The lectionary offers us a well-known and familiar portion of the Christmas story this coming Sunday (Luke 1:26-38). It is the scene that is often called The Annunciation. The announcement that is being made in this scene, is to Mary, informing her that she will bear a child. You can read more of my reflections on this scene at https://johntsquires.com/2020/12/14/advent-four-the-scriptural-resonances-in-the-annunciation-luke-1/
It’s a scene, set in a Jewish context, in the region of Galilee, in a town named Nazareth. We are not sure exactly when this scene took place; the only clue is that it was “in the sixth month” (Luke 1:26) after a previous announcement, about the birth of another child, to her cousin, Elizabeth, and her husband Zechariah (Luke 1:5).
The scene in Nazareth thus most likely occurred “in the days of King Herod of Judea” (Luke 1:5), which places it some years before the year in which we traditionally reckon that Jesus was born—the fictive “year zero”, or more accurately, the time when 1 BCE became 1 CE.
At that time Nazareth was but a tiny village, with no more than 50 residents. It was an insignificant, obscure place. Not the location that might have been presumed for this announcement about the imminent birth of the Messiah.
Now, King Herod died soon after an eclipse of the moon soon before a Passover, according to the Jewish historian Josephus; that was most likely in March/April of 4BCE, by our reckoning. So Mary was pregnant, and gave birth, some years before the mythical “year zero”.
Later, after the death of Herod, the region of Galilee came under the control of Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great and one of his wives, Malthace, from Samaria. Herod senior was the king who, according to Matthew, ordered the slaughter of all males born in Israel (Matt 2:16-18). Herod Antipas was, according to Mark, the ruler who, against his better judgement, ordered the beheading of John the baptiser (Mark 6:17-29). Herod Agrippa was another member of the family, a grandson of King Herod by another of his wives, Mariamne, who ruled as King of Judea from 41 to 44 CE.
Herod Antipas ruled as tetrarch of the region of Galilee and Perea from the time his father died (4 BCE by our reckoning—before the alleged birth of Jesus!) until sometime after 39 CE. He held power only by favour of the Romans, who were occupying the whole region. To keep in favour with his Roman overlords, Herod set in motion a number of major building projects.
One of those projects involved the creation of a whole new port city, to serve as the region’s capital. It was named Tiberius, in honour of the Emperor. Another building project was based in Sepphoris, a town about eight kilometres north of Nazareth. That probably meant that Nazareth, previously a tiny village of no more than 50 people, had grown to be a town of perhaps 2,000 people—a dormitory suburb for the grand building project underway in Sepphoris. That is most likely the context in which Jesus grew up.
According to Luke, it was in pre-building-boom Nazareth, in the northern region of Galilee, that an angel named Gabriel appeared to Mary, to inform her that she would bear a child (Luke 1:26). That is different from the story told in Matthew’s Gospel, where an unnamed angel delivers the same message, not to Mary, but to Joseph, to whom she was engaged (Matt 1:18). Who knew first? Joseph (according to Matthew)? Or Mary (according to Luke)?
The location of the announcement in Matthew’s account is not specified, but it is reasonable to assume from the flow of the narrative that this took place in the southern region of Judah, in Bethlehem (Matt 2:1, 6). Matthew, having located the family initially in the southern city from the beginning, has no need of the story of a census and a forced trip from Nazareth to Galilee (Luke 2:1-4). The family is already in Bethlehem, another small village, but in the south, in Judea.
Nor does Matthew feel the need to describe the place into which the new baby was born: in a manger, “because there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7). Indeed, even though Matthew declares that “the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way” (Matt 1:18), he then goes on to describe the announcement made to Joseph (1:18b-23), and the only detail about the actual birth that he offers is that Joseph “took her [Mary] as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son” (1:24-25). Too much information? Or not enough, maybe?
But Luke has a problem. He has located the announcement of the birth in Nazareth; yet the tradition is that Jesus was born, not in Galilee, but in Bethlehem (see John 7:41-42, and Matt 2:1). Matthew explains this birthplace in his typical style, as being a fulfilment of prophecy: he cites Micah 5:2 at Matt 2:5-6. That is just one of a number of elements in the story of the birth of Jesus that Matthew has crafted, which claim “fulfilment of prophecy” as their rationale (see Matt 1:22-23, 2:5-6, 2:15, 2:17-18, and 2:23).
Now, Luke needs to get the family from Nazareth, the place of the annunciation to Mary, to Bethlehem, the place of the birth of Jesus. So he calls on the census (Luke 2:1-2) as the means by which Joseph and Mary, heavily pregnant, had to travel. He even identifies the census as having taken place under Publius Sulpicius Quirinius, who was governor of the province of Roman Syria. Luke operates, not by the fulfilment of prophecies, but by noting the actions of Roman rulers.
Only problem is, Quirinius became governor in 6 CE, almost a decade after the announcement of the birth as Luke tells it (Luke 1:5, 26ff) and as Matthew reports it (Matt 2:1). And, to add insult to injury, other historical problems arise: this was just a local census, we know of no single census of the entire empire under Caesar Augustus, no Roman census ever required people to travel from their own homes to those of distant ancestors, and the census of Judea would not have affected Joseph and his family, as they were living in Galilee. So Luke’s account is problematic in terms of historical accuracy.
Not that Matthew is off the hook. In my view, it is highly unlikely that the events reported in Matthew 2 actually took place. (Other interpreters take a different view.) In particular, the slaughter of all male infants under two years, ordered by Herod, is problematic.
Why? Well, first of all, Matthew provides the only account of such an event in any piece of literature from that time. Surely an event with so many deaths would have been noted by other writers. Yes, it is true that Herod was a tyrannical ruler; but amongst the various accounts of his murderous deeds, there is nothing which correlates to the events reported in Matthew’s Gospel.
Second, the story is embedded in the opening section of the Gospel, which, as we have noticed, uses typical Jewish typology and scripture-fulfilment to present the story of Jesus as a re-enactment of the story of Moses. Just as Exodus tells of the slaughter of infants at the time of the birth of Moses, so Matthew replicates this with an account of the slaughter of infants at the time of the birth of Jesus. The later account simply fits the pattern of the earlier account. (And there is no evidence that the pogrom at the time of Moses took place, either.)
So both accounts of the birth of Jesus have problems if we want to read them as historical narratives. And one very peculiar aspect is that the wise men, supposedly coming to visit the young child, Jesus, during the time of Herod, made their trek from the east to Bethlehem a full decade before Joseph and the pregnant Mary made their trek from Galilee down south to Bethlehem, during the census!!
The biblical accounts of the birth of Jesus are not history. They are stories told to indicate the special nature of Jesus. Which means, we shouldn’t read them as history. The Christmas story isn’t history.