Friday, December 19, 2014

Jesus' Birth and Childhood in Chronology

Jesus’ Birth and Childhood

18 Events in Chronology

9 B.C. – 4 A.D.

INTRODUCTION – Three Challenges

There are three significant challenges to creating a chronology of Jesus’ birth and childhood that must be acknowledged before proceeding.

            I. Whether you agree with modern scholars about the fictive nature of these accounts, they are still dated to a timeframe and recorded chronologically in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

           II. Although dating these events requires approximations at best, it is possible to line them up, assigning dates accurate to within about a year.

            III. While “Gospels” by their nature leave significant gaps in time between events, these gaps are not impediments to lining up the events and assigning approximate dates.*

* An explanation of these three challenges to creating a chronology of Jesus’ beginnings is at the end of this booklet.


Using historical sources, most scholars locate the death of King Herod the Great in late March or early April, 4 B.C. Although we do not know the exact date, 4 B.C. gives us a secure starting point from which to place the events recounted by the Gospels of Matthew and Luke on a timeline.



1.    First Census

Luke 2:1-3 records that Augustus was emperor of Rome when Jesus was born. He ruled from 27 B.C. to 14 A.D. Sometime within those 41 years the Gospel of Luke says Jesus was born. Can we narrow it down?

According to Luke 1:5 (and also Matthew 2), Herod the Great was ruler of Judea when Jesus was born. He ruled from 37-4 B.C. We have now narrowed the above 41 years significantly. The reigns of Augustus and Herod overlap from 27 B.C. to 4 B.C., a 31-year timeframe. Can we narrow it further still?

Luke also mentions that Quirinius was governor of Syria and there was a census taken during his reign. Therein lies a problem. Roman records show that the emperor ordered a census in 6 A.D. while Quirinius was governor of Syria. But 6 A.D. is outside of our timeframe just established: 27 B.C. to 4 B.C. This date is at least a decade too late. Was Luke mistaken? Possibly. There is another explanation, however. Quirinius may have been governor twice, and he may have ordered two censuses. His first reign may have begun in 12 B.C. as co-legate during which he ordered a first census in 9 B.C. It is called specifically Quirinius’ “first registration” in Luke 1:2. It takes years to complete one, and this census was done from 9-6 B.C. 9-6 B.C. fits Luke’s and Matthew’s historical references, and puts Jesus’ birth at about 8 B.C., within the reigns of Augustus Caesar, Herod the Great, and Quirinius (as co-legate) as Luke claims. The incorrect birth year of 1 AD was established in the 6th Century.

Luke 2:1-2   1 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.  2 This was the first registration taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria. (emphasis mine)

(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.)


2.    John the Baptist’s Conception

With the approximate birth year for Jesus set at about 8 B.C., we can surmise that in about 9 B.C. the angel Gabriel, as reported in Luke 1, announced to the priest Zechariah that his barren and elderly wife Elizabeth would conceive and bear a son, and they were to name him John.


3.    Jesus’ Conception

According to Matthew – With the birth year of Jesus having been set in about 8 B.C., we can conclude fairly that Jesus was conceived in late 9 B.C. An unnamed angel appeared to Mary’s fiancé Joseph in a dream telling him not to fear marrying Mary, that though she was indeed pregnant, Mary had not been unfaithful, she had conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, and Joseph should name the boy Jesus. 

According to Luke – Luke records that the same angel (Gabriel)   who visited Zechariah in Jerusalem also visited Mary while she was in Nazareth, giving her both an announcement and a sign. Gabriel’s announcement to Mary was that she would become pregnant by the Holy Spirit, and that she should name the child Jesus. And Gabriel’s sign to Mary was that elderly Elizabeth, a relative of Mary’s living in an unnamed Judean village near Jerusalem (priests lived in the region of Judea to be near the Jerusalem temple), was in the sixth month of her unlikely pregnancy. Mary, accepting Gabriel’s announcement with the words “Let it be,” immediately set out for Zechariah’s village to see with her own eyes the unbelievable sign: her elderly, childless kinswoman Elizabeth was now in her sixth month.


4.    Mary’s Visit with Elizabeth

In late 9 B.C. or early 8 B.C., Mary traveled to see the angel Gabriel’s promised sign—that her elderly, barren relative Elizabeth was in her sixth month. We cannot imagine her making a journey of some 70 miles from Nazareth to a Judean town near Jerusalem without escort; a young Hebrew female probably would not attempt (or be allowed) a multi-day journey alone, though Joseph is not mentioned by Luke as having accompanied her.


5.    Mary Went “Home”

Luke says that Elizabeth hid herself and therefore her pregnancy for five months, though Luke does not explain why. Her conception occurred six months before Mary’s according to Luke 1:24-25, so Elizabeth would have been due to give birth in late 9 B.C or early 8 B.C., some six months before Jesus was due. Luke records that Mary stayed as a visitor in the home of Zechariah for the final trimester of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, during which time Mary completed the first trimester of her own pregnancy. Just prior to John’s birth, Mary went “home.” But where is her home?

Luke 1:56   And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.

This appears to be the first of two trips by Mary from Galilee to Judea, according to Luke. 

The first trip coincides with Jesus’ conception. Newly pregnant, she traveled (no doubt accompanied by Joseph, though Luke does not mention this) from Nazareth to the unnamed village of the priest Zechariah to see the sign given her by the angel Gabriel that her relative Elizabeth was in her sixth month. At the end of her three-month stay in their house, Mary, three months pregnant, went “home” just before John was born. But was her home in Nazareth or Bethlehem?

The second trip coincides with the registration decree. At some point Mary and Joseph must have traveled back to Nazareth again. While they were there the registration was announced, and the fact that they had to go to Bethlehem to register indicates they were residents of Bethlehem, which will be explained after a brief summary of these two trips.

