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Episode 115: A historical visit to Bethlehem at the Savior’s birth, with BYU Professor Dr. Matthew Grey

This episode of the Church News podcast features a professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University offering historical insights and biblical context on Bethlehem

Each Christmas season, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and others across the world, turn their thoughts to the town of Bethlehem and the traditional interpretation of the Nativity.

This episode of the Church News podcast features Dr. Matthew Grey, a professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University.

He shares historical insights and biblical context on the village of Bethlehem, the archaeology and practices of Jewish daily life, and the religious and political atmosphere that existed in this area at the time of the Savior’s birth. 

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Transcript:

Matthew Grey: So, I actually love the way in which archaeology and history work together to help us read scripture more carefully. And when the story comes to life, that just helps me to resonate even more clearly with the message of the story that’s found, not only in Luke, but also in Matthew, of the birth of Jesus bringing the light into the world. And that light really is for all humanity. Luke focuses on that through the shepherds. Matthew focuses on that through the Magi, the wise man, and today as modern disciples, as modern believers and as modern historians, I think it’s a message that is more needed than ever before, especially this Christmas season, as I’m thinking about the Christmas story in context, is just remembering that the love of God has no boundaries. And that’s something that I feel deep in my soul, both as a historian, but also as a believer.

0:58  

Sarah Jane Weaver: I’m Sarah Jane Weaver, editor of the Church News. Welcome to the Church News podcast. We are taking you on a journey of connection as we discuss news and events of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Each Christmas season, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and others across the world, turn their vision to the town of Bethlehem. This episode of the Church News podcast features Dr. Matthew Grey. He is here with us to share insights on the village of Bethlehem, the archaeology of Jewish daily life and the religious and political atmosphere that existed in this area at the time of Jesus’s birth.

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Dr. Grey is a professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University. He completed studies in archaeology and the history of early Judaism from Andrews University, University of Oxford and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he received his PhD. For the past 12 years he has been teaching courses at Brigham Young University on archaeology and the New Testament, including a year of teaching at the BYU Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies. During this time, he has also been actively involved supervising archaeology work on an ancient village and synagogue. Welcome, Dr. Grey, to the Church News podcast.

2:16  

Matthew Grey: Thank you. It’s great to be here.

2:17  

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, I hope we can drop the formality. Do you mind if we just call you Mat  as we go through this podcast?

2:23

Matthew Grey: Matt is just fine.

2:24

Sarah Jane Weaver: Great, let’s just start. Can you tell us a little bit about modern Bethlehem and then we can sort of turn our gaze back and focus on ancient Bethlehem?

2:33  

Matthew Grey: Sure, modern Bethlehem is a wonderful city. It’s a large Palestinian city, which has its own rich, local culture. And every semester, we get to bring BYU Jerusalem Center students to Bethlehem to, not only visit this modern city, but also to visit the sites traditionally associated with the birth of Jesus. And in that we join pilgrims from all over the world who wish to explore the location where Jesus was born from the Gospels. But you’re right, the city that you’ll see today is quite different from the first entry village that is described in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. So today, it’s fairly densely inhabited. And it basically revolves around the modern Christian tourist industry.

The skyline of modern Bethlehem. | Creative Commons License. https://wikitravel.org/shared/File:Bethlehem_Banner.jpg

So downtown Bethlehem today, you’ll see for example, marketplaces that have shops selling items for tourists that recall the Christmas story. There are lots of olive wood shops selling Nativity scenes and statues of the various characters from the Christmas story. You’ll have baby blankets shops made from wool from Bethlehem. And you’ll have all sorts of beautiful locations to visit including sites traditionally associated with the birth of Jesus. So right downtown Bethlehem, for example, you’ve got the traditional locations of the shepherd’s fields. There’s a Catholic and a Greek Orthodox site there. There’s a location called the Milk Grotto, that commemorates the journey of Mary and Joseph from Bethlehem to Egypt. And of course, right in the middle of all of it is the Church of the Nativity, which is an ancient church built around the fourth century, but that underwent several centuries of renovation that tourists can visit today to commemorate the traditional location of the cave in which Jesus was born. So all of this is a wonderful place to visit. It’s got a rich culture of its own. But as you said, it bears very little resemblance to the ancient village of Bethlehem from the Gospel accounts.

4:17  

Sarah Jane Weaver: I actually love that there is a place where we can go and think about what happened in Bethlehem so, so many years ago. I, personally, collect nativities.

4:28

Matthew Grey: Oh, great.

4:29

Sarah Jane Weaver: I pick one up when I travel for work to different locations. But what I really want to talk about is what it would have been like during the actual time of the Savior’s birth. Can you share some archeological insights of that First Century village?

4:44  

Matthew Grey: Sure. And this is what’s kind of difficult to envision when you’re there as a modern tourist, because it is such a busy modern Palestinian city. And this is where archaeology can come in to be very useful. Now, unfortunately, there has not been a lot of archaeological excavation work done in Bethlehem, precisely because it’s still a modern city where modern houses and modern life is still very much present. But having said that, over the last century or two, there have been occasional archaeological surveys of the area, archaeological soundings or probes in various parts of the city. And this allows at least a modest insights into what the ancient village would have been like.

So if we combined these modest archeological insights along with what we know about the village, historically, I think we can reasonably reconstruct at least the basic idea of what this village was like in the time of Jesus, which itself, I think can help us to more carefully read the Gospel accounts at Christmastime and can help us to better envision what these events would have been like.

5:46  

Sarah Jane Weaver: And I noticed that you use the word “cave,” when you were talking about where the Savior may have actually been born. What would it have been like? What insights can you share?

5:57  

Matthew Grey: That’s a great question. So if we take what we know from historical sources and archaeological evidence, the modest reconstruction that we can give of the ancient village basically goes as follows: It seems that ancient Bethlehem was a small settlement throughout the entire biblical period. It never was a large town or a large city. But it always seemed to be a small, farming and shepherding village, just outside — about five miles to the south — of Jerusalem. So it always existed in the larger hinterland of Jerusalem, but itself was always a very small village, probably never had a wall around it, for example. It probably only had clusters of homes. And we know from the topography of the region that the village of Bethlehem existed along a small crescent-shaped ridge that’s on the road right between Jerusalem and Hebron—  a road that’s sometimes called The Way of the Patriarchs.

That’s a road where, all the way back starting in the Old Testament period, for example, Rachel was buried. And so as travelers went between Jerusalem and Hebron, the small village of Bethlehem would have been just a small settlement just off of that main road and it would have been surrounded by agricultural fields and terraced olive orchards. And so we get a sense of the farming and shepherding nature of this village in the Biblical world.

7:12  

Sarah Jane Weaver: When each of us think about Bethlehem, we think about the scenes that we see in the manger. We think about, you know, sheep and shepherds. Tell us a little bit about the fields.

7:23  

Matthew Grey: Yeah, sure. So, the surrounding area around Bethlehem had always been very pastoral. Bethlehem is located just on the East Ridge of the Judean hill country, so a lot of low hills, and immediately to the east of Bethlehem would start the western edge of the Judean Desert. So, geographically, it’s set right in the middle of those two zones within ancient Israel. And the area around Bethlehem typically consists of terraced olive orchards and lots of patches of exposed limestone bedrock. And it’s in that area where shepherds naturally would have raised their sheep and their goats. And so that definitely, the pastoral setting, not only for the birth of Jesus, but going all the way back to the Old Testament, Bethlehem, of course, being most known biblically as being the hometown of David, the great King of Israel, who himself was a shepherd in those very fields.

The “shepherds’ fields,” small watchtowers, terraces and natural caves used for grazing sheep and goats along the hill slopes outside of Bethlehem. | Matthew J. Grey

So the tradition of Bethlehem not only being a place for grazing flocks and herds, but also a place where agriculture was fairly rich. A lot of wheat and barley can be grown there, which sets the context for the Ruth story. That might even be the background for why we call Bethlehem, Bethlehem. In Hebrew, “Beit Lechem” means the house of bread. And so between the agricultural activities that would have occurred in those fields and the shepherding activities that would have occurred on the hillsides in the area, we get really nice sense of Bethlehem starting at the time of Ruth and David, and going all the way into the Jewish settlement that existed there in the early Roman period, which is the setting for the birth of Jesus.

8:49  

Sarah Jane Weaver: And any light that would have come to those fields that night would have come from stars.

8:53

Matthew Grey: Of course, yeah.

8:54

Sarah Jane Weaver: I love that. So how does that help us envision the setting that we read about in the Gospel of Luke?

9:00  

Matthew Grey: Sure. So the Gospel of Luke, between the two Infancy Gospels, or the accounts of Jesus’s birth in the New Testament, the Gospel of Luke is the gospel that focuses on the shepherds in the fields in between Bethlehem and Jerusalem and coming to be the witnesses of Jesus’s birth as He was laid in the manger after He was born. And so the area around Bethlehem can give us a really nice sense of what that setting was like. And so as we were mentioning earlier, between the terraced orchards, the olive trees, the patches of limestone bedrock that existed around the countryside, this gave great grazing lands for the sheep and the goats that may even have been part of the larger temple economy.

There’s some evidence from ancient Jewish writings that the fields in the area between Bethlehem and Jerusalem may have actually been where the temple flocks were raised. And we don’t know that for sure and the Gospel of Luke doesn’t emphasize that point of it, but it does give us a sense of how important the shepherding activities were in this area. And so when the Gospel of Luke describes the shepherds in the fields and seeing the angel proclaim to them that Jesus had been born, that’s a really nice setting to envision those events.

10:05  

Sarah Jane Weaver: And I think so often when I, personally, think about the story of the Savior’s birth, I think about the phrase, “There was no room at the inn.” Can we talk about what homes and stables would have looked like in this time of First Century Bethlehem?

10:20  

Matthew Grey: Sure, yeah. And you raise a very interesting point, as well. And that is that there is often a big difference between the way we envision the stories traditionally, like in modern films, or in modern Nativity scenes, all of which are wonderful. But there can sometimes be a big difference between those depictions of events and what we actually see in historically contextualized reading of the biblical accounts.

If we go back to the original biblical text, in the Greek text of Luke chapter two, it says that there was no room for them in the “Kataluma,” is the Greek word. The word “Kataluma” in Greek just simply means a resting spot. 

The “shepherds’ fields,” small watchtowers, terraces and natural caves used for grazing sheep and goats along the hill slopes outside of Bethlehem. | Matthew J. Grey

And another aspect of the text in Luke that is interesting to note, is that it’s not a rush, frantic dash to try to find space. The Gospel of Luke says that while they were there, Mary gave birth. And so it gives a sense that they settled in a little bit and they were preparing. And then when it came time for her to give birth, because there was no space for them, that they had to go to another part of the facility, probably a stable, where they housed their animals. And we can talk about that in a moment in terms of how these homes and how the stables interacted together. But that’s probably a more careful and more contextualized reading of the Christmas story that’s based less on modern imagination and tradition, and more on the actual sources themselves.

11:32  

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and the first time I had ever contemplated that was when I saw “The Christ Child” video that was produced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And I understand that you were a historical consultant for that project.

Matthew Grey: I was, yeah, that was a wonderful opportunity.

11:44  

Matthew Grey: Yeah, that’s one of the things that was so wonderful about “The Christ Child” film back from 2019, is that it was one of the first attempts, I think, in film anywhere, to try to portray these events in a way that’s more historically informed and less traditional. 

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I think it’s really helpful to note how houses were designed. So what we know from ancient Bethlehem, and unfortunately, as I said, that we don’t have a lot of excavated homes from ancient Bethlehem. But from around the larger region, we do have homes that date to the First Century that tell us a lot about what this home probably was like. So for example, we know that most homes in this Judean hill country region, were very modest homes, maybe one, two or three rooms at the most — mostly constructed of stacked field stones that were piled together and then mortared over with kind of a flat plaster roof. And there was probably some modest courtyard that would have been part of this home that, where the family members could have done some food preparation activities. So it’s a fairly modest home itself, where the eating and the sleeping and the dwelling actually occurred. In fact, most of these homes either just simply had bedrock floors, or patched dirt floors, with the idea that you could lay a reed mat over those floors. And that that would be your space for eating where you’d all sit around shared cooking pots and dip bread into soups and stews. And then use that same space with a reed mat over a packed dirt floor for sleeping.

Part of the ancient cave complex, now used as a series chapels, under the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. During the time of the New Testament, these and other nearby grottos may have served as stable, storage or water facilities for adjacent households. | Matthew J. Grey

And so that gives you a sense of kind of the modest nature of these First Century homes that were in this region. And it also gives you a sense of how there’s very little privacy in these homes. There’s not a lot of personal space. So that leads us into the next part of these homes, which is that often, especially in this hill country, where so much of the exposed limestone bedrock of the area contains natural caves, a lot of times these homes would be built either right next to or right over a cave that could itself, then be repurposed into the stables. So that would be the space that would house the animals, and maybe a donkey or two, probably some goats for milk and cheese, possibly some sheep, as well.

But when Mary’s ready to give birth, there’s really just no personal space for her to do so. And for Jewish ritual purity purposes, as well. It’s just all around better to provide alternative space, in which case just let him have the stable. Let him have that repurposed cave that was usually used for sheep and goats, maybe some donkeys, and that is going to be the setting in which Mary gives birth.

And again, we think about our traditional depictions, is it just Mary and Joseph? Or is it more likely, Mary, maybe Joseph, but certainly some of the women, almost serving as midwives, to help Mary deliver the baby.

14:18 

Sarah Jane Weaver: And would there have been animals there, like we see in our modern Nativities?

14:22  

Matthew Grey: Possibly, because it was a stable, unless they cleared out all the animals just for this event. It’s not impossible that there were some goats or some sheep there, probably not much more than that. We probably don’t need to pack the stable with all all sorts of animals, as we often do in our wonderful Nativity scenes. But yeah, and in fact, we even have some indication from the Gospel of Luke, itself, that facilities for animals were part of the story, because when Luke says that Mary gave birth, and wrapped her baby in swaddling clothes and laid the baby in a manger, the manger facility was fairly common within some of these repurposed caves that are now stables. The manger being not a wooden box that we often imagine from a Northern European Nativity scene, but instead a manger being a stone carved trough for watering and feeding the animals that would have naturally been housed in those caves/facilities. 

A repurposed cave located under a first-century house excavated near Bethlehem. Carved into the upper part of the wall on the left is a row of small niches for holding oil lamps, and carved into the cave wall on the right is a row of feeding or watering troughs for animals. This latter feature likely resembles the “manger” into which Jesus was placed according to Luke 2. | Oren Gufteld

And we know from archaeological excavations in the area, that those stone mangers or those stone troughs for watering the animals for the sheep, the goats, maybe even the donkeys, can either be standalone limestone blocks that were just carved out to put the water or the food for the animals. Or it could also be permanent structures within the cave where you take exposed bedrock from within the cave and just carve it out and have temporary mangers or feeding troughs. And so either way, we don’t know exactly which one would have applied here. But either way, we have a really nice sense of how this cave facility would have worked, usually for housing animals, but temporarily being the space where Mary could give birth to the baby Jesus, wrap the baby Jesus and put Him into a stone feeding trough that would normally be used for animals. And of course, it’s while Jesus is in that stone manger, that the shepherds from the surrounding fields come to see the birth of Mary’s baby.

16:08  

Sarah Jane Weaver: And while we’re talking about everything going on at this time, can you give us some insight into the religious and political atmosphere that would have existed during this time period?

