Jesus's Birth: Bethlehem, the Stables and the Gospels

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According to tradition, partly backed up by the Bible, Jesus was born in a stable in the town of Bethlehem, near Jerusalem, to a young woman named Mary and a carpenter named Joseph. Little is known of Jesus's childhood or youth. The story of Jesus's birth is told in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew and the two versions — each of which focuses on a particular theme — are fused together to form our modern Nativity story.

Scholars don't know for sure when Jesus was born. They believe his birth took place sometime between 4 B.C. and 7 B.C. The Gospel of Mathews says that Jesus was born in the last two years of Herod's reign, which would place his birth around 4 B.C. Some scholars believe the reference to Jesus being born at the time of the first registration in Judea around 7 B.C. or 6 B.C. is probably more accurate. Although a big deal is made about Christmas and the virgin birth what happens after Jesus died lies at the heart of Christianity.

Jesus was probably born in the spring, summer or the fall, which is when shepherds [are] abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks." There is a reference to shepherds watching over their flocks at night, something they usually do in the hottest months of summer or during the lambing season in spring not in winter. In the winter the animals were kept in corrals. The December 25th date was ascribe to Jesus's birth in the 6th century ostensibly to coincide with local winter solstice festivals.

Websites and Resources: Jesus and the Historical Jesus Britannica on Jesus Jesus-Christ ; PBS Frontline From Jesus to Christ ; Life and Ministry of Jesus Christ ; Jesus Central ; Catholic Encyclopedia: Jesus Christ ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) ; Christianity BBC on Christianity ; Sacred Texts website ; Candida Moss at the Daily Beast Daily Beast Christian Answers ; Bible: Bible Gateway and the New International Version (NIV) of The Bible ; King James Version of the Bible Biblical History: Bible History Online ; Biblical Archaeology Society

Birth of Jesus

According to Luke 2:11 an angel proclaimed: “Behold I bring you good tidings of great joy...for unto to you is born this day in the city of David, a savior, which is Christ the Lord.” And “suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to men.”

According to Matthew, Jesus and his parents stayed for a while in Bethlehem. Eighty days after his birth Jesus was circumcised according to Jewish custom. Two pigeons are believed to have been sacrificed, which was the custom at the time.

Many historians have doubts about the Christmas story. The beloved Christian Nativity scene, for example, was invented by St. Francis in 1223. Some doubt Jesus was even born in Bethlehem. In Hebrew, Bethlehem means “House of Bread,”and could refer to almost any place where flour was milled and made into bread. The scholars hold that Bethlehem was injected into the story to correspond with Old Testament prophecies. Bethlehem was King David’s hometown. In the early centuries when Christianity was trying to establish itself that detail may have been thought of as critical to win Jewish converts.

Scholars believe that Jesus was probably born uneventfully in Nazareth. They argue that Jesus was known as Jesus of Nazareth not Jesus Bethlehem and say that the Gospel of Mark, written closest to Jesus’s lifetime makes no mention of Bethlehem and refers to Nazareth as Jesus’s hometown.

Book: “The Birth of the Messiah” by Father Raymond E. Brown (Doubleday). Brown is regarded as one of the great historical Jesus scholars. He died in 1998.

Story of Jesus’s Birth in the Gospels Matthew and Luke

Chapel of Nativity, 1880
Rodolfo Galvan Estrada III writes: According to the Gospel of Matthew, the first Gospel in the canon of the New Testament, Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem when Jesus was born. The story begins with wise men who come to the city of Jerusalem after seeing a star that they interpreted as signaling the birth of a new king. It goes on to describe their meeting with the local Jewish king named Herod, of whom they inquire about the location of Jesus’ birth. The Gospel says that the star of Bethlehem subsequently leads them to a house — not a manger — where Jesus has been born to Joseph and Mary. Overjoyed, they worship Jesus and present gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. These were valuable gifts, especially frankincense and myrrh, which were costly fragrances that had medicinal use. [Source: Rodolfo Galvan Estrada III, Assistant Professor of the New Testament, Vanguard University, The Conversation December 18, 2022]

The Gospel explains that after their visit, Joseph has a dream where he is warned of Herod’s attempt to kill baby Jesus. When the wise men went to Herod with the news that a child had been born to be the king of the Jews, he made a plan to kill all young children to remove the threat to his throne. It then mentions how Joseph, Mary and infant Jesus leave for Egypt to escape King Herod’s attempt to assassinate all young children. Matthew also says that after Herod dies from an illness, Joseph, Mary and Jesus do not return to Bethlehem. Instead, they travel north to Nazareth in Galilee, which is modern-day Nazareth in Israel.

