Biblical stories of Jesus' birth reveal intriguing clues about his times

In their differing accounts of the first Christmas, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke provide important historical details about where and when Jesus was born.

By Antonio Piñero
Published 16 Dec 2021, 19:14 GMT
Sacred origins
With its shepherds and wise men, the Christmas story inspires wonder. Although many parts of the story of Jesus’ birth are historically unverifiable, certain pieces can be tied to the events sweeping the world at the time. One is the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which is believed to house the site where Mary gave birth to Jesus. Tradition holds that the silver star in the niche marks the exact location.
Photograph by Zuma Press, Alamy, ACI

An infant in a manger, a brilliant shining star, and adoring shepherds: All are familiar parts of the Christmas story. For many of the world’s Christians, the celebration of Jesus’ birth occurs every December. It is a time of light and joy, in which this ancient story takes centre stage in churches through songs, sermons, and Nativity plays.

In the Bible, however, the traditional elements of the Christmas story are not presented in one single narrative. Nor do they appear in all the Gospels of the New Testament. The events surrounding Jesus’ birth are taken from two Gospels: Matthew and Luke. Each book was written during different times and in different locations. Although much remains mysterious about the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, historians are using clues to shape their assessment of why two of the Gospel writers told the story of Jesus’ birth in the way they did—and why the other two Gospels, Mark and John, do not mention his birth at all.

Melchior points to the Star of Bethlehem in a detail from the "Adoration of the Magi," circa 1480-1490.
Photograph by Bridgeman, ACI

That Jesus of Nazareth was born and lived in the early Roman Empire is a matter of historical fact. In the early Christian period, Jewish texts that sought to discredit Jesus were not seeking to deny his existence. Other sources that testify to his existence are the Jewish writer and historian Josephus, who was writing in the late first century; and some decades later, the Roman historian Tacitus. The Christians, Tacitus wrote, “worship Christus . . . who suffered the death penalty during the reign of Emperor Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate.”

No non-Christian source, however, describes the birth of Jesus. The only texts offering detailed accounts of Jesus’ life are early Christian writings, principally the four Gospels that were regarded as a fixed part of the New Testament by the third century A.D.

For the many centuries following, these were regarded as entirely sacred texts. By the 18th century, however, scholars were beginning to try to place the creation of the Gospels in a historical context. Bible historians now consider that the Gospel of Mark was written first, since both Matthew and Luke heavily borrow material from Mark’s account. Written at the end of the first century A.D., the Gospel of John—whose themes are very different from the other three—is the last to be written.

There is some consensus that the Gospel of Mark was begun during or just after the First Jewish Revolt that began in A.D. 66. This revolt led to the Romans destroying the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70, an event referenced in Mark. The Gospel of Mark begins not with the birth of Jesus but with his baptism as an adult.

Once scholars had established that Mark’s Gospel was written first, however, a new and intriguing idea took root: The authors of Matthew and Luke—writing perhaps in the A.D. mid-80s—had noted the absence of a birth story and decided to include one.

A 1556 German woodcut shows a shooting star.
Photograph by Alamy, ACI

Some biblical scholars believe that the Christmas story was a late addition to earlier versions of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke and that it was added sometime in the second century to establish links to Jesus' prestigious ancestors and divine birth. If the great heroes of antiquity, like Alexander the Great and Augustus Caesar, had been furnished with impressive backstories after their deaths, wasn’t it fitting that the Messiah should have one too?

Divine accounts

Matthew and Luke both feature Jesus’ birth, but they offer very different accounts. Each Gospel highlights different parts in the story and omits others, placing their emphasis on specific elements. Matthew’s narrative begins with a genealogy, listing the ancestors of the Holy Family and tracing Jesus’ lineage many generations back to King David, while the Gospel of Luke begins with the angel Gabriel foretelling the births of John the Baptist to his father Zechariah and then of Jesus to his mother Mary.

The discrepancies continue into the Nativity scene itself. Matthew seems more focused on events that come after Jesus’ birth, including the visit of the magi, the cruelty of King Herod, the Massacre of the Innocents, and the flight into Egypt. Luke omits these events and instead relates other details: the census ordered by Rome, Joseph and Mary’s travels to Bethlehem, laying the child in a manger, and the adoration of the shepherds.

The text of the four Gospels was shaped by contemporary forces; the motives for including a birth narrative were probably rooted in the needs of Christian communities at that time. Questions could have been swirling among those earliest of Christian communities about the nature of Jesus’ birth and lineage. Despite their differences, Luke’s and Matthew’s stories link Jesus both to his divine parentage and his earthly ties to the House of David, emphasising Jesus’ role in both God’s plan and in Jewish history.

