, left Nazareth to go to Bethlehem to be counted in a census and pay taxes to the Roman Empire, the New Testament says. Mary went into labor before reaching Bethlehem and sought refuge in a manger because there “was no room in the inn,” which was full because of the census.

According to Luke, shepherds alerted by angels gathered around the stable, where Jesus was born. There are still shepherds in the Bethlehem area that live pretty much as shepherds did in the time of Jesus. They often sleep in the open air with their flocks at night to protect them from dogs and jackals. There is no record in the Bible of any animals being present at the time of Jesus’s birth.

Birth of Jesus

According to Luke 2:11 an angel proclaimed: “Behold I bring you good tidings of great joy...for unto to you is born this day in the city of David, a savior, which is Christ the Lord.” And “suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to men.”

According to Matthew, Jesus and his parents stayed for a while in Bethlehem. Eighty days after his birth Jesus was circumcised according to Jewish custom. Two pigeons are believed to have been sacrificed, which was the custom at the time.

Many historians have doubts about the Christmas story. The beloved Christian Nativity scene, for example, was invented by St. Francis in 1223. Some doubt Jesus was even born in Bethlehem. In Hebrew, Bethlehem means “House of Bread,”and could refer to almost any place where flour was milled and made into bread. The scholars hold that Bethlehem was injected into the story to correspond with Old Testament prophecies. Bethlehem was King David’s hometown. In the early centuries when Christianity was trying to establish itself that detail may have been thought of as critical to win Jewish converts.

Scholars believe that Jesus was probably born uneventfully in Nazareth. They argue that Jesus was known as Jesus of Nazareth not Jesus Bethlehem and say that the Gospel of Mark, written closest to Jesus’s lifetime makes no mention of Bethlehem and refers to Nazareth as Jesus’s hometown.

Book: The Birth of the Messiah by Father Raymond E. Brown (Doubleday). Brown is regarded as one of the great historical Jesus scholars. He died in 1998.

Was Jesus Really Born in Bethlehem?

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Altar in the Grotto of the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem
Reza Aslan wrote in the Washington Post: “The first Christians seem to have had little interest in Jesus’s early years. Stories about His birth and childhood are conspicuously absent in the earliest written documents about Him: the letters of Paul (written between A.D. 50 and 60) and the Gospel of Mark (written after A.D. 70). But as interest in the person of Jesus increased, the nascent Christian community tried to fill in the gaps of His youth to align His life and mission with the myriad, and often conflicting, prophecies about the messiah in the Hebrew scriptures. [Source: Reza Aslan, Washington Post, September 26, 2013. Reza Aslan is the author of “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” <*>]

“One of those prophecies requires the messiah, as a descendant of King David, to be born in David’s city: Bethlehem. But Jesus was so identified with Nazareth, the city where most scholars believe He was born, that He was known throughout his life as “the Nazarene.” The early Christians needed a creative solution to get Jesus’s parents to Bethlehem so He could be born in the same city as David. <*>

“For the evangelist Luke, the answer lay in a census called by Rome in A.D. 6, which he claims required every subject to travel to his ancestral home to be counted. Since Jesus’s father, Joseph, was from Bethlehem, he and his wife, Mary, left Nazareth for the city of David, where Jesus was born. And thus the prophecy was fulfilled. <*>

“Yet this Roman census encompassed only Judea, Samaria and Idumea — not Galilee, where Jesus’s family lived. What’s more, since the purpose of a census was taxation, Roman law assessed an individual’s property in the place of his residence, not his birthplace. Simply put, Luke places Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem not because it took place there but because that story fulfills the words of the prophet Micah: “But you Bethlehem .?.?. from you shall come for me a ruler in Israel.” <*>

Book “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” by Reza Aslan, Random House. $27.

