Jesus’ birth is one of the best-known Bible stories. So it can come as a surprise to realize that it only appears in two Gospels, Matthew and Luke. And their stories are quite different. Only Matthew has a star, wise men, King Herod, and the slaughter of the toddlers in Bethlehem. Only Luke, in the passage under discussion, has a census, a stable, angels, and shepherds. Most scholars date these texts to 80-100 C.E., and they assume that by this time the precise details of Jesus’ birth had been forgotten.
What the infancy stories do is set up the story of Jesus in each Gospel, reflecting the interests and theology of each writer. So Matthew presents Jesus as a royal figure whose birth is signaled in the heavens; foreign visitors point ahead to the spread of the message to all nations (
Did you know…?
- Jesus’ birth is described by only two New Testament writers—Matthew and Luke. Both accounts are from the late first century, and they differ from one another considerably.
- Paul links Jesus’ family to the house of David in
Rom 1:3. If true, this family connection might have helped stories of a birth in Bethlehem to develop.
- The first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel describe the births of both Jesus and John the Baptist. It is clear at every point, however, that Jesus is significantly greater than John.
- Jews had reservations about the taking of a census (see
1Chr 21:1, though compare 2Sam 24:1), particularly when it was taken by a foreign power. Quirinius’s census provoked widespread resentment, and it was only the intervention of the high priest Joazar that prevented open rebellion.
- Neither Matthew nor Luke gives a specific date for Jesus’ birth. It is only by the fourth century that recognizable dates come into the tradition: December 25 in the western Roman Empire, and January 6 in the east.
Was Jesus born in Bethlehem?
Despite their differences, Matthew and Luke both agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. In Matthew, the holy family lives there already, so the author of this Gospel has to explain why they eventually settle in Nazareth—which he does by the story of Herod’s massacre and his son Archelaus’s cruelty (
Bethlehem, of course, was not any old town. Ten kilometers south of Jerusalem, it was the ancestral home of King David (
But how historical is the Bethlehem tradition? Surprisingly, perhaps, no other New Testament text mentions it: there is nothing in the letters of Paul, our earliest Christian writer, and nothing in Mark, our earliest Gospel. Even stranger, perhaps, is the Gospel of John’s curious silence, even when Nathaniel flippantly asks if anything good can come out of Nazareth (
Was there really a census?
Yes—it was carried out by Publius Sulpicius Quirinius, the capable legate of Syria (6-12 C.E.). When Herod I died in 4 B.C.E., his kingdom was divided among three of his sons, and the largest section (Judea, Samaria, and Idumea) was given to his son Archelaus. After ten years, however, Archelaus was deposed and the emperor Augustus decided to transform the territory into a Roman province, ruled directly by a Roman prefect. The census was taken at this point, in 6 C.E., to allow Rome to work out what each resident should be paying in tax.
Luke’s account contains a number of inaccuracies: the census didn’t include “all the world” (
In all probability, the earliest Christians did not know exactly when Jesus was born. At a time when there were no birth certificates or easily accessible records, this would not be at all surprising. Both Gospel writers wove their stories around memorable events from roughly the right period: Matthew made use of a star (or a planetary conjunction) and the death of Herod, while Luke connected it with the census of Quirinius. This fits with his tendency to associate the Christian story with wider world events (other examples include the world famine in