nativity of christ

Nativity of Jesus

For depictions in painting and sculpture, see Nativity of Jesus in art. For depictions in other media, see Nativity of Jesus in later culture. For liturgical celebrations, see Christmas Eve. For the decoration, see Nativity Scene.

The Nativity of Jesus, or simply the Nativity, is the account of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth in the Gospels, and various apocryphal accounts that are a key element of traditional Christian mythology.

Two different accounts of the birth of Jesus are given in the New Testament of the Bible, one in the Gospel of Matthew and one in the Gospel of Luke. Other accounts of the birth of Jesus have also been preserved, forming part of the Life of the Virgin sequence, but have not been included in the Christian canon of the Bible. The Gospel of Mark, believed by most critics to be the earliest of the canonical gospels, is silent on the nativity; the Gospel of John, likewise, has no account of the birth.

The birth narratives of Matthew and Luke have some elements in common; both relate that Jesus of Nazareth was the child of Mary, who at the time of his conception was betrothed as the wife of Joseph, said to be a descendent of the Biblical King David. His conception, preceded by an angelic annunciation, is presented as miraculous, in that he is conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, rather than by Joseph. The Gospel of Matthew presents the birth as the fulfillment of prophecies made by the Prophets of Israel.

The remembrance and re-enactment of the Nativity scene are central to the Christian celebration of Christmas, signifying the belief that Jesus of Nazareth is the "Christ" or Messiah promised in the Old Testament. In the Catholic Church and other Christian groups, the main religious celebration of Christmas is the Church service at midnight on Christmas Eve or on the morning of Christmas Day on the 25 December. During the forty days leading up to Christmas, the Eastern Orthodox Church practices the Nativity Fast, while four Sundays before Christmas, the majority of Christian congregations (including the Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion, many Mainline churches, and Baptists) begin observing the liturgical season of Advent – both are seen as times of spiritual cleansing, recollection and renewal, in order to prepare for the celebration of the birth of Jesus at Christmas.

Many modern scholars consider that the two Gospel accounts present two different and conflicting narratives, and view both stories as "pious fictions". E. P. Sanders describes them as "the clearest cases of invention in the Gospels".

Biblical narratives

Gospel of Luke

In the Gospel of Luke account, Mary learns from the angel Gabriel that she will conceive and bear a child called Jesus. When she asks how this can be, since she is a virgin, he tells her that the Holy Spirit would "come upon her" and that "nothing will be impossible with God". She responds: "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word".

At the time that Mary is due to give birth, she and her husband Joseph travel from their home in Nazareth about 150 kilometres (90 miles) south to Joseph's ancestral home, Bethlehem, in order to register in a census. Having found no place for themselves in the inn, when Mary gives birth to Jesus she places the newborn in a manger (feeding trough).

An angel of the Lord visits the shepherds guarding their flocks in nearby fields and brings them "good news of great joy": "to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord." The angel tells them they will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. The angel is joined by a "heavenly host" who say "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!". (The King James Version reads, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.") The shepherds hurry to the manger in Bethlehem where they find Jesus with Mary and Joseph. They repeat what they have been told by the angel, and then return to their flocks. Mary and Joseph take Jesus to Jerusalem to be circumcised, before returning to their home in Nazareth.

Gospel of Matthew

In the Gospel of Matthew, the impending birth is announced to Joseph in a dream, in which he is instructed to name the child Jesus. A star reveals the birth of Jesus to a number of magoi (magi, Greek μάγος, commonly translated as "wise man" but in this context probably meaning "astronomer" or "astrologer") who travel to Jerusalem from an unspecified country "in the east":

"In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, 'Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.' When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born" ().

Herod understands the phrase "King of the Jews" as a reference to the Messiah, since he asked his advisers where the Messiah was to be born. They answer Bethlehem, the birthplace of King David, and quote the prophet Micah: "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage," a deceitful Herod tells the magi.