Mary and Joseph gaze on the infant Christ in Sandro Botticelli’s circa 1500 oil painting, housed in Houston's Museum of Fine Arts. In the background, the flight into Egypt is depicted.
Photograph by Album

Delving into both the historical Jesus and the creation of the Gospels, scholars have found instances where history and the biblical texts do not align. Questions arose, leading to more investigation into the story of Jesus’ birth and why certain Gospels emphasised different events that have coalesced into the popular Christmas story.

This story grew in popularity over the centuries as Christianity spread across Europe, especially after Renaissance artists depicted episodes from both the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The Annunciation, the Nativity, Mary with the infant Jesus, the adoration of both the shepherds and the magi, and the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt: All were popular subjects for Europe’s most famous artists, including Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael. Strong visual representations further emphasised their place in Jesus’ biography.

These different scenes became even more strongly married together as Nativity plays became a part of Christmas celebrations. St. Francis of Assisi is credited with staging the first one in 1223. St. Francis’ biography, written by St. Bonaventure, details how the pope gave permission to the monk to stage the scene (including a hay-lined manger, an ox, and a donkey) and to give a sermon about the baby Jesus. These plays became iconic parts of the Christmas celebration that are still performed today the world over, helping to solidify the prominence of Jesus’ birth in the Christian tradition.

Little town of Bethlehem

James Tissot produced a series of watercolors, “The Life of Christ,” between 1886 and 1894. One re-creates the moment in Luke 2:4-7 when Joseph and the pregnant Mary arrive in Bethlehem and seek a place to stay.
Photograph by Bridgeman, ACI

The first reference to Jesus’ home is in the oldest Gospel, Mark: “At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptised by John in the Jordan” (Mark 1:9). Nazareth was an obscure northern town, but Mark does not say if Jesus was born there—only that he lived there.

The Gospel of Matthew names Jesus’ birthplace: Bethlehem, a Judaean town about 80 miles south of Nazareth in Galilee. More than just a location, Bethlehem is significant because of an Old Testament prophecy made by the Prophet Micah, which Matthew quotes: “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least . . . for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel’”(Matthew 2:6).

The Gospel of Luke also names Bethlehem as Jesus' birthplace and details Joseph and Mary’s journey there from start to finish:

So 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 (Luke 2:4).

Luke also describes why a Nazarene couple, who were expecting a baby, made an 80-mile trek south to Bethlehem:

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register (Luke 2:1-3).

A first-century relief on the altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus from the Field of Mars in Rome depicts census takers.
Photograph by Scala, Florence

Luke accomplishes two things in these passages. First he accentuates Joseph and his family’s royal ancestry by linking them to King David, who was born in Bethlehem; when an angel announces Jesus’ birth to the shepherds, Bethlehem is called “the town of David” (Luke 2:11). Some biblical scholars believe Bethlehem only enters the story because of its links to King David rather than being the actual birthplace, which they place in Nazareth.

The census identified by Luke also complicates matters. History shows no census during the reign of King Herod, whom Matthew identifies as ruling Judaea. The Roman governor of Syria, Publius Sulpicius Quirinius, did carry out a census in Judaea in A.D. 6, about a decade after Herod’s death. Historians are also skeptical that a census would prompt Joseph to travel to Bethlehem: Such censuses were held to specify the whereabouts of residents in a town for the purposes of taxing them and did not typically require people to travel to an ancestral home. 

The day and the year when Jesus was born has been subjected to much scrutiny. December 25 was first designated by the church as the Christmas in the fourth century. This date clashes with the biblical sources, most notably with Luke’s description of shepherds “keeping watch over their flocks by night.” The passage suggests that Jesus was born in the springtime when shepherds are watching over newborn lambs.

One theory for the late December birth is that it places the Annunciation in March, nine months earlier. Early Christians believed that late March was when Jesus was crucified. Having both his conception and death in the same month strengthened the sacred connections.

French baroque painter Georges de La Tour’s unusual 1644 painting is inspired by a French rural tradition in which villagers dressed up as shepherds and shepherdesses to reenact the Nativity scene.
Photograph by Franck Raux, RMN Grand Palais

There were also practical reasons for adopting December 25 as Christmas: That date was also the Roman festival of Sol Invictus (Unconquered Sun), which celebrated the return of longer days after the winter solstice. Another mid-December celebration, the festival Saturnalia, was very popular among the Roman people; its traditions of singing, lighting candles, feasting, and gift-giving were mapped onto the celebration of Christmas.

Determining the year of Jesus’ birth would not come until several centuries later, when Dionysius Exiguus, a sixth-century monk, was determining the date of Easter for the next century. The late Roman world was then marking time in the years that had elapsed since A.D. 284, the beginning of Emperor Diocletian’s reign. Dionysius felt it was inappropriate to use a system that honored a persecutor of Christians; instead, he started to date the years from the“year of the incarnation [i.e., birth] of our Lord,” or anno Domini.

