Palestine Calling
W. M. Christie

Chapter I

Early Days of the Lord Jesus

In the Gospel narrative we have a record of the events leading up to and associated with the Birth of Christ.

This is followed by a silence of thirty years, broken only by the story of one single incident, the visit to Jerusalem in His thirteenth year. Men have longed to know more of His boyhood days, and to satisfy that wish attempts have been made in both ancient and in modern times. We have the Gospel of the Infancy, a series of unsatisfying fables, and in these days we meet with volumes of romancing, that add nothing to our knowledge, except at times a minimum of local colouring. Still an accurate knowledge of the New Testament, an acquaintance with contemporary history, and an experience of Palestinian life can throw a great amount of light on these "silent years," and enable us to understand conditions that "could not have been otherwise." Let us then endeavour to gather up a few of these "side lights."

In the first place, let us consider the circumstances of the Birth of Christ. Based on Luke 2:7, "for there was no room for them in the inn," the practically universal belief of the Christian world is that the Lord Jesus was born in the stable of the public inn at Bethlehem, and attempts have been made to associate this with "the lodging place of Kimham" (Jer. 41:17), a reading concerning which doubts exist. Now the New Testament word for a public inn is "pandocheion," and such places were generally of evil repute, the scenes of boisterous quarrels and unceasing brawling. But the word in Luke's Gospel (2:7) is "katalyma," and it is used again by the same author (22:11), and by Mark (14:14), for the upper room, in which the Last Supper was celebrated. We should prefer to translate in each case "the guest chamber."

We can appreciate the conditions. Joseph and Mary came to Bethlehem expecting to find accommodation in the room set apart for visitors in the house of the sheikh, probably himself a member of the House of David, and a distant kinsman of Joseph and Mary. In every village in Palestine, before good roads and the motor car swept away the necessity for such places, there was "a manzil," or "loosening down place" (cf. katalyma, from Greek Kataluo) set apart as a "guest chamber." In the better villages it was frequently an upper room, and here visitors enjoyed quietness and liberty of movement away from the family, and the intrusion of neighbours; but in the smaller villages it was generally one half of the stable, having an elevated platform, one or two feet higher than the actual floor, and named the "mastaba." There the guests rested, fed, and slept, with their animals close by. In such a place, then, the "second best guest chamber," Joseph and Mary were received, and there the Lord Jesus was born. He was then placed in the manger. Such usually consisted of square holes left in the walls when the stable was built, and having a retaining strip of wood in front. The manger in which the child Jesus would be placed would be the nearest to the mustaba, easily accessible, and it would certainly be the safest place for a new born child.

It may be worthy of note that at the present day a cave is pointed out as the place of Christ's birth. The tradition to this effect goes back to the days of Justin Martyr (Dialogue, Sec. 78), who says He was born "in a certain cave" (c. 150 A.D.). Caves were sometimes used as stables, but there are difficulties in the way of identification in the present case. One thing, however, is certain--Jerome occupied the cave indicated when busy on his translation of the Latin Bible, the Vulgate.

But we may ask, Why was Mary excluded from the guest chamber? "There was no room for them in the 'katalyma.'" It was already occupied. Who were there? They must have been special guests, people of surpassing rank or dignity, or age. We have had personal experience that a Turkish Pasha (the unspeakable Turk) would in the circumstances have given place, and contented himself with the mastaba. Evidently there was in the guest chamber some one that could not be asked to vacate the room. Who was he? Now we know of other members of the House of David living at that time, and they, too, must have come to Bethlehem for registration. There would be "The Gentile Hillel," Chief of the Sanhedrin, now well over one hundred years of age, his son Simeon, and his grandson Gamaliel. The age of Hillel, and the dignity of the whole company, may well explain the hesitancy of the sheikh.

And as we cannot fit any other Simeon into the history of the period, it is interesting to think that the son of Hillel, and the father of Gamaliel, may have been the Simeon of Luke 2:15-35. On the morning after the birth he would hear of the Angels' Song and the shepherds' visit, and these things would prepare him for the revelation to himself, and for the blessing in the Temple. And let us here remark that "all Israel" shared in blessing the new born King Messiah. There was the priest, of the tribe of Levi, Simeon of Judah (the southern kingdom), and Anna of Asher (the northern kingdom). Accepted representatively on His Advent. And what shall we say of Gamaliel? He must have been just about 18 years of age, too old on the one hand, and too young on the other, to be interested in a "new baby," but he, too, would hear and think; and impressions may have been made that influenced his later life and verdict (Acts 5:38). But whether or not we be right in our identification, the guest chamber was occupied by visitors of position in Israel, and without doubt it was wealth, dignity, and learning that prevented the Lord Jesus being welcomed into the world as a guest. He came unto His own (possessions) and His own (people) received Him not.

The flight into Egypt meant security against the sinister designs of Herod. It meant also that the family was preserved from immediate contact with the terrors of war, and the meeting with Roman and Arab legions, as they marched through the valley of Nazareth. We cannot be quite certain as to the date of return to Nazareth; but about the second year of the life of the boy Jesus (2 B.C.), the city of Sepporis (Dio-Caesarea in Greek writers, now Seffurieh), three miles distant from Nazareth, was besieged and captured by the Romans and their Arab allies, and burned to the ground, and the inhabitants were sold into slavery (Jos. Ant. xvii., x. 9; Bell. ii. v.1).

