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    Field Marshal Kovax's Avatar
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    Christmas story from a historical perspective

    The familiar story about a baby in a manger is probably misunderstood entirely by most readers, especially in Western culture. The main point that it attempts to make is often taken for exactly the opposite.

    The key question to understanding the whole story comes down to the question: "What exactly is a Jewish carpenter, and what does he do?" In Europe and most of the Western world, a carpenter is a semi-skilled "blue collar worker" who constructs houses and other buildings. In much of the Middle East, particularly in places where the only trees in any quantity are diminutive olive trees and date palms, wood is not used in most construction. Lumber for that purpose is generally imported from places like Lebanon, and the cost of transporting it makes it rare and valuable. A "carpenter" is really only needed for major construction of Palaces, Temples, and large mansions with a sizable open space, which makes wooden beams a necessity, despite the cost. In this case, it's generally not done by a typical "blue collar worker" (like a wood carver or furniture maker), but by someone with the wealth, connections, and reputation to carry out transactions with a foreign supplier of lumber, arrange for payment or credit, and oversee both the transport and construction work, including the architectural design considerations for load-bearing and deflection of roof beams over large spans. In short, a "Jewish carpenter" is more likely to be a highly paid and highly skilled professional or construction contractor for major government or religious projects.

    In an era where 95% of the population had probably never been more than 10-20 miles from home, the family of Joseph and Mary were mobile. They had travelled, and had contacts in Egypt, and probably Lebanon as well.

    The family was not merely "nobility", but royalty, being direct descendents of King David. In an era where the king effectively WAS the government, being a relative was a mark of prestige and distinction, and often political power. We are probably taking about one of the most elite and respected families in the kingdom other than the king's immediate household, not an obscure "working class" couple.

    In that culture and time period, the "head of household" was typically responsible for his entire extended family, and often provided housing for a large number of relatives. In the case of Joseph and Mary, the entire extended family may have travelled with them to whatever worksites they went to, possibly serving as at least part of the construction crew. The travelling entourage may also have included non-family workers, and could have numbered anywhere from a handful to 50 or more people. When the family showed up in in the small town of Bethlehem, is there any surprise that there was no room for such a travelling group? The story does not explicitly say the the rooms were booked, or that they weren't; the writers of the day did not feel that it was necessary to explain why they were unable to find accommodations. Either it was considered unimportant, or else the conclusion would have been obvious to the reader of the time, and needed no elaboration. It's a reasonably possiblilty that they simply would not have fit, regardless of current occupancy. In any event, they were permitted to set up camp on the premisis, and use some of the facilities.

    Not too long after the birth of Jesus, emmisaries from Persia arrived, possibly trying to get into the good graces of a family who stood some chance of raising a future king. Again, international contacts and connections were made. When King Herod took the threat of a potential rival claimant seriously, the family fled to Egypt, which apparently found it valuable to have a legitimate replacement for the current ruler in their pocket, in case events required or favored intervention or invasion. Can there be any mistaking the level of threat that the king felt in order to command that all children under 2 years of age to be killed? What modern ruler could even consider such a drastic measure? What potential for a popular revolt and overthrow did that create, and how dire was the situation for the king to consider that to be an acceptable price to pay?

    The story goes out of its way to point out how Jesus was qualified through background, wealth, prestige, international connections, and popular support, to become a ruling king on earth. Instead, we mistake it as depicting him as coming from a "typical working class" background, just "one of the guys". This is just one of many cases where a lack of understanding of the culture and time period leads to entirely false concepts and imaginings, in all aspects of historical study.

  2. #2
    Captain Jorsalfar's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Kovax View Post
    The family was not merely "nobility", but royalty, being direct descendents of King David. In an era where the king effectively WAS the government, being a relative was a mark of prestige and distinction, and often political power. We are probably taking about one of the most elite and respected families in the kingdom other than the king's immediate household, not an obscure "working class" couple.
    Not so sure you can go that far, it had been almost 600 years since a member of the House of David had ruled at that point. There is no guarantee that all the surviving members of that house would be regarded as nobility or royals. In theory it could be thousands, even tens of thousands, of members from this line in Jesus' time. According to some sources the Herodian dynasty were even converts from the second century BC. I don't think it's likely that somebody would be well connected just because the could claim to be of the House of David in this time.

    Edit.

