Monday, December 23, 2013

A Brief Dictionary of Jesus’ Birth

Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels are the only two books of the Bible that offer information about events surrounding Jesus’ birth (Matthew 1:18—2:23 and Luke 1:1—2:40), and this brief dictionary defines the terms related to their accounts. Geographic, historical, and archaeological information are introduced as needed to supplement the definition of each term. All biblical quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted.

Angels – The Gospel of Luke records that Mary’s pregnancy was announced to her by an angel named Gabriel who instructed her to name the child Jesus (Luke 1:26-38).  To shepherds in the fields outside of Bethlehem an unnamed angel (sometimes assumed to have been Gabriel) announced the birth of a savior whom they will find in Bethlehem, lying in a manger, and wearing strips of cloth. Then with the angel “a multitude of heavenly hosts” (in Greek, “a vast/multitudinous host/army of heaven”) appeared saying, "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!" (Luke 2:8-14). Only Luke writes of Jesus being laid in a manger, and Luke records no angels appearing at the manger.

The Gospel of Matthew, while mentioning no shepherds or a manger or any other details of Jesus’ actual birth, records that an angel (unnamed) directed Joseph in a dream that he should not be afraid to marry Mary and that he should name the child Jesus (Matthew 1:18-21). Matthew further records that an angel, presumably the same unnamed angel that appeared in Joseph’s first dream, appeared in three more dreams, warning him to flee Bethlehem, informing him later that the danger had passed, and finally warning him not to return to Judea (Matthew 2:13-20). The Magi too had a dream in which they were warned not to return to Herod, so they went home by another route (Matthew 2:12). While no angelic messenger is mentioned in the Magi’s dream of warning, it can be inferred since two of Joseph’s dreams involved angelic messages of warning.

There are only male angels in the Bible (Acts 12:9 for example), and the noun “angel” (aggelos in Greek meaning messenger) is grammatically masculine. Gabriel’s name means “man of God,” a masculine name. The only other named angel in the Bible is Michael (“who is like God?”). If Satan (“adversary”) could be viewed as a fallen angel, as Roman Catholic doctrine claims, he would be a third, but there is no evidence of this in the Bible. The Apocrypha (a collection of intertestamental documents not included in the Protestant Bible) names two additional angels: Raphael meaning “God has healed” (Book of Tobit) and Uriel meaning “fire or light of God” (2 Esdras). No angel in Scripture is designated as female, though Zechariah 5:9 possibly refers to female angels.

Nowhere in the Bible is an angel described as a human with wings. When they appear in scripture they are often mistaken for men (Mark 19:5-6; Luke 24:4-7; John 20:11-13), something that would not have happened were angels winged. Cherubim and seraphim are exotic creatures (probably symbolic) that could not be mistaken for a man.

While an angel appeared to Mary, while an angel appeared to shepherds in the fields, and while an angel spoke in dreams to Zechariah and Joseph (and perhaps to the Magi), no angel is said to have appeared at the manger. (See Dreams, Gabriel, Magi, Shepherds)

Anna – Anna, the 84-year-old prophetess and widow from the tribe of Asher is, like the prophet Simeon, featured in Luke’s story of the infant Jesus being brought to the temple to be dedicated to God (redemption of the firstborn, Exodus 13:12-15). This visit to the temple also coincided with Mary’s completion of her time of purification (Leviticus 12:4 & 6-8) following giving birth, probably thirty-three days afterward as prescribed by the law.

Anna, like Simeon, recognized the significance of Jesus’ birth and she spoke about him in the temple. Unlike Simeon, however, Luke records none of her words.

Luke 2:36-38   36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage,  37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day.  38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. (See Dedication, Purification, Simeon, Temple)

Animals – No animals are mentioned as having been present at the manger for the birth of Jesus. The only animals mentioned in Luke are sheep, though they are not at the manger in town but are out in the agricultural fields. Matthew mentions no animals, nor does he mention the manger. (See Camels, Donkey, Sheep)

Annunciation – Annunciation is the term used to refer to the announcement of the angel Gabriel to the virgin Mary that she would conceive God’s son by the power of the Holy Spirit and that she should name him Jesus. Luke alone records the annunciation to Mary (Luke 1:26-35). (See Angel, Gabriel, Mary, Nazareth)

A separate announcement, provided by Matthew, is made in a dream by an unnamed angel to Mary’s betrothed, Joseph, saying that he should not be concerned about marrying Mary, that she was pregnant of the Holy Spirit, and that he should name the son Jesus (Matthew 1:18-25). (See Angel, Dreams, Joseph, Nazareth)

Antipas (Herod Antipas) Antipas, another son of Herod the Great, does not figure in the birth narrative of Jesus, but he figures prominently in the ministries of John the Baptist and Jesus. Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee and Perea during Jesus’ growing-up years and during his ministry, named Sepphoris the new capital of Galilee, and he rebuilt it using a large workforce that may have included builders like Joseph, Jesus, and Jesus’ brothers who would have traveled only four miles from Nazareth for daily wages. Antipas famously had John the Baptist beheaded at his birthday party (Matthew 14, Mark 6), and he questioned Jesus during his trial (Luke 23). Jesus warned his followers about the “yeast of Herod” Mark 8:15) and referred to Herod Antipas as “that fox” (Luke 13:31-35). (See Archeleus, Herod the Great)

Archeleus (Herod Archeleus) – Archeleus was a son of Herod the Great who upon his father’s death in 4 BC ruled a portion of his kingdom as ethnarch for nine years (4 BC – 6 AD). His reputation for cruelty is the reason given by Matthew for Joseph’s decision not to return from Egypt to Bethlehem of Judea with Mary and his young son Jesus (about 4 years of age), but to go instead to Nazareth in Galilee where the family was apparently planning to locate anyway, a relocation perhaps driven by steady work available for builders in nearby Sepphoris/Zippori, Herod Antipas’ designated new capital of Galilee. (See Bethlehem, Egypt, Joseph, Judea, Nazareth)


Augustus (Caesar or Emperor) (September 23, 63 BC – August 19, 14 AD) Luke 2:1 is the only verse in the Bible that mentions Augustus.

Luke 2:1  In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.

He was the founder of the Roman Empire and its first Emperor, ruling from 27 BC until his death in 14 AD. Luke identifies Augustus as emperor during the year that Jesus was born, around 8 BC. (See Census)

Bethlehem – For a tiny village, Bethlehem plays prominently in the Bible, from Ruth to King David to Jesus, mentioned 49 times in 15 books of the Bible by name.

Matthew and Luke agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea. Luke 2:11, Luke 2:15, and Matthew 2:1 report that Jesus was born in the City of David (Bethlehem of Judea). While art traditionally places Jesus’ birth in a stable in a field outside of Bethlehem, Luke 2:8 records that it is the shepherds who were out in the fields. The shepherds go into town to find the baby. The manger in which Mary laid Jesus was downtown, not out of town. Some scholars speculate that Jesus was born in Nazareth or Bethlehem of Galilee. This contradicts the biblical accounts, but these scholars do not feel that the biblical birth narratives are historically factual to begin with. They see Luke’s and Matthew’s accounts of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem as literary creations by the early church who would have had this prophesy in mind: “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.” (Micah 5:2)   In downtown Bethlehem today, however, there is a cave, once the basement stable for a first century home, that for at least 17 centuries has been venerated as the spot. Built over the cave today is the oldest functioning church building in the world, the Church of the Nativity.

The Scriptures say that the people of Bethlehem were of King David’s lineage. (David was from Bethlehem.) Joseph and Mary are said to have traveled “home” to Bethlehem for a census. “All went to their own towns to be registered.” (Luke 2:3) This quote suggests that though Joseph and Mary had relocated to Nazareth, or were in the process of doing so, they were originally from Bethlehem and had to go back home to be counted. The Scriptures strongly suggest that they had a house in Bethlehem. Matthew makes a point of saying that when Jesus was about 2 years old, the Magi bearing gifts visited them in “the house.” (See Census, Magi, Manger, and Nazareth)

Camels – No camels are mentioned in the biblical stories of Jesus’ birth. Later Christian traditions suggested the number of Magi, their races and their names, and how they may have traveled, but none of these details appear in Matthew’s original account. (See Magi)

Census - Luke records that Augustus was emperor of Rome when Jesus was born.

Luke 2:1-3  In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.  2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.  3 All went to their own towns to be registered.

Roman records show that the emperor ordered a census in 6 AD while Quirinius was governor of Syria. But this date is too late for Jesus’ birth as the Bible tells it. According to Matthew 2 and Luke 1:5, Herod the Great was still alive when Jesus was born. Herod died in 4 BC, so Jesus had to have been born before 4 BC (The incorrect birth year of 1 AD was established in the 6th Century.)

Though the governorship of Quirinius and the 6 AD census date are too late for Jesus’ birth, Quirinius may have been governor twice. His first reign may have begun in 12 BC as co-legate during which he was ordered to do a census in 9 BC (It takes years to complete one, and it was done from 9-6 BC). This fits Luke’s and Matthew’s dating quite well, and puts Jesus’ birth at about 8 BC, within the reigns of Augustus, Quirinius, and Herod as Luke claims. (See the Res Gestae Inscription and the Aemilius Secundus Inscription. Some scholars claim that these confirm both the early census and the earlier co-reign of Quirinius. Other scholars contest this.)

Circumcision – Luke claims that Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day of his life in accordance with the law of Moses.

Leviticus 12:3   3 On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.

Luke 2:21   21 After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

Biblically, the practice of circumcision began with the patriarch Abraham, his descendants, and their slaves as "a token of the covenant" concluded with him by God for all generations, an "everlasting covenant" (Genesis 17:13).

