Rabbi’s Reflections – Sunday, December 18, 2022
The Birth of the Messiah – Christmas Myths (Part 1 of 2)
by Dr. Raymond Finney
INTRODUCTION: Next Sunday, December 25, is celebrated as Christmas in most of Western Christendom. Most Believers celebrating this day would confidently assert, “Christmas, December 25, is the day Jesus was born.” But, are they wrong? The Messiah’s birth is based on a little evidence from God’s Word and much more on man’s traditions. It is often difficult to separate the real Yeshua from the popular, mythical, secular version of the Messiah.
Decades ago, the late Paul Harvey hosted a radio show, The Rest of the Story. He presented little known facts, ending in his unique voice and style, “And, now you know the rest of the story.” I will explore with you a few– certainly not all– misconceptions and little known facts about Yeshua’s birth. Together, we may try to learn at least part of “the rest of the story” about our Messiah’s birth.
BAH HUMBUG? In Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol (written in 1843), miserly, miserable Ebenezer Scrooge dismissed for much of his life everything about Christmas with, “Bah humbug!” You may enjoy the secular aspect of this season (lights, carols, food, camaraderie, etc.), and I do not wish to dampen your happiness with my “Bah humbug.” It certainly is wonderful that God gave His only Son to save us from sin (John 3:16). It is appropriate that we give never-ending thanks for this great gift. However, we can give thanks for the birth of the real Yeshua, not the “Hollywood version.” Rejoice over the true nativity story of Yeshua. Perhaps we should concentrate less on Scrooge’s early, pessimistic skepticism and more on a quotation of optimism from A Christmas Carol of another character, Tiny Tim: “God bless us every one!” God’s gift of His Only Son was the greatest blessing we can ever receive.
WHY DO SO MANY MYTHS NEED CORRECTING? Approximately two millennia have passed between Yeshua’s birth to our present AD 2022. The Bible of choice for much of the last four centuries has been the King James Version, which has its share of poorly translated words. The Roman Catholic Church has conflated Holy Scriptures with man’s traditions, often blending pagan and Bible stories into a single message. (Admittedly, Catholic Church Fathers often had a “tough sell,” and they may have taken liberties with pagan beliefs to spread faith in Yeshua.) Protestant churches have added to the Christmas mythology. Commercial enterprises, poets, and authors have weighed in on Christmas, bringing traditions (Santa Claus, etc.) from beyond Scriptures. Even though a beloved winter event for millions of people, Christmas has become a mixture of truths, traditions, and guesswork– often more secular, than faith-based.
SPEAKING OF DATES: You probably know everything in this section. I do not wish to appear condescending by presenting this material. However, I frequently see or hear these abbreviations misused. If you know these things, please scroll down to the next section.
There is widespread misconception about designating date abbreviations of years. Properly translated abbreviations follow:
BC (B.C.) = “Before the Christ”
AD (A.D.) = “Anno Domini” (from Latin: “[In the] Year of the Lord”) – NOT “After Death”
Periods in these abbreviations are optional (BC = B.C.). These date markers were first proposed with implementation of the Gregorian calendar in AD 525. Most grammarians agree that is is most appropriate to have BC follow the year (4 BC) and AD precede the year (AD 2022). The reason for this is apparent, if the abbreviation is spoken fully, rather than relying on the initials.
To avoid any connection with Yeshua, scholars, academics, and Jewish authors tend to re-write these designations. These changes date to the early 1700s and have become more popular in the twentieth century. They are:
BCE = “Before Common Era” to replace BC.
CE = “Common Era” to replace AD.
The designations are written after the date in all instances (4 BCE and 2022 CE).
There is no “Year Zero.” That is, year 1 BC passes directly into year AD 1. If commonly misused abbreviations (“Before Christ” and “After Death”) are used, this would mean that Yeshua was born on 1 BC and died on AD 1 (actually, AD 0 which does not exist). He would have been crucified in infancy.
MORE CONFUSION: Today, we may make a big deal about birthdays. For example: my wife cooks a special birthday meal for me and our children and grandchildren, and we cook a birthday meal for her. For each family member’s birthday meal, the honoree has his/ her favorite foods prepared. The ancients, on the other hand, cared little about birthdays. Why make a fuss about a birthday, when everyone has one some time in the year? To them, it would be like having a yearly “Navel Day,” celebrating the fact that a person has a navel. They would reason: “Yes, we all have navels. So what?”
The B’rit Chadashah authors were interested in recording Yeshua’s words and activities, as they laid the foundation for a new faith. They saw no reason to record information we might like to know (the day and year of Yeshua’s birth; Yeshua’s appearance, personality, and demeanor; etc.). We must labor through a frustratingly few clues found in Scriptures, trying to knit together a personalized story of Yeshua. Many things are necessarily left unknown.