Myths about the Nativity

Candida Moss of the University of Notre Dame wrote in the Washington Post: “Jesus is the reason for the season, they say. This is undoubtedly true, but despite what Nativity plays and Hollywood epics would have us believe, the story of the birth of Jesus is more complicated than many people think. Between the difficulty in reconciling different versions of the tale and the 2,000 years of popular interpretation and culture layered on top of them, much of what people commonly know about the story of Jesus’ birth, from the date to where it took place, is wildly different from what the Gospels have to say. [Source: Candida Moss, Washington Post, December 16, 2016. Moss is a professor of New Testament and the University of Notre Dame /+\]


“As depicted in Nativity creches and Renaissance paintings such as Giotto di Bondone’s Nativity scenes and Sandro Botticelli’s “The Mystical Nativity,” Jesus was born in a simple stable. Generations of pastors and priests have used this notion as evidence that Jesus had a humble birth. As a theological argument, that’s true. But this particular detail of the story isn’t in the Bible. Luke 2:7 states that Mary gave birth to Jesus and “laid Him in a manger, because there was no place for them at the inn.” This makes it sound as if they couldn’t get a room at a Holiday Inn, but the Greek word “kataluma,” which is commonly translated as “inn,” doesn’t mean a hotel in any modern sense. Greek has a different word for a hostel, “pandocheion,” which Luke uses elsewhere in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Clearly, if Luke had wanted to say that Mary and Joseph were turned away from a hotel, he had the vocabulary to do so. /+\

“The more likely interpretation, as New Testament scholar Stephen Carlson has argued, is that Joseph and Mary intended to stay with his relatives in Bethlehem and that there wasn’t enough room in the guest quarters — typically located in the upper level of a house — to accommodate an imminent delivery. So, Mary had to give birth elsewhere, most likely in the main room of the house, on the lower floor. There’s no mention of animals being present, but the detail of the manger seems to be what has led to the image of a stable — and many live Nativity scenes featuring farm animals. /+\

“When people talk about a manger scene, or Jesus being born in a manger, or a star shining down on the manger, it’s not clear they always understand that “manger” refers not to a barn but to Jesus’ makeshift crib. A manger is a trough used to feed animals. The word is derived from the French verb “manger,” meaning “to eat.” In 1st-century Judean houses, mangers were found both outside and inside the home, sometimes separating an interior space for people from a space where animals were kept. Thus, in the Nativity story, Mary may have had one at her disposal, despite not being in the immediate vicinity of a stable.” /+\

Three Wise Men

After the birth the Magi (the Three Wise Men) arrived in the area and asked: “Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and are come to worship him.” They were told by the chief priests of Herod to look in Bethlehem. They followed the star and found Jesus. Their arrival is celebrated with the feast of Epiphany.

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Three Wise Men
The Three Wise Men brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, and were warned in a dream not to report anything to Herod and return quietly to where they came from "by another way." In Luke they surrender their ancient powers and strength to Jesus. They said they came from the land of Shir, possibly India or China.

The wise men were given the names Balthazar, Gasper and Melchoir in the 6th century (the Gospels don’t even say how many wise men there were). They are thought to have been Zoroastrians who traveled 1,600 kilometers from Iran, through present-day Iraq, Syria, Jordan to Bethlehem. By one account they are buried in Iran in Saveh (near the Caspian Sea). In another account they lived to the ages of 116, 112 and 109 and their remains are in Cologne, Germany.

Some scholars believe that the wise men were intended to be portrayed as fools rather than wise men. They say that their following a star was intended to be humorous and say that asking Herod for directions to the child was a dumb thing because Herod wanted to kill the child. The point, scholars say, was to show that even the most foolish people can find truth with God.

Star of Bethlehem

The Three Wise Men as everyone knows followed a star to Bethlehem. Accessing the path of the star described in Matthew, Brown wrote, “A star that rose in the east, appeared over Jerusalem , turned south to Bethlehem, and then came to rest over a house would have constituted a celestial phenomena unparalleled in astronomical history.”

Scientist have speculated that this star may have been a planetary conjunction, a comet or an unusually bright star (perhaps a super nova) seen for 70 days and reported by Chinese astronomers in the spring of 5 B.C.

Between September 5 B.C. and on April 17, 6 B.C. Jupiter appeared from earth to pause in orbit as the moon moved in front of Jupiter (the “kings” planet) while it was in the constellation of Aries, which was an ancient symbol of Judea to Greek and Roman astrologers. Some scholars have suggested that this was the star of Bethlehem.

