FamilyLife Today® Podcast

The Very First Christmas, Part 2

with | December 24, 2010
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How will you help your children differentiate between an imaginary Santa and a loving, invisible God? Dr. Paul Maier, a professor of Ancient History, says one great way is to introduce them to the historic story of the real Jesus of Bethlehem.

  • Show Notes

  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

  • How will you help your children differentiate between an imaginary Santa and a loving, invisible God? Dr. Paul Maier, a professor of Ancient History, says one great way is to introduce them to the historic story of the real 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.

How will you help your children differentiate between an imaginary Santa and a loving, invisible God?

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The Very First Christmas, Part 2

December 24, 2010
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Bob:  Have you ever stopped to wonder why God chose to announce the birth of His Son to shepherds on a Judean hillside?  Here is some thinking on that subject from historian Dr. Paul Maier.

Paul:  The shepherds might have been regarded as your common blue collar laborers today in terms of probably having what might be regarded at the time as a menial occupation.  Yet, these shepherds may have had a rather special responsibility because the sheep that were used for Temple sacrifice had to be out on the range all year long and they preferred sheep from the Bethlehem area.  It could have been they were training up the sheep for Temple use later on.

Bob:  This is FamilyLife Today for Friday, December 24th.  Our host is the President of FamilyLife Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine.  Here on Christmas Eve, we’ll look at what the real Silent Night must have looked like. 

Welcome to FamilyLife Today; thanks for joining us on the Friday edition.  Does your family do anything special on Christmas Adam? 

Dennis:  Christmas Adam?

Bob:  You don’t celebrate Christmas Adam?

Dennis:  We don’t.

Bob:  Christmas Adam—

Dennis:  Is that the 23rd and Christmas Eve is the 24th?

Bob:  Yes, because Adam came before Eve: Christmas Adam on the 23rd, Christmas Eve on the 24th.

Dennis:  We have no traditions—

Bob:  You don’t have anything related to that.

Dennis:  For Christmas Adam.

Bob:  We have Shepherds’ Meal at our house.

Dennis:  Do you?

Bob:  On Christmas Adam night, we get together, and we have potato soup.  We have homemade bread.  We eat by candlelight.  There is some fruit, some grapes, usually a cheese, grape juice that we drink for our meal.

Dennis:  I’m over at your house.

Bob:  Yes.  It is a pretty good deal.

Dennis:  We have a Christmas Eve celebration.  We have a feast.

Bob:  Do you and the girls still make that?  Back in the day, you guys used to cook that.

Dennis:  Whoever is at the house with us, that is who cooks it with me.  Barbara is shooed away from the kitchen.

Bob:  She doesn’t mind that, does she?

Dennis:  She doesn’t.  We destroy the kitchen.  We have a lot of fun.  We put on a feast that is designed for a king because it is a welcoming the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

Bob:  With you making plans for your family celebration and me making plans for what our family is going to do tonight, we thought it would be nice if our listeners had an opportunity to hear from a history professor today.  We have Dr. Paul Maier joining us.  Dr. Maier is professor of Ancient History at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.  He’s been with us before on FamilyLife Today.  Welcome back. 

One of the reasons that you wrote a children’s book on Christmas is because a part of your assignment as a history professor, a part of your burden, is to see children understand the story of Christmas in a historically accurate way.

Paul:  It really is.  When you look at children’s Christmas books, you find a common theme that is in nearly all of them.  The theme is, instead of focusing on what happened at the original nativity, there is usually a character who’s very grumpy or who hates townspeople—whether he is a wood carver or whatever else or a merchant.  Then, he is affected by the spirit of Christmas; and he converts to joy at the end of it.  Now, this is what—

Bob:  You are talking about How The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.

Paul:  The Grinch Stole Christmas, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. 


Dennis:  There you go.

Bob:  Right.

Paul:  He had the original idea.  Nearly all these children’s Christmas books focus on that theme.  It is a great theme, alright; but there are other themes, for instance, what happened truly in terms of the original Christmas account.  That’s the reason why I wrote The Very First Christmas.

Bob:  As we talked yesterday, there is a lot of mythology that has grown up throughout the years about Christmas.