As the magi travel to Bethlehem, the star "goes before" them and leads them to a house where they find Jesus. They present Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (). In a dream, the magi receive a divine warning of Herod's intent to kill the child, whom he sees as a rival. Consequently, they return to their own country without telling Herod the result of their mission. An angel tells Joseph to flee with his family to Egypt. Meanwhile, Herod orders that all male children of Bethlehem under the age of two to be killed, the so-called "Massacre of the Innocents" ().

After Herod's death, the family settle in Nazareth, fulfilling, according to Matthew, a prophecy: "He will be called a Nazorean" (). The King James Version of the Gospel reads "He shall be called a Nazarene." This is possibly a free reading of ("A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.") - a prediction that a new ruler would emerge from the line of Jesse, father of David - with the Hebrew netzer, for "branch," read as Nazōraios (Nazorean) in Greek.

The Nativity as myth

Many modern scholars argue that the Gospels present two very different accounts: the Gospel of Matthew relates the appearance of an angel, in a dream, to Joseph; the wise men from the east; the massacre of the innocents; and the flight to Egypt. The Gospel of Luke mentions none of these but describes the conception and birth of John the Baptist; the appearance of an angel to Mary; the worldwide census; the birth in a manger, and the choir of angels; none of these is mentioned by Matthew. They also emphasize the contradictions between the accounts, which explain the birth in Bethlehem in different ways (Luke says they lived in Nazareth and only moved to Bethlehem briefly for the census, Matthew implies that they lived in Bethlehem and only moved to Nazareth on their return from Egypt); give two different genealogies of Jesus, and appear to use a contradictory time frame (Matthew's account places the birth during the reign of Herod the Great, who died in 4 BC, but Luke dates it to the census of Quirinius in 6 AD).

As a result, many scholars see the nativity stories either as completely fictional accounts, or at least constructed from traditions which predate the Gospels. Raymond Brown, for instance, who observes that "it is unlikely that either account is completely historical", suggests that the account in Matthew is based on an earlier narrative patterned on traditions about the birth of Moses.

Historical Circumstances

Date of birth

The nativity accounts in the New Testament gospels of Matthew and Luke do not mention a date or time of year for the birth of Jesus. In Western Christianity, it has been traditionally celebrated on December 25 as Christmas (in the liturgical season of Christmastide), a date that can be traced as early as 330 among Roman Christians. Before then, and still today in Eastern Christianity, Jesus' birth was generally celebrated on January 6/7 (late at night on January 6th) as part of the feast of Theophany, also known as Epiphany, which commemorated not only Jesus' birth but also his baptism by John in the Jordan River and possibly additional events in Jesus' life. Some scholars have speculated that the date of the celebration was moved in an attempt to replace the Roman festival of Saturnalia. Some scholars note that Luke's descriptions of shepherds' activities at the time of Jesus' birth suggest a spring or summer date. The theory that December 25 was the birthdate of Jesus was popularized by Sextus Julius Africanus in Chronographiai (AD 221).

Matthew places Jesus' birth under the reign of Herod the Great, who died in 4 BC. Matthew also recorded that Herod had all the male children in Bethlehem two years old and younger executed (see Slaughter of the Innocents), based on a prophecy relayed to him by the magi that a new King of the Jews had been born in the town. The order's instruction of "two and under", along with the inference that it took Herod time to realize that the magi were not about to deliver the child to him, implies a birth no later than 6-4 BC. Luke describes the birth as occurring during the census of Quirinius in 6 AD, described by the historian Josephus. Most scholars consider Luke to be mistaken, though some writers still attempt to reconcile his account with the details given by Josephus.


Both Matthew and Luke stated that Jesus was born in Bethlehem (). The Gospel of Matthew account implies that the family already lived in Bethlehem when Jesus was born. According to Luke, Joseph and Mary, who lived in Nazareth, had traveled to Bethlehem to register for the Census of Quirinius, because it was the town of Joseph’s ancestors, the birthplace of David.