Luke does not say that Jesus’ circumcision was performed at the Jerusalem temple. Actually he does not give the location at all. Mary could not have gone to the temple eight days after labor, not until after thirty-three days of purification would she have been allowed onto the temple mount, as birth renders a woman ritually impure. (See Dedication, Purification) It was not necessary, however, that she attend this rite, though she might have if it were performed at home. It is more likely, however, that Joseph would have taken Jesus to a rabbi in the local Bethlehem synagogue for circumcision, though Mary could not enter a synagogue, not only because she was still impure due to childbirth, but also because women were not allowed in synagogues unless there was a balcony for them. Jesus was also ceremonially given the name Jesus during the rite of circumcision. (See Jesus)

December 25 - There is no identification in the biblical record or in any written record before 200 AD of proposed dates for Jesus’ birth. The Christian Father Origen of Alexandria in the 2nd century mocked Roman’s celebrations of birthdays as a thoroughly pagan practice suggesting that Christians for 200 years may have shied away from speculation about a birth anniversary for Jesus seeing it as a violation of their religious sensibilities.

Around 200 AD, however, in the earliest known writings that mention Jesus’ possible birthday, Clement of Alexandria mentions five dates. Adjusting to our modern calendar, Clement says that different Christian groups selected different dates, those being March 21, April 15, April 20, April 21, and May 20. He made no mention of December 25. (Clement, Stromateis 1.21.145.) Note that only May 20 is close to June, the time when shepherds would have been allowed to graze their sheep in the stubble of agricultural fields. (See Sheep)

By the 4th century two dates emerged and they are still celebrated worldwide today. Most Christian churches commemorate the birth of Jesus on December 25. Some groups, typically in the “east,” celebrate on January 6. (A few celebrate on January 7 or 19, depending on the calendars they use and how they calculate the date moving from one calendar to another.)

The most popular theory for December 25, touted by lay persons and scholars alike, is that Christians borrowed the timeframe, if not the date, of the popular pagan Saturnalia festival in late December. Paired with this “borrowing” is the Roman festival of the birth of Sol Invictus, The Unconquered Sun, on December 25. The problem with this theory, though it sounds oh-so convincing, is that no Christian writings from the time support it. It was not until the 18th and 19th centuries that this theory caught on. But if this theory is wrong, why did the early church choose December 25?

December 25 was not chosen by the early church because it was already a pagan holiday. It was chosen with a theological purpose in mind. Because Jesus’ date of crucifixion was established on March 25, the early church hypothesized that that same date marked the day of his conception by the Holy Spirit. Conceived on March 25 and crucified on March 25, conceived on the date on which he was destined to die, they added exactly 9 months to mark December 25 as his birthday. This is more than a theory. It is attested to by early Christian writers Tertullian, Augustine, and several others.

For he [Jesus] is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also he suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which he was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which he was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before him nor since. But he was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th.” (Augustine, Sermon 202. Around 400 AD)

The “eastern” tradition of Jesus’ birth on January 6 was calculated the same way as December 25, but they began with April 6 as the date of both Jesus’ conception and crucifixion. They use the local Greek calendar month of Artemisios instead of the Hebrew calendar month of Nisan, thus the discrepancy between December 25 and January 6 that exists to this day.

DedicationAccording to Luke 2:22-40, Jesus was taken by Joseph and Mary to the Jerusalem temple for the dedication of her firstborn to God in accordance with Mosaic Law. While at the temple for Mary’s purification (Leviticus 12:4 & 6-8) and Jesus’ dedication (Exodus 13:12-15), the prophet Simeon and the prophetess Anna met the “holy family,” they recognized the significance of the child, and they spoke of him prophetically. (See Anna, Purification, Simeon, and Temple)

Divorce – (See Marriage)

Donkey – No donkey is mentioned in the biblical story, and Mary was not in labor on a donkey as a desperate Joseph searched strange streets for lodging, tradition notwithstanding. Mary did not go into labor until sometime after they arrived home in Bethlehem.

Luke 2:5-6 5 He (Joseph) went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. (New Revised Standard)

While they were there, the time came. She did not go into labor until they were already there for a time.

How did they get there? Joseph and Mary probably traveled on foot from Nazareth. There is no donkey in the biblical story, and it is difficult to imagine being several months pregnant and riding a donkey for 80 miles. If Mary had been nine months pregnant, they would not have traveled anywhere at all. And Mary certainly would not have ridden a donkey for the better part of a week while on the verge of labor.

Perhaps Mary was only three to six months pregnant. I know a healthy young woman who in the course of a single day climbed up and down Mount Katahdin in Maine while six months pregnant, and without incident. If she had tried to ride up and down Katahdin on a donkey while six months pregnant, however, I suspect there would have been a helicopter airlift.

Dreams – (See Angels, Joseph, Magi)

Elizabeth  Luke introduces John the Baptist’s mother Elizabeth as a “relative” of Jesus’ mother Mary’s (Luke 1:36). Some translations render the word συγγενίς (sungenis) as “cousin”, but the term is not necessarily this specific. Cousin or other, both women become pregnant miraculously, and their special sons, John and Jesus, are kin. Elizabeth’s husband was Zechariah, a priest in the Jerusalem temple. (See John the Baptist)

Engagement – (See Marriage)

Egypt - Matthew records that the holy family hid from Herod the Great for about two years in Egypt. When Herod died (4 B.C), they wanted to return, to Judea, no doubt to Bethlehem (again suggesting that Bethlehem was their original home and that they had a house there), but Herod’s son Archelaus was on the Judean throne, and he was worse than his father. So they decided to make their permanent new home in Nazareth, something they seem to have been planning for some time. By that time, Jesus may have been about four years of age. (See Archelaus, Dreams, Herod the Great, Judea, Magi, and Nazareth)

Gabriel The Gospel of Luke records that Mary’s pregnancy was announced to her by an angel named Gabriel who instructed her to name her child Jesus. Gabriel’s appearance is not described. (See Angel and Annunciation)

Luke 1:26-28   26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth,  27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary.  28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”

Luke 1:30-33   30 The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.  32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.  33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."

The Gospel of Luke also records that Gabriel appeared to the priest Zechariah to announce is wife Elizabeth’s conception in her old age.

Luke 1:11-13   11 Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense.  12 When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him.  13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.” 

According to Matthew, an angel also appeared to Joseph in a series of dreams, and while it makes since that the angel might have been Gabriel, the angel named by Luke as having appeared to Zechariah and Mary, Matthew left him unnamed. (See Angels, Joseph, and Magi)

Galilee – Galilee was the name of a region in Herod the Great’s Kingdom and the area still bears that name today. Upon Herod’s death the kingdom was broken up, Galilee was passed on to his son Herod Antipas as a tetrarchy, and he ruled it as an ethnarch (John the Baptist was beheaded by Antipas, and Jesus was brought before him during his trial in Jerusalem.) The region of Galilee contains familiar New Testament locations such as the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum, and the town featured prominently in Matthew’s and Luke’s birth narratives: Nazareth. (See Nazareth)

Herod (the Great) King Herod the Great is missing from children’s nativity plays and Christmas cantatas, no doubt because his order to slaughter all of the innocent babies and toddlers in Bethlehem is neither G-Rated nor does it evoke holiday cheer. A kinder and gentler bad guy was invented by well-meaning playwrights, one who is not in the biblical text at all, but who still serves his purpose as the villain: the hardhearted innkeeper. And Herod—the true, lying, paranoid, murdering, biblical bad guy—is omitted from the cast of Christmas pageant characters.

Herod the Great is mentioned in the Bible only in Matthew 2, nine times by name, and the king figures prominently there in the story of the Magi who traveled west to Judea and who met with King Herod in Jerusalem (Matthew 2:1-8), only some six miles north of Bethlehem, informing the king that an astronomical event noted two years prior had announced to them the birth of a new Judean king. Matthew records the meeting of the Magi with mother Mary and the toddler Jesus in “the house” in Bethlehem, presumably their home (Matthew 2:11). An angel warned both Joseph and the Magi to escape Bethlehem; Matthew 2:16 claims that Herod was planning that all the children two years old and under in Bethlehem were to be killed in an attempt on Jesus’ life. The Magi went home by another route and the “holy family” went to Egypt until Herod the Great’s death in 4 BC. After Herod’s death, Joseph planned to return his family to Judea, indicating no doubt his residence there, probably in the Bethlehem house the Magi visited, but they feared Herod’s son Archelus who had taken the Judean throne, so they went to Nazareth of Galilee to make a new home, the town they might have been relocating to anyway.

Herod the Great was an Idumean who ruled Judea as a client king of Rome from 37-4 BC. He is responsible for colossal building projects including the Second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, the port city of Caesarea, and several fortress/palaces like the ones at Herodium and Masada, the ruins of which are still visible today.

The population of Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth was about 300 people. There may have been around ten children/babies two years old and under in Bethlehem at the time Herod the Great ordered their executions, hardly the massive slaughter depicted by tradition and movies, yet still tragic. Perhaps the small number of children killed in the tiny village explains why no historians like Josephus wrote of Herod’s “slaughter of the innocents.” Perhaps the event was not significant enough compared to Herod the Great’s other atrocities to merit recording. Some scholars see this event’s absence from the historical record as evidence that it never happened, that it is a literary creation of the early church. (See Antipas, Archelaus, Census, Egypt, Jerusalem, Joseph, Judea, and Magi, Nazareth, Temple)

Immanuel (or Emmanuel)  Immanuel is a symbolic name which appears in chapters 7 and 8 of the Book of Isaiah as part of a prophecy assuring king Ahaz of Judah of God's protection against enemy kings; it is quoted in Matthew 1:23 as a prophesy verifying the divine status of Jesus. Immanuel means God with us.

Inn and Innkeeper - Luke 2:7 is the key verse concerning the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. It is typically translated:

“And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. (New International Version) (emphasis mine)

The key word in this verse is “inn,” because there is a problem in translating the original Greek word into English. That is why English versions of the Bible disagree. For example, the New English Bible reads “no room for them in the house.” The Bible in Basic English also says “house.” The James Murdock Translation reads “no place where they could lodge.” The New Living Translation reads, “there was no lodging available for them.” The New Jerusalem Bible prefers “no room for them in the living-space.” Young’s Literal Translation says, “there was not for them a place in the guest chamber.”

