Yesterday I was asked about why there is a Christmas holiday in “the West” which is now also taking on in Cambodia: to be nice to others by giving gifts, and also the business community is promoting this as a welcome opportunity to increase sales.
So I looked up again the old stories in the Bible in the books of Mathew and Luke, according to the New International Version of an English translation. I abbreviated it some, and I added some comments. The two other books in the series – Mark and John – do not say anything about the birth of Jesus; they just record other things that they had known about him, considered to be important.
Joseph Accepts Jesus as His Son (Mathew):
This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah [an expected leader, giving hope for the future] came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but she was found to be pregnant. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream:, “Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people.”
When Joseph woke up, he did what [he had dreamed] the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
Just like good journalists do, Mark put in a clear time reference: when the “world-wide” census was held – while the land was under foreign domination by the regional power of the Roman Empire. Even so, the dating – written down much later by the authors of the Bible, human beings with limited knowledge of distant historical facts – is not clear. Wikipedia says:
“The Gospel of Luke links the birth of Jesus to a “world-wide” census ordered by the Roman emperor Augustus carried out while Quirinius was governor of Syria. This is thought to be a reference to the census of Judea in 6/7 AD; however, Luke also, like the Gospel of Matthew, dates the birth to the reign of Herod the Great, who died in 4 BC, ten years before the census of 6 or 7 AD. According to Raymond E. Brown, most modern historians suggest that Luke’s account is mistaken.”
And just like it was for the census in Cambodia, or for the registrations for elections, everyone has to travel to their home-town.
Though Joseph and Maria were not married, they traveled together.
The Birth of Jesus (Luke):
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.
So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth to Bethlehem. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger [an open box in which feed for livestock is placed], because there was no room available for them in the guesthouse.
It was a long way from these events remembered until today, but it changed a lot. How many of the Christmas shoppers, watching Christmas trees, think about the history that the boy born in Bethlehem ended up as criminal, being executed as a violator of traditional culture and religion, a despised criminal, where only some women who did not accept that this was the end of their hopes and lives:
It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.
But Wikipedia collected more from many scholarly writings:
Mary Magdalene was one of Jesus’ most celebrated disciples, and the most important woman disciple in the movement of Jesus. Jesus cleansed her of “seven demons”, conventionally interpreted as referring to complex illnesses. She became most prominent during his last days, being present at the cross after the male disciples (excepting John the Beloved) had fled, and at his burial.
Pope Gregory the Great’s homily on Luke’s gospel dated 14 September 591 first suggested that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute: “She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark. And what did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices? … It is clear, brothers, that the woman previously used the ointment to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts.”
In 1969 the Vatican, without commenting on Pope Gregory’s reasoning, implicitly rejected it by separating Luke’s sinful woman, Mary of Bethany, and Mary Magdala via the Roman Missal.
This identification of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute was followed by many writers and artists until the 20th century. Even today it is promulgated by some secular and occasional Christian groups.