Dec's 2004 Book Review
This month we are including the story of Jesus' birth from
the book of Luke written in the Amplified Bible Version, as well as the
book review which is from the book titled Jesus and His Times.
Luke Chapter 1:
Since (as is well known) many have undertaken to put in order and
draw up a (thorough) narrative of the surely established deeds which
have been accomplished and fulfilled in and among us.
Exactly as they were handed down to us by those who from the
(official) beginning (of Jesus' ministry) were eyewitnesses and
ministers of the Word (that is, of the doctrine concerning the
attainment through Christ of salvation in the kingdom of God).
It seemed good and desirable to me, (and so I have determined)
also after having searched out diligently and followed all things
closely and traced accurately the course from the highest to the
minutest detail from the very first, to write an orderly account for
you, most excellent Theophilus, (Acts 1:1.).
(My purpose is) that you may know the full truth and understand
with certainty and security against error the accounts (histories)
and doctrines of the faith of which you have been informed and in
which you have been orally instructed.
In the days when Herod was king of Judea there was a certain
priest whose name was Zachariah, of the daily service (the division)
of Abia; and his wife was also a descendant of Aaron, and her name
And they both were righteous in the sight of God, walking
blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the
But they had no child, for Elizabeth was barren; and both were far
advanced in years.
Now while on duty, serving as priest before God in the order of his
division, As was the custom of the priesthood, it fell to him by lot
to enter (the sanctuary of) the temple of the Lord and burn incense,
And all the throng of people were praying outside (in the court) at
the hour of incense burning.
And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right
side of the altar of incense.
And when Zachariah saw him, he was troubled, and fear took
possession of him But the angel said to him, Do not be afraid,
Zachariah, because your petition was heard, and your wife
Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you must call his name John
( God is favorable).
And you shall have joy and exultant delight, and many will rejoice
over his birth, For he will be great and distinguished in the sight of
the Lord. And he must drink no wine nor strong drink, and he will
be filled with and controlled by the Holy Spirit even in and from his
mother's womb. (Num. 6:3.).
And he will turn back and cause to return many of the sons of Israel
to the Lord their God,
And he will (himself) go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah,
to turn back the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the
disobedient and incredulous and unpersuadable to the wisdom of
the upright (which is the knowledge and holy love of the will of God)
-- in order to make ready for the Lord a people (perfectly) prepared
(in spirit, adjusted and disposed and placed in the right moral state).
(Isa. 40:3; Mal. 4:5,6.).
And Zachariah said to the angel, By what shall I know and be sure
of this? For I am an old man, and my wife is well advanced in years.
And the angel replied to him, I am Gabriel. I stand in the (very)
presence of God, and I have been sent to talk to you and to bring
you this good news. (Dan. 8:16; 9:21.).
Now behold, you will be and will continue to be silent and not able
to speak till the day when these things take place, because you
have not believed what I told you; but my words are of a kind which
will be fulfilled in the appointed and proper time.
Now the people kept waiting for Zachariah, and they wondered at
his delaying (so long) in the sanctuary.
But when he did come out, he was unable to speak to them; and
they (clearly) perceived that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary;
and he kept making signs to them, still he remained dumb.
And when his time of performing priestly functions was ended, he
returned to his (own) house.
Now after this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant, and for five
months she secluded herself entirely, saying, ( I have hid myself)
Because thus the Lord has dealt with me in the days when He
deigned to look on me to take away my reproach among men.
(Gen. 30:23; Isa. 4:1).
Now in the sixth month (after that), the angel Gabriel was sent from
God to a town of Galilee named Nazareth,
To a girl never having been married and a virgin engaged to be
married to a man whose name was Joseph, a descendant of the
house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary.
And he came to her and said, Hail, O favored one (endued with grace)!
The Lord is with you! Blessed (favored of God) are you before all other
But when she saw him, she was greatly troubled and disturbed and
confused at what he said and kept revolving in her mind what such a
greeting might mean.
And the angel said to her, Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found
grace (free, spontaneous, absolute favor and loving-kindness) with
And listen! You will become pregnant and will give birth to a Son,
and you shall call His name Jesus,
He will be great (eminent) and will be called the Son of the Most
High; and the Lord God will give to Him the house of His forefather
And He will reign over the house of Jacob throughout the ages; and
of His reign there will be no end. (Isa. 9:6, 7; Dan. 2:44.)
And Mary said to the angel, How can this be, since I have no
(intimacy with any man as a) husband?
Then the angel said to her, The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and
the power of the Most High will overshadow you (like a shining cloud);
and so the holy (pure, sinless) Thing (Offspring) which shall be born
of you will be called the Son of God. (Exod. 40:34; Isa. 7:14.)
And listen! Your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived
a son, and this is now the sixth month with her who was called
For with God nothing is ever impossible and no word from God shall
be without power or impossible of fulfillment.
Then Mary said, Behold, I am the handmaiden of the Lord; let it be
done to me according to what you have said. And the angel left her.
And at that time Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country
to a town of Judah.
And she went to the house of Zachariah and, entering it, saluted
And it occurred that when Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby
leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with and controlled by
the Holy Spirit.
And she cried out with a loud cry, and then exclaimed, Blessed
(favored of God) above all other women are you! And blessed
(favored of God) is the Fruit of your womb!
And how (have I deserved that this honor should) be granted to me,
that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
For behold, the instant the sound of your salutation reached my
ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.
And blessed (happy, to be envied) is she who believed that there
would be a fulfillment of the things that were spoken to her from
And Mary said, My sould magnifies and extols the Lord,
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
For He has looked upon the low station and humiliation of His
handmaiden. For behold, from now on all generations (of all ages)
will call me blessed and declare me happy and to be envied!
For He Who is almighty has done great things for me--and holy is
His name (to be venerated in His purity, majesty and glory)!
And His mercy (His compassion and kindness toward the miserable
and afflicted) is on those who fear Him with godly reverence, from
generation to generation and age to age. (Ps. 103:17.).
He has shown strength and made might with His arm; He has
scattered the proud and haughty in and by the imagination and
purpose and designs of their hearts.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those
of low degree.
He has filled and satisfied the hungry with good things, and the rich
He has sent away empty-handed (without a gift).
He has laid hold on His servant Israel (to help him to espouse his
cause), in remembrance of His mercy,
Even as He promised to our forefathers, to Abraham and to his
descendants, forever. (Gen. 17:7; 18:18; 22:17; I Sam. 2:1-10;
And Mary remained with her (Elizabeth) for about three months
and (then) returned to her (own) home.
Now the time that Elizabeth should be delivered came, and she
gave birth to a son. And her neighbors and relatives heard that
the Lord had shown great mercy on her, and they rejoiced with her.
