Jesus—His Life and Message: Jesus’ Birth (Part 4)
December 23, 2014
by Peter Amsterdam
Jesus—His Life and Message: Jesus’ Birth (Part 4)
(You can read about the intent for and overview of this series in this introductory article.)
Some months after Mary had returned from her visit with Elizabeth and had taken the second step in the marriage process—moving into Joseph’s home—Mary and Joseph embarked on a trip to Bethlehem. We are told that the reason for this trip was that Caesar Augustus had ordered a census, and therefore Joseph was required to travel to Bethlehem, his ancestral home, as he was of the house and lineage of King David.1
Luke describes how Joseph went from Nazareth in the province of Galilee to Bethlehem, a village in Judea six miles from Jerusalem, to be registered. Mary, who was pregnant, accompanied him. While they were abiding in Bethlehem, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.2
The traditional story of Jesus’ birth depicts Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem while Mary is in the beginning stages of labor, or on the verge of it. In this scenario, they arrive in the crowded town and are unable to find any accommodations. They are turned away from the local commercial inn by the hard-hearted innkeeper, and when no other lodging can be found, they seek shelter in a stall or cave where animals are housed, and that evening Jesus is born.
Based on what we know about life in Israel at that time, the story may well have unfolded a bit differently. Let’s take a look at the customs of the time and the original Greek words used in Luke’s Gospel, and try to paint a picture of the most likely scenario.
Luke indicates that Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem for a period of time before she went into labor, as while they were there, the time came for her to give birth.3 Bethlehem, being off the main road to Jerusalem, may not have had a commercial inn,4 and the Greek word Luke used which is translated here as inn is rendered elsewhere as guest room.5 Joseph, being originally from Bethlehem, most likely had relatives there and sought lodging with them. Homes in those days usually consisted of a main room in which the family both ate and slept, and a guest room attached to the house. Due to the crowded conditions in Bethlehem because of the census, Joseph’s relatives probably wouldn’t have had space in their guest room, meaning Mary and Joseph would need to stay in the main room of his relatives’ house—the same room in which the rest of the family ate and slept.
These family rooms usually included an area a bit lower than the main room where the household’s domestic animals were kept during the night. A manger was generally built into the floor of the family’s living area, which the larger animals could eat from when they were standing in the lower area. Such a manger is probably what Luke is referring to when he describes where the newborn child was laid. Most likely, Mary was helped in her delivery either by Joseph or the relatives they were staying with. For a more detailed explanation of life in village homes at that time, click here.
In the fields around Bethlehem, there were shepherds watching their sheep.
And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”6
This is the third time an angel had appeared to announce what God was doing in bringing Jesus into the world. The first was to Zechariah in the Temple, the next to Mary, and now to the shepherds. In this case, the glory of the Lord—God’s radiance in the form of a brilliant light—shone around the shepherds, and like the other times an angel appeared, there was the initial element of fear and the instruction to not fear. For more details regarding the shepherds, click here.
The angel brings good news of great joy that will be for all the people. The angel’s announcement echoes the promise given to Abraham that in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.7 The angel tells the shepherds that the child has been born in Bethlehem, the city of David—thus linking the child to King David, and stating that He is the Messiah, which is the meaning of the name Christ.8
The angel used wording that people of that time would have recognized as symbolic and significant. The Emperor Augustus had brought peace to the Roman Empire in the decades before Jesus’ birth, and was in turn seen as having brought peace to the world. Many throughout the empire called him a “savior,” and one inscription on an altar called him “savior of the whole world.” Another inscription in honor of Augustus said, “The birthday of the god has marked the beginning of the good news for the world.”9 The message of the angel to the shepherds proclaimed the birth of the true King and Savior, and stated the importance His birth would have for all generations to come.
