FamilyLife Today® Podcast

The Very First Christmas, Part 1

with Paul Maier | December 23, 2010
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Our culture increasingly blurs the lines between fact and fiction. That’s why the historical account of Christmas is more important than ever. Dr. Paul Maier, professor of Ancient History at Western Michigan University, helps us weed through the reindeer, elves, and Grinches to find the Jesus of Bethlehem.

  • Show Notes

  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

  • Our culture increasingly blurs the lines between fact and fiction. That’s why the historical account of Christmas is more important than ever. Dr. Paul Maier, professor of Ancient History at Western Michigan University, helps us weed through the reindeer, elves, and Grinches to find the Jesus of Bethlehem.

  • Dave and Ann Wilson

    Dave and Ann Wilson are hosts of FamilyLife Today®, FamilyLife’s nationally-syndicated radio program. Dave and Ann have been married for more than 38 years and have spent the last 33 teaching and mentoring couples and parents across the country. They have been featured speakers at FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway since 1993 and have also hosted their own marriage conferences across the country. Cofounders of Kensington Church—a national, multicampus church that hosts more than 14,000 visitors every weekend—the Wilsons are the creative force behind DVD teaching series Rock Your Marriage and The Survival Guide To Parenting, as well as authors of the recently released book Vertical Marriage (Zondervan, 2019). Dave is a graduate of the International School of Theology, where he received a Master of Divinity degree. A Ball State University Hall of Fame quarterback, Dave served the Detroit Lions as chaplain for 33 years. Ann attended the University of Kentucky. She has been active alongside Dave in ministry as a speaker, writer, small-group leader, and mentor to countless wives of professional athletes. The Wilsons live in the Detroit area. They have three grown sons, CJ, Austin, and Cody, three daughters-in-law, and a growing number of grandchildren.

Our culture increasingly blurs the lines between fact and fiction.

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The Very First Christmas, Part 1

With Paul Maier
December 23, 2010
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Bob:  Sometime over the next forty-eight hours you may be reading Luke, Chapter 2 to your family or hearing it read in a midnight service at church.  Dr. Paul Maier wants you to remember what you are hearing is history. 

Paul:  We speak of the Christmas story all the time—story, story, story.  That is great for kids, but adults start to wonder, “Well, maybe it is only a story (i.e. fairy tale, a saga for kids).  So, I think it is important for children to understand the difference between this and a fairy tale.

Bob:  This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, December 23rd.  Our host is the President of FamilyLife Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine.  We have brought in a history professor today to give you a history lesson about the birth of Jesus. 

Welcome to FamilyLife Today; thanks for joining us on the Thursday edition.  Dennis, I’ve got a trivia quiz for our listeners here a couple of days before Christmas.

Dennis:  I’m glad you aren’t asking me, Bob.


You’ve played Trivial Pursuit with me.

Bob:  With you, I have.  It’s sad.

Dennis:  You know it is a weak effort.

Bob:  How would you answer this: how many wise men came to see Jesus? 

Dennis:  Three. 

Bob:  That is how most folks would answer it.  Yet, the Bible gives us no real indication of how many there actually were.

Dennis:  I’ve been too many songs.  Is that what you are saying?

Bob:  We think there were three because there was gold, frankincense, and myrrh—three gifts given.  So, we just assumed one wise man per gift.  Yet, the biblical record gives no names, no identity.  We just know that the wise men came to see him.  That is one of the things that our tradition has taught us that may not actually be a part of the Bible record.

Dennis:  Well, you know, we want to help our listeners, especially moms and dads, accurately represent the Christmas story.


Bob:  That’s right.

Dennis:  In fact, we have an expert on the historicity of Christmas, Dr. Paul Maier.  Dr. Maier, welcome to FamilyLife Today.

Paul:  Great to be here, Dennis.

Dennis:  Paul is an author, historian.  In fact, he is the author of the best-selling book, the number one fiction bestseller, A Skeleton in God’s Closet.  He is a professor of Ancient History.  You don’t look ancient, Paul. 


Paul:  As I get older, Dennis, the students are switching the adjective, they are now saying ancient professor of history. 


Dennis:  He is also the campus chaplain at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Paul:  There really is such a place.

Dennis:  You’ve done a lot of research on Christmas.  How would you have answered Bob’s question?  Did Bob do a good job of answering that question there?

Paul:  Not only did he do a good job, but it shows that he read my book First Christmas.


Bob:  That’s right.  That’s right.

