The nativity of jesus

The Nativity of Christ

The Nativity according to the flesh of our Lord, God and Saviour Jesus Christ, also called Christmas, is one of the Great Feasts of the Orthodox Church, celebrated on December 25.

In the fullness of time, our Lord Jesus Christ was born to the Holy Theotokos and Virgin Mary, thus entering into the world as a man and revealing Himself to mankind.

According to the Bible and to Holy Tradition, Jesus was born in the city of Bethlehem in a cave, surrounded by farm animals and shepherds. The baby Jesus was born into a manger from the Virgin Mary, assisted by her husband St. Joseph. St. Joseph and the Theotokos were forced to travel due to a Roman census; the odd location of the birth was the result of the refusal of a nearby inn to accommodate the expecting couple (Luke 2:1-20). Since it is known historically that dwellings were built directly over such caves housing livestock–in order to make use of the heat

Though three magi from the East are commonly depicted as visiting during the event itself (or, in Roman Catholic tradition, twelve days thereafter), the Bible records the coming of an unspecified number of wise men as being a few years after Jesus’ birth (see Matthew 2). In either case, these magi came bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matt 2:11). In the hymnography for the feast, these gifts are interpreted to signify Christ’s royalty, divinity, and suffering.

Though Jesus’ birth is celebrated on December 25, most scholars agree that it is unlikely he was actually born on this date. The choice of December 25 for the Church’s celebration of the Nativity is most likely to have been in order to squelch attendance at pagan solstice festivals falling on the same day.

At least, this is the urban myth promligated by both heterodox Christians and unbelivers for centuries.

The Nativity of Christ (

Menologion of Basil II, 10th-11th c. )

However, the solstice festival fell on the 21st of December. To suggest that The Church chose a day of sacred observance defensivly instead of pro-actively is to devalue and disregard the sacred and authoritative action of The Church in establishing a proper date for the observance of The Nativity of Christ The Lord.

Others within The Orthodox Church have observed that, under Hebrew law, male infants were both circumcised and received their name eight days after their birth.

(See The Account of The Circumcision and Naming of John–The Forerunner and Baptist–in The Gospel according to The Apostle Saint Luke 1:59-66, and The Account of The Circumcision and Naming of Christ The Lord as Jesus in Luke 2:21 )

Also, within The Orthodox Church, January 1st is celebrated as the “name day” of The Lord Christ Jesus. Thus, the selection of December 25th to celebrate the nativity of The Christ (who would not be named for eight more days) would appear to have been a conscious counting backward from the first day of the calendar year–the day of his being proclaimed Son of Man–to the date of His birth, the day of his being proclaimed Son of God.

Celebration of the feast

Nativity fast

The cycle starts with a fast of forty days that precedes the feast. It is called the Nativity fast or Advent. For the faithful, it is a time to purify both soul and body to enter properly into and partake of the great spiritual reality of Christ’s Coming, much like the preparation for the fast of the Lord’s Resurrection.

The beginning of the fast on November 15 is not liturgically marked by any hymns, but five days later, on the eve of the Feast of the Presentation of the Theotokos, we hear the first announcement from the nine “Irmoi” of the Christmas Canon: “Christ is born, glorify Him!”

This period includes other special preparatory days announcing the approaching Nativity: St Andrew’s Day, November 30; St Nicholas Day, December 6; the Sunday of the Forefathers; and the Sunday of the Fathers.

December 20th begins the Forefeast of the Nativity. The liturgical structure is similar to the Holy Week preceding Pascha. The Orthodox Church sees the birth of the Son of God as the beginning of the saving ministry which will lead Him, for the sake of man’s salvation, to the ultimate sacrifice of the Cross.

Eve of the Nativity

On the eve of the Nativity, the Royal Hours are read and the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great is served with Vespers. At these services the Old Testament prophecies of Christ’s birth are chanted.

There is also a tradition of Vale or Holy Supper. This is a 12 course lenten dinner served before the family goes to vespers.

Christmas vigil

The Vigil of Christmas begins with Great Compline because Vespers has already been served. At Compline there is the singing of the Troparion and Kontakion of the feast with special hymns glorifying the Saviour’s birth. There are also the special long litanies of intercession and the solemn blessing of the five loaves of bread together with the wheat, wine, and oil. The faithful partake of the bread soaked in the wine and are also anointed with the oil. This part of the festal vigil, which is done on all great feasts, is called in Slavonic the litya and in Greek artoklasia, or the breaking of the bread.

The order of Matins is that of a great feast. Here, for the first time, the full Canon “Christ is born,” is sung while the faithful venerate the Nativity icon.

Christmas Liturgy

Concluding the celebration of the Nativity of Christ is the Liturgy. It begins with psalms of glorification and praise instead of the three normal Antiphons. The troparion and kontakion mark the entrance with the Book of the Gospels. The baptismal line from Galatians 3:27 once again replaces the Thrice-Holy. The Epistle reading is from Galatians 4:4-7, the Gospel reading is the familiar Christmas story from Matthew (2:1-12), and then the liturgy continues in the normal fashion.

Twelve days of Christmas

The second day of the feast starts a two-day celebration of the Synaxis of the Theotokos. Combining the hymns of the Nativity with those celebrating the Mother of God, the Church points to Mary as the one through whom the Incarnation was made possible. St Stephen, the First Martyr, is also remembered on these two days.

On the Sunday after Christmas the Church commemorates James the Brother of Our Lord, David the King, and Joseph the Betrothed.

Eight days after the Nativity, is the feast of Circumcision of our Lord.

The festal period extends to Theophany during which time the Christmas songs are sung and fasting and kneeling in prayer are not called for by the Church. Throughout this time, it is the custom of some Orthodox Christians to greet each other with the words: “Christ is born!” and the response: “Glorify Him!” Many in the English-speaking world will also use the culturally common “Merry Christmas!”


Troparion (Tone 4)

Your Nativity, O Christ our God, Has shone to the world the Light of wisdom! For by it, those who worshipped the stars, Were taught by a Star to adore You, The Sun of Righteousness, And to know You, the Orient from on High. O Lord, glory to You!

Kontakion (Tone 3)

Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One, And the earth offers a cave to the Unapproachable One! Angels with shepherds glorify Him! The wise men journey with a star! Since for our sake the Eternal God was born as a Little Child!

Christmas Carols

Greece and Cyprus
Greek tradition calls for children to go out with triangles from house to house on Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve and Epiphany Eve, and sing the corresponding folk carols, called the Κάλαντα (Kálanda, the word deriving from the Roman calends). There are separate carols for each of the three great feasts, referring respectively to the Nativity, to St. Basil and the New Year, and to the Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan, along with wishes for the household.

Longer carols follow a more or less standard format: they begin by exalting the relevant religious feast, then proceed to offer praises for the lord and lady of the house, their children, the household and its personnel, and usually conclude with a polite request for a treat, and a promise to come back next year for more well-wishing.

Many carols are regional, being popular in specific regions but unknown in others, whereas some are popular throughout the two countries. Examples of the latter are the Peloponnesian Christmas carol “Christoúgenna, Prōtoúgenna” (“Christmas, Firstmas”), the Constantinopolitan Christmas carol “Kalēn hespéran, árchontes” (“Good evening, my lords”), and the New Year’s carol “Archimēniá ki archichroniá” (“First of the month, first of the year”). The oldest known carol, commonly referred to as the “Byzantine Carol” (Byzantine Greek: Άναρχος θεός καταβέβηκεν, Ánarchos Theós katabébēken, “God who is beyond all authority descended”), is linguistically dated to the beginning of the High Middle Ages.

Almost all the various carols are in the common dekapentasyllabos (15-syllable iamb with a caesura after the 8th syllable) verse, which means that their wording and tunes are easily interchangeable. This has given rise to a great number of local variants, parts of which often overlap or resemble one another in verse, tune, or both.

In older times, carolling children asked for and were given gifts such as dried fruit, eggs, nuts or sweets; during the 20th century this was gradually replaced with money gifts — ranging from small change in the case of strangers to considerable amounts in the case of close relatives. Carolling is also done by marching bands, choirs, school students seeking to raise funds for trips or charity, members of folk societies, or merely by groups of well-wishers. Many internationally known carols, e.g. “Silent Night”, “O Tannenbaum” or “Jingle Bells”, are also sung in Greek translation.


  1. ↑ The entry in the Roman Martyrology states:
    “IN the year, from the creation of the world, when in the beginning God created heaven and earth, five, thousand, one hundred and ninety-nine (5199 BC); from the flood, two thousand, nine hundred and fiftyseven (2957 BC); from the birth of Abraham, two thousand and fifteen (2015 BC); from Moses and the coming of the Israelites out of Egypt, one thousand, five hundred and ten (1510 BC); from the anointing of King David, one thousand and thirty-two (1032 BC); in the sixty-fifth week, according to the prophecy of Daniel; in the one hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad; in the year seven hundred and fifty-two from the founding of the city of Rome (752 BC); in the forty-second year of the empire of Octavian Augustus, when the whole earth was at peace, in the sixth age of the world, Jesus Christ, eternal God, and Son of the eternal Father, desirous to sanctify the world by His most merciful coming, having been conceived of the Holy Ghost, and nine months having elapsed since his conception, is born in Bethlehem of Juda, having become man of the Virgin Mary. THE NATIVITY OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST, ACCORDING TO THE FLESH.

See also

  • Magi
  • Nativity icon
  • Pax Romana
  • The Monastery at the Shepherds Field (East Jerusalem, Israel)

External links

  • The Nativity of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ (OCA)
  • The Nativity of Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ (GOARCH)
  • Calculating Christmas – A differing opinion of the calculation of the date of Christmas

“Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.  And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”  (Luke 2: 10-12, ESV)

the nativity of jesus

Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus

No matter how many times I read the story of Jesus’ birth or hear it read, I never see or hear the word “stable”.  Ever.  Sure, that’s how we always depict the scene, right?  Joseph and Mary forced to camp out in a stable because there are no vacancies in any of the “inns” in town.  What a place to birth a child.  This,we say, reminds us of the lowliness of Jesus’ birth and contrasts nicely with who He really is.  Like we used to say in seminary, “That’ll preach!”   The only problem with this wonderful picture, is that it’s not what Scripture actually says.  Like I said, there’s no mention of a stable anywhere.

the nativity of jesus

a stone manger from the time of Jesus

The sign that the angel tells the shepherds  to look for is a baby lying in a manger.  I think it’s a cultural bias of translators to assume that if he’s in a manger, then he must be in a stable.  Mangers are found in stables, after all.  Makes sense.  But mangers were also commonly found in the lower levels of homes from that era in Bethlehem.  Often, these lower levels were converted to shelters for the family’s most valuable animals during the night.  The family would sleep in the upper rooms of the home.

This, of course, brings us to the second issue in this famous story.  For the life of me, I cannot fathom why popular translators insist on using the word “inn”.  That’s not exactly true.  I think that they keep “inn” in because it’s such a famous verse and they can refer to most old commentaries to back up the practice.  I took a look at a number of these old commentaries, though and those who insist on “inn” fall into two primary camps: one that makes an extra Biblical assumption, and the other just says, basically, “because”.   In other words, there is no real good reason to say, “inn” other than that’s what everyone has always done.

The Greek word that is translated “inn” is used in two other verses in the Bible.  In Luke 22:11 and in Mark 14:14, it is rendered “guest room”, however.  I checked.  It’s the same word except for its case.  (Objects in the Koine Greek of the New Testament alter their spelling according to whether they are being used as direct objects or indirect objects, etc . . .).  In all three verses it’s the same word.  No one would expect the other two examples to be rendered “inn” so there’s no reason to render the Luke 2 example “inn”.

The reason that “inn” is used is that the assumption is made that Joseph and Mary were travelers and so must have been staying in a sort of caravan area/ “inn”.  Couple that with the use of “manger” before archaeologists were around to unearth old homes from that place and time and it’s a reasonable assumption to make.  The idea of Joseph and Mary caravanning is consistent with the next story in Luke in which they go to Jerusalem and inadvertently leave Jesus behind, but though related to this one, it is, nonetheless, another story.  All the Gospel says is that the new family went to Bethlehem to be counted with Joseph’s extended family for the census.  Since Joseph was of the House of David, it is possible (likely?) he had relatives Bethlehem?

So what do we end up with?  We have a crowded home in which a baby is born.  In the absence of a cradle, a manger is an excellent place to lay the baby.  The hay in the manger is surely clean and will make great bedding for Him.  Not only that, but there are fewer people on the lower level of the home, especially at night, so He can rest more easily and so can everyone else.  (Even perfect babies get hungry during the night and let everyone know about it!)

the nativity of jesus

Jesus was surrounded by family at His birth, but no one “got it” except for, maybe, Mary who pondered everything in her heart. That’s why everyone in the home was so surprised by the shepherds’ exclamations and declarations.  The wise men came to the house too and worshiped Him which further demonstrated the lack of understanding Jesus’ immediate family had for Him.  All that being said, however, I have to think that laying Jesus in that manger was an act of kindness and love toward that most precious of babies.  In a crowded house like that He must have had plenty of “aunts” and “grandmas” to dote on Him.  What a loving environment that must have been.

I admit, this depiction of the beginning of Jesus’ life may sound foreign but it is entirely in keeping with the text of the Bible. It also makes complete sense in light of the consistent Biblical theme of relationship.  From beginning to end, God desires an intimate relationship with humanity. (That’s you and me!)  Family is a reflection of that desire.  God is our Father.  Jesus is His Son.  Jesus invites us to be His brothers and sisters.  A husband and wife are called to reflect Christ and the Church.  The Church is a family.  It’s all about relationship. And the faith of the shepherds and the wise men demonstrate how that true relationship with Christ Jesus began in a manger.

That’s what Christmas is all about.

God Bless,


Originally published on Word Press by Christopher 12/3/2011 as “Below in a Manger”

  • Peace On Earth (

“The Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ” Source:

“The Twenty-fifth Day of December,

when ages beyond number had run their course
from the creation of the world,

when God in the beginning created heaven and earth,
and formed man in his own likeness;

when century upon century had passed
since the Almighty set his bow in the clouds after the Great Flood,
as a sign of covenant and peace;

in the twenty-first century since Abraham, our father in faith,
came out of Ur of the Chaldees;

in the thirteenth century since the People of Israel were led by Moses
in the Exodus from Egypt;

around the thousandth year since David was anointed King;

in the sixty-fifth week of the prophecy of Daniel;

in the one hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad;

in the year seven hundred and fifty-two
since the foundation of the City of Rome;

in the forty-second year of the reign of Caesar Octavian Augustus,
the whole world being at peace,

JESUS CHRIST, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father,
desiring to consecrate the world by his most loving presence,
was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
and when nine months had passed since his conception,
was born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem of Judah,
and was made man:

The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.”

Source:  “The Nativity Of Our Lord Jesus Christ From The Roman Martyrology”

My Bethlehem Experience

“The Church of the Nativity marks the birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem. It enshrines the Grotto – the Manger in which it is believed Jesus Christ was born.” Jerusalem.Com

This past June, I visited the Nativity Church and the Manger Grotto in Bethlehem. My son, Father William Goldin, was my guide. He celebrated Mass, with me as the lector, in the Manger Grotto, and we were joined by two nuns. One nun was from Aleppo in Syria and the other was a Christian Palestinian from Bethlehem. I was quite surprised to realize that Jesus was actually born in a cave. Our taxi driver told us that for many centuries before and after Jesus was born, people in this region lived in caves. It is a rough, desert area and the town of Bethlehem is ancient, and built upon a ridge. Evidently, in the past, Bethlehem was green, with fruit trees. It was confusing to think about the images of Mary and Baby Jesus in a lovely stable with straw in the wooden manger. In fact, the manger, which is a trough that holds the food for the sheep and other livestock, was actually a cold hewn-rock vessel. Everything we saw and visited helped me understand how strong, brave, and indomitable the Holy Family was.