    Quote Originally Posted by Kovax View Post
    Not too long after the birth of Jesus, emmisaries from Persia arrived, possibly trying to get into the good graces of a family who stood some chance of raising a future king. Again, international contacts and connections were made. When King Herod took the threat of a potential rival claimant seriously, the family fled to Egypt, which apparently found it valuable to have a legitimate replacement for the current ruler in their pocket, in case events required or favored intervention or invasion. Can there be any mistaking the level of threat that the king felt in order to command that all children under 2 years of age to be killed? What modern ruler could even consider such a drastic measure? What potential for a popular revolt and overthrow did that create, and how dire was the situation for the king to consider that to be an acceptable price to pay?
    Eh, both Judea and Egypt were in the pocket of the same man at this time, a guy named Octavian. I don't think the prefect of Egypt cared too much about who would potentially become "king" of Judea, that was something that would be decided in Rome, not in Judea. Nor do I think the Parthians would bother too much about which client kings the Romans installed in Judea as there was no way these client kings would be able to have anything resembling a foreign policy.
    Last edited by Jorsalfar; 08-12-2012 at 11:29.

  3. #3
    The story goes out of its way to point out how Jesus was qualified through background, wealth, prestige, international connections, and popular support, to become a ruling king on earth. Instead, we mistake it as depicting him as coming from a "typical working class" background, just "one of the guys". This is just one of many cases where a lack of understanding of the culture and time period leads to entirely false concepts and imaginings, in all aspects of historical study.
    Actual historians studying early christianity understand it in the correct way. While your claims about carpenters are dubious, it is certain that insistence on Jesus' ancestors, the story of the star, the gifts are meant to legitimate Jesus' claim on kingship of Judea in the eyes of his people, and this is explained in historical works on the subject. How believers interpret the story is, on the other hand, completely up to them. I guess it's precisely because the Gospel could be re-interpreted in every culture and age that Christianity became so powerful for so long.

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    I think Kovax is pretty much right assessing how important man a carpenter was in the Jewish society around the birth of Jesus. He is also correct that being a descendant of a king brought prestige in that kind of society. IMHO, this means that in practice Joseph was at least locally very respected and wealthy man. Also, Joseph´s foreign contacts support this assumption.

    I think Kovax´s problem is that he doesn´t mention the Star of Betlehem and possible explanations regarding the star. However, the star is very important because the three wise men followed it to Jerusalem according the legend. The real question is that if the three wise men visited to see the Jesus then who were these men? There are couple of explanations regarding their identity:

    Traditionally the view developed that they were Babylonians, Persians, or Jews from Yemen as the Makrebs or kings of Yemen then were Jews, a view held for example by John Chrysostom. There is an Armenian tradition[17][specify] identifying the 'Magi of Bethlehem' as Balthasar of Arabia, Melchior of Persia and Gaspar of India. Bible historian Chuck Missler has also written[18] about this tradition. Historian John of Hildesheim[19][specify] relates a tradition in the ancient silk road city of Taxila (near Islamabad in Pakistan) that one of the Magi passed through the city on the way to Bethlehem.
    There was a tradition that the Central Asian Naimans and their Christian Kerait relatives were descended from the Biblical Magi.[27] This heritage passed to the Mongol dynasty of Genghis Khan when Sorghaghtani, niece of the Kerait ruler Toghrul, married Tolui the youngest son of Genghis and became the mother of Möngke Khan and his younger brother and successor, Kublai Khan. Toghrul became identified with the legendary Central Asian Christian king, Prester John, whose Mongol descendants were sought as allies against the Muslims by contemporary European monarchs and popes.
    Ultimately the problem with the three wise men is that they cannot be identified. The whole is very mystical because on the one hand the tradition says that they were very important men and at the same time one cannot confirm that information. Another issue in the nativity story is the Massacre of the Innocents which cannot be confirmed for the historical sources. The Bible claims that it happened but no Roman or Jewish historian confirm it in practice.

    One should also read the story of birth of Alexander the Great. It is very likely that as a king Alexander wanted to promote the image that his true father was Zeus, the King of the Gods. In this way, Alexander wouldn´t just be a mortal but he would be the Son of God like Hercules. There is a story that one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesos was burned down at the same night when Alexander the Great was born because the goddess Artemis was witnessing the birth and ignoring to protect her temple.

    One should remember that the people how wrote down the story of Jesus were Christians and well-versed of history of antiquity. They had to write an appealing story to make Christianity was appealing as a religion as possible. The first issue was to gain as many followers to Christianity when it was an illegal religion in the Roman Empire and later the goal was to institutionalize Christianity as the only legal religion in the Roman Empire. Because of that, the Christian religion needed an emotional story which would appeal to the people. The whole story of Jesus fitted to that category because it is a story about a hero who was the Son of God and who would forgive all sins.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Finnish Dragon View Post
    I think Kovax is pretty much right assessing how important man a carpenter was in the Jewish society around the birth of Jesus. He is also correct that being a descendant of a king brought prestige in that kind of society. IMHO, this means that in practice Joseph was at least locally very respected and wealthy man. Also, Joseph´s foreign contacts support this assumption.
    But how much prestige one could get from being of Davids line would depend rather heavily on how many could claim such a heritage. It had been roughly 40 generations from David to Joseph which means that it could potentially have been a huge number of people that could claim descendance from that line. Being wealthy in Nazareth does not say much either everything suggest that Nazareth were a small back water in those days, most likely hardly more than a village. Being the richest guy in a village does not really say that much about a persons wealth.

