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This is the first installment of a serialization from Jeffrey R. Chadwick’s book The Stone Manger: The Untold Story of the First Christmas
If you love Christmas, I think you are going to like this book. And it is just possible that you will love Christmas even more after discovering the untold story of the birth of Jesus.
I call it the untold story of Christmas. Let me explain why: the traditional story of Christmas is not the way the birth of Jesus really happened! That story we all grew up with and have heard so many times – well, the events didn't actually take place the way we've always been told. Not at all.
Now, please don’t misunderstand. Our Christmas holiday traditions are a wonderful heritage, and I love them myself. As a boy, growing up many years ago in a typical American town, I used to look forward each November to the Friday morning after Thanksgiving, which in those days marked the beginning of the holiday season. I couldn’t wait for our town’s annual Christmas parade that Friday morning after Thanksgiving.
I loved our grand old “downtown” area, where we shopped for Christmas gifts in tall, handsome brick buildings like J.C. Penney and F.W. Woolworth. The entire downtown area was decorated for the Christmas season like a scene from a classic movie. Each light post and semaphore along the street was festively adorned with giant red and white electric light candy canes, forest green garlands, and large silver bells with red ribbon bows. I loved those snowy nights each December, walking through our town park, where a hundred large trees were decorated with thousands of colorful lights. Santa's village notwithstanding, the park’s life-size manger scene was always the main attraction in our municipal park. Night after night each December parents would stand around that crèche in the falling snow and tell their bundled up children the story of the Christmas Nativity.
And I loved that Christmas story most of all – a poor carpenter from Galilee and his new wife; their long and arduous journey to pay the Roman tax; that first Christmas eve in a stable; and Mary's newborn asleep on the hay. The shepherds, the herald angels singing, the three kings, and even a drummer boy – all these are the traditional story of Christmas we have come to cherish. We tell it again and again, in books, on video, and on stages where children dressed in bathrobes and towels magically become shepherds and wise men.
But the real first Christmas just didn't happen that way. The setting we portray with carved wood and ceramic figurines on our fireplace mantles is not anything like the real life circumstances which surrounded the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem more than two thousand years ago.
Because, in reality, Joseph was not a carpenter. He and Mary did not have to travel to Bethlehem to pay taxes. There were not any Roman soldiers there to harass them. Nor were there any travelling kings bearing gifts. Of course, there wasn’t any drummer boy. But there also wasn’t any hay on which the baby was laid. And, most surprisingly, there wasn’t even a stable!
There was, however, a manger. That part of the story is absolutely authentic – that manger in which the newborn Jesus was laid. The New Testament specifically mentions that manger three different times in telling the story of Jesus' birth. It even served as a sign from heaven.
But that manger in Bethlehem was not the wooden feed box we have come to imagine. It was not used for hay. And it was not made of poles or planks, lashed together with cords, as so often portrayed in Christmas art. The temporary cradle in which the newborn Jesus was laid was actually a manger cut from stone!
How could we know all this, you may rightly ask? For over thirty years now I have worked in Israel as a researcher and field archaeologist, specializing in the material and cultural backgrounds of the biblical narratives. During all those years I have also taught New Testament courses at seminaries and for university religious studies programs. I've taught thousands of university students in Jerusalem and in the Galilee, and taken them over a hundred times for field study in every location from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Because I personally regard the New Testament gospel accounts as authentic and reliable, in my teaching I combine the biblical texts with critically valuable information provided by historical geography and contemporary archaeological research. The result is a realistic and more authentic understanding of scripture that goes beyond mere textual studies. It is a fusion which may properly be referred to as “contextual studies.”
This book is the result of all those years of teaching, research, and excavation, and uses the “contextual studies” approach in telling the real story of the first Christmas. We will explain the actual events surrounding the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem of Judea in the context of their original time and setting. This account is not at all like the traditional holiday stories. It's better! It’s the authentic story of a young married couple’s love and faith, strength and humility, self reliance and hard work, and their determination to bring about the purposes of God. It’s the account one can find digging deep into the gospels of the New Testament, told in the way you would have seen it had you been there yourself. So sit back now, [and in the next few days on Meridian} and read the real story of the birth of Jesus – the untold story of the first Christmas.
A Stone Manger
Before beginning the untold story of the first Christmas, let’s take a moment to consider the only documented artifact connected with that now famous event – a stone manger.
The Gospel of Luke, which records events of Jesus' birth at Bethlehem, never once mentions a stable, or cattle, or even any hay or straw. But Luke did mention, three separate times, that manger in which the newborn baby boy was laid. The first reference was a simple statement in Luke 2:7 about Mary and her newborn child.
She brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in blankets, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
The next reference occurs five verses later, in Luke 2:12, as a clue for Jewish shepherds who would come looking for the child.
And this shall be a sign unto you: You shall find the baby wrapped in blankets, lying in a manger.
Four verses further on, in Luke 2:16, those shepherds arrived at Bethlehem to conduct their midnight search.
And they came with haste, and found Mary and Joseph and the baby lying in a manger.
Anyone who has ever read the Christmas story in the Bible has pictured these events in their mind. But it comes as a big surprise to most people when they learn that the makeshift cradle in which the newborn Jesus was laid was not a feeding trough fashioned out of wood, as usually portrayed in modern paintings.