Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

The Miraculous Birth of Jesus

Posted by foryourfaith on January 26, 2010

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Who was Jesus, really, and where did he come from?  These are two of the questions posed by a group of Gospel stories that are usually referred to as the Nativity.  But the answers to these questions come indirectly, for the most part, and in such a way that even those individuals who discover them must continue to wrestle with them.

Only the Gospels of Matthew and Luke provide specific accounts of Jesus’ birth, although there is a reference to the place it occurred in John’s Gospel.  In it people who questioned Jesus’ being the Messiah claimed that since he came from Nazareth in Galilee, he could not fulfill the scriptural forecasts concerning the rise of the Lord’s Anointed from the city of David, Bethlehem in Judea (John 7:40-52).  Whether or not John believed what those detractors said, he made no effort to defend the Bethlehem tradition in his Gospel.  It can be surmised that for him the whole argument was beside the point, since heaven was Jesus’ real home; the historical circumstances of his taking on flesh were of little consequence (1:1-14).

With Matthew and Luke, however, it was of great importance to show that the location of Jesus’ physical origin was in fact Bethlehem.  Luke described the place the newborn Jesus was laid.  It was a manger (the original Greek word means either a feeding trough or a stall for animals) that Mary used as the baby’s bed because the town inn was full (Luke 2:7).  Symbolically, the manger could mean the “master’s crib” of Isaiah 1:3, an analogy for Israel’s misunderstanding of God’s plan.  More clearly, Luke wanted to tell his readers that even though Jesus technically fulfilled a prophecy that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), he also came, probably contrary to expectation, as a somewhat inconspicuous person.  Both in his first moments and in his later ministry, he had no place of his own to lay his head (Luke 9:58).

Matthew also located Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, but he described the event itself in less than a sentence (Matthew 2:1).  Instead, he was more interested in how people could recognize the infant as the Messiah.  He accomplished this partly by studying Jesus’ family tree, prefacing his account of the birth itself with a genealogy, a list of Jesus’ ancestors dating back to Abraham.  this not only documented Jesus’ Jewish lineage but also his descent, on Joseph’s side, from King David.  Thus Jesus was in the royal line and was also born in David’s town, Bethlehem.

Contrary to the usual biblical custom concerning genealogies, Matthew mentioned four women among Jesus’ progenitors:  Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba.  The first three were foreigners who joined themselves to god’s plan for Israel.  (They may be paralleled in Matthew’s story of the three wise men who came from a distant land to worship the King of the Jews.)  Tamar, Rahab, and Bathsheba were known to have had extramarital relations with men, although it is not clear that they were blamed for these.  Bathsheba was honored as the mother of the great king Solomon, despite her adulterous union with avid.  In his genealogy, Matthew wanted to emphasize Jesus’ identification with Israel, including its irregular heroines.  While Luke also provided a genealogy, it did not serve as a part of the birth story.

Neither Matthew nor Luke neglected the divine origin of Jesus.  Joseph was assured in a dream that Mary’s child was “of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:20), and Mary herself knew this to be true because of the message she received from Gabriel (Luke 1:35).  Usually the virginal conception portrayed here is thought to be an altogether un-Jewish idea, but some scholars suggest that there was a Hellenistic-Jewish theory that the patriarchs were fathered directly by God.  It was not assumed, however, that these divine men were equal to God.

Matthew devoted attention to a story that has come to be called the visit of the wise men, or Magi (Matthew 2:1 – 12).  Who were these people?  The term magoi in Greek refers to a wide variety of people, including fortune-tellers, priestly augurs, magicians, and astrologers.  Because of their connection with the star in this story, it is safe to conclude that Matthew identified them mostly with the last group.  Possibly they came from Babylonia, or Persia, where the word magus originated.  They were almost certainly Gentiles, for if they had been Jews, they would have known better than to ask King Herod about a national ruler who would challenge his dynasty!  It is not clear form the story why they wanted to pay homage to a Jewish king or what they learned about him from their observations of “his star” (Matthew 2:2).