    I am not well versed in the bible, but what kind of foreign contacts did Joseph have?

  6. #6
    Being a descendent of David was not extraordinary in itself, but it could be used post-factum to "prove" that Jesus was the Messiah foretold by the prophecies. This is what really mattered.

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    I had always understood that the three wise men were three Magi - i.e. Zoroastrian priests from Persia. Early Christianity borrowed a lot of concepts from Zoroastrianism and it's often thought that the visits and gifts of the Magi were symbolic representations of this at the birth of Jesus.
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    They may have been magi, but the persians had other types of priests too, like the shatins. How much Christianity actually borrowed from Zoroastrianism is an open question though. Since the oldest copy of the Avesta dates to about 1200 it could be the other way around too.

  9. #9
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    Also, relations between Christianity and Sol Invictus, the invincible Sun regarding the December 25th are very interesting. Christianity claims that the Jesus was born then and he bring light to the world. The Sol Invictus claims that this day is the (re)birthday of the Sun. Anyway, December 21st or 22nd is the Winter solstice and in December 25th it is possible to notice that the days are growing longer and the light is defeating the darkness. People who lived around 2000 years ago didn´t have good ways to measure time or they didn´t know astronomy as well as we do but they could notice during the autumn when days got shorter and after the Winter solstice when the days started to grow longer.

  10. #10
    they didn´t know astronomy as well as we do
    They knew that kind of things suprisingly well. Knowlegde of precise solstice dates predates Christ's birth by millenias.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Kovax View Post
    The key question to understanding the whole story comes down to the question: "What exactly is a Jewish carpenter, and what does he do?" In Europe and most of the Western world, a carpenter is a semi-skilled "blue collar worker" who constructs houses and other buildings. In much of the Middle East, particularly in places where the only trees in any quantity are diminutive olive trees and date palms, wood is not used in most construction. Lumber for that purpose is generally imported from places like Lebanon, and the cost of transporting it makes it rare and valuable. A "carpenter" is really only needed for major construction of Palaces, Temples, and large mansions with a sizable open space, which makes wooden beams a necessity, despite the cost. In this case, it's generally not done by a typical "blue collar worker" (like a wood carver or furniture maker), but by someone with the wealth, connections, and reputation to carry out transactions with a foreign supplier of lumber, arrange for payment or credit, and oversee both the transport and construction work, including the architectural design considerations for load-bearing and deflection of roof beams over large spans. In short, a "Jewish carpenter" is more likely to be a highly paid and highly skilled professional or construction contractor for major government or religious projects.
    Maybe something is lost in translation, but carpenters don't "construct houses". They are woodworkers. Which can mean a range of things, including wood carvers and furniture makers. It's a skilled artisan's job and he probably dealt with rich folks routinely as part of his job. Doesn't make him one of them.

    In the Florentine ranking, carpenters are among the lowest guilds, just above bakers and millers, and below shoemakers, saddle-makers, tanners, blacksmiths, butchers, cheesemakers, glassblowers, olive oil pressers, and substantially below builders and masons.

    In an era where 95% of the population had probably never been more than 10-20 miles from home, the family of Joseph and Mary were mobile. They had travelled, and had contacts in Egypt, and probably Lebanon as well.
    95% was also engaged in agriculture. Which Joseph wasn't. Again, an artisan. Artisans go where the work is.

    The family was not merely "nobility", but royalty, being direct descendents of King David. In an era where the king effectively WAS the government, being a relative was a mark of prestige and distinction, and often political power. We are probably taking about one of the most elite and respected families in the kingdom other than the king's immediate household, not an obscure "working class" couple.
    According only to Matthew. And even if he was, that doesn't make him "elite" in a material sense. His "blood credentials" might make him called upon to settle village disputes and give him deference at the local synagogue, but not much more. As many an impoverished sharif or sayyid in the Islamic world can attest.

    In that culture and time period, the "head of household" was typically responsible for his entire extended family, and often provided housing for a large number of relatives. In the case of Joseph and Mary, the entire extended family may have travelled with them to whatever worksites they went to, possibly serving as at least part of the construction crew.
    Only if Joseph was a successful tradesmen. Which doesn't seem like it, if he had to travel around for work.

