Christians love to hear and tell the traditional Christmas story. The birth of Jesus includes Mary and Joseph seeking shelter on a winter night, no room in the inn, a baby born in a stable, and angels visiting lowly shepherds nearby.
But our modern telling of the account in Luke 2:1-20 embraces critical flaws, according to Kenneth E. Bailey, who spent 40 years teaching the New Testament in the Middle East and who authored Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels.
According to Bailey, a careful reading of the text, along with an understanding of Jewish culture, illuminate five biblical truths that challenge our Westernized version of the Christmas story:
1. Joseph was returning to the village of his origin. Simply entering Bethlehem and telling people, “I am Joseph, son of Heli, son of Matthat, the son of Levi” instantly would have opened most homes to him.
Your text on Yom Kippur says the Ark of the Covenant was never recovered after the captivity. Is there any record that it was taken into captivity or destroyed?
According to the Jewish Virtual Library (www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org), what happened to the ark after the captivity is unknown and has been debated for centuries. It is unlikely the Babylonians took it because the detailed lists of what they took make no mention of the Ark. “According to some sources, Josiah, one of the final kings to reign in the First Temple period, learned of the impending invasion of the Babylonians and hid the Ark. Where he hid it is also questionable – according to one midrash, he dug a hole under the wood storehouse on the Temple Mount and buried it there (Yoma 53b). Another account says that Solomon foresaw the eventual destruction of the Temple, and set aside a cave near the Dead Sea, in which Josiah eventually hid the Ark (Maimonides, Laws of the Temple, 4:1).”
Some Ethiopian Christians claim they have the Ark today. In Axum, Ethiopia, it is widely believed that the Ark is being held in the Church of Saint Mary of Zion, guarded by a monk known as the “Keeper of the Ark.” According to the Axum Christian community, they acquired the Ark during the reign of Solomon, when his son Menelik, whose mother was the Queen of Sheba, stole the Ark after a visit to Jerusalem. The claim has been impossible to verify, for no one but the monk is allowed into his tent.
A more plausible claim is that of archaeologist Leen Ritmeyer, who has conducted research on the Temple Mount and inside the Dome of the Rock. He claims to have found the spot on the Mount where the Holy of Holies was located during the First Temple period. In the center of that spot is a section of bedrock cut out in dimensions that may match those of the Ark as reported in Exodus. Based on his findings, Ritmeyer has postulated that the Ark may be buried deep inside the Temple Mount. However, it is unlikely that excavation will be allowed on the Mount any time soon by the Muslim or Israeli authorities.
All the feasts are mandated in the Pentateuch, supposedly written by Moses. What is your view concerning the historicity of Moses and the Fathers (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob), and more generally the first part of the Old Testament?
While there are some who believe the Bible should be read as literature rather than Scripture, and some scholars who deny the historical truth of Gen. 1-11, it may be best for us to look at how Jesus felt about the Fathers and the Old Testament. For example:
- Jesus referred to Moses as the author of the Pentateuch (Luke 24:27, 44; John 5:46; 7:19 and others). Also, Moses appeared on the Mount of Transfiguration with Elijah and Jesus (Matt. 17:3).
- Throughout the Gospels, Jesus quoted richly from the Old Testament, especially in regard to the Messianic prophecies.
- He spoke of Adam and Eve as real persons (Matt. 19:3-6)
- He talked about the worldwide flood in the days of Noah as a historical fact (Matt. 24:37-38).
- He compared His physical resurrection to the reality of Jonah’s three-day experience in the belly of the great fish (Matt. 12:38-40).
- He made numerous references to Abraham as a real person (Matt. 8:11; 22:32; Luke 3:8; 13:28; 16:19-31; John 8:58).
- His disciples staked His claim of being Messiah, in part, to His lineage, which included Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Matt. 1:1-17; Luke 3:23-38).
What life application should we take into our lives from the feasts? Understanding that they point to the return of Christ, and that some churches even celebrate these with the Jewish people, how can or do the feasts or the knowledge of them fit into our worship practices today?
It seems to me that the Western church has largely lost the “Jewishness” of the Scriptures. A systematic teaching of the feasts would strengthen the faith of believers as they see God’s hand in human history, and they may serve to convince unbelievers of the amazing prophetic truths of Scripture.
In addition, worship services and sermons devoted to the feasts in the spring and fall may help all of us reconnect with the fact that God’s Anointed One came to us through God’s chosen people, the Jews. One great opportunity that exists now is the Lord’s Supper, which was instituted during the Passover. What a great opportunity to teach Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Also, baptism gives us the opportunity to talk about Passover, Unleavened Bread, and First Fruits.
On a personal level, I know I have become much more aware of the imminent return of Christ in the fall, and I watch with anticipation for Trumpets, when the dead in Christ shall rise first, and then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air (1 Thess. 4:13-18).
There are other Jewish feasts besides the seven we have studied. What can you tell us about Purim and Hanukkah, for example?
Purim commemorates a time when the Jewish people living in Persia were saved from extermination, thanks to the heroic acts of Esther, a Jewish woman chosen as Persia’s queen. Her story is told in the book of Esther. Purim is celebrated on the 14th day of Adar, which usually falls in March. The word “Purim” means “lots” and refers to the lottery that the evil Persian leader Haman used to choose a date for the massacre of all Jews. Haman’s sinister plot against the Jews was thwarted when Queen Esther, at the urging of her cousin Mordecai, risked death by revealing the plot to King Ahasuerus. The Jewish people were saved, and Haman was put to death. Purim is a joyous celebration preceded by a fast, which commemorates Esther’s three days of fasting in preparation for her meeting with the king. Observant Jews read the book of Esther, enjoy food and drink, and make gifts to charity.
Hanukkah (also spelled Hanukka, Chanuka and Chanukah) is one of the most joyous times of the Jewish year. The people remember the miraculous military victory of the small, ill-equipped Jewish army over the ruling Greek Syrians, who had banned the Jewish religion and desecrated the Temple. In addition, they celebrate the miracle of the small cruse of consecrated oil that burned for eight days in the Temple’s menorah. As a result, Hanukkah is an eight-day festival beginning on the 25th day of Kislev, which normally falls in December. It also is known as the festival of lights. Hanukkah is celebrated by lighting a menorah for eight nights; eating foods fried in oil, especially potato pancakes and jelly doughnuts; and playing with a dreidel, a four-sided top. Many non-Jews – and even some Jews – equate this holiday with Christmas, adopting many of the Christmas customs such as gift-giving and adorning the house in festive decorations.
Neither Purim nor Hanukkah are “appointed times” or “holy convocations” in Scripture. Nevertheless, they play important roles in Jewish history and modern custom.