The Chronicles of Mary and Joseph: Part 3 of 4, Joseph and Mary

S. Kent Brown           

            As with Mary’s trip to Elisabeth’s home months before, for safety Mary and Joseph travel in the company of others. It is a necessity. They likely go southward through the Jordan Valley to Jericho, then make the long westward climb toward Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The alternate route runs through the Samaritan hill country, a winding road with a lot of ups and downs. Because the season is evidently early spring, others are arriving in Jerusalem and its environs for Passover. This is a reasonable explanation for the filled inn that Luke writes about (Luke 1:7). In reality, the term translated “inn” can point to a caravanserai-like structure with open stalls that look out into a large, open area where a cooking fire is kept burning. It can also be translated “guestchamber” as it is in Luke 22:11, meaning a guest room on top of a home. Because relatives probably still reside in Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph may well have gone to their homes for a place to rest and sleep, and found the guest rooms full with other visitors or family members. This sense may well lie behind the Joseph Smith Translation’s “inns” in this passage. In any event, they find a private place for Jesus’ birth among someone’s animals, whether a cave or the bottom section of a house.

A much later, unreliable account puts a midwife at Mary’s side when she gives birth to the infant Jesus. We simply do not know whether a midwife is present to help. Joseph knows the birth process from observing it among animals in Nazareth; he may even have helped an animal’s birth on occasion. He is fully able to assist Mary if needed. Whatever the case, all the verbs in verse seven describe Mary’s actions, pointing to her physical strength: “she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger” (Luke 2:7). What Mary and Joseph seem not to know, of course, is that a celebration is taking place not far from Bethlehem where “the angel of the Lord” has come to “shepherds abiding in the field” (Luke 2:8–9). Alone with the new child, Joseph and Mary settle down after Mary’s labor and delivery when, with the barest of instructions about what to look for, the shepherds arrive. It is then that the new parents learn, from others, that God is truly watching over them and their son.

Forty days later, Mary and Joseph go to the temple to make two offerings. One has to do with redeeming Mary’s firstborn child who, according to the Mosaic Law, belongs to God and must be redeemed by a sacrifice (Exodus 13:2). This obligation is taken care of by paying a five shekel tax at the temple. To be sure, Jesus is already dedicated to God, as the angel’s words indicate (Luke 1:31–33). But out of reverence for the Law, Mary and Joseph carry out their duty to redeem him. The other offering cleanses Mary from her state of ritual uncleanness that results from childbirth. In a word, she is in need of atonement (Leviticus 12:6–8). In this connection, the verb translated “openeth” in Luke 2:23, “Every male that openeth the womb” (Greek dianoigō), appears in the Septuagint tied not only to the first, sacred manifestation of life from a female, whether human or animal, underscoring its link to holiness (LXX Exodus 13:2, 12–13, 15, 34:19; etc.), but also to the opening of celestial understanding (LXX Genesis 3:6, 8; also LXX Hosea 2:15). It is with this latter meaning that the verb appears later in Luke’s narrative, highlighting the Resurrected Jesus as the one who opens the understanding and holds the keys to opening the scriptures (Luke 24:31, 32, 45).

Like other new parents, when the priests offer the two birds for Mary’s purification, an offering for the poor (Leviticus 12:8), she and Joseph stand in the Court of Women, probably at the top of the steps that lead through the Nicanor Gate. There they can see the great altar of sacrifice and the priests carrying out her offering. Beyond the altar rises the porch of the sanctuary and the tall doors that lead through the sanctuary’s facade, all decorated in white and gold. Only a few months before, the priest Zacharias walked through those doors where he met the angel whose message inaugurated the events of salvation. Now Mary and Joseph bring to that place the infant whose future mortal ministry will bring about that salvation.

Following Mary’s sacrifice, Luke’s narrative keeps his readers inside the temple grounds where Jesus’ parents are met by Simeon and Anna. The fact that they find the infant Jesus and his parents in this huge complex—it is a quarter mile from the north to the south end—bespeaks divine guidance for both of these elderly people, even though Luke writes only about Simeon’s coming, “he came by the Spirit into the temple” (Luke 2:27). Simeon’s prophetic words about the baby may not have surprised Joseph and Mary at this juncture, calling him “[God’s] salvation” and “A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel” (Luke 2:30, 32). But when he turns to Mary, he projects a rocky future for the child and for her: “this child is set . . . for a sign which shall be spoken against.” Then come words that reinforce Mary’s sense from the angel’s visit, that her world both now and in the future have changed dramatically: “a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also” (Luke 2:34–35). Anna’s arrival “in that instant” brings a lighter feeling as she “gave thanks likewise unto the Lord.” Moreover, “she spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38). She and Simeon thus become witnesses that God’s power is returning to His people.

—Based on The Testimony of Luke by S. Kent Brown, an e-volume in the BYU New Testament Commentary Series.