These variations give us a hint of the translation difficulty here. The Greek word in question is kataluma. How do you translate that into English? Is it an inn, a house, a living-space, a guest chamber, or something else? Traditions about an inn and an innkeeper notwithstanding, “inn” is almost certainly not what Luke meant by kataluma.

Kataluma in Luke 2:7 continues to be translated by many Bible publishers as “inn,” even though the better translations are “guest chamber” or “living room.” It is translated as such elsewhere in scripture. For example, in Luke 22:11 Jesus instructs the disciples to follow a man into Jerusalem carrying water. They followed him to a house that had a large kataluma where they could all gather together for the Passover. Kataluma is translated in 22:11 in almost all English translations of the Bible as guestroom or guestchamber.

Luke 22:11 And ye shall say unto the goodman of the house, The Master saith unto thee, Where is the guestchamber (kataluma), where I shall eat the passover with my disciples? (King James Version)

They needed a dining room in a house. In the case of this particular kataluma where the last supper took place, Luke clarifies in the next verse that this house’s guestroom was upstairs.

Luke 22:12 And he shall shew you a large upper room furnished: there make ready. (King James Version)

Is there another reason that kataluma should not be translated “inn”? Yes. When Luke means “inn” he uses a different word: pandocheion. For example, in Luke 10:34 is the story of the Good Samaritan. The robbed and injured traveler is taken to an inn.

Luke 10:34 And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn (pandocheion), and took care of him. (King James Version)

The Greek term that Luke chooses for “inn” is pandocheion, not kataluma. And the road on which these men traveled—the road from Jerusalem down to Jericho—was a major road. In major towns like Jerusalem and Jericho, on a road heavily traveled, one would expect an inn. A pandocheion. Jesus also mentions an innkeeper in this parable. A pandocheus:

Luke 10:35 The next day he took out two silver coins {35 Greek two denarii} and gave them to the innkeeper (pandocheus). ’Look after him,’ he said, ’and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

Would there have been an inn in Bethlehem? If so, why does Luke call it a kataluma instead of a pandocheion? Why does he mention no innkeeper (pandocheus) at all? And if there was no inn, then what is Luke saying?

First, a tiny village on a minor road would not be at all a likely place for an inn in first century Palestine. Bethlehem was such a place. But if it were a larger place on a main road, Luke would have called an inn there a pandocheion, not a kataluma. And only a pandocheion (inn) would have had a pandocheus (innkeeper).

Second, even if there were an inn in Bethlehem, Joseph would not have stayed in it. Joseph was familiar with Bethlehem. He was of the lineage of David as were the inhabitants of Bethlehem. He almost certainly had family there. It would have been an insult to Joseph’s relatives for him and Mary to stay in an inn when they could provide their homes willingly—and for free. Joseph almost certainly knew the place. He may have even been from Bethlehem. Matthew says the holy family probably continued to live in Bethlehem for two years after Jesus’ birth, suggesting that they had perhaps dual residence in Nazareth and Bethlehem. “The house” where they stayed in Bethlehem very well may have belonged to Joseph. (Matthew 2:11) Jesus may have been born at home. (See Bethlehem, Manger, and Nazareth)

Third, it is almost certainly wrong to translate Luke 2:7 as “for there was no room (topos) in the inn (kataluma).” Topos means place, space, or spot, not hotel room. And kataluma means guestroom of a house, not an inn. The correct translation should be:

“. . . for there was no place/space/spot in the guestroom.”

No place for what? No place for labor and delivery.

Luke is telling us that they moved Mary out of the public area of the house to have her baby in private. Read Luke 2:1-7 carefully. I’m confident that one of the following two scenarios is close to what Luke means:

Sometime after the couple from Nazareth moved in to the guestroom of a Bethlehem relative’s house, Mary went into labor. For privacy and to avoid defiling others (childbirth was considered unclean), she had to move from the guestroom to a basement cave used as a stable. There she gave birth to her firstborn son, wrapped him in strips of cloth, and lay him in a limestone feed trough (manger).

Or:

The couple who had settled in Nazareth returned to their original home, their house in Bethlehem. While there, Mary went into labor, but with the guestroom occupied by relatives, they needed a private place for her and the baby, for childbirth was considered unclean by Jewish law. Their house’s basement cave (stable) and limestone feed trough (manger) sufficed.

The innkeeper in children’s Christmas plays—the subject of many a sermon on failing to make room in your heart for Jesus this Christmas—is not in the biblical story.

In spite of little or no evidence that there was an inn and an innkeeper in the biblical story of Jesus’ birth, tradition will no doubt retain them with enthusiasm. Tradition will demand that Mary ride her donkey in labor, that three Wise Men go to the manger, and that Joseph teach Jesus how to be a carpenter. Traditions are not easily challenged, yet facts that disprove traditions are easily ignored.

Jerusalem – Jerusalem was replaced by Caesarea Maritima as the capital of Herod the Great’s realm prior to Jesus’ birth, but Herod retained a palace there located near the western wall of Jerusalem’s Old City, near what is called today the Citadel at the Jaffa Gate. There is the likely venue for Herod’s meeting with Magi from the east (Matthew 2:1-8). Little remains of that palace today.

Jerusalem’s population soared from some 80,000 inhabitants to a half-a-million or more during Jewish festivals/pilgrimages like the Passover. Located only six miles north of Bethlehem, it was a relatively easy walk for Joseph and Mary when they took the infant Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem and there met the prophet Simeon and the prophetess Anna (Luke 2:21-40). After the family relocated to Nazareth, they continued returning to Jerusalem for annual festivals as they did when Jesus was 12 years old (Luke 2:41-52). During his ministry, Jesus travelled to Jerusalem many times for festivals including the Passover festival on the eve of which he was crucified by order of Pontius Pilate. From the death of the ethnarch Archelaus in 6 AD to the outbreak of the revolt in 66 AD, Judea was ruled by a series of Roman prefects of which Pontius Pilate was the fifth, governing from 26 AD to 36 AD. Pilate’s primary residence was in the capitol city of Caesarea, but he went to Jerusalem during Jewish festivals no-doubt with a considerable police force to manage the swelling population of pilgrims. (See Anna, Bethlehem, Herod the Great, Magi, Simeon, Temple)

Jesus – In Luke’s Gospel, the angel told Mary to name her son Jesus; in Matthew’s Gospel, the angel told Joseph the son would be called Immanuel, but then Joseph named him Jesus. Immanuel means “God with us.” (See Immanuel) The Greek form of the name Ihsous, which was translated into Latin as Jesus, is the same as the Hebrew Yeshua (Joshua), which means “Yahweh saves” (Yahweh is typically rendered as “Lord” in the OT). It was a fairly common name among Jews in 1st century Palestine. Jesus would have been known in his village growing up as Yeshua bar Yusef, as he is referred to in John 6:42. Yeshua bar Yusef means “Jesus, son of Joseph.” Jesus was a common name. One would clarify which Jesus one meant by adding his father's name.

Do you remember Barabbas? He was the man whom Pilate released instead of Jesus. But the “notorious criminal” was named Jesus too according to a Matthean text variant. His name was Jesus Bar Abbas, which means “Jesus Son of Abbas (the father).”

Matthew 27:17 So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?”

Pilate offered the Jewish authorities the opportunity to pick either:

1. Jesus Son of Joseph from Nazareth whom some called Messiah

OR

2. Jesus Son of Abbas (of the father) who was an incarcerated criminal

They called for the release of the criminal whose name is Jesus Son of the Father, but called for the crucifixion of a man who was truly the only Son of his heavenly Father. (Matt 27:20) Matthew shows us the most tragic irony imaginable as Jesus is the real Bar Abbas, Son of the Father.

Jesus is traditionally believed to have been thirty-three years of age when he died. Thirty-three is calculated using two questionable assumptions: One, that “about thirty” means exactly thirty (Luke 3:23); and Two, that since John’s Gospel mentions three Passover festivals Jesus attended (John 2:13, 5:1, 13:1) one can assume that he attended exactly three and no more. 30+3=33. Yet since he was likely born in 8 BC and was crucified in 33 AD, Jesus would have been about forty-one years old when he died. 8+33=41. Furthermore, in John’s Gospel someone commented that Jesus was not yet fifty (John 8:57), a comment indicating that he was in his forties.

John the Baptist – Jesus’ and John the Baptist’s ministries are linked by all four New Testament gospels, but only Luke links their births (Luke 1:39-56). The first chapter of Luke’s gospel is dedicated to the birth of John the Baptist. John’s mother Elizabeth was a “relative” of Jesus’ mother Mary’s (Luke 1:36). Some translations render the word συγγενίς (sungenis) as “cousin”, but the term is not necessarily this specific. Cousin or other, we may infer from Luke that John and Jesus are kin. The angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she will become pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit, and to show that “nothing is impossible to God,” the angel also announced that Mary’s relative, Elizabeth, was in the sixth month of her unlikely pregnancy; she had all of her life been barren, childless, and now had aged beyond childbearing years. Mary hurried to the hill-country Judean village of Elizabeth and her husband, a priest named Zechariah. Mary entered their house, greeted Elizabeth, and John “lept” in Elizabeth’s womb. Elizabeth recognized the importance of Mary’s pregnancy and unborn child, and Mary “sang” praises to God in verses typically called “The Magnificat.” (See Magnificat) Mary then remained in Elizabeth’s home in this unnamed Judean village for three months, no doubt awaiting the birth of John the Baptist.

