Gerald N. Lund is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, (“Mormon Church”). He is the author of The Coming of the Lord, as well as several adventure novels, among them The Alliance, The Freedom Factor.
The Christmas Story: Birth of Jesus Christ
And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. . . . And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, unto Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. (Luke 2:1, 3-5.)
Bethlehem. The city of David. Ancient homeland of Israel’s greatest king. In Hebrew it is called Beth Lechem. Literally, Beth Lechem means “The House of Bread.” How perfect that He who was to take the throne of David and become Israel’s ultimate king should come to earth in the city of His illustrious ancestor! How fitting that He who would be known as the “Bread of Life” should enter mortality in the tiny village called “The House of Bread.” (See John 6:35.)
Though His birth is celebrated in December, latter-day revelation explains that it actually occurred in the spring. (See D&C 20:1; James E. Talmage, Jesus the Christ, Classics in Mormon Literature Edition, Deseret Book, 1982, p. 98.) It would have been late March or early April as Joseph moved southward with Mary at his side, heavy with the living treasure in her womb. Spring is a time of glorious beauty in Israel. The “latter rains” water the parched soil, and in gratitude the earth responds with an explosion of grass and wildflowers. New life springs from the old with the wildest abundance. What better season to welcome him who would be called the “Prince of Life”? (See Acts 3:15.)
And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:6-7.)
No room in the inn. If, as we believe, it was April and not December, then it was very likely Passover season in Jerusalem. This could explain the reason Joseph took Mary on the rigorous, sixty- mile journey to Judea when she was in the final month of her pregnancy. The Roman “taxing” mentioned by Luke was more accurately a census or enrollment. Each family head had to register and give an accounting of their property so that taxes could be levied. But while there was considerable flexibility in timing allowed to meet this requirement, if it was Passover season, that would allow them to meet two responsibilities. The Mosaic Law required that every adult male bring his sacrifices before the Lord (i.e., to the temple) each year at Passover. (See Exodus 23:14-19.) So by choosing this time of year, Joseph could fulfill both requirements.
Today we can hardly conceive of the magnitude of this most important of all Jewish festivals. From all over the empire, Jews returned to their homeland at Passover. Though it is difficult to determine exactly how large Jerusalem was during this period, a fairly accurate guess would place the population between one and two hundred thousand. Josephus tells us that during Passover “innumerable multitudes came thither [to Jerusalem] out of the country.” In another place, he was even more specific. Because the Paschal lamb had to be totally consumed by the family in the ritual meal, tradition stated that no less than ten and no more than twenty could gather for each lamb sacrificed. (See Exodus 12:10.) Josephus tells us that during one Passover of his time (about a.d. 70), 256,500 lambs were sacrificed. Even using the more conservative figure of ten, that still means the population of Jerusalem at Passover had swollen by more than 1000 percent to the staggering number of nearly three million people.
The throngs must have been incredible, the facilities throughout the city taxed beyond belief. And with Bethlehem only six miles south of Jerusalem, no wonder there was no room at the inn. Luke probably could have said with equal accuracy, “There was no room anywhere.”
Often in the art and literature surrounding the Christmas story, the unknown, unnamed innkeeper of the scriptural account is viewed as selfish and uncaring, an insensitive oaf unmoved by the plight of a woman heavy with child. This may make for interesting art and literature, but it is not justified by the scriptural record. In the first place, the “inns” of the Middle East were not quaint and homey little buildings with thatched roofs and latticed windows from which warm lamplight beckoned the weary traveler. The inns of the Holy Land were typically large, fortress-like buildings, built around a spacious open square. Called khans or caravanserai, they provided stopping places for the caravans of the ancient world. Just as modern hotels and motels must provide parking for automobiles, so did a caravanserai have to provide a place where the donkeys, camels, and other animals could be safely cared for. Inside the khan, which was usually of two-story construction, all the “rooms” faced the courtyard. There were not private rooms. They were typically arched, open antechambers facing out onto the square. Here the traveler could build a small fire or sleep within clear view of his animals and goods. “In these hostelries, bazaars and markets were held, animals killed and meat sold, also wine and cider; so that they were a much more public place of resort than might at first be imagined.”
Even if there had been room at the inn, a caravanserai was hardly the ideal place for a woman in labor. Perhaps the innkeeper, moved with compassion at Mary’s plight and knowing of her need and desire for privacy, offered them his stable. Perhaps Joseph found the place on his own. The scriptures do not say. But one thing is very likely, and this contradicts another popular misconception. The birth likely did not take place in a wooden shed with pitched roof as is so commonly depicted in nativity scenes around the world.