ORIGIN OF “CHRISTMAS:” The name “Christmas” probably arose in the Roman Catholic Church. The late Old English Cristes mæsse combined “Christ” (the Greek form of the Messiah– ὁ χριστός [ho Christos = “the Christ”]) and “Mass” (a Catholic Eucharistic worship service). The closest Shomair Yisrael comes to a Catholic Mass is the Communion that follows each service. In the mid-fourteenth century, the two words were combined into one word, and the familiar “Christmas” spelling evolved. The Catholic Christmas was a Mass– a Christ Mass– to celebrate the birth of Yeshua. December 25 was chosen by the Roman Catholic Church as Yeshua’s birth date. It seems this date was chosen to accommodate the Church calendar and compete with pagan myths, without any research to establish its validity.
WAS YESHUA BORN ON DECEMBER 25? Almost certainly, no. For the first three centuries after Yeshua’s crucifixion, His birthday was not celebrated at all. December 25 was first officially registered as “Christmas” on the Roman Catholic Church calendar in AD 336– three centuries after Yeshua’s crucifixion.
The Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates Yeshua’s birth on January 7, not December 25.
Close reading of the Bible offers clues incompatible with a December birth, mainly due to inclement winter weather. For example:
● NOTE: Yeshua’s mother was given the Hebrew name Miriam. Her Aramaic name variant was Maryam. In Latin editions of the Bible, the Hebrew name was changed to Maria, which became Marie in French and Mary in English. To avoid confusion, I will use the English name (Mary) in the remainder of this RR, realizing that if we could go back in time a couple of millennia, the Virgin Miriam would not answer to the name Mary.
● Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem for a census registration (Luke 2:1-5): Now it happened in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus to register all the world’s inhabitants. This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Everyone was traveling to be registered in his own city. Now Joseph also went up from the Galilee, out of the town of Natzeret to Judah, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was from the house and family of David. He went to register with Miriam, who was engaged to him and was pregnant. Roman authorities would not have imposed onerous winter travel on top of complying with a hated taxation requirement.
● Shepherds, to whom Yeshua’s birth was proclaimed, would not be watching their sheep in the fields in December (Luke 2:8): Now there were shepherds in the same region, living out in the fields and guarding their flock at night. December weather is cold. The shepherds would be gathered around a fire in their cottages, and the sheep would be penned up in corrals. Grass in the fields would have stopped growing, leaving nothing for the sheep to graze.
The Roman Catholic Church chose Christmas to be celebrated on December 25 in order that this Church holiday would coincide with (and, hopefully, replace) existing pagan holidays. Existing Roman December 25 pagan holidays honored the Roman gods of Saturn and Mithra. By so doing, Church Fathers reasoned the pagans might more readily accept Christianity. Christmas spread throughout the Roman Empire and its successor nations.
December 25 is only a few days after the winter solstice (which occurs usually on December 21 or 22). The winter solstice is the day the sun appears to make its most southerly descent before appearing to return northwardly to bring summer back to Rome and the rest of the northern hemisphere. Before astronomy was well understood, ancient people dreaded this time of the year. What if the sun stayed deep in the south and did not return warm weather to the north? What if winter became perpetual and all humanity starved? (Yes, there were climate alarmists thousands of years ago.) The “rebirth” of the sun seemed certain by crude measurements of ancient people a few days after the winter solstice. By December 25, people could celebrate with certainty the sun’s “rebirth” (and, why not the Christ’s birth at the same time?).
In Colonial America, the Puritans banned Christmas as being a pagan holiday. In 1870, Christmas was recognized as an official United States’ holiday– probably more to encourage gift giving (shopping) than to celebrate the birth of the Messiah.
WHEN, THEN, WAS YESHUA BORN? No one knows. The Bible is silent on this matter, as were contemporaneous historians. Remember, birthdays were unimportant to ancient people.
I believe the best guess is that Yeshua was born during the the Jewish feast of Sukkot (Feast of Booths, Feast of Tabernacles). Sukkot begins on the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei and lasts for seven days. Sukkot in our calendar typically occurs between mid-September and late October.
Tishrei, an autumn month, would be an excellent time to travel. Why Sukkot?
● Israel was an agrarian nation. Much of the agricultural work was concluded by Sukkot, and citizens could travel for census purposes more freely and comfortably between harvest and winter.