And it occurred that on the eighth day, when they came to circumcise
the child, they were intending to call him Zachariah after his father.
(Gen. 17:12; Lev. 12:3.)
But his mother answered, Not so! But he shall be called John.
And they said to her, None of your relatives is called by that name.
And they inquired with signs to his father (as to) what he wanted to
have him called.
Then Zachariah asked for a writing tablet and wrote, His name is
John. And they were all astonished.
And at once his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he
began to speak, blessing and praising and thanking God.
And awe and reverential fear came on all their neighbors; and all
these things were discussed throughout the hill country of Judea.
And all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying,
Whatever will this little boy be then? For the hand of the Lord was
(so evidently) with him (protecting and aiding him).
Now Zachariah his father was filled with and controlled by the
Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying, Blessed (praised and extolled
and thanked) be the Lord, the God of Israel), because He has come
and brought deliverance and redemption to His people! And He has
raised up a Horn of salvation (a mighty and valiant Helper, the Author
of salvation) for us in the house of David His servant--This is as He
promised by the mouth of His holy prophets from the most ancient
times (in the memory of man)---That we should have deliverance
and be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who detest
and pursue us with hatred; To make true and show the mercy and
compassion and kindness (promised) to our forefathers and to
remember and carry out His holy covenant (to bless, which is all
the more sacred because it is made by God Himself), That covenant
He sealed by oath to our forefather Abraham: To grant us that we,
being delivered from the hand of our foes, might serve Him fearlessly
In holiness (divine consecration) and righteousness (in accordance
with the ever-lasting principles of right) within His presence all the
days of our lives. And you, little one, shall be called a prophet of
the Most High; for you shall go on before the face of the Lord to
make ready His ways, (Isa. 40:3; Mal. 4:5.) To bring and give the
knowledge of salvation to His people in the forgiveness and remission
of their sins. Because of and through the heart of tender mercy and
loving-kindness of our God, a Light from on high will dawn upon us
and visit (us) (Mal. 4:2.) To shine upon and give light to those who
sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to direct and guide
our feet in a straight line into the way of peace. (Isa. 9:2.) And the
little boy grew and became strong in spirit; and he was in the deserts
(wilderness) until the day of his appearing to Israel (the
commencementof his public ministry.).
Chapter 2:1- 41
In Those days it occurred that a decree went out from Caesar
Augustus that the whole Roman empire should be registered.
This was the first enrollment, and it was made when Quirinius
was governor of Syria. And all the people were going to be
registered, each to his own city or town. And Joseph also
went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the
town of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the
house and family of David, To be enrolled with Mary, his espoused
(married) wife, who was about to become a mother.
And while they were there, the time came for her delivery, And
she gave birth to her Son, her Firstborn; and she wrapped Him in
swaddling clothes and laid Him in a manger, because there was
no room or place for them in the inn. And in that vicinity there
were shepherds living (out under the open sky) in the field,
watching (in shifts) over their flock by night. And behold, an
angel of the Lord stood by them, and the glory of the Lord
flashed and shone all about them, and they were terribly
frightened. But the angel said to them, Do not be afraid; for
behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come
to all the people. For to you in born this day in the town of
David a Savior, Who is Christ (the Messiah) the Lord!
(Mic. 5:2.) And this will be a sign for you (by which you will
recognize Him): you will find (after searching) a Baby wrapped in
swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.
(I Sam. 2:34; II Kings 19:29; Isa. 7:14.)
Then suddenly there appeared with the angel an army of the
troops of heaven (a heavenly knighthood), praising God and
saying, Glory to God in the highest (heaven), and on earth
peace among men with whom He is well pleased (men of
goodwill, of His favor). When the angels went away from
them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let
us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing (saying) that
has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.
So they went with haste and (by searching) found Mary and
Joseph, and the Baby lying in a manger. And when they saw
it, they made known what had been told them concerning this
Child, And all who heard it were astounded and marveled at
what the shepherds told them. But Mary was keeping within
herself all these things (sayings) weighing and pondering
them in her heart.
And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all
the things they had heard and seen, just as it had been told them.
And at the end of eight days, when (the Baby) was to be
circumcised, He was called Jesus, the name given by the angel
before He was conceived in the womb. And when the time for
their purification (the mother's purification and the Baby's
dedication) came according to the Law of Moses, they brought
Him up to the Lord--(Lev. 12:1-4.) As it is written in the Law of
the Lord, Every (firstborn) male that opens the womb shall be
set apart and dedicated and called holy to the Lord---
(Exod.13:1, 2, 12; Num. 8:17.) And (they came also) to offer
a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord:
a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons. (Lev. 12:6-8.)
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon,
and this man was righteous and devout (cautiously and carefully
observing the divine Law), and looking for the Consolation of
Israel; and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been divinely
revealed (communicated) to him by the Holy Spirit that he would
not see death before he had seen the Lord's Christ (the Messiah,
the Anointed One). And prompted by the (Holy) Spirit, he came
into the temple (enclosure); and when the parents brought in the
little child Jesus to do for Him what was customary according to
the Law. (Simeon) took Him up in his arms and praised and
thanked God and said, And now, Lord, You are releasing Your
servant to depart (leave this world) in peace, according to Your
word. For with my (own) eyes I have seen Your Salvation.
(Isa. 52:10.) Which You have ordained and prepared before
(in the presence of) all peoples. A Light for revelation to the
Gentiles (to disclose what was before unknown) and (to bring)
praise and honor and glory to Your people Israel.
(Isa. 42:6; 49:6.) And His (legal) father and (His) mother were
marveling at what was said about Him. And Simeon blessed
them and said to Mary His mother, Behold, this Child is appointed
and destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel), and for a sign
that is spoken against --(Isa. 8:14, 15.) And a sword will pierce
through your own soul also--that the secret thoughts and
purposes of many hearts may be brought out and disclosed.
And there was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel,
of the tribe of Asher. She was very old, having lived with her
husband seven years from her maidenhood. (Josh. 19:24.) And
as a widow even for eighty-four years. She did not go out from
the temple enclosure, but was worshiping night and day with
fasting and prayer. And she too came up at that same hour,
and she returned thanks to God and talked of (Jesus) to all who
were looking for the redemption (deliverance) of Jerusalem.
And when they had done everything according to the Law of the
Lord, they went back into Galilee to their own town, Nazareth.
And the Child grew and became strong in spirit, filled with
wisdom; and the grace (favor and spiritual blessing) of God
was upon Him. (Judg. 13:24; I Sam. 2:26.)..
