From childhood most of us learned a traditional version of the birth of Jesus: that on December 24, Joseph led Mary on a donkey to the town of Bethelem where she began to go into labor. They frantically searched for a place to stay and ended up in a stable because there was no room in the local inn.
But scholars say that wasn't exactly the way it happened.
This is a different kind of Christmas story; it will give you a new perspective on the birth of Jesus.
"Nazareth Village" has been recreated in Israel as an authentic 'first century' village-a place of 'living history'. It looks similar to the way Bethlehem and Nazareth looked during Biblical times, and Interpreters re-enact what Mary and Joseph did.
They would have left Nazareth in the morning and arrived in Bethlehem, Mary on a donkey and Joseph leading. They traveled with other people for safety, greeted people along the way, and checked directions to Bethlehem.
God's Word the Bible says, "For unto us a Child is born. Unto us a Son is given. His name shall be called, Yeshua-Jesus-and He was-and is-the Savior of us all."
Luke, one of the Bible writers, recorded the circumstances of Jesus' birth. Joseph, a descendant of King David, had to go to Bethlehem for a census. He traveled there with his betrothed, Mary, who was pregnant, that is with-child.
Claire Pfann joined me at Nazareth Village; she is Assistant Dean for Academic Affairs at the University of the Holy Land. As we walked a path toward the Village, she explained what happened during that first Christmas when Jesus was born.
Bethlehem, 2000 years ago, Claire said, was a town with Jewish roots, and Jesus was born into a Jewish family and Jewish tradition.
Claire added, "Paul, the Apostle, gives us this information, in Galatians 4:4. He says, 'When the time had fully come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, and born under The Law of God.' Jesus was born fully a man and fully within Judaism under God's Law."
At Nazareth Village, you can hear sheep bleating, and the voices of people going up the hillside as the crowds come into the village, with Joseph and Mary following close behind. Joseph leads the donkey as they near their family's home in Bethlehem, where Joseph begins looking to find his relatives.
The Gospel of Luke says Joseph and Mary returned to the place where they had relatives. Family members had already arrived in Bethlehem, just in time for the census.
Unlike the traditional view that Joseph and Mary couldn't find room at an inn, in actuality they would have been welcomed by their Jewish relatives who lived here. They would have entered the home, welcomed by the "patriarch", the eldest of their male relatives.
Claire explained, "In Jewish society, you would go first and foremost to your family, and ask for hospitality. Small Jewish villages didn't have hotels, and they didn't have motels, and they hardly had inns."
Then Mary and Joseph would have shared a meal with their family. In this 'living history town' we see where patriarchal families lived together-sons, grandsons, cousins, and relatives would all arrive by mealtime and share a meal. Family would eventually fill up every room in the house, because they were all required to be there for the census.
Joseph and Mary would have gone upstairs to rest; so did all the family. But, as her birth pangs began, Joseph and Mary would have looked around the family home for a place where Mary could give birth in privacy.
Claire says the key to understanding Luke's account of Christmas is his use of the Greek word for 'Inn'. "In the text of the book of Luke," she explained, "when we translate the word, "Inn", we're reading the Greek word, 'Kataluma'. And 'Kataluma', can mean a guest room (or upper room)."
Naturally, Joseph and Mary would peer into the Kataluma, or guest room, and see that it was already crowded.
They would go back down the stairs, wondering "What could they do in this circumstance, to give Mary some privacy, so she could deliver her baby comfortably and securely?"
Claire gives us new insight on that, "Well, we then get our next clue from Luke's text when he says, 'and she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room in the 'Kataluma', or guest room."
During the day, before Jesus' birth, normal life would be happening: children would be playing between buildings; a woman would be carrying a water jug on her shoulder from the courtyard well into the house; women would be cleaning; cooking, and making preparations. A mother & her daughters would be weaving fabric. In those days, households had to do everything by hand, and were busy places.
This is the kind of life Joseph and Mary saw when they came to Bethlehem.
The customary way of building in those days included building around a courtyard, with rooms attached for family members. The women of the house would sweep the courtyard in anticipation of visitors arriving. There was a cistern used for drinking water, and a cooking area for meal preparation. Daughters would take weaving lessons from their mother. In those days, they wore plain linen tunics and cloth was woven into simple patterns.
Downstairs, the courtyard led to a room in the basement, which was really a 'cave' dug out of soft limestone. That room was used for storage. Nearby outside the housewife would be sieving grain. The families kept large jars of olive oil and wine in the cave. There were stacks of wheat and grain, too.
The housewife would grind two pounds of wheat every day to make bread for her family, and then haul it upstairs to the meal area.
Sheep and donkeys were outdoors; boys often acted as shepherds, and the sheepfold (and pen for goats, donkeys etc.) would often be in or near that basement cave area.
The family would bring their prized animals inside for protection and lead them into the basement cave where they would eat from the feeding trough-a manger.
Jesus could have been born in a room like the basement 'cave', then wrapped in swaddling clothes and placed in the manger, as is written in the gospel of Luke. The animals would have been moved out, and clean hay laid down. Some of the women, midwives who were experienced in delivering babies would have come down here to help Mary.
Claire told us, "Perhaps, her aunts or cousins or mother or mother-in-law actually assisted in the child birth. And, of course, one word about delivering the baby is: if there are actually women there to deliver Jesus, then Joseph didn't have to catch the baby.".
So, as the Christmas story unfolds, we have a truer picture of life in the first century, placing Jesus in His historical context.
But, what about December 25th? Was that the actual day that Jesus was born? Or, was December too cold for the shepherds to be outside tending their flocks?
Claire said, "Many people have suggested that perhaps Jesus was born at the Feast of Succot, or Tabernacles. Because, we think about the prologue, John Chapter 1, in which John said, 'the Word became flesh, and tabernacled, or dwelt, among us'. It would be a very appropriate time for the birth of Jesus."
On that Christmas morning, as the cock crowed, after the Savior's birth, a group would have gathered together near the manger, excited to see Mary and wanting to look at the baby in her arms. Nearby would be Joseph, and the midwife women.
Jesus was cradled in a manger, a feeding trough for the animals. Yet, as this story reveals, He was not born an outcast. Instead, He was born as the Jewish Messiah, and the Savior of us all. He was born in a town like this 'living history' town. He was born into a loving, nurturing Jewish family environment. His birth fulfilled God's Covenant Promises to His people, Israel.
God has done a wonderful work of salvation for us, bringing Himself into the world; and making salvation available to all humanity.