The Archaeology of Christmas
Many people approach the Christmas story in the Bible the same way they do the story of jolly old St. Nick. It’s a nice tradition to celebrate during the festive season, and possibly based in some historical fact, but more myth than truth. I mean really, shepherds seeing angels? Wisemen bringing gifts? A virgin birth? (You do know how babies are made, right?!).
However, the two earliest records of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth were written by a man who spent years following him (Matthew) and by a historian who carefully investigated the claims by speaking directly with eyewitnesses (Luke). Further, they were written within the lifetime of those who actually knew Jesus: his mother, his siblings, and his disciples.1 Peter himself said, “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Pt 1:16). Finally, the accounts of that first Christmas contain numerous historical synchronisms and descriptions of specific places and customs. Is it possible over 2000 years later to determine the credibility of the Christmas story through archaeology? I believe it is.
In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary (Lk 1:26-27).
A common objection by atheists is that there was no town of Nazareth in the first century as the Bible describes. This is presented, for example, by René Salm in his book The Myth of Nazareth, The Invented Town of Jesus, where he argues that Nazareth didn’t begin to exist until the second century AD, after Jesus was born.2 To be fair, for years the archaeological evidence for a first-century Nazareth was scant.
As is often the case, however, archaeological finds in recent years have vindicated the biblical record, with numerous first-century discoveries. Tombs with fragments of ossuaries have now been excavated in Nazareth, indicating a Jewish presence there in the first century.3 Storage pits and cisterns from the time of Jesus have been discovered.4
Recently, two first-century “courtyard houses” were unearthed in Nazareth, including one that still had its windows and doors intact. The lead archaeologist on this project, Dr. Ken Dark, has presented evidence of early Christian veneration of the site, suggesting that it may have been the childhood home of Jesus.5 There is no longer any doubt that the village of Nazareth existed when the Bible says an angel appeared to the young virgin named Mary to tell her of God’s plans for her and her child.
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 his own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. (Lk 2:1-4).
These verses have caused much ink to be spilt in trying to vindicate Luke’s accuracy, as some have argued that there was no census taken around the time of the birth of Christ (shortly before King Herod’s death) and that Quirinius was not governor of Judea at that time. Most of the problem is based upon a copying error in Josephus that was propagated in later manuscripts suggesting that Herod had died in 4 BC. A recent examination of the manuscripts of Josephus in the British Library and the Library of Congress showed that all 29 manuscripts dating before 1544 showed that Herod actually died in 1 BC.6 Dr. Andrew Steinmann, the Distinguished Professor of Theology and Hebrew at Concordia University Chicago, has shown that King Herod actually died around the time of the total lunar eclipse of January 10, 1 B.C. and that the birth of Jesus occurred sometime in mid-to-late 3 B.C. or in early 2 B.C. Further, Roman records show that Quirinius was indeed a governor of Judea and that an empire-wide census was taking place in 3 B.C.7
Joseph, being of the house of David, thus journeyed from Nazareth to his ancestral hometown of Bethlehem to be registered for the census.
In recent years, some have suggested that Joseph did not go to Bethlehem in Judea (175 km south of Nazareth), but rather to another town called Bethlehem of the Galilee (located only 7 km west of Nazareth).8 However, both Matthew and Luke are clear that the actual location was Bethlehem in Judea, as both Joseph and Mary were descendants of David. Furthermore, the prophecy in Micah 5:2 states that the “ruler of Israel” would come from Bethlehem Ephrathah, which was in the territory of the biblical tribe of Judah (ie. the southern Bethlehem in Judea).
Others point out that there is little archaeological evidence in Bethlehem of Judea from the time of Jesus. It is true that there used to be a lack of material culture from first-century Bethlehem, however, recent discoveries have silenced this claim. In May 2012, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced the discovery of a bulla (a clay seal impression) that mentions Bethlehem and was on the tax document of a shipment from Bethlehem to nearby Jerusalem. It dates to the 7th or 8th century BC.9 This is the earliest reference to the town of Bethlehem outside of the Bible. We also know there was a village there in the time of Constantine in the 4th century AD. The fact that the village of Bethlehem existed 700 years before Jesus and 300 years afterwards suggests it was there during the time of Jesus too. Furthermore, a recent excavation led by Shimon Gibson next to the Church of the Nativity turned up pottery shards and other evidence proving the existence of the village of Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth.10 The reality is that it was likely a small, seemingly insignificant village in the first century. This would certainly be in keeping with the humble way our Savior entered the world.