Mary’s first trip was from Nazareth to visit Elizabeth’s Judean village and then go home, and the second was from Nazareth to Bethlehem to register. Mary was newly pregnant for the first journey, and she was at least three months pregnant for the second journey. Concerning that second journey, Luke nowhere says that Mary was nine months pregnant or on the verge of labor.

Could Joseph and Mary really have been from Bethlehem? Yes. Note that Luke 1:26 says that Gabriel appeared to Mary in Nazareth, but Luke does not say that Nazareth was her home.

Bethlehem was a Judean village near Jerusalem, less than a full day’s walk from any other Judean village including Zechariah’s and Elizabeth’s. If Mary were from Bethlehem, she could have walked home alone (Luke 1:56) from Elizabeth’s village in a few hours.

Determining where Joseph and Mary were living, meaning where they are from, requires concentration on the part of the reader. Notice what Luke says about Mary and Joseph’s travel due to the census.

Luke 2:3   All went to their own towns (hometowns) to be registered. (emphasis mine)

And note that here, too, Luke does not say that Joseph and Mary are from Nazareth. On the contrary, Luke identifies Bethlehem as Mary’s and Joseph’s ἑαυτοῦ "of-self" – πόλιν "to-a-city." These words in 2:3 can be translated “own towns” or “hometowns,” meaning they are from Bethlehem.

Also remember that two years after Jesus’ birth, according to Matthew, the Magi visited Mary and Jesus in “the house” in Bethlehem.

Matthew 2:8 & 11   8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage . . . 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. (emphasis mine)

What are they still doing in a house in Bethlehem two years after Jesus’ birth if they do not live there?

Furthermore, according to Matthew, Joseph and Mary took their toddler and fled to Egypt to escape Herod the Great’s slaughter of the children in Bethlehem, and then after Herod’s death they planned to return to Judea; Bethlehem is in Judea where they were living in “the house” before they fled. But because they feared the new ruler of Judea (where Bethlehem is), Herod’s son Archelaus who was worse than his father, they moved to Galilee instead, to a town called Nazareth, a town to which they were making visits. Perhaps they were in the process of planning or making a relocation from Bethlehem to Nazareth when the census was announced. Perhaps Archelaus’ Judean rule solidified that original plan.

Matthew 2:22-23   22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee.  23 There he made his home in a town called Nazareth . . . (emphasis mine)

Matthew clearly states that only after Jesus’ birth and the family’s escape to Egypt did Joseph return to make his home in Nazareth. If Joseph lived in Nazareth prior to Jesus’ birth, why would Matthew insist that afterward “he went away to the district of Galilee” where “he made his home in a town called Nazareth?” Clearly they moved from somewhere to Nazareth. Matthew says the Magi found them in “the house” in Bethlehem. Luke 2:3 refers to Bethlehem as their “hometown” (e`autou/ po,lin). It seems clear that Joseph and Mary were residents of Bethlehem.

How does Luke refer to Nazareth?

Luke 2:39-40  39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town (literally, the city of theirs) of Nazareth.   40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

These verses pose a possible conflict between Luke’s and Matthew’s accounts. “When they finished everything required by the law of the Lord” could be referring specifically to Mary’s purification and Jesus’ dedication in about 8 B.C. If so, Luke is saying the family moved to Nazareth immediately, in about 8 B.C. But Matthew clearly does not have Joseph relocating the family to Nazareth until after the death of Herod in 4 B.C., some four years later. Can this be reconciled? Yes.

Luke 2:39-40 is an example of Luke’s oft used literary devise employed to link stories separated by major gaps in place and time. Such a device should be seen as a transitional formula meant to move the reader into the future. Luke apparently had no intervening story to add between Jesus’ dedication in the temple at 33 days old and his visit to the temple when he was twelve years old, a twelve-year gap. Luke’s gaps are identifiable because he used formulaic generalizations like the one in Luke 2:39-40 about Mary’s and Joseph’s obedience to the law and about Jesus growing up. This is Luke stitching his gospel together, but obviously a twelve-year seam is going to show. Here is another:

Luke 2:51-52   51 Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.  52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.

This transitional formula, quite similar to 2:39-40, covers and even wider gap—a span of about eighteen years. One minute we are in the temple with Jesus at the age of twelve, and in the next minute Jesus is a 30-year-old adult being baptized by John and tempted in the wilderness in preparation for the beginning of his ministry.

Luke 3:23   Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work.

What occurred during the twelve-year gap and the eighteen-year gap, Luke apparently did not know. So when Luke had a gap, he relied upon summary and generalization as a literary devise to tie together narratives separated in time—sometimes a lot of time. It is likely that Luke simply did not know of the events between 8 B.C. and 4 B.C. that Matthew recorded. Therefore, Luke’s summary and generalization in Luke 2:39-40 should not be seen as an indication of contradiction (that Joseph and family must have gone immediately to Nazareth in 8 B.C.), but as an indication of Luke’s ignorance of the Magi, the star, the escape to Egypt, and his repeated use of this literary devise to transition from one story to the next.

What is the best explanation for what Luke says happened when the census was announced? Joseph and Mary were visiting Nazareth preparing to relocate there from their hometown, Bethlehem. But the Romans required registration in one’s hometown, so any travelers away from home had to return to register. That is what Joseph did: He took Mary back home to Bethlehem to register.

Tradition insists that Joseph had to return to Bethlehem because the decree required everyone to travel to the home of their ancestors, and Joseph was an ancestor of King David from Bethlehem. Luke’s mention of Joseph’s Davidic ancestry, however, is merely informational about Joseph, and it is incidental to his return to Bethlehem because, one, most people who lived in Bethlehem at the time would have been of Davidic lineage, and two, because the meaning of the word “Nazareth” indicates that the people there were also of Davidic lineage. (See 7. Jesus’ Birth for how Roman registrations worked, and see 17. Joseph Moves His Family to Nazareth Instead where it is explained why they might have been planning to move to Nazareth.)