Bethlehem's brilliant star is portrayed in a 1922 illustration by William Ladd Taylor.
Photograph by Bridgeman, ACI

His dating method began to gain acceptance and would eventually spread across Christendom. Dionysius’ fixing of Christ’s birth is ambiguous, but he implies it took place on December 25 in what is now recognised as 1 B.C. (the calendar notion of B.C. would not take root until many centuries later).

If 1 B.C. was indeed the year Dionysius had in mind, then Jesus’ birth contradicts the Gospel sources. According to Matthew, Jesus is born “in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod” (Matthew 2:1). Most sources attest that Herod the Great died around 4 B.C., while the census ordered by Quirinius took place around A.D. 6, about a decade after Herod’s death.

Also making it difficult to determine the exact year of Jesus’ birth is the star of Bethlehem, reported in Matthew to have guided the magi to the newborn Jesus: “We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him” (Matthew 2:2). Several astronomical events could have been this glorious star that lit up the night, but astronomers and biblical scholars propose several strong candidates across a wide range of time. A conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter occurred in late 7 B.C. Chinese astronomers observed a brilliant night sky object, either a comet, a nova, or a supernova, around 4 B.C. Another impressive celestial display would have been the conjunction of Jupiter and Venus on August 12, 3 B.C. Speculation as to the star’s identity has even ranged to Halley’s comet, which was visible in the skies in 11 B.C.

Gifts of the magi

Beautifully adorned and bearing gifts, the three kings are among the Christmas story’s most recognisable characters. Their presence in Christmas carols and Nativity plays are an example of how later Christian traditions became part of the modern celebration. Modern depictions of the Christmas story seem to compress the timeline of the Gospels, making it appear as though the three kings arrive in Bethlehem on the day of Jesus’ birth.

Mary presents the infant Jesus to the magi, who offer gold coins in a porcelain cup, an agate vessel of myrrh, and a censer of frankincense in this work by Andrea Mantegna, painted in 1495-1505. The painting is now at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
Photograph by Album

Traditional celebrations of Christmas place the arrival of the magi 12 days after Christmas. Called Epiphany (or Three Kings Day), it is one of Christianity’s oldest holidays. Western Christians typically celebrate Epiphany on January 6, and Orthodox Christian faiths celebrate it on January 19.

The source for the visit of learned men from the East appears in the Gospel of Matthew. The number of wise men is never specified, nor did the text identify them as royalty. Instead, their description is tantalisingly brief: “Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him’” (Matthew 2:1-2).

After meeting Herod in Jerusalem, the magi proceed until the star “stopped over the place where the child was.” On seeing the child, “they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh” (Matthew 2:9-11).

The term “magi” offers a substantial clue as to the identity of these visitors: Magi were the priestly class of the Zoroastrian religion practiced in Persia, which lay, as Matthew writes, east of Jerusalem and was then a part of the Parthian empire. “Magi” is from Old Persian magush, meaning a person of great learning and esoteric powers, and is the root of the English words “magic” and “magician.” The magi, therefore, were likely priests or court astrologers from Persia.

This painting, titled "The Shepherds, following the star, arrive at Bethlehem," was painted by Octave Penguilly L'Haridon circa 1864.
Photograph by Thierry Le Mage, RMN Grand Palais

Matthew’s inclusion of the gifts was likely to reflect the more general, Old Testament tradition of lavish foreign gift-giving, such as kings praising the Lord by bringing “gold and incense” (Isaiah 60). The magi’s gifts held symbolic meanings as well. Gold was a gift for royalty and signified Jesus’ status as “king of the Jews.” Frankincense, an aromatic resin used in perfumes, represented the infant’s divinity. Myrrh, also a fragrant resin, came from southern Arabia and was frequently used in embalming, which foreshadowed Jesus’ mortality.

In the centuries after the Gospel of Matthew was written, the three wise men have been interpreted as kings of different lands east of Judaea. That they numbered three was established relatively early in Christian history, but the other details were filled in later. Starting in the eighth century, traditions further elaborated on their identities, giving them names and countries of origin: Melchior from Persia, Gaspar (also Caspar or Jaspar) from India, and Balthazar who hails from Arabia or sometimes Ethiopia.

King Herod

After worshipping the infant Jesus, the magi, according to Matthew, are warned in a dream not to return to Jerusalem, where Herod is awaiting their information on the child. Their evasion enrages the king: “When Herod realised that he had been outwitted by the magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under” (Matthew 2:16).

A terrified mother protects her son in French painter Léon Cogniet’s 1824 imagining of the Massacre of the Innocents, housed at the Museum of Fine Arts of Rennes in France.
Photograph by Adélaïde Beaudoin, RMN Grand Palais

The Massacre of the Innocents adds a streak of darkness to the Christmas story. It has stirred up centuries of revulsion among Christians, but no historical record corroborates Matthew’s account of a massacre. The Antiquities of the Jews, written by Judeo-Roman historian Flavius Josephus, offers a detailed portrait of the chaotic end of Herod’s reign, but no gruesome massacre is mentioned. Such an incident would have appeared in other accounts, especially as Josephus was writing less than a century after Herod’s death.

