Christmas in the time of Jesus Christ.
By JB Richards
By JB Richards
For Christians, down through the centuries, Christmas has been one of the most important holidays on their annual calendar—a holiday centered on the birth of the “Christ-Child”, the one proclaimed to be the Messiah, the savior of the world. Every Christian knows the Nativity story—Joseph and Mary travel from their hometown of Nazareth to Bethlehem, the City of King David, where the young 14-year-old newly-wed bride would deliver a very special child who would be destined to—through his death on the cross—save all the souls of this world, and the next, and fling wide the doors of Heaven for their entry to life everlasting.
The recounting of the first Christmas is ingrained into our collective memories, as are any of our most treasured family and religious traditions, and they remain an integral part of each holiday gathering. Here is what the story tells us; The Romans order a census, decreeing that all Jewish males and their immediate families report to the town of their births in order to be counted; alone, and unaccompanied by any other family members or friends, Joseph the Carpenter and a very ripe Mary make an arduous journey from their hometown in Nazareth to Bethlehem in southern Judea; the couple arrives in Bethlehem with the Blessed Virgin already in great distress from the onset of her labor; the exhausted newlyweds are callously turned away from a crowded inn, only to find a last-minute shelter in a stable; singing angels descend from the heavens, enticing shepherds, who are busy tending their flocks in the fields to abandon their wooly charges and come worship at the feet of the Christ-Child; three wise men, Magis from the Far East, set out on an epic journey under the guidance of a special star that appears on the horizon of the western sky—the enigmatic star we now refer to as “The Star of Bethlehem”—the celestial signpost that signalled where the Holy Family awaits their arrival.
But, what if I told you that the story of the first Christmas is an embellished tale, mere fantasy passed down through the centuries by generation after generation of clerics who wished to make the birth of Jesus a focal point of a floundering new religious movement that eventually became one of the world’s greatest religions? What if I told you that the traditional Christian version of the birth of Jesus didn’t happen at all the way you think it did? What if I told you that the historical Jesus, familiarly known as “Jesus of Nazareth” and “Jesus Christ”, wasn’t born on December 25th? What if I told you that he wasn’t even born in December?! What if I told you that his name wasn’t “Jesus”, but “Yeshua” (Yeshu/Yeshuah)—the name his mother gave to him, and called him in their native Aramaic tongue? And, what if I told you that the true miracle of Jesus’ life never lay in the fabrication of a Christian fable, but in the charismatic, enigmatic, and brilliant young master, rabbi, teacher, scholar, and healer he turned out to be?
Now before you decide that this article is a load of bunk, and I must be out of my mind for thinking that the first Christmas happened any other way than tradition says it did, I ask that you please allow me a chance to explain myself, and I hope that you will take a moment to hear me out before you rush to judgment.
As a historian, I am bound to examine fact from fiction in order to reveal the past … to look at what actually happened and what did not. Legend, myth, fable, folklore, and superstition all evolve from misunderstanding, manipulation, and/or a lack of historical data. Here, my goal as a historian is not to attack, dispel, or discount anyone’s belief system, but to present the facts … to tell you the story of the first Christmas based on historical facts and data. As a result, I think that once if you read through to the end of this article, you’ll find, as did I, that the true miracle of Christmas lies not in the contrivances of a Church trying to grow a following, but in the history of one particular man’s life, and how that life forever changed not only his own world, but ours as well.
In the year 4 BC, Emperor Augustus Octavian Caesar ordered a census to be performed throughout the Roman Empire. Each adult male citizen of the empire was to personally appear before the census taker in the town of their birth along with their wives (Records exist showing that polygamy did indeed exist in the time of Jesus.) and dependent children. For many Jewish families in Judea and Galilee, the census was not a bother since family members often remained close to their elders and lived in the same community where they were born. For other citizens of the empire, however, a journey back to the place of their birth would be a terrible inconvenience, requiring much planning, especially if the location was a great distance from their current residence. With this in mind, the Romans granted time for families to travel, and a firm date was set by which all citizens were to report and register. (Some historians suggest a period of six months to a year might have been the norm.)
The gospels tell us that Joseph was born in a village called Bethlehem, but at the time of the census, he and his family were residing in a small backwater town that we now know as Nazareth, where he worked as a tekton, which in Hebrew means “one who works with his hands”. Joseph would have spent much time planning such a trip, but to which Bethlehem did he belong—the Bethlehem in Judea that was situated relatively close to Jerusalem, or the recently-discovered tiny village called the “Bethlehem of the North” just a few miles away from Nazareth in Galilee?