Dennis:  He also exposed the host’s ignorance about Christmas, but that occurs regularly on this broadcast. (laughter)  I don’t mind admitting that I don’t know what I don’t know. 

It is interesting you’ve written a book for children, though, called The Very First Christmas.  That I must say is delightfully illustrated—a wonderful book to communicate to children the reality of Christmas.  First of all, give us an idea of where we got the word Christmas because I’ve got to believe you’d know where we got the word Christmas.

Paul:  Actually, the proper name for it in church liturgy would be the Festival of the Nativity, the birth of God in Christ.  The Christmas, Christ Mass, developed in the city of Rome about the middle of the fourth century when they finally decided to tag a date for Christmas which was December 25. 

In reality, we don’t know exactly when Jesus was born.  The best scholarly guess is that it would be the second half of 5 B.C. sometime between July and December of 5 B.C.  The reason for that is, first of all, we shouldn’t fault Jesus for being five years ahead of himself or man before His time or something like that.


Bob:  Right. 

Dennis:  I’ve got to stop you right there because I’ve always wanted to ask this question to somebody who knows, okay?  Why if He was born 5 B.C. did they wait five years to turn it into A.D.?

Paul:  The Church didn’t realize the problem here until they did an exact chronology of Herod the Great.  They found that he died about April Fool’s Day—that’s appropriate—in 4B.C.  Now if he is going to figure in the story of the Magi, obviously, there is something wrong with the calendar. 

Here is the reason:  The Christian Church, even after it had conquered the Roman Empire after Constantine, was still using the old Roman dating until one of the bishops of Rome finally said, “Enough of this!  Why don’t we instead key the calendar around the birth of Christ?” 

So, they found sort of the equivalent of what would be a computer nerd today, somebody who loved numbers.  A fellow named Dennis the Little, as a matter of fact, was his name.  Dionysius Exiguus was his name in Latin.  He gave himself that humble title, Dennis the Little.  In the profession, we call him Denny the Dwarf. 


He was very good with numbers.  We are amazed he came that close within five years in redoing the calendar.  So, it was his chronological error.

Bob:  This was many years after.  What it was—this—?

Paul:  This—middle of 500 A.D., middle of the sixth century.

Bob:  He was having to dig through records or try to some way come up with pinpointing the birth of Christ.  He was off by five years.

Paul:  Forgive him for that because this is long before the internet and information retrieval systems and what have you.  Consider the primitive level of knowledge in those days.

Dennis:  You have a burden to tell the real story of Christmas.  You have done a lot of research.  You wrote a book a number of years ago called The First Christmas: The True and Unfamiliar Story and that prompted you to, I would assume, write this book for children called The Very First Christmas.  Is that right?

Paul:  Exactly.  Concordia Publishing House suggested, “Why don’t you simply boil down the information you have from your scholarly research in the first century and see if you can’t do it for children?”  I had never done a children’s book before.  It was quite a challenge.  It really, I think, came out rather well.  I really enjoyed it.

Because we speak of the Christmas story all the time—story, story, story—that is great for kids; but adults start to wonder, “Well, maybe it is only a story (i.e. fairy tale, a saga for kids).  So, I think it is important for children to understand the difference between this and a fairy tale.  That is why we call it The Very First Christmas: The Real Story of What Happened.

Bob:  You mentioned that it was also unlikely that Jesus was born in December.  Is that right?

Paul:  It is possible He was born in December.  All we can say is sometime between July and December of 5 B.C. would be the most accurate window of opportunity.

Bob:  Why do you figure that six month period?

Paul:  This is on the basis—you’ve got to go on the chronology of Jesus’ life.  Work it backwards; see exactly what’s happening in terms of who the governors were at the time.  It would take the next half an hour to—

Bob:  Explain that.  All right.

Paul:  Just trust me on this one. 


Bob:  I will.

Dennis:  One thing that I heard you mention before we came on the air is that you have a heart to help Christians understand that their faith is rooted in history even outside the biblical history.  Now we don’t want to minimize the Holy Scriptures, the inspired Word of God; but you’ve done research.  You’ve found that all the way back to the beginning the story of Christmas is rooted in secular history.

Paul:  It certainly is.  Do you notice how Luke begins the Christmas story?  He doesn’t begin with anybody you’ve ever seen on a Christmas card: no holy family, no shepherds, no magi, but Caesar Augustus.  Now there is a pretty ‘un-Christmassy’ figure.  Have any of you received a Christmas card with a bust of Augustus on it?

Dennis:  No.

Bob:  No.

Paul:  A little holly around the base, “Season’s Greetings from the Palace,” or a little slogan inside “Remember it happened under my administration.”