Johannes Kepler suggested that Jesus was born in 7 B.C. because that year there was an unusual alignment of Saturn, Mars and Jupiter in December that could have produced a bright object in the sky described as the Star of Bethlehem.

Book: The Star of Bethlehem: the LegPalestine acy of the Magi by Michael R. Molnar (Rutgers University Press, 1999) and The Star of Bethlehem: An Astronomer’s View by Mark Kidger (Princeton University Press, 1999)

Myths About Three Wise Men

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Bethlehem Star
Candida Moss of the University of Notre Dame wrote in the Washington Post: “ According to the Christmas creche on display in St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City, the best-dressed attendees at the birth of Jesus were the three wise men. Often mistaken for kings — think of the Christmas carol “We Three Kings” — these visitors from the east are described in the Gospel of Matthew with the Greek word “magoi,” or wise men. Nothing about the story’s language suggests that these visitors were monarchs or even that they were three in number. People commonly think there were three because of the gifts enumerated in the Gospel of Matthew: We are told that they brought gold, frankincense and myrrh, but there could as easily have been two, four or eight wise men as three. [Source: Candida Moss, Washington Post, December 16, 2016. Moss is a professor of New Testament and the University of Notre Dame /+\]

“There’s also no indication that the wise men visited Jesus as He lay in the manger, as is often shown on Christmas cards. When King Herod anxiously meets with them in Matthew 2:16, he thinks his reign might be threatened by the child they’ve come to visit, so he orders all boys 2 years old and younger slain. Thus Jesus could have been as old as 2 — a walking, talking toddler — when the wise men arrived.”“/+\

There may have been more than three wise men. Brent Landau, professor of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma, said, and that Magi does not refer to the Zoroastrianism of ancient Persia, but it means they pray in silence, unusual in their time. Landau said, "There are actually some parts later on in the story that almost seem to portray the wise men as a group that is roughly the size of a small army."

Ancient Manuscript Offers New Insights on the Three Wise Men

In 2011, it was revealed that an ancient document found in the Vatican offered new insights into the story of the Nativity and the Three Wise Men. Simon de Bruxelles wrote in The Times: “The Revelation of the Magi claims to be a first-hand account of their journey to pay tribute to the son of God but has only now been translated from ancient Syriac. Brent Landau, professor of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma, spent two years deciphering the fragile manuscript. It is an 8th-century copy of a story first written down nearly half a millennia earlier, less than 100 years after the Gospel of Matthew, the original source for the Bible story. [Source: Simon de Bruxelles, The Times, December 21 2011 |>|]

Landau had just finished learning ancient Syriac, a language similar to Aramaic, which Jesus Christ may have spoken, when he began translating the text. He said, "Basically I conclude that the text was written in the late second, early third century, which doesn't make it as early as the canonical gospels of the New Testament, which were written in the first century; but on the other hand, it does make it quite an ancient text by most standards of early Christian literature." His effort became the book "Revelation of the Magi." [Source: Carole Mikita, Deseret News, Jan. 6, 2011]

“The newly translated tale differs in major respects from Matthew's very brief account. The Magi of the Bible have long been associated with Persian mystics, but those in The Revelation are from much farther afield - from the semi-mythical land of Shir, now associated with ancient China. They are said to be the descendants of Seth, the third son of Adam, and to belong to a sect that believed in silent prayer. |>|


“Perhaps the biggest divergence from the traditional Nativity story is that according to The Revelation there were "scores" of Magi. Matthew himself does not give a number but the traditional myth is that there were three wise men, probably because they brought with them three gifts. The manuscript has been in the Vatican library for more than 250 years, but nothing else is known of its provenance. |>|

“Syriac was the language spoken by early Christians from Syria and throughout present-day Iraq and Iran. Although the new story is not thought to have been written by the Magi as it purports, Professor Landau believes its anonymous authors closely identified with the mystics and the sect to which they belonged. It gives a detailed account of their prayers and rituals. He said: "Somebody was really fascinated by the wise men to have created this big, long story and tell it from their perspective. A great deal of thought and imagination has gone into it. There are many details of strange rituals, praying and silence. There is a description of a sacred mountain and purification at a sacred spring. The detail is so great I wonder if it is the community's actual practices that are being described. Nobody knows where Matthew got the story from, so along with Matthew's Gospel this is as close as you can get to the Magi."

