Nativity Part 6: When was Jesus actually born?

Luke 1:5 says Jesus was born during the reign of Herod, who died in 4 BC. Matthew 2:16 claims that Herod massacred all children in the Bethlehem area (where Jesus was born) who were two years old or younger. In Matthew’s version, Jesus was not an infant when wise men from the East brought gifts to Mary and Joseph’s house in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:11–12). If Jesus was a toddler during the reign of Herod, he would have been born around 6 BC. So why are our calendars six or so years off?

A monk by the name of Dionysius Exiguus, in the year AD 525, miscalculated when Jesus was born. In AD 731, a man named Bede used Dionysius’s incorrect calculation of the year of Jesus’ birth as the basis for his historical chronology in his history of the English church. Later, in 1582, Pope Gregory XIII sponsored development of what is now called the Gregorian calendar. Working with the Jesuit priest and astronomer Christopher Clavius and using calculations by Johannes Kepler, he produced an official calendar—one that reformed the Julian Calendar that had been in use since 45 BC. However, Gregory’s calendar used Dionysius’s calculation of when Jesus was born to determine years BC (“before Christ”) and AD (Anno Domini—“in the year of the Lord”). And because the Gregorian Calendar is the basis for modern calendars, the error is now permanent. What year is it? Add six years to 2021. [If you have enjoyed these posts on the Nativity Story, you would also enjoy and learn much from Interpreting Biblical Literature, which contains a lot more information about the customs and cultures of biblical times.]

Nativity Part 5: Different birth accounts in Matthew and Luke

Comparing the birth narratives in Luke and Matthew reveals only a few details common to both Gospels: Joseph was betrothed to the Virgin Mary, and Jesus was born in Bethlehem. In Luke, the angel Gabriel delivers messages to Zechariah and Mary. In Matthew, divine guidance comes to Joseph (not Mary) via dreams. Luke emphasizes Jesus’ ministry to the poor. When Joseph and Mary have Jesus circumcised on the eighth day after his birth, instead of offering a lamb for purification, they “offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons’” (Luke 2:24). According to Leviticus 12:8, this two-bird offering was for poor people who could not afford a lamb. In Luke, Joseph and Mary live in Nazareth, and they go to Bethlehem for taxation because Joseph is from that village. Poor shepherds adore the newborn savior (Luke 2:8–20). Luke places far more emphasis on Mary than he does on Joseph.

Matthew’s birth narrative presents a picture fitting for the arrival of a Jewish king, with foreign dignitaries bringing expensive gifts to the young Jesus (Matthew 2:1–12). Joseph and Mary live in Bethlehem, and Jesus is around two years old when the wise men from the East come with gifts. Only in Matthew does Herod kill the little children. Only in Matthew does Joseph take Mary and Jesus to Egypt. And in Matthew, Joseph moves to Nazareth only after he returns from Egypt and fears to relocate in Bethlehem (2:22–23). Matthew focuses on Joseph, the pious Jewish father, not Mary.

Whereas Luke 1–2 describes the parents of John the Baptist and his birth, Matthew is silent about these matters. Whereas Luke 1–2 includes poetic pronouncements attributed to various characters, Matthew 1–2 uses frequent Scripture quotations. The other Gospels refer to Scripture, but none approaches the extent to which Matthew quotes the Bible for his Jewish Christian audience. Matthew’s birth narrative repeatedly quotes the Prophets to explain why events happened: “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet” (1:22; see also 2:5; 2:14; 2:17; 2:23).

Matthew opens with a genealogy that begins with Abraham, the father of the Hebrew people, and traces the royal lineage forward through King David to Jesus. The genealogy in Luke 3:23–34 begins with Jesus, Son of God, and traces back to Adam, son of God, emphasizing the Messiah came for all people. Although different, both genealogies trace Jesus’ lineage through Joseph.

I used to divide my introductory Bible class into two groups, one using only the Gospel of Matthew and the other using only the Gospel of Luke. Each group created a Nativity play based only on their Gospel. The results were always very revealing.

Harmonizing passages from the Gospels often diminishes the unique portrait of Jesus the Evangelists worked hard to create for their particular audiences. I do not conflate the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke, having the wise men appear at the same time as the shepherds, etc. Sure, it creates problems with our family Nativity sets; but I take each Evangelist’s contributions seriously. For more information about the compositions of each Gospel, see Interpreting Biblical Literature (chapter 14), and for detailed studies of the Gospels’ unique depictions of Jesus, see Portraits of Jesus: An Inductive Approach to the Gospels.

