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Though I was working from Mike Rich’s excellent script, when it comes to research, I don’t trust anyone to do my homework for me. Fortunately, I have an incredible research library, most of it computerized, and I use Ask Sam, a program that enables me to organize my research texts into a word-searchable database. So I took the same database I’d used for Magdalene and expanded it to include information about Mary, Joseph, Nazareth, Elizabeth, Zachariah, the Temple, Herod the Great, the Babylonian magi, etc. I relied heavily on texts from Alfred Edersheim, and the novel includes a five-page bibliography of all my sources. I want people to know I don’t make details up. If you’re going to be a historical novelist, I think you should go to the best and earliest sources you can find and verify everything possible.
As I watched the movie at the premier, I was struck by how differently I perceived several scenes. The movie shows Zechariah standing in the Temple before a relatively small crowd that includes women, but the women were only allowed in the Court of the Women, so there’s no way they’d be waiting outside the Holy Place. Furthermore, the Temple would have been mega-church crowded at the time of the offering of incense.
I was personally curious about how Zechariah was chosen to offer the incense. All my life I’ve read that this priest was among those chosen by lot, and somehow I couldn’t imagine the priests kneeling as they tossed a pair of dice against the wall. So the “lots” scene in the novel–where the leader counts fingers, not Israelites–is accurate. Fascinating stuff from Edersheim!
The movie also compresses the probable timeline–Mary stayed at Elizabeth’s house three months, so unless she delayed her journey to Elizabeth’s house, that’s not long enough for her to feel the baby move–babies don’t “quicken” until the fourth or fifth month.
In any case, as I wrote I made some quiet changes and clarifications. Nothing that changes the story, of course, but hopefully some things that make the biblical account clearer.
Let’s talk about Mary and Joseph arriving at Bethlehem. First of all, all the cities were walled in those days, and each city had a well inside the wall. Jewish tradition stated that whenever people went to a strange town, they would go to the well (which served as a community gathering place), where they’d meet up with someone who would inevitably invite them home for the night. Because Abraham extended hospitality to the angels “unaware,” this was a longstanding tradition among the Hebrews. In an ordinary situation, Mary and Joseph would have gone to the well and waited until someone invited them to stay overnight.
But this was no ordinary time. The census had uprooted all kinds of people, and the Romans had erected “katalumas” outside the city–structures rather like an open tent. Since the city was crowded and every family had taken in all the guests their homes could hold, the overflow folks were staying in the katalumas–with their donkeys, chickens, sheep, whatever. This is where Joseph and Mary first sought shelter and found the area too crowded.
A note about “inns”: the idea of a hotel/motel was foreign to the Jews (because they had a strong tradition of hospitality), so traditional inns usually served Gentiles (with whom no devout Jew would share the same roof). Furthermore, these places were usually frequented by prostitutes, another reason for devout Jews to stay away. Proper inns, however, were rarely found in small towns, so if you’ve always thought that Bethlehem had a hotel . . . time to adjust your thinking.
If Mary and Joseph made it into the walled city, they would have asked for shelter from people at the well. Most poor people lived in one-room houses, and they bedded down the family goat or donkey in the house with them. It is therefore possible that a manger might exist inside the house. Wealthier people, however, might have larger homes, and if they had many animals, they might have a small stable area attached to the house. This easily explains why the shepherds found the baby in a stable and the wise men found him in a house. Different ways of saying the same thing.
After the night of the baby’s birth, it’s entirely possible and probable that a family took Mary and Joseph in.
Now–did the wise men really arrive two years later?
I don’t think so, though I’m amazed at how many people think that’s gospel truth. The primary reason some people have speculated that the wise guys came much later is because of the stable/house references, and the fact that Matthew uses the word “padion,” a word for older child, while Luke refers to the “brephos,” the word for infant.
We do know that Mary and Joseph remained in Bethlehem for at least forty days, the time of Mary’s ceremonial uncleanness, before she had to go to the Temple (a short journey from Bethlehem) for her cleansing and the child’s dedication. There was no reason for M&J to remain in Bethlehem any longer than that–they would have gone back to Nazareth if the angel had not sent them on to Egypt. Likewise, it would have been silly for them to go all the way back to Nazareth between the birth and the Temple dedication, especially since Mary was ceremonially unclean during that time . . . and undoubtedly exhausted.
So it is completely plausible that the magi saw the star and followed it before the child’s birth and arrived soon afterward. The movie condenses this time line and has the magi arriving on the same night, but in writing the novel, I made it clear that M&J remained in Bethlehem forty days, then went to the Temple, and then headed to Egypt. I believe the wise men showed up at some point during that forty day period . . . and how convenient their arrival was, since M&J needed money to pay their Temple taxes. God always supplies.
If you’ve seen the film and read the novel and have any questions about historicity, be sure to ask and I’ll do my best to field an answer on Q&A day.
Tomorrow: the writing