The NativityThe story of the events surrounding the birth of Jesus is normally referred to as the Nativity. Anyone with even a little familiarity with Christmas will doubtless be familiar with the figure of the pregnant Mary on a donkey and Joseph walking beside them and with the figure of baby Jesus in a manger surrounded by Mary, Joseph, shepherds, kings and animals in a stable with the Star of Bethlehem above. The popular story differs quite a bit from the Biblical one. As an example the kings are normally presented in threes, where nowhere in the Bible was it mention that there were three magi (or wise men).
The story of the nativity in the New Testament appears in only two of the four gospels: Matthew and Luke. We have seen popular imagination adding elements that are not present in these accounts. Our question is how much embellishment did the tradition itself go through before it was written down in these gospels? How much of these accounts in Matthew and Luke are actually based on historical fact? It is the purpose of this chapter to examine this question. However, before we proceed with the analysis let us first present the stories as they are told in Matthew and Luke.
The story of the nativity takes up the first two chapters of Matthew. The gospel of Matthew opens with the genealogy, or family tree, of Jesus. It traces the ancestors of Jesus from his father Joseph through David to Abraham. The main point of the genealogy is to show that Jesus was from the house of (i.e. descendent of) David1. This was supposed to have been a fulfillment of an Old Testament passage which prophesized that the messiah will be descended from that famed Jewish king of antiquity:
After the genealogy the focus is shifted to Mary, a woman pledged to be married to Joseph. However, before they had any sexual relations, Joseph found out Mary was pregnant or as the gospel put it "with child through the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 1:19). Joseph wanted to terminate the engagement but had a dream that night which made him changed his mind. In that dream, an angel appeared to him, informing him of Mary's miraculous conception. Matthew then pointed out that this virginal conception was in fulfillment of another Old Testament prophecy (Isaiah 7:14). Convinced that his dream was a message from God, Joseph married the pregnant girl and when the child was born named him Jesus. Matthew mentioned that Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea. The whole narrative up to now gives no hint that Joseph and Mary were from anywhere else except Bethlehem.
After Jesus was born, "wise men from the east" (Matthew 2:2) came to Jerusalem to look for the newborn king of the Jews. They mentioned that they had seen a star in the east which led them to Judea. Their enquiries reached the ears of King Herod the Great. He was worried about this possible threat to his throne and summoned the chief priests and the teachers of the law to enquire from them where the messiah, or new Jewish king, will be born. They told him Bethlehem was the ordained placed for it was prophesied in the Old Testament (Micah 5:2). Herod then told the wise men to look for the newborn and to inform him of the baby's whereabouts on the pretext that he too would want the worship the new "king of the Jews". So the wise men went to Bethlehem where they found the baby Jesus. Consistent with his story, the wise men found Jesus in Joseph's and Mary's house (Matthew 2:11). Upon seeing the baby the wise men gave him gifts of gold, incense and myrhh* and worshipped him. They then went back to their own country by another route, having being warned by an angel in a dream not to go back to Herod.
Now an angel appeared to Joseph, again in a dream, telling him to take his family to Egypt, which he did. This was done to save the baby from the murderous schemes of Herod. For Herod, realizing that the wise men had outwitted him, had given orders to have all the baby boys under two years of age, in and around Bethlehem, to be slaughtered. After Herod died, Joseph took his family from Egypt back to Judea but when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in his father's stead, he went instead to Galilee.
Matthew now quoted two passages from the Old Testament to show that, here too, what happened was in fulfillment of the scriptures. He quoted from Hosea 11:1 for the calling of Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus from Egypt and from Jeremiah 31:5 for the prophecy of the slaughter of the babies by Herod. The nativity story in Matthew ends with the author telling us that Joseph and Mary settled down in the town of Nazareth in Galilee.
Luke's story of the nativity is also contained (with the exception of the genealogy) within the first two chapters. These chapters actually narrates two parallel birth stories: one of Jesus and one of John the Baptist.
Luke's nativity kicks off with the annunciation of the birth of John the Baptist to Zechariah, his father-to-be. When Elizabeth, Zechariah's wife, was six months pregnant the angel Gabriel appeared to a virgin in Nazareth named Mary. The angel announce to her that Mary was to be the mother of Jesus, "the son of the most high." (Luke 1:32). Mary seeing that she was a virgin, asked how this was to be. The angel explained that she will be conceived by "the power of the most high." Mary then acquiesced by saying, "I am the servant of the Lord, may it be to me as you have said."
Mary, fully impregnated by the Holy Spirit, then visited her relative Elizabeth who was herself pregnant with John the Baptist. It was during this visit that she sang her famous hymn, The Magnificat. She stayed at her cousin's place for three months. After Mary left, Elizabeth gave birth to John. Thus according to Luke, Jesus was the second cousin of John the Baptist.
Whereas Matthew had Joseph and Mary already living in Bethlehem when she became pregnant, in Luke both Joseph and Mary were native of Nazareth. The reason why they had to go to Bethlehem, according to Luke was due to the Roman census under Quirinius:
According to Luke this census required everyone to register not in their present home town but in the home town of their ancestor. And since Joseph, so says Luke, was descended from David, he had to go back to Bethlehem, the town of David, to be registered. And so off he went, taking his heavily pregnant wife with him. When they reached Bethlehem Mary started having her contractions. Not being able to find any place in the inn, Mary probably gave birth to Jesus in a stable, for the gospel makes reference to Jesus being put in a manger (Luke 2:7), which is a container used for feeding animals.
That night an angel appeared to some shepherd who were keeping watch over their flocks. He announced the news of Jesus' birth to them. On hearing this, they hurried to the place where Jesus was born. After seeing the baby, they went about telling people about their experience.
Luke then described the customary Jewish rituals that Jesus went through: he was circumcised on the eighth day, and presented to the Temple in Jerusalem on the 40th day. after all this, Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus left Judea and went back to Nazareth.
Both the nativity stories of Matthew and Luke share some things in common for sure: the birth in Bethlehem, the Virginal conception and birth, the names of his parents (Mary and Joseph) and the eventual move to the town of Nazareth. However, even in the above cursory presentation of the two nativities one can sense the differences involved between them. In Matthew, we are presented with the wise men, the Star of Bethlehem and Herod's slaughter of the innocents. In Luke we are presented with the census of Quirinius, the birth in the stable, the visitation of the shepherds and the customary Jewish ceremony. The traditional Christian view is that the two evangelists were selectively describing separate events that happened during the nativity. A skeptic may well ask: were they telling different aspects within the same historical event or were they relying on separate, mutually contradictory, traditions on Jesus, birth? And are the individual stories or episodes historical or are they just myths? It is with these questions that we concern ourselves with in the next few pages.
Back to the top