Filmed at the Church’s Motion Picture set in Goshen, Utah, “The Christ Child: A Nativity Story,” brings to life the familiar scriptures in the Bible like never before. By showing Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the wisemen, and the Christ child as real individuals, the nearly 18-minute film has captured the hearts of many as it tells the sacred events of that first Christmas.
Released in November 2019, the video now has over 2 million views on YouTube. But what went into the making of this unique film? Historians, scholars, directors, and others discuss how it all came together behind the scenes in a new video released by the Church. Here are a few highlights from what they shared.
Mary and Joseph
Writer and director John Foss explained that something essential to the telling of the Nativity story was capturing moments between Mary and Joseph that were important for viewers to see in a way that they perhaps hadn’t before. Human moments, like when Mary is having a contraction and can’t get up due to the pain, bring the story to life.
Joseph’s side of the story was also important in the video. Rather than having him be a side character “off in the shadows,” executive creative director Jeff Taylor said they wanted to highlight Joseph’s role. Jacob Sidney Cohen, who played the part of Joseph, explained his mentality when he approached his part.
“I know anytime we work on this, everything revolves around my love for Mary,” he said. “Every step I take, every thought is inspired by her and what I can do to protect her and to help deliver this baby.”
Brooklyn McDaris, who played the part of Mary, also discussed how she tried to tap into what Mary would have been like.
“She was incredibly strong to have gone through this and be so young, and to just accept what God was telling her was going to happen,” she said. “That takes great bravery and strength.”
No Room at the Inn
Bible scholar and historian Dr. Matthew Grey explained that in the scriptures when we read that there was no room for Mary and Joseph in the inn, we often think of a hotel, so that is often what is portrayed. But the word “inn,” Bible scholar and historian Dr. Jason Combs added, is actually the Greek translation of a word which means something like “guest chamber.”
Rather than showing Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem in the traditional manner, the video shows what these two historians believe is more accurate based on scripture. Although the text doesn't explicitly states this, these historians believe it’s more likely Mary and Joseph went to a residence they were familiar with, perhaps to extended family in the area. The video therefore shows Mary and Joseph being welcomed upon their arrival, but there was no room for them to bed—they therefore had to look for space in the back area where the animals were kept.
Shepherding in New Testament times wasn’t just for old men. In the “Christ Child,” viewers will notice young men as well as a girl who are featured in the story.
“We had this wonderful moment where the shepherds come in, and this young shepherd girl who would’ve been about the same age as Mary—they just have this moment of connection, of realizing this togetherness and the magic of this moment that just happened,” said Taylor.
In order to tell the story visually, Foss wanted there to be very little dialogue, so they began thinking if they could use a different language in the film. At the time, Mary and Joseph would have been speaking Aramaic. But since Aramaic is now a dead language, the team had to find a scholar who could help.
Near Eastern Language scholar David Calabro, who studied Aramaic for 15 years and does translation work with the language, came to the rescue. Calabro primarily worked with Joseph and Mary, the lead wiseman, and the extras for the film, varying what he had them say depending on the situation and teaching them pronunciation. Picking up Aramaic was easier for Cohen (Joseph), who grew up speaking fluent Hebrew, but it wasn’t quite as easy for other actors and actresses.
Not having subtitles helped tell the story in a new way, said Foss.
“It really does pull you into the story, and it makes you pay closer attention to what’s really happening. And along the way, you’re asking yourself a lot of questions, but you’re getting a lot of the answers as you’re going along the journey,” he said.
In the film, viewers will notice there aren’t just three wisemen in the scene—there’s an entire caravan of people.
“The tradition that there are three wisemen comes from the fact that they offer the baby Jesus three gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh,” said Combs. “But there’s nothing in the story that tells us precisely how many wisemen there were.”
The scene when the wisemen arrive also depicts the Christ child at about 2 years old. Considering that King Herod issues a decree to have every child under 2 years old slaughtered, said Grey, many scholars believe Jesus could have been about that age at the time.
As the lead wiseman bows before the Christ child, viewers ask can’t help but ask themselves what they would do if they were in the same position, said Foss, considering how they would act, if they could speak, and what they would say if they were in his shoes.
Historian and Bible scholar Dr. Richard Holzapfel also recalled the power and spirit of that scene.
“The emotion was just all there, and just his feeling and everything coming together. He’s seeing this Divine King, this Messiah, and all his dreams, all his expectations, are wrapped up in this little 2-year-old boy,” he said. “He’d been with King Herod, who was powerful, he was literally at the top of his game, and then the contrast between that earthly king and this young boy . . . must have been like that.”
Learn more about the behind the scenes of “The Christ Child” on YouTube or watch the video in its entirety below.