The Gospel of Luke account states that Mary gave birth to Jesus and laid him in a manger “because there was no place for them in the inn," but does not say exactly where Jesus was born. The Greek word kataluma may be translated as either “inn” or “guestroom”, and some scholars have speculated that Joseph and Mary may have sought to stay with relatives, rather than in an inn, only to find the house full (whereupon they resorted to the shelter of a room with a manger).

Although in Western art the manger is usually depicted as being in a man-made free standing structure, many biblical scholars conjecture that, as in Byzantine art, the manger was probably positioned in a cave carved in the side of a hill - as this was the typical location of stables in classical Palestine. In the second century, Justin Martyr stated that Jesus had been born in a cave outside the town, while the Protoevangelium of James described a legendary birth in a cave nearby. The Church of the Nativity inside the town, built by St. Helena, contains the cave-manger site traditionally venerated as the birthplace of Jesus, which may have originally been a site of the cult of the god Tammuz.


The earliest source on Jesus's paternity (or rather, early beliefs and traditions about his paternity) is the letters of St Paul, written some time between c. 50 and 65 CE. Paul addresses Jesus's paternity only twice, in Galatians 4 and Romans 1. In both cases he says that Jesus was born "under the Law" (i.e., a Jew, and therefore of a Jewish father - ), of the line of David (which could only be traced through the male line), but "declared to be the Son of God" through his resurrection from the dead ().

The Gospels are all removed by at least a generation from the time of Jesus. Mark, the earliest of them, makes no mention at all of Jesus's father Joseph, but casts doubt on the idea of descent from David: "How can he [the Messiah] be his [David’s] son?’” (). The famous birth narratives appear only in the later Gospels of Matthew and Luke, and the high amount of supernatural storytelling they contain - appearance of angels, supernatural guiding stars, etc - makes them of little value as factual records.

In first century Judea, betrothal was a binding contract that might take place while the couple, and in particular the girl, was prepubescent. The contract was for life, but under some circumstances could be broken by a formal divorce. After the ceremony of betrothal, the young bride would remain in her father's house for a year or more until she had reached sufficient maturity. At this time the husband would take the bride into his own home, accompanied by public celebration.

Mary, although formally betrothed and therefore contracted to Joseph, became pregnant "before they came together", which could be interpreted as either before they had sexual intercourse together or before they lived together as husband and wife.

That Mary was a virgin at the time of the conception of Jesus is indicated by her statement recorded in , when she responds to the news of the impending birth with the words "How shall this be, as I know not a man?" The theology of most Christian Churches accepts the virgin birth on this statement. Matthew's gospel indicates that Mary and Joseph did not have sex until after Jesus was born, the passage stating that he took her into his home "but knew her not before she had brought forth her first-born son" (). The term Immaculate Conception refers not to Jesus' conception but to Mary's.

This verse is generally accepted by Protestants as implying only that Mary and Joseph did not have sex until after Jesus was born. The majority of Christians, in particular the Eastern Orthodox, Coptic Christians, Armenian Apostolic Church and the Catholic Church, argue that the passage is less explicit in the Greek and indicates that Joseph never had sex with Mary, supporting the belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary. David Hill, a Presbyterian, acknowledges that the wording does not absolutely deny perpetual virginity, but argues that had been the belief during the 1st century, then Matthew would have stated it. The Genealogy of Jesus as detailed in both Matthew and Luke's Gospels are traced to Joseph, in each case indicating him as a surrogate father. However the genealogy in the oldest surviving copy of the old Syriac version of the Gospel of Matthew - the Sinaitic Palimpsest - is often interpreted as indicating that Joseph was the father of Jesus.

Role of Joseph

The exact meaning of Matthew's description of Joseph as a "just man" is much discussed; the Greek term is dikaios, and it has variously been translated as just, righteous, upright, and of good character. Most of the ancient commentators of the Bible interpreted it as meaning that Joseph was law abiding, and as such decided to divorce Mary in keeping with Mosaic Law when he found her pregnant by another, but, tempering righteousness by mercy, he intended to keep the situation private ().