If Mary had lived in and traveled from Nazareth to Elizabeth’s Judean hill-country village, it would have been a trek of several days, some 60 to 80 miles or at least a three to five day journey depending on the exact location. Luke’s account strongly implies that she travelled alone, an unlikely journey alone for several days and nights in the wilderness. If, however, Mary lived in Bethlehem, also a village in the Judean hill country, the journey to Elizabeth’s home was no doubt less than 20 miles, perhaps much less, making it a distance a single young woman would typically walk safely in one day. Jerusalem is also in the hill country of Judea, and John’s father Zechariah, like most priests, would have lived within a day’s walk of the Jerusalem temple where he served. Zechariah’s village then was close to Jerusalem, as was Bethlehem. Mary then walked from one Judean hill-country village to another, both within a day’s walking distance of Jerusalem.

After John’s birth and on the day of his circumcision, Elizabeth’s relatives and friends planned to name the child “Zechariah” after his father, but Elizabeth announced to all that the child’s name will be John, and they were surprised and subsequently complained because there were no Johns in Zechariah’s and Elizabeth’s families. Zechariah defended the name “John” by writing, “His name is John.” He had to write it because he had been struck mute as a result of doubting Elizabeth’s pregnancy (Luke 1:6-23). Immediately upon writing this his ability to speak returned to the amazement of those present (Luke 1:57-80), perhaps including Mary who had remained in the village of Zechariah and Elizabeth for the final three months of Elizabeth’s pregnancy.

In the biblical story, John the Baptist played the roles of the final prophet before the birth of the Messiah, and the prophet who would announce the arrival of the Messiah. He preached and baptized, gathering disciples to himself including fishermen from Galilee, one named Andrew (who had a brother named Peter) and “the Beloved Disciple” whom we may presume is John (James was his brother). Both of these disciples of John became disciples of Jesus.

John famously baptized Jesus, spoke out against Herod Antipas’ unlawful marriage to Herodias, and was arrested and beheaded by Antipas (See Antipas). The Bible does not give the location of John’s execution, but Josephus wrote that it was at Machaerus, one of Antipas’ palace/fortresses; it is located above the eastern shore of the Dead Sea near Mount Nebo in what is today the Kingdom of Jordan. Linked by birth and by ministry, Jesus and John are also linked by their executions at the orders of Roman rulers.

Joseph – Joseph was engaged to Mary the mother of Jesus according to Matthew and Luke. He is of the lineage of David, making him a member of the Tribe of Judah. He seems to be a homeowner in Bethlehem who was relocating (or had recently relocated) to Nazareth. In Luke’s narrative Mary is center stage, she has all the speaking lines, and Joseph is a silent supporting character. In Matthew’s narrative, however, Joseph is the central character, though neither he nor Mary have speaking parts. Interestingly, an angel appears and speaks to Mary in person in Luke’s Gospel while an angel speaks to Joseph in dreams in Matthew’s Gospel. (See Angels, Bethlehem, Dreams, Gabriel, Judah, Mary, and Nazareth)

Matthew 13:55 and Mark 6:3 record that Joseph was a tekton.

Matthew 13:55 Is not this the carpenter's (tekton) son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? 56 And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?"

Mark 6:3   3 Is not this the carpenter (tekton), the son of Mary1 and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?" And they took offense2 at him.

Tekton is traditionally translated as carpenter. Tekton, however, is a general term that refers to one who works with his hands, a builder or craftsman who might construct using a number of mediums including wood, stone, metal, or even words – an author. Matthew and Mark could have added the word wood or the word stone to specify--worker of wood or worker of stone---but they did not. From the word tekton alone we cannot conclude finally whether Jesus put his hand to wood or stone or both, tradition notwithstanding. Yet there is evidence beyond Matthew’s and Mark’s word choice that leans toward Jesus being a builder with stone:

1. Archaeology reveals extensive building with stone in Nazareth and all other excavated 1st century Jewish villages, and no evidence of the use of carpentry in construction, though roofs were thatched and yokes for oxen and the like were no doubt made by someone.

2. Wood was scarce and expensive in that region at that time. The first century boat excavated on the shore of the Sea of Galilee in 1986 was constructed with wood from eleven different kinds of trees, demonstrating how boat builders scrounged whatever scraps of wood they could find, some from old or damaged boats so as to recycle them in “new” boat construction. It is unlikely that a wood worker could feed his family in the landlocked village of Nazareth (population under 500) by making the occasional spoon or yoke. But a builder might do well living near a large construction site.

3. Nazareth was near to such a construction site: Zippori (or in Greek, Sepphoris). Joseph and sons from Nazareth could have walked to Zippori every day--Galilee’s new and booming capital during Jesus’ growing up years, just four miles away--to work at one of the largest construction project sites in the entire Mediterranean basin at the time. Herod Antipas was building his capital city for Galilee thus creating jobs and drawing workers. It might have been good pay every day for a skilled, local builder and his sons. Perhaps this was incentive for a tekton from Bethlehem to move his family to Nazareth. (See Antipas, Bethlehem, and Nazareth)

There is another piece of interesting evidence leaning us toward Joseph being a builder who worked with stone instead of wood. Jesus, also called a tekton thus indicating that he learned his father’s trade, never mentioned woodwork or carpentry in his teaching. But he spoke frequently of building, stones, and rock. Also, interestingly, the Apostle Paul refers to himself in 1 Cor. 3:10 as the archi-tekton – the master-builder from which we get the English word architect--who laid a wise foundation for their church on which others are building.

Tekton comes into English as the word tectonics referring to the motion of the earth's crust or skyscraper construction, neither of which refers to wood.

Why do most English translations of scripture translate tekton as carpenter? Perhaps Bible publishers may fear that, if they change “carpenter” to “construction worker” or “craftsman” or “builder,” they might be punished with bad sales. Tradition holds that Joseph was a carpenter with a carpenter’s shop where he trained Jesus in carpentry, and traditions have much resiliency in spite of evidence to the contrary. Just as the nativity tradition persists (that Jesus was born in a field outside of Bethlehem, in a wooden stable, in a wooden manger, surrounded by angels and animals and Magi, all of this with no scriptural support and with refuting biblical, archaeological, and historical evidence), so the traditional carpenter’s shop persists. (See Bethlehem and Manger)

Matthew and Luke say nothing of Joseph’s age or his death, though we can suppose that he was older than Mary, which was the marital custom of the day, and we can suppose he died prior to the outset of Jesus’ ministry as he is not mentioned as present whenever Jesus’ family is present; his family is referenced only in terms of his mother or his mother and his brothers or his mother, his brother, and his sisters. We know from Scripture that Joseph had five sons: Jesus, James, Joseph (Joses), Judas (Jude), and Simon. We know also that he had sisters, but we do not know how many or their names. (Matthew 12:46-48, 13:55-56; Mark 6:3; Galatians 1:19)

Was Joseph the tekton present downstairs for the birth of his son that night in Bethlehem? Almost certainly not. Women assisted women in childbirth. Most towns in Jesus’ day had a nurse midwife who was granted priestly immunity from purity laws so as to assist in childbirth without ritual defilement, which saved midwives a trip to the Jerusalem temple after each birth they attended. A midwife, or women with experience, probably helped Mary, though the Bible mentions none. Yet note that the Bible does not mention where Joseph is during Mary’s labor. The best assumption is that he’s upstairs waiting for word of the health of his wife and his firstborn son. Would Joseph have been allowed down to see them after all was cleaned up and ready? Yes. Luke suggests this is the case. First, Joseph’s presence is not mentioned in the verse that announces Jesus’ birth. (See Manger)

Luke 2:7 and she brought forth her son -- the first-born, and wrapped him up, and laid him down in the manger, because there was not for them a place in the guest-chamber. (Young’s Literal Translation)

Yet when Luke tells about the visit later that night by the shepherds, he includes Joseph’s presence. Probably Joseph was nearby for the birth, but was allowed to come near afterward.

Luke 2:16 And they came, having hasted, and found both Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in the manger, (Young’s Literal Translation)

Judea – After the death of Herod the Great in 4 BC, his kingdom was divided among his three sons, and Archileus became the ethnarch of what they called the tetrarchy of Judea, a region ruled from Jerusalem, and he ruled for nine years (4 BC – 6 AD).

The Gospel of Matthew records that Joseph and Mary took their toddler and fled Bethlehem of Judea (around 6 BC when Jesus would have been about two years old) into Egypt to escape Herod the Great’s slaughter of the children of Bethlehem, the king’s attempt to kill Jesus. A couple of years later in 4 BC, upon hearing of the death of Herod the Great, Joseph and Mary intended to return home to Judea, no doubt to Bethlehem, but when they learned that Herod’s son Archelaus was on the throne of Judea and that he was worse than his father, the family instead went back to Nazareth of Galilee where they appear to have been planning to relocate anyway. This move was made when Jesus was about four years old.

Archelaus did not rule for long. In 6 AD, when Jesus would have been about thirteen years old, due to his nine years of cruelty Archelaus was banished to Gaul and was replaced by a series of seven Roman prefects, the fifth of which was Pontius Pilate (26 AD – 36 AD) who presided over the trial of Jesus condemning him to death by crucifixion probably in 33 AD when Jesus would have been about forty-one years of age. (See Antipas, Archelaus, Bethlehem, Census, Egypt, Jesus, Herod the Great)

Magi - The Magi were not present for Jesus’ birth. Luke mentions no Magi and no birth star. Matthew only tells of these, but what is often overlooked is that the star did not appear until Jesus was born.

Matthew 2:7  Then Herod secretly called for the wise men (Magi) and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.

The Magi did not begin their journey until after Jesus’ birth. The star appeared to announce that the birth had occurred. The Magi did not arrive in Bethlehem until about two years later.

Matthew 2:16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men (Magi), he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men (Magi).

The Magi told Herod when the star first appeared. He asked them for this information because he wanted to know how old the child might be presently. Knowing the approximate age of Jesus, Herod ordered every child two and under to be killed—though whether or why he ordered girls killed too is uncertain. So Jesus, his birth coinciding with the appearance of the star, would have been about two years old when the Magi arrived. He was a toddler in a house, not a baby in a manger.