1st Chapter taken from the book titled:
Jesus and His Times
Copyright 1987, Reader's Digest
The Birth of the Savior:
The ageless story of Jesus' birth begins with the cenus that brought
Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem. The visit of the Wise Men from the
East aroused the jealousy of King Herod, who feared a rival king.
Portfolio: The events surrounding Jesus' birth in art.
Chapter One: The Birth of the Savior
According to the Gospel of Luke, "In those days a decree went out
from Ceasar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled...And
all went to be enrolled, each to his own city." Thus Joseph and
Mary went to Bethlehem, home of Joseph's ancestors, and Jesus
was born in the city of David. Jesus was born into a world at peace.
It was a Roman peace, watched over by the vigilant Roman legions
whose very presence discouraged any brewing revolt in the remote
corners of the empire. For the most part, peace brought prosperity
and even a measure of luxury to the far-flung provinces. This was
not true, however, of tiny Palestine, a region of some 8,000 square
miles on the eastern edge of Rome's vast domain. The million or
so Jews living there, who had come under the yoke of Rome when
Pompey's legions took Jerusalem in 63 B.C., were little more than
tax-paying units in one of history's most extensive systems of
taxation -- a system dependent on the contributions of conquered
populations from all over the empire. The great works of Roman
government -- straight roads and soaring aqueducts, marble
buildings and spacious public plazas -- were partly funded by
taxes, which proved most burdensome on the lowliest members
of society. In taxation as in everything else, Rome was a strong-
arm overlord. Provincial governors were periodically empowered
to conduct a census to organize Rome's tax rolls. It was such a
mandate that sent Joseph and Mary on a 90-mile journey to
(From time to time, Rome ordered a census of the peoples under
its rule so that it could increase the tax rolls and thus raise
additional revenue to carry out imperial projects. It is likely that
Roman soldiers were assigned the task of announcing news of
these events in the provinces, which at that time of Jesus included
Palestine). This paragraph is a foot note at bottom of page.
The Gospel of Luke tells us that the Roman emperor Caesar
Augustus had ordered all subject peoples of Palestine to return to
the place of their family origin to be enrolled and that Quirinius was
governor of Syria at the time. Historians, however, have not found
reference to precisely the census mentioned by Luke. Records
reveal that the former Roman consul Publius Sulpicius Quirinius
was in charge of Syria, including Palestine, during at least one
census, but the date is A.D.6, a decade after the death of King
Herod the Great. Yet it is during Herod's reign that Matthew and
Luke place the birth of Jesus.
Did Luke, and perhaps other writers of the New Testament,
sometimes confuse the facts of Jesus' life? The Gospels were not
written until 70 to 100 years after Jesus' birth. The stories beloved
by the earliest followers of Jesus could easily have changed as
they were told and retold, thousands of times, during those early
Or did Luke use poetic license? The journey to Bethlehem has
become one of our most treasured stories. Part of the reason is
surely that one's heart goes out to the innocent expectant mother
forced to face the hardships of the road -- it was a five-day walk
from the tiny country village of Nazareth in Lower Galilee to the
town of Bethlehem, home of Joseph's ancestors, on the edge of
the Judean Wilderness.
Or is the story of the census quite literally true, an event that was
not considered worthy of notice by the chroniclers of the Roman
Empire, and immense realm of 30 provinces covering 2 million
square miles? Palestine, after all, was far removed from the center
of worldly power.
Whether owing to inaccuracy, poetic license, or a gap in the
historical record, this kind of ambiguity will recur as we look at
the life of Jesus. To most readers, such imprecision will not
detract from the essence of the story. It is understandable,
considering the circumstances in which the New Testament
was written. The recording of history with literal exactness of
detail is a fairly modern development. At the time, precise fact
was far less important than the spiritual message of the stories
shared by the disciples who still remembered the living Jesus.
For these early believers, only Luke and Matthew set down the
story of Jesus' birth -- in the first two chapters of their Gospels.
Even though the two writers do not relate the same surrounding
events, and sometimes may even seem to contrdict each other,
their common aim is clear; to show that Jesus was indeed the
Messiah prophesied. For example, both writers tell us that
Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but they do so from different
points of view. As told by Matthew, the birth in Bethlehem
fulfills an Old Testament prophecy, found in Micah 5:2, but he
says nothing about how Mary and Joseph came to be in
Bethlehem. Luke, by telling how an imperial census was
used to bring Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, shows God
using the greatest powers on earth in order to bring about the
birth of Jesus in that town in accordance with the scriptures.
In the central, most important matters, Matthew and Luke concur.
Both stress the intervention of divine warnings and promises.
Both show the ordinariness of Jesus' beginnings. Luke shows,
for example, that it was only the purity of her soul that distinguished
Mary from any other anonymous villager of the day, and Matthew demonstrates that it was Joseph's faith and courage, not his earthly
station, that singled him out for his difficult assignment. Thus both
writers show that the choice of Jesus' parents revealed that inner
truth, not outward show, would be a major theme of the New
Luke begins his account of the birth of Jesus a little more than a
year before the trip to Bethlehem, with the conception and birth
of John, who was to be called the Baptist. Zechariah ( Zacharias )
and Elizabeth, a devout elderly couple living in the hills of Judea,
were childless, even though "they were both righteous before God,
walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord
blameless." Luke stresses this point because, according to
traditional Jewish beliefs, a woman's infertility indicated God's
displeasure. Elizabeth lived daily with the sign of divine reproach,
or so she might have thought, and had lost all hope of ever
bearing a child.
Zechariah, who was a priest, was burning incense in the Temple
one day, according to prescribed ritual. Suddenly, an angel
appeared beside the holy alter and announced that Elizabeth
would at last conceive. She would give birth to a son "filled with
the Holy Spirit." This child, who should be named John, would
have the spiritual gifts of the revered Old Testament prophet Elijah.
John would grow up to win many Jews back to God and would
prepare the people for the Lord's purposes.
Pious as Zechariah was, his natural reaction was disbelief. He
desired some proof, since common sense told him that his wife
was too old. She could become pregnant only by a miracle. That,
of course, was just the point. The angel, who revealed himself as
Gabriel, said that as a sign against his lack of faith, Zechariah
would be struck dumb and remain silent until the day his son was
born. When Elizabeth discovered that she was pregnant, she was
overjoyed at the great blessing she had been given by God.
The story of Zechariah and Elizabeth is strikingly similar to
miraculous births earlier in the Bible. Abraham and Sarah and
Manoah and his wife remained childless because of the wife's
seeming barrennes ( Sarah until she was 90 years old ). They
then became the parents fo Isaac and Samson respectively. In
both instances the births were miraculous, overcoming barrenness
and old age, and were announced by an angel of the Lord or the
Lord himself. The person hearing the announcement expressed
fear or prostrated himself and was told of the child to be born and
his future life. In regard to Isaac, the child's name was also given.