Paul:  Tinsel all over the place.  You bet.

Bob:  Right.  We may have come to the point where we think some things are canonical; yet, they’re really just a part of the tradition.  Even we, biblical, Bible based Christians, don’t know where the tradition stops and where the Bible account starts, do we?

Paul:  That is right.  We pointed out yesterday again that Jesus, really, was born in a cave not a wooden constructed stable above ground.  Probably, the cover of this, my Christmas book here, shows for the first time what it really looked like.  It was a cavern where He was born.

Dennis:  I might add that the illustrator who worked on this book with you, Francisco Ordaz, worked with George Lucas.  This guy is—

Paul:  Industrial light and magic, indeed. 

Dennis:  Right.

Paul:  E.T. and that sort of thing.

Dennis:  Right.

Paul:  That is why it is beautifully illustrated.  I feel guilty that my name is larger than his because I spent much less time; and he spent, obviously, much more.  It is a beautifully, beautifully illustrated book.

Dennis:  Let’s walk through the Christmas story and help parents gain some fresh insights; so, that this Christmas Eve or Christmas morning when they review the Christmas story, they may have some things, Bob, to wow the kids like the number of wise men who—

Bob:  That’s right, which we don’t know. 

Paul:  All we know is there were more than one.

Bob:  These were men from the Orient?

Paul:  They’re either from Babylonia or Persia according to our best calculation.

Dennis:  Who’s the guy we need to file a lawsuit against for writing “We Three Kings of Orient are….”

Paul:  Not bad.  He made three mistakes in one line.  They weren’t kings; they were magi, wise men literally.  They were more than—we don’t know if there were three or not.  They didn’t come from Japan or China, the Far East. 


Bob:  One line….

Paul:  One line, but it’s alright.  Continue to sing it just explain it correctly.

Bob:  What does it mean wise men?  What is that?

Paul:  The magi were a very famous caste of very well educated, doctors of the law, history, medicine.  They were—

Bob:  They were college professors, weren’t they?

Paul:  This would be the equivalent of ancient college professors, indeed. 


Bob:  In all humility, you want to—

Paul:  In all humility, yes.  We’re not Renaissance people as they were.  They had to be specialist in quite a few different fields.  Among those fields would have been history in religion; so, they would have been rather well equipped with Jewish predictions of the Messianic figure and the star symbol. 

So often, critics come across to the Christmas story, and they say, “It is impossible.  They wouldn’t have traipsed across the desert after a star.  How did they know it had any religious significance?”  They knew Numbers and Daniel and the reference to the Star rising out of Jacob. 

To prove that Matthew didn’t invent that, I give you the case of Bar Kokhba.  This was the last Jewish rebel in 132 A.D.  Even after the destruction of Jerusalem, Bar Kokhba was led through the streets of Jerusalem on a white horse by the great Rabbi Akiba at the time.  He said, “The Messiah, The Messiah has come!” 

The guys name was not Bar Kokhba.  It was Shimon Bar Kosiba, but they changed it to Bar Kokhba.  Why?  Son of the Star.  The star motif was very big among the Jews at the time.  The magi would have known this.

Dennis:  Let’s talk for a moment about astronomy.  Not to be confused with astrology, okay?  Let’s talk about where the star came from.  You have some beliefs about that star they followed, don’t you?

Paul:  The term in the New Testament aster can mean star or planet or conjunction or nearly anything that’s happening in the sky aside from the sun or moon.  The best explanation, I think, was by Johannes Kepler back in the 1600’s.  He found a rare phenomenon in the sky.  It happens every 800 years.  That is the triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. 

It happened at the time of the first Christmas.  It happened in 800.  It happened in 1600 in his time.  This time not going to happen for us until 2400; so, don’t wait around for that one anyway. 

It is a fascinating thing because Jupiter was regarded as the King’s planet in antiquity.  It is the brightest, biggest, and so on.  Saturn was deemed the shield or the defender Palestine.  The Book of Amos tells us that. 

Now, the conjunction came within one moon diameter; and so, three times Jupiter approaches Saturn.  Translate that into ancient astrology.  I don’t believe in astrology, obviously.  I hope your hearers don’t, but the magi did.  So, never underestimate God’s ability to use whatever He wants.