“The story relates that Seth passed down a prophecy that a star would appear that would signal the birth of God in human form. The Magi waited thousands of years until the day the star appeared. Professor Landau said: "It transformed into a small luminous human being who was Christ himself in a pre-existent, celestial form. It is saying that Jesus Christ and the Star of Bethlehem are the same thing and Jesus Christ can transform himself into anything. The star guides them to Bethlehem and into a cave where it transforms into a human infant who tells them to go back and be preachers of the Gospel."” |>|

Carole Mikita wrote in the Deseret News, “The most surprising point is when Christ speaks to them. Landau wrote, "So Christ, being a divine being, is able to appear as a star, that's how he first appears to the wise men, and then transforms himself into a luminous kind of, a glowing, talking infant." "This is what Christ says to the Magi when he appears," Landau said. He called this the smoking gun. He said the most important passage of the text was: "And I am everywhere because I am a ray of light, whose light has shown in this world from the majesty of my Father, who has sent me to fulfill everything that was spoken about me in the entire world and in every land by unspeakable mysteries and to accomplish the commandment by my glorious Father, who by the prophets preached about me to the contentious house in the same way as for you as befits your faith, it was revealed to you about me." In other words, the journey of faith is not simply about taking gifts to worship Christ. It is about the gifts of knowledge that Christ gives to them. [Source: Carole Mikita, Deseret News, Jan. 6, 2011]

Landau said "Revelation of the Magi" falls into the category of apocryphal writings, which many scholars and students use to broaden their understanding of the Bible or early Christianity. "I see great value in the Apocrypha," Peterson said, "and from a Latter-day Saint perspective, we're allowed to do that. We're told there are things in it that are true, things that are not, read it with discernment. But we're not told, 'don't read it.' We're not told, 'it's all false.' So, there's value to me in this kind of text." Daniel C. Peterson, professor of Islamic Studies and Arabic at BYU, was also fascinated by the words of the Christ child. He said, "It talks about him having revealed himself to all nations. That in some form or another, they've all known and that is extremely striking."

Herod and the Massacre of the Innocents

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Herod by Tissot
It os said that when King Herod, the Jewish Roman leader of Judea, heard rumors that a king of the Jews had been born, he was worried that the child would grow up and challenge him for power. He ordered the execution of all male infants under the age of two.

The death of Herod the Great roughly coincided with the birth of Jesus. Herod ruled Judea from 37 B.C. to A.D. 4. The Bible says he initiated a murder of all the infants in Bethlehem in an attempt to get rid of the baby Jesus, forcing Joseph, Mary and Jesus to flee. Matthew 2:16 reads: “Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men. After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child's life are dead." So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel.— Matthew 2:16 |::|

Joseph was warned in a dream of Herod's plan. According to Matthew 2:12-16: Joseph "rose and took the child and his mother by night, and departed to Egypt...Herod, when he saw he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all the region who 2 years old or under." Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus stayed in Egypt until Herod died. Then they moved back to Nazareth.

It is unlikely that slaughter of the male children took place as Christ was born four years after Herod died. There is no historical record of the event taking place. The only evidence is from the Bible. Only one verse in one gospel --- Matthew --- mentions it. The event is notably absent from the other gospels. It seems if that many children were killed that there would have been. The only record is the passage in Matthew. A similar episode---the Pharaoh’s murder of all the male infants of Israel in Moses’s time---is described in Exodus .

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Nativity Church
Herod the Great was a Jewish leader installed by the Romans. Regarded as puppet king of the Roman Senate, he took power in 37 B.C. and ruled until around 4 B.C. and served under Julius Caesar, Mark Antony and the Emperor Augustus. He is remembered most for building the Great Temple for the Jews in Jerusalem and ordering the death of male children in Bethlehem after Jesus was born. His son Herod Antipas was involved in Jesus’s trial. He was the ruler of Judea at time of the death of John the Baptist and Jesus. See Jewish History, the Bible and the Torah.