One aspect of Matthew’s story that is indisputably historic is the way the Herodian dynasty forms the backdrop to the birth, life, and death of Jesus. Born around 73 B.C., Herod began his career as a high-ranking Jewish official at a time when Roman influence over Judaea was growing. Seeing the usefulness of having a loyal Jewish king, Rome made Herod king of Judaea in 40 B.C. He trod a fine line between loyalty to Rome and preserving a degree of Jewish independence. He undertook magnificent building campaigns, including a grand expansion of the Temple in Jerusalem; however, the Roman-style opulence of Herod’s court angered his Jewish subjects and cost him their loyalty.

A polychrome marble relief from a choir stall in the Cathedral of Notre Dame shows the cruel king.
Photograph by Bridgeman, ACI

The end of Herod’s reign was marked by treachery and bloodshed. The king had many members of his own family killed, including his brother-in-law Aristobulus the Younger, his wife Mariamne, and— most brutally of all—her two sons, Alexander and Aristobulus.

This reputation for cruelty, attributed to both Herod the Great and his son, may well inform how the story of the Massacre of the Innocents arose. While the Massacre of the Innocents is likely a legend, the brutality of Herod the Great was a political reality that overshadowed Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ birth.

These tensions between Roman control, local Jewish pieties, and Herodian power run through the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ lifetime. Following Herod the Great’s death around 4 B.C., Rome divided rule of Judaea, placing different areas under the rule of his children. Galilee was controlled by Herod Antipas, whose presence would loom large in the New Testament. His cruelty is demonstrated later in Jesus’ life by his imprisoning and beheading of John the Baptist, as described in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, as well as in Josephus’ Antiquities.

Flight into Egypt

Luke and Matthew conclude their narratives in strikingly different ways. Luke recounts how an angel announced the divine birth to shepherds, who hurry to the manger to worship the baby Jesus. Soon after, the Holy Family swiftly moves to Jerusalem, where Jesus will be presented at the Temple.

The Virgin gazes tenderly at the Christ Child as the Holy Family proceeds toward Egypt in this 1544 oil painting by Jacopo Bassano.
Photograph by Scala, Florence

By contrast, Matthew’s Gospel concludes with high drama and an escape. Warned in a dream by an angel of the Lord in a dream, Joseph learns that Herod has sent men to kill his son. The angel tells Joseph to take his family and flee to Egypt, where they should stay.

So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so it was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Matthew 2: 14-15).

After Herod’s death, an angel of the Lord appears again to Joseph in a dream and tells him that it is safe to take his family back home. Instead of returning to Judaea, Joseph decided to go to Galilee, which Matthew explains:

But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea . . . [Joseph] was afraid to go there . . . he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene (Matthew 2:22-23).

Archelaus, like Herod Antipas, was a son of Herod the Great, and was the governor of Judaea. It is not clear from the historical record or from Matthew’s text why Joseph fears Archelaus. Some scholars believe that the reason itself is not important: The text allows Matthew to return the Holy Family to Nazareth in order to align with the Gospel of Mark.

This 13th-century psalter of Ingeborg of Denmark shows the the Massacre of the Innocents in the top frame and the flight into Egypt in the bottom frame.
Photograph by Bridgeman, ACI

The flight into Egypt recalls other biblical stories, including Abraham and Sarah’s journey to Egypt (Genesis 12) and the story of Exodus. Herod’s brutal actions mirror that of Pharaoh’s orders to kill the firstborn of Israel. Mary and Joseph’s journey out of Egypt back to Israel parallels Moses’ leading the people out of Egypt to the promised land in Israel.

The story of the Holy Family’s wanderings in Egypt was elaborated in several of the apocryphal gospels (texts excluded from the canonical New Testament) and generated a rich and highly complex tradition in which the Holy Family stayed in Egypt for years. The Egyptian Coptic Church—which, according to tradition, was founded by the Apostle Mark in mid-first century A.D.—places great importance on this part of the story. Numerous holy sites associated with the Holy Family’s route sprang up across Egypt. Such sites are sanctified by a large stock of traditions centred on miraculous wells and springs from which the Holy Family drank, and palm trees under which they rested. These respites inspired many works of art in which the Holy Family is rendered in quiet moments of intimacy and humility.

 Antonio Piñero is a professor of New Testament philology at the Complutense University of Madrid.

Learn more

Jesus: An Illustrated Life J.-P. Isbouts, National Geographic Books, 2015.

Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography Bruce Chilton, Doubleday, 2000.


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