Now You Know: The Story Behind
the Story of the Nativity
By Scott Roeben
The Nativity story, the enchanting and enduring story of the birth of Jesus Christ, is perhaps the best known tale in the history of the world. "The Three Billy Goats Gruff" comes close, of course, and the one about that woman in the tower with the long hair was real popular for awhile, but let's stick to the subject at hand, shall we? Over the years, the heart-warming story of the events leading up to Christ's arrival on Earth have inspired songs, poems and art (as well as a number of poignant television commercials for Hickory Farms gift boxes). While we seem to understand that Christmas is meant to commemorate the birth of Jesus, we often become so involved with thoughts of gift-giving and new fudge recipes that we forget to revisit the inspiration of the Nativity as the source of the holiday many of us celebrate each year. Few take the time to ponder the significance of the places, events and characters which have become so deeply weaved into our society's cultural fabric. Let's do something about that.
Most of what we know of the first Christmas comes to us from the Bible, specifically from the first few gospels of the New Testament. The gospels attributed to Matthew and Luke go into the most detail about the Nativity. ("Gospel," we should remember, is derived from the Anglo Saxon "god spell" meaning "poorly performed high school musical.")
Approximately 19 of the 27 books of the New Testament were not written by the men whose names they bear.
I say "attributed" to Matthew and Luke because Biblical gospels do not carry as clear a statement of authorship as we would like. Approximately 19 of the 27 books of the New Testament were not written by the men whose names they bear. Many suggest that this is because the gospel writers wished anonymity, fearing for their personal safety, due to the persecution of Christians by the Jews and Romans. It is interesting to learn that these divinely inspired men of faith were also "sissies" and could probably be roughed up even by frail schoolgirls.
The central players in the tale of the Nativity are Mary and Joseph. Oh, and God. (He hates it when He doesn't get top billing.) Mary is perhaps the most venerated woman in all of history, and has been known by many names. In Hebrew, Mary is Miriam. In Arabic, she is Mariam. And in Roman, Maria (a feminine form of Marius). Mary has been given many nicknames through the years as well. "Mother of Mercy," "Mother Most Blessed," "Queen of Heaven," "Virgin Most Powerful," "Spiritual Vessel" and "Steve" among them.
Mary had humble beginnings. She was a quiet peasant girl, who after failing to make the Nazareth High School cheerleading squad, turned her attention to other, more pious, concerns.
Mary would eventually be wooed by Joseph. Not much is known about Mary's counterpart. This is because few written records were kept about him during his lifetime. At the time, few could afford the expensive papyrus needed for chronicling purposes, so most writing was done on potsherds, or fragments of discarded pottery. This practice meant that aside from being unwieldy, even a short story could end up weighing upwards of 117 pounds.
While information about Joseph is scarce, we do know that he was a descendent of David. Matthew takes great pains to trace Joseph's lineage back to David, using a literary device known as the "begat." There are so many "begats" in Matthew, in fact, that they can actually cause one to become dizzy and collapse if all of the "begats" are read at one sitting. Joseph came from a long line of people with humorous names. Some of his forebears included Booz of Rachab, Roboam, Zorobabel, Sadoc and Obed of Ruth. Even Joseph, with all of his wisdom, could not see the irony that his familial lineage read like the character names of a low-budget science fiction movie.
Another thing we're fairly sure of about Joseph is that he was a carpenter. We can just imagine Joseph working in his shop, planing cedars, working with cypress, oak, ash and acacia. We can see him repairing sluice gates. We can see him frantically paging through his carpenter's handbook to determine just what in the hell a "sluice gate" is. It has been said that Joseph's specialty was the ox yoke. An item, by the way, which cost about a shekel to make but which, due to the meddling of the carpenter unions, could not be purchased without a wheelbarrow full of Tyrian silver coins. Joseph had many occupational options. He could have been a caulker, a rugmaker, a circumcisor, a cupbearer, smelterman or a professional mourner. But Joseph chose to be a carpenter. Probably because, of the myriad occupations available during that era, carpentry was one of the few that could be learned by correspondence course.
So, Mary the peasant girl and Joseph the carpenter were betrothed. Which in essence means that promise rings had been exchanged, but Joseph hadn't gotten to first base as far as we can tell. And Mary was visited by Gabriel, an angel. (He aspired to be an "archangel," but at that time had not acquired enough frequent flier miles.) And Gabriel said that Mary was "blessed...among women" and that she would be "visited" by the Holy Spirit and "bring forth a son...Jesus." Mary, naturally, was taken a bit aback by this news. Some accounts actually imply that Mary was so amused by Gabriel's revelation that she went into convulsions of laughter and that goat's milk may have even come out of her nose at one point.
