HISTORY OF THE NATIVITY SEASON
You’ve seen those greeting cards that show Joseph along with Mary on the back of a donkey making their way to Bethlehem in the wintry snow. Have you ever wondered: could Jesus have been born during the close of the year, perhaps even with snow on the ground?
Snow is not uncommon in this part of Palestine every 3 or 4 years. At an elevation of 2,400 feet, Bethlehem is in the desert. But desert means dry, not necessarily hot. Where I live in Colorado is officially the high desert, and we frequently have snow, though we’re at an elevation of 6,500 feet. In early January 2013, there were 12 inches of snow across parts of Palestine. But the Biblical narrative doesn’t say there was snow on the ground.
It says, “…shepherds watched their flocks by night…” You may think that shepherds don’t usually have sheep on the hillsides during the Winter but rather in the Spring. And that would be correct in thinking that, usually. But there were flocks of a special kind of sheep, those designated for sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem. They were kept all year round near Bethlehem at Beit Sahur, the “Place of the Night Watch.” Micah 4:8 provides a more precise location: Migdal Edar, or the “Tower of the Flock.”
As mentioned in our previous article, we don’t know with certainty what time of the year the Nativity occurred. Two millennia ago, it was rare indeed to track the specific date of birth unless you were royalty. Neither the gospel of Matthew nor Luke mentions either a specific year or time of year. Even early Christians favored recording the death date of martyrs. Matthew ties the Nativity to King Herod, who we know died in 4 B.C., while Luke associates it with the census of Emperor Augustus
“when Publius Sulpicius Quirinius was governor of Syria”
…around the same time.
While we have historical documentation that Christmas was celebrated on December 25th as early as the 3rd century in the Western Church, the Eastern Church celebrated their holiday on January 6th, known as Epiphany (or Theophany) with the visit of the Wise Men. We’ll look at the History of Epiphany in January.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian