Jesus and the Christmas Story

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Jesus' birth, known as the nativity, is described in the New Testament of the Bible. Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: The Christmas story, in its entirety, is not contained in a single book of the New Testament. It is a composite image crafted out of the nativity stories of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke and augmented by later Christian tradition, artwork, music, and interpretation. A number of the details that make it onto the canvasses of Renaissance artists, for example the “three kings,” aren’t in the Bible at all. We assume that there are three visitors because they bring three kinds of gifts (gold, frankincense, and myrrh). But the Bible doesn’t actually specify their number. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, December 24, 2016]

According to the BBC: “The Gospels of Matthew and Luke give different accounts. It is from them that the nativity story is pieced together. Both accounts tell us that Jesus was born to a woman called Mary who was engaged to Joseph, a carpenter. The Gospels state that Mary was a virgin when she became pregnant. [Source: June 22, 2009, BBC |::|]

In Luke's account Mary was visited by an angel who brought the message that she would give birth to God's son. According to Matthew's account, Joseph was visited by an angel who persuaded him to marry Mary rather than send her away or expose her pregnancy. Matthew tells us about some wise men who followed a star that led them to Jesus' birthplace and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Luke tells how shepherds were led to Bethlehem by an angel. |::|

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

Maybe Why the Jesus’ Birth Story was Written

The infancy stories about Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are there, many scholars believe, because stories about ancient kings and heroes often featured childhood stories because people were fascinated with them. Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: Just as every Marvel superhero has his or her “origin story” so too biographies of political leaders, generals, and revolutionaries contained information on where the great man came from, who raised him, and what kinds of auspicious events accompanied his birth. In this context the appearance of a star was not unusual.

Dr. Robyn Walsh, an associate professor at the University of Miami, told me that “from the biblical Abraham and Moses, to Alexander the Great and the Roman emperor Augustus, the birth of great leaders, heroes, and founders of cities were often marked by celestial events.” Broadly speaking, she said, ancient artwork and propaganda used stars to symbolize the transition of political power or “birth” of a new order. Birth stories, quasi-miraculous events, and narratives about influential figures go hand in hand. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, December 26, 2021]

Is the Christmas Story True?

Bosch's Adoration of The Child
Kristin Romey wrote in National Geographic: “The Church of the Nativity” in Bethlehem “is the oldest Christian church still in daily use, but not all scholars are convinced that Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem. Only two of the four Gospels mention his birth, and they provide diverging accounts: the traditional manger and shepherds in Luke; the wise men, massacre of children, and flight to Egypt in Matthew. Some suspect that the Gospel writers located Jesus’ Nativity in Bethlehem to tie the Galilean peasant to the Judaean city prophesied in the Old Testament as the birthplace of the Messiah. [Source: Kristin Romey, National Geographic, November 28, 2017 ^|^]

“Archaeology is largely silent on the matter. After all, what are the odds of unearthing any evidence of a peasant couple’s fleeting visit two millennia ago? Excavations at and around the Church of the Nativity have so far turned up no artefacts dating to the time of Christ, nor any sign that early Christians considered the site sacred. The first clear evidence of veneration comes from the third century, when the theologian Origen of Alexandria visited Palestine and noted, “In Bethlehem there is shown the cave where [Jesus] was born.” Early in the fourth century, the emperor Constantine sent an imperial delegation to the Holy Land to identify places associated with the life of Christ and hallow them with churches and shrines. Having located what they believed was the site of the Nativity grotto, the delegates erected an elaborate church, the forerunner of the present-day basilica. ^|^

“Many of the scholars I spoke to are neutral on the question of Christ’s birthplace, the physical evidence being too elusive to make a call. To their minds, the old adage that I learned in Archaeology 101—“Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence”—applies here.” ^|^

Myths about the Nativity

Candida Moss of the University of Notre Dame wrote in the Washington Post: “Jesus is the reason for the season, they say. This is undoubtedly true, but despite what Nativity plays and Hollywood epics would have us believe, the story of the birth of Jesus is more complicated than many people think. Between the difficulty in reconciling different versions of the tale and the 2,000 years of popular interpretation and culture layered on top of them, much of what people commonly know about the story of Jesus’ birth, from the date to where it took place, is wildly different from what the Gospels have to say. [Source: Candida Moss, Washington Post, December 16, 2016. Moss is a professor of New Testament and the University of Notre Dame /+]