One cannot blame Mary for being skeptical. For you see, it states in the Bible that Mary was a "virgin." Scholars tell us that Matthew, upon whose book Luke's gospel was based, may actually have misinterpreted a Greek word used in the writings of the prophet Isaiah which he believed meant "virgin," but which actually had a broader meaning of "young girl." We therefore cannot be sure that Mary was a virgin at all. It would certainly be ironic if the "virgin birth" (not to be confused with the "immaculate conception," which was Mary's conceptionkeeping all this straight?), the most profound and awe inspiring religious miracle of Christianity, was actually the result of something akin to a type-o.
When Joseph learned that Mary was "found with child of the Holy Ghost," he was none too pleased. Non-Biblical texts written during the Talmudic Era (from approximately 1 A.D. to 500 A.D., about 2:30 p.m.just after lunch) tell of the first conversation between Mary and Joseph after he found out about her pregnancy.
Joseph: Great, this art just great.
Mary: We art truly blessed.
Joseph: I spend all that time sending flowers, taking you to dinner and writing you poetryand thou treateth me like a leper. But the Holy Spirit? All it has to do is "visit." Who else hast been "visiting" you lately, huh?
Mary: Thou art being ridiculous, Joseph. I have never known a man. Trust me. It sayeth so in the Bible.
Joseph: I can't believe this. You're pregnant. And by God! I mean, what doth God have that I don't?
Mary: Well, for one thing, He art omnipotent.
Joseph: No, I mean aside from that...
Mary: God didst create the universe. What didst thou ever create?
Joseph: Art thou kidding? You should see my ox yokes. And just who dost thou think built that addition on my house?
Yes, Joseph was quite upset by the news of Mary's miraculous pregnancy, so much so that he "was minded to put her away privily." (No one quite knows what that Biblical phrase means, but it sure has a nice ring to it, doesn't it?) Then the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him to stop his whining, and threatened to crush his head in a sluice gate if he did not. Joseph then resigned himself to being the husband of the mother of the son of God, and a carpenter whose dovetail and miter joints were unequalled.
Mary spent the first three months of her pregnancy in the company of her cousin Elisabeth (who would be the mother of John the Baptist). When Elisabeth saw Mary she said: "Blessed is the fruit of thy womb." The phrase would later be misheard and inspire the name of an American underwear company.
"And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed." This portion of the Nativity story has caused a great deal of controversy amongst Biblical scholars and historians. The idea that people during this period would be forced to return to the town of their ancestors is more likely literary economy than a plausible historical truth. The Romans would not order a census which would clog roads, disrupt providencial life and pose a military danger (since the Parthians could have found no better a time to attack than when everyone in the Roman world was stuck in traffic). It does not matter that such a census never took place, though. Luke must have had reasons for spinning his yarn the way he did, and who are we to question his instinct for the dramatic?
So, as the story goes, Joseph and Mary prepared for their trip to Bethlehem. We can just see them baking bread for their journey, drying meat, filling sacks with lentils, putting water into goatskinsas well as trying to convince a neighbor to water the plants in their absence. They would also find other sources of food on their tripsuch as a breakfast food popular in those days, namely "Locusts 'N' Honey." (I'm not kidding.)
It is a popular misconception that the Bible states Joesph and Mary made their trip [to Bethlehem] by donkey.
It is a popular misconception that the Bible states Joseph and Mary made their trip by donkey. In fact, the Bible makes no mention of any such animal. For all we know, they could have ridden an ostrich or hummingbird to Bethlehem. All right, so it was probably a donkey.
The trip to Bethlehem was some 90 arduous miles up and down hilly terrain. Ninety miles in Biblical times would have been a substantial journey, even by ostrich. Still, even on foot the trip would have taken less time than it does to drive one-quarter-of-a-mile on a Los Angeles freeway by modern means. Mary and Joseph are said to have descended the Jordan and followed the eastern bank as far as Jericho. This route was warmer, although longer, than the one heading across the plain of Esdraelon. It also meant that the travellers could avoid meeting up with the Nomads of Esdraelon, who were notorious for their poor table manners and their disgusting custom of trying to pick up hot rocks with their bare buttocks.