● Joseph and Mary were devout Jews and probably were careful to observe the Jewish feasts. As devout Jews, they were required to travel to Jerusalem (that is, the Temple) to observe three pilgrimage feasts yearly– Passover (Pesach), Pentecost or Weeks (Shavuot), and Booths or Tabernacles (Sukkot). It would seem prudent to observe Sukkot in Jerusalem and register for the census in Bethlehem in one trip. Bethlehem is less than six miles from Jerusalem.
● In Luke 1:5, we read that a priest– Zechariah, father of John the Baptizer– was serving his priestly lot (course, division) when visited by Gabriel, the angel of the Lord. Luke tells us that Zechariah’s lot of the priesthood was with Abijah’s lot. So what? Turning to 1 Chronicles 24:10, we find the rotation schedule for the priests. Abijah’s lot (including Zechariah) had duty as the eighth lot, which would translate to the second part of the fourth month of the Jewish religious year on the Hebraic calendar. The Jews’ religious new year began with the month of Nisan (which would correspond to our March-April time-frame). Counting eight two-week rotations from Nisan to come to Zechariah’s service, we find him on Temple duty some time in mid-July to mid-August. After Zechariah finished his course of duty, he returned to his home in Ein Kerem; after his four days of abstinence, as dictated by the Law, he and Elizabeth conceived their son, John the Baptizer. In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, Mary visited Elizabeth. Mary would deliver Yeshua nine months later– in the autumn (probably during Sukkot).
Mary supernaturally conceived Yeshua in December. It would be logical to assume this immaculate conception occurred during Hanukkah, the Feast of Lights, when the Light of the World (John 8:12) Yeshua was given life in a Jewish girl’s womb. (I probably have not explained this very well. Research for yourself. The math works out just fine. To recap: Yeshua was probably conceived in December [Hanukkah?], gestated nine months, and was delivered the following September-October [Sukkot?].) God is consummately precise, leaving nothing to chance. These “coincidences” of the Jewish festival calendar and Yeshua’s birth might be expected from the Creator.
● The Apostle John may have had a Sukkot birth date in mind, when he wrote John 1:14a: And the Word [Word, here, represents Yeshua] became flesh and tabernacled among us…. John’s Greek text uses ἐσκήνωσεν, from the verb σκηνόω (transliterated, skēnoō || pronounced, skay-NO-oh). The word may be translated: “to live or dwell in a tabernacle or tent; to tabernacle.” Another name for Sukkot is “Feast of Tabernacles.” Sukkot commemorates ancient Israelite history, when God lived with (tabernacled with) Bnei Yisrael in the forty-year exodus from Egypt back to Canaan. Did John tell us in his Gospel that once again God, in the Person of Yeshua, dwelt with (tabernacled with) His people? Is this a hidden clue that Yeshua was born during the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot)?
We do not even know the year of Yeshua’s birth. Most Bibles students feel Yeshua was born between 2 BC and 7 BC, with 4 BC being the most common consensus.
WAS MARY A “VIRGIN” OR MERELY A “YOUNG WOMAN?” Yeshua’s mother was Mary. Some people obsess with trying to disprove the Bible. These people reject Mary’s virginity. If Mary was a virgin, the immaculate conception of Yeshua as the Son of God would be more plausible; if she was not a virgin, but a maiden of loose morals or a victim of rape, Yeshua could be anyone’s son. These skeptics suggest, without any proof whatever, an unknown Roman soldier as the leading candidate for fathering Yeshua.
A person must hold that Yeshua was born of a virgin through Divine intervention of the Ruach ha-Kodesh, if he/ she is truly a Believer holding fast to Tanakh prophecies (Isaiah 7:14): “Therefore Adonai Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin will conceive. When she is giving birth to a son, she will call his name Immanuel.” [“Virgin” translates the Hebrew עַלְמָה = al-MAH ||
“Immanuel” translates the Hebrew עִמָּנוּאֵל = im-maw-noo-ALE = “God with us”].
Young Jewish women were more chaste in Mary’s time than are young American women today. Today’s American bride may have had one or multiple premarital sex partners. (Should the bride in today’s wedding ceremony say, ”I did,” rather than, “I do?” Sorry. I couldn’t resist.) In Mary’s time, an unmarried woman was a young teenager, a girl barely past puberty, who was almost certainly a virgin. When a maiden entered into betrothal, her bridegroom expected her to be a virgin, to remain a virgin throughout her betrothal (approximately one year in length), and remain free of adultery throughout her marriage. The few young women who strayed from this expectation were considered prostitutes and would not be very marriageable.
