Read an Excerpt
Walking the Road to Bethlehem
By Adam Hamilton
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2011 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Mary of Nazareth
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God." Then Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Then the angel departed from her.
IT IS ONE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION'S best-known stories. For two thousand years it has been told and retold, preached and sung about. It has been represented by the titans of art and by the purveyors of mass-produced lawn figures. We celebrate it every year with Christmas trees and lights, with gifts and cards, carols and hymns.
Even if you did not go to church growing up, you're probably familiar with the story. You know the locale—a manger in Bethlehem. You know the cast of characters—Mary and Joseph, the angels and shepherds, the wise men and King Herod. You may know plot details—the census, the long journey, the overcrowded inn.
And yet, as is often the case, the story's very familiarity may keep us from fully grasping its riches. We think, "Well, yes, I know that story," as its depth and nuance escape us.
There is much more to the Christmas story than meets the eye. There are details we may have missed entirely. And there are certainly a few places where the picture you have in your mind's eye is actually wrong!
The purpose of this book is to explore the story of Jesus' birth with fresh eyes and ears. We will walk through the Holy Land and retrace the steps of those involved. We will draw upon insights gained from historians, archaeologists, biblical scholars, and theologians and from walking in the places the story occurred, all in an effort to discover the real meaning of Christmas.
In seeking that meaning, we will address four questions:
—What actually happened leading up to and including the first Christmas?
—What does the story teach us about the character of God?
—What does it tell us about the child whose birth we celebrate?
—What does this story mean for our lives today?
We will address those questions in each chapter, as we deal with every piece of the story, in an attempt to come to a deeper understanding of what the Christmas story teaches us about Jesus Christ and about God's will for our lives.
The Christmas story begins in the town of Nazareth nine months before the birth of Jesus. Now, if any narrative ever cried out for attention to detail it is this one, so it's worth taking a good look at this little town and what it might tell us about the nature and character of God.
Nazareth is much more widely known today than it ever was in Jesus' day. It is not among the sixty-three villages of Galilee mentioned in the Hebrew Talmud or the forty-five mentioned by first-century Jewish historian Josephus, who knew the area well. This was an insignificant little town. Its population is estimated to have been between one hundred and four hundred people, though its lack of mention in the Talmud and by Josephus might suggest that it was far smaller.
In telling a stranger about Nazareth, a native might well have mentioned the large nearby town of Sepphoris, which had a population of thirty thousand and was well known. Sepphoris was comparatively affluent, with culture, shopping, and undoubtedly all the other things expected of a prosperous town. Excavations have shown us luxury villas with extravagant tile mosaic floors. Nazareth, on the other hand, had few of these things. It was likely a town of farmers, shepherds, and laborers who walked an hour each way to sell their goods and services in Sepphoris. These were not affluent people by any means. In fact, evidence shows that, far from living in luxury villas, some of them may actually have built their homes within and around the area's soft limestone caves—the least expensive form of housing in the first century and a sign of relative poverty.
Nazareth's low social status is seen in John 1:45-46 when Philip, one of Jesus' first disciples, told his friend Nathanael, "We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth." Nathanael said to him, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"
As I picture a place like Nazareth today, I imagine one of the hundreds of little towns in Kansas—towns without a stoplight, with no high-speed Internet, no restaurant or nightlife, not even a grocery store. The children travel to the next town over for school. No one puts on airs in these towns. They're just good, honest, hard-working people. This is what I imagine when I picture Mary's hometown.
Nazareth was likely founded at least a couple of hundred years before the time of Jesus by people who had come to the area looking for work and the chance to make a new start. Such people generally started towns where there was water, and there was a spring on the site that became Nazareth. Mary would have grown up fetching water from that spring, and in fact it still flows today. (In biblical times spring water—cool, clean, and bubbling up from the earth—was referred to as "living water.")
As the town was built up over the centuries, it rose above the spring so that, in order to see it today, visitors must descend below ground level inside the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation near downtown Nazareth. (In the video designed to accompany this book, I show you this site and most of the other places I'll be mentioning.)
I can't help but think that Jesus, who spent thirty years of his life in Nazareth, drew on the memory of that spring when he spoke to his disciples of living water and when he said to the woman at the well, "If you knew who you were talking to, you would ask of me and I would give you living water and you would never thirst again." (See John 4:10.) Jesus knew, as did the people who founded his hometown at the site of that spring, that water is life, and he knew the blessing of living (spring) water.
