The Birth of Jesus
The Christmas story has been
placed at the centre of popular Christian religion only in the past couple
of centuries. Before that it was not so important. As Westerners have
moved away from allegiance to the Church, so has the Nativity been
increasingly linked to commerce and family solidarity.
If the truth were told, the baby Jesus is now recognised
as mythical, in the same way as is Santa Claus (St Nicholas). A few
determined fundamentalists insist that the tale in Matthew's Gospel is
literally true. They spend considerable energy trying to prove that the
star which led the Magi was a certain comet or supernova, and that the
author of Matthew got his dates correct.
At the same time, largely in the hallowed halls of
academia and in the semi-secret theological books on clergy bookshelves,
the conclusion is clear: The Nativity accounts in the gospels are not
history but fable.
Many have noted, for example, that Chapter 2 of
Matthew's Gospel seems to begin a new account - almost as though Chapter 1
wasn't there. One might suppose that a detail like this wasn't important
to the author. This is probably correct. This is because he would not have
thought about continuity and historical accuracy in the same way we do.
His main purpose was to show not what Jesus did or said, but what he
meant to the early Christian community of which he was a member.
We tend to think is terms of what is good or bad
history, and then go on to base our conclusions about people and events on
the basis of what we think probably really happened.
We might speculate, for example, that if Jesus had been
born and brought up in Rome instead of in a tiny village called Nazareth,
he would probably have spoken Greek and Latin. And if his background had
been Roman, perhaps the Christian faith today would have looked very
But this is not how either Jesus or his contemporaries
would have thought. It's worth noting that history as we know it, and
therefore the way we think of the past, wasn't invented until modern
In line with our knowledge that the author of Matthew
wrote to make theological points about Jesus (rather than deliver history)
we should query Bethlehem as the actual place of Jesus' birth. There are
two main reasons:
Bethlehem is where David was chosen and anointed king of Israel
(1 Samuel 16.12). There is also a "prophecy" in Micah 5.2 which promises
a ruler for Israel from Bethlehem.
So it's likely that the author of Matthew's Gospel is using the Old
Testament to demonstrate that Jesus is David's successor -an important
theological point if one thinks that Jesus is the Hebrew Messiah
("Christ" in Greek). Everywhere else in all the Gospels Jesus is "of
Nazareth" and most scholars now think that's where he came from.
The text of the gospels, apart from these opening accounts,
assume that Jesus came from Nazareth. He is called the "Nazorean" or "of
Nazareth" in all four gospels.
The author of Matthew seems to have known this. He explains the
contradiction by recounting a story which said that Joseph settled in
Nazareth because he was afraid of Archelaus, Herod's son, who had taken
over Judea at his father's death (Matthew 2.23).
The problem with accepting this as good history is that the author or
Luke's Gospel presents exactly the opposite sequence of moves. Mary and
Joseph start off from Nazareth, move to Judea to visit Elizabeth, and
then return to "her house" in Nazareth. The two are in Bethlehem only
for a census taken when "Quirinius was the Governor of Syria" (Luke
Quirinius was indeed Governor in the year 6. But his census was conducted
in Judea and not in Galilee - so there was no need for the family to
move to Bethlehem in the first place. In addition, Mary would not have
had to go with Joseph because only men were registered.
The Roman Catholic scholar John P Meier points out that
... the Infancy Narratives stand in relative isolation; they are
distinct compositions stemming from traditions different from those
found elsewhere in the Four Gospels - and indeed the rest of the [New
There has long been controversy about the date of Jesus'
birth. This is in part because biblical scholars want to be accurate about
history. But another reason relates to the date of the crucifixion of
The Herod mentioned in Matthew 2.1 was Herod the Great.
We know from other sources that he ruled Palestine from 37-4bc
under Roman supervision. This means that Jesus was born at the latest
around 4ad and this date
seems to have been accepted by a majority of scholars now.
If Jesus was about 30 when he died then the date of the
crucifixion could have been as early as 26ad.
Pontius Pilate arrived in Jerusalem (according to Josephus) in 26ad.
He was removed as "Praefectus Iudaeae"
at the latest in 37ad.
So if Jesus was born in 4ad
then he definitely died before about 36ad
at the age of nearly forty. If he died at the age of about thirty-six,
then what is usually called his "ministry" was about six years long - not
three as some suppose. Luke 3.23 mentions that "When Jesus began his work
he was about thirty years old". But even if Luke was trying to be accurate
about this, his information was likely to have been too uncertain for us
to take as historically accurate.
The fact is we don't know about any of these dates for sure. The best we
can do is to go with the maximum
possible length of Jesus' life and ministry. We can't, after all, know
what the minimum period was, so it makes sense to work with the
longest rather than the shortest.
Luke's Gospel agrees with Matthew's Gospel that Herod
the Great was ruler of Palestine when Jesus was born. That two authorities
should agree makes the case somewhat stronger. Luke and Matthew agree
about this and
that Joseph and Mary had not begun to live together, although
they were engaged to be married.
This is not necessarily significant. We tend to project our own social
standards onto first-century Palestine. In fact, as in Africa to this
day, a Hebrew girl might live in her husband's home (with his mother,
father, siblings and all) for a year or more before the marriage was
They also agree that Joseph was not Jesus' father. Some scholars
think that the evidence for the historicity of Joseph is slight and that
Jesus may have been a bastard. If so, his mother would have been
something of a social outcast. She certainly would not have been
The two authors also agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem -
though, as we have seen, this is one case where the agreement of two
sources is almost certainly unhistorical.</>
But in every other respect the two authors differ.
This indicates that they either composed their
narratives independently or used entirely different sources. The points of
agreement, on the other hand, were probably derived from a common source -
perhaps an early oral tradition.
Jesus may have been born in Bethlehem. But the weight of all the
other references in the Gospels falls heavily on the side of Nazareth
being his home town.
Jesus was born no later than 4bc
and died no later than 37ad
(because we are reasonably sure that Pilate ordered his execution) at
the age of no more than about 40 years old.
The chief importance of this information is to
demonstrate that the dates a majority of scholars derive for Jesus' life
are consistent with good history and the external sources available to us.
There is no point in bothering too much about a lack of
absolute certainty in this respect, for we know little about the birth,
infancy and early years of even the most famous people in the ancient
Mediterranean world. The information we have about famous figures such as
Alexander the Great or the Roman Emperor Octavian, for example, is mixed
up with legend and myth. It can be a painstaking business to unravel fact
from fiction even when our sources are reasonably extensive.
Jesus of Nazareth, unlike Roman emperors and Alexander,
remained almost completely unknown to the Roman Empire for more than 200
years after his death. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that our
information about him turns out to be scetchy at best.
 A Marginal Jew: The Roots of the Problem and
the Person, Doubleday, 1991