The Gospel of Luke, an account of Jesus’ life which was written during the same period as the Gospel of Matthew, has a different version of Jesus’ birth. The Gospel of Luke starts with Joseph and a pregnant Mary in Galilee. They journey to Bethlehem in response to a census that the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus required for all the Jewish people. Since Joseph was a descendant of King David, Bethlehem was the hometown where he was required to register. The Gospel of Luke includes no flight to Egypt, no paranoid King Herod, no murder of children and no wise men visiting baby Jesus. Jesus is born in a manger because all the travelers overcrowded the guest rooms. After the birth, Joseph and Mary are visited not by wise men but shepherds, who were also overjoyed at Jesus’ birth.

Differences in the Gospels on the Story of Jesus’s Birth

There are a lot of discrepancies in the telling of the Christmas story. In Matthew’s Nativity, the angel’s Annunciation is made to Joseph. In Luke’s it is to Mary (See Annunciation below). Matthew offers the Three Wise and places the baby Jesus on a horse. Luke features shepherds and a manger. Mark and Luke place the birth in Bethlehem but have different stories on how that happened to be. The Gospels of Matthew and Mark describe the story of Jesus’s birth using different traditions. The “infancy narratives” that describe the Christmas story were prologues added to the Gospels of Matthew and Mark long after the other parts of the Gospels were written.

James Martin wrote in the Washington Post: “ Even knowledgeable Christians may expect to find the familiar story of Christmas in each of the four Gospels: the journey of Mary on a donkey accompanied by Saint Joseph, the child’s birth in a manger surrounded by animals, shepherds and angels, with the Wise Men appearing shortly afterward. “But two of the Gospels say nothing about Jesus’s birth. The Gospel of Mark — the earliest of the Gospels, written roughly 30 years after Jesus’s crucifixion — does not have a word about the Nativity. Instead it begins with the story of John the Baptist, who announces the impending arrival of the adult Jesus of Nazareth. The Gospel of John is similarly silent about Jesus’s birth. |+| The two Gospels that do mention what theologians call the “infancy narratives” differ on some significant details. Matthew seems to describe Mary and Joseph as living in Bethlehem, fleeing to Egypt and then moving to Nazareth. The Gospel of Luke, on the other hand, has the two originally living in Nazareth, traveling to Bethlehem in time for the birth and then returning home. Both Gospels, though, place Jesus’s birthplace in Bethlehem. [Source: James Martin, Washington Post, December 16, 2011, Martin is a Jesuit priest, editor at large of America and author of "Seven Last Words."]

Rodolfo Galvan Estrada III writes: Luke says the shepherds were notified about Jesus’ location in Bethlehem by angels. There is no guiding star in Luke’s story, nor do the shepherds bring gifts to baby Jesus. Luke also mentions that Joseph, Mary and Jesus leave Bethlehem eight days after his birth and travel to Jerusalem and then to Nazareth.The differences between Matthew and Luke are nearly impossible to reconcile, although they do share some similarities. John Meier, a scholar on the historical Jesus, explains that Jesus’ “birth at Bethlehem is to be taken not as a historical fact” but as a “theological affirmation put into the form of an apparently historical narrative.” In other words, the belief that Jesus was a descendant of King David led to the development of a story about Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. Raymond Brown, another scholar on the Gospels, also states that “the two narratives are not only different — they are contrary to each other in a number of details.” [Source: Rodolfo Galvan Estrada III, Assistant Professor of the New Testament, Vanguard University, The Conversation December 18, 2022]

Annunciation, Immaculate Conception and Virgin Births

Immaculate Conception
According to the BBC: “The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception teaches that Mary, the mother of Christ, was conceived without sin and her conception was thus immaculate. Mary's sinless conception is the reason why Catholics refer to Mary as "full of grace". Many people confuse the Immaculate Conception with the "virgin birth"; the belief that Mary gave birth to Jesus while remaining a virgin. They are not the same thing.

The Annunciation (“Announcement”) marks the announcement by an angel that Mary will become pregnant and give birth to Jesus. According to the Bible, Mary became mysteriously pregnant while a virgin betrothed to Joseph, who considered divorcing her.