16:19 

Matthew Grey: Yeah, sure. So religiously and politically, this is a time of great transition in Judea more broadly. Herod the Great had been appointed king of Judea by the Romans, a few decades earlier. So around the year 40 BC is when Herod was declared by the Roman senate to be king of Judea, or king of the Jews. And while Herod was a very powerful figure, he didn’t have any natural lineage connections or claims to Judea and kingship. His father, well actually I should say, his grandfather was an Idumaean. That’s a region to the south of Judea. And his family was forcibly converted to Judaism about a generation or two before Herod was born, and his mother was Nabataean. That’s the area down by Petra in southern Jordan. And so, genealogically, Herod has no claims to any kind of regional kingship, certainly not the Davidic kingship line that goes all the way back to the Old Testament. But being a very powerful political figure and being well aligned with the Roman world, the Roman Senate declares him to be king of Judea.

And so for his very long and powerful 40-year reign, there were many groups in Judea, many Jewish groups, who did not see Herod as legitimate, who still longed for more indigenous kingship, a king that would arise from the House of David. And so, this situation where you have local Jewish groups who are longing for a return of Davidic kingship and the rise of a king from the ancient line of David would have brought to mind, for example, the prophecy of Micah that suggested that there one day would be a new Davidic king who was born in Bethlehem, the original village of King David from the Old Testament. And this observation was not lost on Herod.

Herod, throughout his reign, was very aware that he was seen as an illegitimate ruler. And as a result, he developed quite a bit of paranoia where any potential threats to his reign and to his rule can be brutally suppressed, including among his own family. And so as Herod is trying to find ways to promote a legitimacy to his reign, one of the things that he seems to have done is taken advantage of the area around Bethlehem, the traditional ancestral seat of King David, as the location where he would personally build a monument to his reign and to his rule. In fact, the place where he would later be interred at a site called Herodium.

The monument and tomb of Herod the Great at Herodion, an artificial mountain and fortified palace built to the southeast of Bethlehem. | Asaf T., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Herodium_from_above_2.jpg

Herodium is a remarkable site built by Herod the Great just outside to the south east of the village of Bethlehem. It’s an artificial mountain that Herod the Great had built using the latest in Roman construction techniques that was not only fortified, but had pleasure palaces, that had a theater, all sorts of Roman amenities, and it just towered over the neighboring region, including the small village of Bethlehem. And Herod built this site of Herodium, which can still be seen today, with the intention that that would not only be the place of his burial, ultimately, but that it would serve as an everlasting memorial to his reign. And as we wonder why Herod chose to build his own personal monument near Bethlehem, chances are very good that it’s precisely because of Bethlehem’s association with Davidic kingship, even though Bethlehem was a very small village, in the time of David, and in the time of Jesus, its symbolic resonance, its symbolic connection with Davidic kingship may very well have been the reason why Herod built his personal monument within view of Bethlehem, almost as if he’s trying to associate himself with the Davidic line that he knows full well, he is not part of genealogically.

And so, what all of this does is paints a picture that reminds us that Bethlehem is also right at the center of a moment of religious and political turmoil in early Judaism, where claims of kingship are being debated and contested, where Herod is fully aware of this, and where the Gospel of Matthew now places the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. So just like Luke placed the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem and highlighted the shepherds and the fields and so forth, Matthew, who also places Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem, seems to focus almost entirely on this political tension, where it’s almost a competing claim: “Who is the legitimate King from David’s line? Is it Herod with his monument at Herodion overshadowing the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem or is it the baby Jesus who’s born in this small village, itself? So I think that’s a really important political context when we’re reading the Gospel of Matthew.

20:40

Sarah Jane Weaver: And how do the wise men play into all of this?

20:43 

Matthew Grey: Yeah, so that’s a fascinating story that, again, is only highlighted in Matthew, I think, precisely, because of this political tension that seems to be the framing of Matthew’s Christmas account. So right in the middle of this moment, where Herod is very jealous and paranoid over potential threats to his reign, trying to establish his own legitimacy. We then hear that Jesus is born in Bethlehem and that these wise men from the east, appear having seen the star. And it seems that having followed the star from the east, and they follow that star to Jerusalem where they encounter Herod the Great.

