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Sunday, December 10 2023
A Historical Narrative of the Nativity

A Historical Narrative of the Nativity

The Nativity scene.  We have all viewed a number of different styles, but the essence remains the same.  Straw.  Barn animals.  A wooden feeding trough.  A star overhead with a particularly pointed tail.  A few men who look royal, bearing gifts.  Maybe an angel or two looking on.  An adoring mother and father.  And of course, a beautiful little baby.  We have one at home from Colorado that is comprised of black bears playing the above roles.  No one has to explain what characters they represent either.  Most everyone over the age of four knows who they are.  Even atheists can easily identify the setting from a distance with bitter contempt.

Make no mistake – this is not a criticism of period inaccuracies of the traditional Nativity scene.  It is not an argument for the time or season of the year with an actual birthdate.  This observation is based not upon conjecture (with exception to end result speculations, founded on evidences given).  Rather, this is about a biblical timeline and extra-canonical testimonies that will help to explain and understand why things happened during the birth of Jesus Christ the way that they did.

Chapter 1 – Modern Bethlehem

If you travel to Israel and go to see the traditional site of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, you may be somewhat surprised.  Most people are unaware of how the area in Israel is divided up with the Palestinian residents.  There are situations throughout the land where you cross over checkpoints as if you were entering another country.  Some of the places have Palestinian administrative and police controls, while others have Palestinian admin in conjunction with Israeli security controls.  When crossing into a Palestinian controlled territory, there is little to no check while coming through.  However, when returning into Israeli territory, one must be prepared to be questioned thoroughly and possible searched.  As critical as the world may be about Israel’s concern for security, the threat is very real for them on a day-to-day basis.  And tourists are perfectly naïve to being used as transports for potential terrorist activity.  Bethlehem is one of the Palestinian controlled areas, and you cannot ignore the difference when crossing these borders. 

Those who are familiar with the Roman Catholic tradition of the location of the birth of Christ know specifically about the Church of the Nativity.  People from all over the world flock to the building that was originally built in 333 AD by Emperor Constantine.  Due to destruction by enemies, it has been rebuilt a number of times.  The unmistakable Byzantine décor is cluttered about, only to be exceeded by the throngs of people present.  One must be fully aware of your wallet or purse, as the surroundings offer a prime ground for pickpocketing.  The asserted location of the birth of Christ is a cave that the church structure is built over.  Be prepared to wait in long lines if you wish to lay eyes on the proposed actual spot though – and also for some priestly theatrics. 

There are 3 religious groups represented within the church; The Armenian, Greek Orthodox, and Roman Catholic churches control the premises.  There is an obvious tender balance between their authority and the Palestinian control over the land it resides upon.  But the real tension is between these 3 Christian denominations.  These representative priests will go to fisticuffs over perceived infractions between them.  Each group is supposed to share equal amounts of time to perform their liturgies about the place.  Fights have broken out over seconds of time and who has been incorrectly cleaning certain areas.  These priests have gone so far in the past with their skirmishes that several of them had to be hospitalized due to injuries.

But the question is obvious: How does a predominately Muslim population work in relative peace with all of these Christians flooding into Bethlehem?  Money.  The financial draw is very large, and everyone is well aware of the economic impact it brings.  There is no shortage of high-pressure tourist shops in the area to sell you whatever you are looking for.  Commercialism is everywhere.

Chapter 2 – The Ancient History

Yet there is another history regarding the location of Christ’s birth.  It is not new, nor is it left entirely uncontested by some who disagree.  The following information is not based on contentious refutation.  Rather, it is historical evidence from biblical and extracanonical sources being provided for consideration and the benefit of understanding of what happened on a particular night.  But first, some 1,800 years before the census while Quirinius was governor of Syria, the preliminary stage is being set for what will ultimately take place in the area known as Bethlehem, closest to Jerusalem.[1]

If the history of Israel is ancient, Bethlehem must be considered uber-ancient.  The first mention of the location is actually prior to it being called ‘Bethlehem.’  In Genesis 35, it is referred to as ‘Ephrath,’ with the parenthetical insertion of ‘Bethlehem’ for latter readers who have never heard of Ephrath.  In this passage, Jacob has been traveling with his pregnant wife, Rachel, when her nurse, Deborah dies.  This is more of a problem than it initially sounds, as is evidenced in the subsequent events.  After they bury the body of Deborah near Bethel, they continue their journey and Rachel goes into hard labor.  The birthing process was more than taxing upon her and as a result, she dies there at Ephrath (Bethlehem).  Jacob buries her body there and continues on his journey to set up camp at a place near what is called the “tower (migdal) of Eder (flock).”[2]  While it may not seem as such, this is a crucial element to the historical framework of the birth of Jesus Christ.

