Nazareth, Autumn…5 B.C.E.
She laid no blame on any man, sealing her own fate.
Joseph had accepted her to be his betrothed. In about seven months, they would be married.
Two months had now passed and there had thus far been no sign of infidelity. He anticipated no problems, until she told him today that she had missed her monthly period twice now, and knew she must be pregnant.
He was certainly well-known and respected. Most in the community knew of his ancestry, leading back to King David. He was a man of good reputation. The legacy of his lineage was the focal point of the religion in Judea. None of that worked to his advantage, though, as today he had a real problem on his hands.
The young girl Mary, according to law, must be killed.
He considered somehow quietly putting her away and cancelling their engagement.
Had he done anything other than what he did, the world would look very different today.
Many curiosities and mysteries surround the birth and early life of Jesus’ mother and father.
[What follows, for the most part, could fill in the gaps providing a much more full and rich picture of the rest of the story. I’ve looked at multiple sources from the period and I strive for historical accuracy in all cases except in the names of the “counselors” which are drawn from Catholic Tradition and their dialogue, which I have fictionalized.]
Joseph, as a carpenter, built houses and made plows and yokes. He was, by his own admission, an old man. He had been married and had sons – James, Joses, Simon; and a daughter.
Mary had been orphaned by her parents. The story is recorded that she was dedicated to Temple service when she was 3 years old. She would live there until she was nearing the time when she would have her first period at which time she would have to leave.
Shortly after she turned 12, the Priests had to place her with a husband as soon as possible.
The surviving accounts (Infancy James) ring true. Had Anna and Joachim taken care of their daughter and raised her to an age where she could be married, we’d hear more in the Bible about them. Instead, the Bible focuses more on the details of John The Baptist’s parents and their challenges.
Shortly after she turned 12, the priests collected the widowers of the area together and Joseph was selected among many to take possession of Mary.
He could raise her as a daughter or he could marry her after the traditional 9 month waiting period. She was his to do with as he pleased. It would be his choice. Joseph told the temple priests that he was concerned that the locals would ridicule him for marrying such a young girl. The priests were quite certain he was to be the one and even issued a dramatic warning to Joseph should he not take Mary as his wife.
The accounts reported him to be fearful so he obliged.
He brought Mary to his home and, in short notice, Joseph left Mary at his home to return to his work. Being assigned Mary meant a great deal of stress would be added to Joseph’s daily life.
What Joseph didn’t know yet was that she was pregnant.
It was not a completely uncommon happening, of course, but if it got out, it wouldn’t speak well of him in the community. After all, she had been with another man, either by choice or rape. In the case of rape, no penalty of death would be Mary’s end.
He didn’t know which. And Mary wasn’t helping things. She offered no explanation for how she became pregnant. That would mean she would meet the death penalty by stoning at her Father’s home, wherever that was. There was no way around it…it was The Law…and not some set of rules from Rome… but God’s law…that she must be put to death.
And while Joseph was faithful to his God, his heart was obviously humble and forgiving.
He had taught his sons James, Joseph, Simon, and his daughters to not cast the first stone…
She was young and pretty…and he had grown close to her in a very short period of time.
The options were few.
If they could somehow get away for a year or more, and then return, no one was likely to piece it together. But what was going on here would take more than a long vacation.
If he chose to cover up her transgression, this would take seven months just to bring the baby to term. His chances of making this all work out were miniscule.
The fact that her Uncle was a Priest in The Temple probably wouldn’t do either of them any good in this mess.
He had the money…but it would be a most difficult thing to make excuses to an entire community.
There were not a lot of choices and time was running out. In just a matter of weeks, it would become obvious to anyone that she was pregnant.
March, 5 B.C.
He had always struggled with the fact that one so young could be killed in town for this transgression. He wasn’t one of those who gained joy at the witnessing of capital punishment…at least not for infidelity and, in particular, one so young.
