Christ the Savior is born.

by K.W. Leslie, 13 December

Luke 2.1-7.

Luke 2.1-3 KWL
1 This happened in those days:
A ruling went out from Caesar Augustus
to survey the whole Empire.
2 This first survey happened
during Quirinius’s leadership of Syria,
3 and each and every one was traveling
to their hometowns to be surveyed.

Some bibles refer to this apo-gráfesthai/“write-up,” as a census. But it wasn’t just a head count. The United States takes censuses every decade to figure out how many representatives each state should get, but the Romans and other empires took censuses to figure out exactly how much tax money they should expect from their territories.

Historians were a little confused because for a long time they couldn’t find records of a specific Roman survey round the time of Jesus’s birth (roughly 7BC or so). They assumed surveys were rare, so something which’d have a lot of documentation around it. But surveys were regular. The Romans held one every few years. ’Cause they weren’t like the U.S. Census Bureau: They didn’t know how to estimate population growth inbetween surveys. The Roman army might’ve just put down a rebellion, crucified a slew of people, and so much for their calculations. Or conquered a new territory. Or there might’ve been an unexpected growth spurt somewhere, or a plague elsewhere. Best to just survey everybody all over again. Plus you could throw in a poll tax, where everybody who shows up for survey has to pay a denarius for their pains.

Now for the date. Luke tries to pin it down by mentioning the Roman emperor, Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus (Gaius Octavius’s official name by that point); and a certain Syrian leader, Publius Sulpicius Quirinius. Here’s the problem: In 7BC, the year we’re figuring for this survey, the praetores/“leaders” of Syria were Gaius Sentius Saturninus, whose term was up; and Publius Quinctilius Varus, whose term began. Quirinius didn’t became praetor till year 6 of the Christian Era. But Jesus was born before the death of Herod of Jerusalem in 4BC—’cause Herod ordered Jesus killed. Mt 2.16 So we have a continuity problem.

Here are the popular solutions to the problem. Pick your favorite.

  • SKEPTICS: Doesn’t matter. It’s all mythology anyway.
  • INERRANTISTS: The Roman and Jewish historians, and every historian since, have the dates wrong. Luke doesn’t. Quirinius was totally governor at the time. The bible rules.
  • THOSE WITH REALLY OUT-OF-DATE REFERENCE BOOKS (’cause they don’t trust present-day scholars): Maybe Quirinius served two terms, with a first term before Saturninus? [A theory pitched back when there were a few gaps in Roman Syrian history. Archaeologists have filled them since.]
  • THOSE SEEKING GRAMMATICAL LOOPHOLES: Granted, Quirinius wasn’t praetor till 6CE. But back in 7BC he was a legatus/“officer”—a military leader in charge of Syria’s defense and foreign policy, if not the proper governor. He held a position of igemonéfontos/“leadership,” Lk 2.2 right? He could’ve supervised the Roman survey, right? Close enough, right?
  • INERRANTISTS (who by “inerrancy” only mean the original texts were inerrant, not our current copies): The original text of Luke must have “Saturninus,” or “before Quirinius’s leadership of Syria.” Either way, some copyist slipped up and wrote “Quirinius,” so now we have a boo-boo in the bible.
  • NON-INERRANTISTS: Luke mixed up the governors.

Got one chosen? Goody. Now on with the commentary.

Off to Bethlehem.

Luke 2.4-5 KWL
4 Joseph also went up to Judea,
from the town of Nazareth in the Galilee,
to David’s town, called Bethlehem,
because he was of David’s house and lineage,
5 to register with Mary his pregnant fiancée.

A lot of historians don’t know what to make of the idea of Joseph traveling 150 clicks to Bethlehem for a survey. Why couldn’t he get surveyed in Nazareth? What kind of administrative nightmare had the usually-so-efficient Romans created? Did everyone in Israel need to travel crazy distances in order to report to their hometowns?

Not really. Just Nazareth.

As I explained previously, Nazareth was a Judean settlement. People from Judah, in order to populate the Galilee with Jews (and thereby make it less gentile), had moved north to create a township. Problem is, technically… they weren’t supposed to be there. Only rulers, usually rulers designated by Rome, could found a city. The Nazarenes were basically squatters.

Not only the Romans would have this view; so would the Judeans. In the book of Joshua, each tribe had been assigned land, with boundary lines and everything. Js 13-19 Nazareth was an attempt to be a loophole: The Nazarenes had situated it right on the border between Zebulun and Naphtali. (You know, like Matthew’s bible quote describes it. Mt 4.13-16) They could try to argue they were on no-man’s-land, like the other Israeli cities, in which anyone was allowed to live, particularly Levites. But no matter how you sliced the baloney, they were Judeans, supposed to be in Judah, so they had to go “home” for the survey.

Most other Jews were already home, and didn’t need to travel anywhere. But bear in mind travel was a common thing for Jews. The Law ordered men to go to temple three times a year, for Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. Dt 16.16 Bethlehem is only 3 kilometers away from Jerusalem; less than an hour’s walk. Really, Joseph could’ve put off going to Bethlehem till he had to go to temple for one of the festivals, then registered while he was there.

So the idea this survey upended everyone in the Roman Empire? Not even close.

But if you’re picturing just Joseph and a hugely pregnant Mary on a donkey, headed to Bethlehem all by themselves, you’ve got the totally wrong image in mind. Their whole families went with them. (There were highway robbers everywhere; it wasn’t even safe for it just to be the two of them.) Their families would have to come along anyway: They had to go to temple too; they had to get surveyed too. The whole of Nazareth went to Judea. Of course Bethlehem ran out of room once they got to town.

