There are four accounts of Jesus’ life in the Bible, but only two of them describe events before he was thirty. They are called the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke, and they were written about thirty to forty years after Jesus’ death. It may have been that the eyewitnesses were dying out, and it became important to record how Jesus was born. The authors researched the recollections of those who knew and followed Jesus.
The writers also knew the Jewish scriptures (known to Christians as the Old Testament). The scriptures had led the Jews to expect a unique leader called the Messiah or Christ (the words mean the same – ‘The Anointed One’). The writings foresaw that this Christ would be associated with the ancestral line of the greatest king in Israel’s history, David; with David’s birthplace, Bethlehem; and with a virgin whose first child would be named Emmanuel (which means ‘God is with us’). Jesus’ family home, however, was Nazareth, which was seventy miles away, and his parents were known to be named Joseph and Mary.
By bringing these facts together, Luke created an account in which the young Mary, engaged to Joseph but not yet married, was visited in Nazareth by Gabriel, an angel. Gabriel told her that she had been chosen by God to give birth to a son. The baby would be conceived through a unique act of God. Through this child, God would live among his people in an unprecedented way. She was to call him Jesus (which means, ‘God saves us’). Mary was spared the disgrace associated with being pregnant and unmarried at that time because Joseph acted in a compassionate way. She gave birth in Bethlehem because that was where Joseph’s ancestors lived, and he needed to register there in a census.
Matthew’s version of this story stresses the fact that Jesus’ mission had no national boundaries. He records a visit by foreign academics (‘wise men’), who were drawn to the place through their study of sciences and astrology. Luke’s gospel continually stresses Jesus’ care for marginalised people, and it is appropriate that he records Jesus being visited by local riff-raff (shepherds, guided to Jesus’ birthplace by a vision of angels).
In Matthew’s version, tragedy overshadowed these events. Herod the Great had been installed in Jerusalem as ‘King of the Jews’ by the governing Roman authorities. He heard rumours of the birth of a rival, and tried to eliminate the threat by having male children in Bethlehem murdered. However, his soldiers arrived too late to harm Jesus, whose family had fled to Egypt.
Christians remember these events with great celebration at Christmas. Many fables and traditions have accumulated around the bare facts known about Jesus’ birth.
What the Bible says about it
An extract from the Bible:
Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
Where to find it:
About these words:
Written about thirty to forty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, following a commission to produce an account of Jesus’ life that could be relied on.
And they said...
Michael Morpurgo, novelist:
I think children should know these stories. They're part of who we are, and we live in a country which has been Christian for hundreds of years. You don't have to say to children: ‘Thou shalt believe all this ...’ You let them make up their minds. But if you don't know the story, you can't make up your mind.
Babai, leader of the church in what is now Turkey, 551-628:
Choose the course which takes you farthest away from the deadening activities of the stifling world, and brings you close to God. Direct your footsteps toward Bethlehem, like the blessed Wise Men, who will be your companions until you reach the appointed place of the star.
Christina Rossetti, poet, 1830-1894, from the song ‘In the bleak midwinter’:
What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give him: give my heart.
15th century English carol:
God rest you merry, gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay!
For Jesus Christ or Saviour
Was born on Christmas Day;
To save us all from Satan’s power,
When we had gone astray.
O tidings of comfort and joy!