Of course, most of them were young. 12, 13, 14 years old…
Thinking about it day and night – at work, at home – was doing him no good. It was futile.
If he didn’t have her stoned, then he himself would be a criminal.
He would never work in the region again. He would never be respected.
If only he had been a farmer or a traveling salesman. But all the “if’s” had now come to a head. Weeks had passed. A decision had to be made…
The problem was that pretty much everyone in town knew that Joseph was a direct descendant from King David. Everyone knew that there were predictions that someday a great leader like David, would come from David’s lineage. Such a leader could come from other men who could trace their lineage to David, but none of them were as recognizable as Joseph. The man who would come from David’s lineage was prophesied to be “The Anointed”, precisely as King David was long ago.
The few unbelievers in Nazareth scorned the notion as religious nonsense. Others made themselves known to Joseph as a way of getting in on the ground floor of what could be the beginning of the end of Herod & Rome’s rule throughout the region.
It was all speculative, of course. It wasn’t certain that one of Joseph’s future children would become a King because it could be a cousin’s family or more likely one of his brothers…but it could be himself that would Father such a King….and he was a direct descendant.
It was no secret.
Joseph needed no problems from the Temple or…from Herod.
Rome, through the provincial King Herod, dealt with problems as swiftly as they heard them come up. Eradicate instantly. ask questions later. Herod wouldn’t care that a young girl was pregnant and set to be stoned, but Herod was not one for competition of any kind and he had ruled Judea and Galilee under the Emperor for 35 years.
2000 years later, the massive buildings and temples he had built with the blood, sweat and tears of The Jews still remained. From Caesarea by the Sea to the Herodium, the Temple, Masada, he was a task master reminiscent of the Pharaohs in Egypt.
Herod’s reputation was part of every day life. He had his own wife and two of his sons executed. You simply didn’t even think of doing anything illegal…ever. Herod was indeed “The King of the Jews” and, in fact, to solidify the Roman appointment in the minds of his subjects, he had converted and become a Jew himself…at least in his own mind.
The story was a little different from the point of view of the Temple and the people. But here, too, problems were dealt with in accordance with The Torah. They would act quickly without a second thought. The Temple, now under Herod’s rule, was one of the most amazing structures he had built. Having hired 1000 of The Temple’s priests to build it to its magnificence.
There were no “outs” to be had. The situation was all but impossible.
The Temple in Jerusalem, Spring, 5 B.C.E.
Four days journey to the south, other things were happening at The Temple…
“I have family up north in Nazareth. His name is Joseph and his betrothed, my niece, is Mary. Please go and tell him and his soon to be wife, Mary, what has happened here. Tell them everything. Two old people, never able to have a child and now by the grace of heaven we will have a child in just a matter of weeks. Be certain they know that this was not done by any human hand. We were unable to have children, and now Elizabeth is just three months from having her first and only child. It sounds impossible, but it has happened to a Priest and his wife and I know that Mary…and Joseph will be helped greatly by knowing this.”
The Messenger took his instructions and left The Priest.
Arriving in Nazareth, a town of less than 1000, The Messenger had asked for Joseph’s home and immediately was directed there by neighbors. Joseph was at work when Mary answered the door. The Messenger explained the story that Zechariah had asked him to deliver to Mary.
Elizabeth was Mary’s aunt, and had not seen her in months.
At first Mary was confused, but then a hint of a smile came across her face and she understood why The Messenger was there.
The messenger explained the details to Mary. Mary was young so The Messenger left nothing to chance.
“The Lord is with you. ..you have found favor with God.”
This is what Mary told those who recorded her experience later, and the next part of the message disturbed the girl greatly.
“Listen to me. You will conceive in your womb and give birth to a baby. You will name him Jesus. The Lord God will give him the throne of David…his father ancestor. He will rule over the Land of Jacob and his dominion shall know no end.”