Mary is said to have been a virgin when Jesus was born. In his book “What the Gospels Meant”, the writer and thinker Gary Wills said it “is not gynecological or obstetric teaching, but a theological one.” The historical Jesus scholar Raymond Brown said, Matthew and Luke “regarded the virginal conception as historical, but the modern intensity about historicity was not theirs.”

The idea of a virgin birth was nothing new. The Romans used the idea in a story about birth of Caesar and his conception by the God Apollo. According to a prophecy in the “Book of Isaiah” the Messiah, would be born to a “virgin.” Some historians have suggested the idea of the miraculous birth may been constructed to hide accusations that Jesus was a bastard and that he father was a Roman soldier named Panthera. The notion of Immaculate Conception, that Mary was preserved from original sin by virtue of a special grace from God, is a Catholic concept made infallible dogma by Pope Pius IX in 1854.

Jesus Born in a Living Room Rather Than a Stable?

In the traditional Christmas narrative, derived from the Gospel of Luke, weary Mary and Joseph arrive in Bethlehem after a long journey and are turned away from the “inn” because there was no room. It’s because of this, tradition says, that they end up in a stable or grotto and Jesus is placed in a manger. Candida Moss writes in the Daily Beast: This isn’t quite what the Bible says, however. Luke 2:7 reads, in the NRSV translation, that Mary gave birth to Jesus and “laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them at the inn.” Though we might assume that they were turned away from the ancient equivalent of the Hilton, there’s no actual mention of a stable here. Moreover, the Greek word translated as “inn” (kataluma) doesn’t mean hotel in any kind of modern service industry kind of way. The problem isn’t one of vocabulary. Luke does know the Greek word for a hostel or inn and uses it in his telling of the famous Parable of the Good Samaritan. That he uses different language here means that Luke is describing something else here. The question is: what is a kataluma?[Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, December 23, 2020]

In an article published in New Testament Studies, scholar Stephen Carlson argues that kataluma refers simply to space. The meaning, he writes, is that the place that he was staying did not have enough space to accommodate the soon-to-be small family. Typically, Joseph’s family would have put them up in the guest quarters that formed part of the upper rooms of the house. These rooms would likely have included a sort of small guest bedroom. Unfortunately, as Luke stresses, there wasn’t enough room for everyone upstairs, so they likely stayed downstairs in the main room of the house on the ground floor.

The reason that we might think of this main room as a stable is that there was a manger or animal trough there. This does not mean, however, that Mary and Joseph relocated to a stable. In first-century Judea mangers were found both inside and outside the home and were sometimes used to divide the area used to keep animals from human living space. In other words, Mary and Joseph weren’t turned away from a guest house or by family members, they just had to sleep (and, in Mary’s case) give birth in the somewhat less comfortable setting of the main room.

Controversy surrounding the nativity story persisted for centuries, to the extent that scholars were not allowed to question any of the details. In an article on the birth of Jesus, Prof. Stephen Carlson tells the story of Francisco Sánchez de las Brozas, a philologist who taught at Spain’s University of Salamanca in the 16th century. In 1586, El Brocense, as he was known, was reported to the Inquisition by his students because he argued that Jesus was not born in a stable and that his parents were not rejected by an innkeeper. El Brocense gave a cogent defense of his position and was exonerated, but in his own day the dissemination of his ideas was hindered by the experience. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, December 18, 2016]

Bethlehem and the Birth of Jesus

According to the Bible, Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the present-day West Bank only five miles away from Jerusalem. According to a passage from the second chapter of Luke: "And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger.” A manger is generally thought of as a stable. A manger, according to one dictionary, is a box or trough where cattle eat.

Joseph and Mary, who was in the later stages of her pregnancy, left Nazareth to go to Bethlehem to be counted in a census and pay taxes to the Roman Empire, the New Testament says. Mary went into labor before reaching Bethlehem and sought refuge in a manger because there “was no room in the inn,” which was full because of the census.

According to Luke, shepherds alerted by angels gathered around the stable, where Jesus was born. There are still shepherds in the Bethlehem area that live pretty much as shepherds did in the time of Jesus. They often sleep in the open air with their flocks at night to protect them from dogs and jackals. There is no record in the Bible of any animals being present at the time of Jesus’s birth.

In 2012, Israeli archaeologists announced that they had discovered a 2,700-year-old seal with inscription "Bethlehem" on it, making the oldest known artefact with the name of Jesus' traditional birthplace. Eli Shukron, the Israel Antiquities Authority's director of excavations, said said the seal, 1.5 centimetres (0.59 inches) in diameter, was found in Jerusalem and dated using pottery found near it. [Source: The Telegraph, 23 May 2012]

Was Jesus Really Born in Bethlehem?