Dennis:  I might add I’m glad I haven’t received one.


Bob:  I don’t think there are any publishers are going to jump on that line in Christmas cards. 

Dennis:  I don’t think so.

Paul:  No. I think it would bomb.  It is Luke’s idea to point out that this is a narrative which is not a fairy tale.  This really happened.  Everybody knew about the great Augustus.  He was the founder of the Roman Empire, probably the greatest of all the Caesars to follow him.  Everybody knew about the census that he took.  This is Luke’s beautiful way of working this account back into the fund of general knowledge. 

I am delighted to keep using Luke’s approach in my particular scholarship.  What I have been doing through the years is to try to match up the evidence that we have of an extra biblical source, nature, and see how it comports then with the biblical record.  Let me tell you the affirmation ratio is outstanding. 

What I try to do is pursue three avenues back into the ancient world.  One avenue is called geography.  Let’s even point out that the stage in which all this happened is authentic.  Many religious systems today don’t even have a solid stage.  They just begin with some sort of nirvana, especially the made in America religions are the worst of all in that respect.

Then, the second lane in this three lane highway is the evidence that we have from secular history.  The third lane is archaeology: the smoking gun, the hard evidence we have from the ancient world.  So, by pursuing those three highway lanes, you might say, have tried to get back into the first century to see exactly how this works.

Some Christians don’t understand that they say “Well, isn’t the Bible enough?” and so forth.  Yes, but listen when you are dealing in the great secular world with the great unwashed out there, you can’t begin by waving the Bible at these people.  You begin where they are like Luke did in the secular world and see how beautifully the secular evidence from antiquity and see how beautifully this works back into the biblical record.

Dennis:  So, what you are saying, then, is that for the mom and dad who sits down on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning to tell the Christmas story and when that doubt comes that this story is a myth, they need to know that this story is rooted in secular history.  It is proclaimed in the Bible as the truth.  It is the truth.  This happened; and therefore, our faith can stand.  Right?

Paul:  Exactly, Dennis.  In fact, that is so good I wish you could have written the copy in the flyleaf: “To be used on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning to point out that this is more than a story.”

Dennis:  There is so much fantasy around Christmas, I think—

Paul:  Of course.

Dennis:  And so many memories.  Those aren’t bad, I don’t think.  Really, our family enjoys a little bit of myth around Christmas.

Bob:  You sing “We Three Kings of Orient are….”


Paul:  There we go.


Dennis:  You are not going to let me forget that are you, Bob.  I’m never playing Trivial Pursuit with you again.  It is important that we know that our faith is not a myth.  We have a God who is there.  We have the scriptures that proclaim this story. 

When we do sit down on Christmas Eve, we need to strip away that fantasy, that myth.  We need to embrace the Lord Jesus Christ who was born, who lived, who died, who rose again, and who is seated at the right hand of the Father to offer us eternal life.  This is the greatest story that has ever been told.

Paul:  That is absolutely correct.  The greatest miracle of all is the incarnation.  In the sense of right at the start the Christmas event, God crossed the cosmic divide to become a baby.  This is so magnificent!  Of course, what I tried to do in The Very First Christmas is to see how this would affect the mind of a bright kiddo who has not been able to attend Sunday school regularly and how he would react. 

It is different with children who have been brought up in the church; they’ve heard this since time in memorial.  How would a bright child somewhere on the Mountain West where there have not been Sunday school services available react when his mother would finally present the Good News to him about the nativity.

So, I opened the book in which the child says, “Enough of the fairy tales.  I don’t want to hear anymore unless they really happened.”  That is how I try to work into the account; so, that the child realizes you call it the Christmas story but it is also the Christmas history.

Bob:  Let me ask you: apart from the three kings, we’ve talked about them, what are some of the other big misconceptions that we carry through?  Some of the traditions that we hold that may not be so about Christmas.

Paul:  For instance, the commonest would be the crèche under the Christmas tree.  In which, we have, by the way, the shepherds and the magi worshipping together, you recall. 

Bob:  Right.

Paul:  That is impossible, of course, because they have to be separated by at least forty-one days.

Dennis:  Right.

Paul:  The shepherds came first.  The magi came later at a time when the holy family was already living in a house in Bethlehem.  They’re no longer in a cave. 

That is the second misconception.  Everybody thinks Jesus was born in the stable.  Well, yes.  It depends on how you define a stable.  All the New Testament says is that Jesus was born where there was a manger, now that is a feeding trough.  Usually, you don’t find that in your dining room.

