A Historical Look at the Manger
By In Touch Ministries Staff
This time of year, it’s common to set up a nativity scene in one’s home and read the familiar story of Jesus’ birth. But how accurate is our view of this holy event?
The day. The early church rightly considered Christ’s death and resurrection more important than His birth, so we don’t know its exact date. Why was December 25 eventually chosen? On that day, the Romans observed Sol Invictus (literally “the unconquered sun”) a holiday celebrating the rebirth of their sun god. Saturnalia, a feast venerating the god of agriculture, took place the week before. In the fourth century, the church replaced these pagan festivals with a holiday honoring the Messiah’s birth. Why? Partly to make conversion to the faith more palatable.
The year. When our modern calendar was instituted in the sixth century, the year of Christ’s birth was calculated incorrectly. Since Herod probably died in 4 B.C., and we know he was alive when the Magi visited, historians calculate that Christ was born around 5 B.C. or earlier. (Other scholarship places Herod’s death at 1 B.C. and Christ’s birth around 2 B.C.)
The town. Bethlehem was the predicted birthplace of the Messiah (Mic. 5:2). Herod’s theologians knew exactly where to tell him the new king could be found. Its name means “house of bread,” significant because Jesus later called Himself the “Bread of Life.” At the time, Bethlehem’s population was between five and six hundred people.
The inn. Travelers typically stayed with family members, rather than in hotels. The word translated as “inn” in Luke 2:7 can mean “lodging place” or “guest room/dining room” (Mark 14:14). Because of the census, Joseph’s relatives already had a full guest room. The couple might have stayed in the front or lower room of the home, where the animals were typically brought in for the night. Many first-century homes had mangers (feeding troughs) along the walls of that room.
If Luke did mean to indicate a public inn, then the couple was directed to one of the numerous caves around Bethlehem. To this day, they are used to shelter sheep and cattle.
The birth. “Mary,” a common name in that day, means approximately “The Lord’s Beloved.” Sometime after she and Joseph arrived in town, the young woman—a teenager—gave birth to Jesus (Luke 2:6). Were the swaddling cloths (long strips of cloth) unique to Jesus’ birth? No, using them was customary care for newborns. Mary laid him in a manger made from wood or carved from stone. Filled with the animals’ food, it would have made a comfortable bed for the child.
The shepherds. It’s fitting that the first people invited to worship the child were shepherds. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and David were all shepherds at some time in their lives. Jesus even refers to Himself as the “Good Shepherd” (John 10:11).
Due to their occupation, shepherds weren’t always able to attend synagogue or keep the Law. It’s likely that they weren’t respected by devout Jews. Yet we can be grateful they were common laymen. Instead of debating the meaning of the angelic visitation or dismissing it as an illusion, they rushed into town and worshipped the newborn king.
The magi. Kings’ advisors—sages, astrologers, or magicians—arrived to visit the family in Bethlehem. How many came? We don’t know, although we can identify three different gifts. They traveled from the Middle East, perhaps from Persia or Babylonia, since word of the coming King had been known in that city since the time of Daniel (Daniel 2).
The fact God included pagan Gentiles in the advent of Christ symbolizes the future reach of the gospel. Their visit also brought national and international attention to the birth of Jesus.
The star. The Hebrews expected a star as a sign of the Messiah’s birth (Num. 24:17). Was the star a miracle beyond human explanation? Some believe the star was the Shekinah glory of God, similar to the pillar of fire that led the wandering Israelites through the desert. Others believe it holds a place in scientific history.
Using software to simulate astronomical patterns, researchers have investigated the night sky around the birth of Christ. The ancients used the term “star” to refer to a number of celestial objects. So astronomers hypothesize that Bethlehem’s star may have been a conjunction of two or more planets, which to the naked eye would look like one bright star. The “star” could even have seemed to pause over Bethlehem because relative to Earth’s motion, a planet can appear to stop. A couple of conjunctions around the birth of Christ fit the biblical description of the star.
Herod the King. Did Herod really order the deaths of all children in Bethlehem under the age of two? Sadly, the answer is yes. In his later years, he became paranoid and fearful of assassination. He eventually killed his favorite wife, some of her family, three of his sons, and many of his subjects. Without giving it a second thought, he ordered the slaughter of Jewish babies in an attempt to save his throne at all costs.
What really happened 2,000 years ago? Despite misconceptions we may have, anyone who has heard the biblical account knows enough to marvel at the power of our amazing God. A virgin conceived. God revealed Himself in human flesh. The Redeemer of the world was born. Can history dispel all the mystery surrounding our Savior’s birth? No. Nor would we want it to.
- Maier, Paul L. In the Fullness of Time: A Historian Looks at Christmas, Easter and the Early Church. Kregel Publications: Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1997. pp. 24-50.
Why did God choose a manger instead of a palace for Christ's birth? (Watch The Message of the Manger.)
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