We Learn Through Song

O little town of Bethlehem

1 O little town of Bethlehem,
how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
the everlasting Light;
the hopes and fears of all the years
are met in thee tonight.

2 For Christ is born of Mary,
and gathered all above,
while mortals sleep, the angels keep
their watch of wondering love.
O morning stars, together
proclaim the holy birth,
and praises sing to God the King,
and peace to all on earth.

3 How silently, how silently
the wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
the blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming,
but in this world of sin,
where meek souls will receive him still
the dear Christ enters in.

4 O holy Child of Bethlehem,
descend to us, we pray.
Cast out our sin and enter in;
be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
our Lord Emmanuel.

To Hear the Tune:

We Celebrate Through Art

To do at home without time constraints:

Make a cut-paper collage like the one at the top of the post. Here are sample tools:

the nativity of jesus

Cut Paper Art Supplies

For a classroom with 15-20 minutes for art:

Use watercolor crayons on watercolor paper to create a Nativity painting. First, draw design with a watercolor crayon. Moisten finger in water, and use finger on crayon drawing to create watercolor paint. You can also use watercolor pencils and a small, pointed brush for small areas.
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Adoration of the Shepherds (1535-40), by Florentine Mannerist painter Agnolo Bronzino

The Nativity of Jesus, or simply the Nativity, is a story of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.

Authoritative Christian accounts are given in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke that form part of the New Testament of the Bible. More elaborate stories of the events relating to the birth of Jesus have also been preserved, but they have not been included in the Christian canon of the Bible. The Gospel of Mark, arguably the earliest of the canonical gospels, is silent on the nativity. Some non-Christians question that various miraculous signs listed in the Bible actually accompanied the birth of Jesus, and whether it was a virgin birth.

The birth narratives of Matthew and Luke relate that the mother of Jesus of Nazareth was Mary, at the time of his conception still only the betrothed wife of Joseph of the House of David, resident in Nazareth of Galilee, and that she conceived Jesus by the Holy Spirit rather than by Joseph.

The rememberance, representation and re-enactment of the Nativity scene are at the heart of the Christian celebration of Christmas, the name “Christmas” for the festival signifying the Christian belief that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ promised in the Old Testament of the Bible. In the Roman Catholic Church, and among other Christian groups, the main religious celebration of Christmas is the Church service at midnight (“Heilige Nacht”, “Midnight Mass”) or in the morning of “Christmas Day”, which is always kept on the 25 December. During the forty days leading up to Christmas, the Eastern Orthodox Church practices the Nativity Fast, while beginning four Sundays before Christmas, the Roman Catholic Church observes the liturgical season of Advent, both times of spiritual cleansing, recollection and renewal, in order to prepare for the celebration of the birth of Jesus at Christmas.

Biblical narratives

Gospel of Luke

The Gospel of Luke states that Mary learned from the angel Gabriel that the Holy Spirit would cause her to be with child. Mary pointed out that she was a virgin and the angel responded that “nothing will be impossible with God”. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word,” Mary responded.

When Mary was heavily pregnant, she and her husband Joseph traveled from their home in Nazareth about 150 kilometres (90 miles) south to Joseph’s ancestral home, Bethlehem, in order to register in a census ordered by Emperor Augustus. Having found no place for themselves in the inn, they lodged in a stable or cave where animals used to be kept. There Mary gave birth to Jesus.

An angel of the Lord visited the shepherds that were guarding their flocks in fields nearby and brought them the “good news of great joy” that “to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord”. The angel told them they would find, “a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” A “heavenly host” joined the angel and said, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” The shepherds hurried to the manger in Bethlehem where they found Mary, Joseph and Jesus. They repeated what they were told by the angel, and then returned to their flocks.

Gospel of Matthew

In the Gospel of Matthew, the impending birth is announced to Joseph in a dream. The nativity is attended by “wise men” (Koine Greek magi) from the east:

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising,and have come to pay him homage. When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.

The word “magi” connects the visitors to the magi of Babylon who selected Daniel their chief, according to the Book of Daniel. The magi in Daniel interpreted dreams and other portents. The book was well-known in ancient times for a prophecy concerning the Messiah, an “anointed one” sent by God to lead the Jewish people. Messiah is a Hebrew word equivalent to “Christ”, which is derived from Greek.

The three Magi before Herod, France, early 15th century.

Neither the names of the magi nor their number are specified in the Bible, but – owing to the fact that three gifts are mentioned – tradition tells us there were three: Balthasar, Melchior, and Caspar. Balthasar is a Greek version of the Babylonian name Belshazzar, meaning “May Bel protect his life”. This was the name given to Daniel by the chief eunuch of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, as well as to a king of Babylon. Melchior means “The king is my light” in Aramaic. Caspar is a Latinized version of Gondophares, a Parthian (i.e. Persian) name. In free retellings of the Nativity events, the magi are sometimes called “kings” because of prophecies that kings will pay homage to the Messiah.