In Yeshua’s nativity account (Matthew 1:22-23), the Tanakh prophecy of a virgin giving birth (Isaiah 7:14) is repeated. In this Matthew passage, the Greek παρθένος (parthenos = “virgin”) is used in quoting Isaiah’s prophecy. When Yeshua’s birth was revealed to Mary, she was confused and asked the angel Gabriel how she could be pregnant because of her virginity (Luke 1:34): Miriam said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am not intimate with a man?” Thus, Mary’s virginity is repeated in both the Tanakh and the B’rit Chadashah.
Mary’s confused questioning of Gabriel is explained by earlier verses (Luke 1:26-33): Then in the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent by Adonai into a town in the Galilee named Natzeret and to a virgin engaged to a man named Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Miriam. And coming to her, the angel said, “Shalom, favored one! Adonai is with you. But at the message, she was perplexed and kept wondering what kind of greeting this might be. The angel spoke to her, “Do not be afraid, Miriam, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and you shall call His name Yeshua. He will be great and will be called Ben-Elyon. Adonai Elohim will give Him the throne of David, His father. He shall reign over the house of Jacob for all eternity, and His kingdom will be without end.”
PROPHECIES ABOUT THE BIRTH OF THE MESSIAH: Dozens of Bible prophecies foretold the birth of the Messiah. Such verses may be read at: What Does the Bible Say About Prophecy Of The Birth Of Jesus? (openbible.info) .
WAS MARY A “PERPETUAL VIRGIN?” DID SHE HAVE CHILDREN OTHER THAN YESHUA? Catholicism teaches that Mary was a perpetual (lifelong) virgin (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 499-507). Protestantism teaches that Joseph and Mary married and had multiple children from this union. The B’rit Chadashah (Matthew 13:55 and Mark 6:3) names four brothers of Yeshua– Jacob (“James”), Joses, Simon, and Judas– and unnamed sisters.
Catholics counter that these children were delivered from “the other Mary,” but not the Virgin Mary. (Hebrew Miriam, or English Mary, was a common name during this time period.) Catholics dispute the translation of the Greek text adelphoi, commonly rendered “brothers,” insisting this noun can apply to biological brothers, or cousins, or any other males or relatives of a kindred spirit, even fellow male congregants. They claim Yeshua had no biological siblings.
Most Protestants believe Mary’s virginity was important only to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy and to establish the supernatural (Divine) origin of Yeshua. After that, it would be desirable that a young Yeshua would grow up in a working man’s home, surrounded by brothers and sisters and other relatives. Importantly, Yeshua came as the humble Servant and Savior of the poor and downtrodden. Appropriately, He should have lived in a humble home, not the home of a priest or king. Yeshua learned a trade from Joseph, and was known (Mark 6:3) as a τέκτων (tektōn, pronounced TEK-tone). A tekton was a craftsman-builder– a worker in wood, stone, or metal; a builder of houses, ships, furniture, etc.
WHERE WAS YESHUA BORN? NO ROOM AT THE INN? Yeshua was born in Bethlehem. Although a small village in Judah, this town figured prominently in Jewish history and Hebrew faith. Bethlehem was an important source of food for the nation. “Bethlehem” is spelled in the Hebrew בֵּית לֶחֶם , which translates to “House of Bread.” Yeshua, who called Himself “the Bread of Life” who would satisfy the hunger of all who come after Him (John 6:35), was born in “the House of Bread.”
Bethlehem was the city of David’s birth. It was prophesied that the Messiah would be born in this village (Micah 5:2). One of Yeshua’s titles is “Son of David.” To fulfill this prophecy of Messiah’s birth in Bethlehem, Joseph and a heavily pregnant Mary undertook an arduous trip to Bethlehem.
The Bible grows vague after recording that Yeshua was born in Bethlehem. Both the King James Version and the Tree of Life Version translate Luke 2:6-7 similarly: But while they [Joseph and Mary] were there [Bethlehem], the time came for her to give birth– and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped Him in strips of cloth and set Him down in a manger, since there was no room for them in the inn [TLV].
In Luke 2:7, we read that Mary delivered Yeshua and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room in the “inn” (translated “inn” in both the King James Version and the Tree of Life Version). Was there actually an inn in the small village of Bethlehem? “Inn” translates the Greek καταλύματι (katalymati). Kαταλύματι (transliterated, katalymati || pronounced, kat-AL-oo-mah-tee) is translated “inn, lodging place, guest chamber, dining room.” In the Tanakh, a similar Hebrew word designates what we might today call a guest bedroom in a home.
There is protracted scholarly debate on what this dwelling place was, including a guest room, stable, cave, and so forth. When this many ideas are floated, the conclusion is that no one knows.