It seems that Joseph and Mary were residents of Bethlehem who were visiting Nazareth, and were considering or planning relocation there. On their second journey home to Judea from Nazareth, they had to travel back to Bethlehem, their hometown, to comply with Roman registration. Contradicting the tradition that Mary rode a donkey while in labor as Joseph searched strange streets in desperation for a hotel room for the night, Luke records that they arrived home to Bethlehem without incident.

Luke 2:3-4 & 6   3 All went to their own towns (or hometowns) to be registered.  4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem . . .  6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. (emphasis mine)

Could it be that, contrary to tradition, there was no labor pains on the road, no donkey, and no strange streets? “While they were there” means that they had been at home in Bethlehem for a while before Mary went into labor. Shortly we will get to the question of the inn and innkeeper, the stable and manger, the angels and shepherds, and the Magi and their star. The purpose here was to establish that Joseph and Mary are likely from Bethlehem, as they have a house there (Matthew 2:11), and as they went home to register there (Luke 2:3).

Finally, note that when Mary returned home from her three-month stay with Elizabeth, she likely walked a few short miles from one Judean village to another, from the home of Zechariah in a village not named to the village of Bethlehem. The Gregorian Festival Calendar dated to 638 A.D. identifies the home of Zechariah as Ein Karem, west-southwest of Jerusalem, only six miles from Bethlehem. Whether Ein Karem is the place, it illustrates ease of travel from one village to another in Judea. On the day of her walk home Mary was only three months pregnant and a few short miles away. This moment can be dated, as explained above, to late 9 B.C. or early 8 B.C.


6.    John’s Birth

Mary, three months pregnant, had just gone home from her three-month visit with Elizabeth who was on the verge of giving birth to John the Baptist, as Luke 1:56 tells it. The moment of John’s birth came in late 9 B.C. or early 8 B.C. Jesus’ and John’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.

Luke introduces John the Baptist’s mother Elizabeth as a “relative” of Jesus’ mother Mary (Luke 1:36). Some translations render the word συγγενίς (sungenis) as “cousin,” but the term is not necessarily that specific. Also remember their age difference; Elizabeth is past childbearing age and Mary has just reached it. 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.

Luke records that the angel Gabriel appeared in the temple to announce to Zechariah that his elderly, barren wife Elizabeth will bear him a son who will be an important prophet.

The circumstances of John’s birth are not described by Luke, yet after John’s birth and on the day of his circumcision, Luke recorded that Elizabeth’s relatives and friends wanted to name the child “Zechariah” after his father. But Elizabeth announced to all that the child’s name will be John as the angel Gabriel had instructed her, and they were surprised and subsequently they 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).


7.    Jesus’ Birth

Did the emperor’s degree force each person to travel immediately from his hometown to the town of his ancestors?

That would be perhaps the worst possible way to do it, a disastrous fruit basket turnover, a logistical and administrative nightmare. What Luke describes and what the Roman records show is a simple process typical of Roman efficiency.

Luke 2:1-5   1 And it came to pass in those days that a decree from Caesar Augustus went out to register all the empire.  2 This was the first registration taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.  3 And everyone went to register, each in his hometown,  4 and Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, that is called Bethlehem, due to his belonging to the house and lineage of David,  5 to register himself with Mary his espoused who was with child.

The traditional view is that Joseph and Mary were from Nazareth and only returned to the strange and unfamiliar town of Bethlehem because the census required them to return to Joseph’s ancestral home. The traditional view, however, does not fit the scriptural account or Roman registration practice. Having everyone register in his own hometown is the only truly simple and efficient way to register a large population, and that is exactly what the Romans did. On any given day, most people in the empire would be at home in their own villages. For the majority, it is just a matter of going to the local tax collector or other official in one’s hometown, confirming that one is a resident, listing who lives in one’s house, and having one’s taxes assessed accordingly. Logically, however, those who might have been away from home would have to wait and register when they returned. All were required to register only in the town where they had proof of residency. That is why Joseph and Mary could not register in Nazareth. It was not where they had residency, at least not yet. They would simply register when they got home to Bethlehem.

Did the registration have to be done immediately?


Luke mentions no rush or inconvenience concerning the emperor’s decree. Such censuses took years, so there was no urgency. Joseph and his expectant wife Mary could travel home at their leisure. This is the second journey recorded by Luke. The first was when Mary, newly pregnant, travelled from Nazareth to the unnamed Judean village to see the sign given her by the angel Gabriel that Elizabeth was six months pregnant. This second journey, with Mary over three months pregnant, shows that they had returned to Nazareth again, demonstrating their probable plan to relocate there as newlyweds. After hearing of the registration decree, there was no rush to return to Bethlehem, but because Mary was at least three months pregnant they would not want to wait too long to head home. At some point Mary and Joseph travelled again up to Judea, to the region of Jerusalem, to the “town of David” called Bethlehem, which was their hometown. Mary did not go into labor until sometime after they arrived home safely.

Was Joseph forced to travel immediately from their hometown in Nazareth to the unfamiliar town of his ancestors, Bethlehem?


Tradition notwithstanding, the decree required citizens to register in their hometowns. Joseph and Mary were visiting Nazareth a second time when the decree went out, and as censuses take years to complete, there was no rush for them to go home. And Bethlehem was hardly unfamiliar. They lived there.

Was Joseph forced to place nine-month-pregnant Mary on a donkey for a 70-mile mountainous race to his ancestors’ home where he knew no one?

