What Jesus' Birth May Have Looked Like

From What Jesus' Birth May Have Looked Like by Anita Gates:

Even some conservative Christians are willing to allow that the Nativity scene presented in church pageants and Christmas decorations may not be absolutely accurate. That means the shepherds, three wise men bearing gifts, Mary and Joseph, their baby son (lying in a manger), a couple of angels and maybe a star overhead.

"The Birth," the first episode of the National Geographic Channel's "Science of the Bible," which has its premiere tonight, sets out to determine what Jesus' birth really looked like. It takes the job seriously, with responsible interpretations of ancient history and intriguing historical possibilities.

"Much of the nativity story we know comes from later writings, folk tales that never even made it into the Bible," the narrator says. The only mention of Mary's riding a donkey, for instance, is from the Infancy Gospel of James, a second- or third-century text read by early Christians.


Here are some of the program's conclusions.

Mary and Joseph may have indeed been going to Bethlehem for a census, as the biblical book of Luke says. If so, Jesus was born in A.D. 6. Or the couple may have lived in Bethlehem, as Matthew says. Matthew mentions the reign of Herod, which would put Jesus' birth date at 4 B.C. or earlier.

If Mary and Joseph were travelers, they were probably not looking for an inn in the modern sense. People may have rented out rooms in their house to pilgrims passing through. Either way, Mary, who may have been only 14 or 15, probably gave birth in the lower level of a private house where the animals were kept. It was a very modest, small stone house with tiny windows or no windows at all. (You want light? Go outdoors.)


The Star of Bethlehem that the wise men, or magi, saw in the east was probably not a nova or even Halley's Comet. John Mosley, an astronomer at the Griffith Observatory, says it was most likely a rare convergence of Jupiter and Venus.

Mr. Mosley describes the result, on the evening of June 17 of 2 B.C.: "The two planets had merged into one single gleaming object, one giant star in the sky, in the direction of Jerusalem, as seen from Persia." (Unfortunately this date means that both Matthew and Luke were wrong about the year.)

Roman history probably influenced the gospel writers. Jonathan L. Reed, a professor of religion at the University of La Verne in Southern California, points out that after seeing a comet, Augustus, the great-nephew and adopted son of Julius Caesar, took it as an omen and declared his dead father God. Logically enough, he declared himself the son of God.

So when Matthew wrote the story, using the Star of Bethlehem as an omen, he was trying to make a parallel. Similarly, King Herod behaves a lot like an Old Testament pharaoh. Daniel Smith-Christopher, a professor of biblical studies at Loyola Marymount University, suggests, "Matthew wants the reader to make the connection between Moses and Jesus." And Luke may have put shepherds into his description because he wanted to suggest a connection with David, the shepherd king.


Science of the Bible

National Geographic tonight at 10, Eastern and Pacific times; 9, Central time.

Produced by Peter Karp; James Younger, series producer; Kris Denton, director of photography; Kris Lindquist and Paul Marengo, editors; Erik Nelson, executive producer; Dave Harding, co-executive producer; narration by J. V. Martin and Tony Jay; original music by Mark Leggett. For National Geographic Channel: Colette Beaudry, supervising producer; Michael Cascio, senior vice president of production; John B. Ford, executive in charge of production. Produced by Creative Differences Productions.

As a proud advocate for the traditional understanding of the Biblical account as historically accurate, I find some of what is said here simply grasping at straws, while other portions sound like reasonable expectations based on the Biblical accounts and the evidence exterior to the Bible. I will be interested in seeing how it is presented.


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