The story of John's birth fits this pattern exactly and prepares us
for the greatest of all births -- not a birth to a barren woman, but
even more remarkable, a birth to a virgin.
In the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy, Gabriel went to
Nazareth. In a poignant moment, which has inspired artists
throughout the centuries of the Christian Era, he appeared
before the young virgin. Mary, who had been betrothed to
Joseph, was stunned at the greeting, "Hail, O favored one,
the Lord is with you!" ( This is the "Ave Maria" of the Latin
version of the Bible, the basis for more than one hymn of
The heavenly messenger's announcement, known as the
Annunciation, promised that Mary would conceive a son to be
called Jesus, who was destined to be "Son of the Most High,
" to reign upon the throne of David, "and of his kingdom there
will be no end."
Mary's reaction was down-to-earth. She had no husband. How
was she to conceive? Gabriel explained that "the Holy Spirit will
come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow
The angel also told Mary that her kinswoman Elizabeth had
conceived a child in her old age, commenting in a phrase that is
favorite quotation of many Christians in times of confusion or
despair, "For with God nothing will be impossible." Mary believed
the word of the angel, affirming that she was the handmaiden of
Joseph and his mission:
From Matthew we learn that Joseph was distressed when he
discovered that his betrothed was pregnant. A "just man," who
was "unwilling to put her to shame," Joseph determined to have
a quiet divorce. In fact, all he needed to do was to write his
intention to divorce Mary in a letter witnessed by two people,
perhaps even Mary's parents, and not involve the authorities or
any other outsiders.
Today divorce would simply not apply to an engaged couple, but
according to the customs of Jewish marriage in those days,
bethrothal was usually considered practically as binding as the
marriage that would follow. If her fiance died before the wedding,
for example, a betrothed woman was considered a widow.
Betrothal generally lasted about a year, and during that time
unfaithfulness on the part of one's betrothed was every where
regarded as tantamount to adultery. So Joseph had every right
to end his betrothal in divorce. Whatever he might feel toward
Mary, all visible evidence suggested that she had betrayed him.
Before he could act, Joseph had a dream in which an angel,
hailing him as "Joseph, son of David," explained that the child
Mary had conceived was of the Holy Spirit. The angel said that
the son was to be named Jesus. The name Jesus is the Greek
form of the Hebrew name Yeshus, which in turn is a contraction
of the name Yehoshua (commonly believed to mean, "Yahweh,
or Jehovah, saves"), or Joshua in English. Although the name
was a common one, it is significant because Jesus would "save
his people from their sins." The virgin birth, the angel concluded,
would fulfill a prophecy about the coming of the Messiah. Joseph
was a descendant of King David, as the angel's greeting and
Matthew's genealogy remind us, his marriage to Mary made it
possible for Jesus to be born into the House of David.
David is one of the most beloved of all Jewish heroes. He was born
in Bethlehem about 1,000 years before Jesus and tended the sheep
in the surrounding hill country. A noteworthy poet and harpist, he
probably composed at least some of the psalms attributed to him.
David was also a mighty warrior and leader. He is said to have begun
his military career while he was still a youth by slaying the giant
Goliath with a slingshot during the struggles between the Philistines
and the Hebrews. He went on to be victor in many subsequent battles.
Upon the death of Saul, Israel's first king, David was crowned as Saul's successor. His days were a time of independence, expansion, and
prosperity for Israel. Most important for the future hopes of his people
was the covenant that is described in 2 Samuel 7 between God and
David and his descendants. God promised David's kingdom and throne
"shall be established for ever" in Israel. Even later, when no descendant remained upon the throne, many hoped that a descendant of David would
rise to fulfill the promise. Both Matthew and Luke emphasize Jesus' birth
in the Davidic lineage as the ultimate realization of those hopes and of
Prior to Jesus' birth, Mary acted on some other good news that Gabriel
had given her, the pregnancy of her "kinswoman" Elizabeth. Luke, who
tells the story, does not disclose what the exact blood relationship might
have been between the two women, although tradition has often portrayed them as cousins. Whatever the relationship, Mary immediately set out to
visit this older woman so strangely blessed by God. The unnamed
Judean town where Zechariah and Elizabeth lived was perhaps as much
as 90 miles south of Nazareth, a journey of at least five days.
When Mary entered Zechariah's house, she greeted Elizabeth. As soon
as Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, John "leaped" in his mother's womb,
and Elizabeth, "filled with the Holy Spirit," cried out: "Blessed are you
among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!" Mary responded joyously, beginning, "My soul magnifies the Lord." In this response,
known as the "Magnificat," Mary not only praised, or magnified, the
mercy, strength, and generosity of God toward herself, but also
celebrated the way God in these events had overwhelmed the proud and mighty and lifted up the weak and poor: "For behold, henceforth all
generations will call me blessed."
Mary stayed with her kinswoman for about three months. Although
Luke tells us nothing of what happened in that time, it is reasonable to
guess that Mary helped Elizabeth with the routine work of the household, which would have been constant and demanding. Every day, water had
to be drawn from the village well, bread had to be baked, and curds had
to be made from goat's milk. Provisions had to be bought on market
days, and cloth had to be made by spinning and weaving.
Mary and Elizabeth probably performed many of these tasks together,
almost automatically carrying out the homespun obligations of their
simple way of life while, we may imagine, discussing over and over
again the profound mystery of the blessings God had conferred upon
them. For all their faith and joy, though, surely they must have been
puzzled. Kneading, spinning, and cooking, obscure in their station
like many a mere servant at the great courts of Rome and Jerusalem,
they were to be instruments of God's salvation of the world.
The birth of John the Baptist:
Shortly after Mary returned to Nazareth, Elizabeth's son was delivered,
to the joy of the many friends and relatives who had always loved and respected the admirable Elizabeth. In accordance with Jewish law, the
boy was circumcised on the eighth day after his birth; a festive
celebration probably followed.
The Jews were not the only ones who practised circumcision; it had
long been a custom of the Egyptians as well as other Semitic peoples. Historians do not agree about the origins of the fundamental sign of the covenant God had made with Abraham, and it served to distinguish
them from their ancient enemies, the Philistines, and, later, from the Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans.
Some ancient writers theorized that hygiene was a factor in the origin
of the rite of circumcision; others suggested that the original aim was
fertility or a lessening of sexual desire. But whatever the reason, for
the Jews circumcision was God's law.