As the name of the church on that site indicates, Orthodox Christians believe it was there, while drawing water, that Mary received word from the angel Gabriel that she would bear the Christ Child. (Annunciation means "announcement.") As a result, many Christians believe that the mystery of the Incarnation— God taking on human flesh—begins there.
As I listened to and watched the spring water coming up from the ground below the Orthodox Church of the Annunciation, I was reminded of Jeremiah 2:13, where God said that "my people have committed two evils: / they have forsaken me, / the fountain of living water, / and dug out cisterns for themselves, / cracked cisterns that can hold no water." Is it merely a coincidence that God, who called himself the "fountain of living water," might have chosen the spring of Nazareth as the place where Mary would become pregnant with a child who would one day refer to himself as the giver of living water (John 4:10)?
Did Mary Live in a Cave?
Roman Catholics mark the site of the Annunciation not at the spring, but at what tradition says are the remains of Mary's house, located several blocks away. From the late 300s, churches have been built on this location. The current building, the Basilica of the Annunciation, completed in 1969, is a modern structure built of concrete and has two levels. The upper level houses the nave of the church—its main sanctuary. Near the altar is a large opening that looks down to the lower level—the church's holiest place. When visitors descend the stairs to the lower level, they come to a cave or grotto that is said to be the home of Mary and, according to Roman Catholic tradition, is the location where Mary offered herself to God; and "the Word became flesh."
It strikes some visitors as odd that Mary's family would have lived in a cave, or that at least part of her home would have been in a cave. But caves occur naturally throughout the Holy Land. The soft limestone is easily hewn to expand the cave, adding additional rooms and even shafts for light. You can still find people in Nazareth using caves for their homes, for storage, or even as shelter for their animals.
In case you're still not convinced that people lived in caves, a quick study of the Old Testament reveals that Lot lived with his daughters in a cave (Genesis 19:30) and King David is said to have lived in the "cave of Adullam" (1 Samuel 22:1 and 2 Samuel 23:13).
As we will see, many of the important traditional holy sites in Israel and the Palestinian territories are grottoes or caves. It is possible that the cave was merely the "basement" of a home that was built above ground but later destroyed. (The cave said to be Mary's home has stairs leading up from the cave to an upper level.) But in some cases the cave may have been the entire home.
My ninety-five-year-old great aunt recently showed me a photo of a farmstead in Oklahoma where some of my family lived in the 1800s. Their living area, not unlike the caves in the Holy Land, was a room they had dug into the ground—an old cellar with a door and a chimney and an opening for daylight. A small building above ground served as the family's kitchen and dining room. In a part of the country that had few trees, underground living quarters made sense, particularly for people who could not afford to pay much for building materials—people who were just scraping by.
Living in caves in the Holy Land in ancient times, and still to the present, points to the humble station of those living in Nazareth and stands in stark contrast to the villas of nearby Sepphoris.
The Meaning of Nazareth
The name of this tiny village of Nazareth tells us something about the people living there and offers a clue to the identity of the child Mary would bear. Nazareth may come from the Hebrew netzer, which means "branch" or "shoot." Sometimes when a tree is chopped down, a shoot will grow from the stump, allowing a new tree to spring up where the old one has died. That shoot is called, in Hebrew, a netzer. Why would the people who founded this village have called it "the branch"?
Much of the Old Testament was written predicting, or in response to, the destruction of Israel. The northern half of the country was destroyed by the Assyrian Empire in 722 B.C. The southern half of the country, known as Judah, was destroyed by the Babylonian Empire in 587 or 586 B.C. The prophets, in speaking about the destruction and re-emergence of Israel, used the metaphor of Israel being like a tree that had been cut down, but which would sprout up once again. Israel would be led by a messianic figure called "the branch," so Isaiah 11:1-4, 6 says:.
A shoot shall come up from the stump of Jesse
[Jesse, you remember, was King David's father],
and a branch [netzer] shall grow out of his roots.
The Spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, ...
His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; ...
[And in those days] the wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The netzer was a promise of hope. The word as used in Isaiah 11 pointed to the promise that, though Israel had been cut down like a felled tree, she would rise up once again. Fifty years after the destruction of Judah by the Babylonians, the Jewish people would return to the city of Jerusalem. Judah would rise up like a shoot. And the people hoped for the coming of the "branch" that the prophets foretold would lead the people—a messiah. (Jeremiah and Zechariah also use this same imagery, though they use a different word for "branch" than netzer.)