And they ask, “Where is he that is born, King of the Jews?” And that line right there, I think would have been particularly provocative for Herod himself, who is very aware that he was not born as king of anything. He is king of Judea by Roman appointment. And so then you know how the whole story plays out. They end up looking through scripture, they end up finding the prophecy from Micah chapter five, that he would, well, the Davidic king would be born in Bethlehem. And so the wise man then continued to leave from Herod’s palace in Jerusalem, down that Way of the Patriarchs down towards the village of Bethlehem, where they ultimately find the baby Jesus. 

But I think that the way that Matthew constructs the story of the wise man, itself, is fascinating. It draws heavily on Old Testament scripture. For example, Numbers chapter 24, where you’ve got Balaam, a Gentile, who sees a vision of a star in the sky, that represents Judean kingship. And I think that Matthew is clearly evoking that Numbers 24 image that a star will arise from the house of Jacob, that star will represent Israelite kingship. So I think that that’s very much in Matthew’s mind as, as are passages like Psalm 72, and Isaiah 60, that all the nations will see the light of the Lord, and will bring gifts to God’s King, gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. So I think that Matthew very much has those Old Testament passages in mind, Numbers 24, Psalm 72 and Isaiah 60, when he’s describing these Magi coming from the east, following the star and looking for he that is born King of the Jews.

And so all of those together, along with the archaeological landscape of the village of Bethlehem and the large monument nearby of Herodion sets a very powerful political scene for us to read the Christmas stories from that light.

Life of Jesus Christ: Wise Men Seek Jesus | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

22:59 

Sarah Jane Weaver: And I want to talk a little bit more about the gifts.

Matthew Grey: Oh, sure.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Can you help contextualize these for us for this period of time?

23:06

Matthew Grey: Yeah, so these gifts, obviously, of gold, frankincense and myrrh, are very unusual. These are not the natural gifts you would give to someone when they were born or on any other occasion. If we go back through those very old Testament passages of Psalm 72 and Isaiah 60, where gold, frankincense and myrrh appear, they do seem to be in the context of gifts, recognizing the legitimate king of Israel. Gold, of course, being a gift for a king. Frankincense, where, of course, the incense is often not only a very costly spice, but something that can be used for incense, for example, at the temple. And then myrrh being a very precious resin, all of which can be found in Arabia. So, even though we don’t know exactly where these Magi were from, it’s very possible that they’re coming in somewhere from the Arabian Peninsula on the spice trails, bringing these gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to present to the individual that they see as the true legitimate king of Israel, all based on and rooted in these Old Testament scriptures of Psalm 72 and Isaiah 60.

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24:05 

Sarah Jane Weaver: And today, we focus so much on the birth of the Savior. But starting in January, we get spent a whole year studying the New Testament — studying His life, His teachings, and could benefit from learning so much about the archaeology of this whole region.

Matthew Grey: Yes.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Is there a message or a theme or something that we should know about or think about when we’re studying this year?

24:29 

Matthew Grey: Gosh, that’s a great question. And there’s just so much that we could explore there, as we’re looking for a whole year of studying the New Testament. I’d say a lot of the ideas that we talked about today can apply throughout the entire year. The idea that context matters, the idea that not only historical setting, and original intent, how these stories would have sounded, is something that I hope we keep in mind throughout the year. It’s not just for the Christmas story. It’s all through the ministry of Jesus. These were real villages and real locations and understanding daily life, religious dynamics in these places, can so deeply enrich the way we read about Jesus’s teachings and ministry, that I would just hope that we all keep this conversation going, that throughout the entire New Testament year for “Come, Follow me” we’re constantly thinking about not only how does this apply to us, which is a very important question, that tends to be our first question that we go to is, is, “What does this mean to me? How does this apply to us?” And that is a really great second or third question.

I would say the best first question, though, would be anytime you read scripture to ask, “What did this mean to them? What was the setting of Nazareth, or Capernaum or a very different setting, like Jerusalem?” And story after story, if you can ask that question first and get a good sense of what these things would have meant in their first century context, then the text lights up with meaning. And then, as we ask, “What does this mean to me” or “What does this mean for our modern day?” I think the power of application can be enhanced by understanding what it meant to them originally.