The statement that Herod was “frightened” by the magi’s words is sometimes taken to mean that he did not know of the magi’s star, often referred to as the Star of Bethlehem, before they arrived. The text suggests that it was the birth of the Messiah that frightened Herod, not the star, which he may or may not have known about earlier. Herod must have understood the phrase “king of the Jews” as a reference to the Messiah, since he asked his advisors where the Messiah could be born. They answered Bethlehem, the birthplace of King David, and quoted the prophet Micah. “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,” a deceitful Herod told the magi.

As they traveled to Bethlehem, the star “went before” the magi and led them to a house where they found Jesus. Thus Jesus was no longer in the manger described by Luke. He was a child (paidion), not an infant (brephos). The magi presented Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. In a dream, the magi received a divine warning of Herod’s intent to kill the child, whom he saw as a rival. Consequently, they returned to their own country without telling Herod the result of their mission. An angel told Joseph to flee with his family to Egypt. Meanwhile, Herod ordered that all male children of Bethlehem under the age of 2 be killed. After Herod’s death, the holy family settled in Nazareth, fulfilling the prophecy, “He will be called a Nazorean.” Here “Nazorean” means both a resident of Nazareth and a “branch,” or descendant (of David).

Relationship among the Gospels

The task of defining the relationship between Matthew, Luke, and the Gospel of Mark, called the Synoptic problem, has attracted a great deal of scholarship over the centuries. In the traditional view, expressed by Augustine and other church fathers, Matthew was written first and Mark was redacted from Matthew (see Augustinian hypothesis). A group of modern scholars, employing textual criticism, emphasize the divergences among these gospels. In Matthew, for example, the Holy Family intended to return to Bethlehem after the flight to Egypt, i.e. they are residents of Bethlehem. But since the nativity narrative in Luke does not mention the flight to Egypt or Joseph’s deliberations over their safety on their return, some scholars deduced that the family resided in Nazareth and went to Bethlehem purely because of the census. Such alleged inconsistencies have led textual critics to talk in terms of an “M source” for the material in Matthew which diverges from Luke and Mark, and an “L source” for divergant material in Luke. Under the theory of Markan Priority, the material that Matthew and Luke have in common is derived from the Gospel of Mark or from the hypothetical Q document. As the nativity narratives are not part of this common gospel material, they are thought to represent later elaborations; moreover, neither Mark nor the Gospel of John includes a nativity narrative.

When was Jesus born?

Guido Reni’s

Joseph with the Infant Jesus , about 1635.

See also: Census of Quirinius

In Western Christianity, the Feast of the Nativity it has been traditonally celebrated in the liturgical season of Christmastide as Christmas on 25 December. Few scholars believe this was the date of his birth. Scholars speculate that the date of the celebration was moved by the Roman Catholic Church from January 6, when it was previously celebrated as part of the feast of Theophany, in an attempt to replace the Roman festival of Saturnalia. This date was also nine months after the Festival of Annunciation (March 25). When the Julian Calendar was first put into use (45 BC), December 25 was approximately the date of the solstice. Due to calendar slippage, the solstice now falls on December 21 or 22. The theory that December 25 was the birthdate of Jesus was popularized by Sextus Julius Africanus in Chronographiai (AD 221).

Both Luke and Matthew wrote that Jesus was born when Herod was king. According to Josephus, Herod died shortly after a lunar eclipse. This is usually identified as the eclipse of March 13, 4 BC. Jesus was born sometime between the first appearance of the Star of Bethlehem and the time the magi arrived in Herod’s court. As Herod ordered the execution of boys age 2 and under, the star must have made its first appearance within the previous two years. This line of reasoning yields a date of 6-4 BC for the nativity. (Note that there is no suggestion in the Gospels that Jesus was born on the day the star first appeared.)

One problem with the 6-4 BC date is that there are difficulties with locating a census of Quirinius at that time, a key element in Luke’s nativity narrative. There was a census of Roman citizens in 8 BC, but Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father, was not a Roman citizen. Quirinius, governor of Iudaea Province, conducted a census in AD 6 or AD 7. But an ordinary census would count people where they lived and would not require anyone to return to his ancestral home. Some modern authors identify Luke’s worldwide census with a mass oath taking that occurred in 3-2 BC when Augustus was given the title “father of the nation.” As a descendant of David, Joseph might have been selected to take the oath. Tertullian, Origen, Africanus and other early Christian writers date the birth of Jesus as 3-2 BC. Jesus is said to have been “about thirty” when he began his ministry in AD 29, which yields a birth year of 3-2 BC. There were also two lunar eclipses in 1 BC, so it is possible that Herod died at that time. However, coins issued by Herod’s successors show that they dated their reigns as beginning in 4 BC.



Nativity with Saints Francis and Lawrence , 1609. This work was stolen in October 1969.

The location of the birth is traditionally attributed to the result of Joseph and Mary being forced by order of Emperor Augustus to leave their homes in Nazareth and go to the home of Joseph’s ancestors, the city of David, for a census. With a whole city full of people who had made the journey, there was no room for the expecting couple at the town’s inn. This tradition derives from a conflation of the account in the Gospel of Luke, which states that the couple headed to Bethlehem for a census, which was decreed by the Roman Emperor Augustus, with that in the Gospel of Matthew, which states that the birth occurred during the reign of Herod the Great.