Nativity Part 4: Confusion came from a second-century tale about Mary

Where did the common belief arise that Mary was nine months pregnant when she arrived in Bethlehem? Why do so many nativity scenes depict Joseph as an old man? Why is there a strong tradition that Jesus was born in a cave? And what about the donkey that Mary is consistently pictured as riding into Bethlehem? The earliest record of such details comes from a second-century document called “The Protevangelium of James” (The “Infancy Gospel of James”). The author wrote to glorify Mary with an elaborate account that makes her a famous person in Jerusalem. He was not content for the mother of Jesus to be merely a Palestinian peasant. That was not glorious enough for the mother of the Messiah. His imaginative story tells of Mary being born miraculously to elderly parents, Anna and Joachim. He writes that at age three Mary’s parents presented her to a priest at the Jerusalem temple and left her there to grow up in the very center of Jewish religious observance. She was the darling of all Jerusalem—a wonderfully pious girl. Everyone loved her.

In this story, Joseph is an old widower with children older than Mary. He is miraculously selected to care for Mary when she reaches the age of twelve and needs to leave the temple because she will soon begin to menstruate. Joseph assumes this responsibility only after complaining that he is elderly and people will laugh at him. The implication is that Joseph is too old to pose any threat to Mary’s virginity. As the story unfolds, Joseph is mortified when he discovers that Mary is pregnant. However, a miraculous sign shows that she is not lying about still being a virgin. In this extremely fanciful story, Joseph takes Mary to Bethlehem on a donkey, and as they approach the town the time comes for her to give birth. So he leaves her in a cave in the care of his sons and goes to find a midwife. As he returns to the cave, the earth stands still (“And I looked up at the vault of heaven, and saw it standing still and the birds of the heaven motionless” [18.2]). When he arrives with the midwife, a bright light fills the cave, and Jesus miraculously appears beside Mary. She did not actually give birth, so she remained a virgin. I will let you read how the midwife verifies Mary’s virginity and suffers for her lack of faith. It is pretty weird.

This strange story is easy to locate on-line by searching for “Protevangelium of James” (see, for example, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/infancyjames.html). As you read this fanciful account, reflect on the fact that it is the source of time-honored beliefs about Jesus’ birth. You may well find it to be a disturbing revelation. But keep in mind that the story of Jesus’ birth in Luke does not need to be supplemented by such imaginary details. [The next blog post briefly compares the accounts of Jesus’ birth given in Luke and Matthew and explains whey they are so different from each other.]

One of my students on a donkey in Egypt.

Nativity Part 3: How pregnant was Mary when she arrived in Bethlehem?

How far along in her pregnancy was Mary when she arrived in Bethlehem? The common depiction of Mary arriving at Bethlehem almost bursting with child appears nowhere in Luke’s account, but it nevertheless is a well-established part of Christian tradition. The King James Bible, published in 1611, translates Luke 2:5 to say that Mary was “great with child.” This translation is an obvious deviation from the Greek text, which gives no indication of how far along in her pregnancy Mary was. The passage merely says, “While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.” An appropriate question to ask about Joseph would be, “Would an honorable Jewish man take his wife on a lengthy journey when she is nine months pregnant?” We might also wonder how any woman who is about to give birth would feel about being taken on such a journey—regardless of her culture.

In fact, according to the account in Luke 2, Joseph and Mary could easily have been in Bethlehem for months before she gave birth. Nazareth is about 70 miles north of Bethlehem, if you calculate the miles in a straight line. But the walking distance is much greater. Because of the threat of bandits along the way, Mary and Joseph would not have made this journey alone. That would be far too dangerous. For safety, they would have traveled with a group of people. And, again, the story makes no mention whatsoever of her riding a donkey. The details of Mary on a donkey, Mary being nine months pregnant as she approached Bethlehem, Jesus being born in a cave, etc., all come from a second century, apocryphal story filled with all sorts of fanciful material. More on that in the next post.

Donkeys were sturdy beasts of burden. My wife took this photo in Egypt in the 1990s. Note the load carried by the small donkey.