Ethiopian Leaf from
Gunda Gunde Gospels
“As depicted in Nativity creches and Renaissance paintings such as Giotto di Bondone’s Nativity scenes and Sandro Botticelli’s “The Mystical Nativity,” Jesus was born in a simple stable. Generations of pastors and priests have used this notion as evidence that Jesus had a humble birth. As a theological argument, that’s true. But this particular detail of the story isn’t in the Bible. Luke 2:7 states that Mary gave birth to Jesus and “laid Him in a manger, because there was no place for them at the inn.” This makes it sound as if they couldn’t get a room at a Holiday Inn, but the Greek word “kataluma,” which is commonly translated as “inn,” doesn’t mean a hotel in any modern sense. Greek has a different word for a hostel, “pandocheion,” which Luke uses elsewhere in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Clearly, if Luke had wanted to say that Mary and Joseph were turned away from a hotel, he had the vocabulary to do so. /+\

“The more likely interpretation, as New Testament scholar Stephen Carlson has argued, is that Joseph and Mary intended to stay with his relatives in Bethlehem and that there wasn’t enough room in the guest quarters — typically located in the upper level of a house — to accommodate an imminent delivery. So, Mary had to give birth elsewhere, most likely in the main room of the house, on the lower floor. There’s no mention of animals being present, but the detail of the manger seems to be what has led to the image of a stable — and many live Nativity scenes featuring farm animals. /+\

“When people talk about a manger scene, or Jesus being born in a manger, or a star shining down on the manger, it’s not clear they always understand that “manger” refers not to a barn but to Jesus’ makeshift crib. A manger is a trough used to feed animals. The word is derived from the French verb “manger,” meaning “to eat.” In 1st-century Judean houses, mangers were found both outside and inside the home, sometimes separating an interior space for people from a space where animals were kept. Thus, in the Nativity story, Mary may have had one at her disposal, despite not being in the immediate vicinity of a stable.” /+\

Three Wise Men

After the birth of Jesus, the story goes, the Magi (the Three Wise Men) arrived in the area and asked: “Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and are come to worship him.” They were told by the chief priests of Herod to look in Bethlehem. They followed the star and found Jesus. Their arrival is celebrated with the feast of Epiphany. The Three Wise Men brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, and were warned in a dream not to report anything to Herod and return quietly to where they came from "by another way." In Luke they surrender their ancient powers and strength to Jesus. They said they came from the land of Shir, possibly India or China.

20120507-Three wise menMagi_(1).jpg
Three Wise Men
Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: The “three kings,” aren’t in the Bible at all. We assume that there are three visitors because they bring three kinds of gifts (gold, frankincense, and myrrh). But the Bible doesn’t actually specify their number. Matthew’s story about the Magi does not imply that these mysterious visitors are kings; Matthew either regards them as magicians/astrologers or Zoroastrian priests. But early Christians noticed passages like Psalm 72:10-11, about kings from far-off lands rendering tribute to the King of Israel, and wondered whether this might have been a prophecy about the Magi. Tertullian in the third century describes the Magi as ‘almost kings,’ and almost two hundred years later, Augustine flatly calls them kings. From there, the belief became commonplace.” All of which means that the magi were wise men, likely schooled in astrology or even Zoroastrianism. Sorry to ruin the carol. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, December 24, 2016]

The wise men were given the names Balthazar, Gasper and Melchoir in the 6th century (the Gospels don’t even say how many wise men there were). They are thought to have been Zoroastrians who traveled 1,600 kilometers from Iran, through present-day Iraq, Syria, Jordan to Bethlehem. By one account they are buried in Iran in Saveh (near the Caspian Sea). In another account they lived to the ages of 116, 112 and 109 and their remains are in Cologne, Germany.

Some scholars believe that the wise men were intended to be portrayed as fools rather than wise men. They say that their following a star was intended to be humorous and say that asking Herod for directions to the child was a dumb thing because Herod wanted to kill the child. The point, scholars say, was to show that even the most foolish people can find truth with God.