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, because there was no room for them in the inn. (Lk 2:6-7)
Each year tourists to Bethlehem flock to the Church of the Nativity, the supposed site of the birth of Jesus. It was built over a cave in 326 AD which was said to be the stable in which the Christ child was born. While there is an early tradition that speaks of a cave (Justin Martyr in the 2nd century), nowhere in the gospel accounts is a cave mentioned, or even a stable.
The only clues given by Luke as to the actual birthplace of Jesus are the mention of a manger and that there was no room at the inn. If there was a manger, many assume it was in a stable out behind an inn. Images of an old barn behind a Motel 6 come to our western minds. The gospel accounts, however, do not mention a stable, and even the word “inn” does not mean “motel.” Archaeologist (and former Pastor) Gary Byers has pointed out that the word Luke uses for “inn” is the Greek word kataluma, which is used in only one other place in the New Testament – the story of the Last Supper in the kataluma (upper room/guest room).11 In fact, if Luke had meant there were no rooms available at the “motel” he likely would have used a different Greek word – pandocheion – as he does in the story of the Good Samaritan who takes the injured man to a “motel inn,” where there is even an innkeeper, a pandocheus (Lk 10:34). It was common for homes at the time of Jesus to have an upper room, or a guest room. With the census taking place, no doubt many family members had returned and the guest room likely already housed many family members.
Further, mangers were often found inside common dwellings in the first century. Permanent, stone-carved mangers have been discovered by archaeologists in the floors of homes from the biblical period.12 There are also archaeological remains at Chorazin and Capernaum of a special domestic stable room on the ground floor of homes with “fenestrated walls” – walls with square storage areas (think cubby holes) in which animals, such as suckling lambs would have been placed.13 Often animals that were young or valuable (like the fattened calf) were kept in these stable rooms inside the houses where they would be safe. Occasionally a first-century house was built beside a cave, which was used as a stable, such that it was actually part of the ground floor structure of the home.
The picture that emerges then, is not one of a pregnant woman being shoved aside to give birth in the barn out back, but rather one in which Mary and Joseph are housed in the stable room on the ground floor of a relatives’ home because the guest room upstairs was already taken.
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” (Lk 2:8-10)
Just north of Bethlehem was a place called Migdal Eder, “the tower of the flock.” While it’s exact location is uncertain today, it used to be where certain shepherds grazed special flocks of sheep that were for sacrifices at the temple. It is mentioned in Micah 4:8 as the “watchtower of the flock,” interestingly just a few verses before Micah’s prophecy of the Messiah being born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:8). Afred Edersheim in The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, describes it this way:
“This Migdal Eder was not the watchtower for the ordinary flocks which pastured on the barren sheepground beyond Bethlehem, but lay close to the town, on the road to Jerusalem.”
“A passage in the Mishnah leads to the conclusion, that the flocks, which pastured there, were destined for Temple-sacrifices, and, accordingly, that the shepherds, who watched over them, were not ordinary shepherds.”
“The latter were under the ban of Rabbinism, on account of their necessary isolation from religious ordinances, and their manner of life, which rendered strict legal observance unlikely, if not absolutely impossible.”
“The same Mishnaic passage also leads us to infer, that these flocks lay out all the year round, since they are spoken of as in the fields thirty days before Passover–that is, in the month of February, when in Palestine [Israel] the average rainfall is nearly greatest.”14
There is no way of knowing conclusively that this is the exact place the shepherds were watching their flocks. It is interesting that there was likely a group of shepherds near Bethlehem tending the paschal lambs that were bound for sacrifice in Jerusalem the night that Jesus was born. It’s quite possible that the angel brought to these shepherds the glad tidings of great joy of the final Pascal Lamb’s birth (1 Cor. 5:7).
