A Christmas Commentary
Luke 2:1-4 Some questions have been raised about the historicity of these verses. Bear in mind that everything about Jesus Christ the Incarnate Son of God can be troublesome if your heart is not prepared to receive him. While the King James Version translates the Greek word apographo (apografw) as “to be taxed”, the literal rendering is “to write off, or to register, i.e. in public records. What the text is referring to is a census. Acts 5:37 refers to the second census also mentioned by Josephus. Papyri dated back to A.D. 20 have shown that there was a periodic fourteen-year census. That would make the first census mentioned in Luke 2:1-2 around 6 B.C. which coincides with the actual birth of Christ, bearing in mind that our calendar is four to six years off. What these two verses do is establish the birth of Christ in human history.
Luke’s historical reference would have been quite clear to his contemporaries. (v. 3-4) The custom was that the head of each household was to go to the town where his family register was kept. Bethlehem was the city of the ancestors of David as David himself testifies, “And Saul said to him, "Whose son are you, young man?" And David answered, "I am the son of your servant Jesse the Bethlehemite” (1 Samuel 17:58). Joseph journeys from Nazareth in Galilee to the Bethlehem, the city of David. That would focus a clear light on the ancestry of Jesus and the words of Gabriel, “The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David” (Luke 1:32), and fulfill the prophetic word of Micah, “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days” (Micah 5:2 ESV).
Luke (v.4-7) does not tell us how Joseph and Mary traveled, but just that “they went up from Galilee.” Tradition, imagination, and modern common sense provide the donkey as a means of transportation. A twelfth century carol provides a voice for the donkey, 2. "I," said the donkey, shaggy and brown, "I carried His mother up hill and down; I carried her safely to Bethlehem town. "I," said the donkey, shaggy and brown” (the Latin song "Orientis Partibus" first appeared in France. The tune came from “The Donkey’s Festival” and a chorus line was provided, “‘Hail, Sir donkey, hail’” The reality may have been different, being poor they probably could not afford a donkey, and probably, like Jesus later during his ministry , traveled on foot carrying their household goods and Joseph’s all important carpenter tools. Again, popular imagery suggests that Mary gave birth the evening they arrived. Luke simply says, “while they were there, the days were fulfilled for her to give birth.”
The text does tell us that there was no room in the inn, and that the new-born child was laid in a manger. That simple detail tells us as least that Joseph and Mary had very recently arrived in Bethlehem. Our imagery of a wooden manger surrounded by the humble joyful animals is provided by no less than St. Francis in the thirteenth century. The stable was probably in a small cave behind the local inn, and the manger, like others still to be seen in archeological sights like Megiddo today, is a trough chiseled out of stone and used to feed animals.
Verse 7, as sparse at it is, gives us some information that satisfies our curiosity and provides an important theological detail. Luke tells us that Mary gave birth to her “firstborn son.” The word for is “firstborn” is protokos (protokos), not “only born” (monogenh,j ~ monogenes). The door is left wide open for Jesus to have younger brothers and sisters. So Mark records, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?" (Mark 6:3). Roman Catholic translators provide the word “cousins” instead of brothers, but the word for brothers is avdelfo,j (adelphos), and the word for cousins is avneyio,j ~ (anepsios). Luke tells us that Jesus is the firstborn, not the only born, and there is nothing in the text to prevent Mary and Joseph from having more children.
Mary gives birth to her firstborn son, and wraps him in swaddling cloths. Swaddling cloths were a large square of cloth and two or more strips of cloth used as ties. The child was laid diagonally on the cloth with one corner of the cloth under the child’s head, the other corners are folded over the feet and body of the child, and the cloth strips are used to tie things together. Swaddling is coming back into fashion because it limits the startle reflex and makes the baby feel secure, and it prevents the child from sleeping on the stomach and reduces instances of SIDS deaths by helping the baby remain on its back. 20% of American parents place their babies on their stomach after two months of age because they appear more comfortable, but this may not be advisable (Article from Washington University School of Medicine, in Pediatrics, November, 2002).
I am reminded of Anselm’s remarks in a Sermon at Bec: “Justice and mercy were arguing in heaven as they looked down upon the fallen world in the year 1 B.C. Justice insisted that it should be destroyed, for how else should his position be maintained? Mercy replied that, in that case, how could his position stand? They were joined by the divine Logos who, embracing them, said “leave it to me and I will satisfy you both” (Martin Thornton, English Spirituality, (Boston: Cowley, New Edition, p. 163). The theology of the event is not complete without reference to John 1:18, and Hebrews 1:1-4.