Now, Joseph and Mary were both Jews of the tribe of Judah, and their home town was Bethlehem in Judea. Mary and Joseph were living in Nazareth in Galilee, so they made preparations to return to Bethlehem. Mary was pregnant, and it was a five or six day journey to cover the 86 miles to Bethlehem, but they calculated they had plenty of time to get there before giving birth.
They plodded over the hills, rocks and sand, through the tribal areas of Manasseh and Ephraim, through the towns of Shechem and Shiloh, which was the first Jewish capital. Here they had a mountaintop view of the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. It was an uphill walk, but since everyone was well adjusted to walking everywhere they went, it was no big problem for a young pregnant girl.
When they reached Jerusalem, they had a choice to make. They could stay in Jerusalem. They could walk about five miles west and stay with Mary's cousins, Zechariah and Elizabeth (Lk 1:39), or they could walk on another 5.5 miles to Bethlehem. Mary had stayed with Elizabeth and helped her in her old age for three months (Mt 1:56) while she was pregnant with her son John (who became known as John the Baptist). They each had cousins living in Bethlehem (Lk 2:4). Since it was only another 5.5 miles, they decided to walk on and stay with their cousins in Bethlehem.
Being of "the house and lineage of David" (Lk 2:4) meant that they were descendants of the most popular king the country of Israel ever had. No one would have rejected giving a place to stay to a descendant of a popular king, and certainly not to a relative. The culture of that time meant that any descendant of a king – or even a hometown boy who had been gone a long time – would be welcomed with open arms. All he had to do was recite his genealogy for about four or five generations, and he was welcome. Joseph and Mary decided to stay with their closer relatives, and so they stayed with them in their hillside home. "There was no room for them in the guest room" (Lk 2:7) (Greek kataluma), but they enjoyed talking and visiting with their cousins. They gossiped and talked about Mary's pregnancy. There was no inn in Bethlehem. According to the culture of that time, their cousins would have been insulted if they had not stayed with them.
"And while they were there," Mary started having birth pains and gave birth to her first son. To keep him warm, she "wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in the manger" (Lk 2:6-7). This kept him off the cold floor and kept anyone or any animal from trampling on him. The manger, of course, was in the house and very convenient.
Because they laid Jesus in a manger, the Bible translators, thinking of their own culture, assumed he must have been born in a stable and mistranslated the Greek word kataluma – which means guest room or upper room – as "inn." The Greek word for a commercial inn is pandokeion. To indicate a commercial inn, Luke uses pandokeion in the story of the Good Samaritan, where the Samaritan took the person who had been robbed and beaten to an inn (Lk 10:30-34). If he would have meant there was no room in a commercial inn "because there was no room for them in the inn" (Lk 2:7), he would have used the word pandokeion. No major road passed through Bethlehem, so there was no need for any commercial inn there. In the Arabic and Syriac versions, they have never translated kataluma as "inn."
When Jesus was preparing for his last supper, he told Peter and John to "go and prepare us the Passover that we may eat." And they said to him, "Where should we prepare it?" And he told them, "Go into the city and you will see a man carrying a pitcher of water. Tell him the Master wants to know where he can eat the Passover with his disciples. He will show you a large upper room (kataluma) that is furnished. Make the meal there" (Lk 22:8-12). Here, Luke, the same author, uses the word kataluma to mean upper room. So our translators have mistranslated the Greek word kataluma as meaning a commercial hotel when telling the story of Jesus' birth.
When you build a house on a hillside, you must dig the foundation deep enough on the slope that you end up with a room on the ground floor. This is where people would keep their animals. Animals were brought in at night to keep them from being stolen and to keep the house warm. There was no heat in any house – no stove, no fireplace. The heat rising from the animals was very welcome to the people. Bethlehem – at 2,500 feet above sea level – was very cold and damp in the spring and winter. Archaeologists have never found the remains of any heating system in the remains of the houses in Israel. Think how uncomfortable it would be living in the winter in Boone, North Carolina, without a heating system. Even the large castle at Alhambra, Spain, had no heating system other than a brazier in one room.
That evening, some shepherds were in the fields watching their flocks. While they were there, an angel appeared to them and scared them. The angel said, "Don't be afraid. I have good news for you. Today (not tonight) a child has been born in Bethlehem who is the Messiah. You will find him wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger." Suddenly there was a host of angels praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and may there be peace to men of good will" (Lk 2:8-14).
After the angels left the shepherds said, "Let's go into Bethlehem and see what this is all about." So they left their sheep and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in a manger. And when they had seen the baby, they told everyone what the angels had said and how they had seen the baby who would become the Messiah (Lk 2:15-18), the long-awaited Messiah who would deliver them from high taxes … who would make them a free nation again. They would be ruled by their own king. This was awesome and exciting and unbelievable!