Nativity Part 2: Mangers were inside homes

When Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem, they would have stayed in the home of one of Joseph’s kinsmen. But the guest room of the man’s home was already occupied, probably by an older couple. Think of your own experiences with family reunions. Who gets the more comfortable accommodations: grandparents or children? Kids are fine in sleeping bags on the floor, but older folks need and get the better beds. We show special concern for the needs of older family members. In Jesus’ culture, families gave greatest honor to their oldest members, showing respect and deference to them. Thus, in the story from Luke 2, if large numbers of people were coming to Bethlehem, the guest room would be assigned to older family members, not to a younger couple, Mary and Joseph. How young were they? Given cultural norms of the time, peasant girls often married about one year after they began to menstruate. Customs regarding the age of men varied more, but Joseph could easily have been as young as eighteen—not the bald old man often seen in Christian art (more about that in another blog post). Mary and Joseph were not all alone. They were in a crowded, extended family setting where privacy was at a minimum.

Where was the manger in which they placed baby Jesus? Our cultural assumption is that mangers are in barns, because that is where people keep their animals. But in the average home in first-century Palestine, people and animals stayed under the same roof. The animals spent the night in a stable area in the lower part of the house. Most families could not afford many animals (normally a few sheep and goats—not larger animals like cows), and they carefully protected them. Folks did not want their animals roaming around unattended, so they kept them in the house at night. In these living arrangements, the manger—a feedbox for animals—was located between the stable area and the living space for people.

If the house was full of guests and family members, and there was no space in the guest room for Mary and Joseph, a manger would serve as a convenient place to keep an infant protected from being stepped upon. For ancient Mediterraneans, all these details were common knowledge, so Luke had no need to explain them to his readers. When they heard the story of Jesus’ birth read from Luke 2:1–7, their mental picture of the event would have been quite different from the image passed down through later Christian traditions. I might add that my wife and I have lodged in the bottom section of a house in Cyprus. Although today this area has been modified to be a place for people, for most of the life of this house, the bottom section was where the family kept their animals. There are mangers built into the walls of the bedroom where we slept. [Tomorrow’s post: How pregnant was Mary when she got to Bethlehem?]

Depiction of a common Israelite house of the first century (Interpreting Biblical Literature, p. 33). Note the mangers between the living area for people and the stable area for the animals.

Sorry, but our modern story of Jesus’ birth is mostly wrong

The modern Nativity story is largely based on mistranslations and cultural assumptions foreign to the Middle East. First, there is no inn in the story. The Greek word translated “inn” in Luke 2:7 is katalyma, which normally means a “guest room” found in some houses. The word occurs also in Luke 22:11, where Jesus says, “Where is the guest room (katalyma), where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?” The Greek word for “commercial inn” is pandocheion, and it is used in the parable of the Good Samaritan: “He put him on his own animal and brought him to an inn” (Luke 10:34). Bethlehem in the first century was so small that there is little chance of it having an inn for travelers. Travelers would go to nearby Jerusalem for accommodations. Thus, the uncaring innkeeper in modern nativity stories is a fabrication facilitated by scholars not daring to translate katalyma as “guest room” for fear of infuriating their reading audience for messing with their Christmas story. Ironically, first-century inns were notorious places of vice where no honorable man would take his wife. But once details get embedded in religious tradition, people do not like to see it any other way.

Jesus was born in a relative’s home—not in a barn. According to Luke 2:4, Joseph was from Bethlehem and had kinfolk there. Among first-century Jews, family ranked in importance above virtually everything else. They placed extremely high value on showing hospitality to family members. Consequently, the idea that Joseph was a stranger in Bethlehem, desperately looking for a place to stay simply makes no sense in light of what is known of the cultural context of the story. If he chose not to stay with extended family members, his action would have been a grave insult to them.

Given what we know about Jewish culture in the first century, when Mary went into labor, she was surrounded by kinswomen who cared for her and her baby. Women normally gave birth in their husband’s homes, with the assistance of a midwife and other women in the family. Modern comments about Joseph and Mary being like homeless people arriving in Bethlehem are myths—as are the stories about Jesus being born in a barn detached from where people lived. Mediterranean people kept their animals inside their homes, as I will explain in the next blog post. I will also explain the location of mangers in people’s homes. And, by the way, the nativity story never mentions a donkey. Furthermore, the idea that Mary was ready to give birth when she arrived in Bethlehem is also based on a mistranslation. The sad fact is that the modern Nativity story is mostly based on later church fabrications, not the biblical text. Removing these later traditions reveals that the story of Jesus’ birth has much to do with family values and people caring for their own—not imaginary donkeys and inn keepers. The biblical story is far more interesting than the one reenacted today.

For more information on Jesus’ birth, see Interpreting Biblical Literature, pages 6–10.