Christmas is upon us once again, and most of us are busy getting ready for the holidays and buying presents and singing Christmas carols and getting together with family and friends. It is certainly a very special season, especially those who know Jesus as Savior and Lord. [i]
We talk much about the true meaning or the true story of Christmas, but most of the truth of the story has become lost or at least mixed up in a great deal of tradition that obscures the actual story as told in the Bible.
One thing we need to note is that Christmas itself is not a biblical event or holiday. There is no command to observe or to memorialize the birth of Jesus. In fact, one might argue that doing so actually violates the Second Commandment concerning the creation of graven images.
I am sure you have seen signs and even sung the old song “Put Christ back into Christmas.” The problem is that there really is no Christ in Christmas. The entire holiday is a man-made occasion filled with ceremonies and traditions that includes the birth of Jesus, but does not truly center around that event.
Nevertheless, I enjoy the Christmas season as much as the rest, and would never argue that we should discontinue its observance. I am just concerned that, if we are going to call it Christmas, then we should make it about Christ, and we should get the story straight when we tell it to others, especially our children.
I once made a church member very angry with me by sharing the content of this article as a devotional at a church fellowship. I understand her distress. The Christmas story is so ingrained in us that any challenge to the traditions of the season can appear as a threat to all that is dear to us, including truth. Nevertheless, there is much about the biblical story that we need to get right, at least, as far as is possible.
In this article, we will take a look at the familiar story of the first Christmas as Luke related it to us in his gospel.
Luke 2:1 And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. 2 (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)
The word “world” in verse one is a very broad term that can mean many things: the inhabited earth, the world; the Roman Empire (Acts 17:6); the Jews in the world (Acts 24:5); Palestine and the adjacent countries. (CWSB Dictionary)
If we insist that we must interpret every word in the Bible literally, then we have to believe that Caesar taxed the Chinese as well as whatever people group may have inhabited the land that would become known as America. Even though it may have been his intention or desire to do so, since Caesar did not control the whole world, he could hardly have taxed the whole world.
We have to conclude that the reference to “the whole world” indicates the universal application of the decree to all territories controlled by the Romans.
Just as the word “world” does not refer to the entire world, the word translated “taxed” does not refer to an actual taxation, but to taking a census. Caesar called for a census that would later lead to taxation.
These are small and seemingly insignificant points to start off with, but they set the stage for interpreting the remainder of the story. Luke went to great measures to insure that his story was historically accurate. We should be as careful in its interpretation.
Quirinius (or Cyrenius, KJV) was a Roman senator appointed by Caesar to be governor of Syria from 4 BC to 1 BC, during which the first enrolment or census was taken. If we assume that Jesus was born during the time of the census, then the calendar is off by as many as four years, so that actually, this is not 2018, but somewhere between 2019 and 2022!
Luke 2:3 And all went to be taxed (counted or enrolled), every one into his own city. 4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; because (he was of the house and lineage of David:) 5 To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.
Though there is no direct scripture to prove it one way or another, it may be that Bethlehem was not just the place of Joseph’s heritage, but was actually his home. At least, there is no direct evidence that Joseph actually lived in Nazareth before Jesus was born. Verse 3 refers to Bethlehem as Joseph’s “own city.”
In Matthew’s gospel (Matt. 9:1), we read, “And getting into a boat he (Jesus) crossed over and came to his own city.” The city here is Capernaum to which Jesus had moved from Nazareth (see Matt. 4:13). Capernaum had become his home and his missions headquarters, thus it was “his city.” If this is true of Jesus in Matthew 9, why could it not be true of Joseph in Luke 2?
After the angel revealed to Mary that she would become pregnant through the Holy Spirit, she visited her cousin, Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, who lived in the hill country of Judea just west of Jerusalem in a community known today as Ein Karem. [ii] Could it be that Joseph learned of Mary’s condition during this same journey?
The Bible tells us that Mary lived with Elizabeth and Zechariah for three months before returning home to Nazareth, apparently just before John was born (Luke 1:56-57). Since Bethlehem is located just 7-8 miles to the south of Ein Karem, might we assume that the word of Mary’s condition reached Joseph during this time?
When Joseph found out Mary was pregnant, his first reaction was to reject the marriage plans, but an angel convinced him that all that was happening to Mary was the will and the work of God. Maybe it was then that Joseph traveled to Nazareth to bring Mary to his home in Bethlehem to complete the marriage process and to be there with him as his wife when the census was taken and in time to make arrangements for the birth of the baby.
In Matthew 2, after the departure of the Wise Men, an angel appeared to Joseph to warn him of the threat to Jesus’ life from Herod. Joseph fled with Mary and Jesus to Egypt. Later in the chapter, an angel appeared to Joseph in Egypt and informed him that, since Herod was dead, he could now return with his family to Israel. However, circumstances of history changed Joseph’s plans once again.
Matt. 2:22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. 23 And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene.
This seems to indicate that Joseph intended to return to Judea, to his own home in Bethlehem, but decided to relocate to Nazareth, maybe for the first time for him and his family.
This may all appear as useless conjecture and a waste of effort, but the answer to this question has bearing on what happened next in the story and on the reliability of the traditions of the Christmas story that we hold so dear.
Luke 2:6 And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.
What did Luke mean by the words “while they were there”? Where is “there”? We can only assume that he is referring to Bethlehem, based on the words of verse 4.
I find it fascinating that, in spite of these words, we still hold on to the story of the laborious journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, ending with a panicked Joseph hurrying into Bethlehem desperately in search of some place for Mary who was suffering from birth pangs. However, Luke does not say, “Just as they arrived in the village…” Instead, He says that “while they were there,” an indication that some indefinite time of at least several days transpired after they arrived in Bethlehem during which Mary went into labor.
The words “the days were accomplished” mean “the time came” or “the days were completed.” These words seem to make it plain that Mary’s labor started, not at the end of some long and arduous journey, but after Joseph and Mary had been living in the Bethlehem area for some indefinite period.
This means that there was…
- No panic
- No incompetent husband
- No storm or snow in the night
- No frantic searching for a place to stay
- No rejection of Jesus by the Jewish people
However, if this is true, what are we going to do with all of the Christmas movies and Christmas sermons and children’s Sunday School lessons that depict a completely different picture than the actual biblical story? But wait, because things get worse.
[i] Picture source: https://www.publicdomainpictures.net/en/view-image.php?image=155086&picture=bethlehem