It was usually at the ritual of circumcision that a son's name would be announced. There was some bewilderment when Elizabeth called her
child John. The choice was unusual because, contrary to custom, the
name was not associated with the family; according to Luke, no relative
had ever been called John. At this point, old Zechariah, still unable to
speak, signaled for a writing tablet and firmly wrote, "His name is John." Onlookers were astonished, but they were to be even more amazed
when, after all the months of silence, Zechariah suddenly opened his
mouth and began to praise the Lord aloud. His prayer, which recalls
the long history of God's relationship with the Jewish people and
predicts John's career as "the prophet of the Most High," is the hymn
known as the "Bendictus."
With the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah, Luke masterfully laid the groundwork for the even more remarkable events surrounding the birth
of Jesus. The attention to local detail, to everyday customs, and to the individual traits of the principals conveys the reality of the scene. As a
writer, Luke is able to convince the reader, effectively contrasting
recognizable human qualtities with the incomprehensible power of
No room at the inn:
Luke begins the story of Jesus' birth by telling of the cenus and the
trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem. He does not give details about the
journey. Most likely the couple traveled by day, when the sun was
burning hot, and rested at night, probably seeking shelter in the homes
of strangers -- in those days one was expected to extend hospitality to travelers.
Bethlehem is situated on a low but steep ridge in the rocky hills just
south of Jerusalem. The town is surrounded by green fields and lush
olive groves, but close to the east is a harsh wilderness, beyond which
lies the Dead Sea. Since the time of David, there had been a
caravansary, or inn, near Bethlehem because the town was on the
main route between Jerusalem and Egypt.
When they arrived at Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph found no place
at the inn. At that point they probably looked for available space in
someone's home. We are not told by Luke why no one took them in
for the night.
The inn on the outskirts of Bethlehem looked much like this typical
caravansary, one of the many similar hostelries along the major trade
routes of the time. It served road-weary travelers in the same way that
motels do today. In addition to lodging, a caravansary provided
protection. Built of local stone or sundried brick and walled to keep
out brigands, an inn looming on the horizon must have been a welcome
sight at the end of a day of dusty travel. Such havens were always built
around a source of water, and travelers could feed and water their
animals in the open courtyard and fill their water bags from the well.
Poor guests probably slept in the courtyard too, but in bad weather they
took shelter with their animals in the arcade that constituted the ground
floor. A stone staircase led up to an open corridor fronting on a series of
tiny, bare rooms available to those who could afford them. Shaded by
blankets and mats hung up to air, the more affluent could be somewhat removed from the clatter and stench of the dirty courtyard.
The fact that Luke says there was no place at the inn for Mary and
Joseph does not necessarily mean that the inn was unusually crowded.
As an ongoing business, and because of its proximity to Jerusalem, Bethlehem's caravansary would have catered to merchants, pilgrims,
and other travelers. It is possible that Joseph preferred to seek lodging
in the quiet of a secluded stable to spare his pregnant wife the hurly-burly
of a night among camel drivers and muleteer.
In any event, Joseph and Mary eventually bedded down somewhere in
or around Bethlehem. The location and exact nature of the lodging are unknown. The only clue Luke gives us is that there was a manger, or
feeding trough for domestic animals, in the place. Whether the manger
was in a courtyard, a stable, or a cave Luke does not say. In later
centuries the tradition developed that the birth took place in a cave used
as a stable. Habitable caves are found throughout the Bethlehem hills,
and it is known that they were used as stables in ancient times.
It would not have been shocking or peculiar for these simple people to
spend the night sheltered in a cave where animals often slept. After all, domesticated animals lived very closely with people in those days.
Most houses were built so that people occupied a raised area or upper
floor, and their animals were penned or tethered on the ground floor.
Jesus is born:
All Luke records of this very special night is that Jesus was born. An experienced midwife may have been called to help Mary through her
labor, as later tradition described. If so, it was this unknown Bethlehem midwife who cut the baby's umbilical cord. Following typical
procedures, the midwife would have brought water, or asked Joseph to
fetch some, and then bathed the child. To prevent infection, she would
have rubbed salt all over Jesus' body.
We can reasonably surmise that the manger would then have been
filled with straw. But before the child was laid in his comfortable,
utilitarian crib, Mary bound him in swaddling clothes.
Swaddling was not just a matter of wrapping a child in warm clothing.
It was a method of restraining an infant's movements to ensure that its
arms and legs would grow straight and strong. Traditionally, for at
least the first six months of life, long linen strips were tightly wound
around an infant's body, preventing the infant from thrashing its arms
and legs. Perhaps once a day, the baby was loosed from the swaddling, washed, and gently rubbed with olive oil or dusted with powdered dried
myrte leaves, and then securely wrapped again. Although the practice
is disappearing, swaddling is still customary today in some rural areas
of the Near East and in parts of the Soviet Union.
Certain poor shepards:
While Jesus lay sleeping in the manger, shepherds were spending the
night in the fields with their flocks of sheep somewhere in the
countryside around Bethlehem. They would be the first people other
than those present at the birth to learn that a miracle had occurred
Shepherds play a significant part in the story of Jesus. They not only
remind us that Jesus is descended from David, who was himself a
shepherd from Bethlehem, they also symbolize the loving care that
was to be central to Jesus' ministry. Jesus would later describe
himself as the Good Shepherd, knowing that anyone in Palestine
would understand that the relationship between a shepherd and his
sheep was one of trust and care, as immortalized in the 23rd Psalm,
which begins, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want."
It was customary for shepherds to lead their flocks instead of driving
them, as is done in the West. Even today, shepherds in the hills of
Judea can be heard calling in a strange language to their sheep, which
hasten to follow. The relationship of shepherd to sheep was so close
that the shepherd of a small flock could distinguish among his sheep,
and any sheep could recognize its master's voice.
The shepherd's lot was not an easy one. He was almost always
outdoors, with only a camel-hair cloak and a simple head veil to
protect him from the wind and the rain and from the burning heat of
the midday sun. Generally, a shepherd ate only what he could carry
with him -- bread, cheese, olives, figs, dates, and raisins.
The sheep had to be led to forage and water, and if a sheep fell into
a rocky crevice, the shepherd had to climb down to it or pull it to safety
with his curved staff. If the sheep was hurt in the fall, the shepherd
stretched the animal over his shoulders, carried it to a safe place, and
tended its injuries. At night the sheep had to be protected from thieves
and from wild animals.
The hills around Bethlehem were full of predators, including bears,
leopards, jackals, and occassionally hyenas. The shepherd, usually
armed with a sling-shot and a rod ( a wooden club embedded with flint
or nails ), was the sheep's sole protection against sudden and violent
death. In fighting off wild animals or thieves, a shepherd might lose his
To help them protect the animals under their care, shepherds often built
a sheepfold. This was an enclosure of high, mortarless stone walls
topped with thorn branches to keep out wild animals. The fold had no
gate; so the shepherd acted as a human gate by lying across the open entryway. When shepherds shared a sheepfold, they could take turns sleeping.
