Birth Of Jesus, Matthew And Luke Both Say Bethlehem

Picture of a baby in a manger

The birth of Jesus Christ is one of the most celebrated events in history. Marking the beginning of Christianity, with the birth of its founder, Jesus.

The biblical accounts of Jesus’ birth are found in Matthew 2:1-23 and Luke 2:1-39, both having unique perspectives on this historic moment.

These two passages, provide the only details we know about his birth. These details we often weave together to form the story of the first Christmas.

The Birth of Jesus, Blending Matthew and Luke’s Accounts

The birth of Jesus goes something like this if we blend Matthew and Luke’s narratives together.

Joseph and Mary go to Bethlehem from Nazareth because Ceasar had declared a census, and everyone needed to go to their hometown to be counted.

Arriving in Bethlehem, they cannot find a room in the inn because of the many visitors from the census.

Fortunately, a kind innkeeper, despite not having a room for them, offered them his stable to stay for the night.

That very night Mary goes into labour, and Jesus is born in a stable. Mary wraps him in swaddling clothes and lays him in a manger.

At the same time, angels appear to some shepherds in the field watching their sheep. Telling them that “Today in the town of David, a Saviour has been born to you, he is Christ the Lord.”

More angels fill the sky with singing. As soon as they disappear. The startled shepherds go to Bethlehem to see if they can find the child that was born.

They find Jesus in a manger, just as the angel had told them.

A year or so later, Mary, Joseph and Jesus are now living in a house in Bethlehem.

When some wise men come to Jerusalem looking for the king that had been born. Telling Herod about the star they had seen. He inquires of the chief priests and teachers of the law where Christ was to be born.

Quoting to him from Micah 5:2.

“But you, Bethlehem, in Judah, are by no means the least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of the people of Israel.”

The wise men then leave for Bethlehem to find the newborn king after Herod secretly asks them to report to him after they find the baby, for he, too, can worship the child.

Once in Bethlehem, the star leads them to the house where Jesus is living, and they present him with Gold, Francensence and Myrrh.

That night they are warned in a dream not to go back to Jerusalem. So they take a different route home to avoid telling Herod.

Jospeph is also warned in a dream that Jesus’s life is in danger.

Quickly he wakes Mary and Jesus, and they flee to Egypt to avoid Herod’s murderous plan of killing all the baby boys in Bethelem. When Herod realizes that he has been tricked by the Magi, he orders all the boys under 2 to be killed in Bethlehem.

But Jesus is safe in Egypt, where he lives till Jospeph again has a dream.

But this time, he is told that Herod the Great has died and he should return to the land of Israel.

But when he hears that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father, he becomes fearful. Then another dream of warning and off to Galilee, they move where Jesus grows up and spend most of his life.

Significant Facts We Learn from the Birth of Jesus’ Stories

Matthew’s and Luke’s birth narratives provide significant details about the birth of Jesus.

Both agreeing that

  • Jesus was born in Bethlehem
  • Jesus moved to Galilee, where he grew up.

Interestingly the rest of the details are provided individually. With almost no other sources attesting to them.

Matthew provides the following information.

  • Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great
  • Magi (Wise men) from the east visit Jesus
  • Jesus moves to Egypt for a few years to avoid being killed by Herod
  • After Herod’s death moves to Galilee to avoid Archelaus, Herod’s son, who is ruling in Judea in place of his father.

Luke provides these details.

  • Jesus is born in Bethlehem because of a census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria
  • Jesus was born in a stable, and laid in a manger because of the lack of rooms in the inns of Bethlehem
  • Shepherds worship Jesus on the night of his birth
  • 8 day old Jesus is circumcised in Jerusalem because of his religious parents
  • At the temple, Simeon and Anna prophecies over him. Foreshadowing what the life of Jesus will be like

Despite the common telling, as we started with, there are some conflicts between Matthew and Luke’s stories.

  • Reason that Jesus is born in Bethlehem. In Matthew, Joseph and Mary are living in Bethlehem. Luke, they are visiting because of a census.
  • This potential change’s where Jesus is born, house vs stable.
  • The year that Jesus was born. Matthew before 4 BCE, when it’s believed Herod the Great died. The latest, if you give additional weight to Josephus, dating his death to an eclipse in 1 CE. Luke dates his birth by the census in 6-7 CE, recorded in other texts when Quirinius, governor of Syria, took a census of Judea.