Matthew and Luke give complementary explanations of how Jesus came to grow up in Galilee but be born in Bethlehem. Matthew relates Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem, and the little family’s subsequent escape to Egypt, from where after Herod’s death they moved to Galilee to continue living in safety. Luke does not mention the flight to Egypt, but simply concludes the infancy narrative with the summary statement: “When they had finished all things according to the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own city, Nazareth”.

Although the event is usually depicted as taking place in a man-made free standing structure, many biblical scholars conjecture that the “manger” was probably positioned in a cave carved in the side of a hill – as this was the typical location of stables in Classical Palestine. Others suggest that the manger was not in a stable at all but in a lower floor room of a building or house where agricultural tools and grain stores were normally kept, but where animals were brought into on cold nights or to protect them from thieves. The Bible does not specifically mention an inn keeper or a stable or even animals (except the flocks of the shepherds) relating to Jesus’ birth, and these extra traditions derive from works in the New Testament apocrypha; the Arabic Infancy Gospel mentions the donkey and the ox, while the Protevangelium of James introduces the inn keeper, as well as the midwife that is no longer part of the tradition. Technically, the tradition of the birth location derives from the translation of a Greek term which ambiguously means either gathering room (an upper room in a home) or cave.


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A medieval depiction of the betrothal of Mary and Joseph from the Nuremberg Chronicle.

In first century Judea, betrothal the period of betrothal occurred after the main marriage ceremony had taken place and the marriage contracts had been signed, and was very much a till death do we part affair, at least until a formal divorce was granted. In general the betrothal ceremony took place when the woman was still very young, generally around age twelve or thirteen, and after the ceremony she would remain in their father’s house for around a year. After this point the husband would take the bride into his own home – which most scholars think is the meaning of Mary being pregnant before they came together; Mary being pregnant before the two shared a home, rather than stating that she became pregnant before the two had had sex, although it could be interpreted this way.

Matthew merely glosses over how Mary came to be pregnant, which Schweizer thinks implies that Matthew’s audience were already well aware of the story of the Virgin Birth – there were several virgin birth stories in the Jewish tradition and so the idea of virgin births was generally accepted by the population. Matthew mentions the paternity of the Holy Ghost very quickly, even before any of the characters in his narrative are aware of this fact, which Brown argues is because Matthew does not want the reader to ever consider alternate scenarios as to how Mary could have become pregnant.

Matthew is, however, quite explicit that Mary and Joseph had not had sex before Jesus was born. This is frequently extrapolated by supporters of the concept of a Virgin Birth to imply that not only had Mary not had sex with Joseph before Jesus was born, but that she had also had sex with no-one else, i.e. was a virgin. Older and more puritanical translations often bowdlerized this passage using more euphemistic wording, though modern versions are much more explicit about the lack of sex. Many Protestants take the verse to imply that Mary and Joseph had sex after Jesus was born, but other groups, particularly the Roman Catholics, argue that the passage is far vaguer in the original Greek than it is in English, and support the idea that Mary permanently remained a virgin. David Hill, a Presbyterian, acknowledges that the wording does not absolutely deny perpetual virginity, but argues that if the idea had been current at the time, then Matthew would have been more explicit about it. Sadly, the Genealogy of Jesus in the oldest surviving copy of the Gospel of Matthew – the Codex Sinaiticus – is often misinterpreted, implying that Joseph was the father of Jesus.

Joseph’s attitude


Joseph’s Dream in the Stable painted in 1645

The exact meaning of why Matthew describes Joseph as a “just man” is much discussed; the Greek term is dikaios, and it has variously been translated as just, righteous, upright, and of good character. Most of the ancient commentators of the Bible interpreted it as meaning that Joseph was law abiding, and as such decided to divorce Mary in keeping with Mosaic Law when he found her pregnant by another, but, tempering righteousness by mercy, he kept the affair private. A second view, first put forward by Clement of Alexandria, and held by most modern Christians is that Joseph’s righteousness is his mercy itself, with the decision to ensure Mary was not shamed being proof of his righteousness rather than an exception to it. A third view is based on the idea that Joseph already knew the origin of Mary’s pregnancy, which is more in keeping with the Gospel of Luke, leading to the view that Joseph’s righteousness is pious acceptance of Mary’s story.

Joseph’s original intent, though, was to divorce Mary, once he had discovered her pregnancy, though some scholars, and most older translations, have expressed this more euphemistically, since Joseph, a man having just been described as righteous, undergoing divorce, would imply that divorce was righteous. Especially in the nineteenth century a number of scholars tried to read alternate meanings into the term, with one proposal being that it merely meant that the couple would split while legally remaining married. However recent discoveries have found that legal avenues for divorce certainly existed at the time in question. One of the clearest pieces of evidence is a divorce record from 111, entirely coincidentally between a couple named Mary and Joseph, which was found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Greek word here translated as divorce is aphiemi, and the only other time it appears is in 1 Corinthians where Paul uses it to describe the legal separation of a man and wife, and thus almost all modern translators today feel that divorce is what is being described, although doctrinal reasons cause some to use other wording.

Rabbinic law from the period allows two different options for divorce that is due to adultery:

  • Bring the matter to the village council, which would hold a hearing and, if the allegations were proved, grant a divorce.
  • Have the evidence presented and approved by two witnesses who would then certify the divorce (Gundry argues that the witnesses were necessary mainly to prevent a woman denying that the divorce had actually taken place.).

