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The First Christmas, by Stephen Mitchell

Maria is a book reviewer, editor, and proofreader, as well as a master of public health, master gardener, photographer, artist, and writer.


I was invited by St. Martin’s Press to read the uncorrected proof copy, of The First Christmas, by Stephen Mitchell, in exchange for an honest review. This is a different take on the Nativity story than most of us in the Christian faith have heard or read.

Respectful of Christians, Yet Written for Jews and Muslims

Mitchell says that, while the book is respectful of Christians, it was written primarily for Jews and Muslims. He refers to the book as a magical tale, and says everyone who reads it will need to suspend their disbelief temporarily and expand their imaginations.

The reader is taken into a world of talking animals, specifically an ox and a donkey, and “hears” the voices of the shepherds, and the wise men, which we have also never heard. The book delves into the life experiences of the wise men, and shows them realizing the gifts brought by the shepherds are just as precious as the gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Aramaic and Hebrew Languages

For Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus, he uses names from the language they spoke: Aramaic. So, Mary, the very devout daughter of a priest (nope, not rabbi) is Maryam, while Joseph, a talented and successful carpenter, is Yosef, and the baby Jesus is called Yeshua, (short for Yehoshua, which means “The Lord is Salvation”).

Some passages are written in Hebrew, but are followed immediately with the English translation. For example, Torat Adonai t’mimah, which means, “The law of the Lord is perfect”.

Comparisons Among the Gospels

Mitchell compares the writings of Mark, the earliest gospel, written probably between the years 65 and 70 A.D., Mathew, which dates most likely from 80 to 85 A.D., Luke, dated from 85 to 90 A.D., and John, which was written around the year 100, A.D.

One thing I had never noticed is that the Bible makes no mention of Yosef’s age, yet most Christians seem to believe he was far older than Maryam. While he was older than her, he was not what would have been considered an old man, even then.

Some Things I Had Never Considered

Even though I have read the Christmas story (mainly Luke’s version of it) hundreds of times over the years, Mitchell points out things I had never considered. For example, in the Gospel of Luke, Mary is the main character, and Joseph has only a peripheral presence. In the Gospel of Matthew, on the other hand, Joseph is at the center of the story.

The Innkeeper

The innkeeper and his wife were swamped with people wanting rooms, wanting service, wanting food. They were exhausted. When he finally got around to speaking with Yosef, he noticed she was hugely pregnant, and that she was beautiful and appeared to be about fourteen years old. Yosef, he judged to be in his early twenties. He expected yet another hard luck story from these two.

Just as he was about to turn them away, he noticed how close to delivery Maryam was. Debating within himself, he knew he could not turn them away, and told them about the stable, and took them to it.

Mary / Maryam

The terror Maryam felt is described more graphically than most Christians have heard or read. Of course, we realize she must have feared telling Yosef of her pregnancy, not to mention telling her parents. Then there would be the community who would ostracize an unmarried but pregnant young girl.

This book goes into greater detail of what must have gone through her mind: fear of being divorced by Yosef, of disgracing her family, fear of being ostracized by the community, of never being fully married, and raising a child alone.

Betrothed Was Almost the Same as Married

Remember, they were betrothed, but not yet married. In those days, even to break an engagement, a divorce was required. For a woman who committed adultery, the penalty was death.

Of course, the teenage Maryam wondered how in the world she could possibly be pregnant without having sex, and imagined all sorts of crazy things that could cause it.


Joseph / Yosef

Yosef was angry, first believing Maryam had betrayed him, then suspecting she had been seduced or raped. Yosef also has to struggle with feelings of jealousy and rage.

Finally, he decided she had either lost her mind, or was remembering a dream and believed it to be real. He still loved her, and wanted to protect her from the harsh judgement of the community.

The Shepherds

As the shepherds worked in shifts, some were asleep while others rested and were eating when the angel appeared to them. Mitchell describes their fear and astonishment at the magnificent scene. They, of course, talked among themselves about what it could mean now that the Messiah had finally come.

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What Could It Mean?

Complete happiness? No more evil in the world? No more sickness? No bad people, i.e., no Romans? No more wolves attacking the sheep? Maybe he wasn’t really an angel? After all, he didn’t have wings. Why would he come to us?

Remembering the scriptures said shepherds would go to Bethlehem to see the newborn Yeshua, the decided they had a job to do, so best to get to it.

Some of the arguing back and forth among the shepherds was quite comical, and some inspiring. Inspiring to me was their realizing that whatever it means didn’t matter. What mattered was that they had a job to do. So, they took butter, sheep cheese, and two jars of clotted ewe’s milk.

The Holy Family and visitors in the stable

The Holy Family and visitors in the stable

The Wise Men

It seems the two (not three, in this magical tale) wise men, Eleazar bar Shimon and Yehuda bar Gamaliel ha-Levi, who were studying religion and philosophy, had traveled to India when their rabbi became too frail to continue teaching.

