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Read Behind the Text and Discover the Mysteries of the Christmas Story

Sunday, while the lovely Robin and I were being blessed by Sunday morning worship and a fine sermon on Luke 2, I enjoyed a flurry of new questions and thoughts regarding the account of Joseph and Mary’s Bethlehem experience.

I’ve often said that I am amazed at how the Bible continues to speak to me, and reveal new things to me, no matter how many times I have read, studied or preached a passage. And so it does.

I’m sure that, to many of my erudite friends (who know what erudite even means), the following will be thoughts they’ve already thought. Long ago, even. Well, that just shows that I am still a babe in the woods when it comes to biblical scholarship. No one ever claimed otherwise. The bright side is that I find questions like these immensely fun and rewarding.

For example, Luke 2:4-5 says,

Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.

How many times have I read, studied and preached that? But yesterday, I was taken aback by the realization that here, approximately nine months after the angel Gabriel’s appearance to Mary (and also to Joseph), she was not yet “his wife,” but “his betrothed.” This probably indicates that, despite the unexpected (and, to all the world, scandalous) pregnancy, they apparently followed the customary 12 months of betrothal before the bridegroom claimed his bride from her father’s house. Maybe moving the wedding feast to an earlier date would have been more scandalous than the pregnancy and the baby’s arrival before a wedding feast. Or, maybe there was no point to moving faster, if the pregnancy affected Joseph’s plans (or his family’s) to cancel or downgrade the wedding feast. Maybe it shows a godly disregard for the pressures of society and the opinions of gossips. Or maybe none of the above.

A second thought occurred to me about that scenario. Joseph was traveling with Mary, “his betrothed.” But according to first century Jewish custom, Mary’s place was at home with her mother and father until the bridegroom came to claim her and carry her away at the start of the wedding feast. But there she is, in Luke 2, traveling a hundred miles from home with her betrothed. While the betrothed parties were considered husband and wife after the betrothal took place, and only divorce or death could then separate them, they did not live together as husband and wife until after the wedding feast. But they apparently traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem as husband and wife, and when they found lodging, they lodged together, rather than Mary with her parents. Unless, of course, Mary and Joseph were part of a larger traveling party that included her parents—maybe her parents likewise counted Bethlehem their ancestral home and were simply unmentioned members of the traveling party. Maybe they even stayed in the nativity cave with Joseph and Mary—though all the above conjecture seems pretty unlikely. So, maybe there was some special dispensation for Joseph and Mary’s peculiar situation.

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