Bob: That’s right.

Paul:  It would be in a stable type of situation.  We have the evidence from one of the early church fathers, Justin Martyr, that Jesus was born in a cave, a cavern that was used as a stable.  Now this doesn’t mean that parents should suddenly sweep away the crèches.  Of course, we can continue to use those; but in terms of misconceptions, it was actually a cave. 

There were several of these great caves in Bethlehem to this day.  One of which is supposedly the cave the Nativity over which the great Church of the Nativity was built.

Bob:  And the shepherds arrived almost immediately?

Paul:  They were the first visitors.  That is right.

Bob:  It could have been the first night; it could have been three nights later.  We’re not sure, right?

Paul:  Something like that.  I’d say that is a reasonable time frame.

Bob:  But you said that it has got to be forty-one days between then and when the magi might have come.

Paul:  Yes.  The reason for that is, of course, Luke tells us that Jesus was circumcised seventh day.  Then, he went to be presented at the temple which was forty days after birth.  Obviously, if Herod is out to get him, he is not going to go to the Temple area in Jerusalem, right next to Herod’s palace. 

In terms of the chronology of the Nativity, you have to have at least forty days elapse, not two years.  I think that a lot of misconceptions there.  Here you have Joseph and Mary away from their home in Nazareth.  What—staying in a motel for two years?  How expensive is that?


Forget it!

Bob:  He’s a carpenter, right?

Paul:  Yes.  Right.   These things happen rather quickly.

Dennis:  I’m glad that you cleared that one up because I had the misconception that it took them two years to get there.  I don’t know where that was—

Paul:  That is pretty slow travel. 

Dennis:  Yes.  That they traveled a long distance as magi from a far away land and didn’t arrive for a number of months.  Tell us what scholars know about Mary.

Paul:  We wish we knew more, of course, Dennis.  No question about that.  What you have in the case of the Gospels is the headline news about Jesus compacted as much a possible because each Gospel is the size of one scroll.  You just couldn’t afford multi-scroll works unless you were very wealthy, and they wanted to get the Good News out. 

This is why we don’t have many details on Jesus’ youth or other aspects of the Great Story. 

Also, Mary’s role: we wish we had more information.  All we know is that she did come from Nazareth.  There is an early apocryphal Gospel called the Gospel of James.  It is not canonical that says that her parents were Anna, the mother, and Joachim, the father.  There’s a local tradition that the Annunciation took place by Gabriel at the well in Nazareth which is possible because women were the great water carriers in those days.

Nazareth today the thrilling thing, you can go there and you can see that very well still bubbling away.  It is understand the apse of the Church of the Eastern Orthodox.  Church of the Annunciation, it is called.  There are some physical features like that, that never change.  Now whether or not the Annunciation happened there we can’t be sure.

Bob:  About how old was she, do you know?

Paul:  Shortly after puberty, the Jewish girls would marry.  The fellows would have to wait and build a nest egg first.  There is no question that Joseph was older than Mary.  Some say by as much as eight, ten years.  We’re not quite sure.  Mary could have been as a fourteen, fifteen year old.

Dennis:  She was betrothed to Joseph, but she was not married yet. 

Paul:  Betrothed but not married.  That’s right.

Dennis:  Explain to our listeners what that means.

Paul:  In conservative Galilee, betrothal was almost the equivalent of marriage not that the couple could indulge; but if Joseph would have died, she would have been his legal widow, for example, after betrothal.  They could not break that except for a bill of divorce.  The engagement, if you please, was stronger than we have engagements today. 

Dennis:  Mary’s pregnancy during that period had ramifications, didn’t it?

Paul:  That was adulterous except for the Divine circumstances of the Incarnation.  Joseph would have had the right at that point to have her stoned to death.  He being a just man, however, as Matthew tells us, didn’t do that.  Was determined to simply quash this thing quietly which is noble on his part and the proper thing to, I think, for somebody with ethics.  Then, of course, we have the momentous information given to him: that is a very special baby on the way.

Bob:  Now the whole issue of the census was this something that was common in Roman times or was this the first time there had ever been a census of the ancient world?

Paul:  The census was something that Augustus was very sensitive about because he was concerned about the low birth rate among Roman citizens.  This comes right after the terrible civil war period.  For that reason, you have the birth rate dropping. 

One day he stalks into the Roman Forum and does a quick gallop poll, if you please, of why the birth rate was dropping.  He gathered all the men to one end of the forum and separated the husbands from the unmarried bachelors.  A whole horde of bachelors were there, and a few husbands go away.  Then, he really lectures them on why they weren’t fulfilling the job of men which was to get married and so on. 

