What can we know about the birth of Jesus?

We are about to celebrate the birth of Jesus, the real reason behind the Christmas season. Tradition has it that Jesus was born after a long journey by his parents, in the animal feeding-tray of an overcrowded inn, surrounded by noisy animals. He was visited by shepherds from the field after they heard an angelic choir singing his praises. Soon after, three wise men from the East also came, bearing gifts. They had followed a bright star from their distant country in order to see him.

But what do we really know about this story? What is the undisputed history of the birth of Jesus?

The evidence for this traditional scenario is very slim. True, various parts of it can be found in the Bible. But there is no one place in the Bible where such a scene is described in full detail. It is a composite of many different passages, blended together to create a wonderful myth—which bears little relation to actual history. The two main passages which have been blended together are Matthew 1–2 and Luke 1–2.

When was Jesus born?
The traditional answer is in the year “0”—but, of course, such a year did not exist! Our modern calendar depends on a dating worked out by a monk in antiquity. Yet the dating he arrived at does not agree with either of the two different datings that are found in the Bible. Matthew’s Gospel states that Jesus was born when Herod was King of Judaea. Herod died in the year 4 BCE; so Jesus must have been born before then.

Luke’s Gospel, on the other hand, locates the birth of Jesus during a census being carried out under Quirinius, governor of Syria. Roman records indicate that Quirinius did not begin his office as governor until sometime in the years 6–7 CE. They also fail to indicate any form of census at this time, or in the years before or after the governorship of Quirinius.

So there is a contradiction between the two primary biblical accounts; and one of them seems to depend on a claim that has no independent support. Therefore, the date of Jesus’ birth cannot be confirmed historically; the best estimate is that it was sometime around 4 BCE.

Where was Jesus born?
Matthew and Luke claim that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in Judaea. No other biblical reference agrees with this, however. In fact, in his adult life, Jesus was known as “Jesus of Nazareth”, a town in Galilee (Matt 21:11; Mark 14:67; Luke 24:19; John 1:46; Acts 2:22). He is identified as a Galilean (Matt 26:69; Luke 23:5–7). There is no mention of his birth in Bethlehem outside the accounts of Matthew and Luke. His home is in Nazareth, and he spends almost all of his life in Galilee. So why do two writers claim that he is a Judean?

One clue can be found in John 7:40–43, which indicates that Jewish people expected the Messiah to be born in Bethlehem, of the line of David. This view is based on the prophetic word of Micah 5:2, “from you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, shall come forth one who is to be ruler in Israel”. This is precisely the way Matthew and Luke tell it. Jesus is born in Bethlehem. However, no other biblical writers know anything of this story. It appears that Matthew and Luke have shaped their versions of Jesus’ birth so that it accords with traditional Jewish expectations. They do not recount precise historical information. Rather, they tell a story in such a way that it implicitly meets expectations about Jesus. And so, because he allegedly comes from Bethlehem in Judea, they can claim that he is the Messiah.

Matthew’s account
Matthew tells of other incidents associated with the birth of Jesus. His account is told from the point of view of Joseph, the father of Jesus. Matthew emphasises that Joseph was a righteous man, who was obedient to the commands of the divine messenger.

Matthew also emphasises the many ways in which the birth of Jesus fulfilled the prophecies found in Hebrew Scripture. So many parts of the early life of Jesus are consistent with these prophecies (although one of them cannot actually be found in the Bible!). It is most likely that Matthew has constructed his story so that it fits with these scriptural prophecies. They provide him with a familiar framework for telling the story.

Only Matthew tells about Herod and his slaughter of the innocents. Such an event is unknown from any other ancient literature. Had it actually taken place, it is likely that it would have been reported elsewhere. This event, and others in Matthew’s version of Jesus’ early life, mirror the pattern of events at the start of Moses’ life. There is the slaughter of infant males under 2 years by a tyrannical ruler, and the flight into another country by the boy’s parents, so that the boy is saved. In this way, Matthew presents Jesus as “the new Moses”.

The wise men appear only in Matthew’s account. We are not told their names, nor how many they were. Only in later church tradition would they be identified as the three men, Caspar, Balthasar, and Melchior. They appear to have come from Gentile lands. They are exemplars of faithful obedience. But they are very mysterious figures in Matthew’s account.

Matthew provides a genealogy of Jesus that goes back as far as Abraham. It is highly patterned: three groups of 14 generations. There are four women in the genealogy. Each engaged in suspect sexual activity: Tamar was adulterous with Judah, Rahab was a harlot, Ruth “laid at the feet” of Boaz, and the wife of Uriah (Bathshebah) was the woman with whom David committed adultery. The presence of these four women seems to prepare the way for the child Jesus, who is born into a suspect family situation.

