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December 5, 2015 by William H. Scarle, Jr. 813-835-0129

The Christmas season is filled with fiction.  Some of it is lovely.  Some of it is cute.  Some of it is absurd.  Some of it is awful.  It seems as if, “Tis the season to be fictitious.”  When my now 50 something children were young we spoke about Santa Clause as a fairy tale.  It had some good lessons but it was not true.  I refused to lie to my children. Of course Saint Nicholas of Myra was a real bishop of the early Church, but this was so far from the fiction that it was almost impossible to draw a connection.

This is really a tragedy because the real Christmas story is saturated in verifiable history.  Luke, the writer of the Gospel, was determined we understand precisely the historical context of Jesus’ birth.  Jesus was born during the reign of Augustus Caesar who ruled Rome from 27 BC until 14 AD or 41 years.  Jesus was likely born in 3 BC on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the month of Tishri in the Jewish calendar.  Luke also tells us that Quirinius was governor of Syria at the time.  This has presented a problem for historians.  However, Ernest Martin has offered a likely solution by suggesting that Quirinius was administering Judea during a transition period, and that the registration was actually a prelude to Augustus’ twenty-fifth year as emperor, and the conferring upon him the title of “Pater Patriae,” or “Father of the Country.”

The detail of Joseph having to go to Bethlehem to register is also a glimpse into the context of the first century.  Normally one would register with officers who were located wherever one resided.  However, the Romans were anxious to follow Jewish custom wherever possible.  The tribal identification of Israelites was important to them and Joseph was of the tribe of Judah, not Naphtali where Nazareth was located.  Since the celebration of the festival of Sukkot was nearing there would have been large groups of pilgrims traveling the seventy some miles to Jerusalem from the Galilee for the Fall High Holy Days.  Mary and Joseph were most certainly among them.

It is likely that Joseph was originally from Bethlehem which was the hometown of David, the first king of a united Israel.  His family would have resided there, and accommodations were available for the young couple, although they were crowded and the guest room was occupied.  Joseph and Mary found room in the area usually kept for the family animals which was attached to the house, possibly a cave.

Mary would have had lots of help in her delivery.  The family was available to see that all went well.

Joseph was in Nazareth because he was betrothed to Mary.  The custom was that the betrothal period, usually a year or so, was used to build a home for the new family.  According to Jewish law Joseph and Mary were legally married although the wedding feast which marks the beginning of their cohabitation had not yet occurred.

Luke’s narrative of the family remaining in Bethlehem until the circumcision of Jesus and the ritual cleansing of Mary following pregnancy are precisely in accord with Jewish law and practice.

The Herodian context of the birth of Jesus is set forth in Matthew.  We will look at this next week.  In the meantime I would suggest the fact is so much more interesting than fiction.

(Bill Scarle can be contacted at END-whs