LEADER TIMES WEEKEND RELIGION ARTICLE FOR
December 22, 2012 by William H. Scarle, Jr.
Christmas art is usually meant to convey a teaching rather than portray historic accuracy, and I have no quarrel with that. The more awareness we cultivate of the spiritual nature of our celebration the richer our holy days become. However, a caution is necessary. The Bible is rooted in history, and our art sometimes gives us pictures that are theologically sensitive, but historically distorted.
Take for example the depiction of three Magi moving toward Bethlehem following a star. Matthew does not tell us how many Magi there were. We know only that there were more than one, since the noun is plural. The Magi were a wealthy order of Persian priest- scholars. The trip from Persia around the Fertile Crescent was long. However many Magi there were they would have had attendants, camel handlers, beasts of burden carrying ample supplies for the journey, as well as enough personnel to discourage any robbers along the way. Matthew 2:3 tells us that all Jerusalem was aware of the caravan’s arrival so it was no small entourage. This is a bit different picture than three solitary riders against an Israeli sky.
The “star” was not likely a star at all but a planet. It was probably not conspicuous to any but students of heavens.
None of this is meant to be a criticism of the artists. The artist communicates at a different level than the historian. We simply need to keep this in mind when reading the Gospel accounts which are historical in their orientation.
Another picture we often see at Christmas time is Joseph and Mary approaching Bethlehem late in the day. Mary is riding a donkey with Joseph by her side, and they are alone on the road. Luke gives no indication that Mary’s time of delivery was imminent. Neither is there any suggestion that they were alone. They most surely were not. Neither were they on the road during the winter season when the rains are frequent.
Jesus was likely born in the Hebrew month of Tishri in which the Fall feasts occur. According to the research of Ernest Martin Jesus was born on the Eve of Rosh HaShana. Converted into our calendar dates this would be equivalent to September 11th, in 3 BC. Rosh HaShana is the first of three festival coming in close succession, the last being the Feast of Tabernacles, which is a pilgrimage festival. With the requirement of reporting to their ancestral city for enrolment Joseph and Mary probably traveled with the pilgrimage crowd from Nazareth to the Jerusalem area and stayed with relatives in Bethlehem. They were likely hosted by the family patriarch in Bethlehem and given the privacy of the attached stable of the home for the birth since the guest room was occupied. Mary surely had lots of family help during the birth process.
Religious art generally aims to depict a belief, or doctrine. It therefore presents elements that do not go together historically, but are a part of the belief system. There is no problem with this approach, but, especially with children, some parental explanation may prevent a lifelong misunderstanding.
(Bill Scarle can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org).