Ethiopian Leaf from
Gunda Gunde Gospels
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.

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.

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.

Although a big deal is made about Christmas and the virgin birth what happens after Jesus died lies at the heart of Christianity.

See Christmas, Holidays

Websites and Resources: Britannica on Christianity ; Religious Tolerance ; History of Christianity ; BBC on Christianity ;Wikipedia article on Christianity Wikipedia ; Historical Jesus Theories ; Wikipedia article on Historical Jesus Wikipedia ; Britannica ; Early Christian Writing ;

Websites and Resources with Christian art and images: Princeton Index of Christian Art ; Early Christian Art ; Early Christian Art ; Early Christian Art University of Oklahoma ; Early Christian Images ; Early Christian and Byzantine Images ; Space and Motion Article ; Online Icons MIT

Book: History of Christianity by Owen Chadwick; The Faith: A History of Christianity by Brian Moynahan

Mary and Joseph, Jesus’s Parents

Mary and Joseph
Jesus's parents, Mary and Joseph were Jews from Nazareth. Matthew and Luke refer to Jesus as a descendant of David, who was also born in Bethlehem. Jesus’s father Joseph was a carpenter. According the Arabic Gospel of the Infancy Joseph was not known for being a particularly skilled carpenter.

Jesus’s mother Mary was teenager believed to be around 14 when Jesus was born. It was not unusual for Jewish girls like Mary to get married at an early age. There are few mentions of Mary in the Bible. They include: 1) when Mary is told by an angel that she will conceive the son of God even though she was a virgin (Luke 1:26-38); 2) The manger scene when she gives birth to Jesus (Luke 2:15-19). 3) when she and Jesus’s brother appear to Jesus while he is speaking to a crowd (Matthew 12:46-50); 4) when she urges Jesus to perform his first miracle (turning water into wine) (John 2:1-7); and 5) her appearance at the crucifixion (John 19:25-27).

Many Protestants believe that after Jesus was born Mary no longer remained a virgin and had children with Joseph the normal way. They were all born after Jesus, making the virgin birth more plausible. Catholics and Orthodox Christians believe that Mary was virgin her entire life.

See God, Satan and Mary

Jesus’s Brothers and Sisters

20120507-Marriage Andrea_della_Robbia-Malmo.jpg
Marriage of Mary and Joseph
by Andrea della Robbia-Malmo
The religious scholar John Meier believes that Jesus had four brothers---James, Joseph, Simon and Jude---and at least two sisters—Salome and Mary---based on details from the Gospels of Mark and Matthew and the writings of Paul. The Apostle James is sometimes referred as the "Lord's brother." It is not exactly clear whether this title was meant literally or figuratively. The same is true with the other “brothers” and “sisters.”

Jude and Joseph are not explicitly stated in the canon. Jesus’s sisters are referred to in Mark 6.3 and Matthew 13.56, but their names---Assia and Lydia--- are given only in the apocryphal gospels.

The earliest tradition from the A.D. 2nd century states the brothers and sisters of Jesus were children of Joseph from a previous marriage. According to the great 4th-century biblical scholar St. Jerome the siblings were cousins of Jesus by Joseph’s brother Clopas and his wife Mary. Implied in this is that Mary remained a virgin all of her life.

Reference in the Gospels seem to indicate that most of Jesus’s family, with the exception of Mary and James, were not pleased with Jesus’s choice of professions. . The Gospel of John states: “His brothers did not believe him.” In Mark relatives though that Jesus was “out of his mind.”

Jesus’s Brother James

Inmaculada Concepcion
Although initially skeptical of Jesus’s divinity James became a leader in the early Christian movement in the mid 1st century after the departure of the Apostle Peter to Rome. Thought to be the author of the “Epistle of James,” James went against Paul by arguing that the Torah should be upheld. The historian Josephus recorded that James was stoned to death in A.D. 62 at the instigation of the Jewish high priest Ananus.

In the early 2000s a 20-inch-long ossuary (a box for holding bones) was found in Israel and described as a possible ossuary of Jesus’s brother James. Heralded as the earliest known reference to Jesus outside the Bible, it was dated at A.D. 63 and was etched with an inscription in Aramaic, reading “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.”