Upon their arrival in Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph sought lodgings, presumably at an inn (or "malon") called Gerut built by Chimham. The official story claims that they were turned away from the innprobably because their reservations had been lost. Actually, many contenderroneouslythat Mary and Joseph were turned away because the inn was teeming with fellow travelers. A more likely scenario is that the decision to stay in the stable was a choice on Mary's part to find some privacy since the birth of her child was imminent. Inns of that time were set up dormitory-style, and it is unlikely that Mary would have wanted a horde of weary, smelly travellers looking on while she gave birth. While it seems peculiar to us, it should be noted that in Biblical times it was common practice for stable stalls to be rented to travellers during the seasons when the animals were out in the fields.
And tending those flocks in the fields were the shepherds. Or more correctly, it seems they were "abiding" in the fields. "Abiding" isn't really done all that much anymore. Frankly, many of the traditions of the shepherds of Biblical times have fallen by the waysidesuch as the practice of castrating sheep with one's teeth. (Modern shepherds, incidentally, don't seem to mind all that much having had that particular tradition fall by the wayside.)
The shepherds mentioned in Luke were probably residents of Beit Sahun, a shepherd village consisting of a few stone buildings, crudely constructed tentsand assorted sheep droppings. Shepherds were hearty souls, guarding their flocks from inclement weather, robbers and predatory animals with only a staff or sling for protection. The shepherds were very close to the animals they watched over, so much so in fact that it was necessary to put a verse in the Bible, Leviticus 18:23 specifically, which states: "Neither shalt thou lie with any beast to defile thyself therewith." The shepherds were apparently very, very close to their sheep.
So, the shepherds were busy abiding, "And, lo, an angel of the Lord came upon them...and they were sore afraid." Oh, yes, and it so happens that being "sore afraid" is another of the traditions of the shepherds which has been lost over time. You hardly ever hear of anyone being "sore afraid" these days. Except, of course, people who are about to be audited by the Internal Revenue Service.
And then the angel delivering the news of Jesus' birth was joined by a host of angels that began singing and praising God. Angels always travel in "hosts," by the way. They just do. It is a "pride" of lions. A "gaggle" of geese. A "flock" of sheep. And, naturally, a "clot" of attorneys. Then, after hearing that Christ had been born, these vigilant men who would go to great lengths to protect their flocks, picked up and abandoned their flocks to run into Bethlehem to see the son of God. The sheep were not upset about being left there, mind you. In fact, if you think the shepherds were happy about Jesus' birth, you should have seen the smiles on the faces of the sheep. They figured that whole sacrificial lamb thing had gone on just a bit too long, anyway.
At about this time, there arrived three wise men from the East. It is said that they were following a star.
Scientists and astrologers have for some time pondered the phenomenon of the star which the wise men followed. Many a hypothesis has been put forth to explain this "miracle." Some submit that the star could have been a nova (or a "supernova," which is a nova with an overblown view of its own self-worth). Another theory says that the "star" may have been a comet. In fact, Halley's comet made an appearance in 11 A.D. Another premise, the most probable, assumes that the phenomenon of the "star" was the result of the close approach of two or more heavenly bodies. In 7 B.C., for example, Jupiter and Saturn neared each other, and may have been mistaken for a single, unusually bright star. A star, incidentally, may be described as "unusually bright" only if it scores over 1,200 on its SATs.
Still, it could be that the star described in the Nativity was solely symbolic, no more than a metaphor. Most would tend to go along with this notion were it not for the fact that it is exceedingly difficult to top a Christmas tree with a metaphor.
The wise men were astrologers...not, as is popularly believed, kings.
It is no coincidence that the wise men are associated with a star. The wise men were astrologers. They were not, as is popularly believed, kings. (Nowhere in the Bible does it say that the men were kings, nor even that there were three of them. But we can be sure they were not kings. They were simply not qualified. Calling them kings would be comparable to calling a chiropractor "doctor.") In fact, many even question whether or not the men from the East were all that wise. After all, they were halfway to Bethlehem when they had to turn around and go back because one of them had left the stove on. (Epluribus 6:14.)
It is entertaining to envisage that if the Nativity took place today, the men from the East would carry with them gifts of high-quality electronics, and would almost certainly make an offer to purchase the stable and its surrounding buildings outright.
On their way to see the baby Jesus, the wise men were summoned by Herod. Herod is portrayed in the Bible as a rather evil fellow. There are many written accounts about Herod's reign in existence. Innumerable historians have herniated themselves while lugging around the potsherds so that this could be the case. Herod, Idumean by descent, did have many faults and excesses. He had 10 wives, one at a time, naturally. Records show that Herod was so cruel that he had his favorite wife decapitated, his brother-in-law drowned and two of his sons garrotedprobably for talking back. I have no idea what "garroting" is, but I get the strong feeling that I wouldn't want to clean up after one. Even though many reports of Herod's tyranny may have been exaggerated, it is fairly certain that he did rule with a heavy hand. Perhaps he wore too many rings. Just a thought.