The message the angel gave echoed the words of Isaiah, which foretold the birth of this child and who and what He would be: For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore.10
We are told that suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”11 Older English translations, such as the King James Version, translate the last phrase as and on earth peace, good will toward men. Documents found in the Judaean desert between 1945–56 (generally known as the Dead Sea Scrolls) have rendered more accurate translations that translate this as on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased! Bock explains: In the first century the expression “people with whom he is pleased” was a technical phrase for the elect of God, where the people of God are those who have received the gracious acts of God’s mercy.12
We were told earlier that Mary had given birth to Jesus and wrapped Him in strips of cloth and laid Him in a manger. The sign given to the shepherds was that they would find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.13 Upon the angel’s departure they went to Bethlehem to seek out the baby. When they found the child, they told everyone what had happened, and all who heard about it “wondered and were astonished.” Mary pondered these things in her heart.14
Mary and Joseph, faithful to what the angel had commanded, named their newborn Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.15 According to the Jewish customs of their day, Joseph and Mary had their son circumcised eight days after His birth, and after a further 33 days, they made an offering of purification for Mary at the Temple in accordance with the laws of Moses.16 At this time, they also redeemed their son, in accordance with God’s command that the firstborn son should be redeemed.17 From these actions, we can see that Mary and Joseph were pious Jews who followed God’s commands and who would teach Jesus the ways of faith.
While in the Temple, Joseph and Mary met Simeon, who we are told was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and …it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ …When the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God.18
Simeon’s prayer is the third hymn of praise in the introductory section of Luke’s Gospel. This hymn is known as the Nunc Dimittis (from its opening words in the Latin version).19 Simeon states that his eyes have seen your salvation, that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.20 His statement affirms that God’s salvation is for all peoples, all of humanity. His reference to Jesus as light echoes what Zechariah prophesied in his earlier hymn, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.21 Simeon’s hymn also reflects some passages from the book of Isaiah.22 23 Joseph and Mary marveled, or were astonished, at the words Simeon spoke about their Son.24
Simeon follows this with a blessing upon Jesus’ parents and then prophesies:
Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.25 Simeon foretells that many in Israel will reject Jesus.
Brown describes the scene like this:
The dramatic setting of the prophetic woe on Israel should not be overlooked. The aged Simeon at the end of his life holds in his arms a child that is just beginning his life. Simeon’s eyes have peered into the distance and seen the salvation that this child will bring to the Gentiles and Israel alike; but, true prophet, he also sees the rejection and the catastrophe. And his tragic second vision is addressed to the mother of the child, the one to whom the good news about Jesus first came; for as the first to hear the word and accept it, she must encounter in her own soul its challenge and the tragedy of its rejection by many in that Israel whom Jesus was to have helped.26
While Joseph and Mary are still in the Temple, they also have an encounter with an 84-year-old prophetess named Anna, who was widowed after seven years of marriage and who faithfully worshipped with fasting and prayer in the Temple. While her exact words aren’t recorded in Luke’s Gospel, he ties in the concept of a prophecy from the book of Joel: your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.27 Luke tells us that both a man and a woman prophesy over Jesus. As is seen throughout Luke’s Gospel and in his book of Acts, he often includes women as key players in the telling of Jesus’ story and the story of the early church.
Luke’s narrative of Jesus’ birth ends here in the Temple, while Matthew describes other aspects of Jesus’ birth not recounted in Luke.
Matthew tells of the visit of the Magi:
Wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”28
Some time had passed, possibly up to two years (as soon to be seen by King Herod’s actions against the children of Bethlehem up to the age of two), before the wise men arrived.