Is Mary the Real Hero of the Christmas Story

Candida Moss wrote in Daily Beast: As with most births, it’s his mother who’s the real hero of the Christmas story. Having undergone a lengthy and dangerous journey to Bethlehem, the teenage Mary gives birth in uncomfortable conditions and without the support of her immediate family. After the nativity, Mary only makes a few cameos in the Gospels; we hear almost nothing about Jesus’s upbringing and Jesus is dismissive of her on at least two occasions. But there’s a lot more to say about the woman whom Christian tradition describes as “the mother of God” and “Queen of Heaven.”

“According to tradition, Joseph and Mary travelled to Bethlehem shortly before Jesus' birth. Joseph had been ordered to take part in a census in his home town of Bethlehem. All Jewish people had to be counted so the Roman Emperor could determine how much money to collect from them in tax. Those who had moved away from their family homes, like Joseph, had to return to have their names entered in the Roman records. |::|

“Joseph and Mary set off on the long, arduous 90-mile journey from Nazareth along the valley of the River Jordan, past Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Mary travelled on a donkey to conserve her energy for the birth. But when they arrived in Bethlehem the local inn was already full with people returning for the census. The innkeeper let them stay in the rock cave below his house which was used as a stable for his animals. It was here, next to the noise and filth of the animals, that Mary gave birth to her son and laid him in a manger. |::|

Herod and the Massacre of the Innocents

Herod by Tissot
It os said that when King Herod, the Jewish Roman leader of Judea, heard rumors that a king of the Jews had been born, he was worried that the child would grow up and challenge him for power. He ordered the execution of all male infants under the age of two.

The death of Herod the Great roughly coincided with the birth of Jesus. Herod ruled Judea from 37 B.C. to A.D. 4. The Bible says he initiated a murder of all the infants in Bethlehem in an attempt to get rid of the baby Jesus, forcing Joseph, Mary and Jesus to flee. Matthew 2:16 reads: “Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men. After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child's life are dead." So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel.— Matthew 2:16 |::|

Joseph was warned in a dream of Herod's plan. According to Matthew 2:12-16: Joseph "rose and took the child and his mother by night, and departed to Egypt...Herod, when he saw he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all the region who 2 years old or under." Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus stayed in Egypt until Herod died. Then they moved back to Nazareth.

It is unlikely that slaughter of the male children took place as Christ was born four years after Herod died. There is no historical record of the event taking place. The only evidence is from the Bible. Only one verse in one gospel — Matthew — mentions it. The event is notably absent from the other gospels. It seems if that many children were killed that there would have been. The only record is the passage in Matthew. A similar episode — the Pharaoh’s murder of all the male infants of Israel in Moses’s time — is described in “Exodus”.

Nativity Church
Herod the Great was a Jewish leader installed by the Romans. Regarded as puppet king of the Roman Senate, he took power in 37 B.C. and ruled until around 4 B.C. and served under Julius Caesar, Mark Antony and the Emperor Augustus. He is remembered most for building the Great Temple for the Jews in Jerusalem and ordering the death of male children in Bethlehem after Jesus was born. His son Herod Antipas was involved in Jesus’s trial. He was the ruler of Judea at time of the death of John the Baptist and Jesus. See Jewish History, the Bible and the Torah.

According to the BBC: “If the soothsayers of the time were correct, the birth of a new King of the Jews was imminent and threatened Herod's position. In the massacre of newborn babies of Bethlehem found in the Nativity story, King Herod is portrayed as a tyrant prepared to kill infants who could eventually challenge him. It seems difficult to imagine such a massacre was not mentioned by Josephus, a first-century historian who described other events in Herod's life. One could be a sceptical of Matthew's account of a massacre of infants. In fact, demographic clues from first century Palestine reveal that Bethlehem was a small village, with a population between three hundred and a thousand. Experts estimate that, at any given time, the number of babies under the age of two would be only between seven and twenty. So numbers alone may be the reason why Josephus does not mention the murders. [Source: BBC, September 18, 2009 |::|]

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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