Our English word magician comes from the term Magi. The Magi were eastern intellectuals skilled in science, astronomy, astrology, dream interpretation, and magic. Some are portrayed positively, like the Magi that brought the toddler Jesus gifts. Others, like the Magi Simon of Samaria (Acts 8:1-24) and Bar-Jesus of Cyprus (Acts 13:1-12), are portrayed negatively. Magi could be found not only in Arabia, but also throughout the Roman Empire.

Matthew does not tell how many Magi visited the toddler Jesus. Guesses range from two to twelve. Nor does Matthew say how they traveled. No camels are mentioned. It is doubtful that there would have just been only two or three Magi, however, due to the danger of travel and the value of their cargo. It may be appropriate to think of a dromedary as there is safety in numbers. Coming from “the east” we can assume they are Arabian. One scholar I know believes they were Nabateans who would have been familiar with the spice route that took them through Petra to Gaza regularly. But speculation about their names, their race, and their number come from later legends, not the Bible. What Matthew makes clear is that they brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Is there any significance to these gifts? Perhaps. Gold was an appropriate gift for a king. Frankincense was an appropriate gift for a priest. And, strangely, yet prophetically, myrrh was used for cleaning and anointing corpses. Myrrh was an appropriate gift for a death in the family.

Like Joseph, the Magi were warned about Herod’s evil intentions in a dream, and the men left for home by an alternate route.

Matthew 2:12   12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they (the Magi) left for their own country by another road.

Magnificat – Called the Magnificat —also known as the Song of Mary or the Canticle of Mary—is a canticle frequently sung (or spoken) liturgically in Christian worship. Its name comes from the first word of the Latin version of the canticle's text ([My soul] magnifies).

The text of the canticle is taken directly from Luke 1:46-55 where it is spoken by the virgin Mary upon the occasion of her visitation to her relative Elizabeth. In the narrative, after Mary greets Elizabeth, who is pregnant with the future John the Baptist, the child moves within Elizabeth's womb. When Elizabeth praises Mary for her faith, Mary “sings” what is now known as the Magnificat in response.

Manger - It is commonly said, “Jesus was born in a manger.” Such a feat would have required acrobatics on the part of Mary! A manger is not a stable. A manger is a feeding trough that might be found in a stable. Not born in a manger, Luke 2:7 records that after his birth, the infant Jesus was laid in a manger. Phatne is the biblical Greek word that Luke used; it means animal feed trough. But Luke does not tell us what a 1st century Jewish feed trough was made of, or what one looked like, or where one might be placed. Was it wooden? Unlikely. Wood was scarce and expensive in the region, and ancient mangers (feed troughs) are found in many places in Israel from many periods of history including the time of Jesus, and they are made of limestone, sometimes standing alone, and sometimes set in a wall (both pictured). Where did the wooden-stable-and-wooden-manger-out-in-a-pasture concept come from? Apparently it came from medieval Europe. Their wooden stables and mangers were in pastures. They must have simply assumed the same was true of stables and mangers in first century Palestine. (See Joseph for a discussion of wood, carpentry, stone, and building)

As every Jewish mother in that day no doubt knew, a manger can be just the right size for a newborn. Mary was not likely the first mother to use a manger for a crib.

Luke’s Gospel, the only biblical document to write about the manger, records that the only persons present at the manger with the infant Jesus were Mary, Joseph, and an unnamed number of visiting shepherds who came into Bethlehem from the fields. Luke mentions no animals being present. The Magi did not visit until about two years later and they visited Mary and the toddler Jesus in “the house.” Likewise, Luke records no angels present at the manger. (See Angels, Bethlehem, Inn, Magi, Shepherds, Sheep, and Stable.

Marriage (Engagement, and Divorce) – A betrothal among the Jews was different from an engagement as we know it. Engagements were a solemn contract concerning a marriage; they were made before witnesses, and had for object the union of the parties. According to Jewish legislation, the betrothal established between the bride and the groom a legal bond much closer than with us. The betrothed woman was considered as the wife of the man from the moment of the betrothal (Deuteronomy 22:23-24), although she had not yet entered the habitation of her husband. The husband could not repudiate his betrothed without giving her a bill of divorce; in case of fornication with another man the betrothed was treated as an adulteress.

Mary and Joseph were given, by anticipation, the titles of husband and wife. Matthew likewise assigns these titles to Mary and Joseph even before the marriage ceremony had taken place: “Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly (meaning divorce).  20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."  (Matthew 1:19-21). Ordinarily the consummation of the marriage was consequent to the marriage ceremony.

In the archaeological excavations of Capernaum, Bethsaida, and other New Testament Jewish villages, we have learned that rooms were often added onto houses. It’s believed that when a son married, his father added a room on the house for the son and his bride. The new wife thus joined the household of her father-in-law.

Among Palestinians in modern Israel there is a similar practice. The Quran prohibits borrowing even to build a home, and Palestinians, even if they are not particularly religious, might nevertheless avoid borrowing. So they build the first floor only when they have the money saved. But, they put very tall rebar in place to support another floor that they plan to build later when funds again are available. The purpose of such a building project is often a marriage.

A friend of mine who lives in a village on the Mount of Olives completed the third floor of his home on the occasion of his son’s marriage. But rather than give the third floor to his son and new daughter-in-law, my friend moved up to the third floor with his wife. Two older sons (already married) moved from the first to the second floor. The newlyweds got the first floor.

So when Jesus said famously in John 14 that he goes to prepare a room for you in his Father’s house, he is likely referring to exactly what would happen in his culture when a son goes to his father to prepare a room for him and his new bride. Jesus is implying that his followers are “brides.” The bride lives with the husband in a new room prepared by the son in the father’s house. It’s a beautiful metaphor of familial relationship.

The relationship the believer has with Jesus is likened to a marriage relationship, arguably the most intimate human union possible. The two become one flesh. (Genesis 2:21; Matthew 19:5-6; Mark 10:8; 1 Corinthians 6:16; Ephesians 5:31) This bride and groom analogy matches the verses in the Bible that refer to the church as Jesus’ bride.

Ephesians 5:25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,

Revelation 19:7 Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready;

Revelation 21:2 And I saw the holy city, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

Revelation 21:9 Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, "Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb."

Mary – Later traditions about Mary report that she was from Jerusalem or Zippori, but there is no scriptural attestation of either of these. Later traditions also claim that Mary’s parents were named Joachim and Anna, and that Joachim was a priest in the Jerusalem temple. This is not mentioned by Scripture either.

When Mary (Maria in Greek and Miriam in Aramaic and Hebrew), like her fiancé and eventual husband Joseph, was probably from Bethlehem. She would have been about fifteen years of age, or the age when she was able to bear children, when she was engaged to Joseph. They returned to Bethlehem for the census indicating that was their home and simultaneously indicating that they may have been completing a move to Nazareth. Perhaps a builder like Joseph would have wanted steady work in booming Zippori/Sepphoris, the new capital of Galilee next door to Nazareth. Plus there is evidence that the people of Nazareth, like citizens of Bethlehem, were of the lineage of David; Mary would have felt at home there relationally and theologically. (See Bethlehem, Census, and Nazareth)

After the “holy family” fled to Egypt it was Joseph’s plan to return to Bethlehem, again indicating that this was his and Mary’s home, but for political reasons Luke says they went back to Nazareth instead, affirming perhaps their plan to relocate there anyway. Nazareth is where they then settled and raised their family including, of course, their firstborn son Jesus.

At the beginning of Luke’s narrative, while Mary and her fiancé were in Nazareth, relocated or relocating from Bethlehem, Luke records that Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel who announced to her that she, though still a virgin, would conceive a son miraculously by the Holy Spirit, and that he would be the Son of God. Her pregnancy created a crisis for Joseph who initially did not believe her, and he planned to divorce her privately so as not to scandalize her or her family. Matthew wrote that Joseph changed his mind and married her because an unnamed angel corroborated Mary’s story in a dream.

Mary visited her kinswoman Elizabeth (late 9 or early 8 BC – See Census) who was also pregnant, and she stayed there for three months. The unnamed village must have been in Judea near Jerusalem, for Elizabeth’s husband was a priest in the Jerusalem temple. For Mary to walk alone some 80 miles from Nazareth to a village near Jerusalem while pregnant and stay there three months seems unlikely. However, if Mary is from Bethlehem, only six miles from Jerusalem, she would have had a reasonable walk to a neighboring village to visit and have an extended stay with a temple priest’s elderly yet pregnant wife named Elizabeth. Elizabeth and Mary “sing” praises to God, and Mary’s song has been given the name, “The Magnificat,” because she begins with the words, “May soul magnifies the Lord.” (See Magnificat)

Mary and Joseph traveled from Nazareth (where they were likely planning a relocation) back home to Bethlehem to register for the census. While there Jesus was born (about 8 BC – See Census) in their stable-cave beneath the house, and shepherd with strange stories of angels visited them that night. (See Manger)

Thirty-three days after Jesus’ birth, Mary and Joseph took Jesus with them to the Jerusalem temple for purification and dedication rites. While there Simeon and Anna, a prophet and a prophetess, recognize the significance of the child. (See Anna, Dedication, Purification, Simeon, Temple)

Two years after Jesus’ birth, Magi from “the east” bearing gifts visited Mary and Jesus in “the house” in Bethlehem. Joseph, having been warned in a dream about the treachery of King Herod, fled with Mary and toddler Jesus to Egypt where they hid until the king’s death in 4 BC. (See Bethlehem, Egypt, Herod, Magi)

Joseph had planned to return his family from Egypt to Bethlehem of Judea, but Herod the Great’s cruel son Archelaus was on the throne, so they went to Nazareth of Galilee instead. There they lived and raised a family. (See Archelaus, Bethlehem, Nazareth)

After the story of Jesus’ birth, Mary appears infrequently in Scripture. She hunts for 12-year-old Jesus who remained behind with the teachers in the Jerusalem temple when he was supposed to be traveling back home with the Nazareth pilgrims who had brought him to the Passover festival. Mary was with Jesus and his disciples at a wedding in the Galilean village of Cana. She visited Jesus in Capernaum more than once. She witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion and death. And after Jesus’ resurrection she and other family members joined the believers in Jerusalem. (See Virgin)

Messiah – The Greek translation of Messiah (mashiach in Hebrew) is (christos in Greek), anglicized as Christ, and Christians commonly refer to Jesus as either the "Christ" or the "Messiah." (Matthew 1:6, 16-18, 2:4; Luke 2:11, 26) Christians believe the Old Testament Messianic prophecies were fulfilled in the mission, death, and resurrection of Jesus, as Savior and Redeemer, and that Jesus will return to fulfill the rest of Messianic prophecy, as Lord and King. (See Savior)

Nazareth Nazareth was an isolated mountain-top Galilean village, nestled in a natural bowl 1,000 feet above sea level, population 200 to 500. The village’s well and cemetery have been located. Scant remnants of the synagogue were excavated including its large miqveh (ritual purification bath). And several homes have been uncovered and studied including one of special interest.