The names given to these wise men in later Christian tradition – Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar – are of unknown origin.  In Easter Christianity they have different names.  Regardless of what they’re called, these figures clearly excited the imagination of Christian interpreters and artists from very early times.  Partly this was because they were the first Gentiles to acknowledge the significance of Jesus.  In Matthew, they are indeed the very first worshippers.

A general negative character in Matthew’s Gospel is Herod, who appears as the personification of jealousy, insecurity, and treachery.  He obviously knew only a little about Jewish expectations of a Messiah-king, as he had to inquire of his religious advisers where the legendary figure would be born (Matthew 2:3-6).  But Herod did know the significance of this mighty king; thus he pretended to be happy about the discovery of the wise men while he was secretly scheming to do away with the child.  When the Magi, warned in a dream failed to report the location of the infant to Herod, he erupted in a rage and systematically wiped out all the male children in Bethlehem two years old and younger.  But he could not thwart God’s plan, for Joseph too had been guided by a dream message to flee to Egypt for refuge.  There is no extant record of this slaughter of babies, but Bethlehem was a small town, and everything that is known about Herod (who murdered his own sons and wife) suggests that he could have committed such an atrocity.

Matthew concluded his stories of the birth of Jesus with the return of the Holy Family from Egypt following Herod’s death.  They changed their residence in Palestine from Bethlehem to Nazareth; and this too was reported to be the result of instructions given to Joseph in a dream, as well as the fulfillment of an Old Testament prophecy (Matthew 2:22-23).  Luke also knew that Jesus grew up in Nazareth, but he may have deduced this from information that Nazareth was already Joseph’s hometown at the time of his betrothal to Mary.

In Luke’s Gospel, the trip to Bethlehem was for a legal matter; Joseph, as a lineal descendant of David, was required to enroll for taxation in his ancestor’s birthplace.  Following the birth of Jesus and a short trip to nearby Jerusalem for his presentation in the Temple, the family “returned into Galilee, to their own city, Nazareth” (Matthew 2:39).  While Matthew and Luke do not contradict each other, they must have drawn on different sources.

One of the most enduring of the Nativity stories is Luke’s description of shepherds “keeping watch over their flock by night” in a field close to Bethlehem (Luke 2:8).  Shepherds as a group were not considered to be simple, gentle people in first century Palestine.  Rather, shepherds had a certain reputation for dishonesty and breaking the law, such as letting their flocks graze on land belonging to others.  That they were the first to hear of Jesus’ birth in Luke’s Gospel may reveal something of this evangelist’s compassion for the outcast and lesser peoples of Israel.  At a deeper level, however, the shepherds did form an appropriate audience for the angelic tidings granted to them, Jesus the Savior was the Shepherd and Son of David par excellence, and his great ancestor had served as a humble shepherd boy in the fields around Bethlehem.

In contrast with Luke’s other stories about angelic announcements, this one contains a grand display of sound and light from “a multitude of the heavenly host.”  Everything else had just been a prelude; this was the birth celebration itself.  The shepherds joined it by going to see the baby Jesus and telling others, who were astonished about what had happened to them.  Thus the birth of the Messiah was properly announced and recognized, but he remained an obscure figure until the time of his public ministry.

In what year was Jesus born?  Matthew indicates that his birth came during the last years of Herod (Matthew 2:1-12), who died in 4 BC.  Luke fixed the annunciation of John the Baptist’s birth under the same ruler (Luke 1:5), which would mean that when Jesus came into the world, roughly six months after John the Baptist (1:36), Herod was probably still on the throne.  (The Nativity of Jesus occurred in a BC year because of a calendrical error made in the early medieval period.)

The only difficulty with this agreement is that Luke also reported that Jesus was born in Bethlehem during a census under Quirinius, the governor of Syria (2:1-7).  According to al available records, that census took place in 6 and 7 AD, and Quirinius was not governor during Herod’s reign.  Questions remain, however, such as whether a two-stage census might have been taken, the first part beginning as early as 4 BC.  Astronomers’ attempts to determine a date for the star seen by the Magi have yielded interesting theories, but nothing conclusive.  Thus, while the general time frame for Jesus’ birth is well established, some details continue to perplex students of the Bible.

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