Luke specifically says that the time for Mary to deliver her child came sometime after they arrived home to Bethlehem without incident. No donkey is ever mentioned in the biblical story. How did they get there? Luke does not say, but Joseph and Mary likely traveled on foot from Nazareth to 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. (emphasis mine)

While they were there, the time came. She did not go into labor until they were already home in Bethlehem for a time. 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. She simply would have given birth in Nazareth. On the journey home, however, she was not nine months pregnant, she was not in labor, they were not in a hurry, and no emergency is even hinted at by Luke.

Knowing no one, arriving at night, and finding no place to stay, was Joseph forced to settle for a stable in a field outside of Bethlehem?

Luke recorded nothing about their journey and arrival in Bethlehem, literally nothing. Strangely, this journey is quite eventful in art, storybooks, and movies, as you are no doubt aware. For the sake of brevity, suffice it to say that Joseph and Mary are said to have endured great suffering on the way to Bethlehem, including Mary riding a donkey while she is in labor, a particularly nasty innkeeper shouting, “No vacancies,” Joseph desperately searching for shelter and only finding a wooden stable in a field. None of this is in Luke’s Gospel.

Remember that the narrative of Jesus’ birth in Luke 2:1-7 is the only one in the Bible. It is the only source of information concerning what happened, and he records nothing about the trip or their arrival. Luke says that they made the trip successfully, period. No donkey, no perils, no labor, no desperation, no innkeeper, no forced retreat from the city, no wooden stable in a field. All of this is the culmination of centuries of error and imagination.

The wild imaginings do not stop there. Arriving at the wooden stable in the field outside of Bethlehem, tradition says that there arrived “three kings from the east” on three camels bearing three gifts, all three royals humbly bowing before the manger and bestowing the riches of the east with great ceremony. Then shepherds arrive with their flocks. And angels hover in a canopy of stars, one star much brighter than the others. In the stable sleeps the donkey, an ox, and all of the other animals. Luke, however, records none of this.

Taking only Luke’s Gospel into consideration, a strong case can be made for this sequence of events: Mary and Joseph traveled on foot from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Although she was expecting, she was not so far along that walking a few miles a day would have been a concern. They arrived in Bethlehem completing an uneventful journey. No emergency, no panic, and no desperation, they made it safe and sound, and then made themselves at home. Mary remained at home in Bethlehem with family, preparing and waiting like any expectant mother, anticipating for an unknown period of time her child’s arrival.

Were there animals present in and around the stable including the donkey, an ox, the shepherds’ sheep, and the wise men’s three camels?

No animals are mentioned as having been present at the manger for the birth of Jesus. The only animals mentioned by Luke are sheep, though they are not at the manger in town but are out in the agricultural fields.

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.

Luke 2:8    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. It seems doubtful that they would have brought an entire herd of noisy sheep into a sleepy village in the middle of the night. 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.

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 women, whose testimonies are also disallowed in courts of law, being the first witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection. In God’s upside-down court, the distrusted and disallowed are embraced and trusted.

The Magi did not go to the manger on the night of Jesus’ birth as they did not begin their long journey from the east 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 informed Herod when the star first appeared. He asked them for this information because he wanted to know how old the child might be presently. Learning 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. And in Matthew’s story of the Magi, no camels are mentioned. 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.

Was Jesus born in a wooden stable in a field outside of Bethlehem?

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

Luke 2:15-16    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 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. People lived in 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 A.D., replacing a previous church completed on the site in 333 A.D. 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.

Did an innkeeper tell them that there was no room in the inn?

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 (ka-TAH-loo-mah). 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 some 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 guest chamber.

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)

Jesus had made arrangements for 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 (pan-dohk-EE-on). 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 (pan-dohk- YOOS):

Luke 10:35   The next day he took out two silver coins {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, Matthew records that the family is “in the house” in Bethlehem two years after Jesus’ birth, demonstrating that they lived there. This argues for Jesus being born at home.

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 living room of a house, not an inn. The correct translation should be: 

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

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.

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 certainly retain them with enthusiasm. Tradition will demand that Mary ride her donkey in labor, and that three Wise Men go to the manger. Traditions are not easily challenged, yet facts that disprove traditions are easily ignored.

Was Jesus born in a manger?

Although it is commonly said, “Jesus was born in a manger,” such a feat would have required acrobatics on the part of Mary, as 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 (FAHT-nay) is the biblical Greek word that Luke used; it means animal feed trough. But Luke does not tell us what a 1st century Judean 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 the Holy Land 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.

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. Nor would she have been the last.

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 places no animals, no Magi, and no angels present at the manger.

Did Mary wrap her newborn tightly in “swaddling clothes” to straighten his body and limbs?

Probably not.

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, probably as 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.

Was Joseph present when Jesus was born?

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 trips to the Jerusalem temple after each birth they attended. A midwife, or women with experience, probably helped Mary, although 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.

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.

Luke 2:16    So [the shepherds] went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.

Can what Luke recorded concerning Jesus’ birth be summarized?

Yes. Like other residents of both Nazareth and Bethlehem, Joseph was of “the house and lineage of David,” meaning he was a descendent of King David’s, meaning a member of his kingly dynasty, his royal bloodline, and his genealogical family.

The Scriptures say that the people of Bethlehem were of King David’s lineage. (David was from Bethlehem.) Joseph and Mary were 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 were preparing to relocate to Nazareth, 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.”

The couple who was visiting Nazareth, likely because they were planning a move there, returned to their hometown to register, continuing to reside in their house in Bethlehem until the time came and Mary went into labor. But the living quarters upstairs may have been occupied by relatives, multigenerational living was the norm, and they needed a private place for her and the baby as childbirth was considered unclean by Jewish law. Their house’s basement cave (stable) and limestone feed trough (manger) sufficed when the time came, and that moment is described by Luke in a way typical of any birth in that day.

