Many of the events around Christ’s birth have been verified historically. Although, for some, the dates don’t seem to jive, but evidence is not always the force that causes one to believe. There is evidence that Caesar Augustus had 3 censuses during his reign with one being in 8 BC. As we have learned previously, Christ was likely born in 2 BC. So, is this a discrepancy? Not really. Think about how long it would take to do a census in 8 BC. Just because Caesar said to “make it so” in 8 BC, would it occur everywhere at the same time? We are so used to internet and microwaves that we forget the time in which we are referring. Taking six years to reach Palestine and getting the framework set up to taking such a census in that region is doing pretty good. Others have criticized Luke stating that “this taxing was first made when Cyrenius [Quirnius] was governor of Syria” (Lk 2:2). History does show Quirnius to be in Syria during this time period but not as Governor. He was governor in 6-7 AD. Again, a blunder? Not really. Just as our American words can have different meanings so can Greek words. The word translated ‘first” (i.e., prote) can also mean “prior to.” Therefore, the statement could be that this is the census before Quirnius was Governor in Syria. The historical placement of the event can be considered accurate.
Joseph had to return to Bethlehem to get registered for the taxation which was being implemented (Lk 2:1-3). He was from the lineage of King David, and Bethlehem was David’s home town (Lk 2:4-5). With Mary being pregnant and on the journey with him, it took longer than normal to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Yet, there were so many people traveling for this same issue, the roads were likely safer than they ever were previously. Yet, it took a lot out on Mary.
Back in the first century, Bethlehem was not a booming town. Even when the prophecy was given by Micah (Mi 5:2), it was not a booming town. It is only about six miles south of Jerusalem and was not a city where many people traveled since it wasn’t on a major Roman road of the day. Besides, even if someone was on such a road, would they stay in Bethlehem when Jerusalem was so close? In addition, the custom of the day was for family to stay with family—not in an inn or other places of abode. Inns were more common in large cities, like Jerusalem, and perhaps on major thoroughfares, as travelers would not have close relatives nearby, because they had not arrived at their final destination where family likely were located. In addition, the word used here (kataluma) is the same word used more definitely for a spare room (Lk 22:11) rather than a separate lodging (pandokheion, Lk 10:34; 11:22) which uses a different word for such. The guest room was already full of additional relatives (Lk 2:7).
Also, Bethlehem was a shepherding community and not one where travelers would frequently travel through. For someone to go to a place like Bethlehem, they had to be wanting to go there—not passing through. Therefore, the need for an inn was very low, and the number of visitors an innkeeper would get would likely be too low to make it profitable. The fields around Bethlehem was where the flocks for temple worship were kept and raised. This is a critical point for us to consider later.
When did Mary and Joseph arrive in Bethlehem? Most movies and plays about this story have them arriving while Mary is delivering, and Joseph is desperate to find a place—any place—anywhere. But is that what scripture is really telling us? Luke tells us that Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem and “while they were there” she had her baby (Lk 2:6). This doesn’t sound like this was an immediate need or crisis. So, where were they? Well, since Joseph was of the lineage of David, he had to travel to his ancestor David’s birth place, i.e., Bethlehem. Therefore, he would have relatives there. As we just pointed out, relatives stayed with relatives. Let’s not put our social mores on this concept. Often, we would gladly stay in an inn than with relatives, but this was not the case in this culture. It was a privilege and honor, as well as a duty, to take care of visiting relatives, no matter the occasion. So, if they were with relatives, where did the stable, animals, shepherds, etc. come into the story? Let’s consider that.
Because of the need for so many people to come to Bethlehem because of the tax registration, Bethlehem became crowded—very crowded. Joseph and Mary were only one couple among hundreds to thousands who had to return. People’s homes were very crowded and filled to capacity. Mary and Joseph were very welcome to stay until she was ready to deliver. It may sound cold to us today, but Mary would not have been welcome to have her baby in a house filled with so many people. This is for two major reasons. One, there was no privacy. Second, she would be considered unclean for up to a week (Lv 15:19-23). But it is even more complicated as this passage tells us. Everything she touches, everyone she touches, become unclean. That is a problem in a house filled with so many people. The logistics to have Mary there as she gives birth and for the week after becomes untenable. Joseph has to find a solution. Where could Joseph take Mary where she could be taken care of in such a crowded place where there wasn’t an inn? Think about it, even if there was an inn, would an innkeeper want a delivery in his inn where his room, of which he would likely have few, would become unclean? It would be a big burden to get everything clean again. Certain things would have to be washed, some scrubbed, and some destroyed (Lv 15:12). So, as you can see, this was quite the dilemma for Joseph and Mary due to the customs and social mores of their day.
Looking for a place proved more difficult than Joseph thought. Because all the houses were so crowded, most could not bring their animals into their home at night as normal. Therefore, even the outside areas for animals were full to capacity and some people had to stay all night outside with the animals to prevent robbers from taking them or them wandering off in the middle of the night. Finding a place to have a baby proved extremely difficult.