It’s not specifically known where the wise men were from. Throughout history three main locations have been considered as most likely: Persia or Parthia, since the term Magi was originally associated with the Medes and the Persians; Babylon, because the Babylonians and Chaldeans had developed a great interest in astronomy and astrology, and due to a large colony of Jews living there, astrologers could have been aware of Jewish messianic expectations; Arabia or the Syrian desert, because the gifts of gold and frankincense were associated with the desert camel trains coming from Midian, in Arabia.29
There's no way we can be sure where the Magi came from, but the general consensus seems to be Arabia. Where they came from, however, isn’t as important as the fact that they came from outside of Israel. Matthew, like Luke, expresses that God is doing a new thing by highlighting the fact that at Jesus’ birth, Gentiles are attracted by the light of God’s Son.30
We’re told that the Magi saw “his star” in the east. There have been a number of theories about the star, and Morris gives a good summary: Many attempts have been made to explain the phenomenon of the star, such as that there was a conjunction of planets or the explosion of a supernova or the appearance of a comet, but none carries conviction. What is clear is that the Magi reported some astronomical phenomenon that they had some way of linking with a particular king, the king of the Jews. But they do not say what it was.31
There is a question about the Greek wording used and how it has been translated. Many translations render the text as “we have seen his star in the east,” while others as “we saw his star when it rose,” or “at its rising.” Brown explains: If we abandon the translation “in the East” for “en te anatole” [the words used in the Greek text], there is no indication that the Magi followed the star to Jerusalem. Rather, having seen the rise of the star which they associate with the King of the Jews, they have come to the capital city of the Jews for more information.32
The readers of Matthew’s Gospel in the first century wouldn’t have considered it strange that a star arose to proclaim the birth of the new king, as the idea that the births and deaths of great men were heralded by heavenly signs was widely accepted.33
While the Gentile Magi had come to pay homage to the newborn “King of the Jews,” Matthew points out that the present Jewish king and the chief priests and scribes were completely unaware that He had been born. Herod was, for obvious reasons, troubled when he heard that the wise men had come seeking a new king. This happened not long before his death, when he was experiencing dissent among his sons as to who should be the next king. (See Rulers and Religion here.) Upon hearing the news, Herod gathered the chief priests and scribes to inquire of them where the messiah would be born. He then secretly summoned the wise men and asked when they had first seen the sign of the star. From Herod’s later actions, we can surmise that it had been within the last two years. Herod then told the Magi to go and find the child and inform him of his exact location so that he could go and worship the new king as well.
When the wise men came to Bethlehem, they found the house where Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were staying.
Going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.34
Interestingly, we’re never told how many Magi were there, though tradition holds that there were three, based on the three gifts listed—frankincense, gold, and myrrh. The story of Magi coming from faraway to pay homage to a king and bring him gifts would not have been a foreign concept for the early readers of this gospel. There are numerous accounts from that period depicting prominent people paying homage and tribute to kings.35
The wise men, being warned in a dream not to return to Herod …departed to their own country by another way.36 Joseph is also visited by an angel in a dream and told to Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.37 Joseph and his family left by night and made their way to Egypt, where they remained until the death of Herod—most likely using the gifts of the Magi to help finance their trip and their living expenses for the time they were there. The family's flight into Egypt followed a common pattern: throughout history, Jews often took refuge in Egypt when there was trouble in Palestine.38
Upon hearing that he had been tricked by the wise men, Herod became furious and had all the male children in Bethlehem and the surrounding area that were two years old or younger killed, an event called the Massacre of the Innocents. It has been calculated that the village and surrounding areas would probably have had a population of about a thousand people, and assuming an annual birth rate of about thirty, there may have been between twenty and thirty male children under the age of two.39
Upon Herod’s death, Joseph was once again visited by an angel in a dream and given instructions—this time to move his family back to Israel, which he did. Returning and finding out that Archelaus was reigning in Judea, he was once again warned in a dream not to go there, so he went to Nazareth and raised his family there.
Time and again throughout Matthew’s Gospel, he links events in Jesus’ life to events in the Old Testament, in order to show the connection between Jesus and the Old Testament prophecies. The trip into Egypt and the return to Israel echoes the history of Israel itself. When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.40 The rescue of the child out of the hand of King Herod parallels the infant Moses being saved from Pharaoh in Egypt and the same child leading the people of God out of Egypt many years later. The killing of the male children by Herod is reminiscent of Pharaoh’s demand that all the male children of the Hebrews be killed.41 The words of the angel to Joseph telling him to return to Israel are similar to the words spoken to Moses telling him he should return to Egypt to be with his people and to bring them to deliverance: Go back to Egypt, for all the men who were seeking your life are dead.42 Joseph was told in a dream, Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.43 We’ll see other echoes throughout Matthew’s Gospel, such as Jesus spending 40 days in the wilderness after His baptism—symbolic of Israel’s 40 years in the desert.