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 who would have been a little older. They returned to Bethlehem for the census indicating that it was their home, and simultaneously indicating that they may have been arranging a move to Nazareth. Perhaps a builder like Joseph would have wanted steady work in booming 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 (pp. 43-46); Mary would have felt at home there relationally and theologically.

It was night when the moment finally came. They moved Mary from the living area upstairs, as planned, down to the basement/cave used as the family stable, because a crowded upstairs guestroom is no place for labor and delivery. Mary was taken to a safe place at a safe distance, both for privacy reasons and for ritual cleanliness issues (so as not to render occupants, furniture, or the living quarters ritually impure). Cozy and clean downstairs, Mary gave birth, and she wrapped Jesus in strips of cloth, and used a limestone feeding trough as a temporary bed for her newborn. 



8.    Three Rituals Performed After Jesus’ Birth

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

Luke 2:21    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. (see Leviticus 12:3)


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 where Jesus’ circumcision was performed. Mary could not have gone into the Jerusalem 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. 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. Luke recorded that Jesus was also ceremonially given the name Jesus during this rite.

Purification – According to Luke, Mary traveled some six miles to the Jerusalem temple with her husband and her infant for the completion of her time of purification following giving birth, probably thirty-three days afterward as prescribed by the 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 {or dedicated} 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." (emphasis mine)

This, Jesus’ first visit to the temple, had a dual purpose: Mary’s purification and also dedication of their firstborn son to God in accordance with the Law of Moses.


Dedication – According to Luke, the other purpose of their visit to the temple that day, some 33 days after Jesus’ birth, was to dedicate their firstborn child to God (called “the redemption of the firstborn”) in accordance with the law of Moses (Exodus 13:12-15) by offering for sacrifice “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” While at the temple for Mary’s purification (Leviticus 12:4 & 6-8) and Jesus’ dedication (Exodus 13:12-15), the elderly prophets Simeon and Anna met the “holy family,” they recognized the significance of the child, and they spoke of him prophetically (Luke 2:25-38). This, of course, was Jesus first visit to the temple in Jerusalem, but not his last.



9.    Joseph, Mary, and Jesus Living In Bethlehem

We have skipped to two years later, it is about 6 B.C., and the Bible is silent on those two intervening years. How do we know it is two years later? The answer is in the next section.

Matthew records that the Magi met with Herod the Great in Jerusalem (also addressed in the next section) and then they traveled some six miles south to Bethlehem where they found Mary and her toddler named Jesus residing in “the house.”

Matthew 2:11    On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. (emphasis mine)

These events estimated to have occurred in 6 B.C. are only about two years before Herod the Great’s death in 4 B.C. So from the time of Jesus’ birth until the Magi’s arrival, it is fair to conclude that no planned relocation to Nazareth had taken place, and Jesus’ family was still living in “the house” in their hometown of Bethlehem. Matthew’s leap in time from about 8 B.C. (the year Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem) to about 6 B.C. (the year of the arrival of the Magi to Joseph’s house in Bethlehem) will now be explained.


10.  Magi Reveal Jesus’ Age To Herod the Great

The Magi were not present for Jesus’ birth. Luke mentions no Magi and no birth star. Only Matthew 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. Contrary to nativity sets and children’s cantatas, the Magi were not at the manger for Jesus’ birth. They met Jesus as a toddler.

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. Learning the approximate age of Jesus, Herod ordered every child “two years old or under” to be killed. So Jesus, his birth in about 8 B.C. coinciding with the appearance of the star, would have been two years old when the Magi arrived. It was about 6 B.C. The Magi found 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 who 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.

A literal moving star that comes to a stop over a Bethlehem house—marking for observant Magi (known as 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 B.C., and another unnamed comet in 7 B.C. There was also a triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn (and Uranus also) in 7 B.C. 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 B.C. 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 B.C. 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 pious 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.


11.    Magi Take Gifts To “the House” In Bethlehem

Matthew does not tell how many Magi visited the toddler Jesus and Mary in their Bethlehem home. 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. But speculation about their names, their races, and their numbers 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.


12.  Magi Go Home By A Secret Route

It was about 6 B.C. when Herod the Great instructed the Magi to go pay homage to the child in Bethlehem. He also ordered them to return and report to him exactly where the child was. Herod lied to the Magi saying that he too wanted to go pay homage to the child. However, the Magi were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, and they took an alternate route home. (Matthew 2:12)


13.  Joseph, Mary, and the Toddler Flee To Egypt

Joseph too was warned in a dream to flee with his family, and he was instructed to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt. This is about 6 B.C., and Jesus is about two years old.

Matthew 2:13-15  . . . an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him."  14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt,  15 and remained there until the death of Herod.


14.  Herod the Great Commits Infanticide

Matthew 2:16 records that Herod was furious that the Magi had “tricked” him. Due to the Magi’s failure to report back to Herod as ordered (with details like the child’s name and address), knowing only that the child was about two years old and living somewhere in Bethlehem, Herod ordered that all the children there two years old and under be killed in an attempt on Jesus’ life.

Matthew 2:16-18   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).  17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:  18 "A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more." (emphasis mine)

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, perhaps only half of these were male, hardly the massive slaughter depicted by tradition and movies, yet still tragic. The small number of children killed in the tiny village may explain 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, however, see this event’s absence from the historical record as further evidence the birth and childhood narratives in Matthew and Luke are literary creations of the early church, this one in particular perhaps patterned after the pharaoh’s command that all of the Hebrew newborn males be killed in an attempt at slave population control.

Exodus 1:15-16   15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah,  16 "When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live."