Joseph is explained as choosing to put Mary away privately rather than publicly divorce her, which most scholars believe means that Joseph had taken the second of the two divorce options.

In the first of several dream sequences in Matthew, an angel visits Joseph to dissuade him, and explain what has happened. The angel is described in a manner much more like early Jewish descriptions, as in the pentateuch, merely as a pure functionary with no individuality, unlike the more esoteric descriptions that arose nearer Matthew’s own time, under Hellenic influence, such as described in the Book of Enoch. Joseph carries out the angel’s instructions exactly, rather than arguing with them, which appears to be a common theme in the Gospel – rapid and unquestioning obedience is treated by Matthew as an important virtue.


The Magi bear gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Though wise men or kings is the traditional understanding, the Bible actually refers to magoi. Three is a traditional number, derived from the three gifts. Furthermore, the Bible describes the men as having arrived about two years after the birth of Jesus to inquire of Herod.

The men were said to be following a mysterious star, commonly known as the Star of Bethlehem, that had suddenly appeared in the sky, believing it to be the fulfilment of an ancient prophecy of the coming of the Messiah, or king of the Jews.

On the other hand, Luke’s account does not mention the Magi, instead having Jesus being visited by local shepherds, who had been informed in the night by an angel (herald) who said “Don’t be afraid, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be to all the people, for there is born to you, this day, in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. This is the sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes (strips of cloth), lying in a manger (feeding trough).” After this an innumerable company of angels appeared with the herald saying “Glory to God in the highest, on earth peace, good will toward men.” (see The First Noël). The shepherds went quickly to Bethlehem, finding the sign to be as the angel foretold, and subsequently publicised what they had witnessed throughout the area.


Philippe de Champaigne’s

The Dream of Saint Joseph painted around 1636

In Matthew “an angel of the Lord” appears to Mary’s betrothed husband Joseph in a dream and tells him: “she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins”. The text continues with the comment: “All this happened to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel, which being interpreted is God with us'”.. Some 5-6th century manuscripts of the Gospel according to Matthew read “Isaiah the prophet” instead of merely “the prophet” (e.g. D, but as it does not have the support of other important witnesses (see Nestle26), its motives require very careful consideration outside the competence of non-text critics). Rather than using the Masoretic text which forms the basis of most modern Christian Old Testament translations, Matthew’s quotation is taken from the Septuagint. The verb кαλεω kaleō (to call) is used by both Isaiah and Gabriel; but whilst the former employs the third person plural (they shall call), the latter has the second person singular you shall call. Gabriel himself therefore is not applying Isaiah’s prophecy to Joseph, but his purpose is to invite him to assume legal paternity of the son to be born of Mary by naming him. It is the following comment that explains Mary’s conception by the Holy Spirit, Joseph’s vocation as the child’s legal father, and the child’s own vocation as the Saviour of his people as indicated by the name Jesus, in the light of Isaiah’s prophecy that henceforth “God is with us”. Howewer, this understanding of this passage tends to be regarded as Christian apologetics, because almost all Jewish sources are certain that “Immanuel” was intended as a name, not a mere title.

Scholars have other concerns with Matthew’s reference to Isaiah. France, for instance, believes that it is far more likely that Isaiah is referring to the far more immediate future, particularly as the text can be considered to be past tense – implying that the saviour in question was already conceived when Isaiah was writing. Matthew also appears to have adjusted the meaning slightly, but in a significant way -although Matthew uses the Greek term parthenos, usually translated virgin, Isaiah uses the Hebrew word almah, which more accurately translates as young woman.

The purpose of the quote is better understood by looking at the context in which it is used in Isaiah. Isaiah is in the process of promising that God can save Israel from the immediate threat of the Assyrians, but that if the Jews continue to sin, the Assyrian empire will be the instrument of God’s vengeance. Hence, in the eyes of scholars such as Carter, Matthew is using the situation as an allegory for the time in which he was writing; if followed, Immanuel would lead to salvation from the Roman empire, but if rebuffed, Rome will be the instrument of punishment against the Jewish people.


The Chi Rho monogram from the Book of Kells is the most lavish such monogram

In Insular Gospel Books (i.e. copies of the Gospels produced in Britain under Celtic Christianity), the first verse of Matthew’s nativity narrative was treated as if it began a whole new book of the Bible. In mediaeval typography, the Greek word Christ was sometimes abbreviated as Χρι (the Greek letters Chi-Rho-Iota); the first three letters of the word Christ in the Greek alphabet), and so the Χρι which begin this verse was given an elaborate decorative treatment by such scribes, who had a similar tradition for the opening few words of each of the Gospels. This trend culminated in the Book of Kells, where the monogram has taken over the entire page. Although later scribes (such as those of the Carolingian Renaissance) followed the Insular tradition of giving elaborate decorative treatments to the opening words of texts, including the Gospels, they did not follow the tradition of decoration this verse.

Alternative interpretations

According to Frank R. Zindler, the nativity story is regarded by atheists as a legend without any historical basis. Some non-Christians do not doubt that a person called Jesus existed but question that various miraculous signs listed in the Bible actually accompanied the birth of Jesus, and whether it was a virgin birth. The Qur’an says that Jesus was the result of a virgin birth but even some Christian clergy do not accept this.