Dennis: Right.

Paul:  Translate it.  Jupiter approaches Saturn: a king is coming to Palestine.  Happened three times. 

Dennis:  It didn’t have to be a natural phenomenon?

Paul:  I think it was, personally.  It could have been a natural phenomenon that they interpreted this way because God can use whatever He wants. 

Dennis:  Let’s talk about the shepherds.  What do we know about them?

Paul:  The shepherds might have been regarded as your common blue collar laborers today in terms of probably having what might be regarded at the time as a menial occupation.  Yet, don’t forget King David started out as a shepherd. 

These shepherds may have had a rather special responsibility because the Talmud tells us that the sheep that were used for Temple sacrifice had to be out on the range all year long and they preferred sheep from the Bethlehem area.  It could have been they were training up the sheep for Temple use later on. 

Bob:  They obviously had the night shift. 


Paul:  They had the night shift.  That’s right.

Bob:  They’re out watching.  Would they have been acquainted with astrology the way the magi were or did they just see something bright in the sky?

Paul:  The star of Christmas had nothing to do with them.  It was primarily the angelic appearance and so on as you recall.

Bob:  They’re on the hillside; the angels pop up and deliver a message to them.  By the way, I just have to throw this in because this is kind of interesting.  The Bible doesn’t say that the angels sang.  It says the angels said, “Glory to God in the highest.”  All the singing angels, well, we have just romanticized that a little bit.

Dennis:  Yes.  That is exactly right.  Let’s take those angels for a few moments and just see what our historian knows about that.  Is there any additional data that we know about these angels that appeared to the shepherds there in the field?

Paul:  No.  When we come to something like, it’s beyond the bounds of historical research.  I’m not trying to say that this never happened; what I am saying is I don’t see any references in ancient sources or in any archaeological evidence that is going to guarantee that this happened.  Not denying it at all.  The nearest we can come to is that well in Nazareth where the Annunciation may have taken place because the well is still flowing.

Dennis:  Yesterday on the broadcast we talked about Mary and what we know about her.  Joseph, we know even less about him, don’t we?

Paul:  Maybe more, in the sense of his genealogy.  What is so interesting is that both Matthew and Luke give the genealogy of Joseph and not Mary.  It is very important, of course, that Mary be involved.  She was also certainly a member of the House of David because David married ten wives about every third person in Palestine would have had some kinship, I think, to the great King David.  So, she was also of the Davidic house. 

What’s interesting are the genealogies between Matthew and Luke.  They don’t coincide perfectly; but there is an easy explanation for that, that’s given to us by the 300 A.D. church historian, Eusebius.  He points out that one would be the legal parentage of Jesus’ in the genealogy.  The other would be the biological line because you know you had to marry your brother’s widow if your brother died and so on.  Which was the legal marriage and which was the biological marriage, those are the two explanations.

Bob:  Of course, Joseph was not biologically connected with the Messiah.

Paul:  Joseph was not biologically connected, no.

Dennis:  I’ve heard you refer to Joseph as the foster father of Christmas.

Paul:  Step-father, foster father, I think, is appropriate. 

Dennis:  Interesting.

Bob:  As a carpenter, he didn’t build houses, did he?

Paul:  Could have.  What is interesting is the New Testament term in Greek is tekton.  Now, this is anybody involved in the construction industry.  Therefore, yes, he could have worked with wood—no question about that—built doors, boats, and that sort of thing.  He could have also been a stone cutter, anybody involved in construction.

Dennis:  We do know that Joseph and Mary travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  Give us some idea, historically, of what that journey would have been like.  Is there any evidence that she was on a donkey?

Paul:  Interestingly enough, Dennis, there is not.  It is a good presumption, however, only because the donkey is the Model A Ford, you might say, all over Israel and Jordan at the present day yet.

Dennis:  I’ve got to stop you there and say the reason I’m interested in this is every Christmas when our children were little I was always the donkey, Bob.  I’m really looking for an out here as our kids get older.

Bob:  You may have found it right here. 


Dennis:  Yes.  I may have found it no doubt about it.  How far was it, then, from Nazareth to Bethlehem? 