The ossuary was heralded as the first direct evidence of the existence of Jesus. Scholars who made the discovery said that Jesus, Joseph and James were all common names but it was unlikely they would all appear together in the same inscription, plus it was unusual to have a reference to an individual’s brother, meaning that the brother must have been someone important.

The ossuary claimed to belong to Jesus’s brother James was later declared a forgery by the Israel Antiquities Authority. After a careful examination of the box, a group of scholars revealed that the inscriptions were forgeries (they were made in at least two different handwritings and the wording was strange) and there were chemical and geophysical inconsistencies with the patina. The ossuary likely did date back to the time of Jesus and was tampered with after it was found by looters in an undisclosed location.

See Tomb of Jesus’s Brother James, Jesus’s Death

Book: Unholy Business, A True Tale of Faith, Greed and Forgery in the Holy Land by Nina Burleigh (Smithsonian/ Collins, 2008); Book: The Brother of Jesus by H. Shanks and B. Witherington III

Annunciation and the Miraculous Conception

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.

In Luke the angel Gabriel delivers the news to Mary, greeting her with the often recited, “Hail, Mary, full of grace.” According to Luke 1:30-35, 38: "And the angel said to her, 'Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall give the him name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever.'"

"And Mary said to the angel, 'How can this be, since I have no husband?' And the angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you, therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the son of God'...And Mary said, 'Behold, I am a handmaiden of the Lord, let it be me according to your word.”"

In Matthew an unnamed angel brings news to Joseph. In Matthew 1:20-21: "an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, 'Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.'"

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.

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.”

Bethlehem and the Birth of Jesus

marker for Jesus birthplace in Bethlehem
According to the Bible, Jesus was born in a grotto or a stable 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.

Birth of Jesus

Bosch's Adoration of The Child
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.

Three Wise Men

20120507-Three wise menMagi_(1).jpg
Three Wise Men
After the birth 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.

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.

Star of Bethlehem

Bethlehem Star
The Three Wise Men as everyone knows followed a star to Bethlehem. Accessing the path of the star described in Matthew, Brown wrote, “A star that rose in the east, appeared over Jerusalem , turned south to Bethlehem, and then came to rest over a house would have constituted a celestial phenomena unparalleled in astronomical history.”

Scientist have speculated that this star may have been a planetary conjunction, a comet or an unusually bright star (perhaps a super nova) seen for 70 days and reported by Chinese astronomers in the spring of 5 B.C.

Between September 5 B.C. and on April 17, 6 B.C. Jupiter appeared from earth to pause in orbit as the moon moved in front of Jupiter (the “kings” planet) while it was in the constellation of Aries, which was an ancient symbol of Judea to Greek and Roman astrologers. Some scholars have suggested that this was the star of Bethlehem.

Johannes Kepler suggested that Jesus was born in 7 B.C. because that year there was an unusual alignment of Saturn, Mars and Jupiter in December that could have produced a bright object in the sky described as the Star of Bethlehem.

Book: The Star of Bethlehem: the LegPalestine acy of the Magi by Michael R. Molnar (Rutgers University Press, 1999) and The Star of Bethlehem: An Astronomer’s View by Mark Kidger (Princeton University Press, 1999)

Herod and the Death of Infant Jews

Herod by Tissot
When King Herod, the 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.

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. 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 .

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.

Church of the Nativity and Bethlehem, Birthplace of Jesus

Nativity Church
The Church of Nativity (in Bethlehem) is a basilica built over the grotto where it is believed that the Virgin Mary gave birth to the baby Jesus. It is not built around an outdoor manger like that displayed in Christmas nativity scenes (mangers were often built in caves as were homes). The church is a Byzantine-style structure with thick fortress-like walls, medieval frescos and mosaics, limestone columns, and a columned bell tower, rebuilt several times.

The main entrance to the basilica, the “Door of Humility,” was built in the 13th century and reduced to its present height of four feet high in the Ottoman period. Most people hunch over when they enter it. According to some stories, the door was built the way it was to elicit a respectful bow from all those who enter. Most historians however agree that it was built so small to keep people on camels and horses from entering and desecrating the site.