See also

  • Adoration of the Shepherds
  • Biblical Magi
  • Nativity scene
  • The Miller’s Tale


  1. ^ Brown, R., et al. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Prentice Hall, 1990.
  2. ^ Luke 1:34
  3. ^ Luke 1:30-31
  4. ^ Luke 1:34-37
  5. ^ Luke 1:38
  6. ^ Luke 2:1-4
  7. ^ ab Luke 2:7
  8. ^ Luke 2:10
  9. ^ Luke 2:11
  10. ^ Luke 2:12
  11. ^ Luke 2:13-14. NRSV. The King James Version (1611) reads, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” The varient readings reflect the use of different Greek manuscripts.
  12. ^ Luke 2:16-20
  13. ^ KJV reads, “star in the East”.
  14. ^ Matthew 2:1-4.
  15. ^ Daniel 2:48.
  16. ^ Daniel 9:24-27. Daniel was considered “one of the greatest prophets” because “he did not only prophecy future events, like the other prophets, but specified the time of their accomplishment”. (Josephus, Flavius, Antiquities of the Jews 10.11.7).
  17. ^ Daniel 1:7. Josephus, Flavius, Antiquities of the Jews, 10.189
  18. ^ Daniel 5:1
  19. ^ Isaiah 60:3 and Psalms 72:11.
  20. ^ Matthew 2:3
  21. ^ Matthew 2:4.
  22. ^ Matthew 2:5-6. The Old Testament version of this prophecy can be found at Micah 5:2-4.
  23. ^ Matthew 2:8
  24. ^ Matthew 2:9
  25. ^ Matthew 2:11
  26. ^ Matthew 2:11. These gifts are mentioned in the Septuagint, the Koine Greek version of the Old Testament. (Isaiah 60:1-7).
  27. ^ ab Matthew 2:12
  28. ^ Matthew 2:13
  29. ^ Matthew 2:16
  30. ^ Matthew 2:23. NRSV. KJV reads “He shall be called a Nazarene.” This prophecy is a free reading of Isaiah 11:1, with the Hebrew word for “branch” read as Nazōraios (Nazorean) in Greek.
  31. ^ Miller, Fred P., “Isaiah’s Use of the word ‘Branch’ or Nazarene”.
  32. ^ Matthew 2:22
  33. ^ Luke 2:4
  34. ^ Head, Peter M., Christology and the Synoptic Problem: An Argument for Markan priority, Cambridge, 1997, ISBN 0521584884. For a case against Markan priority, see Peabody, David B., Lamar Cope, and Allan J. McNicol, One Gospel From Two: Mark’s Use of Matthew and Luke, Trinity Press International, 2002, ISBN 1563383527.
  35. ^ Erwin Fahlbusch and Geoffrey William Bromiley, The Encyclopedia of Christianity , 1:454–55
  36. ^ Mosley, John, “Common Errors in ‘Star of Bethlehem’ Planetarium Shows”, Planetarian, Third Quarter 1981.
  37. ^ Luke 2:4.
  38. ^ Larson, Frederick A., The Bethlehem Star, “Footnotes”.
  39. ^ Luke 3:1-3, 3:23.
  40. ^ Maranatha Church, Inc, “Birth of Christ Recalculated”, 1998.
  41. ^ ab Pratt, John, “Yet Another Eclipse for Herod”, Planetarian, Dec. 1990, (4), pp. 8-14.
  42. ^ Luke 2:39
  43. ^ Matthew 1:25
  44. ^ 1 Corinthians 7:11
  45. ^ Matthew 1:23. Compare to Isaiah 7:14.
  46. ^ Matthew 1:18
  47. ^ “A Nativity Potpourri”, The Probing Mind, Frank R. Zindler, December 1986
  48. ^ “Quarter of clergy do not believe in the Virgin Birth”, Chris Hastings and Fiona Govan, Daily Telegraph, 22 December 2002

Further reading

  • Albright, W.F. and C.S. Mann. “Matthew.” The Anchor Bible Series. New York: Doubleday & Company, 1971.
  • Brown, Raymond E. The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke. London: G. Chapman, 1977.
  • Calkins, Robert G. Illuminated Books of the Middle Ages. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1983.
  • Carter, Warren. Matthew and Empire. Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 2001.
  • France, R.T. The Gospel According to Matthew: an Introduction and Commentary. Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 1985.
  • Gundry, Robert H. Matthew a Commentary on his Literary and Theological Art. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1982.
  • Gundry, Robert H. “Salvation in Matthew.” Society of Biblical Literature – 2000 Seminar Papers. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2000.
  • Hill, David. The Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981
  • Jones, Alexander. The Gospel According to St. Matthew. London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1965.
  • Levine, Amy-Jill. “Matthew.” Women’s Bible Commentary. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998.
  • Schaberg, Jane. Illegitimacy of Jesus: A Feminist Theological Interpretation of the Infancy Narratives (Biblical Seminar Series, No 28) Sheffield Academic Press (March 1995) ISBN 1-85075-533-7
  • Schweizer, Eduard. The Good News According to Matthew. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1975

External links

  • Icons of the Nativity (mostly Russian)
  • Jewish Encyclopedia: Jesus: Legends Concerning His Birth
  • Bernard Orchard, The Betrothal and Marriage of Mary to Joseph, Part 1; Part 2

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