Joseph had extra help on that cold Christmas night.
When most of us imagine the scene of Jesus’ birth, we naturally think of Mary and Joseph, alone in a stable with animals surrounding them. This image is usually preceded by a worried Joseph arriving in Bethlehem in the middle of the night, not finding any place for them in the inn.
While it certainly sets the stage for a dramatic telling of Jesus’ birth, it neglects both biblical and historical facts that paint a different picture.
First of all, Mary and Joseph were already in Bethlehem for a number of days. Luke tells us plainly, “And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem … And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered” (Luke 2: 4-6).
Another translation makes it even clearer, “And it came to pass, that when they were there, her days were accomplished, that she should be delivered.” (Douay-Rehims)
No sense of urgency is present in the text, which makes it likely that Mary and Joseph had ample time to prepare for her delivery and to seek out a local midwife.
Midwives have been around for thousands of years and are even mentioned in the Old Testament and play a pivotal role in the story of Moses.
Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiph′rah and the other Pu′ah, “When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women, and see them upon the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him; but if it is a daughter, she shall live. But the midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live.” (Exodus 1:15-17)
It would have been strange for Joseph to be alone with Mary for the birth of Jesus. Even though Joseph had great faith in God and trusted that Jesus was to be the Messiah, men at that time weren’t trained on how to deliver a child. Being an honest man, Joseph would have sought out help from a local midwife, realizing his lack of knowledge in that area.
Added to this historical knowledge, an ancient text from the year 145 called The Protoevangelium of James tells the story of Mary’s midwife and another woman who assisted at the birth.
And I [Joseph] saw a woman coming down from the hill-country, and she said to me: O man, whither are you going? And I said: I am seeking an Hebrew midwife. And she answered and said to me: Are you of Israel? And I said to her: Yes. And she said: And who is it that is bringing forth in the cave? And I said: A woman betrothed to me.
And the midwife went away with him. And they stood in the place of the cave, and behold a luminous cloud overshadowed the cave. And the midwife said: My soul has been magnified this day, because my eyes have seen strange things — because salvation has been brought forth to Israel. And immediately the cloud disappeared out of the cave, and a great light shone in the cave, so that the eyes could not bear it. And in a little that light gradually decreased, until the infant appeared, and went and took the breast from His mother Mary. And the midwife cried out, and said: This is a great day to me, because I have seen this strange sight. And the midwife went forth out of the cave, and Salome met her. And she said to her: Salome, Salome, I have a strange sight to relate to you: a virgin has brought forth — a thing which her nature admits not of.
While the text is not considered inspired, it does point to a historical reality that was likely true. It made practical sense that Joseph sought out a midwife. Whether she assisted at the actual delivery is another question, but a midwife’s services extended to care for the infant as well.
Ancient Orthodox and Byzantine icons recall this truth and often feature Mary’s midwife in the corner of the icon, bathing the newborn Christ child.
What exactly transpired on that marvelous night will always remain a mystery, but biblical and historical evidence can help shed a little light on a birth that changed the world.