Nazareth’s Basilica (Church) of the Annunciation (pictured) was built in 1969 over the carefully excavated ruins of previous churches including a Crusader era church and a Byzantine church, all of these built over a venerated first century house/cave. The graffiti from the second or third century is in Greek and Armenian and includes phrases like “Chaire Maria” (Hail Mary), scratched on a column base excavated beneath the Byzantine floor mosaic, echoing the words with which the angel Gabriel greeted Mary according to Luke 1:28. This venerated home is believed by Roman Catholics to be the home Mary was raised in, though it could also be the home in which Mary and Joseph raised Jesus, his brothers, and his sisters. The home is certainly one occupied by residents of first century Nazareth as dated by archeological finds like pottery. Also, mere feet from the home, is a miqveh, a Jewish pool for ritual bathing, that is of the larger size associated with synagogues. Both the home and the miqveh are visible today in the lower sanctuary of the Basilica.

The nearby Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation is the competing site. It is built over a spring where women of the first century village of Nazareth no doubt went to draw water daily. The Orthodox tradition marks this as the site of Gabriel’s encounter with Mary. Luke does not record the exact location of the “annunciation.”

The traditional view is that Joseph and Mary were from Nazareth and only returned to Bethlehem because the census required them to return to their ancestral home. The traditional view, however, does not fit the scriptural account or Roman registration practice. One was to register in one’s hometown. This is precisely what Luke says happened. For whatever reason, perhaps because Joseph was preparing to relocate to Nazareth, Joseph and Mary are in Nazareth when the registration is announced. Luke records simply:

Luke 2:3-4   3 All went to their own towns to be registered.  4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.

Note that Luke does not say that Joseph and Mary are from Nazareth. On the contrary, Luke identifies Bethlehem as Mary and Joseph’s e`autou/ po,lin  which can be translated “own town” or “hometown.” Remember too that, according to Matthew, Joseph and Mary took their toddler and fled Herod’s slaughtering of the children in Bethlehem by heading into Egypt. Then after Herod’s death they planned to return to Bethlehem, their apparent original home where they have a house (See Magi for the account of their visit to Mary and the toddler Jesus in the Bethlehem house). But because they feared that the new ruler of Judea (where Bethlehem is), Herod’s son Archelaus, was worse than his father, they instead went to Nazareth in Galilee (ruled by another son of Herod named Antipas), the town to which they appear to have relocated (or were in the process of relocating) anyway.

Luke 2:39 39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.

Though Luke previously referred to Bethlehem as their hometown, here he calls Nazareth po,lin e`autw/n, “the city of theirs.” This argues for dual residency, and the best explanation is that, when the census was announced, Joseph and Mary were in Nazareth preparing to relocate there from their hometown, Bethlehem, to which they had to return. Luke’s mention of Joseph’s Davidic ancestry then is incidental to their return to Bethlehem, one, because most if not all from Bethlehem were of Davidic lineage, and two, the meaning of the word “Nazareth” indicates that the people there are also of Davidic lineage. So the question is, Why would Joseph and Mary relocate to Nazareth? Two reasons present themselves.

First, the name of the town was also the name of the people there. They were Nazareans. An inscription from Caesarea with the town name on it spells it not with a “z,” but with a “tz.” Netzerea (pictured). The name is no doubt a reference to Isaiah 11:1 where the messiah is prophesied as a branch (netzer) to spring forth from the old stump of Jesse, King David’s father. Matthew 2:23 then is referring to Isaiah 11:1: “He will be called a Nazorean.” Nazorean means people of the branch. Apparently the people of the tiny village of Nazareth were also of the lineage of David. Joseph and Mary would have kin there with messianic hopes. Though originally from Bethlehem, they would have felt at home relationally and theologically in Nazareth.

Second, Nazareth was near a major construction site: Zippori (or in Greek, Sepphoris). Joseph and sons from Nazareth could have walked to Zippori every day--Galilee’s new and booming capital during Jesus’ growing up years, just four miles away--to work at one of the largest construction project sites in the entire Mediterranean basin at the time. Herod Antipas was building his capital city for Galilee thus creating jobs and drawing workers. It might have been good pay every day for a skilled, local builder and his sons. Perhaps this was incentive for a tekton (biblical Greek word for “builder”) from Bethlehem to move his family to Nazareth.

Joseph, being an observant Jew (Matthew 1:19), would have traveled to Jerusalem for at least the required three annual festivals in Jerusalem. Bethlehem is only six miles from there. So if he had a house in Bethlehem, his new family, coming down from Nazareth to Jerusalem regularly, could have stayed each night of the festivals in their own Bethlehem home. But if Joseph did not have his own house in Bethlehem, he and Mary could have accomplished the same thing by overnighting with relatives in Bethlehem during the Jewish festivals. The six miles from Bethlehem to the Jerusalem temple was an acceptable walking distance.

Six miles sounds like a long walk today, but Joseph probably walked to work in Sepphoris (Zippori in Hebrew) eight miles round trip from Nazareth every day. Twenty miles a day was considered a full day’s walk. And, other than riding an expensive animal, what choice did working-class people have but to walk?  (See Joseph)

It is a biblical fact that the holy family returned to Nazareth eventually. (That became their primary residence. He is called “Jesus of Nazareth.”) But it is also a biblical fact that when the Magi showed up two years after Jesus’ birth, they found Mary and the baby in “the house” in Bethlehem. (Matthew 2:11) Perhaps they were lodging in Bethlehem for one of the Jerusalem festivals when the Magi arrived. If it was not a relative’s house, it was probably Joseph’s own house, the very same house beneath which Jesus was born. (See Bethlehem, Magi)

Purification According to Luke, Jesus was taken by Joseph and Mary to the Jerusalem temple for the completion of Mary’s purification in accordance with Mosaic law (Leviticus 12:4 & 6-8).

Luke 2:22-24   22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord  23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, "Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord"),  24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, "a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons."

The other purpose of their visit to the temple that day was to dedicate Mary’s firstborn to God in accordance with the law of Moses. (See Anna, Dedication, Simeon, Zechariah)

Quirinius Publius Sulpicius Quirinius (c. 51 BC – AD 21) was a Roman aristocrat. After the banishment of the ethnarch Herod Archelaus from the tetrarchy of Judea in AD 6, Quirinius was appointed legate governor of Syria, to which the province of Judea had been added. (See Census)

Savior The Greek form of the name Ihsous, which was translated into Latin as Jesus, is the same as the Hebrew Yeshua (Joshua), which means “Yahweh saves” (Yahweh is typically rendered as “Lord” in the OT). It was a fairly common name among Jews in 1st century Palestine.

When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a Donkey the populace waved palm branches and shouted, “Hosanna!” which translates “Save us!” Palm branches were Judea’s national symbol, the rough equivalent of waiving the American flag. And the call to “Save us!” no doubt communicated a political yearning for a messiah to overthrow the Roman occupiers of their nation. (Matthew 21:1-6; Mark 11:1-10; Luke 19:28-40; John 12:12-19)

While salvation has military/political overtones throughout scripture, it also has an overtone, especially in the New Testament, of salvation from sin and death. Jesus identifies himself with the latter rather than the former. Had he ridden a battle steed rather than a donkey into Jerusalem, his symbolic act would have made a different impression.

Zechariah 9:9   9 Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Sheep - June is identified as the month when sheep would be taken into agricultural fields to graze on stubble following the wheat harvest in ancient Palestine. Such fields were usually enclosed with a low stone wall that served as an extra-large sheepfold for warm summer nights. Shepherds would be on guard that none escaped and that no predators or thieves got in.

In cold months like late December the sheep were often kept in the fold at home in a cave beneath or adjacent to the owner’s house; there they fed on hay or grain stored by the owner for those lean months, and the sheep stayed warmer in the shelter of the home sheepfold. In the spring and fall they grazed in the wilderness, wherever the shepherd could find something growing wild. Assuming the accuracy of the biblical account, that the Bethlehem shepherds had taken their flocks into the agricultural fields to eat stubble, Jesus was more likely born after the wheat harvest on a balmy summer night in June than in cold, barren December.

Luke 2:8   8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.

