LEADER TIMES WEEKEND RELIGION COLUMN FOR
November 26, 2016 by William H. Scarle, Jr. 813-835-0129
Every Christmas season for the last few years I have tried to stock up on stamps because the Post Office usually prints a Christmas stamp that lifts up the religious foundations of our nation. Invariably they get it wrong, except for the Madonna’s. This year the star rests over the manger. Wrong again, although the artwork is charming.
In writing his Gospel Luke tries so hard to get it right. He sees this as important because the Christian community needs to have “certainty concerning the things (they) have been taught.” He uses all the available written sources as well as interviewing the eyewitnesses to the events he records. He certainly interviewed Mary because he mentions often that she “treasured up all these things in her heart.”
I confess that as a biblical scholar I join with others in being a bit picky about details. I am also aware that artists often paint doctrine rather than history and we ought not to be too critical about the historical accuracy of their work. Nevertheless, Christmas is about the birth of Israel’s Messiah and this is not a myth or a fairy tale. It is about the hard facts of history in which God is working for the redemption of the world and of mankind. Luke is really focused on getting it right, to say nothing of the inspiration of God’s Holy Spirit.
On this year’s Christmas stamp the Postal Service shows us a manger scene with the star shining overhead. The problem is that the star of Bethlehem appeared two years after Jesus’ birth and is recorded in Matthew’s record of the visit of the Magi, not in the birth narrative of Luke. In Luke we have angels, but no star.
During this Advent season we will look at some of these details, but for now we will consider the time line of the Christmas story. Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem in the year 3 BC to be recorded in a census being taken by Rome in celebration of Augustus Caesar’s twenty-fifth anniversary as Emperor. This was a special arrangement for Israel, since Jewish culture placed a heavy emphasis on tribal identity. Although Mary lived in Nazareth which was in the north of Israel Joseph was from Bethlehem, which was in Judea. He was living in Nazareth at the time since he and Mary were betrothed, which in Jewish society meant they were legally married, although not living together until Joseph finished preparing a home for them. They were both likely very young. Bethlehem was about seventy miles from Nazareth.
After Jesus’ birth they returned to Nazareth to introduce Mary’s family to their newborn son. Joseph’s family resided in Bethlehem and after a short stay in Nazareth the couple returned to Bethlehem to live. The story of the visit of the Magi takes place in Bethlehem where the young couple was settled in a house. Since they both were aware of the Jesus’ unique birth and identity as Messiah of Israel, Bethlehem, being the City of David, would seem an appropriate town to raise Jesus. Bethlehem was only six miles from Jerusalem. This reasoning changed after their encounter with the Herod.
Next week we will look at some of the details in Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth. Advent is an appropriate season to get the story straight.
(Bill Scarle can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org). END-whs