According to the BBC: “If the soothsayers of the time were correct, the birth of a new King of the Jews was imminent and threatened Herod's position. In the massacre of newborn babies of Bethlehem found in the Nativity story, King Herod is portrayed as a tyrant prepared to kill infants who could eventually challenge him. It seems difficult to imagine such a massacre was not mentioned by Josephus, a first-century historian who described other events in Herod's life. One could be a sceptical of Matthew's account of a massacre of infants. In fact, demographic clues from first century Palestine reveal that Bethlehem was a small village, with a population between three hundred and a thousand. Experts estimate that, at any given time, the number of babies under the age of two would be only between seven and twenty. So numbers alone may be the reason why Josephus does not mention the murders. [Source: BBC, September 18, 2009 |::|]

Church of the Nativity and Bethlehem, Birthplace of Jesus

The Church of Nativity (in Bethlehem) is a basilica built over the grotto where it is believed that the Virgin Mary gave birth to the baby Jesus. It is not built around an outdoor manger like that displayed in Christmas nativity scenes (mangers were often built in caves as were homes). The church is a Byzantine-style structure with thick fortress-like walls, medieval frescos and mosaics, limestone columns, and a columned bell tower, rebuilt several times.

The main entrance to the basilica, the “Door of Humility,” was built in the 13th century and reduced to its present height of four feet high in the Ottoman period. Most people hunch over when they enter it. According to some stories, the door was built the way it was to elicit a respectful bow from all those who enter. Most historians however agree that it was built so small to keep people on camels and horses from entering and desecrating the site.

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Michael Finkel wrote in National Geographic, “The Church of the Nativity is almost hidden. It looks like a stone fortress, walls several feet thick, with a facade devoid of ornamentation. Perhaps this is how it has survived 14 centuries. Bethlehem is no place for delicate architecture. A spot at the crossroads of the world...means a perpetual rush hour of invading armies....The entrance reduced in size over the centuries...has shrunk to a miniature hole. You nearly have to fold yourself in half to get through...The interior of the church, cool and dark, is as spare as the outside; four rows of columns in an open nave lead to the main alter. There are no pews, just a collection of cheap folding chairs. But beneath the altar, down a set of worn limestone steps, is a small cave.

The main holy altars lie above the grotto. The altar of Nativity sits on the spot where it is said Jesus was placed after he was born. The altar of the Magi is where it is said the Three Wise Men presented gifts to the newborn Jesus. Between the main altars and the Door of Humility is the Nave. Most of this has survived from the from the 6th century. Some of the 44 pink limestone columns were recovered from the original 4th-century basilica. A stairway below the altar leads to the grotto, written about a 100 years after Christ's time by St. Justin Martyr and described as "the cave in Bethlehem where he was born" in 248 by Origen.

The grotto is reached by a small stairway just a few steps from the main hall of the basilica. A two-foot-wide, 14-point silver star marks the spot where it is believed that the Virgin Mary gave birth. The grotto itself is lined with marble, save a small section of the rock floor worn smooth by centuries of kisses and caresses. Above the star on a platform are 15 silver lamps each representing a different Christian denomination, whose fires are always left burning. Near the star is a an inscription that reads, “Here of the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ was born.” Many of the pilgrims who come to cave read a passage from the second chapter of Luke: "And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for him in the inn."

History of the Church of Nativity

The Church of Nativity is one of the world’s oldest working churches. It was built by Saint Helena and her son Constantine the Great in A.D. 325 and remained under Byzantine control after Constantine’s death and was rebuilt and reconfigured under Emperor Justinian after it was destroyed during a Samaritan riot in A.D. 529. The basilica that exists today is essentially the one built under Justinian. A few things such as mosaics date back to the 4th century but most of what you see today dates back to the Middle Ages.

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Chapel of Nativity, 1880
After the Holy Land was taken over by Muslims in the 7th century, the Muslim caliph guaranteed the integrity of the church to the Byzantines. It survived the Persian invasion in 614 and an order by the Fatamid caliph in 1000 to destroy all Christian shrines.

