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The Nativity of Jesus, or simply The Nativity, refers to the accounts of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth in the Gospels and in various apocryphal texts.

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

The New Testament provides two accounts of the birth of Jesus: one in the Gospel of Matthew and the other in the Gospel of Luke. The birth narratives of Matthew and Luke have some elements in common. They both relate that Jesus of Nazareth was the child of Mary, who was betrothed to Joseph, a descendant of the Biblical King David. The narratives also present the conception, preceded by an angelic annunciation, not as the result of marital relations, but of the power of the Holy Spirit. Meanwhile, the Gospel of John is silent on the nativity, as is the Gospel of Mark, which most textual critics consider the earliest of the canonical gospels. Critical scholars see the Gospel accounts as different, conflicting narratives, and they consider them to be pious fictions. E. P. Sanders describes them as "the clearest cases of invention in the Gospels", while John Hick states that "the whole beautiful Bethlehem Christmas story [was] created to fulfil supposed Old Testament prophecies".

Biblical narratives

Gospel of Luke

In the account of the Gospel of Luke, 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 Nazarethmarker about 150 kilometres (90 miles) south to Joseph's ancestral home in Bethlehemmarker to register in the census of Quirinius. 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 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 (traditionally three) 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".

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 and adore 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 be killed, the so-called "Massacre of the Innocents".

After Herod's death, the family return from Egypt, but, instead of going back to live in Bethlehem, fears concerning Herod's Judean successor Archelaus cause them to move to Galilee and settle in Nazarethmarker, fulfilling, according to the author, a prophecy: "He will be called a Nazorean". The Greek for this last word is Ναζωραιος.

The prophecy is primarily sourced from Judges 13:5, 7, which say, "the boy shall be a Nazirite"; this last word in the Codex Alexandrinus being Ναζειραιος, from the Hebrew נזיר [Nazir]. The author of Matthew explained the move to Nazareth as the fulfilment of the prophecy ὅτι Ναζωραἳος κληθἠσεται, "for he will be called a Nazorean." Menken believes he did this by changing one vowel, such that Ναζιραιος (Judg 13:5 in the Greek biblical text) was read as Ναζωραιος (Mt 2:23), which was an accepted exegetical procedure of his time. In Judg 13:5 the verb is ἔσται, "he will be a Nazirite (Ναζιραιος)", while in Mt 2:23 the verb is κληθἠσεται, "he will be called a Nazorean (Ναζωραιος)". Menken believes that the verb is derived from Isaiah 7:14, which interested Matthew as a prophecy of Jesus' birth and is parallel to Judg 13:5, 7.

"Others have speculated that the use of Ναζωραιος relates to the Hebrew term נצר [netzer], ie "branch," and its use in Is 11:1: "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. However, at the time Matthew was written, there was no tradition of transliterating rather than translating נצר, as this view requires; it is not very probable that the work's audience would have recognized the author's technique.

The Nativity as myth

Raymond Brown points out 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 in Matthew. Brown also emphasizes 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 ten years after Herod's death).

As a result, some critical scholars see the nativity stories either as completely fictional accounts, or at least constructed from traditions which predate the Gospels. 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 the year 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 6) 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 Rivermarker and possibly additional events in his 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 is earliest noted in a fragment of the Chronographiai of Sextus Julius Africanus in the year 221.

The Gospel of Matthew places Jesus' birth under the reign of Herod the Great, who died in 4 BC. The author of Matthew also recorded that Herod had all the male children in Bethlehem two years old and younger executed, 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. The Gospel of Luke dates the birth ten years after Herod's death during the census of Quirinius, described by the historian Josephus. Most scholars consider the Gospel of Luke to be mistaken, though some writers still attempt to reconcile its account with the details given by Josephus.


The Gospels of both Matthew and Luke place the birth of Jesus in Bethlehemmarker. The Gospel of Matthew account implies that the family already lived in Bethlehem when Jesus was born. According to the Gospel of 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. 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 Nativitymarker 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 sources on Jesus's paternity are the letters of Saint Paul, written between about the years 50 and 65. Paul addresses Jesus's paternity only twice. 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, those of Matthew and Luke.

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 Lk 1:34, 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 intercourse before 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".

This verse is generally accepted by Protestants as implying only that Mary and Joseph did not have intercourse 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 intercourse 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 this 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— shows that, at least for practical earthly purposes, Jesus was considered the son of Joseph.

Role of Joseph

The exact meaning of the Gospel 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.

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.Recent discoveries have found that legal avenues for divorce certainly existed at the time in question. The Greek word here translated as divorce is aphiemi, and the only other time it appears is in 1 Cor 7:11 where Paul Tarsus 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.

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 the author'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 in Matthew as an important virtue.

The Gospel of Matthew does not describe how Mary came to be pregnant, which Schweizer thinks implies that its 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. The account 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 the author does not want the reader to ever consider alternate scenarios as to how Mary could have become pregnant.


The three Magi before Herod, France, early 15th century.

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." 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, the Gospel of 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 of Matthew, such as Codex Bezae Cantabrigensis, read "Isaiah the prophet" instead of merely "the prophet", but this does not have the support of other important textual witnesses, such as Codex Sinaiticus.

Rather than using the Masoretic text which forms the basis of most modern Christian Old Testament translations, the Gospel of Matthew's quotation is taken from the Septuagint. The verb кαλεω kaleō (to call) is found both in the citation from Isaiah and in the words of 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".

Scholars have other concerns with the text's reference to Isaiah. The Gospel of Matthew agrees with the Septuagint text of Isaiah in rendering the Greek term "parthenos" as "virgin", but the much older Masoretic text of Isaiah uses the Hebrew word "almah", which means only "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.

See also


  1. Believable Christianity: A lecture in the annual October series on Radical Christian Faith at Carrs Lane URC Church, Birmingham, October 5, 2006
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  15. Menken, Maarten J. J. "The Sources of the Old Testament Quotation in Matthew 2:23" Journal of Biblical Literature 120:3 (451-68), 467-8.
  16. Menken, Maarten J. J. "The Sources of the Old Testament Quotation in Matthew 2:23" Journal of Biblical Literature 120:3 (451-68), 461-2.
  17. Menken, Maarten J. J. "The Sources of the Old Testament Quotation in Matthew 2:23" Journal of Biblical Literature 120:3 (451-68), 465-6.
  18. Menken, Maarten J. J. "The Sources of the Old Testament Quotation in Matthew 2:23" Journal of Biblical Literature 120:3 (451-68), 460.
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  20. Antiquities 18.1-2 (18.1.1).
  21. Frederick Fyvie Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (1943; republished Eerdman, 2003), page 87-88.
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  25. Protoevangelium 18; Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho; cf. Origen, Contra Celsum 1.2.
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  36. (cf. ).
  37. See Aland, op.cit., p.3.
  38. Brown, Raymond E.; Achtemeier, Paul J. (1978). Mary in the New Testament: A Collaborative Assessment by Protestant and Roman Catholic Scholars. Paulist Press. p. 92. ISBN 0-8091-2168-9.

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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