Dennis:  Let me stop you there because we happen to have that lecture right here.  Bob doesn’t have this.  I have this.  I may not know about the three kings, but I read about—

Bob:  You know the lecture.

Dennis:  I read about this lecture in the book.  I actually read this to Barbara.  This is a great message.  I mean, picture this occurring.  They had a crisis in Rome.  Rome was shrinking in size because men were not being men.  He separates the bachelors and the married men, and gives them this talk.  Listen to this.  This is in Dr. Maier’s First Christmas book.

Paul:  That book is now a part of a trilogy which is called In the Fullness of Time.  It is no longer available individually.  It is called In the Fullness of Time: A Historian Looks at Christmas, Easter, and the Early Church.

Dennis:  Okay.  Augustus laid it on the line.  Here is what he said, “What shall I call you?  Men? But aren’t you fulfilling the duties of men?  Citizens?  But for all your efforts the city is perishing.  Romans?  But you are in the process of blotting out this name all together.  What humanity would be left if all the rest of mankind should do what you are doing?  You are committing murder in your not fathering in the first place those who ought to be your descendents.”

Paul:  How do you like that for logic? 


Dennis:  We’re laughing about this, but his guy was a leader.  He called the men together; and he placed responsibility on them to say, “Get married, have children, take care of them, and therefore, strengthen the nation.”

Paul:  Absolutely.

Bob:  It had to be the only time in history when a leader got done and said, “Now you are all dismissed to go home.”  And the men said, “Okay.” 


Dennis:  That’s exactly right.

Bob:  The census occurred out of this to try to figure out what the population patterns looked like?

Paul:  Indeed.  Augustus himself took three censuses.  He was very, very proud of them.  So, proud as a matter of fact, when he died, he put in front of his mausoleum on a great, bronze tablet the thirty-eight things he wished most to be remembered for.  Point number eight was “I took a census of the empire three times.”  Probably that middle census about 8 B.C., is the one that finally got organized in far off Palestine around two or three years later.

Bob:  Joseph and Mary had to go to Bethlehem because he was from the line of David.  Is that right?

Paul:  That has been doubted, of course, by some critics; except we have census documents from up the Nile in Egypt in which a person is supposed to return to his home to register for the house by house census.  Perfect.  Perfect agreement with Luke, Chapter 2.

Dennis:  Paul, you have done a masterful job of giving us all some facts to root our Christmas story in this Christmas as we set around the Christmas tree.  Bob, I’m going to have fun this Christmas telling the Christmas story with some new vigor.  Knowing that our faith and the Christmas story is the truth.  I’ve known that in the past.  I believe that and embrace that.  It is just wonderful that you help parents tell the story, the real story of Christmas, to their children.

Paul:  Thank you, Dennis.  I appreciate it, Bob.

Bob:  We are also hoping that parents are getting out of the closet or maybe they’ve had it out of the closet for awhile now their What God Wants for Christmas nativity scene.  They can use that as a part of the way to tell the story of the birth of Jesus to their children this year at Christmas.  It is one of the resources that we’ve created here at FamilyLife to try to help families pass on the truth of God’s word to their children and their grandchildren.

I want to take just a minute here, Dennis, and say thanks to those listeners who help support the ministry who make this daily radio program possible, who make everything we do here at FamilyLife possible.  More than sixty-five percent of the funds we need to operate come from donations from listeners just like you.  During the month of December, that is when more than forty percent of our donations come in as a ministry. 

In a very real sense what happens this month in terms of donations will set the tone for what next year will look like for us as a ministry.  Again, thanks to those of you have helped support the ministry in the past.  Particularly those of you who this month have been helping us take advantage of this matching gift opportunity. 

We have had some friends of the ministry who’ve come to us and built a matching fund that is now up a little over three million dollars in recent days that number has increased.  We’re still hoping to hear from listeners who will help us take advantage of these matching gift funds. 

If you can make a year-end donation to support FamilyLife Today, we would appreciate that.  You can do it online at or you can call us and make your donation over the phone at 1-800-FL-TODAY.  Let me just say thanks in advance for whatever you are able to do in terms of financial support.  Thanks for praying for us here as well.  We appreciate your prayer support for this ministry.

We hope you can join us back tomorrow on Christmas Eve when we are going to continue to talk about the real story of Christmas with our guest Dr. Paul Maier.  Hope you can be here.

I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team.  On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine.  We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today

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