As with many ancient locations, the exact place where the tower existed is unverified.  However, through archaeology and other antiquities, the examples of these “migdals” are abundant.  When the western contemporary mind hears of a tower, it is immediately assumed to be something tall and impressive.  But in reality, most of these structures in ancient middle east are not very striking at all.  There are some exceptions[3], but for the most part, these towers would not be perceived by the average person as qualifying for a tall building. 

Chapter 3 – The Selection of The Shepherds and The Law of Flocks and Herds

In Luke chapter 2:1-7, Joseph and Mary have already arrived in the region of Bethlehem and Jesus has been born.  It is in verses 8-20 that we are introduced to a group of shepherds.  Consider for a moment that Luke spends almost twice as much attention to the event surrounding the shepherds as he does the actual birth of Christ.  This is no small detail.  Many lessons have been drawn from this passage based on the assumption that God chose to announce the birth of the Messiah to the lowliest of the peoples – a bunch of poor, soiled, uneducated, low-class persons.  While this might preach well for a Christmas lesson, it is presumptive at best in thinking this class of men were selected for the greatest declaration in the universe since God spoke creation into existence.  As always with God, there is a particular purpose, and it is implicit to the deep history surrounding this region.

When the shepherds are introduced in the biblical text, it is most often assumed that they are Bedouin herders, traveling in nomadic fashion, even as many do in current times in the Middle East.  While this would be a reasonable thought in most regions of Israel, there is a glitch in the supposition that these were random herders approached by God.  The evidence lies within ancient documents of rabbinical commentary on the Torah.[4]

There are two compilations of ancient commentary[5] on the Torah.  The order in which one was written first depends on how one views the realization of the documents.  Some date the order by which one was completed first[6].  Others date them based on which was started first.  What muddies the waters even more so is whether one dates the origins based on the written form or the oral form, which the latter cannot be accurately traced.  These writings are intimately interlaced with the Mishnayot, written into the body of the Talmudic text.  Regardless, both writings were and are crucial to the conductive applications of Jewish law in daily living.[7]

In Mishnah Bava Kammah 7:7; 79b[8] the tending of flocks (small, domesticated animals) in the land of Israel was not allowed.  It was believed that the animals were destroying the land and preventing agricultural prospects.  The only exception to this was a provisional area on the outskirts of Jerusalem that was given for the raising of animals needed for sacrificial offerings at the Temple.  All of the sheep and goats raised in this area were presumed to be strictly for these orders.  Additionally in the Talmud[9], all livestock found in the area surrounding Jerusalem “as far as Migdal Eder” were deemed to be holy and consecrated and could only be used for sacrifices in the Temple, in particular for the peace and Passover sacrifices. There was thus a special, consecrated circle around the city of Jerusalem.

With these laws in mind, the only legal flocks that could be kept in around this controlled area of Jerusalem would have been of animals being considered for sacrifice at the Temple proper.  But, even of flocks raised for the very purpose of sacrifice, they had to be inspected for blemish and/or defect.  There are a number of passages within the Tanakh concerning sin offerings being without defect.  In all circumstances, the last line of inspection would be at the discretion of the priests involved in the actual sacrifice of the creature.  Thus, the priests were the final arbiters concerning whether or not an animal was worthy for use on the altar.  But who would be the initial judges of what should be presented at the Temple?

The flocks that were being raised for the primary reason of Temple sacrifice would be shepherded by those of the priestly duty.  Thus, these shepherds were not bedouin in context.  They were priestly shepherds.  It was these men of the priesthood that the revelation of the arrival of the Messiah had come, and they knew exactly where to go to see this wonder of wonders. 

Many Christmas renditions imply certain details that are explicit in Scripture.  One such item is the ‘manger.’[10]  A manger is not a stable, but a feeding trough that is typically found in a stable.  In most regions where the raising of flocks was publicly permitted, the task of finding one particular feeding trough would a challenge.  If the aforementioned evidence of the restriction of the raising of flocks in the area around Jerusalem holds true, locating a manger would be centralized to the priestly flocks of Migdal Eder, where the bearing and inspection of the lambs for sacrifice would occur.  Accordingly, the Lamb of God would be born in the appointed place of sacrificial offerings. 