There are numerous parallels between the stories of Moses’ and Jesus’ lives. Both survived the attempted infanticide of a cruel ruler, one laid in a papyrus basket (Exodus 2:3), and the other laid in a manger.

One boy grew up to free his people by escaping slavery in Egypt, and the other boy escaped to Egypt to later free his people from slavery to sin and death. One received the law of God on a mountain, and the other preached “the sermon on the mount.” Both gave up royal power to join and save their people.



15.  Herod Dies (4 B.C.)

Matthew records the death of Herod the Great like this:

Matthew 2:19-20  19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said,  20 "Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child's life are dead."

Herod’s death in 4 B.C. is key to dating the events of Jesus’ conception, birth, and childhood as recorded by Matthew and Luke. That date is well established by examination of historical sources, like Flavius Josephus, by modern scholars.

In 4 B.C., Jesus was about four years old. Herod’s death meant that his family could bring him out of hiding in Egypt and go home to Judea, presumably to the house they have been living in located in Bethlehem.


16.  Joseph Intends To Return from Egypt To Judea

Matthew records that the holy family escaped the slaughter in Bethlehem that we have dated to about 6 B.C. They hid there until Herod the Great’s death in 4 B.C. It was about two years later, and Jesus would have been about four years old. Joseph wanted to return his family to Judea, no doubt to the house in Bethlehem where the Magi had visited, but he was afraid to go there.

Matthew 2:21-22   21 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel.  22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee.


17.  Joseph Moves His Family To Nazareth Instead

Archeleus was a son of Herod the Great who upon his father’s death in 4 B.C. ruled a portion of his kingdom as ethnarch for nine years (4 B.C. – 6 A.D.). 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 four-year-old son. Joseph decided to go instead to Nazareth in Galilee where the family was apparently planning to relocate eventually anyway. There is no record of this journey, or of the moving of their things, so there is also no way of knowing whether the stopped by Bethlehem to gather their things, or when they arrived in Nazareth.

The gospels share only one story about Jesus between 4 B.C. when he was about four years old and the 20s A.D. when he began his ministry at about the age of 30. That is more than two decades, and the only story during those years is Luke’s account of Jesus in the Jerusalem temple at the age of twelve. They were living in Nazareth says Matthew and Luke. What was going on during those 25+ years?

Luke provides two transitional summaries that in no way help fill in the gap. After Mary’s purification and the dedication of her first born in the temple in about 8 B.C., Luke wrote:

Luke 2:40   The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

This is Luke’s attempt at bridging a twelve-year gap. It is Luke’s only words about what happened between Jesus’ dedication in the Jerusalem temple at 33 days old and his visit to the temple at twelve years old.

Then Luke does it again, attempting to bridge about an eighteen-year gap. Immediately following the story about the twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple, Luke wrote this:

Luke 2:51-52   51 Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.  52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.

The next time Luke shows us Jesus he is an adult being baptized by John and tempted in the wilderness in preparation for the beginning of his ministry at about the age of 30:

Luke 3:23   Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work.

Luke’s formulaic attempts at transitioning Jesus from infancy to twelve years old, and again from twelve years old to about 30, leave us with little information about Jesus’ childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood in Nazareth.

Are there hints in the four biblical gospels about Jesus’ “lost years” growing up, living, and working in Nazareth? Yes.

Language – It is accepted that Jesus spoke Aramaic, the common language of the eastern Mediterranean, and perhaps he spoke it with a Galilean accent like his disciple, Peter.

Matthew 26:69 & 73   69 Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. A servant-girl came to him and said, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” . . .  73 After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly you are also one of them, for your accent betrays you.”

Jesus’ Aramaic words and their translations are recorded many times in the gospels, as here in the Gospel of Mark.

Mark 5:41    He took her by the hand and said to her, "Talitha cum," which means, "Little girl, get up!"

Whether Jesus could read and write in Aramaic is uncertain but likely, as he proved that he could read Hebrew, a related language, when he read from a scroll containing Isaiah in the Nazareth synagogue (Luke 4:16-20). It is also likely that he was at least functionally literate in the Greek language, as it was the common language of the Roman Empire. They called it “Galilee of the Gentiles” for a reason. The area was quite Hellenized, the Greek-speaking cities of the Decapolis surrounded Galilee, and the Greek-speaking capital of Galilee, Sepphoris, was only four miles from Nazareth, and it was hiring builders, probably including Jesus, his father, and his brothers. Coins, funerary inscriptions, public notices, synagogue inscriptions, and more were written in Greek. Shopping and doing business in Galilee almost certainly required some knowledge of Greek. Jesus used Greek words with no Aramaic or Hebrew equivalent in his teaching, like the word u`pokrith,j (hypocrite – meaning “actor”). In what language did Jesus carry on conversations with the centurion or with Pilate, if not in Greek? John’s gospel records that some Greeks came to see Jesus (John 12:20-21); in what language did they converse?

Therefore, as Jesus seems to be literate and seems to be at least functionally conversant in three languages, we can presume that growing up in Nazareth he was taught these things, probably at home, in the synagogue, and on the streets.

Religious Education – In the gospels Jesus demonstrates knowledge of Hebrew Scriptures, of rabbinical methods, of oral traditions, and of Hebrew practices, holy days, and festivals. Like his learning of the Hebrew language, Jesus would have learned these things from his parents at home, from teachers at the synagogue, and perhaps to some degree from teachers at the Jerusalem temple. At the age of only twelve Jesus stayed in the temple three days asking and answering questions, and Luke records that the scholars were impressed (Luke 2:42-50).