Date of the Nativity:
During the winter ( generally from November until Passover ), when
pasturage became slim and the rain and cold weather threatened, the
sheep could no longer be kept outdoors and so were placed under
cover. Because Luke mentions that the shepherds were "out in the
field, keeping watch over their flock by night, " it is very likely that the traditional date for Christmas is inaccurate.
December 24, celebrated as Christmas only since the fourth century
A.D., was chosen by early Christian leaders for both practical and
symbolic reasons. In the pagan Roman Empire it had been the date
of the beginning of the year's most popular feast, the Saturnalia, a
time of wild holiday abandon. It was also astronomically significant,
occurring as the winter sun began to move back toward its zenith in
the summer heavens. It was the day, in other words, when all could
see that the cycle of the seasons would continue and that life would
begin again after the symbolic and literal death of winter. The birth of
Jesus indicated, on another plane, that life had been renewed and
that spiritual rebirth, too, was possible for mankind.
According to Matthew, Jesus was born during the reign of King Herod
the Great. Since Herod died in 4 B.C., the date of the Nativity must
surely have been earlier. Most scholars choose 6 B.C., or possibly
7 B.C. In the sixth century A.D. calculations were made to institute
the Christian Era in our calendar and to begin numbering the years
based on the year of Jesus Christ's birth. Because of insufficient
historical data, Dionysius Exiguus, the monk doing this work, erred
in fixing the time of the birth. The error persists in our calendar to this
Angels heard on high:
Whatever the date of that first Christmas, Luke tells us that on that
night an angel of the Lord appeared to a group of Bethlehem shepherds, bathing them in terrifying brightness. "Be not afraid," said the heavenly
visitor, who then explained that "a Savior, who is Christ the Lord," had
just been born nearby. The angel instructed the shepherds to seek out,
as a sign, "a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger." Instantly, a multitude of angels appeared, chanting the lines that are so profoundly linked with Christmas: "Glory to God in the highest, and on
earth peace, good will toward men."
When the angels vanished into the heavens, the shepherds lost no time
rushing back to Bethlehem to find the infant Jesus. They believed what
they had been told. The sight of Mary and Joseph and the baby in the
manger confirmed their amazement. Convinced that the Almighty had
worked a miracle, they spread the news, according to Luke, and brougth
wonder to those who heard them -- but little more than wonder. It was
not yet time for Jesus to be noticed by the crowds.
The adoration of the shepherds corroborated for Mary what she already
knew, and she "kept all these things, pondering them in her heart." The
glorious incident, however, went unnoticed by the larger world outside.
While under Roman rule, Palestine had many unhappy Jews waiting for
deliverance at the hands of an expected Redeemer. Luke reports that the
Redeemer had come, but only a few people knew, for the time being, and
they were not people to whom Jewish leaders would readily give ear.
Fulfilling the law:
Eight days after his birth, like John before him, Jesus was circumcised,
in accordance with Jewish law. As Luke reminds us, there were other
rituals associated with a birth. Mary, according to Jewish law, was to
remain separate from all religious rites for 40 days, the first 7 of which
she was considered unclean. Had the child been female, the period of uncleanness and ritual separation would have been twice as long.
When Mary's time of separation drew to a close, the family traveled the
five miles north to Jerusalem for the rites of purification and sacrifice at
the Temple. There, Jesus, the firstborn, had to be presented before God,
in accordance with the law that a firstborn son must be redeemed in
memory of God's sparing the firstborn of the Israelites when he slew the firstborn of the Egyptians at the time of the Exodus. Also, it was
required that Mary sacrifice two pigeons, or doves, which Joseph
probably would have purchased in the courtyard of the Temple. Had he
been wealthier, Joseph might have bought and sacrificed a sheep, but
he was a carpenter and the price of the doves plus the five shekels he
had to pay to redeem his firstborn much have been a hardship.
The Temple itself, an immense structure of cream-colored limestone
adorned with marble colonnades, golden gates, and multicolored
hangings, was a monument of surpassing magnificence. The religious
life of the Jews was centered there. When Jesus was brought to be
presented, the Temple was swarming with hundreds of paid priests,
sacrificers, musicians, treasurers, and the like.
All the more astonishing, then, are the encounters reported by Luke.
An old man named Simeon, informed by the Holy Spirit that he would
not die before seeing with his own eyes the promised Redeemer,
approached Jesus' family and took the baby in his arms. Blessing God, Simeon prayed, "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace."
He realized that he had indeed seen "a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to thy people Israel." Similarly, an 84-year-old widow named Anna, a prophetess who fasted and prayed continually in the Temple, approached and thanked God and spoke about the child to everyone who
was waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.
At this point, Luke leaves the story of Jesus' beginnings and simply
states that following these sacrifices, the family returned to Nazareth.
The next event he chronicles does not occur until 12 years after
Star in the East:
From Matthew, however, we receive the impression that Jesus may
have spent as much as the first two years of his life in Bethlehem.
When Jesus was born, we are told, "wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, 'Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?
For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.'"
Matthew does not fully describe the star the Wise Men followed but
portrays it as a miraculous phenomenon. It is a star that moves ahead
of the Wise Men and comes to rest directly over the house where Jesus
was. Those who look for historical evidence have found none that
exactly fits. Nothing indicates that a major comet would have naturally appeared at the time of Jesus' birth, although the well-known Halley's
comet could have been seen in 12 B.C. Many comets appear
throughout history with dependable regularity but so infrequently as to
seem ominous or portentious.
Two other kinds of rare occurence in the night sky are the nova and the
supernova, exploding stars whose brightness is temporarily greatly
increased. However, the occurrence of these phenomena, too, can
generally be traced in history because they are likely to be chronicled,
but none have been found in the annals of Rome, even though Roman astrologers were very active at the time of Jesus.
A third natural possibility is the conjunction of two planets, which would
also have been of great significance to astrologers. It has been
calculated that Jupiter and Saturn moved unusually close to each other
three times in 7 B.C. Seen from time to time in the modern era, this
pairing is not a single "star," but it does create a bright display. Some
have speculated that Matthew, who was no astronomer, might easily
have described such a remarkable phenomenon as simply a "star."
Whatever this heavenly phenomenon was, when the Wise Men who
had seen it arrived in Jerusalem and asked the whereabouts of him
"who has been born king of the Jews," they troubled everyone,
particularly Herod the Great, who was in fact king of the Jews, a
position granted him by Roman power.
In the days of Herod:
The birth of a new king of the Jews posed an obvious threat to Herod.