Neither the Gospels Mark or John mentions Jesus’ birth or his connection to Bethlehem. Professor Rodolfo Galvan Estrada III writes: The Gospel of Mark is the earliest account of Jesus’ life, written around A.D. 60. The opening chapter of Mark says that Jesus is from “Nazareth of Galilee.” This is repeated throughout the Gospel on several occasions, and Bethlehem is never mentioned. A blind beggar in the Gospel of Mark describes Jesus as both from Nazareth and the son of David, the second king of Israel and Judah during 1010-970 B.C. But King David was not born in Nazareth, nor associated with that city. He was from Bethlehem. Yet Mark doesn’t identify Jesus with the city Bethlehem. [Source: Rodolfo Galvan Estrada III, Assistant Professor of the New Testament, Vanguard University, The Conversation December 18, 2022]

The Gospel of John, written approximately 15 to 20 years after that of Mark, also does not associate Jesus with Bethlehem. Galilee is Jesus’ hometown. Jesus finds his first disciples, does several miracles and has brothers in Galilee. This is not to say that John was unaware of Bethlehem’s significance. John mentions a debate where some Jewish people referred to the prophecy which claimed that the messiah would be a descendant of David and come from Bethlehem. But Jesus according to John’s Gospel is never associated with Bethlehem, but with Galilee, and more specifically, Nazareth. The Gospels of Mark and John reveal that they either had trouble linking Bethlehem with Jesus, did not know his birthplace, or were not concerned with this city. These were not the only ones. Apostle Paul, who wrote the earliest documents of the New Testament, considered Jesus a descendant of David but does not associate him with Bethlehem. The Book of Revelation also affirms that Jesus was a descendant of David but does not mention Bethlehem.

A number of historians argue that Jesus was actually born in Nazareth. Candida Moss writes: There are a number of reasons for this. First, in the earliest life of Jesus (the Gospel of Mark), Jesus is only ever associated with Nazareth; Mark doesn’t seem to know a birth story that links him to Bethlehem. Second, in Luke, the event that necessitates Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem is a census. The problem is that there’s no record of a census taking place during the reign of Augustus and even if there had been one it’s highly unlikely that people would have had to have returned to their ancestral home. As Bart Ehrman puts it in his New Testament Introduction, a situation like this would have been a “bureaucratic nightmare” that would have involved “massive migration.” It is unbelievable, he argues, that millions of people were uprooted for this one event, and that no other ancient sources thought to mention it. Given this, a number of more skeptical scholars argue that Jesus was born and grew up in Nazareth. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, December 23, 2020]

Is the Bethlehem Story an Effort to Fuse Jesus with the Messiah

Rodolfo Galvan Estrada III writes: The Gospels’ different views might be hard to reconcile. But as a scholar of the New Testament, what I argue is that the Gospels offer an important insight into the Greco-Roman views of ethnic identity, including genealogies.Today, genealogies may bring more awareness of one’s family medical history or help uncover lost family members. In the Greco-Roman era, birth stories and genealogical claims were used to establish rights to rule and link individuals with purported ancestral grandeur. [Source: Rodolfo Galvan Estrada III, Assistant Professor of the New Testament, Vanguard University, The Conversation December 18, 2022]

Genealogical claims were made for important ancient founders and political leaders. For example, Alexander the Greatwas claimed to be a son of Hercules. Caesar Augustus, who was the first Roman emperor, was proclaimed as a descendant of Apollo. Regardless of whether these claims were accepted at the time to be true, they shaped a person’s ethnic identity, political status and claims to honor. As the Greek historian Polybius explains, the renown deeds of ancestors are “part of the heritage of posterity.”

Matthew and Luke’s inclusion of the city of Bethlehem contributed to the claim that Jesus was the Messiah from a Davidic lineage. They made sure that readers were aware of Jesus’ genealogical connection to King David with the mention of this city. Birth stories in Bethlehem solidified the claim that Jesus was a rightful descendant of King David. .During the period of Jesus’ life, there were multiple perspectives on the Messiah. In one stream of Jewish thought, the Messiah was expected to be an everlasting ruler from the lineage of David. Other Jewish texts, such as the book 4 Ezra, written in the same century as the Gospels, and the Jewish sectarian Qumran literature, which is written two centuries earlier, also echo this belief. But within the Hebrew Bible, a prophetic book called Micah, thought to be written around B.C. 722, prophesies that the messiah would come from David’s hometown, Bethlehem. This text is repeated in Matthew’s version. Luke mentions that Jesus is not only genealogically connected to King David, but also born in Bethlehem, “the city of David.”