The Crusaders took over the church without a fight when Jerusalem was captured from the Muslims in 1099. A force of 100 knights was put in charge of guarding it. They hired artists who decorated the church with their own paintings and mosaics, including a column of saints painted using a rare technique in which pigments are suspended in wax. After that Franciscan monks backed by the Pope took over the church, creating a rivalry that lasted for centuries between them and the Greek Orthodox church (successors of the Byzantines) over control of the church. Looting and damage from earthquakes and fires has taken place. Major renovations were done in the 12th century.

The Church of Nativity has been divided into Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic (Franciscan) and Armenian sections for several centuries. Each group is very possessive about the parts of the church and objects under its control. Decisions about who takes care of what is based on Ottoman-era Status Quo system which mandates that things be done as they have always been, which basically means if you can prove you have been doing some chore for some time you have the right to keep doing it.

Even so the sects periodically squabble over things like who washes which sacred wall and which sect has the right to use which aisle. It is not uncommon for guards at the church are forced to intervene. In the 1980s, monks battled each other with chains and broomsticks over who had the right to clean a particular section of wall and beams. At one point a ladder was yanked out form under a monk working five meters up cleaning the wall. The matter was cleared through lengthy and complicated negotiations.

A fight over the dusting of chandeliers around Christmas 2006 landed several holy men in the hospital. It began when Greeks cleaning a chandelier put a ladder in Armenian territory, something the Greeks should have known would set off a fight. There are reports of monks stockpiling rocks in anticipation of an all-out battle.

How it Came to Be Jesus Was Born on December 25

According to the BBC: The Gospels do not mention the date of Jesus' birth. It was not until the 4th century AD that Pope Julius I set 25th December as the date for Christmas. This was an attempt to Christianise the Pagan celebrations that already took place at this time of year. By 529, 25th December had become a civil holiday and by 567 the twelve days from 25th December to the Epiphany were public holidays. Christmas is not only a Christian festival. The celebration has roots in the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, the festivals of the ancient Greeks, the beliefs of the Druids and the folk customs of Europe. [Source: June 22, 2009, BBC |::|]

Candida Moss of the University of Notre Dame wrote in the Washington Post: “ The overwhelming majority of Christians mark the birth of Jesus on Dec. 25. But there’s no biblical reason to celebrate Christmas on this particular day. According to the Gospel of Luke, shepherds were watching their flocks at night at the time Jesus was born. This detail — the only clue in the Gospels about the timing of the birth — suggests that Jesus’ birthday was not in the winter, as shepherds would have been watching their flocks only during the lambing season in the spring. In the colder months, the sheep probably would have been corralled. [Source: Candida Moss, Washington Post, December 16, 2016 /+\]

“As late as the 3rd century, Christians didn’t celebrate the birth of Jesus. The earliest discussion of the birthday is found in the 3rd-century writings of Clement of Alexandria, who raises seven potential dates, none of which correspond to Dec. 25. The first record of a celebration of the birth of Jesus on Dec. 25 comes from a 4th-century edition of a Roman almanac known as the Philokalia. Alongside the deaths of martyrs, it notes that on Dec. 25, “Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea.” /+\

“Some have argued that the date of Jesus’ birth was selected to supplant pagan festivals that were held at the same time. But while Pope Julius I set the date of Christmas (for Western Christians) in the 4th century, Christians did not deliberately adapt pagan rituals until the 7th century, when Pope Gregory the Great instructed bishops to celebrate saints’ feast days on the days of pagan festivals. /+\


Horoscope of Christ


“The real reason for the selection of Dec. 25 seems to have been that it is exactly nine months after March 25, the traditional date of Jesus’ crucifixion (which can be inferred from other dates given in the New Testament). As Christians developed the theological idea that Jesus was conceived and crucified on the same date, they set the date of his birth nine months later.” /+\

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible, gutenberg.org; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; “Egeria's Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem” users.ox.ac.uk ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL), translated by William Whiston, ccel.org , Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org, Frontline, PBS, “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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