Seventeen years later, they traveled from India to Bethlehem, being led by the star all the way. When they arrived, they were in awe of what they saw.

An Interesting Take on This Most Precious Bible Story

I found The First Christmas to be a beautiful account of Mary and Joseph’s experience during what began as a terrifyingly stressful time for a young couple in love, and of the love between them and for their son at the birth of this Christ child.

I found nothing that would offend sincere Christians, and would recommend the book to anyone who wants to delve deeper into the human emotions Mary and Joseph had to have had.

One thing, however, that is different from what we believe we “know” is that Christ was born in the spring, not winter. Yet Mitchell sets the scene with snow falling.

What Made The Grumpy Book Reviewer Grumpy?

The book is very well-written, with only a couple of tiny mistakes: “was” is used in place of “were” – when following the word “if” were, not was, should be used; “armfuls” should be “armsful”. There are a couple of missing commas, and a couple of typos, and that’s it.

For me, the section on Eleazar and Yehuda could be condensed a bit. I found myself wanting to skip ahead, but did not.

© 2021 Maria Logan Montgomery

Your Comments Are Always Welcome

Maria Logan Montgomery (author) from Coastal Alabama, UsA on September 16, 2021:

Hi Denise, You sound like me. I have 59 books on my TBR list. I'm really behind on writing reviews, because I read one book after another. Now I need to go back and write the reviews. I haven't read Tattoos. I may need to add it to my list. I have several books I want to read for my own pleasure reading. Unfortunately, I have several publishers and authors waiting for reviews of books they sent to me, so I need to do those first. I'm going to be a busy lady -- as if I'm not already. Ha. If you decide to review Tattoos, i'll be sure to read the review. Thanks for such a thoughtful comment and for reading my reviews. Blessings to you, too.

Maria Logan Montgomery (author) from Coastal Alabama, UsA on September 16, 2021:

That it does. They were 2 young people in love, and expected their lives to be "normal". Glad you liked my review.

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on September 15, 2021:

I didn't read this one but read the review for Last Dance and the Jane Austin Society. I'm an avid reader and although I have a stack of 20+ books to read on my list these have to also be added. I love Jane Austin so I'm pretty excited to read that one. Have you read Tattoos on the Heart by Gregory Boyle? It's pretty awesome and moving. I'm still mulling it over in my mind and will probably read it again. I'd love your take on it.

Also, I love the reasons you are grumpy! Those things make me grumpy too... so keep it up!



Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on September 15, 2021:

This sounds like a delightful book in that it humanizes the experiences of Mary and Joseph in that day and time. Thanks for your review of this book.

Maria Logan Montgomery (author) from Coastal Alabama, UsA on September 15, 2021:

You're welcome. Thanks for reading it. It sounds as if you should have plenty of time to read next month. I still haven't gotten most of my reviews moved over to HP, but there are several on here that I think you'd enjoy.

Maria Logan Montgomery (author) from Coastal Alabama, UsA on September 15, 2021:

Thank you, Dora. It is a special story, and is quite magical, as the author said. Thank you for reading my review. If you're interested, you can order the book at the end of the article.

Maria Logan Montgomery (author) from Coastal Alabama, UsA on September 15, 2021:

Hi Glen, Some of it would be okay for children, but most of it either they wouldn't understand (e.g., the long diatribe on the education/meditations of the wise men while in India) or it would be inappropriate for them (e.g., Joseph's using about death for adultery, how illegitimate children were treated, etc.) I do think they would like the voices of the animals, especially those of the donkey. Maybe it would be good for an adult to read only certain parts to them. I think you might enjoy it. Thanks for reading my review. I do appreciate it.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on September 15, 2021:

Thanks for the review, Maria! I aim to start up reading again next month, so I'm always looking for recommendations.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on September 15, 2021:

Beautiful presentation of the Christmas story, according to your review. Thank you. I would like to read it.

Glen Rix from UK on September 15, 2021:

Unlike Pamela, I think this sounds like a delightful, magical, story. Do you think it is suitable for children? But If not, I might get a copy just for me and perhaps recommend it to my reading group.

Maria Logan Montgomery (author) from Coastal Alabama, UsA on September 14, 2021:

Hi, Pamela, It was not the best book I have ever read -- far from it. I think it does us good to understand or remember that Mary & Joseph were real, live human beings with hopes, dreams, and fears, just like the rest of us, so I liked that part. I didn't care for the part about the wise men's travels and studies. The talking animals were kind of cute, though.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on September 14, 2021:

I appreciate ths review, but I don't think would particularly enjoy book.I day the Mary and Joseph’s experience however. I am just not sure about his book. I do appreciate your review.

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