Luke does not say what the shepherds did with the sheep when they came into Bethlehem looking for the baby. I wonder, however, whether they would have brought an entire herd of noisy sheep into a sleepy village in the middle of the night. I rather doubt it. So there probably were no sheep at the manger either. Luke mentions none. Perhaps one of the shepherds stayed behind to watch the flock. Or maybe they visited the manger in shifts. So far as the biblical account goes, there were no animals at the manger. (See December 25, Sheep)

Shepherds – Luke does not say how many shepherds the angel appeared to in the agricultural fields watching their flocks (Luke 2:8-20). What is clear, however, from literature from that day is that shepherds were considered to be unreliable and unclean. Shepherding was considered a despised trade. The Jewish oral law actually forbade the purchase of milk and wool from shepherds for fear that they had been pilfered. Fathers refused to teach their sons this trade. The trade too easily lent itself to dishonesty and thievery. The hireling cared only about himself at the cost of the sheep. The hireling flees at the first sign of danger. He does not know the sheep. They are not his own; they belong to someone else. In Christ’s day, shepherds stood on the bottom rung of the Palestinian social ladder. They shared the same unenviable status as tax collectors and dung sweepers.

Dr. Joachim Jeremias says shepherds were “despised in everyday life.” In general, they were considered second-class and untrustworthy. Rabbis later banned pasturing sheep and goats in Israel, except on desert plains, though in the Lukan account of Jesus’ birth shepherds were still allowed after harvest to graze their sheep in the stubble of agricultural fields, typically in June. A passage in the Mishnah describes them as “incompetent”; another says no one should ever feel obligated to rescue a shepherd who has fallen into a pit. Jeremias  wrote, “To buy wool, milk or a kid from a shepherd was forbidden on the assumption that it would be stolen property.” And, “The rabbis ask with amazement how, in view of the despicable nature of shepherds, one can explain why God was called ‘my shepherd’ in Psalm 23:1.”

Shepherds were officially labeled “sinners”—a technical term for a class of despised people—and they were automatically branded as unclean. In the Talmud, shepherds were in the fifth position on a list of despised trades after dice gamblers, usurers, trainers of racing pigeons, dealers in produce during the sabbatical year. They were suspected of lewd behavior with sheep, and they led flocks to graze on someone else’s land. A rabbinical saying declares, “For herdsmen and tax collectors repentance is hard.” Jeremias documents the fact that shepherds were deprived of civil rights. They could not fulfill judicial offices or be admitted in court as witnesses.

Given that shepherds’ testimonies in court were distrusted and disallowed, it is interesting that in Luke it is shepherds who are chosen by God to be the only witnesses to the birth of God’s son. It is reminiscent of the women, whose testimonies are also disallowed in courts of law, are the first witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection. In God’s upside-down court, the despised and unreliable are trusted.

No sheep are reported by Luke to have gone to the manger with the shepherds. One can only speculate. Did the shepherds leave the sheep alone in the fields, did they go in shifts to the manger, or did they take noisy flocks of sheep with them into town in the middle of the night? (See Angels, Sheep)

Simeon – It is alluded by Luke (2:25-35) that a prophet named Simeon was elderly, as Luke says that he is waiting for “the consolation of Israel,” that Simeon believed he would not die until he saw “the Lord’s Messiah,” and that when he held the infant Jesus the prophet declared, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace.” Simeon’s lofty prophesy about the child’s identity as a savior and as a revelation to the Gentiles and as glory to Israel is darkened by an allusion to the crucifixion when he said to Mary, “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” Luke locates this encounter between Simeon, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem just prior to their encounter with the prophetess Anna. Mary and Joseph had taken the infant Jesus to the temple to dedicate him to God as their firstborn in accordance with Exodus 13:12-15. The occasion was also the completion of Mary’s thirty-three days of purification prescribed by Mosaic law.

An inscription discovered on the side of the so-called Tomb of Absalom in 2003 says the monument is the tomb of Simeon who was a very just man and a very devoted old (person) and waiting for the consolation of the people. The inscription is identical to Luke 2:25 as it appears in the Codex Sinaiticus, a 4th-century version of the Bible. While it is possible that the large tomb—which contains multiple places of burial—is the resting place of Simeon, it is more likely that Byzantine monks, interested in connecting existing monuments with New Testament figures, might have made the crude secondary inscription to offer a place of memorial for Christian pilgrims. (See Anna, Dedication, Purification, Zechariah)

Stable - Neither Matthew nor Luke record that Jesus was born in a stable; there is neither a mention of a stable nor description of a stable; and there is nothing in the New Testament about what a 1st century Jewish stable might have looked like, what it was made of, or how it was used. If, however, the birth took place in a stable, the stable was in  downtown Bethlehem. Luke records that shepherds out in the fields went into Bethlehem to find the newborn.

Luke 2:8   8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.

Luke 2:15-16   15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us."  16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.

Where in Bethlehem would one find stables? Would one find them next to Jewish houses? What were they made of? What did they look like? Archaeologists say that many houses in Bethlehem from Jesus’ time were built on top of caves. They found multi-level homes. The many caves there were plastered for water cisterns, sealed for grain silos, and, yes, walled in for stables. Bethlehem, Nazareth, and other first century towns studied by modern archaeology reveal that precious animals in certain times of the year stayed in people’s homes—in a back room or a cave beneath the house. From the earliest times a cave in Bethlehem has been identified as the place of Jesus’ birth; still atop the cave today is the altar of the Church of the Nativity completed 565 AD, replacing a previous church completed on the site in 333 AD. Perhaps when Luke wrote the word “manger” he assumed that his readers would automatically picture a limestone animal feeding trough in a cave used for a stable beneath a downtown Bethlehem house—thus no need for the word stable and no need to mention a cave.

The wooden-stable-and-wooden-manger-out-in-a-pasture concept came from medieval Europe where wooden stables and mangers were indeed in pastures outside of town. They must have simply assumed the same was true of stables and mangers in first century Palestine.

Based on Luke’s words and using a little common sense, here is the story told in the present tense:

·         Mary and Joseph probably travel on foot from Nazareth to Bethlehem, and though Mary is expecting, they arrive safely without incident. (See Donkey)

·         In the biblical story there is no panic, no desperation, and no emergency. They arrive in Bethlehem safe and sound and have a house to stay in. After a time (“while they were there,” as Luke put it) Mary is probably too far along in her pregnancy to travel back to Nazareth comfortably and safely, so they stay in Bethlehem with family to await the birth. It is night when the moment finally comes. They light lamps and move Mary from the living area upstairs down to a cave used as the family stable beneath the house. A crowded upstairs guestroom is no place for labor and delivery. (See Bethlehem, Census, and Inn)

·         Cozy and clean downstairs, Mary gives birth in privacy, thus avoiding the possibility of defilement in the rest of the house, and she wraps Jesus in strips of cloth and uses a limestone feeding trough for a crib.  (See Manger and Swaddling Clothes)

Swaddling Clothes – The biblical Greek word is sparganoo.

Luke 2:7   And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth (sparganoo) . . .

Today sparganoo is most commonly translated “strips of cloth.” Jesus, like every baby, was wrapped in strips of cloth, the ancient version of diapers. His birth, in most ways, was no different than any birth at home in first century Judea. “Swaddling clothes,” the translation of sparganoo found in the King James Version, suggested the practice of wrapping infants tightly papoose-style in the belief that it helped straighten the child’s limbs. It is not clear that Luke was referring to this. The use of torn pieces of old cloth for diapers makes more practical sense.

Star of Bethlehem – Only Matthew’s Gospel reports the story of Magi following a star to Bethlehem (Matthew 2). His narrative suggests that while the star appeared in the Arabian sky at the time of Jesus’ birth, the Magi did not arrive in Judea until two years later when they visited Mary and Jesus—now a toddler—in “the house” in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:11). The star, according to Matthew, “stopped over the place where the child was” (Matthew 2:9). That place was not a manger since the child was by then two years old, but the house where the “holy family” had been living for two years, probably their own home. Was the manger in which Mary laid Jesus on the night of his birth two years earlier still in a stable/cave beneath their house? Probably.

A literal moving star that comes to a stop over a Bethlehem house—marking for observant Magi (known as ancient astronomers and astrologers) the exact residence of a new Judean king—seems incredible. Thus much ink has been spilled attempting to explain the moving star as something other than a miracle or a pious myth. The most common explanations are these:

1.       Astronomy - The star was described as having risen in the east, as all stars do. Could it have been an astronomical event. Halley’s Comet was visible in 12 BC, and another unnamed comet in 7 BC. There was also a triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn (and Uranus also) in 7 BC. Speculation about a supernova has been suggested. Such astronomical events would not explain, however, a star stopping over a particular house in Bethlehem.

2.       Astrology – Perhaps the astrologers looked for specific astrological conjunctions thought to predict certain events like a royal birth. The triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 7 BC mentioned above occurred in the constellation Pisces. Ancient astrologers associated Jupiter with royalty or even a ruler of the universe. Saturn was associated with Palestine or even with the deity who protected Israel. And Pisces was associated with the nation of Israel. Later a massing of Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn occurred again in Pisces in 6 BC. It seems feasible to some then that this this triple conjunction followed by the massing of three planets in Pisces might have indicated to ancient astrologers (Magi) that a king of Israel and or perhaps even a ruler of the universe had been born. Again this does not explain a star moving and then stopping over a particular town or house. However, Matthew says that the Magi followed the star from Jerusalem to Bethlehem; Bethlehem was south of Jerusalem; and the conjunction described above was in the southern sky.

If this Magi/star narrative was a fictive creation by Matthew or another imaginative Christian, what does it mean or what is its purpose?

1.       Prophesy – It serves as a fulfilment of prophesy: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near -- a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.” (Numbers 24:17) “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.” (Micah 5:2)

2.       Gentiles – The Magi represent all nations / Gentiles / the world being included by God and drawn to God via Jesus’ birth, the incarnation of God, God in the flesh, and Emmanuel God with us in salvation history.