The virginity of Mary, as Matthew claims, depends on an incorrect reading of a prophetic text (Isaiah 7:14). The original Hebrew reads “a young woman shall conceive”, but Matthew has chosen an inexact Greek translation which renders it “a virgin shall conceive”. At this point, Matthew agrees with Luke; yet he is the only one amongst all the other biblical writers who knows anything of Mary’s alleged virginity.

It is striking that in Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus, there are no shepherds, no choir of angels, and no animals by the manger. These are found only in Luke’s story.

Luke’s account
The other main biblical account of the birth of Jesus—the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel—contains some notable similarities with Matthew’s account. Jesus is born of Mary and Joseph, in Bethlehem. Mary is a virgin. Joseph is a descendant of David, who is told by an angel that a child will be conceived by the Holy Spirit, that he is to be named Jesus, and that he will be Saviour. Matthew and Luke also agree that he grew up in Nazareth.

However, there are many more differences. In Luke’s account, there are no wise men, no slaughter of infant males, and no flight into Egypt. Indeed, after Jesus is born, his parents take him to be circumcised, according to Jewish custom, and then to be presented in the Temple at Jerusalem. Instead of fleeing from the Jewish homeland, as in Matthew, Luke’s Jesus is placed into the very heart of Jewish life.

In Luke’s version, events relating to the conception and birth of Jesus are paralleled at every step by events relating to the conception and birth of Jesus’ cousin, John. In Matthew, John is not mentioned until 30 years later. Luke places his focus on Mary and Elizabeth, the mothers of the children, rather than on the fathers (Joseph and Zechariah). Luke tells of how Mary travelled from Nazareth to meet Elizabeth in Judea; Matthew is silent about this journey.

The first two chapters of Luke are filled with scripture-like songs. Such songs would later become treasured parts of the Roman Catholic Mass—the ‘Magnificat’, the ‘Benedictus’, and the ‘Nunc Dimittis’. In Luke’s account, however, they are sung by Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon respectively. Each song indicates that God is now working in a new way, and that the hopes of Israel would be fulfilled in the life of Jesus (and John).

There is also a focus on those who are outsiders, in Luke’s account: women, the disabled, and shepherds. Luke conveys a strong political and economic message: God will vindicate the poor and powerless, and harshly judge the wealthy and powerful.

The Holy Spirit plays an important role in Luke’s account, but is absent in Matthew’s account. In Luke, the Spirit inspires the prophets Simeon and Anna to speak out. Simeon predicts that this child will be important for the whole world, Jews and Gentiles alike. The birth of Jesus already provides an opportunity to foreshadow the mission to the Gentiles. Thus, Luke tells his story of the beginnings of Jesus with an eye on how things turned out in the end.

Other views
Many writers contributed to the New Testament. Yet none of these writers refer to those parts of the story of Jesus’ birth that are found in the accounts of Matthew or Luke. Mark’s Gospel avoids any comment at all about the birth of Jesus. In Mark 6, Jesus is simply referred to as the son of Mary, and brother of James, Joses, Judas and Simon; how, when and where he was born appear to be irrelevant.

Paul makes only one passing reference to the birth of Jesus—the comment in Galatians 4 that Jesus was “born of a woman, born under the law”. His point appears to be that Jesus was a Jew, under obligation to the Law, rather than explaining how, when or where he was born.

The cosmic hymn that begins John 1 recounts the origins of Jesus in a mystic way. This hymn goes back to the creation of the world, and portrays Jesus as being present from the beginning as the eternal Word.

The opening of Hebrews 1 makes use of similar concepts, as does the short hymn which Paul quotes in Philippians 2. The only reference to the birth of Jesus in the fourth Gospel is in the comment, “the Word became flesh”. Once again, the details appear to be quite unimportant. The concern to report the precise details of his birth is not relevant for most of the New Testament writers.

It is only Matthew and Luke who felt the need to account for Jesus’ origins. So each of them narrates a story in which they are compelled to provide many more details than what they actually knew about the birth of Jesus. And each of them is writing for specific purposes relating to the context of the time and the place when they are living.

Author: John T Squires

My name is John Squires. I live in the Australian Capital Territory. I have been an active participant in the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) since it was formed in 1977, and was ordained as a Minister of the Word in this church in 1980. I have served in rural, regional, and urban congregations and as a Presbytery Resource Minister and Intentional Interim Minister. For two decades I taught Biblical Studies at a theological college and most recently I was Director of Education and Formation and Principal of the Perth Theological Hall. I've studied the scriptures in depth; I hold a number of degrees, including a PhD in early Christian literature. I am committed to providing the best opportunities for education within the church, so that people can hold to an informed faith, which is how the UCA Basis of Union describes it. This blog is one contribution to that ongoing task.

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