Village Work – Excavations of small Hebrew villages from Jesus’ day, including Nazareth, indicate a number of activities that made them viable and nearly self-sustaining—like agricultural practices, food storage and preparation, livestock management, and oil and wine production. Capernaum shows evidence of these and more—like fishing industries and millstone manufacturing. It is likely that at planting time and harvest time, everyone in the village was needed, so everyone would learn how to do this. Jesus’ teachings suggest that he had everyday working knowledge of planting, reaping, grinding, pressing, storing, building, and more. Surely he learned these things firsthand growing up in Nazareth.

Knowledge of Rome – As Galilee, like the rest of the region, was under Roman occupation, citizens would have been exposed to Roman administration, politics, government, military, laws, taxes, customs, philosophy, religion, art, music, style, and more. We can safely assume that Jesus was quite familiar with these from firsthand exposure in Jerusalem, Sepphoris, the Decapolis, Caesarea Philippi, and practically everywhere he might have travelled.

Meaning of the word “Nazareth” – All four gospels agree that Jesus grew up and lived most of his life in Nazareth, a town not mentioned by name in the Old Testament. Matthew, however, relates the name of the town to a prophecy.

Matthew 2:23   There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, "He will be called a Nazorean."

Apparently the name of the town was also the name of the people there. They were Nazoreans. 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 likely referencing 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.

Isaiah 11:1   A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch (netzer) shall grow out of his roots.

Netzorean means people of the branch. Matthew 2:23 is claiming that the people of the tiny village of Nazareth were also of the lineage of David. Joseph and Mary then likely had kin there with messianic hopes. Although originally from Bethlehem, they would have felt at home relationally and theologically in Nazareth. How religious was Nazareth? Very.

In John’s Gospel, when Philip reported to Nathanael that they had found the Messiah, Nathanael responded with sarcasm, making Nazareth the butt of a joke.

John 1:45-46   45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, "We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth."  46 Nathanael said to him, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" 

Some traditional writers assume incorrectly that Nathanael is suggesting that Nazareth had a reputation for lawlessness. The evidence, however, points in the opposite direction. The very name of the town suggests that they were descendants of David who believed the Messiah was prophesied to come from them. Joseph is described as “a righteous man” (Matthew 1:19) meaning he is one who strictly adheres to the laws of Moses. Nazareth’s isolated location, hidden in a natural bowl atop a mountain with no major roads running through it, suggests a people who cherish their privacy and their own ways. Excavations there indicate a synagogue and Jewish purification baths (mikvaot). Luke 4:16-20 indicates that the Nazareth synagogue owned its own scrolls, and these same verses report that Jesus was “brought up” in Nazareth where attending synagogue each Sabbath was “his custom.” When Jesus returned home to Nazareth as a teacher/healer of regional renown, he was asked to read scripture and speak in their synagogue. Sadly, Nazareth rejected his word, they treated him as one who had blasphemed, and they intended to do what the law required: stone him (Luke 4:29 – stoning can be accomplished by throwing stones on the guilty or by throwing the guilty on stones).

Jesus’ Family – Although we have no stories of Jesus’ growing up years in Nazareth, the Scriptures report that Jesus had four brothers: JamesJoseph (Joses), Judas (Jude), and Simon. We know also that he had sisters, but we do not know how many or their names. His having grown up in a large family as the eldest son hints at his home life. (Matthew 12:46-48, 13:55-56; Mark 6:3; Galatians 1:19)

Jesus’ Trade – As it was common practice in Jesus’ day for sons to be trained in their fathers’ trade, we should not be surprised that Joseph trained Jesus. Jesus’ brothers likely learned this trade, too, although this is not mentioned in the Gospels. Matthew 13:55 records that Joseph was a tekton (TEK-tone), and Mark 6:3 identifies Jesus as a tekton, too.

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    Is not this the carpenter (tekton), the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?" And they took offense at him.

Tekton is traditionally translated as carpenter, but it 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, or metal. 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.

It cannot have been coincidental that Nazareth was near a major construction site: Sepphoris. Joseph and his five sons could have walked to Sepphoris every day. Six men would bring home six salaries. Galilee’s new and booming capital during Jesus’ growing up years was in Nazareth’s backyard, just four miles away. Although Sepphoris is not named in Scripture, would a builder like Joseph just happen to move within walking distance of one of the largest construction projects in the entire Mediterranean basin at the time? Herod Antipas was building the new capital of Galilee, thus creating jobs and drawing workers. Work in Sepphoris 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, which is what Jesus’ father did after Herod the Great’s death in 4 B.C.

Remember, after hiding his son in Egypt for two years, and upon learning of Herod’s death, Joseph intended to return to Judea (where his hometown of Bethlehem was located), but due to Archelaus’ brutal reputation on the Judean throne, and due to a warning in a dream not to return to Judea, Joseph relocated to Nazareth, which might have been Plan A prior to Mary becoming pregnant.


·         Joseph was a tekton training his sons.

·         Sepphoris needed many a tekton.

·         Nazareth was next door to Sepphoris.

·         Joseph had kin with likeminded beliefs and practices in Nazareth.

Plan A makes sense theologically and economically for Joseph’s family. He was clearly one who cared about his family’s wellbeing and future. That Jesus was called a tekton suggests that his father was an effective teacher.



18.  Jesus In the Temple at the Age of Twelve

What are Jesus’ first recorded words? His first words in Matthew (3:15) were to John the Baptist about “fulfilling all righteousness.” Jesus’ first words in Mark (1:50) announced to Galilee that “the kingdom of God is near.” And in the Gospel of John (1:38), Jesus’ first words are a question addressed to Andrew and John: “What are you looking for?” 

Although they record different “first words of Jesus,” the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John have this in common: All three record Jesus’ first words spoken when he was about thirty years old in the 20s A.D. Luke, however, is unique among the four gospels concerning Jesus’ first words. In about 4 A.D. when Jesus was twelve years old, Luke recorded that Jesus asked his parents two questions:

Luke 2:49   "Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?"