As we come to the end of the story of Jesus’ birth as told by Luke and Matthew, we can see the fulfillment of God’s promise to send a Messiah to redeem humanity beginning to unfold. Since His promise was to be fulfilled within the world, God chose to enter the time and physicality of the world, as revealed in the birth narratives. The physical birth of God the Son became possible through an act of the Holy Spirit and the cooperation of a young woman. The creation of a home with both a father and a mother was made possible by God’s intervention through angelic messages in dreams to Joseph, and Joseph’s willingness to act on the directions received. God sent His Son into the care of two faithful believers, protected Him against those who sought to kill Him, fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies about the coming Messiah, and set the stage for His promised salvation and restoration.
God becoming flesh, entering the world and living among His creation for the purpose of reconciling humanity to Himself through His death and resurrection was the most significant event in human history. The Gospels tell us how Jesus’ life, from birth to death and beyond, fulfill God’s promises and show His great love for humanity by making it possible for us to become His children.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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Biven, David. New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus. Holland: En-Gedi Resource Center, 2007.
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Brown, Raymond E. The Birth of the Messiah. New York: Doubleday, 1993.
Brown, Raymond E. The Death of the Messiah, 2 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1994.
Charlesworth, James H., ed. Jesus ’Jewishness: Exploring the Place of Jesus Within Early Judaism. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997.
Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, updated edition. Hendrickson Publishers, 1993.
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1 Luke tells us that this census occurred when Quirinius was the governor of Syria. There is some debate among scholars about whether Luke got this timing correct, as Quirinius' governorship seems to have been at a later date than when Jesus was born. There are a number of theories addressing this difference, which involve long and drawn-out academic discussion as to whether speaking of the census was a historical fact—brought about because of Caesar Augustus’ displeasure with Herod around the time Jesus was born, but carried out over a period of years—or if Luke simply got the timing wrong; or if he used the census as a literary device to draw the reader’s attention from the world ruled by Caesar to the tiny village of Bethlehem where Jesus was born. From the information available, considering the event under discussion occurred over two thousand years ago, any of these as well as other options are possible. However, spending a great deal of time explaining the various theories doesn’t seem necessary to me, since none of them are fully conclusive.
2 Luke 2:6–7.
3 Luke 2:6.
4 Green, The Gospel of Luke, 128–29.
5 Luke 22:11, Mark 14:14.
6 Luke 2:9–12.
7 Genesis 12:3.
8 He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which means Christ) (John 1:41).
9 Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, 415–16.
10 Isaiah 9:6–7.
11 Luke 2:13–14.
12 Bock, Jesus According to Scripture, 67.
13 Luke 2:12.
14 Luke 2:18–19.
15 Luke 2:21.
16 Leviticus 12:2–6.
17 God had commanded the people of Israel to set aside every firstborn male, whether animal or human, as belonging to Him. The animal would be sacrificed, or it could be redeemed, which meant that a lamb would be sacrificed in its place. The Lord commanded that firstborn sons be redeemed by sacrificing a lamb (Exodus 13:2,12,15).
18 Luke 2:25–28.
19 Bock, Jesus According to Scripture, 68.
20 Luke 2:30–32.
21 Luke 1:78–79.
22 Isaiah 52:9–10; 49:6; 46:13; 42:6; 40:5.
23 Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, 458.
24 Luke 2:33.
25 Luke 2:34–35.
26 Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, 460.
27 Joel 2:28.
28 Matthew 2:1–2.
29 Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, 168–69.
30 Ibid., 459.
31 Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, 36.
32 Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, 174.
33 Ibid., 170.
34 Matthew 2:11.
35 Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, 174.
36 Matthew 2:12.
37 Matthew 2:13.
38 Morris, The Gospel of Matthew, 42.
39 Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, 204.
40 Hosea 11:1.
41 Exodus 1:22.
42 Exodus 4:19.
43 Matthew 2:20.