She didn’t know what to say. Jacob was Joseph’s Father. The Messenger must have meant Jacob from the old days. She couldn’t say she wasn’t pregnant, but she couldn’t say she was. This Messenger could be anyone, and responding incorrectly could cost her her life and Joseph’s as well.
“How can this be, I have no involvement with a man?”
The Messenger understood.
And The Messenger made it clear that this baby would be special. This baby would not only be a great leader, but would be special to God. Like King David, her baby would be “The Anointed.”
She didn’t fully understand how all of this would happen, but she knew that this child would be King, if The Messenger was right.
The Messenger hadn’t said that Elizabeth would have a child by a miracle of God, but the implication certainly was there if she correctly understood the story of her Uncle and Aunt.
It certainly seemed hard to believe that Aunt Elizabeth could have a baby at her age. Perhaps Aunt Elizabeth’s baby really was God’s baby. She didn’t know. Was The Messenger implying that Elizabeth’s child was to be born and that the baby had no Father? She couldn’t be sure and didn’t want to ask.
Later that day, knowing that departing immediately could bring both great pain and also great relief to Joseph, she told him she would go visit Elizabeth. She could help out while she was there. She would be back before it was time….And she ran to the hill country where Elizabeth and Zechariah lived.
The Hill Country, Summer 5 B.C.E.
She stayed three months with Elizabeth and Zechariah. She was about six months pregnant when she knew she had to return to Joseph and Nazareth. This was a most difficult time; and the time for Joseph to make choices about Mary’s life was at hand.
She arrived at night. No one she knew saw her come. She was well covered. It wouldn’t be easy for anyone to simply see her and recognize her as pregnant, but she didn’t want to push her luck.
In just a couple of months, she would either be a Mother, perhaps to a future King, or, she would be dead.
Summer, Arabia, 5 B.C.E.
And far to the South in Arabia….
A small number of well-to-do Astrologers, Counselors to Kings from nearby Kingdoms, debated day after day….
“Word has it that the great Herod is dying and that a new King will be taking his place.”
Caspar always had a way with overstating the obvious.
“Is that what the stars told you?”
“I know more than that, and not from the stars. Rumor has it that there is perhaps a King to be born in Bethlehem. A King that will overthrow Roman rule from the region. Their religion speaks of him as one who will be a reincarnated from a thousand years ago.”
Melchior could hardly suppress his laughter. “I find most babies to be poor at fighting hand to hand and even worse at trying to lead legions…especially against Rome, my dear Caspar. And I’ve never heard of this Bethlehem.”
Balthasar spit a bone from his mouth, tasted a sip of wine and dried his lips.
“I’ve been there and I’ve never heard a word about a King or a future King to be born there. And I promise you if such a rumor was started, it would be squashed by Herod. He’s not the type to leave anything to the stars. It is true that Herod is now old and he very well could be dying. I suggest we go to Israel….present ourselves to Herod. If he dies by the time we arrive, we bring gifts and be the first to congratulate the new King. It can only help trade. If Herod is there and alive, we ask what he knows of the rumor and perhaps we find that Herod himself has something to do with the fulfillment of the predictions, making him an even more important historical figure for a century to come. The man will eat it up for his ego is well known.”
A pair of eyes rolled, but the two men smiled.
“And what if he’s not there? What if he won’t see us? What if he has better things to do than entertain three Persian Astrologers?”
“Oh…he will see us…if he is alive…I promise you…I will get an audience with The King.” Caspar had a look of knowing in his eyes that made you think he’d already seen it in a dream…
The Astrologers wrapped up business in Arabia and in just a couple of months, they were off with a caravan to Jerusalem.
Late August 5 B.C.E. They first arrived in Bethlehem and quickly asked around about newborns. There were about two dozen infant children in town, but they found no King. They found no one thinking about a King…no one talking about a King…no one talking about David. They found…nothing.