More than once the tyrant's reign had almost been curtailed by plots
against his life. Retaining his power required the sublest diplomacy
toward his superiors, the powerful ploiticians of Rome, as well as
continual vigilance against enemies at home, even in his own family.
Herod was accustomed to crushing potential rivals and would stop at
nothing to do so. Though old and weary and perhaps half-crazed by
the pain of disease, he would use any means at his disposal to find
out what he wanted to know.
First, he turned to the most important priests and scribes ( scholars )
of Jerusalem for information. Where, he asked them, was the Christ to
be born? They told him that, according to prophecy, the Christ would be
born in Bethlehem; God had promised from that village, "a ruler who will
govern my people Israel." This was not what Herod wanted to hear. He
had been born in the province of Idumea, south of Judea, and his
ancestors had been forced to convert to Judaism. He could hardly
claim that the prophecy legitimized his rule.
Secretly, Herod called the Wise Men to him for close questioning. He
learned that the extraordinary "star" had first appeared about two years
earlier. Dripping with hypocrisy, Herod urged the visitors to "search
diligently for the child" and to inform him when they had found the infant
so that he too could worship this heir to the throne of Israel.
Adoration of the Magi:
Continuing on their way, the Wise Men were led by the star to
Bethlehem. But who were these men, and from what faraway lands
had they come? Over the centuries many traditions have arisen around
these mysteriously attractive figures. Legend has placed their number variously from 3 to 12. In later tradition they have been referred to as
"kings." In medieval times they were even given names:
Gaspar ( Casper ), Melchior, and Balthasar. Most believe that they
came from Persia or Babylon; but some have suggested that they
might have come from the desert regions of Arabia or perhaps even from
the land once ruled by the queen of Sheba.
Matthew's term for the eastern visitors is "Magi" ( translated as
"Wise Men" ). As described in other literature, the Magi were experts
in astrology and magic. They considered themselves disciples of
Zoroaster, or Zarathushtra, and important Persian religious leader, who believed in one God. By this time, however, Zoroaster's followers had
become dualistic, believing in gods of good and evil and incorporating
the practice of astrology into their religion.
As hereditary priests of Zoroastrianism, the Magi would have been
sensitive to any unusual events in the heavens. Throughout the
Mediterranean world at that time astrology was highly regarded as a
science. Roman emperors, Greek philosophers and scientists,
Persian magi, and ordinary farmers -- all were convinced of its efficacy,
which appeared to have been demonstrated by the extensive body of astronomical observations built up over generations. The priests of
Zoroaster were accustomed to scanning the heavens for messages
of importance to human beings. It was only natural to them that deeply
significant news would be announced by a rare and startling celestial
But Matthew concentrates, for his purposes, on the visit itself.
Whoever they were, whatever they followed, the Wise Men found Jesus
with Mary. They fell down and worshipped him, presenting gifts that
would be surprising to a family living modestly in Bethlehem, gifts that
have often been interpreted symbolically: gold, as the sign of kingship; frankincense, a symbol of divinity; and fragrant myrrh, a substance
indicating that one is destined for death.
Matthew tells us no more about the details of the occasion. He is more interested, it would seem, in showing his readers that the birth of Jesus
had attracted the attention of experts in prophecy. In Luke the witness
to this miraculous birth came from the psalms of joyous angels and from awestruct shepherds; in Matthew the testimony is strengthened by an
appeal to "wise men" with access to ancient knowledge.
Slaughter of the Innocents:
As the Wise Men departed, they left one request of Herod's unfulfilled
and so opened the story for its next tragic episode. Warned in a dream
not to return to Herod, they left for home without giving the monarch
information about the baby's identity and location. In another dream,
an angel warned Joseph to take his wife and son and escape to Egypt,
for Herod in his rage would soon try to destroy the child even without
any information from the Wise Men.
That same night, the endangered family left Bethlehem quietly and
headed south. Matthew interprets their departure as a fulfillment of
the prophecy, "Out of Egypt have I called my son," Here, Matthew
quotes from Hosea 11:1, although the obvious original reference of the prophecy was to Israel.
Furious with the Wise Men, Herod ordered that every Bethlehem boy
two years or younger be killed -- that is, every male child born there
since the date when the "star" was first seen. Judging from estimates
of the likely population and birth rate in Bethlehem during the first
century A.D., about 25 children might have been killed. Matthew
comments on this slaughter by quoting Jeremiah 31:15: "A voice
was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping
for her children; she refused to consoled, because they were no
more." Rachel, wife of Jacob, died in childbirth and -- according to
one tradition, which was probably known to Matthew -- was buried
near Bethlehem. The children Rachel is weeping for in the Old
Testament passage are the exiled tribes who were descended from
her son, Joseph. Matthew seems to be extending their number to
include -- at least spiritually -- the slaughtered infants of Bethlehem.
Secular history, which takes ample note of Herod and his rule, does
not mention this particular massacre. Perhaps the reason is that this Slaughter of the Innocents was only one of several other massacres
attributed to Herod. Whatever the reason for its not being recorded
elsewhere, it nonetheless helped create Herod's reputation in history
as an unusually cruel tyrant. The figure of the aging King Herod and
the shocking stratagem he employed for protecting his throne have
fired the imaginations of Christians through the last 2,000 years.
Interest in Herod reached its climax when he was portrayed as the
ultimate villian of medieval dramas, ranting and raging about the stage
to the deligh of audiences.
The Flight into Egypt:
Herod's fury in Bethlehem failed of its intention. The Holy Family
slipped through his grasp, protected by the angels warning. In doing
so, they had resorted to a traditional Jewish remedy in times of
distress, for Egypt had for centuries been a land of refuge.
Whenever drought and famine struck, thousands would emigrate to
the fertile farms along the life-giving Nile River. The best-known
example in the Old Testament is the journey undertaken by the
brothers of Joseph to buy grain in time of famine. Centuries later,
at the time of the Bablonian conquest, a large company of Jews,
including the prophet Jeremiah, migrated to Egypt.
By the first century A.D., about a million Jews were living in Egypt.
They were concentrated in Alexandria but were also found in smaller communities throughout Egypt. They must have participated
successfully in the economic life of Egypt, despite opposition by
the Greeks and heavy taxation.
To reach this haven would have required a lengthy journey across
sun-baked desert wastes. Joseph would probably have taken his
family from Bethlehem west to the shores of the Mediterranean,
then followed a coastal road to the borders of Egypt.
The trip and the stay in the foreign land have been the subject of folk
tales and ancient writings that are not considered accurate, but the
New Testament does not offer any facts about the episode. We
know that a young Jewish family could have found a welcome in
Egypt. We can suppose that Joseph could have found work as
a carpenter or as a laborer, if necessary, in that rich land. We can
assume that these unsophisticated villagers, Mary and Joseph,
would have been homesick for the country of their birth, for their
close relatives, and for the customs of home. In short, we can use
our imaginations, based upon what historians know about the period.