Now, shepherds are usually young boys of ages 10 to 16. They are young, active and better able to crawl over rocks and jump down holes to aid young sheep. Little boys also often tell lies to get attention, and so people don't always believe them – especially when they tell a story about the long-awaited Messiah being born and lying in a manger. He certainly didn't look like a king, but Mary remembered what the angel had told her when she had first conceived. "Hello, Mary. You are full of grace. The Lord is with you. You are blessed among women. You shall conceive and give birth to a son and shall call his name Jesus" (Lk 1:28-31). She also remembered that an angel had told her husband, Joseph, that "she shall bring forth a son and you shall call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins" (Mt 1:21). The name Jesus means "Jehovah saves." Mary remembered all these things and pondered them in her heart (Lk 2:19).
Now, according to Jewish law, every male had to be circumcised on the eighth day, and so they had him circumcised and named him Jesus, which the angel told her she should name him at the time she had conceived. The law also said she shall wait 32 more days after he was circumcised, and bring a lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a dove for a sin offering. Or if she is poor, she shall bring two doves or two young pigeons – one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering (Lev 12:4-8). Rather than make the long trip back to Nazareth and then return a few days later, Mary and Joseph stayed on in Bethlehem and proceeded to the temple to make their sacrifice (Lk 2:21-24).
As they arrived at the temple, a just and devout man named Simeon observed Joseph and Mary bringing their child to dedicate him to God. The Holy Spirit had revealed to him that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah. When he saw Jesus, "he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said, 'Lord now let your servant depart in peace according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared for all people. He shall be a light to the gentiles and bring glory to the people of Israel.' So Joseph and Mary were pleased at these words Simeon said about their baby" (Lk 2:25-33). But then he said, "A sword shall pierce through your soul also" (Lk 2:35), and later, as Mary watched her son dying in pain and anguish on the cross, this prophecy came true.
There was also a prophetess named Anna, the daughter of Phanuel of the Tribe of Asher. She was a widow and was now about 84 years old. She spent all her time in the temple, fasting and praying night and day. When she saw Jesus she immediately gave thanks to God and spoke of him to everyone that looked for redemption in Jerusalem (Lk 2:36-38).
Meanwhile, an unusual star appeared in the east. This was observed by the educated and rich. They were familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures which said, "There shall come a star out of Jacob and a Scepter shall arise out of Israel" (Num 24: 17). This was a sign to them that an important king would be born to the Jews (Mt 2:1-2). These wise men were probably Magi or Zoroastrians, so they decided to make a courtesy call on this new king.
Their homeland was about 1,000 miles east of Jerusalem by direct flight, but this was barren desert and forbidden by the terrain to cross, they undoubtedly made a more circuitous route of 1,200 to 1,500 miles. This required them to form a large caravan to carry hay for the animals and food for themselves, their servants and their guards. Carrying expensive spices and presents required them to prepare adequately for their safety.
Traveling 30 miles per day, it would have taken them about 40 to 50 days or more to make the journey to Jerusalem. Some say they arrived 14 days after his birth on Epiphany. This certainly doesn't seem reasonable. In fact, it is impossible, since camels just don't move that fast. When they paid a social call on King Herod and told him of their quest to worship a newborn king, Herod asked the priests and scribes to tell him where this king would be born. They told him in Bethlehem of Judea (Mt 2: 1-6). Herod had already killed his wife, Mariamne, his mother-in-law and three of his sons (plus many others) because he feared they were trying to usurp him, so he had no desire for another king to arise. He asked the wise men when this star had appeared and then sent them to Bethlehem to search for this child and tell him where he lived. He then planned on killing this new king.
Shortly after Mary had dedicated Jesus and made her sacrifice of two doves, the wise men arrived. The wise men inquired where this new king, the Jews' Messiah, was born and they were soon directed to the home of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem. When they entered the house, "they saw the young child with Mary his mother and fell down and worshipped him. They opened their gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh" (Mt 2: 11). While staying there that night they had a dream that they should not return to Herod, so they departed into their own country by a different route (Mt 2:12). After they left, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream saying, "Arise and take the young child and his mother and flee into Egypt and stay there until I bring you word because Herod will seek the young child to kill him." So they left Bethlehem that night (Mt 2:13-14). The shortest and most probable route Joseph and his family took from Bethlehem was down the Elah Valley through the town of Beit Guvrim to either Ashkelon or Gaza. It was downhill all the way, and in the cool of the night they could easily have walked to the Mediterranean coast by morning. Ashkelon and Gaza were not under Herod' s control, so now they were safe. With the money and gifts from the wise men, they now made their way safely into Cairo, Egypt.
After a few days, Herod realized the wise men were not going to return and tell him where this new king lived. He became extremely angry, so he decided to kill all the children in Bethlehem and the surrounding area. The wise men told him when they first saw the star, so he decided to kill all the children under two years of age (Mt 2:16). According to their culture, when a child is born, he is already one year old, so he ordered the killing of all children under one year of age, according to our culture. This large time span was to make sure he killed the new king. He didn't need to bother, because he died a few years later and was succeeded by his son Archelaus.
After Herod had died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt saying, "Arise and take the child and his mother and go back to Israel for the people are dead who sought to kill him" (Mt 2:19-21). Since they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own city of Nazareth (Lk 2:39). And they lived and worked there as devout Jews until Jesus was called by God to bring us the Good News.