“while they were there.” The Greek is more literally, “in their being there,” but the phrase is well translated as, “while they were there,” which is the translation in most English versions. Note that this verse makes it clear that Joseph and Mary had not just arrived that day. The specific Greek phrase occurs in three other verses besides this one, and it does not refer to just arriving or just starting something—it refers to being “in” the middle of something. In Luke 5:12 Jesus was visiting a town when a man came to him to be healed. He had not just arrived at the town, he was “in” it. In Luke 9:18 the disciples came to him “while” he was praying. He had not just started, he was in the midst of prayer. Similarly, in Luke 11:1 Jesus was “in” prayer, and when he had finished a disciple asked a question.
The traditional Christmas story about the birth of Christ has Joseph and Mary arriving in Bethlehem late in the day or perhaps even at night, desperately seeking lodging because Mary is in, or about to be in, labor, only to find there are no vacancies in the inn. Upon receiving no help from the people of Bethlehem, they find shelter in a stable (some traditions say the stable is in a cave), where Mary gives birth and Jesus is placed in the manger from which the animals eat. However, this understanding of the nativity stems largely from extra-biblical works and tradition imported into the gospels, rather than a study of the biblical record itself. The actual story of the birth of Christ was that Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem sometime before Jesus was born, likely weeks but perhaps even months before, and were taken into a home there, most likely that of a relative, and Jesus was born in the home in the normal way of village birth.
Much misinformation about the birth of Christ came from a document that was widely circulated in Christian circles in the early centuries of the Christian era. It is referred to by scholars as the Protevangelium of James, and it is likely from the third century AD, although it is possible, but not likely, that it dates as early as 150 AD.a This is the first document scholars are aware of that refers to Jesus being born close to Mary’s arrival in Bethlehem, although in the Protevangelium, Jesus is born in a cave before Joseph and Mary even reach Bethlehem. Other traditions started because the way people lived in Israel at the time of Christ was not known in the West as the traditions formed. So, for example, in the West, mangers are in stables, so the tradition started that Jesus was born in a stable even though the Bible never says that. Many homes at the time of Christ had mangers in the house.
In order to see what really happened when Christ was born, we will need to glean facts from both the Greek text and the culture of the ancient Near East (which, by the way, existed in many parts there until quite recently). Too often the Greek text alone has been used to try to reveal biblical truth. The Greek text alone is not enough to rebuild the truth of the biblical events for a very simple reason: when something in a culture is usual, well known, normal, or “standard operating procedure,” it is not written about in detail. For example, if I write a letter to a friend about visiting my mother at Christmas, I might say, “I drove to her house.” I would never write: “I went to Mom’s house in my car, which is a large metal and plastic mobility device on wheels, with a gasoline engine that starts when an ignition key is turned and I made it move by pedals on the floor, (etc.).” It would be ridiculous to write that because everyone in today’s culture knows what I mean when I say, “I drove to Mom’s house.” Perhaps 2,000 years from now, if culture has changed so much that only a few historians know what a car is, they might wish we described our driving in more detail, but that is not necessary today. In the same way, things that were part of the everyday culture of the Bible times were not described in detail in their writings. We have to learn about the ordinary things of ancient life by piecing together details from many texts and writings, by using archaeology to study the material a culture left to us, and by studying any cultures that still live the same way they lived in biblical times.
In saying, “while they were there,” the Bible makes it clear that Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem for a period of time before Mary gave birth. In fact, they could have been there for weeks or even perhaps a couple of months or more. It seems logical that Joseph would not wait until Mary was uncomfortable in her pregnancy to take her to Bethlehem. The impression that Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem very close to Mary’s time to give birth comes from Luke 2:5 in the King James Version, which says Mary was “great with child,” but that is a mistranslation of the Greek text influenced by the traditional Christmas story. As we saw in Luke 2:5 (and see commentary on Luke 2:5), the Greek text says only that Mary was pregnant and does not say how far into her pregnancy she was. Many good commentaries make the point that Joseph and Mary did not arrive in Bethlehem the night Mary gave birth, but, scholarship does not often have the power to overturn tradition, with its well-entrenched stories, songs, and paintings. But in any case, the Bible makes it clear that Joseph and Mary did not arrive in Bethlehem the night Mary gave birth.
“the days were fulfilled for her to give birth.” Luke 2:6 uses the word “days,” which in the New Testament, always refers either to “days” literally or to a period of time. It was “while they were there” that the days of Mary’s pregnancy were fulfilled. R. C. H. Lenski correctly writes that the day of Jesus’ birth “was not the day of Joseph’s and Mary’s arrival….”b
Although the Bible does not tell us how long it was before Mary gave birth that she and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem, logic would tell us that it was likely at least several weeks, and may have even have been a couple of months or more. Although the text does not exclude the fact that Mary might have made the normally three-day journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem soon before giving birth, it is more likely that Joseph, who loved her and who knew her baby was the Promised Messiah, would not have put her through the ordeal of walking or riding on a donkey for three days in her last days of pregnancy. Besides, the due date of a baby’s birth was not known in the very accurate way it is known in today’s modern times. The Bible speaks about how labor came on a woman unexpectedly in biblical times (1 Thess. 5:3), and it would not have been wise for Joseph to wait until Mary was so close to giving birth that she might have given birth on the road to Bethlehem, something for which they would have been totally unprepared. Instead, like Luke tells us, Joseph would have traveled to Bethlehem before Mary was on the verge of giving birth and then given birth “while they were there.”
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The Christmas Story is important because the birth of Christ is important. The traditional story of His birth contains many errors, and presents a cold, hard, and lonely picture about the circumstances of his birth. This document explores and reveals a deeper, more accurate understanding of the customs, time and place, and other details that truly make the birth of Christ an inspiring account of love, obedience, giving, and sacrifice.