Herod told the wise men "Go and search diligently for the young child (are there other kinds?); and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also." Eventually, the wise men did find the child, in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes. These details of the story bear some fleshing out.
First, swaddling clothes. It seems that they are neat, narrow bands of colorful material which are wrapped around babies, whether they are the son of God or not. Also, all Judean babies are rubbed with salt. Don't ask. Next, the manger. Somewhere along the way, artists began to represent the manger as some wooden contraption, when in truth Jesus was put in a stone oxen's crib. (This may be the explanation for Christ's lifelong irrational fear of oxen drool.)
Over time, the wise men have acquired the names Kaspar, Balthasar and Melchior. No one is quite sure why they have been given these names, but the wise men are long since dead so it's doubtful they'll be filing a lawsuit over the matter anytime soon. As you are aware, the men from the East brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. (Which, rumor has it, Mary later took back and exchanged for booties.) It seems that the wise men would have foolishly gone back and told Herod of Jesus' location, but luckily God warned them in a dream to take another route home. It is not commonly known that the wise men had another dream at about the same time, wherein they were being chased by giant woodchucks and being made to eat burlapbut they seemed to attach no special meaning to this dream and thus it was omitted from the gospel of Matthew.
Before leaving Bethlehem, the magi made out an astrological chart for Jesus, a part of which read: "Now is a good time to renew old friendships. Be careful in business dealings in the years to come. An interesting opportunity will present itself soon. You will probably end up being the Messiah." Years later, Christ would reflect upon the predictions of the wise men and would state to his followers: "Doth anyone really believe in that astrology crap?"
An estimated 70,000 biographies have been written about Jesus.
And thus was born Jesus. An estimated 70,000 biographies have been written about Jesus. (Trust me, after you read about half of them, the story gets a little bit predictable.) Jesus is the Greek version of the Hebrew name Joshua which means "Yahweh is my help." Christ considered using the name "Yahweh is my help," but obviously "Jesus" is much easier to fit onto a personalized license plate. Intriguingly, Jesus was not an uncommon name in Biblical times. And in an attempt to give Jesus a name that would stand out, Mary and Joseph initially decided to name their son "Harold." Thankfully, the Holy Ghost intervened and changed Christ's name on his birth certificate without them knowing it.
Many prophets had predicted the coming of Jesus, the son of God, the Messiah, King of Kings, Immanuel. Malachi, Isaiah and Elijah had all foretold Jesus' arrival. Micah, too, had predicted Christ's birth, but made a lot more money predicting the outcome of pigeon races. Note: Aside from pigeon racing, dice was the main form of gambling in Biblical times. While rolling dice, many a Maccabean was heard to utter the phrase "Cometh on, baby doth need a new pair of sandals."
The actual date of Jesus' birth has been a matter of much debate. While our modern calendar would lead one to believe that Jesus was born in the year zero, this belief is generally dismissed by even the most thick-skulled. Estimates of the year of Christ's birth range from up to 14 years B.C. to as late as 23 A.D., but the discrepancies about Jesus' date of birth are irrelevant. Irrelevant, too, is the nearly universally accepted fact that Christ was not born anywhere close to December 25th. An example of evidence which contradicts the December 25th birthday is the assertion that shepherds would not keep their flocks in the fields after November. Shepherds were hearty, but even the heat generated by the exertion of castrating sheep with their teeth would not keep them warm during a cold, December night in Judea. Rather, the December 25th date was designated as Christmas many years after Christ's death by Pope Liberius to compete with a major holiday of those evil sun worshippersthe followers of Mithraism. Surprising as it is, Christians have at times been a bit intolerant of other religious practices in the past. The Crusades are a good examplemoor or less. The Inquisition, too, is considered by some (mainly heretics and the insane) to have been a poorly conceived way to spread brotherly love.
But none of that is relevant.
What is important is the enduring magic of the story of the Nativity.
A story which is timeless.
A story which has inspired devotion and goodwill and impulse buying.
A story which has so captured our imaginations that it is one of the few events which we revere enough to commemorate on our lawns with plastic figures made in Taiwan.
The story of the birth of Christ will be passed down through the generations, not unlike the genes for flat feet, and serves to reaffirm our hopes that there can be peace on Earth.
As well as charity and hope.
Not to mention Christmas bonuses.
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