History presents two possible scenarios for the trip Joseph and his family undertook. The first option is that he took his family south to the Bethlehem in Judea, the one familiarly associated with the Nativity story. The second option was that Joseph and his family traveled to Bethlehem-of-the-North, a tiny Galilean village—if one could call it that, for it seemed to have consisted of perhaps less than a dozen families. Taking into account the first option—Bethlehem in Judea—and having been given adequate time to travel to the census locale, it would seem unlikely that Joseph would make an arduous trek to a far-off place with his new wife due to deliver any day. Why would he take such a risk, placing the child’s life—and perhaps Mary’s as well—in great jeopardy, when there were much safer times to travel: either at the very beginning of her term, or after the child had been born?
In ancient times, Jews were called to the Holy City of Jerusalem to worship HaShem (the Lord) during the Pilgrimage Festivals three times a year. These holidays were Pesach/Passover (celebrating the Exodus from Egypt), Shavuot/the Feast of Weeks (when HaShem gave the Torah to Moses), and Sukkot/the Festival of Booths (symbolizing the 40 years of wandering in the desert). Although Jews were expected to be present in Jerusalem to celebrate these holidays each year, exceptions were made for families who were experiencing financial difficulties, health problems, or other exceptional issues. Considering the state of her pregnancy, it seems highly unlikely that Joseph would have chosen to take Mary on a long pilgrimage, lasting many days, to travel south to either Jerusalem or Bethlehem with her time of delivery so near. Mary would have been greatly tasked to travel to Bethlehem (in Judea) for the purposes of the census, then move on to Jerusalem to celebrate one of the aforementioned holidays—or vice verse. But, keeping Jesus’ birthday in mind, even if Joseph wanted to kill two birds with one stone (to attend the festival and register for the census), it makes no sense that Bethlehem in Judea would be the place of Jesus’ birth since the respective festivals do not occur anywhere around December 25th.
Bethlehem-of-the-North would seem a far better candidate to host a December birth for Jesus considering its relatively close proximity to Nazareth. After all, the small hovel could support the theory that Joseph and Mary’s journey to participate in the census may have taken place in December, and the reason is two-fold—Joseph may have decided to take Mary to his own birthplace for the birth of her first son. The town of one’s birth in those days held some significance to families who wished to trace their bloodlines back to the first tribes, And while there for Jesus’ birth, it would be a simple matter for Joseph to register for the census as he was required to do. Unfortunately, History has so far stood silent on the subject of Jesus’ birthday, presenting a conundrum in verifying that either travel scenario took place and there are no documented records to rely on for the facts. Births, marriages, deaths—or anything else for that matter—went undocumented, challenging scholars who wish to research such events today.
So, why was the date of December 25th chosen as Jesus’ birthday in the first place? Is there some significance to this date that would enhance Jesus’ notoriety and Christianity’s claim that he was the long-awaited Messiah? December 25th is a central date that coincides with a much-beloved, heavily-celebrated, and popular pagan holiday—the Feast of Saturnalia, and the winter solstice. In the early days of the Church, it was difficult, at best, to entice converts into leaving their wild celebrations and worship of a pantheon of false gods to follow the Way of Christ. The early Church patriarchs usurped both of these wildly popular winter festivals in order to lure followers to the Christian faith, and Jesus birthday was forever celebrated as December 25th.
So, when was Jesus real birthday? Is there any way to find out when it was? Here’s a bit of amazing news … modern Christian scholars, New Testament experts, and mathematicians, who banded together under a single research project—to find out when Jesus was born—have actually met success in calculating the month of Jesus' birth. How? They used actual historical records about verifiable documented events that took place around the time of his birth, including the Roman census, the appearance of the Star of Bethlehem, records on the reign of Herod the Great, and other sources such as the synoptic gospels, the Nag Hammadi Library and the Gnostic gospels, and astronomical records kept by the magi of Persia, and the sages of Indie and the Far East. It took a great deal of effort to piece together such an overwhelming amount of research, but experts finally found an answer! They deduced that Jesus was born in the Jewish month of Nissan/April. (On a side note, it is curious that the month of Nisan falls under the sign of Aries the Ram, and many of the qualities of this astrological sign describe the personality of Jesus as described in the traditional gospels. The gospels also mark Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection as having taken place during Pesach/Passover in the month of Nisan in 30 CE.)
