The familiar Christmas story is much more meaningful for those who live in the Middle East since Jesus was born there. Drawing from the rich background of the Iranian culture and history, the following observations will help give a truer meaning of the events that took place on Christmas.
Mary – Her Relation to Joseph
Matthew 1:18 and Luke 1:27 state that Mary was pledged to be married (NIV) or espoused (King James) or betrothed (NASV) or engaged to be married (LB) to Joseph. The problem with any English translation is that there is no word in English which can be used to translate accurately Mary’s relationship to Joseph.
In the West, usually there are two steps after courtship—engagement and marriage. The engagement is entered into by both the man and woman but can be broken by just one of the parties involved. Marriage is the time when the two become husband and wife legally and go and live together. The marriage can be broken only by legal proceedings.
In Iran, there are three steps—engagement, aghd, and marriage:
1. Engagement (namzad) can be arranged by the parents for their children at an early age or later on when they are in their teens or early twenties. Nowadays in modern Iran, there are a few who get engaged independently on their own, or the girl may be allowed to have “veto” privilege. An engagement can be broken, but this is rare since it is hard on one’s “abru” (reputation), especially for the girl because some would think of her as being “second hand.”
2. Aghd is the legal ceremony with the Mullah (a religious Muslim leader). Once an “aghd” takes place, it can be broken only by legal proceedings such as a divorce. The couple does not live together until after the next step, the marriage, which may be right away or after several years. Often the couple cannot live together until the man saves enough money to set up the house, finish his military service, or finish his education. This is probably the relationship Joseph had with Mary since Joseph wanted to put Mary away privately when he heard about her expecting a baby.
3. Marriage (arusi) is the secular celebration with a meal, party, or a series of parties. Customs vary in different parts of Iran, but after this celebration the couple lives together for the first time. Usually, it is important on the wedding night for the bride to prove she was a virgin. This principle comes from the Bible in Deuteronomy 22:13-22. Here the scripture states that after a man marries and then slanders his wife saying that she was not a virgin when he married her, the mother and father were to bring proof that she was a virgin to the town elders. If the elders accepted the proof, the man would be fined 100 shekels of silver for bringing false charges against his wife. However, if the man’s charges that the woman had sexual relations before marriage were true, according to the law, as found in verse 21, she was to be stoned to death. After the angel appeared to Joseph, the Bible says, “Joseph took unto him his wife, and knew her not till she had brought forth her first-born son.”
The Trip to Bethlehem (Luke 2:1-6)
Why did Mary go with Joseph to register in Bethlehem for the Roman census when she was so close to delivering her baby? Perhaps women had to be present personally to register, or she wanted to be away from her home city and the gossip or she wanted to be with her husband, Joseph.
Did Mary ride a donkey to Bethlehem? The scripture is silent on this point. Even if they did have a donkey, would Mary have ridden on it or would it have been used to carry basic household furnishings, Joseph’s carpenter tools and bedding? Maybe they had several donkeys or perhaps they both walked leading the donkey carrying the heavy load.
The Manger Scene (Luke 2:7)
Was the lodging in the stable free? Many years ago I watched a Christmas play put on by Iranian Christians. In this scene, Joseph and the innkeeper haggled over the price of using the stable because it was a better place to stay.
Was the stable really better than the inn? Probably there were no private rooms in the inn except for the wealthy. Many travelers slept in the same room and most of them were men. If you were a woman, would you like a room full of men to observe the birth of your first child? How could the shepherds have come in the middle of the night to see the baby if it had been born in a crowded inn room?
What are swaddling clothes (King James, "cloth" in NIV)? Most children, when they are born in Iran, are wrapped tightly in special cloths. Sometimes only the feet are bound. In the villages often the arms are bound initially too. Two of our daughters were born in a Persian maternity hospital and had their feet and legs bound while they were in the hospital.
If you ask a Persian mother why her child is bound, probably she will answer that it will make the baby’s arms, feet, and back straight or gives them security. Usually, the strips of cloth are changed once or twice a day.
The Shepherds (Luke 2:8-20)
Shepherds in Iran have one of the lowest paid professions. Often they watch sheep and goats, which belong to someone else, and many of them are “dirt poor.” However, God saw fit to give the good news of the Savior’s birth to shepherds. They probably felt at ease at the stable.
The Wise Men or Magi (Matthew 2:1-12)
Who were the Magi or wise men? Magi, the Greek word, is derived from a Persian word which meant a caste of wise men specializing in astrology (study of the stars), medicine, and natural science. During this time, Zoroastrianism was the national Persian religion and there was much emphasis on the study of the heavens.
Where did the Magi come from? The Bible says they came from the east. The present-day countries of Jordan, Iraq, Syria, and Iran are east of Jerusalem. Three Iranian cities called Saveh, Hamadan, and Rezaiyeh each claim that the wise men originated there.
How did they know the star was a sign? They could have been curious to find out what the star meant, but who would take a long trip just out of curiosity? Perhaps God in His sovereignty revealed this to them so there would be Gentiles (non-Jews) acknowledging the birth of the Savior. Perhaps they learned about the star through the witness of the scattered Jews who remained in Iran after the others returned from the exile.
Have you thought about the “humbling” act of the Magi? Just think, these distinguished men worshiped a tiny baby of a different nationality in a poor home! Have you dedicated your time, money and spiritual gifts to serve and worship our Lord Jesus? Matthew 2:11 says they came into the house which Joseph evidently rented in Bethlehem after the initial birth in a stable. Some feel that Christ may have been as old as two years since King Herod ordered all babies two years and younger to be killed. How big was the house? During the 1975 census taken in Tehran, 40 percent of the population still lived in one-room houses.
Make a Personal Application
Think of the beauty of the Christmas story and its uniqueness - a Roman census, manger, shepherds, virgin birth, poverty, and magi. It must be God-given for man never would have been able to invent such a story! Do you just know the facts of the Christmas story? Have you personally accepted this Jesus Christ as your own Savior? His name was called Jesus because he would save his people from their sins.
Reprinted by permission from "Persians in the Bible," by Allyn Huntzinger. For more information about this publication, click here.