Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Historical Tidbits behind the Nativity Story

In writing the script for a Christmas musical giving an intimate retelling of the Nativity story, I learned some fascinating tidbits that gave some new depth and context to the familiar account of Jesus’s birth for me. As we enter the special season of Christmas, I thought you might enjoy learning about them too!

Mary and Joseph’s Betrothal
Nazareth Village, By מוחמד מוסא שהואן, CC BY 2.5

We know that Mary and Joseph were betrothed before she became miraculously pregnant with Jesus, but what did that mean? Betrothal wasn’t the equivalent of our modern-day engagement; it was much more formal. A betrothed couple were actually considered married, though during the one-year betrothal period they did not live together nor engage in marital intimacy.

So how did betrothal work? It was a little different than today’s prospective groom down on one knee with a diamond ring. A young man went to the family of the girl whose hand he desired, usually accompanied by older male members of his own family. He would present the girl’s father with a mojar, a “bride price,” and the man would consider both the offer and the young man and extend his approval—or not.

But while the marriage was largely arranged by parents, Jewish girls were not typically forced into a match. The young woman’s consent would be asked, as we see hinted even back in Genesis 24 when Rebekah’s family ask her if she is willing to go with Abraham’s servant to marry Isaac.

Breaking the betrothal required a divorce, and for a betrothed girl to be unfaithful was the equivalent of adultery and could conceivably be punished by stoning (Deuteronomy 22). We can see hints of this in the first chapter of Matthew, where Joseph is pondering what to do about Mary’s unexpected pregnancy.

We see Joseph’s integrity and compassion, however, in that he did not want to expose Mary to public disgrace, but planned to divorce her secretly, though many in their village might have thought him right to shame her. And then, of course, the Lord mercifully sent an angel to Joseph as well, so that he too could take his place in the unfolding saga of the coming Messiah.

The Wise Men
The Magi, by Nina-no - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5

We all know of the wise men, or magi, who came from the East in search of the newborn King. But who were they, really, and where did they come from?

Most likely the magi came from Persia, modern day Iran. They would probably have been part of the ancient Zoroastrian religion. Zoroastrians were monotheists who believed in one good God and one evil power, but that the Good was an impersonal being who could not be truly known. The magi may have learned of Jewish prophecies of a coming Messiah through the Babylonian connection with Daniel. At any rate, they realized the significance of the sign they saw in the heavens and set off in search of this Messiah King—a journey that may have taken up to two years and covered more than one thousand miles.

So Mary and Joseph’s journey wasn’t the only long one part of the Christmas story. We might sometimes miss the significance of Gentiles—who would have been considered pagans by most people in Israel—being included among the first to greet Jesus and acknowledge Him as King.

The Shepherds

We sing and read about the shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night, and being the first to hear the announcement of Jesus’s birth. But we don’t always realize the significance there without understanding a little of the culture of the time.

While Jewish heroes such as Abraham and David had been shepherds, in first century Israel shepherding was not an exalted profession. With living out in the fields among their sheep, shepherds weren’t able to keep all the elaborate rules of cleanliness stipulated by the Pharisees and other religious leaders.
Adoration of the Shepherds. By Della Rocca, Casa d'aste, CC BY-SA 4.0 

Because of this, even though the shepherds—particularly in Bethlehem, so close to Jerusalem—performed the important duties of raising lambs for sacrifice, they were looked down upon or even treated as outcasts by more religious and upstanding Jews.

Small wonder the shepherds were “sore afraid” and startled when the angels of heaven’s armies appeared to announce to them the birth of the Messiah—and not just to announce, but to invite them to go and meet Him face to face, a Baby lying in a manger, poor and humble as one of them.

Were any of these historical tidbits new to you? Which of them add the most significance to the Nativity story for you? Please comment and share!

Kiersti Giron holds a life-long passion for history and historical fiction. She loves to write stories that show the intersection of past and present, explore relationships that bridge cultural divides, and probe the healing Jesus can bring out of brokenness. Kiersti has been published in several magazines and won the 2013 ACFW Genesis Award - Historical for her manuscript Beneath a Turquoise Sky. A high school teacher and member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Kiersti loves learning and growing with other writers penning God's story into theirs, as well as blogging at She lives in California with her wonderful husband, Anthony.


  1. Great to read these deeper insights. Thanks!

    1. Thanks so much for stopping by and reading, Connie! Blessings. :)

  2. Informative historical tidbits about the Nativity Story. The Wise Men history was new history and shows how they were willing to follow the sign in the heavens to see the Messiah.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing, Marilyn! I've been blessed by learning more about the Wise Men too.

  3. Kiersti, thanks for pointing out these historical facts surrounding Christ's birth. Speaking of shepherds, our pastor spoke Sunday about how looked down upon the shepherds were. What I didn't connect though, was what you said about the great Israelite leaders Abraham and David being shepherds as well. How interesting that the Pharisees' rules had demoted the occupation to such a low, even though they liked to refer to Father Abraham and King David!

    1. Good points, Marilyn! Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing. :)