A second view, first put forward by Clement of Alexandria, and held by many modern Christians is that Joseph's righteousness is his mercy itself, with the decision to ensure Mary was not shamed being proof of his righteousness rather than an exception to it. A third view is based on the idea that Joseph didn't yet know the origin of Mary's pregnancy, which is more in keeping with the Gospel of Luke, leading to the view that Joseph's righteousness is pious acceptance of Mary's story.

Joseph's original intent, though, was to divorce Mary once he had discovered her pregnancy, though some scholars and most older translations have expressed this more euphemistically since Joseph, a man having just been described as righteous, undergoing divorce would imply that divorce was righteous. Especially in the nineteenth century a number of scholars tried to read alternate meanings into the term, with one proposal being that it merely meant that the couple would split while legally remaining married. However recent discoveries have found that legal avenues for divorce certainly existed at the time in question. One of the clearest pieces of evidence is a divorce record from 111, entirely coincidentally between a couple named Mary and Joseph, which was found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Greek word here translated as divorce is aphiemi, and the only other time it appears is in where Paul uses it to describe the legal separation of a man and wife, and thus almost all modern translators today feel that divorce is what is being described, although doctrinal reasons cause some to use other wording.

Rabbinic law from the period allows two different options for divorce that is due to adultery:

  • Bring the matter to the village council, which would hold a hearing and, if the allegations were proved, grant a divorce.
  • Have the evidence presented and approved by two witnesses who would then certify the divorce (Gundry argues that the witnesses were necessary mainly to prevent a woman denying that the divorce had actually taken place.).

Joseph is explained as choosing to put Mary away privately rather than publicly divorce her, which most scholars believe means that Joseph had taken the second of the two divorce options.

In the first of several dream sequences in Matthew, an angel visits Joseph to dissuade him, and explain what has happened. The angel is described in a manner much more like early Jewish descriptions, as in the Pentateuch, merely as a pure functionary with no individuality, unlike the more esoteric descriptions that arose nearer Matthew's own time, under Hellenic influence, such as described in the Book of Enoch. Joseph carries out the angel's instructions exactly, rather than arguing with them, which appears to be a common theme in the Gospel - rapid and unquestioning obedience is treated by Matthew as an important virtue.

Matthew does not describe how Mary came to be pregnant, which Schweizer thinks implies that Matthew's audience were already well aware of the story of the Virgin Birth - there were several virgin birth stories in the Jewish tradition and so the idea of virgin births was generally accepted by the population. Matthew mentions the paternity of the Holy Ghost very quickly, even before any of the characters in his narrative are aware of this fact, which Brown argues is because Matthew does not want the reader to ever consider alternate scenarios as to how Mary could have become pregnant.


The Magi bear gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Though traditionally described as wise men or kings, the Matthew Gospel account actually refers to magoi, or astrologers.

Neither the names of the magi nor their number are specified, but – because the gifts described are three in number – a tradition arose that there were three magi: Balthasar, Melchior, and Caspar. Balthasar is a Greek version of the Babylonian name Belshazzar, meaning "May Bel protect his life." This was the name given to Daniel by the chief eunuch of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon as well as to a king of Babylon (). Melchior means "The king is my light" in Aramaic. Caspar is a Latinized version of Gondophares, a Parthian (i.e. Persian) name. In free retellings of the Nativity events, the magi are sometimes called "kings" because of prophecies that kings will pay homage to Jerusalem and a king ().

The Magi were said to be following a mysterious star, commonly known as the Star of Bethlehem, that had suddenly appeared in the sky, believing it to announce the birth of the king of the Jews ().