So I would say that this whole approach that we’re trying to take of contextualizing the Christmas stories is something I hope we can continue throughout the year, get some really good resources. There are important podcasts and other resources, study bibles that you can get to help you to understand that First Century significance. So I would just encourage us all to keep that original setting in mind as we’re reading a whole year worth of Jesus’s ministry and the ministry of His early disciples.

26:16

Sarah Jane Weaver: As we talk about all these archaeological insights, although limited by time, and space and what we can discover, how have they influenced or informed the way you have personally studied the New Testament?

26:33 

Matthew Grey: Yeah, that’s a great question. So I actually love the way in which archaeology and history work together to help us read scripture more carefully. We always talk with our students at BYU that context matters. Anytime we read scripture out of context, or any other document out of context, we are inadvertently changing its meaning. We’re not tapping into the full significance that it meant to its original author and its original audience. So this historical and archaeological background, for me, helps anchor the scriptural texts in its First Century setting. 

And seeing it in that context just helps it not only come to life in a way that I think is very exciting and inspiring, but helps you to see insights helps you be a more careful reader of scripture. And that always enriches our scriptural experience. Reading things out of context will never be quite as powerful as understanding what it meant to the original audience to the original author. And that’s where I think archaeology and history can really do us a service in our scripture study, to enhance that scriptural literacy.

27:29 

Sarah Jane Weaver: And there are some beautiful phrases that we think of when we think of this story of the Savior’s birth. One of them is, “Good tidings of joy for all people.” How can we appreciate the physical realities behind that message in Luke?

27:45  

Matthew Grey: Luke, out of all four Gospels, is especially known for being a gospel that highlights God’s love to outcast peoples, to marginalized peoples, to underprivileged peoples. Luke, for example, highlights women more often than any other gospel and has so many unique parables that Jesus teaches about God’s mercy and love to those who don’t easily fit into society and don’t easily fit into a community. And so that being the case, I think Luke is starting that theme right here in the birth story of Jesus, where you get shepherds who are not part of the upper echelon of ancient society.

Shepherds are very low on the socioeconomic totem pole, where they’re not only, you know, living very humble lifestyles, but they don’t have any position of power or any position of privilege. And I think Luke goes out of his way to note that it’s not to the kings of the earth. It’s not to Herod’s court. It’s not to the high priestly families of Jerusalem, that the angel appeared to announce the birth of Jesus. It’s actually to these shepherds. And that very much fits in with Luke’s theme of God’s love and outreach to the outcasts. So when we see shepherds as being the first to witness the birth of Jesus, with the angelic proclamation, that this birth represents the love of God, the good news for all people.

Luke is very emphatic about the inclusivity that comes from the message of Jesus and the ministry of Jesus. And so I think that’s a very powerful setting. And even though Matthew takes a more political tack, here, where he’s focusing on the power politics of Herod the Great, and, and so forth, Matthew ultimately does have the same message. The fact that wise men coming in from the east, and they’re the ones, not Herod’s court, not the wealthy families of Jerusalem. But it’s these wise men from the East, who, they’re the ones following the star. They’re the ones coming to the light of the Lord, as described in Isaiah 60, suggested for Matthew’s Gospel, as well, it’s not as much about community boundary maintenance, it is about the faith and the love of all humanity.

And so I love how both Luke and Matthew emphasize that message and how the archaeology of understanding life on the ground and understanding the fairly humble and modest circumstances of people like shepherds and villagers, that they are the ones who received God’s love in the person of Jesus in these Christmas accounts, I think tells us a lot about the overall message of the good news.

29:58 

Sarah Jane Weaver: And that goes along with one of our favorite phrases from Matthew, where he says, “This is a light to all nations.” 

Matthew Grey: Exactly, exactly. Yeah, that’s it. That’s right out of Isaiah, chapter 60, which Matthew is so carefully weaving into his birth narrative.

 30:12 

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, Dr. Grey, thank you so much for all of your insights, all of your very astute learnings and helping them become applicable to all of us who are wanting to learn so much more about this story. And I want to ask you a question, because I mentioned earlier that I collect nativities.

Matthew Grey: Yeah

Sarah Jane Weaver: We collect them from all over. We keep them out in our house year round.