Paul:  It is about ninety miles.  In terms of transportation speed in those days, we figure it was a six to eight day trip.  Probably, they would have taken the water level route.  Otherwise, they would have to go over the hilly, Samaritan territory.  The Samaritans were regarded as unclean as far as the Jews were concerned.  I think Mary in her advance pregnancy would have done better with this water level route. 

So, they would have gone down to the Sea of Galilee, Jordan River depression, and then headed up from Jericho up to Jerusalem and Bethlehem is probably the route they took.

Bob:  Would they camp out each night as they came to a stopping place?

Paul:  Either that or come to a caravansary or the equivalent of the ancient motels or something.  They had those also.

Bob:  Okay.

Dennis:  What were those tents or were they permanent facilities?

Paul:  The tent colony for protection—they wouldn’t simply pitch a convenient tent along the roadside somewhere because you do have bandits and highway men and so forth.

Bob:  When they got to Bethlehem, about how long did they stay for the census?  Do we know?

Paul:  We don’t have that information.  By the way, it is not automatic that Mary would have had to come along.  Joseph could have done it for the family, but there are two reasons why she came along. 

One, you have all heard of, that is, of course, she was of the house lineage of David.  The Davidic Messiah had to be born with the census there in Bethlehem, I should say, rather than Nazareth.  The other reason is that in a sense there’s a hurry-up baby on the way.  How do you explain that to the nosy neighbors in Nazareth, you see? 

Bob:  That’s right.

Paul:  It’s a very human, beautiful explanation of why it was very simple then to get out of town, as it were.  You really kill two birds with one stone.  That is the reason she came along.

Dennis:  Joseph’s taking her to Bethlehem may have saved her life?  As a young lady, could they have stoned her because she was pregnant?

Paul:  If the news would have gotten out, they would have counted up to nine or something like that or less than that.  That could have been a danger for her.  That is right, especially if some conservative rabbis got in the act.

Dennis:  Our listeners may not know why that is the case.  It was because the marriage had not been consummated; she was betrothed, right?

Paul:  Because there was a baby on the way for which Joseph was not the father.  That would have been deemed adultery, of course, by normal standards.  Therefore, she could have been stoned to death.

Dennis:  The reason they knew it wasn’t Joseph’s baby was because during the betrothal there was to be no sex.  Right?

Paul:  That’s right.  Exactly.  Joseph certainly would have known that, that was not his baby.

Bob:  Do you have any idea what Joseph would have to have done in Bethlehem to register for the census?

Paul:  We have a very good idea, Bob, because one of the census documents has been discovered.  That is the one I referred to yesterday up the Nile in Egypt in which the fellow registers with the city clerk.

He introduces himself and says, “I am Horace the son of Horace,” that’s the falcon god in Egypt, “with the scar over my right eyebrow.”  He didn’t have a social security number.  He had a scar by way of identification.  “I herewith register myself and my wife, Tepakuzis,” was her name, “with no identifying marks and our son Horace.”  They love that name…


…and so on.  He says, “In accordance with the census of Hadrian Caesar I hereby record these as members of my family.”

Bob:  You go to the city clerk, you fill out the documents, and you’re done.  Now you can go back home.

Paul:  Yes.  This comes in a scrap of papyrus, by the way, which you can see at the University of Michigan.

Bob:  Is that right?

Paul:  Indeed. Yes.

Bob:  Next time I’m in Ann Arbor, I’m stopping by.

Paul: There you go.

Bob:  Alright. 

Dennis:  Your book here The Very First Christmas begins with the first person of Christmas.  It is tied to this census, isn’t it?

Paul:  Augustus.  “And it came to pass in those days there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world,” the Roman world, “should be enrolled for the census.”  Absolutely.  The whole idea is to tie it into fact and to point out that although we call it the Christmas story it is not a fairy tale.

Bob:  Do we know anything about Quirinius?

Paul:  Quirinius.

Bob:  He was the governor at the time?

Paul:  Governor of Syria according to Luke at the time.  There is a problem there that hasn’t been completely solved yet in terms of—we do know that a Quirinius was a governor ten years later in Syria.  So, that is one of the few remaining problems that still has to be solved in biblical scholarship.  It is probably the worst of the problems. 