On the other hand, Luke's account does not mention the Magi, instead having Jesus being visited by local shepherds, who had been informed in the night by an angel who said "Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger."() After this an innumerable company of angels appeared with the herald saying "Glory to God in the highest, on earth peace, good will toward men." The shepherds went quickly to Bethlehem, finding the sign to be as the angel foretold, and subsequently publicised what they had witnessed throughout the area.


In Matthew "an angel of the Lord" appears to Mary's betrothed husband Joseph in a dream and tells him: "she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins". The text continues with the comment: "All this happened to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: 'Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel, which being interpreted is God with us'".. Some 5-6th century manuscripts of the Gospel according to Matthew read "Isaiah the prophet" instead of merely "the prophet" (e.g. D), but this does not have the support of other important witnesses (see Nestle26).

Rather than using the Masoretic text which forms the basis of most modern Christian Old Testament translations, Matthew's quotation is taken from the Septuagint. The verb кαλεω kaleō (to call) is used by both Isaiah and Gabriel; but whilst the former employs the third person plural (they shall call), the latter has the second person singular you shall call. Gabriel himself therefore is not applying Isaiah's prophecy to Joseph, but his purpose is to invite him to assume legal paternity of the son to be born of Mary by naming him. It is the following comment that explains Mary's conception by the Holy Spirit, Joseph's vocation as the child's legal father, and the child's own vocation as the Saviour of his people as indicated by the name Jesus, in the light of Isaiah's prophecy that henceforth "God is with us". Howewer, this understanding of this passage tends to be regarded as Christian apologetics, because almost all Jewish sources are certain that "Immanuel" was intended as a name, not a mere title.

Scholars have other concerns with Matthew's reference to Isaiah. France, for instance, believes that it is far more likely that Isaiah is referring to the more immediate future, particularly as the text can be considered to be past tense - implying that the saviour in question was already conceived when Isaiah was writing. Matthew also appears to have adjusted the meaning slightly, but in a significant way -although Matthew uses the Greek term parthenos, usually translated virgin, Isaiah uses the Hebrew word almah, which more accurately translates as young woman.

The purpose of the quotation is better understood by looking at the context in which it is used in Isaiah. Isaiah is in the process of promising that God can save Israel from the immediate threat of the Assyrians, but that if the Jews continue to sin, the Assyrian empire will be the instrument of God's vengeance. Hence, in the eyes of scholars such as Carter, Matthew is using the situation as an allegory for the time in which he was writing; if followed, Immanuel would lead to salvation from the Roman empire, but if rebuffed, Rome will be the instrument of punishment against the Jewish people.

See also


Further reading

  • Albright, W.F. and C.S. Mann. "Matthew." The Anchor Bible Series. New York: Doubleday & Company, 1971.
  • Brown, Raymond E. The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke. London: G. Chapman, 1977.
  • Calkins, Robert G. Illuminated Books of the Middle Ages. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1983.
  • Carter, Warren. Matthew and Empire. Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 2001.
  • France, R.T. The Gospel According to Matthew: an Introduction and Commentary. Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 1985.
  • Gundry, Robert H. Matthew a Commentary on his Literary and Theological Art. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1982.
  • Gundry, Robert H. "Salvation in Matthew." Society of Biblical Literature - 2000 Seminar Papers. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2000.
  • Hill, David. The Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981
  • Jones, Alexander. The Gospel According to St. Matthew. London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1965.
  • Levine, Amy-Jill. "Matthew." Women's Bible Commentary. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998.
  • Schaberg, Jane. Illegitimacy of Jesus: A Feminist Theological Interpretation of the Infancy Narratives (Biblical Seminar Series, No 28) Sheffield Academic Press (March 1995) ISBN 1-85075-533-7
  • Schweizer, Eduard. The Good News According to Matthew. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1975
  • Vermes, Geza "The Nativity: History and Legend". Penguin (2006) ISBN 0-14-102446-1

External links

Birth of Jesus: The Nativity
Life of Jesus: The Nativity
New Testament

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