The Dedication At The Temple
When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord. (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.” (Lk 2:22)
In this passage we learn three things about Jesus. We learn that his parents were devout Jews who took the law seriously, coming to present their son to the Lord and offer purification sacrifices. We learn that Jesus was born into a poor family, as the sacrifice for purification was actually a year-old lamb (Lv 12:6), and only if she could not afford that could she offer two birds as Mary did. Finally, we learn that Jesus made his first trip to the temple in Jerusalem, the same temple where he would spend much time later in life. In fact, it was in the temple courts that old Simeon praised God for being allowed to see the promised Savior (2:27).
Today, tourists to the Temple Mount can still see remains from the temple that Jesus knew. The Southern Steps, are the ancient steps that Jesus’ parents likely walked on to enter the temple, as they form one of the primary access points to the temple and they face south towards Bethlehem, from which they would have made their journey. A first century street was unearthed in the mid-1990’s, and was clearly built decades before the destruction of the temple in 70 AD.15 Numerous examples of the massive stones from Herod’s renovations to the temple complex are visible today around the temple Mount. Herod’s Temple, known as the Second Temple, was where two nervous parents would have brought their Son, the Christ-Child, to be dedicated.
The Magi, King Herod and King Jesus
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” (Mt 2:1-2)
Who were these magi, translated as “wise men” in the King James Version? Some have suggested they were kings, Bablyonian astrologers, Persian Zoroastrians, or monk-like mystics from as far away as China.16 The Greek word that Matthew uses is magoi, the plural of magos, or magus. Thayer’s Greek Dictionary defines a magus as “the name given by the Babylonians (Chaldaeans), Medes, Persians, and others, to the wise men, teachers, priests, physicians, astrologers, seers, interpreters of dreams, augurs, soothsayers, sorcerers etc.”17 The word is used to describe Elymas, the magician or sorcerer in Acts 13:6. The magi who visited Jesus had obviously studied the Hebrew Scriptures and had probably taken note of several prophecies:
A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel. (Nm 24:17)
But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times. (Mi 5:2)
They may have even understood from Daniel’s prophecy (9:25-26), that the time set for the Messiah to appear was nigh. When they saw the mysterious star in the east, they came to pay honour to the newborn king. Their arrival in Bethlehem caused quite a stir.
King Herod was not pleased to hear that a rival to his throne had been born. Herod the Great was a notoriously paranoid tyrant who had three of his own sons killed because he suspected them of plotting against him. When Caesar Augustus heard about the deaths, he reportedly quipped, “It is better to be Herod’s pig than son.”18 The Herod we know from history is the same Herod we see in the Bible: a paranoid man who would stop at nothing to maintain his grip on power, whether that meant killing his own sons, or the sons of the people of Bethlehem and its vicinity (Mt 2:16).
In addition to being a tyrant, Herod the Great was also a prolific builder, and many of these structures remain to this day. In 1999, archaeologists excavating beneath the Kishle, an Ottoman-era prison near the Tower of David, discovered the foundation walls of Herod’s palace in Jerusalem.19 Matthew records that Herod secretly summoned the magi to question them personally about the star (Mt 2:7). It is likely the magi met with the paranoid king at his palace in Jerusalem.
After leaving Herod, the magi proceeded to complete their quest of honoring the newborn king. Unlike most Christmas cards and nativity sets, which show the wisemen present the night of Jesus’ birth, they likely arrived some two years later. Matthew uses the Greek word paidion which means child or toddler, to describe Jesus, not the word baby. Remember that Herod ended up killing all of the boys two years of age and younger, in keeping with the information he received from the magi. So it was likely a toddler the wisemen found with his parents in Bethlehem and to whom they presented their gifts.
