The world into which Jesus was born and raised has shaped morals for two millennia. How Jewish mores became Christianity's customs

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Sometime around the beginning of the Common Era, a nice Jewish girl comes to her fiancé with a problem. She is pregnant; he is not the father. The groom-to-be is understandably enraged. In his world, almost nothing brings more shame on a man and his family than a broken promise of virginity. Her explanation, that the baby was conceived by God, must have sounded implausible, desperate, even insane. On reflection, though, the man, who is profoundly decent—"righteous," as the story goes—decides that he cannot bear to inflict upon the girl the rare (but wholly legal) punishment for such crimes, which is stoning. And so he resolves to handle the matter in his own way. He will "divorce her quietly."

If the story ended there, it would be an ordinary drama about a family in crisis, one familiar in many times and many places. But this story was only beginning. The righteous man, Joseph, goes to sleep and receives a visit from an angel. "Joseph, son of David," the angel says, "do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son and you are to give him the name Jesus for he will save his people from their sins." Like all good Jews who had received visits from God or angels before him—Abraham, Moses—Joseph does as he is told. The baby is born in Bethlehem; his human parents name him Jesus.

As the world's 2 billion Christians prepare to commemorate the birth of the figure they believe to be the Son of God, it is important to note that Christianity's origins lie more in the image of the empty tomb on the Sunday after the crucifixion than they do at the crèche. It was their fervent belief in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth that convinced his followers he was, as Peter put it, "the Christ, the son of the living God" who had told them of a new way of salvation: that he would die and rise again, thus effecting the forgiveness of sins and offering a portal to eternal life.

But whatever one's personal beliefs, no student of religion or culture should overlook the significance of the world of the Nativity, for the milieu into which Jesus was born—and in which he was raised—has fundamentally shaped the manners and morals of the ensuing two millennia. The Jewish family values that were prevalent in first-century Judea—the values of Mary and Joseph and of the young Jesus—became the values of Christianity, and of the regions of the world in which Christianity has long been a critical force.

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