So, where could Joseph find a secluded place that would not be a burden to others, yet would be comfortable for Mary to have her child? Migdal Eder. You see, God knew this all those years ago and had Micah prophesy of this (Mi 4:8). Joseph likely didn’t even know he was fulfilling prophecy. He was just looking for a logical, viable, and satisfactory solution to their need. You see, because Bethlehem was not only a shepherding community, it was a special shepherding community. The shepherds here were not regular shepherds, but were trained for how to raise sheep for the purpose of them being used as a sacrifice at the temple. Not just any animal could become a sacrifice. It had to be without blemish. Do you realize how hard it is to have an unblemished animal in the wild? All sorts of things could happen to the animal. These shepherds had to ensure nothing happened to these animals. It wasn’t just taking care of them, mending their injuries, and making them acceptable for human use. No, it was raised to another whole level. If the animal was injured, they were no longer acceptable for sacrifice, even if the animal recovered. It was now considered blemished. So, in order to ensure things went well with the sheep birthing process, a special place was made for the sheep to have their lambs. This was at Midal Eder, the watchtower of the flock (Mi 4:8; Gn 35:21). They built a place here. Maybe it was a cave or some type of shelter for both the shepherds, their supplies, and likely other animals they would need to take supplies from Bethlehem or from Jerusalem to this shelter for them to use as they watched after the sheep. When the lambs were being prepared for sacrifice, they would swaddle them to prevent the lambs from hurting themselves. They would then place them in the manger there made especially for this purpose to calm the animal so it could more easily be inspected for any blemishes. Because of these lambs’ special religious nature, nothing was taken for chance. All was a very methodical process to ensure each and every animal was without blemish (Ex 12:5). They tried to remove all obstacles that would cause or induce injury.
Once the cramping started, Joseph led Mary out to Midgal Eder on their donkey. Likely a few of the women went with him. It was now June, the time of Shavuot—a Jewish holiday which represented paradigm shifts and the inclusion of non-Israelites. The time of birthing sheep had recently ended, so there was no competition for using the shelter at Migdal Eder (Mi 4:8). While not ideal by our standards, I’m sure Joseph considered it pretty ideal, and he likely felt fortunate. It was a place still in Bethlehem, so relatives were close by if needed. Likely some of them helped with the baby’s delivery. It was almost abandoned that time of year, although it likely contained supplies for the shepherds and likely a donkey or two for hauling supplies. It may have had other animals, like goats and oxen, for various needs: milk, carrying cargo, and maybe even food. It provided a quiet place for Mary to have her baby and would be a place to stay until her uncleanness was over. Afterward, she could be welcomed back into the crowded house. Then everyone would ooh and aah over the infant.
Joseph thought back on the things that Mary had told him. The angel Gabriel had appeared to her in the sixth month (Lk 1:26), just before Rosh Hashanah which occurred on the first day of the seventh month (Lv 23:23-25). He now understood this was the time of the baby’s conception by the Holy Spirit (Lk 1:35). Thanks to the Jewish leaders adding Adar II to their calendar, this Shavuot was now nine months later. The baby was conceived on Rosh Hashanah when all of Israel asked God to remember his covenant with his chosen nation. Now, the baby was being born on Shavuot when God instituted paradigm changes and when Gentiles were accepted. He was now being born at Midgal Eder where the sheep born to be temple sacrifices were born—where they were wrapped in swaddling cloths and placed in the manger for inspection. Joseph looked at this one born on this Jewish holiday. Did he recognize all the symbolism God had bestowed on this special day? Did the shepherds? They were the ones who provided lambs and goats for temple sacrifice. Now, this baby was lying in their special manager wrapped in cloths they used to swaddle newborn lambs so they could inspect them for any blemishes. Did they understand the significance?
After the baby was born, Joseph wanted to get back to Nazareth, but knew he needed to wait until the baby was older and stronger. His cousin insisted he stay with them a few months until the baby and mother could travel. When the time of purification was over, Joseph took Mary to the temple in Jerusalem to offer her offering of purification (Lk 2:22-24; Lv 12:6-7). This is where they met Simon and Anna who prophesied about Jesus (Lk 2:22-38). They then returned to the house in Bethlehem where they were staying. When Jesus was about six months old, they were visited by the Magi who gave the child gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Mt 2:1-12). These men told Mary and Joseph all they had seen and heard. An angel appeared to Joseph to have him take Mary and Jesus to Egypt (Mt 2:13) so he would not get killed by Herod’s order to kill all infants two years old and younger (Mt 2:16). Once Herod died, Joseph came back to Israel with Mary and Jesus, and took them to Nazareth (Mt 2:19-23).
Are you starting to see the symbolism here? Do you now see why swaddling was a significant sign? All babies were wrapped in swaddling clothes—that was their custom. Yet, only one was wrapped in swaddling cloth normally used for lambs born to become a sacrifice. And only one was wrapped in swaddling cloth, lying in the manger at Midgal Eder. The angel’s announcement was very specific and not vague at all. This was a significant sign, and one I am sure was not lost on these shepherds. This also explains why angels appeared to these shepherds—because they were not ordinary shepherds, but the ones taking care of sheep for sacrifice. The angels were basically stating that their jobs were now complete. The lamb they were waiting for had come. He was in their shelter, their stable, their manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes for special lambs born at Midgal Eder. This lamb was not just for a special sacrifice for someone’s sin debt, but for payment for the sins of the entire world.
While this is not the usual Christmas story, it seems to align more closely with scripture and with what the Jewish holidays represented. These Jewish holidays which God instituted with Israel back in Leviticus when he first formed their nation have many purposes. A significant purpose is their prophetic significance. Jesus’ conception and birth are two of them. Isn’t it interesting how God coordinates so much, and we take so much of it for granted? The Bible is full of such wonderment if we only look. May we be more attentive to what God is doing in our lives as we embark on the coming year.