Another beloved Christmas tradition revolves around the Star of Bethlehem. Was this astronomical phenomenon an actual star, or could it have been something else entirely? Experts have disputed the real identity of Star of Bethlehem for centuries. Was there a celestial event that accompanied the birth of Jesus between 6 BC-6 CE that can estimate the year of his birth? Because astronomical records go back thousands of years, it was a simple matter to research those documents. What researchers found was astonishing! Indeed there were a handful of events that could have been associated with what the gospels describe as “a star that appeared in the heavens” at the time of Jesus’ birth. One possibility was a triple alignment between the Sun, the Earth, Jupiter and Saturn, making it appear as though there is a blazing star in the heavens in the year 4 BC. The second event, recorded by astronomers in what is now modern-day China, took place in 5 BC when a bright comet appeared in the constellation of Capricorn. A third option is that the Star of Bethlehem was the result of a nova—a star exploding in the heavens. This event would have appeared as a beacon of light, as bright as the moon, that would have lasted anywhere from a few days to several months in the northern constellation of Aquila in 4 BC. Oddly enough, a star going nova is the best candidate for the Star of Bethlehem since—in the eyes of a caravan of Magi advancing from the Far East—the orb would have seemed to sit suspended right over Jerusalem!
Christmas cards sometimes depict Joseph leading Mary, who is comfortably and serenely seated on a camel, toward the little town of Bethlehem. But did Joseph and Mary really travel alone from Nazareth to their destination? The gospel tells us that Jesus had four brothers—James, Joses, Judas, and Simeon—and sisters (The gospel is not clear on how many sisters Jesus had or what their names were.). Who were these siblings? Were they children of Joseph from a prior marriage? Were they children Mary had with Joseph after she gave birth to Jesus (This would negate the Catholic belief that Mary was a perpetual virgin for the entirety of her life with Joseph.)? If the siblings were older than Jesus, did they accompany their father and his newlywed bride to either of the two Bethlehems for the census? Of course, there is no way to determine the true status of Jesus’ siblings, but if they were the product of Joseph’s prior marriage, they would have traveled along with him and Mary to be counted in the census as part of their family. Mary would have felt more comfortable traveling with several family members around—especially if Joseph’s daughters were of age to help, and the possible addition of spouses and grandchildren for Joseph’s progeny suggests the Holy Family may have been much greater than the three original members we identify today.
If Jesus did have older siblings who were adults, it would have made the trip to either of the Bethlehems that much easier. Rather than travel alone, Joseph’s family would have either ventured a short distance as a group, or—if they were headed further—would have joined a caravan traveling to their destination. Upon arrival, they would have sought relatives for lodging.
The vision of Jesus lying in a manger is ingrained into our Christmas traditions. Just why do the gospels say that Joseph and Mary were relegated to a stable rather than a resident dwelling upon their arrival in Bethlehem? As I iterated before, Joseph was given plenty of time to plan for a trip to his birthplace. Could he have contacted his family in Bethlehem in advance and made them aware of his imminent arrival? Why would he risk taking a woman who was so close to her term to another town if had no place to lodge in advance? You have to admit that Joseph must have taken steps to plan their trip in advance.
Families stuck together in Jesus’ time, and many Jewish homes were multiple-level constructions that included add-ons or “wings” to accommodate an ever- growing family. It was not uncommon for several generations to remain in the same home for decades, passing down house, livestock, and other belongings to the next generation. Dwellings took many forms, but most consisted of a lower level—perhaps a dugout or cave, carved out of the bedrock which housed livestock and root vegetables in separate sections, a main story—which may have included a kitchen, common room, atrium, and bedchambers, along with a rooftop level that was used as an outdoor living space for entertaining and sleeping in the temperate months. There were no separate detached dwellings that would be classified as a stable in those times, and families preferred to keep their precious livestock under the noses at night, safe from the grasp of thieves or wild beasts. According to Jewish culture, one would be considered in violation of the law if they turned away an individual seeking shelter. Rather than turning away a needy lodger, that person, and those accompanying him, would be welcomed and set up in any free space in the home, including the root cellar or stable.
Thus, the odds that Mary was alone with Joseph when she delivered her first child are slim. Even if she and Joseph—and quite possibly his entire immediate family—could not be refused lodging, may have relegated them to the stable level of a relative’s home, but Joseph’s women kinfolk, and quite possibly a few neighbor-women, would have been eager to attend to Mary the moment she arrived.
When Mary began her labor, she would be whisked away … taken to a private area—perhaps a tent or a secluded area of the house where women maintained the purity rituals as they recovered from childbirth or waited out their menses. There, Mary would be assisted in her in her delivery. After giving birth to her child, she would be required to observe the required purification rituals, isolating herself and her attending women from the remainder of the household for a predetermined time (about 7-10 days), Only then would she be considered clean. Only then would she could be allowed to rejoin the remainder of the household. And, what of the manger—did Mary place her child in a manger when she wished to rest? It is possible that, with such a crowded household and with no other implement in hand, Mary did indeed lay her son in a manger, using it as a substitute crib as the babe slept and she assisted her kinfolk with their household chores.