Reza Aslan wrote in the Washington Post: “The first Christians seem to have had little interest in Jesus’s early years. Stories about His birth and childhood are conspicuously absent in the earliest written documents about Him: the letters of Paul (written between A.D. 50 and 60) and the Gospel of Mark (written after A.D. 70). But as interest in the person of Jesus increased, the nascent Christian community tried to fill in the gaps of His youth to align His life and mission with the myriad, and often conflicting, prophecies about the messiah in the Hebrew scriptures. “One of those prophecies requires the messiah, as a descendant of King David, to be born in David’s city: Bethlehem. But Jesus was so identified with Nazareth, the city where most scholars believe He was born, that He was known throughout his life as “the Nazarene.” The early Christians needed a creative solution to get Jesus’s parents to Bethlehem so He could be born in the same city as David. [Source: Reza Aslan, Washington Post, September 26, 2013. Reza Aslan is the author of “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth”]

“For the evangelist Luke, the answer lay in a census called by Rome in A.D. 6, which he claims required every subject to travel to his ancestral home to be counted. Since Jesus’s father, Joseph, was from Bethlehem, he and his wife, Mary, left Nazareth for the city of David, where Jesus was born. And thus the prophecy was fulfilled. Yet this Roman census encompassed only Judea, Samaria and Idumea — not Galilee, where Jesus’s family lived. What’s more, since the purpose of a census was taxation, Roman law assessed an individual’s property in the place of his residence, not his birthplace. Simply put, Luke places Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem not because it took place there but because that story fulfills the words of the prophet Micah: “But you Bethlehem ....from you shall come for me a ruler in Israel.”

Book “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” by Reza Aslan, Random House. $27.

Horoscope of Christ

How it Came to Be Jesus Was Born on December 25

According to the BBC: The Gospels do not mention the date of Jesus' birth. It was not until the 4th century AD that Pope Julius I set 25th December as the date for Christmas. This was an attempt to Christianise the Pagan celebrations that already took place at this time of year. By 529, 25th December had become a civil holiday and by 567 the twelve days from 25th December to the Epiphany were public holidays. Christmas is not only a Christian festival. The celebration has roots in the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, the festivals of the ancient Greeks, the beliefs of the Druids and the folk customs of Europe. [Source: June 22, 2009, BBC |::|]

Candida Moss wrote in the Washington Post: “ The overwhelming majority of Christians mark the birth of Jesus on Dec. 25. But there’s no biblical reason to celebrate Christmas on this particular day. According to the Gospel of Luke, shepherds were watching their flocks at night at the time Jesus was born. This detail — the only clue in the Gospels about the timing of the birth — suggests that Jesus’ birthday was not in the winter, as shepherds would have been watching their flocks only during the lambing season in the spring. In the colder months, the sheep probably would have been corralled. [Source: Candida Moss, Washington Post, December 16, 2016 /+]

“As late as the 3rd century, Christians didn’t celebrate the birth of Jesus. The earliest discussion of the birthday is found in the 3rd-century writings of Clement of Alexandria, who raises seven potential dates, none of which correspond to Dec. 25. The first record of a celebration of the birth of Jesus on Dec. 25 comes from a 4th-century edition of a Roman almanac known as the Philokalia. Alongside the deaths of martyrs, it notes that on Dec. 25, “Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea.” /+\

“Some have argued that the date of Jesus’ birth was selected to supplant pagan festivals that were held at the same time. But while Pope Julius I set the date of Christmas (for Western Christians) in the 4th century, Christians did not deliberately adapt pagan rituals until the 7th century, when Pope Gregory the Great instructed bishops to celebrate saints’ feast days on the days of pagan festivals. /+\

“The real reason for the selection of Dec. 25 seems to have been that it is exactly nine months after March 25, the traditional date of Jesus’ crucifixion (which can be inferred from other dates given in the New Testament). As Christians developed the theological idea that Jesus was conceived and crucified on the same date, they set the date of his birth nine months later.” /+\

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible,; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible,; Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) , Frontline, PBS, “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, 1994); Wikipedia, BBC, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Live Science,, Archaeology magazine, Reuters, Associated Press, Business Insider, AFP, Library of Congress, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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