There are early stories of Mary's family having been resident there, and although we attach no special value to tradition, we must admit that the present one gives an indication of relationships that must have existed between Sepporis and Nazareth. Another recorded fact is (Jos. Ant. xviii. ii. 1) that the ruined city was being rebuilt by Herod Antipas during the years when Christ was a boy in Nazareth. These things have something to tell us of His boyhood. The rebuilding meant that there was abundance of work for a man like Joseph. The word "tekton" which we translate "carpenter," as applied to Joseph and the Lord Jesus, means much more. The "tekton" (cf. our word "architect") was applied to one who would undertake all kinds of building work, in stone as well as in wood. He would use a saw for cutting the soft Galilean limestone (we have seen it being done), just as he would for wood. He would supply the finished house. In Sepporis, then, in company with Joseph, the boy Jesus would learn His trade.

And what would be their thoughts during their daily toil, and while treading back and forward every day? Very often indeed of their kindred and friends in slavery far away. From time to time they met fugitive slaves, and liberated slaves, and the stories these had to tell intensified their innate desire to ransom others still in bonds. The Nazarenes were remembering their kindred and struggling to get them home. And we can think of the boy Jesus toiling on to earn an extra shekel to buy back some friend from slavery in distant Rome. Truly, His life from the manger to the Cross was one of redeeming service.

Then seven years later, after the deposition of Archelaus, there arose a strong and bitter opposition to the Romans, and to the tribute which they had imposed. The head of the movement was Judas the Gaulonite, otherwise known as Judas of Galilee, and his followers were named "Zealots." Their war cry seems to have been "No king but God," an expression that the present writer discovered a few years ago in Gishcala, the old revolutionary centre, whither it had come down through all the ages. The boy Jesus would then be in his eleventh year, an age when strong military impressions are made. He ought then in the natural course to have learned to hate the alien and the oppressor. As Romans marched and counter-marched through the Nazareth valley, he would come to learn the terrible associations of the word "legion," a term through which it was sought later to terrorise Him (Luke 8:30). It is quite possible that Simon the Zealot was "out" in this war, and earned his title from it; but Christ brought him into touch with his natural enemies, Matthew the publican, and Peter the tax-payer, whom he would fain have slain, but He made them all companions and friends in the service of "peace and good-will."

"And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom: and the grace of God was upon Him" (Luke 2:40). These words summarise twelve years. What light can we throw upon them? How were the years spent in Nazareth, before He "began His trade," and what was done when free from daily toil? The association with Sepporis had its influence even before labour began there. Very often the boy would go to meet Joseph, and that took Him through the most beautiful and flowery valley we know in the whole land. To the Nazarenes also the Valley of Sepporis was, and is, the valley of picnics. There Jesus came into contact with wild nature, with the mustard and the thorns, with the flower of the field and the lily, and we know how He loved them, and was able to use them in apt illustration. And behind all their life and beauty there were the crystal fount and flowing stream.

And on the other side of Nazareth there were the "plough-lands" of the city, still in our day in the Plain of Esdraelon. Like the children of Galilee in all the centuries, the boy Jesus must have joined in the field work. Later on we learn that He knew all about the good ground, the stony ground, the thorns, and the good seed. And in all He was exact. He knew that the seed of the tares came from another place, and was not merely degenerate wheat, the opinion of both Jews and Romans in that age. He could estimate, too, the returns that should be expected. And all this knowledge He gathered by practical experience. And is it not interesting, too, to think that, as a boy, the Lord Jesus actually helped to reap the fields of Armageddon?

And in the matter of education too we have light. In the days of rabbinical Judaism the teaching in the home got precedence of everything (Kidd, 30 a; Bab. Bath. 21a). And although there was a general hatred of the Greek tongue, some allowed it even to girls (J. Peah. 2b). In Nazareth it would be necessary for the many activities outside the home. Though but a village around the spring, Nazareth was important enough to have a synagogue (Luke 4:16), and every synagogue would have a complete copy of the Old Testament which might be studied there by interested students. There would be few books in the homes, but some families might have acquired favourite portions of the Bible in Hebrew or Greek. We are of opinion that in the "Home of Nazareth" there were copies of Isaiah and the Psalms. These were evidently the favourite studies of the boy Jesus. "At five the Bible," was the rabbinic injunction (Pirke Abhoth, v. 26), and as nothing further was then written down, the exposition, whether in the home or the synagogue, would be oral. Then the synagogue at Nazareth had some special importance. From the poems of Eliezer hak-Kalir, and elsewhere, we learn of the priestly stations in the time of the Second House, and Nazareth is set down as associated with the priestly course of Aphses (1 Chron. 24:15). Accordingly the young Nazarenes would learn the most these men had to teach of priestly sacrifice and substitution. And Mary's kinship with the priests might form associations and closer friendships for her eldest Son (Luke 1:36).