Matthew Grey: Oh, that’s great.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Because this story has so much meaning to us. And I love that it’s represented in different cultures, in different ways, but still has so many central things that are consistent and the same. Now I have a thing with my nativities. And I like nativities where Mary or Joseph are holding the baby.

Matthew Grey: Oh, sure, yeah.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Now, that is something that’s hard to find. But I cannot imagine that the Savior of the World was born and that He stayed in the manger very long. I’d love to think that somebody picked Him up and held Him close. 

31:08 

Matthew Grey: Yeah that’s actually a great question. And generally speaking, you know, this is going to be a time of great celebration. And, and as we said earlier, it’s going to be a story that probably is not occurring in isolation. It’s not just Mary and Joseph. And that’s something we tried to do in “The Christ Child” film, was to show one or two other people within that setting. So it’s not just Mary and Joseph. But if you look very carefully, in “The Christ Child,” you’ll see a midwife walking around in the back.

31:30  

Sarah Jane Weaver: And this has been so so fascinating, especially as we all turn our thoughts to this place of the world, and this event. And we celebrate it in December, not the right month. Correct? We know that the Savior was born, not in December.

31:46  

Matthew Grey: We actually don’t know. There’s some interesting scholarly debate over when exactly Jesus was born. I think for the most part, it does seem to be more of a springtime birth. But I also have colleagues who would argue that December might, in fact, be a reasonable time to date the birth of Jesus. The reality is, we just don’t know we don’t have enough evidence from the text itself, to say exactly.

32:06  

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and as we, as we talk about things we don’t know, we have a tradition at the Church News podcast, to actually end with a phrase that says, “What do you know? What do you know now?” And we always give our guests the last word. And so as we close today, I’d like to pose that question to you. And I hope that you will also share your own personal testimony of the Redeemer of the World. After studying and reflecting on the archaeology and the circumstances of His birth, what do you know now?

32:41  

Matthew Grey: Well, that’s a great question. There’s so much that we can say there. I would say, going back to something we mentioned earlier, that I love archaeology and the way that archaeology can bring to life the world of scripture. But we also have to recognize the limits of archaeology. Archaeology can very rarely prove specific events or specific individuals. So I think where archeology is at its best is when it illuminates the context that helps us to envision the setting, helps us to see various dynamics that might not otherwise be obvious. And all of those things do bring the Christmas story to life, for me, both as an archaeologist and also as a believer. So I very much value that archaeological setting.

And when the story comes to life, through archaeology and historical background, in my personal experience, that just helps me to resonate even more clearly with the message of the story, which is what we’ve just described. This message that’s found not only in Luke, but also in Matthew, of the birth of Jesus bringing a light into the world. And that light really is for all humanity. And, you know, we’re living in a moment right now, where tribalism is pretty fierce and divisions socially, politically, and in all sorts of ways seem to govern and frame the way we live, today. This story is a powerful reminder that the light that God brings into the world through the person of Jesus really is a light for all humanity. Luke focuses on that through the shepherds. Matthew focuses on that through the Magi, the wise men, and today as modern disciples, as modern believers and as modern historians, I think it’s a message that is more needed than ever before.

So that’s the message that really resonates with me, especially this Christmas season, as I’m thinking about the Christmas story in context. Is just remembering that the love of God has no boundaries. That it’s the people that we often don’t expect the marginalized, the underprivileged, those who don’t easily fit in, those are the very people that these Christmas stories are all about. And that’s something that I feel deep in my soul, both as a historian, but also as a believer.

34:41 

Sarah Jane Weaver: You have been listening to the Church News podcast. I’m your host, Church News editor Sarah Jane Weaver. I hope you have learned something today about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by peering with me through the Church News window. Please remember to subscribe to this podcast and if you enjoyed the messages we shared today, please make sure you share the podcast with others. Thanks to our guests, to my producer, KellieAnn Halvorsen, and others who make this podcast possible. Join us every week for a new episode. Find us on your favorite podcasting channel or with other news and updates about the Church on TheChurchNews.com.

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