The translation difficulty here is significant:

ti,          o[ti       evzhtei/te,     me

Why [is it] that [you] were seeking me?

ouvk h;|deite       

Not  know [you]

o[ti evn toi/j          tou/ patro,j mou

that in the [things of] the father of me

dei/  ei=nai, me

must be     I?

The first question Jesus asked is clear. Jesus’ second question likely contains an idiom whose meaning is ancient and obscure. An attempted literal translation might read:

“Did you not know that in the things of my Father it behooves me to be?”

Jesus had pilgrimaged from Nazareth with his parents, relatives, and friends to a festival at the Jerusalem temple in about 4 A.D. When the festival was completed they all began the long journey back. Because his parents apparently had great confidence in their twelve-year-old, they never worried that they had not seen him among their clan of travelers that first day. But a full day later they began to worry. They determined that Jesus was not in the group, and then they hurried all the way back to Jerusalem to conduct an anxious search for him.


After three full days of searching the city, Mary and Joseph found Jesus sitting with the teachers in the temple, asking questions and listening. Luke recorded two very emotional responses to Jesus in this moment—the teachers’ response to him and his parents’ response to him:

Luke 2:47    And all who heard him were amazed (existemi) at his understanding and his answers.

existemi - The teachers in the temple were “amazed/astonished,” as in "thrown for a loop” by Jesus’ abundant wisdom.

Luke 2:48    When his parents saw him they were astonished (ekplesso) . . .

ekplesso – Mary and Joseph also were “amazed/astonished,” as in "slapped in the face" by Jesus’ lack of understanding.

It is ironical that the teachers are stunned by Jesus’ comprehension, yet simultaneously his parents are stunned by his lack of it.

Sick with worry, frantically searching for him for days, and then they suffer further shock: They catch the boy enjoying three days of leisurely learning, while they had suffered through three days of heartsick worry. Understandably, Mary interrupted the Bible study with force:

Luke 2:48   "Son! . . . Why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been frantic, searching for you everywhere."

odunao – frantic, tormented, pained, distressed, anguished, sorrowed, sick with worry

Without apology or remorse, Jesus, in classic rabbinical style, counters Mary’s question with a question. Correction—he counters her question with two questions:

“Why did you look for me? Is it not clear to you that the father’s business/house (both implied) is where I must be?”

Strangely, this is the basic outline of this scene in the temple:

1)    Jesus stuns teachers

2)    Jesus stuns parents

3)    Parents stun Jesus

4)    Jesus stuns parents again

This story ends in a proverbial Mexican Standoff. Everyone is standing there stunned. The End?

Luke attempted to settle this stalemate by adding this:

Luke 2:51-52   51 Then [Jesus] went down with [his parents] and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.  52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.

Luke’s upbeat, four-point conclusion is his best attempt at resolution:

1)    Jesus went home with his parents

2)    Jesus was obedient to his parents

3)    Mary treasured everything in her heart

4)    Jesus grew in wisdom, years, and favor

Quite the rose-colored wrap-up of Jesus’ childhood, is it not, considering that from Mary’s and Joseph’s perspective on the day in question, none of these niceties likely seemed applicable.

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*EXPLANATION of the Three Challenges to

Creating a Chronology of Jesus’ Beginnings:

     I.        Most modern scholars do not feel that the biblical birth/infancy/childhood narratives are historically factual. For example, they see Matthew’s and Luke’s claim that Jesus was born in Bethlehem as a literary creation by the early church that 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) Luke’s manger and angel story, and Matthew’s Magi and Herod story, are theological inventions to honor and interpret Jesus’ importance, these scholars claim. To put it bluntly, they categorize the biblical events and descriptions of Jesus’ birth/childhood as “myth.” To these scholars, any attempted chronological reconstruction is futile and foolish. Nevertheless, whether you agree with modern scholars about the fictive nature of these accounts, they are still dated to a timeframe and recorded chronologically by Matthew and Luke. It is not illegal to write these down in order, is it? Those who do so may be accused of exegetical suicide in some quarters, but c'est la vie.

   II.        In the Bible, only Matthew and Luke record events from the first twelve years of Jesus’ life, the number of events are few, and the details are scant. Only Luke describes his birth, only in a single verse, and that verse is fraught with translation difficulties. Luke recounts three rituals performed shortly after his birth, but then skips to twelve years later when a twelve-year-old Jesus pilgrimages to the Jerusalem temple with his family for a festival. Matthew, recording nothing of Jesus’ birth, focuses on events just prior to his birth, and then he jumps forward in time, describing the movements of Jesus’ parents when he was between the ages of about two and four years old. What happened between the first month of Jesus’ life and his becoming two years age? What was going on when Jesus was between the ages of four and twelve? A chronologist has little to work with here, and what he has is separated by years. However, it is still possible (and legal) to line them up, assigning dates accurate to within about a year.

  III.        Gospels, as a distinct literary form or genre, attempt to record events chronologically, yes. But because Matthew and Luke leave us with gaps in the chronology, a day-by-day narrative of Jesus’ birth and childhood is impossible, as are month-by-month or even year-by-year retellings. Unlike a biography, a gospel does not feel obligated to account for breaches between even disparate events. Hours, days, months, and even years are skipped with little or no attempt to conceal the breaks or connect the dots. This is true not only of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ childhood, but also of his adulthood. What happened between when Jesus was twelve years of age and about 30? Gospels are what they are. Concerning missing “chapters” in Jesus’ life, we can do little more than wonder and speculate. Still, while it is true that by their nature gospels leave significant silent fissures between events, these missing moments are not impediments to lining up the recorded events and assigning approximate dates. “Futile and foolish?” Maybe. Illegal? Not in the least.

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