After the death of Herod in 4 B.C., Joseph and his family returned to
their home in southern Galilee. Once more they crossed the bleak
Sinai and Negev deserts, but this time they avoided going through
Judea, which had passed into the hands of Herod's power-hungry son Archelaus.
Note: This is the end of chapter one in the book titled:
Jesus and His Times, Copyright Reader's Digest. I have included
some pictures that are within this first chapter.
From time to time, Rome ordered a census of the peoples under its rule
so that it could increase the tax rolls and thus raise additional revenue
to carry out imperial projects. It is likely that Roman soldiers were
assigned the task of announcing news of these events in the provinces,
which at the time of Jesus included Palestine.
The main route from Nazareth to Bethlehem passed through Jerusalem,
and on most days it must have been crowded with merchant caravans, soldiers, and Jews on their way to the Temple. Tradition has it that Mary
made this rigorous journey on the back of a donkey while Joseph walked alongside. Because of the scarcity of water en route, travelers carried
their own in a large goatskin bag (top); food and other provisions were
packed in a straw bag (above).
A flowering field in fertile Galilee. (Top), Hills in Samaria (Middle) and
the Judean desert (Bottom), side to right: Joseph and Mary traveled
from Nazareth, in Galilee, through Samaria to Bethlehem.
The limestone hills that stretch from Galilee to Sinai are packed with
habitable caves. In ancient times shepherds made use of these natural chambers to shelter their flocks from wind, rain, or cold and might even
carve a manger, or trough, into the limestone wall for feeding their
animals. Such mangers can still be seen in the Bethlehem hills.
Though the Bible never says, Jesus may have been born in such a
The 14th-century stone-relief Nativity scene above depicts the infant
Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, as reported
by Luke. The stable animals, the donkey and the ox, watch gently over
the baby. The manager could either be carved into a cave or stand free,
like the one shown below, which was found in the ruins of an ancient
The city of Bethlehem, as it appears today, is seen in the distance
through a grove of olive trees. Called Ephrath in the Book of Genesis, Bethlehem has been continuously inhabited for about 33 centuries.
The name Beth-lehem is usually translated as "House of Bread." It
was the home of Joseph's ancestor David, who established his
kingdom in about 1000 B.C. Every year on Christmas Eve pilgrims
gather in the fields on the broad valley east of the city to celebrate the
birth of Jesus.
We do not really know where the Wise Men came from; Scripture
says merely "from the East." But the three most likely places are
Persia, Babylon, and the desert regions of Palestine. Routes
commonly taken from these lands are shown on the map below.
Able to travel for days without water, camels were the most
practical means of transportation across deserts (above). The
Wise Men could have formed their own caravan or joined caravans
of merchants, which offered protection against the bandits who often threatened small groups of travelers.
Herod had become king of Judea through political maneuveing, and
he jealously guarded his crown by resorting to intrigue and violence.
News of the birth of a "kind of the Jews" filled him with fear that he
might lose his throne. The Bible says that he secretly summoned
the Wise Men, who were seeking the newborn king, to his court and questioned them about the whereabouts of this child, pretending to
want to worship him. In reality Herod wanted to kill Jesus. Warned
in a dream after they had found Jesus, the Wise Men never returned
The Gifts of the Magi..The Magi were the first Gentiles to worship
Jesus, just as the shepherds were the first Jews to do so. The gifts
the Magi brought probably inspired our custom of giving Christmas
gifts. ( In some countries gifts are given on January 6, the feast of
the Epiphany, which celebrates the visit of the Magi.) According to
tradition, the gold brought by the Magi honored Jesus as King and
symbolized virture. The frankincense acknowledged him as God
and symbolized prayer. The myrrh indicated that he was to die
(that he was human) and symbolized suffering.
The gold that the Magi brought to the Christ Child might have been
in any form. This magnificent bowl is an example of ancient Persian
The trunk and branches of the Boswellia tree, which grows in Arabia
and Africa, are covered with a thin bark. When the bark is cut, a
whitish resin ( frankincense ) emerges. In ancient times this resin
was collected and burned in homage to gods.
Myrrh was an aromatic gyn derived from a shrub or small tree is a
species of Commiphora. It was used in perfumes and for embalming.
On their flight into Egypt, Joseph and his family would have had to
pass through Sinai, a large triangular wedge of land jutting into the
Red Sea. It is a savage wasteland of rocky mountains and barren
plateaus, with high sand dunes to the north, along the Mediterranean
shore. This is the desert wilderness where the Hebrews wandered
after being led out of Egypt by Moses, as told in the Book of Exodus.
"I bring you good news of a great joy...for to you is born this day in the
city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord." ( Since the dawn of
Christianity, artists have translated their impressions of the events
in the life of Jesus into paintings, sculpture, and other forms of art.
Here is a tiny sampling of works inspired by the birth of Jesus.
Footnote Under picture to right above: "And the angel said to her,
'Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold,
you will conceive in your womb and bear a son.' " Luke 1:30-31.
Glazed terra-cotta altarpiece by Italian sculptor Andrea della Robbia
( 1435-1525 ).
"When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord
commanded him; he took his wife, but knew her not until she had
borne a son; and he called his name Jesus." Matthew 1:24-25.
Detail from a 15th-century German painting. (Above picture on left).
"And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling
cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them
in the inn." Luke 2:7. (Painting by the 16th century Italian artist
Federico Barocci. ( Picture on left above)
"And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch
over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them."
Luke 2:8-9. ( Top picture on right above ). Illuminated page from a 15th century Book of Hours.
"And when the time came for their purification, according to the law of
Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord."
Luke 2:22. Detail from a painting by the Dutch artist Jan van Scorel
( 1495-1562 ). "And going into the house they saw the child with Mary
his mother, and...offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh."
Matthew 2:11. A 6th century Italian mosaic (top) and a 19th century
English stained glass window (left above).
"Behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said,
'Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there
till I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.'
And he rose and took the child and his mother by night, and departed to
Egypt." Matthew 2:13-14. ( Fresco attributed to the pre-Renaissance
Italian master Giotto. )
I hope you enjoyed the Dec. 2004 book review as well as the photographs
I included from that chapter review of Jesus and His Times.
Note from Collectible Treasures:
I hope that all have had a lovely Christmas this year, and truely realize
the blessings that God has so generously bestowed upon us through his Gift
of His Son Jesus Christ our Lord. May God bless and keep you all and may
each of us learn what the true meaning of Christmas is, in our hearts daily.
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