When the village founders named their village Nazareth they may have chosen this name as a way of expressing hope that God would once again restore Israel—that though Israel had been cut down by the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, and then the Romans, a branch would come up from the stump. They may have chosen this name because, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, it was a sign that there are no hopeless causes with God. They may have chosen this name as a way of articulating their hope that one day the Messiah would come to Israel. It was as if they were saying, "We believe there is always hope. We believe God will deliver us. We believe the day will come when God will send a new king who will deliver us." Little did they know that the branch foretold in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Zechariah would be a child who would grow up in their own village!
So, with all that we've learned about this town and these people, the question is: Why here? Why did God choose this town of all places to find a young woman to bear the Christ? Why would God choose this village, which was looked down upon by the people of Galilee ("Can anything good come out of Nazareth?") and which was of such low standing that it was not included in the lists of towns of Galilee? What does it tell us about God that this story did not take place in Sepphoris among the wealthy living in their luxury villas, but instead in Nazareth among working-class people, some of whom lived in caves? What does it tell you about whom God can use to accomplish his purposes, or where God's favor lies?
The setting of this story tells us that God looks for the meek and the humble to use for his greatest purposes. God chooses the least likely to accomplish his most important work. God chose a slave people to be his chosen people. God called the youngest of Jesse's seven sheepherding sons, David, to become Israel's greatest king. As Paul says to the Christians in Corinth, "God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are" (1 Corinthians 1:2728). James says it this way: "God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble" (James 4:6).
Let's look more closely at the woman God chose to be the mother of the Christ. She lived in this little, out-of-the-way town. She was likely uneducated and probably came from a poor family who may well have been servants in a household in Sepphoris. Perhaps they mopped the tile floors in a villa. It is obvious in any case that these were people without pretense. They were not people who believed the world revolved around them. They walked humbly with their God.
Mary was likely a girl of thirteen, although a more mature thirteen-year-old than we might expect. Young women married at that age in the ancient near East. We may find it strange today, but at a time when the average life expectancy was less than thirty-five years and most people did not go to school, girls were considered women when they had their first menstrual period, and they typically married shortly thereafter.
Mary was engaged to be married. According to custom, there would be a yearlong legal engagement followed by a formal ceremony. Finally, she and her husband would consummate their marriage and begin having children. Every year it was expected that there would be another child. Women hoped and prayed that they might survive those births, one after the other over the course of their childbearing years.
Mature or not, Mary was no better prepared for the visit of an angel than any of us might be. Now, the word angel is a Greek word that means "messenger." We imagine these as winged creatures, but more likely Gabriel appeared to Mary as an ordinary man. There is no indication in the Scripture that she was terrified by his appearance, only by his message.
The Orthodox, as we saw, believe Mary was at the spring when Gabriel appeared to her. (The alternative name for the church built over the spring is the Church of St. Gabriel.) This tradition is traced back to the second century. Roman Catholics believe Mary was at her home when God's messenger appeared to her. Wherever he appeared, Gabriel's greeting was an interesting one. He said, "Hail, you who are full of grace! God is with you!" (See Luke 1:28.) Roman Catholics are familiar with a slightly different version of these words: "Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee!"
There has been a great deal of debate about the meaning of the phrase full of grace. Roman Catholic dogma states that this phrase, which is just one word in Greek, means that Mary was born in grace, without original sin. They speak of this as the immaculate conception of Mary—that she was conceived and born without sin. (Jesus also was born without sin and many Protestants mistakenly believe that the dogma of the "immaculate conception" refers to Jesus' conception.) Protestants tend to translate the word as "highly favored" and hold that God was showing Mary his favor, love, and grace. Protestants don't typically teach that Mary was conceived without sin and don't see in this phrase a warrant for teaching the immaculate conception of Mary. As a rule, Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians have tended to exalt the role of Mary beyond what the biblical text may warrant based upon the traditions of the early church, while Protestants have tended to diminish Mary's role below what the text calls for. Regardless, it is clear that she was chosen by God as someone very, very special.
Excerpted from The Journey by Adam Hamilton. Copyright © 2011 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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