A suggestion I found interesting (which is not found in Scriptures) is that Joseph may have tried to secure lodging with relatives in Bethlehem. It was a common custom to stay in the home of relatives, when traveling. His relatives may have been very pious people. When he arrived with his betrothed (not married) wife who was obviously at term pregnancy, the relatives may have refused to have the couple stay in their home. It would have seemed to the relatives that Joseph and Mary were adulterers. A betrothed couple was expected to avoid all sexual contact until marriage. Showing some compassion for Mary’s condition, though, they may have let them stay outside with the animals (barn-like pen, cave, etc.). Since it may have been the season of Sukkot, could Yeshua have been born in the family’s sukkah?
WHAT COUNTRIES WERE RULED BY THE KINGS WHO VISITED BABY YESHUA? None. This is a trick question. No kings visited the Holy Family in Bethlehem. This notion comes from a popular Christmas carol, “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” which begins: “We three kings of Orient are || Bearing gifts we traverse afar….” The “kings” were actually magi.
WHO WERE THE MAGI, AND HOW MANY? In the nativity story of Yeshua, “wise men from the east of Jerusalem” are mentioned (example: Matthew 2:1). In the Greek text, these men are called μάγοι (magoi). Magoi is the plural of magos. In the ancient Middle Eastern world, magos was a courtesy title given to a variety of learned men– wise men, teachers, priests, physicians, astrologers, seers, interpreters of dreams, augers, soothsayers, sorcerers, and so forth. Probably scholarly astrologers journeyed to Bethlehem, because they knew the prophecies in the Tanakh of a King of the Jews to be born and, being familiar with heavenly bodies, recognized a new “star.” We know there were at least two magi, because of the plural magoi in the text. Artists have traditionally painted three magi only because three gifts were given to the Holy Family. The Bible is silent on the exact number of magi.
WHAT WAS THE “STAR OF BETHLEHEM?” We are told (Matthew 2:2, 7, 9-10) that the magi followed a new “star” toward the west, until it rested over Bethlehem and the Baby Yeshua. Was this “star” prophesied in Numbers 24:17: [Balaam, son of Beor, prophesied] “I see him, yet not at this moment. I behold him, yet not in this location. For a star will come from Jacob, a scepter will arise from Israel. He will crush the foreheads of Moab and the skulls of all the sons of Seth.” It is uncertain whether this prophecy concerns Yeshua’s First Coming or Second Coming.
Possibilities for the “Star of Bethlehem” include:
● Comet: A comet, a rock-ice structure, can have a dramatic tail, as it nears the sun. Since a comet comes from beyond our solar system, it can appear at any time and can continue through space to return periodically (Halley’s comet) or never to be seen again. Our most famous comet, Halley’s comet, passed too early (11 BC) in our solar system to be the Star of Bethlehem. A good candidate may be recorded in ancient Chinese records. The Chinese recorded that a “new star” (comet? nova?) was seen between March 10 and April 27, 5 BC. Most people believe Yeshua was born in the Fall, and the Spring appearance of this “star” would be out of sequence.
● Conjunction of planets: Planet orbits occasionally cause two or more planets to seem to lie closely side-by-side, appearing to create a brighter, larger “star” when viewed from Earth. Jupiter and Saturn were involved in a conjunction in 6 BC. I would think the magi would know about conjunctions.
● Supernova: A star occasionally explodes, creating a supernova. The supernova shines brilliantly for a short period, then darkens. A supernova seen at the time of Yeshua’s birth would be invisible today.
● Created star: Of course, God, Creator of the Universe, could have easily created a new star and directed it to move however He wished.
Whatever “star” was visible to the magi would no longer be visible to us today. I am uncertain how the magi could navigate by this heavenly body. Trying to follow heavenly bodies to an earthly position is pretty much impossible, just as trying to reach the “pot of gold” at the end of a rainbow (old Irish fable) is impossible. More may have been involved than merely following a “star” because the “star” would always appear in front of the magi. It is highly unlikely that a beam of light shone from this “star” to a manger in Bethlehem, as depicted by artists, for at least two reasons: (1) this beam would be seen by all Bethlehem residents and would not be a unique beacon for the magi; and (2) by the time the magi reached Bethlehem, Yeshua would have outgrown the manger (crib) He was placed in at birth.
CONCLUSION: I will conclude this series next Sunday. Until then, Shalom and Maranatha.
Daily Bread, reading plan by Lars Enarson (https://www.thewatchman.org/)
Sun 18-Dec-2022 24th of Kislev, 5783
Ge 41:1-14 1 Sa 26-27 Ps 72 Lk 1:1-38 (1 Co 14:20-40)