In the end, how much of the Christmas story is fact and how much is fiction? The explanations I’ve provided here show how a story, based on truth but enhanced with lore, can become legend. The Christmas story evolved over the centuries, and was passed down by oral tradition over hundreds of years to capture our imaginations and instill belief in a child who was destined to save the world.
It’s unlikely that the first Christmas happened the way we see it today. Rather, the story was related from one person to the next. Like every oral tradition, it did not survive intact, and it was not always told in its entirety. More often than not, it was a tale that was exaggerated and elaborated upon, extended to include new details as men, women, and children sat around a crackling fire enchanted by a storyteller sipping from an ample skin of wine.
The four gospels included in the New Testament came down from a long line of believers who held tradition and lore in high esteem. The fact is that the first gospel, the Gospel of Mark, was not written down until decades after Jesus’ death. It was a long line of disciples who kept handing down the oral tradition, but it wasn’t until the Council of Nicea met in the 4th-century CE that all the known testaments and stories concerning the life of Jesus were collected. The council members voted for or against inclusion. A decree was sent out by the emperor and his council to the many monasteries throughout the empire, ordering them to destroy any works that weren’t indicated on the approved list. Fortunately, not every monk obeyed the order and a chest full of gospels, codices, and related texts that had been secured and hidden away were later discovered by a future generation thousands of years in the future.
At the Council of Nicea, a new creed was formulated, and the four gospels we know today as the synoptic gospels—Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John—along with other familiar texts, such as Acts, Romans, etc., become Church canon. The New Testament was born. Sermons accompanying the readings promoted the approved gospels and heightened the growing legend of the Christ. Priests, bishops, and other powerful men extolled Christ’s virtue, and He was glorified until He was no longer a mere man, but the “Christ”—the One who had died for the salvation of humanity. All ties to Judaism were cut and Jesus ceased being a Jew. Instead, he became the central figure for an illegal fledgling religion that had been around for a few hundred years—Christianity. The folklore around the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life continued to grow and new followers were attracted to the faith. But doesn’t that happen with all epics where the personality of the main protagonist is so appealing and charismatic he becomes a hero for the ages?
The first Christmas may never have happened the way we now see it, but the true miracle here lies in the remarkable and charismatic young preacher, familiarly called Jesus of Nazareth (or Rabbi Yeshua to his many disciples), who changed the world with his revolutionary but simple philosophy—“Love one another as I have loved you.” What better legacy could he have left behind for us than that?
Please note: I have not cited references in this blog, however I will respond to any questions concerning the research contained in this article via PM or email (at email@example.com).
JB Richards is an historian and international award-winning Amazon, Goodreads, and Xlibris author. She holds Bachelor of Arts degrees in Psychology and History. Richards is the founder and driving force behind the Indies Helping Indies Book Review Project (IHIBRP) which she created and initiated in April 2017 to provide qualifying Indie authors with high-quality book reviews and free promotional services. She is also the founder of the Indie Fabs—a group of Indie authors equally dedicated to offering free assistance, guidance, and support to independent authors with the aim of building strong bonds of cooperation and fellowship within the Indie community. She has been a member of the Women Fiction Writers Association (WFWA) and The International Women’s Writing Guild (IWWG) since 2016.
In November 2016, Richards was nominated for “Top Female Author” by TheAuthorsShow.com. In April 2017, she received a nomination for “Author of the Year” in the Indie Author Books 2016 Readers’ Choice Awards.
Richards’ multi-award-winning debut novel, "Miriamne the Magdala"—Grand Prize Winner of the 2017 Golden Quill Award—was published after more than 20 years of extensive research into the lives and times of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene. Her reimagining of their lives together provides an intimate, yet provocative and controversial look into a relationship nourished by a rich culture, forged by ancient traditions, transformed by an insurmountable love, and threatened by a turbulent and oppressive political landscape. Her upcoming sequel, “Yeshua the Christ: The Silk Road”, is due for publication in 2018.
Richards is a lifelong resident of Manchester, New Hampshire, where she resides with her husband, Daniel, her son, Matthew, and her two dogs, Monty and Ayden.
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Miriamne the Magdala
“Miriamne the Magdala” tells the richly detailed story of an ancient Jewish family in crisis. When twelve-year-old Miriamne and her 13-year-old long-lost cousin Yeshua are unexpectedly reunited, sparks fly. But the grave illness of a parent causes turmoil and anxiety within the two related Houses, especially for Yeshua who recognizes that his earthly Mission is fast upon him and his miraculous powers are growing out of control. As the life-and-death situation escalates, he begins to question his allegiance to his Divine Father while Miriamne finds herself torn between her newfound love for Yeshua and her premonitions about his unimaginable fate.