Another undoubted influence on the young Nazarene was the outlook from the hill top that rose to the west of the city. There was a panorama, without an equal for historical associations in the world's history. Every crisis in Israel's story had a memory there. Close at hand by Tabor and Kishon, the men of Zebulon and Naphtali had jeoparded their lives to the death. Little Hermon, (the Hill of Moreh) and Gideon's fountain (En Harod) would recall the "day of Midian," while Gilboa would bring memories of the passing of the kingdom from Saul to David, and Jezreel would raise thoughts of sad declension in the days of Ahab and Jezebel. Shunem, Endor, and Bethshan could also be discerned, and Megiddo, the scene of Josiah's heroic fight, while nearer still on the slope of Carmel, was "the place of burning," the site of Elijah's sacrifice, and Baal's inglorious defeat before the God of Israel. More distant were Ebal and Gerizim, with memories of "blessing and cursing," and Pisgah's peak in the distant haze; while westward there would be a glimpse of the great Sea. And turning northward, there was Gath Hepher, the birthplace of Jonah, destined to be first foreign missionary, who had eight hundred years earlier played over the same hills as did the young Jesus now. And how must all these scenes have influenced the young Nazarene, especially when He came to know that He was the true Ben David, and heir to all their most glorious memories? That they were His daily food and meditation we know, for the three prophets quoted by Him in Galilee are Elijah, Elisha and Jonah, whose fields of service can here be seen.

His becoming a son of the Law is pretty fully given by Luke, and it is the best known incident of His boyhood years. There would be preparation for His taking an intelligent and becoming part in the synagogal service, probably in the Women's Court, as synagogue in the Temple, and the scene of Simeon's blessing Him. But it seems to us further that in view of the step now taken, it was before leaving Nazareth that He would get the knowledge of His mysterious birth, and there would be brought out the "Book of the Generations"--two sheets of parchment, at the close of each of which Joseph in loyalty and faith had entered the name "Jesus," and which showed Him to be, as Joseph's successor, the heir of David through the "royal succession," and as the Son of Mary, the Son of David by natural descent. We seem to find an echo of this newly acquired knowledge in the question, "Wist ye not that I must be about My Father's business," or, "in My Father's house."

Another historical incident fits into this same year, which we reckon as 8 A.D. It was at that Passover season that the Samaritans came privately into Jerusalem by night, and when the gates of the Temple were opened, just after midnight, they entered and scattered dead men's bodies in the cloisters to defile the Temple (Jos. Ant. xvii. ii. 1). The alien Samaritans, the hated Cutheans, polluted His Father's House, and in a sense destroyed the most solemn week of His boyhood days. That was doubtless the subject of discussion when He sat "in the midst of the doctors both hearing them and asking them questions." We can believe that His prayer thus early was, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do," and at such an attitude can we wonder that the doctors were astonished. And such to the Samaritan was His attitude through life. Twenty-one years later, in the Temple Court, He taught the parable of the Good Samaritan, and made that hated word the synonym of humanity and brotherliness, and in that sense Jew and Christian, and even Agnostic use the word. He redeemed the word "Samaritan." Who amongst us could have done as He did? Controlled by circumstances, or a product of the age in which He lived, could He have risen to this?

Then in two of the Gospels we have four "brothers" of the Lord Jesus set down by name (Matt. 13:54-58; Mark 6:1-6); while His sisters are also mentioned as being still in Nazareth. We find also (Matt. 12:46-50; Mark 3:31; Luke 8:19-21) His brothers, evidently the same persons, mentioned as being present in Capernaum. We cannot believe that these were not real brothers and sisters, sons and daughters of Joseph and Mary, and not cousins, as some, with a purpose or a bias, would explain away the word. Our position is strongly supported by the term "first-born," which, though doubtful in Matthew (1:25), is unquestionably the correct reading in Luke 2:7. Then why should the Nazarenes be astonished at a mental and spiritual difference, a very common thing between cousins, but by no means so frequent between brothers and sisters. Paul, too, would be in error (Gal. 1:19) in speaking of "James, the Lord's brother," when he had at hand a term that would not mislead. All these things fit in harmoniously, and the Lord Jesus was brought up in a family of boys and girls, of brothers and sisters. He was the elder brother there, and evidently early responsibilities were laid upon Him. We hear nothing of Joseph after the visit to Jerusalem. He may have been considerably older than Mary (Joel 2:28; Matt. 1:20; 2:13), and may have left her a young widow. And when he died, the conditions and law in Galilee were that Mary became head of the house and had full possession (M. Keth. iv. 12, etc.); but on the elder brother there fell the responsibility for the family, responsibility without authority, a difficult position indeed in Galilee, where a chief characteristic of the people is set down (B. Ned. 24a) as "disputatiousness." We can judge that such conditions lasted till He was "about thirty years of age." At that time the brothers and sisters would have struck out each one in his and her own life, and Jesus might have looked forward to less of daily strain and toil. But it was not to be. Hitherto His service had been for those of the home, now it was to be for all mankind--the world.

Return to W. M. Christie Page

© Copyright 2019 Rediscovering the Bible. All Rights Reserved. | Contact Us | Email Webmaster