Michael Finkel wrote in National Geographic, “The Church of the Nativity is almost hidden. It looks like a stone fortress, walls several feet thick, with a facade devoid of ornamentation. Perhaps this is how it has survived 14 centuries. Bethlehem is no place for delicate architecture. A spot at the crossroads of the world...means a perpetual rush hour of invading armies....The entrance reduced in size over the centuries...has shrunk to a miniature hole. You nearly have to fold yourself in half to get through...The interior of the church, cool and dark, is as spare as the outside; four rows of columns in an open nave lead to the main alter. There are no pews, just a collection of cheap folding chairs. But beneath the altar, down a set of worn limestone steps, is a small cave.

Altar in the Grotto of the Nativity
The main holy altars lie above the grotto. The altar of Nativity sits on the spot where it is said Jesus was placed after he was born. The altar of the Magi is where it is said the Three Wise Men presented gifts to the newborn Jesus. Between the main altars and the Door of Humility is the Nave. Most of this has survived from the from the 6th century. Some of the 44 pink limestone columns were recovered from the original 4th-century basilica. A stairway below the altar leads to the grotto, written about a 100 years after Christ's time by St. Justin Martyr and described as "the cave in Bethlehem where he was born" in 248 by Origen.

The grotto is reached by a small stairway just a few steps from the main hall of the basilica. A two-foot-wide, 14-point silver star marks the spot where it is believed that the Virgin Mary gave birth. The grotto itself is lined with marble, save a small section of the rock floor worn smooth by centuries of kisses and caresses. Above the star on a platform are 15 silver lamps each representing a different Christian denomination, whose fires are always left burning. Near the star is a an inscription that reads, “Here of the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ was born.” Many of the pilgrims who come to cave read 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; because there was no room for him in the inn."

History of the Church of Nativity

Chapel of Nativity, 1880
The Church of Nativity is one of the world’s oldest working churches. It was built by Saint Helena and her son Constantine the Great in A.D. 325 and remained under Byzantine control after Constantine’s death and was rebuilt and reconfigured under Emperor Justinian after it was destroyed during a Samaritan riot in A.D. 529. The basilica that exists today is essentially the one built under Justinian. A few things such as mosaics date back to the 4th century but most of what you see today dates back to the Middle Ages.

After the Holy Land was taken over by Muslims in the 7th century, the Muslim caliph guaranteed the integrity of the church to the Byzantines. It survived the Persian invasion in 614 and an order by the Fatamid caliph in 1000 to destroy all Christian shrines.

The Crusaders took over the church without a fight when Jerusalem was captured from the Muslims in 1099. A force of 100 knights was put in charge of guarding it. They hired artists who decorated the church with their own paintings and mosaics, including a column of saints painted using a rare technique in which pigments are suspended in wax. After that Franciscan monks backed by the Pope took over the church, creating a rivalry that lasted for centuries between them and the Greek Orthodox church (successors of the Byzantines) over control of the church. Looting and damage from earthquakes and fires has taken place. Major renovations were done in the 12th century.

The Church of Nativity has been divided into Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic (Franciscan) and Armenian sections for several centuries. Each group is very possessive about the parts of the church and objects under its control. Decisions about who takes care of what is based on Ottoman-era Status Quo system which mandates that things be done as they have always been, which basically means if you can prove you have been doing some chore for some time you have the right to keep doing it.

Even so the sects periodically squabble over things like who washes which sacred wall and which sect has the right to use which aisle. It is not uncommon for guards at the church are forced to intervene. In the 1980s, monks battled each other with chains and broomsticks over who had the right to clean a particular section of wall and beams. At one point a ladder was yanked out form under a monk working five meters up cleaning the wall. The matter was cleared through lengthy and complicated negotiations.

A fight over the dusting of chandeliers around Christmas 2006 landed several holy men in the hospital. It began when Greeks cleaning a chandelier put a ladder in Armenian territory, something the Greeks should have known would set off a fight. There are reports of monks stockpiling rocks in anticipation of an all-out battle.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Symbols of Catholicism by Dom Robert Le Gall, Abbot of Kergonan (Barnes & Noble, 2000); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); Newsweek, Time and National Geographic articles about Jesus, the Bible and Christianity. Also the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated March 2011

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