Anyway that’s how Jesus managed to get born in Bethlehem instead of Nazareth.

Some look at this as God providentially manipulating the emperor of the most powerful nation in the world in order to get his Messiah born precisely where he wanted. Sounds mighty impressive… but wouldn’t it be easier, and make more sense, for God simply to foresee the circumstances, and inform his prophets? Why manipulate anybody? Why inconvenience the whole Roman Empire just so he could have Jesus born where he wanted? Showing off your might for no good reason might appeal to our character, but hardly God’s.

So, had Mary stayed in Nazareth for Jesus’s birth, prophecies would’ve pointed to Nazareth. Had Mary stayed at Elizabeth’s, the prophecies would’ve pointed to the Judean foothills. Had the family been in Jerusalem for one of the feasts, Micah’d have said Messiah would come from Jerusalem instead of Bethlehem.

I suppose some Christians really don’t like to imagine something so momentous depending on circumstances, rather than God. To them, God’s hands are sure, whereas circumstances can and will go every which way. But this sort of thinking actually shows a lack of respect for God’s sovereignty: The instant God drops the reins, they fear the universe will fall apart, so he has to micromanage… ’cause he’s just that inept a creator. Me, I can’t believe that.

Born in a manger?

Luke 2.6-7 KWL
6 This happened while they were there:
The days of Mary’s term were finished.
7 She birthed her son, her firstborn.
She bundled him and set him in a trough,
because there was no space for them in the upper room.

The Christmas stories and movies and plays get seriously over-dramatic in their depictions of Joseph and Mary. Too often they picture them just getting into Bethlehem, with Mary gasping in mid-contraction ’cause Jesus is coming and she’s crowning.

So Joseph scampered from inn to inn, finding nothing ’cause they’re booked solid. Or for some unexplained reason the innkeepers just knew Joseph and Mary weren’t married, and couldn’t have ’em shacking up together. (That’s a little Fundamentalist addition I grew up with.) At the last minute one innkeeper offered the stable. They took it, got her in there just in time, and out popped Jesus. Some of our Christmas songs even describe Jesus as “born in a manger,” as if Mary, lacking a delivery table, decided to use the stable animals’ food trough instead. Now that’s a bizarre image.

Mary commandeered the manger as a makeshift crib. They had a momentous first night in the stable: Some uninvited dirty shepherds burst in, gawked at the baby, then ran through the town bellowing about it as if they’d just seen a thousand-angel choir or something. (And don’t get me started on the little drummer boy, which isn’t even in the bible. Who lets some dumb kid thump on a drum for a newborn?) Anyway, they found better accommodations later, as they’d have to, but that’s getting ahead of the story.

Well, let’s correct these romantic ideas with the scriptures.

Luke says Mary gave birth “while they were there.” Lk 2.6 They’d been in Bethlehem a while. Maybe a day, maybe a week. Roman surveys were done over several weeks, so they had plenty of time to travel to Bethlehem before or after Mary’s due date.

Why’d Jesus wind up in a manger? Theories abound. I mentioned the one about disapproving innkeepers turning away an unmarried couple. It’s rubbish: In that culture, if an unrelated single man and single woman were living together, they were married. There was no such thing as “cohabitation,” as our culture knows it. Yeah, the Law prescribed certain impediments to certain couples: The woman couldn’t already be married, they couldn’t be closely related, they had to both be Jews, and if either were Levite there’d be further expectations. But on first glance, most innkeepers would just assume they were hitched. Why not?

Thing is, Joseph and Mary weren’t living together. Luke describes Mary as Joseph’s fiancée, not wife. Lk 2.5 Joseph must’ve gone out of his way to make it obvious (well, to anyone who accepted Mary’s story of how Jesus was conceived) he hadn’t touched her. Mt 1.25 The only real way to do so was for Mary and Joseph to intentionally not live together till Jesus was born. Not even when they were in Bethlehem. They went there, and stayed there, with their families: Joseph with his parents, Mary with hers.

In the present day, inn refers to a hotel or motel or hostel, where travelers rent a room. In the middle ages inn referred to any guest room, so that’s why the KJV has “inn,” and other English translations follow its lead. But it gives people the wrong idea: This wasn’t a rented room, which’d be a pandokhíon/“inn.” Lk 10.34 This was a katályma/“upper room,” like the one Jesus had his Last Supper in. Mk 14.14 Frequently Israelis would turn the roof of a house (which they often used as a deck anyway) into an upstairs spare room. When they hosted guests, that’s where they’d stay. But at the time, these rooms were full of visiting Nazarenes, so people had to stash people wherever else they could… like the stable. Desperate times called for desperate measures. So clear out a stall, and get rid of as much of the stench as you can—or ignore it.

The Altar of the Nativity, put right over the spot the Christians figure Jesus was born. Wikipedia

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is built over the stable where Jesus was born. If you peek behind the curtains draped everywhere, you’ll discover limestone cave walls. ’Cause it’s a cave. Bethlehemites took practical advantage of the caves in the area, and used them as storage, as stables, and as sepulchers. There’s a stone trough nearby to give you an idea of what sort of manger Jesus would’ve slept in. Doesn’t look at all like western nativity crèches. But those tableaux aren’t going for historical accuracy, y’know. After all, they include the magi from Matthew, Mt 2.1-12 who wouldn’t visit Jesus for about two more years.

Well. Here we have Jesus born in the humblest of conditions: People obligated, by some foreign dictator, to leave their home and be taxed 100 miles away. Families obligated, by a house full to bursting, to stay in the stable. Parents obligated to throw off their entire timetable of when to be married and start a family. To anyone this would have looked like utter, disastrous chaos.

So I suppose it was the perfect time for God to step in.