People looked at their caravan with great curiosity. The people’s concerns were elsewhere: oppressive taxes and Herod’s brutality. They wanted the Astrologers to leave and not start any rumors that could get an entire town executed.
Perhaps Caspar was wrong?
The next step of the plan was to go to Jerusalem…or find Herod at one of his Palaces.
Finally they located the King….
Jerusalem, Early September, 5 B.C.E.
“There is a company of Astrologers from Arabia here to see you. They have news you may want to hear. I can send them away or receive them. They speak…of a new King.”
Herod had murder in his aging eyes. His face looked grotesque from some kind of disease. He was very ill. He’d been suffering not only from kidney disease, but also this strange skin problem that made him look horrific. All of this made his depression and manic actions more extreme.
He did find it amusing that Astrologers to Kings in lands he hadn’t taken rule of…yet…had come. This…would be…fun.
“You may have them send a small delegation inside. Watch them. If there is any sense of an attack, have them killed instantly.”
Caspar led a small group in and they all bowed to Herod. They gave gifts of gold and silver, flattering the King. And then they gambled.
“Tell us, where is the newborn King of the Judeans? We saw his star in the sky and it led us here.”
Herod bit his tongue. He dismissed the delegation and called his own counselors in to find out why he had not been told of this “newborn King.”
One Counselor familiar with the nuances of the Jewish stories told the King that there were predictions that someday a King would come from the lineage of the Jews’ King David that reigned here long ago. Probably more a wish than a prophecy.
It was not taken seriously by the Romans.
“It doesn’t matter if Rome takes it seriously, it matters if Judea takes it seriously.”
The Counselors searched old documents and found a mention of Bethlehem and could support The Astrologers assertion.
“Shall we have them killed?”
“No. Bring them here.”
“My new friends, you will be permitted to return to Bethlehem with my order to find the newborn child. When you find him, bring to me information with his whereabouts so I may also pay my respects to the future King.”
Night had fallen by the time they left the Palace. It had been a long day, but they had made an impact on the King. They were certain they could take advantage of this meeting in the future.
They set out the next morning back to Bethlehem. They had made inroads with one King, now it was time to see if they could find a future King.
Late September, 5 B.C.E.
A month later…completely unaware of events in Bethlehem and at Herod’s Palace…things in Nazareth were about to get much more complicated than they already were.
Word was out that everyone was going to be counted in a census and taxed. This would be no simple visit by the Romans to your home to take your cattle or possessions. This would be each person returning to the home of their origination to be counted.
Emperor Augustus in Rome had issued the decree. Everyone would be counted. Everyone would pay and pay dearly. No one had ever experienced anything like this. Picking up and leaving their homes, their work; no one knew what would happen.
Would their homes be there when they returned? Whether Augustus had made these demands of those beyond Herod’s control, no one knew. One thing was certain. Augustus didn’t know what the extent of his kingdom was as far taxpayers. Now he would.
Joseph had no choice but to leave Nazareth and take Mary with him to Bethlehem, because he was a direct descendant of David.
About eight months pregnant; and they now were at risk of being seen in public with Mary now very pregnant. If anyone saw her pregnant in Nazareth, they would both be killed. The good news was that as soon as they were safely away, there would be no questions back in Nazareth about Mary and her pregnancy.
Zechariah, of course, knew that Joseph and Mary would be heading to Bethlehem. The timing was most difficult with her pregnancy. It required no mental note to send The Messenger to pay a visit to what would soon become an important family.
Bethlehem, September 5 B.C.E.
The journey to Bethlehem took more time than it would with a girl who was not pregnant. But once out of the area of Nazareth and into the hills, it was safer on the road than it was in Nazareth. Anyone who saw them on the road would have no idea who they were. They would just keep on going…
And finally they arrived…
They had no home or friends in Bethlehem. The others who had come to Bethlehem because of the census had arrived days before Joseph and Mary. The young couple about to become three was going to give birth to their first child….outside. There was no lodging left to be had.
