Although Christmas is celebrated worldwide by millions, I believe little is known about the birth of Jesus.
A baby was born in the Middle East approximately two thousand years ago. His mother, Mary, was probably no more than 14 years old and either engaged, or only recently married, to a man named Joseph. No one knows how old Joseph was at the time – he could have been anywhere from 15 to 99.
The two had not yet slept together, so when he learned Mary was pregnant, Joseph planned to leave her and move on with his life. A compassionate man, he considered a private divorce because if he publicly denounced her as having been unfaithful, Mary could have been stoned to death. However, despite his reservations, Joseph relented and decided to stay – reportedly, an angel appeared in a dream and reassured him that Mary had done no wrong, and that, nonetheless, she was bearing a very special child.
The baby was born shortly thereafter, and they named him Jesus. Those bare facts aren’t seriously disputed (although many would quibble with whether an “angel” had actually appeared). But beyond that, little is certain about the circumstances of Jesus’ birth.
They say he was born in Bethlehem, but for the rest of his life, he was known as “Jesus of Nazareth,” which is eighty miles away. There appears to be scant or no historical support for the belief that Joseph had traveled to Bethlehem to be counted in the Roman tax census, when whatever property he owned (and on which the taxes would have been levied) was back in Nazareth. And it doesn’t make much sense for the couple to have embarked on a four (or more) day journey when Mary was so close to giving birth.
Many believe the Bethlehem birthplace was a fiction, created merely to make the birth of Jesus more closely conform to Old Testament prophecies about the coming of a great savior.
We don’t even know the exact year, or the exact month and day, when Jesus was born. Some say December 25 is unlikely for a number of reasons. For instance, the shepherds supposedly tending their flocks would not have had their sheep outdoors overnight during that cold and rainy time of the year. And December 25 was already popular as Saturnalia, a pagan holiday celebrating the birth of the sun god. Did the Roman Catholic Church pick December 25 as the date we commemorate the birth of the “son of God” (our very own “sun god”) as a convenient replacement for a holiday with which their doctrine disagreed?
It’s also unclear whether Jesus was born in a manger, as the story goes, or in someone’s home. And apart from Mary and Joseph, there appears to be little or no historical evidence for believing that anyone else attended the birth – if the magi were there at all, they likely arrived some time later. Some speculate that it could have been months before any “wise men” showed up bearing gifts. And while there may have been three of them, the historical record (the book of Matthew, the only known account of the magi and the “Christmas star”) merely refers to them in the plural, so there could have been two, four, or ten of them for all we know.
So what do we know? About two thousand years ago, a boy named Jesus was born in the Middle East. That’s not unusual – today, at least four people are born every second of every day. And his parents were poor; nothing new there. But we also know that the accounts of this boy’s life and death, and his teachings, have been preserved and passed on for centuries. And we also know that, whoever you think he was, Jesus has had, and continues to have, an enormous positive impact on the lives of billions of people.
Given the passage of millennia, and the fact that we’re talking about someone who many worship as the son of God, is it surprising that the story may have been “spun” by some, or that elements of fable have crept into the record? I think I can live with that.