Chapter 4 – Post Facto Comments

If indeed these are priestly shepherds assigned with the task as described in the Mishnah and Talmud, and they have witnessed the born Messiah given through the testimony of a chorus of angels, it is highly doubtful they could hold this news to themselves.  In all probability, they made straight for the Temple in Jerusalem to spread the good news they had seen and heard to the priests of the higher order.[11]  Word would spread fast among the ranks, and undoubtedly be extended to the public gossip lines.  With the knowledge of the date of birth of the newborn Messiah, it would be difficult to deduce when the child should be brought to the Temple for circumcision.  In Luke’s account, two persons are introduced who are present at the Temple, looking in anticipation for the “redemption of Israel.”[12]  Simeon is being led by the Holy Spirit to the Christ child.  Anna the prophetess spent the better part of each day at the Temple.  Perhaps they had also heard the rumors circulating about the shepherd’s testimony of what happened eight days prior and were earnestly looking for His arrival at the Temple. 

The gaps in Scripture from the time of Jesus’ birth to His adult ministry are vast.  Outside of His parents temporarily losing Him on the return trip home from the Passover in Jerusalem, the silence is deafening.  It is estimable that as time passed, most people would forget or dismiss any messianic reference to Jesus because no real revolution had taken place with Him – and that’s exactly what most had in mind with any messiah that would come.  But on the day that Jesus came to His cousin John who had been baptizing people in Bethany, John announced to “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”[13]  He reiterates this title on the next day when Jesus approaches and John is standing with two of his disciples.[14]  It is plausible that the title had come from Christ’s birth narrative.[15]

An interesting footnote is found back in Genesis 35, when Rachel dies upon giving birth to Benjamin.[16]  While she is passing from a very difficult birth, she names the child ‘Ben-oni,” which means ‘the son of my sorrow.’  However, Jacob chooses to call him “Benjamin,” which means ‘the son of the right hand.’  This all takes place in the region of Migdal Eder, the Tower of the Flock.  Jesus has been and is now called “Man of Sorrows”[17] and Son of God, who sits at the right hand of the Father.[18]  Perhaps this is yet another Messianic inference that is found in the history of the Tower of the Flock, Migdal Eder. 

Some contemporary Jews in Israel today believe they possess sheep that are direct descendants from the sheep that Jacob bred in Genesis 30.  Regardless of the validity concerning the purity of the line, these people are bringing some of their flocks to the region of Migdal Eder in anticipation of the coming of the Messiah.  Though they do not believe that Jesus is the Messiah, they do believe the Messiah will reveal Himself at Migdal Eder.  Thus, according to their beliefs, they are re-establishing the priestly flock[19] in their rightful place, since eradicated in 70AD during the destruction of the Temple.

A long journey.  Shepherds.  Sheep.  Angels.  A star.  A manger.  A woman giving birth.  The Savior of the world coming forth.  All in a place called Bethlehem and a 2,000-year history of a Tower of the Flock.  This is the historical narrative of the nativity of Jesus Christ.


[1] There are technically 2 cities called Bethlehem in Israel.  The most well-known site is 5 miles south of Jerusalem.  The other (Joshua 19:15; Judges 12:8) is 7 miles northwest of Nazareth.

[2] Genesis 35:21

[3] E.g., Strabo’s tower, which would be the equivalent to the modern perception of a lighthouse.

[4] Also known as: The Law of Moses or the Pentateuch.  These are the first five books of the Scriptures, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. 

[5] These also include rabbinical debates.

[6] This is often the source of rebuttals in regard to applicable dates of these writings.  Some researchers state that the completion dating of the writings do not align with the applicable time of Christ’s birth.  However, the preceding period of oral tradition is often neglected in these hasty conclusions.

[7] It is of worthy note that many of the interpretive applications in these writings are somewhat implausible to the Scriptural text.  Some items discussed are in the vein of superstition (e.g., what color cat was acceptable to keep within a household.  Ironically, white cats were considered unlucky, while black cats were preferred – the exact opposite of western tradition). 

[8] Period of the Second Temple.

[9] Mishnah Shekalim 7:4

[10] Luke 2:7, 12, 16

[11] Luke 2:20; Scripture states that the shepherds “went back.”  We are not given the detail of where they went back to, but only that they told of all they had “seen and heard.”

[12] Luke 2:25-38

[13] John 1:29

[14] John 1:35, 36

[15] Contemporary Christians understand the title reaching back to time of the Passover lamb as well.

[16] Genesis 35:16-21

[17] Derived from Isaiah 53

[18] Mark 16:19

[19] In particular, the “Jacob Sheep” of a presumed unaltered breed-line of sheep.

Posted by: James A. Sterling AT 02:48 pm   |  Permalink   |  Email
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