    His family wasn't landed farmers, he can't feed them. Relatives had to be launched on their own trades.

    The travelling entourage may also have included non-family workers, and could have numbered anywhere from a handful to 50 or more people. When the family showed up in in the small town of Bethlehem, is there any surprise that there was no room for such a travelling group? The story does not explicitly say the the rooms were booked, or that they weren't; the writers of the day did not feel that it was necessary to explain why they were unable to find accommodations. Either it was considered unimportant, or else the conclusion would have been obvious to the reader of the time, and needed no elaboration. It's a reasonably possiblilty that they simply would not have fit, regardless of current occupancy. In any event, they were permitted to set up camp on the premisis, and use some of the facilities.
    Possibly.

    But the writers do explain why it was full: the census. The town was unusually crowded by people returning to register in their ancestral homes. And if you take up the "descendents of David" line, all the David-descended families, rich and poor alike, would have been going there.

    Not too long after the birth of Jesus, emmisaries from Persia arrived, possibly trying to get into the good graces of a family who stood some chance of raising a future king.
    Or just traveling merchants, who dressed quite a bit better than the pops.

    Again, international contacts and connections were made. When King Herod took the threat of a potential rival claimant seriously, the family fled to Egypt, which apparently found it valuable to have a legitimate replacement for the current ruler in their pocket, in case events required or favored intervention or invasion. Can there be any mistaking the level of threat that the king felt in order to command that all children under 2 years of age to be killed? What modern ruler could even consider such a drastic measure? What potential for a popular revolt and overthrow did that create, and how dire was the situation for the king to consider that to be an acceptable price to pay?
    Hitler? The "modern world" has not lacked brutal rulers. You wouldn't need to look very far to find massacres of civilians to "intimidate" a rebellious village or district.
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    General gagenater's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Amallric View Post
    They knew that kind of things suprisingly well. Knowlegde of precise solstice dates predates Christ's birth by millenias.
    Yep - with nearly no artificial light it was easier to figure out than now. The winter and summer solstices were very carefully tracked by nearly all (absolutely all?) early societies so that they could figure out what time to plant and harvest which crops, when different migratory birds and animals would be in what places, when to breed livestock, etc. Not every person knew this as common knowledge, but in even a fairly small group (20-30 people) there would be at least somebody who would know this stuff.
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  13. #13
    Quote Originally Posted by Kovax View Post

    Not too long after the birth of Jesus, emmisaries from Persia arrived, possibly trying to get into the good graces of a family who stood some chance of raising a future king. Again, international contacts and connections were made. When King Herod took the threat of a potential rival claimant seriously, the family fled to Egypt, which apparently found it valuable to have a legitimate replacement for the current ruler in their pocket, in case events required or favored intervention or invasion. Can there be any mistaking the level of threat that the king felt in order to command that all children under 2 years of age to be killed? What modern ruler could even consider such a drastic measure? What potential for a popular revolt and overthrow did that create, and how dire was the situation for the king to consider that to be an acceptable price to pay?
    You realize that at this point Egypt was not an independent entity, but a mere province of the Roman empire? The only one 'intervening or invading' would be the Emperor, who had the authority to replace Herod, (a Roman subject), without need for military intervention.

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    I observe that neither the census nor the massacre of the children are to be found in any source outside the Bible. I suggest that attempting to construct a historically-reasonable narrative around events which did not in fact occur is unlikely to yield sensible results.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Finnish Dragon View Post
    Also, relations between Christianity and Sol Invictus, the invincible Sun regarding the December 25th are very interesting. Christianity claims that the Jesus was born then and he bring light to the world. The Sol Invictus claims that this day is the (re)birthday of the Sun. Anyway, December 21st or 22nd is the Winter solstice and in December 25th it is possible to notice that the days are growing longer and the light is defeating the darkness. People who lived around 2000 years ago didn´t have good ways to measure time or they didn´t know astronomy as well as we do but they could notice during the autumn when days got shorter and after the Winter solstice when the days started to grow longer.
    Actually the date was set much later, during the 600-900 AD period, by the papacy.

    It is very likely Jesus was not even born in December at all.
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    Nor does the Church make any claim about the actual birth of Christ. It's celebrated on Dec 25. The date is widely accepted to have been chosen so that the Christmas celebrations could replace the various winter solstice-related Roman traditions, including the feast of Sol Invictus and Saturnalia.

    And it's always tricky to ascribe historical value to biblical stories because it's not always clear what is fact, what is embellishment (it's not like Matthew was there), and what is parable. Joseph was an artisan, likely a respectable person of good family in Nazareth, but certainly not someone of interest to the Roman governor in Egypt.

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