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Some Speculations About The First Christmas

December 19, 2013 Our Catholic Faith No Comments

By JOHN YOUNG

Matthew and Luke tell us all we need to know about the coming of Christ into the world, but it is fascinating to speculate about things left unsaid — and a vast amount is omitted from their accounts. It is similar regarding our Savior’s life as a whole: St. John emphasizes this with his hyperbolical statement that the world couldn’t contain all the books that would be needed to record all the facts.
We don’t know exactly when Jesus was born, but it is certain that the traditional date is too late. Herod died in 4 BC, so that is the latest possible date; 6 BC is probably about right. The crucifixion was most probably in the year AD 30.
At Christmas we celebrate the visit of the shepherds and that of the Magi, but the latter actually arrived later than Christmas night. Presumably the first appearance of the star occurred at the time of Jesus’ birth, and after that the Magi had to journey to Jerusalem from their home country. Probably they visited the Holy Family several weeks after the birth, because the Presentation in the Temple was at forty days; but the flight into Egypt presumably happened soon after the Magi came, because it is unlikely Herod would have delayed long to take action after the Magi failed to return to him.
Also, the offering made for the Child Jesus in the Temple — “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons” — was the offering of the poor (see Lev. 12:8); but had the visit of the Magi already occurred, surely Mary and Joseph would have spent some of the gold they were given.
Another question concerns the Holy Innocents. Why did Herod order boys as old as two years to be killed? Why not only up to a few months? It may be, for all we know, that the best part of a year had passed after Jesus’ birth before the slaughter of the Holy Innocents. Herod’s agents perhaps searched and made inquiries for some time before he had the babies slaughtered. Also, Herod wouldn’t want to take any chances; he would leave a big time margin.
Another possible explanation is that Herod didn’t want some child born rather earlier than Jesus to be declared in later years to be the promised King. He wanted a sufficient time lapse for such a bogus claimant to be ruled out.
In any case, from what history tells us about Herod, we know he had no regard for human life. By this time he had had many people murdered, including his father-in-law, his mother-in-law, his first wife, and two of his sons. Later he had a third son murdered.
A further question: Did Mary and Joseph intend to settle in Bethlehem? It is usually assumed that they only traveled there for the census, intending to return to Nazareth after having registered. We mustn’t forget, though, that they knew the Old Testament prophecies about the longed-for Messiah, including the prophecy in the Book of Micah that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem (Micah 5:2-4). How ardently they must have studied the passages of Scripture predicting the Messiah! Unlike other parents they had a book, the Old Testament, which gave information about this newborn Child.
After the death of Herod, Joseph was afraid to go to Judea because Archelaus now reigned there, which seems to imply he would otherwise have settled there, and not in Nazareth. Bethlehem held wonderful memories from Israel’s past. It was the burial place of Rachel; Ruth had lived there; and it was the birthplace of King David and the town where he had been anointed king.  Surely it would have seemed fitting that the Son of David should be raised in the town of David.
Instead He chose to be raised in Nazareth, an obscure village in Galilee. The reaction of Nathanael to the idea of the Messiah coming from there is perhaps typical: “Can anything good come from that place?”
Regarding my statement above that the Magi probably arrived much later than the night Jesus was born, a contrary possibility, although unlikely, is that they came soon after Christmas night, and that the Presentation in the Temple occurred after the return from Egypt. This conjecture assumes that Herod died very shortly after the flight into Egypt, and that on hearing this news the Holy Family promptly returned, arriving in Jerusalem in time for the Presentation forty days after Jesus’ birth.
An indication that this may possibly have been the case is the statement of St. Luke, after he had narrated the events in the Temple, that after they had done everything the Law of the Lord required they went back to Nazareth. He says nothing about the flight into Egypt. However, that omission may have no significance, because all the evangelists are very selective in the events they relate: There were such a vast number to choose from.
It may be asked: Why did the angel tell Joseph to go to Egypt, rather than back to Nazareth, which was about a hundred miles from Bethlehem? Evidently because even there the Child Jesus wouldn’t have been safe from the vengeance of the king — which suggests that Herod’s search was far more extensive than we might assume from the brief passage in Matthew.
Speculations like these can increase our interest in Scripture and bring to mind possibilities we hadn’t thought of. They can lead us to delve more deeply. Christmas is a good time to delve into God’s Revelation.

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(John Young is a graduate of the Aquinas Academy in Sydney, Australia, and has taught philosophy in four seminaries. His book The Scope of Philosophy was published by Gracewing Publishers in England in 2010. He has been a frequent contributor to The Wanderer on theological issues since 1977.)

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