The Bible doesn’t say how many magi came to worship Jesus, only that they brought three gifts to give the new king: gold frankincense and myrrh. Gold was a precious metal that was found throughout the middle east. Havilah (Gn 2:12) and Ophir (1 Kg 9:28; 10:11; 22:48) were two places renowned for their gold in biblical times. Frankincense was a perfume or incense. The Nabataeans held a monopoly on the Frankincense trade20, amassing considerable wealth from the sale of it from their rock-hewn city of Petra.21 It is quite possible that the magi stopped at Petra to purchase the frankincense that they gave to Jesus, or at the very least, that it was Nabataean frankincense that was given. Myrrh was used as an anointing spice at that time. These were standard gifts that were given to honour kings and gods in antiquity. All three are recorded among the gifts offered by King Seleucus II Callinicus at the temple of Miletus to Apollo in 243 BC.22
The Flight To Egypt
When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” (Mt 2:13-15)
The oft-forgotten part of the Christmas story is the flight to Egypt of Jesus’ family immediately after the Magi leave. While it is not possible to know for certain exactly where Joseph took his family in Egypt, it is likely they settled near Heliopolis. There was a large community of Jews dwelling in Egypt near Heliopolis at this time because of its proximity to the Temple of Onias.23 The Temple of Onias was a Hellenistic and Roman period temple that had been built in Egypt for Jewish worship and sacrifice. Rather than it being seen as heretical to offer sacrifices at this temple, the Jewish Virtual Library states:
“The Talmud takes a somewhat relaxed view of this temple. It claims that it was not an “idolatrous shrine” because Onias had based himself on Isaiah 19:18, which says that, “One day there will be an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt,” and because he was a legitimate Zadokite priest, a descendant of the high priest Simon the Just (Men. 109b). The Mishnah states that some vows made in the Temple of Jerusalem could be redeemed in the Temple of Onias and, while a priest who served at Onias was precluded from serving in Jerusalem, he could nevertheless eat the terumah (consecrated food) there together with his priestly brethren (Men. 13:10).”24
Joseph and Mary were devout in their Judaism and would have likely sought out a place to commune with others of like ancestry and faith. It is remarkable that even in this little detail, we find a plausible destination for the holy family in Egypt recorded in ancient sources.
The description of the Christmas story in the Bible is steeped in history. Many of the people and places described have been verified through archaeology. Even some of the minute details in the account of the birth of Jesus have proven to be accurate. Furthermore, from the writings of other ancient historians such as Tacitus, Pliny The Younger, Suetonius, and Josephus, as well as from the ancient Jewish Talmud, we know that Jesus of Nazareth existed, that he lived in the place and time the Bible describes, and that many people in the first-century believed him to be the Messiah, the long-awaited Savior of the world.25
Of course, none of this “proves the Bible is true.” It simply demonstrates that the Bible is historically reliable when it describes the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth. I would suggest it also means we can trust that the words of Jesus passed onto us in the gospels are faithful records of what he actually said. None are more familiar than the words Jesus spoke one night to a devout Jewish leader:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” (John 3:16-18).
At the end of the day it is a matter of faith. We live in a world that seeks the elusive “proof beyond a shadow of a doubt,” but Jesus says, “Believe.” To people who desperately search for love in all the wrong places, Jesus offers himself as the ultimate demonstration of God’s love. To the condemned and dying, Jesus promises that there is eternal life and peace with God through him. This truly is the good news of great joy for all people that the angel of the Lord declared that first Christmas: “A Savior has been born to you; He is Christ the Lord.”
1 Scholars believe the gospel of Matthew was written between 50-70AD and Luke’s account was written around 63AD (https://carm.org/when-were-gospels-written-and-by-whom). This is within the lifetime of many of those who knew Jesus. Jude, the half-brother of Jesus, likely wrote his epistle between 67 and 80 AD (https://www.insight.org/resources/bible/the-general-epistles/jude), and was alive when Matthew and Luke wrote. Peter wasn’t martyred for his faith until 64-68 AD, and so was alive when at least Luke’s gospel was written. Church history says that Mary lived with John, as Jesus requested from the cross (John 19:26), and that they spent their senior years near Ephesus, where she is buried (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl., III, 31; V, 24, P.G., XX, 280, 493). Thus she would have been alive when both gospels were written.
6 Gerald Culley, “The Star of Bethlehem” Bible and Spade (29.3, 2016), pg. 82.
11 Gary Byers, “Away In A Manger, But Not In A Barn,” Bible and Spade (29.1, 2016), pg. 8.
12 Ibid, pg. 7
14 Afred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus The Messiah, Longman, Green, and Co. London. 1883. p186-187
18 Macrobius, Saturnalia, 2:4:11. Quoted online: http://www.catholic.com/blog/jimmy-akin/it-is-better-to-be-herods-pig-than-son
20 Dr. Scott Stripling (personal communication, Dec. 3, 2016)