Like many American boys, I learned about Jesus' birth while wearing a bathrobe. Each Advent season I got a part in the Christmas pageant, generally as either a shepherd or a wise man. At the appropriate moment, I shuffled into place and said my line—usually only one, occasionally two.

We worked from original scripts, the accounts in Luke and Matthew, portraying the Incarnation as a real event involving real people. The idea was to show Jesus' birth as history, just as Scripture does. The effort at historical authenticity never went too far. An unusually faithful reproduction would include live sheep.

To the best of my memory, Herod's Slaughter of the Innocents was never included. But among the cuddly images of Christmas come these barbed historical details. For many adults, it is hard to understand the violence at the beginning and the end of Jesus' earthly story. Why did Herod murder all the boy-children? For that matter, why did Pilate have Jesus executed, and in such grisly fashion?

A recent writing assignment for the Catholic edition of The Student Bible required my studying books of the pre-Christian Apocrypha (from the Greek for "hidden" or "obscure"), which Catholics include in their Bible. As a Protestant I grew up only marginally aware of these books. They made me a little nervous, to tell the truth. Somewhat to my surprise, I found they helped me understand the kind of world Jesus was born into.

Imprint of the Era


I happily affirm the Reformers' decision to leave these books of the Apocrypha out of the canon of the Holy Scripture. These writings don't rise to the level of divine inspiration.

Nevertheless, as popular Jewish literature of the two centuries before Christ's birth, they are the closest thing we have to a ...

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December 9, 2002

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