In Bethlehem today stands the Church of the Nativity. Beneath the church is a large grotto or cave. In southern Judea, including the area around Bethlehem, limestone caves are common. Such caves provided natural shelter for the flocks and herds of ancient Israel. They were warm, safe from inclement weather, and could easily be blocked to keep the animals safe for the night. The tradition that this grotto was the stable of Luke’s account is very old and accepted by many scholars. President Harold B. Lee, then of the Council of the Twelve, visited this grotto in 1958 and confirmed that in his mind it was “a hallowed spot, . . . a sacred place.”
So there in the sheltered warmth of the cave, beneath the limestone hills of Bethlehem, He who was to become the Good Shepherd—not of the sheep that grazed the hills of Israel, but of the human flock—was born and cradled in a manger.
That seems almost beyond our comprehension. Here was Jesus—a member of the Godhead, the Firstborn of the Father, the Creator, Jehovah of the Old Testament—now leaving His divine and holy station; divesting Himself of all that glory and majesty and entering the body of a tiny infant; helpless, completely dependent on His mother and earthly father. And that He should not come to the finest of earthly palaces and be swaddled in purple and showered with jewels, but should come to a lowly stable. Little wonder that the angel should say to Nephi, “Behold the condescension of God!” (1 Nephi 11:26.)
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. (Luke 2:8-12.)
One of these verses is frequently misquoted: “Keeping watch over their flocks by night.” But a more careful reading shows that it was not flocks, plural, but flock, singular. One scholar explained the significance:
There was near Bethlehem, on the road to Jerusalem, a tower known as Migdal Eder, or the watchtower of the flock. Here was the station where shepherds watched the flocks destined for sacrifice in the temple. . . . It was a settled conviction among the Jews that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, and equally that he was to be revealed from Migdal Eder. The beautiful significance of the revelation of the infant Christ to shepherds watching the flocks destined for sacrifice needs no comment.
The Christmas Story: Significance of Jesus Christ’s Name
Sometimes, in translation, the power of the original language is considerably lessened. While the words, in English, of the angel to the shepherds are beautiful and significant, we miss much of the electrifying impact the original words must have had on those men of Judea. Let us just examine two or three of the phrases as we assume they were given in Aramaic to the shepherds that night.
“In the city of David.” We have already seen that the Jews expected Bethlehem to be the birthplace of the Messiah. This in part stemmed directly from the prophet Micah, who centuries before had specified the place. (See Micah 5:2.)
“Is born a Savior.” The word which meant “Savior” was Yeshua. In the Greek New Testament that name was transliterated into Hee-ay-sous, or in English, “Jesus.” When the angel announced to Joseph that Mary would bear a son, note what he said: “Thou shalt call his name Jesus [Yeshua]: for he shall save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21, emphasis added.)
“Which is Christ.” Our English word Christ is derived directly from the Greek, Christos. It means “the anointed one.” Christos was a direct translation of the Hebrew word,Messhiach, which meant exactly the same thing—the anointed one. Messhiach is of course transliterated into English as “Messiah.”
“The Lord.” The simple title, “Lord,” is perhaps the most significant of all, yet we totally miss its importance in the translation. In the Old Testament the name of God was written with four Hebrew consonants: YHVH. Because they did not write vowels, there has been some debate as to its proper pronunciation. Modern scholars often write it as YAHVEH, but the King James translators wrote it as JEHOVAH. The Jews of ancient times, however, viewed the name as being so sacred that it should not be pronounced out loud. Whenever they found it written, they would substitute the Hebrew word Adonai, meaning the Lord. The translators who produced the King James Version of the Old Testament honored that tradition of the Jews, and where they found the name YHVH (with very few exceptions) they wrote in “Lord.” However, adonai can also be used as a title of respect for men, such as in the phrase, “My lord, the king.” To distinguish between the two uses, the translators wrote Lord in small capital letters if it represented the name of deity, and regular upper and lower case letters if used normally. (See, for example, 2 Samuel 15:21, where both uses are found in the same verse.) The declaration of the angel to the shepherds obviously used Lord or Adonai in reference to deity; literally it could be translated Jehovah.
Now we begin to sense the impact of the angel’s words upon these shepherds. In essence, here is his pronouncement: “Unto you is born this day in the city prophesied to be the birthplace of the Messiah, Yeshua [or Jesus], the Savior, who is the Anointed One (the Messiah), and who is also Jehovah, the God of your fathers.”
And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. (Luke 2:16-19.