3.       Cosmos – The star indicates that all of nature including the heavens announce and welcome God’s salvation in Jesus Christ who is the preexistent word of God and God’s heavenly presence in the flesh on earth. (See Herod the Great and Magi)

Temple –Herod the Great (73/74 BC – 4 BC), who is featured prominently in Matthew 2, was a king who built on an enormous scale, especially in Caesarea Maritima and Jerusalem. His crowning architectural achievement was the massive expansion and complete reconstruction of the Jerusalem temple atop Mt. Moriah. The platform was expanded to some 1,600 x 900 feet and is still visible today. Some of the ashlars (precisely cut and finely dressed building stones) of the retaining wall supporting the platform weigh more than 100 tons, and one stone is bigger than a bus, weighing 600 tons. The temple itself stood atop the platform on the peak of Mt. Moriah surrounded by an expansive plaza called the Court of the Gentiles, which itself was surrounded by a colonnade—a virtual forest of massive columns.

Several scenes from Matthew’s and Luke’s birth narratives take place at the temple. Zechariah, the husband of Elizabeth (a kinswoman of Jesus’ mother Mary) and the father of John the Baptist, served as priest in the temple (Luke 1:6); there he received the announcement of his wife’s pregnancy from Gabriel (Luke 1:10-20), the same angel who appeared to Mary in Nazareth to announce her conception by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:26-37). Joseph and Mary came to this same temple with the infant Jesus for Mary’s purification and Jesus’ dedication (Luke 2:22-24). The prophet Simeon and the prophetess Anna encountered Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus in the temple (Luke 2:25-38). Unknown to his parents, who began their journey home to Nazareth after a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover, Jesus, at the age of 12, remained in the temple (to the dismay of his frantic, searching parents) conversing with the teachers (Luke 2:41-52). And the temple features prominently throughout Jesus’ life and the lives of the Apostles including Paul.

Herod began construction around 20 BC and the temple was still under construction some 46 years later during Jesus’ ministry (John 2:20). The temple was completely destroyed by the Roman General Titus (later Emperor) in 70 AD shortly after its completion such that only the lower stones of the massive retaining wall survived. A western portion of that retaining wall is revered today as the Western Wall (or Wailing Wall), the holiest site in Judaism. And today atop the temple platform is the Dome of the Rock completed in 691 AD commemorating the place where Muhammad is said to have ascended into heaven to receive the Quran (the holy book of Islam), considered the third holiest site in Islam behind Mecca and Medina. Due to its significance to Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, Mt. Moriah, the former site of Herod’s mighty temple, today is arguably the most contested real estate on earth.

Virgin Matthew 1:18-25 and Luke 1:26-28 report that Jesus’ mother Mary was a virgin, meaning that she was a young woman who had never had sexual relations with a man, and that Jesus was conceived in the womb of Mary by the Holy Spirit making Jesus the only son of God the Father. Mary’s virginity and miraculous conception are not reported in Paul’s letters, the Gospels of Mark or John, or by any other New Testament writer. Based on the witness of Matthew and Luke, however, belief in and affirmation of the virgin birth of Jesus became accepted doctrine in the early church and it is proclaimed in its creeds: “I believe in . . . Jesus Christ, [God the Father’s] only begotten son, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary . . .” (Apostles’ Creed)
Matthew quoted Isaiah 7:14 to support the virgin birth of Jesus:

Matthew 1:23   “Look, the virgin (parthenos) shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”

Luke did not quote Isaiah 7:14 but alluded to it:

Luke 1:26-27   26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth,  27 to a virgin (parthenos) engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary. 

Luke 1:34   34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin (parthenos)?”

The Koine Greek word used by Matthew and Luke is parthenos. It means a virgin, one who has never had sexual intercourse. It is the word chosen by Matthew and Luke as the Greek translation of the Hebrew word almah in Isaiah 7:14. Three hundred years prior to the writing of Matthew and Luke the Septuagint, the first translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, rendered almah as parthenos, and the Gospel writers followed suit. Scholars note that the definition of the Hebrew term almah is broader than the Greek term parthenos. Parthenos in Greek indeed means virgin, while almah in Hebrew means a young woman, specifically a young woman of the age of puberty, a maid, a woman of marriageable age. Almah could be used to refer to a virgin but it also could rightly be applied to a young woman who was not a virgin.

Beginning in the 18th century scholars began questioning the virgin birth of Jesus on the grounds that the Septuagint, Matthew, and Luke had mistranslated almah as parthenos, that Isaiah had not intended to prophesy the miraculous virgin birth of Jesus in the 1st century AD, but instead was prophesying to the Judean King Ahaz in Jerusalem in the 8th century BC. King Rezin of Aram and King Pekah of Israel were threatening Judea, and King Ahaz was worried. Isaiah brought Ahaz an encouraging “sign” saying that a young woman had conceived and will bear a son, she will name him Immanuel (meaning “God with us”), and before he grows up (“by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good”) Aram and Israel will be destroyed.

Isaiah 7:14-15  14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.  15 He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.

The identity of the mother and the son were not the point of Isaiah’s message to Ahaz. Isaiah’s message was that “God is with us” and God will defeat Judah’s enemies in the few years it takes for a baby to grow to the age of reason. It was a prophesy to Judah of God’s protection and peace. Therefore, it is argued by many scholars that Matthew and Luke, following the Septuagint, narrowed the Hebrew term almah, a young woman, to mean more specifically parthenos, a virgin, making it possible to apply Isaiah’s 8th century prophesy to Mary’s miraculous conception and Jesus’ virgin birth in the 1st century.

It should be noted, however, that the word almah only occurs seven times in the Hebrew Scriptures (Gen. 24:43; Exod. 2:8; Ps. 68:25; Prov. 30:19; Sol. 1:3; 6:8; Isa. 7:14), in each case it appears to refer to virgins, and the word can fairly be translated as virgin.
The Jewish Talmud arguably makes a few unflattering references to 
Jesus including the accusation that he was the illegitimate son of a 
loose woman and a soldier named Panthera (or Pantera, or Pandera). 
An early Christian writer corroborates that this rumor was also 
spread among the Romans. According to the church father Origen, 
the philosopher Celsus wrote:
 
“ . . . when she (supposedly Mary) was pregnant she was turned out of doors by the carpenter (supposedly Joseph) to whom she had been betrothed, as having been guilty of adultery, and that she bore a child to a certain soldier named Panthera.”
Some speculate that a burial monument in Bad Kreuznach, Germany 
remembers Jesus’ “real father,” linking him to the man referred to by 
the Talmud, Origen, and Celsus. Tiberius Iulius Abdes Pantera 
(c. 22 BC – AD 40) was a Roman archer. The monumental inscription
in Latin translates:
 
“Tiberius Iulius Abdes Pantera
from Sidon, aged 62 years
served 40 years, decorated(?) former soldier
of the first cohort of archers
lies here”
This same false charge concerning Jesus’ parentage may also be found
 in Scripture.
 
John 8:19  Then they said to him, “Where is your Father?”

John 8:41 “We are not illegitimate children.”
The implication of Jesus’ opponents is that: We know who our father is, 
but you don’t. We’re legitimate sons, but you aren’t. Apparently reports 
of Jesus’ virgin birth led quite early on to accusations of dubious parentage.
 
The doctrine of the “perpetual virginity of Mary” holds that Mary was 
chaste until the day that she died, specifically meaning that 1) she never 
had sexual relations with a man, 2) Jesus was her only biological offspring, 
and 3) the birth of Jesus itself miraculously preserved her virginity. This 
doctrine is still affirmed today by the Roman Catholic Church, some 
Anglo-Catholic sects, and most Eastern Orthodox Churches. Their liturgies 
refer to Mary as “ever-virgin.” The New Testament does not support this 
doctrine, however. It refers to Jesus’ brothers and sisters, the brothers are 
named, and one brother, James, became the leader of the church in Jerusalem 
following Jesus’ resurrection. Moreover, this passage states clearly that 
Joseph and Mary had marital intercourse:
 
Matthew 1:24-25   When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the 
angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife,  
25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne 
a son; and he named him Jesus.
 
The Roman Catholic dogma of the “immaculate conception” 
is the belief that Mary was sinless, a belief founded on 
the idea that the sinless son of God required a sinless 
vessel for his conception and birth. This belief is not 
supported by scripture either.
 
Year of Jesus’ Birth – Around 8 BC. (See Census)

Zechariah (Zecharias) – Luke 1, the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, is dedicated to the birth of John the Baptist. Luke records that the angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah in the Jerusalem temple to announce that his elderly, barren, childless wife was pregnant with a son who will be an important prophet. Because Zechariah responded with questions, he was rendered temporarily mute. Meanwhile, Mary, to whom Gabriel also appeared, traveled to see Elizabeth and remained with her in Zechariah’s home for the final three months of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. When Elizabeth’s child was born she wanted to name him John, to the disapproval of family and friends who wanted to name him Zechariah after his father. Zechariah defended the name “John” by writing, “His name is John,” having to write it as he was still mute (Luke 1:6-23). Immediately upon writing this his ability to speak returned to the amazement of those present (Luke 1:57-80). (See Elizabeth, John the Baptist)

In 2003, a 4th-century inscription on one of the walls of the socalled Tomb of Absolom in Jerusalem’s Kidron Valley (near the Garden of Gethsemane) was deciphered. It reads, This is the tomb of Zachariah, the martyr, the holy priest, the father of John. This suggests that it was the burial place of the Temple priest Zechariah, father of John the Baptist. This inscription is part of a secondary usage of this monument during the Byzantine period, when Christian monks and pilgrims commemorated stories from the Christian Bible on old Jewish tombs in the Kidron Valley.

Another inscription side-by side with the Zechariah inscription says the monument is also the tomb of Simeon who was a very just man and a very devoted old (person) and waiting for the consolation of the people. The passage is identical to Luke 2:25 as it appears in the Codex Sinaiticus, a 4th-century version of the Bible.


Both the Zechariah and Simeon inscriptions are shown in photographic negative. They are located high on the left side of the Tomb of Absalom monument in the photo above. (See Anna, Dedication, Elizabeth, John the Baptist, Purification, Simeon)

[For more on Jesus' birth see: When Was Jesus Born?, 8 B.C., Are Kids' Christmas Plays Biblical?]