I think that the solution to it is this: that what Luke is really telling us is this census was first completed when Quirinius was governor of Syria.

Dennis:  Paul, you’ve done a masterful job here of giving us a—I don’t know—kind of beautiful, historical backdrop of Christmas and helping us feel the humanity which surrounds this story because Jesus did become a human.

Bob:  I want to know if I can audit your class next semester. 


Paul:  Come aboard, Bob. 

Dennis:  Absolutely.  I’ve got one last question for you Paul.  Let’s say that our Savior was seated right across the table here.  Here you are a professor of Ancient History; you’ve studied stories of many men who have come and gone; and you wanted to tell Him what Christmas and His birth and life and death and resurrection meant to you.  How would you answer that question to Him right now?

Paul:  Fascinating challenge.  I think I would say thank you, Lord, for finally showing us God.  Mankind has been searching for the ultimate ruler of the universe through many different religious systems at all times in all of a history.  It is a futile search because God reveals Himself to us; we don’t climb up to Heaven to find God. 

I think this is the ultimate cosmic meaning of Christmas that God crossed the Great Divide.  That is why of all the miracles that Jesus did the greatest is the Incarnation in the sense of the Infinite becoming finite.  That plus Easter are the two book ends, the cornerstone of the Christian faith.  Again, this is not just a story.  This is history or as you might even re-pronounce it “HIStory”.  Same spelling.  This really happened; this is the point.

Dennis:  Galatians 4:4 says, “But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His son born of a woman, born under the law; in order that He might redeem those who were under the law that we might receive the adoption as sons.”  It is indeed the greatest story that has ever been told.  I’m so grateful, Paul, for your ministry, your discipline of study, and for bringing Christmas to life here in some fresh and new ways.  Thanks for being on FamilyLife Today.

Paul:  Thank you, Dennis, Bob.

Bob:  We hope that story is told well around the tree today or tomorrow or in churches tonight or this weekend as families really focus together and focus their hearts on what it is we come together to celebrate. 

The joy of this Season is only found in part because families gather and because there are lights on a tree and presents and good food.  The real joy of this Season comes because of the good tidings of great joy that are for all men that unto us is born in the City of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord.  We hope that as your family is together this year at Christmas that will be your theme. 

If you’re not able to be with your family this year at Christmas, we hope that your joy can be found and realized in the relationship that you have with God through His son Jesus Christ. 

I think it is appropriate for us, Dennis, here on Christmas Eve to just say to listeners: if you’re headed into the celebration of this holiday and you don’t have a relationship with God through Jesus Christ; you are not walking with Him in obedience; you’re not following Him as your Lord and your Master either because you have slipped away from the commitment that you once made to follow Him or because you’ve never made that commitment; you’ve never declared to God your surrender and your obedience.  This would be the day for you to head toward Christmas with either a renewed commitment to your Master or with a first time commitment. 

What we have on our website at, a link that says “Two Ways to Live.”  It really outlines the difference between walking with God and walking, well, apart from God.  That really is the question that we face this year at Christmas.  How are you walking?  Are you walking with God or are you walking apart from Him? 

Our hope is that this would be a season and a time when if you are walking apart from Him you redirect your steps.  You come back to Jesus or you come to Him for the first time, and you surrender your life to Him.

Again, go to our website,; click on the link that says “Two Ways to Live” to find out more about what it means to have a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.  If we can help you with that in any way, we want to do that.  We want you to have a Merry Christmas no matter what your circumstances or where you find yourself this year at Christmas.  Again, our website is  We’d love to have you stop by, and we hope you have a wonderful Christmas celebration.

Hope you enjoy the weekend.  I hope you can join us back on Monday when Pastor Tommy Nelson and his wife, Teresa, are going to join us.  We are going to hear about a season that Tommy went through—I guess this was about four years ago now—when he sank into a deep depression.  He’ll tell us all about it: what it was like and how it derailed him from ministry for a period of time.  That comes up Monday, and I hope that you can join us for that.

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 Monday for another edition of FamilyLife Today

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