They found a cave on the outskirts of town that was far from ideal. Nearby there were a few shepherds, hundreds of sheep and some makeshift tents for the dirty men and troughs for the sheep to eat from.
Without major complications, the baby was born. They used one feeding trough as a makeshift crib for the baby.
This future King was born into the most humble of beginnings. Word spread quickly through the little town that a baby had been born.
The Astrologers didn’t need the bright star to find Joseph, Mary and baby. Word had gotten out, and their caravan made its way to where the young family stayed outside. The caravan itself attracted an enormous amount of attention, as it had since it arrived. When the people in the caravan shared the Astrologers’ revelations about just who and where this baby was, word got back to Herod within days. Herod had been duped.
A Messenger told the shepherds not to worry about the curious. This baby…would be the Savior of Judea, “The Anointed” they had been waiting for.
This child would rule over the throne of David…the Messenger told them…and from there, word spread quickly.
Herod, hearing all of this, made a simple decree. All newborn babies and infants under the age of two in the region around Bethlehem were to be killed. The fact that as many as 20 infants would die to kill the one, was of no consequence to Herod.
With people on the move and traveling in every direction imaginable to get to their ancestral homes, trails and roads were packed. Finding infants was a wild goose chase. Shortly there would be no infants in Bethlehem as the decree was strong motivation for stragglers with young ones to leave…now.
Unaware of the decree, Joseph and Mary took the week-old baby to The Temple in Jerusalem where the baby was circumcised. The story of the baby was told and it spread rapidly.
Zechariah would have told them himself, but he couldn’t speak. It seemed that he had completely lost his voice, not able to communicate. Ultimately, it wouldn’t matter.
It didn’t take long for Zechariah’s Messenger to find the couple after leaving The Temple.
The Messenger warned the couple and directed them to head south to Egypt to save the child’s life.
Joseph and Mary never knew if children in Bethlehem were actually killed or not. They could only attend to their newborn…who they were now convinced would grow up and somehow become King of Israel.
Joseph had no idea how such a thing could come to pass, but he believed it was possible.
The little family immediately left for Egypt and stayed there a month or two until a Messenger arrived one day telling them that Herod had finally died and that the decree was over. There was a new King, Archelaeous, who had more important things on his mind than looking for babies. The decree was quickly forgotten.
The couple put together their few possessions and headed north to Israel, to Galilee, then on to Nazareth, where they would raise who Joseph believed and Mary was certain – would be the future King who would save the people from what was perhaps the worst oppression in recent history. The story persisted and spread.
The confluence of events of the caravan from Arabia, the prophecies, the decree that signaled Herod’s anger…all gave credence to the story that, unlike Herod who was appointed by Rome…that their son would most likely lead a revolution against Rome and restore Judea and Galilee to Jewish rule under God…The Messenger was clear that their son would be the Savior of the people.
There were many more who believed Joseph and Mary’s son would save Israel from the horrific oppression they had experienced. Their child was “The Anointed One.” It was impossible to be certain, of course, but the events surrounding the birth of the child did meet the prophecies of scrolls kept at The Temple and there was great optimism for the young boy.
At a time when there was no hope for a good future, there was optimism that Elizabeth’s son, John, who was also born in the most unusual of circumstances, would pave the way for Mary’s son to restore the throne of David to Jerusalem.
It was all too coincidental… to have been a coincidence. The story, the hope, would spring eternal and to this day 2017 years later, the story of the birth of one child to a young girl…a child to be first seen by others in a lowly manger…gives hope to millions…and metaphorically, we all see hope in the newborns that come into this world every single day…
Jesus never would become King…and he would eventually be executed for treason. And then came the next story that wove into the first…Not three days after his execution, it was reported that he was seen ascending into the sky…and, of course, the life of Jesus took on a very different meaning.
2,017 years later, the story of an infant who could never have been born and then as an adult defying execution… remains…the greatest story ever told.