And without knowing it, many people weave in details, Mary riding on a donkey from the Protoevangelium of James. Another ancient text about the birth of Jesus.

But it is dated to some time around 145 CE and is not considered historically accurate by most scholars.

That being said, few scholars consider Matthew and Luke’s birth stories as historical either.

“The simplest way through the evidence is to go along with the assumption of the majority of the New Testament writers and to take it that Jesus was born quite naturally to his father Joseph.”

The Historical Jesus; A Guide for the Perplexed
Helen K. Bond

One exception is N.T. Wright, who holds closer to Matthew and Luke’s narrative than the majority of scholars as historical. 

Unlike the majority of scholars who view the birth narratives as theological in intent, not historical.

Personally, despite learning many things from many of these scholars and admiring their learning. I give preference to Matthew and Luke. Even with late dating of the writing of their text, they preceded us all. It seems wrong to dismiss early witness to an event simply because it doesn’t fit in with what I know about history or life. They are much closer to the event, and without having credible information, I will try to work with the material they provide about the carpenter-turned-preacher.

What Year Was Jesus Born?

I don’t know.

What that was really unsatisfying.

And here is why, both Matthew and Luke give us different reference points, and if you include Luke 3, where Luke gives the start of John the Baptist ministry as the ” fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar.”

Followed by vs 23, “Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry.” occurring after Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.

Tiberius became emperor in 14 CE, placing the start of John the Baptist ministry in 29 CE. Working backwards from there with a minimum of 30 years, Jesus can be born no sooner than 1 BCE.

Small note, the ancients are not as hard on their numbers as we are in our scientific age. Luke says “about,” so Jesus could be anywhere between 25 and 35 and still be “about 30.”

This is good because Luke earlier says that Jesus was born when “Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.” Josephus says Quirinius took a census of Syria and Judea in 6-7 CE (in Antiquities 17.355 & 18.1–2). But be warned, Josephus is a good source but not perfect. At times he gets his dates and numbers off, as we all do.

Plus, this is the era before computers. Census could take years to be completed. A census in Gaul was started in 6 BCE but took 40 years to complete.

It’s recorded in Res Gestae 2.8 that Augustus took a census 10-9 BCE and intended it to be done every 14 years.

Giving multiple times for a census, along with a big window for dating.

This may be why few historians date Jesus’ birth by Luke’s census but rather by Matthew’s reference, the death of Herod the Great. Commonly held to be in 4 BCE, after Herod had ruled for 34 years, 37 years after killing Antigonus. (Antiquities 17, Ch.8:1).  

But Josephus also dates Herod’s death a few days after a lunar eclipse (Antiquities 17, Ch.6:4).

Biblical Archaeology Society has a robust discussion about when these eclipses possibly happened. The first possibility, was March 13, 4 BCE, followed by two in 1 BCE, the latest being on December 29. The author favours December 29 BCE.

I am no astronomer, but I give little weight to an eclipse dating the death of Herod the Great. Because of the challenge of dating an eclipse, along with how close is Josephus’s timing in relation to Herod’s death. But it does add to the evidence to be considered.

The most commonly held among many scholars is 4 BCE, as proposed by German scholar Emil Schurer in 1896. Having Jesus born sometime between 6 and 4 BCE based on Herod’s order to kill all the boys under two years of age. But most likely closer to 4 BCE because Herod most likely cast a large net with 2 years of age to ensure you get this new up-and-coming king.

This would make Jesus older than 30 when he begins his public ministry but still with the range of “about 30”.

If that is not satisfactory, there are links in sources to help further the debate. And debate it is.

Considering all the sources, you can easily argue between 6 BCE and 7 CE.

Good luck in working all the details out.

Was Jesus Born on December 25? January 7?

Again, this is open for debate.

First, this is a celebration event, not a historical reference. In merely this is the one day(s) set aside for Christians to remember the birth of Jesus and the events surrounding it.

The whole debate about it being taken from the pagan Saturnalia festival is old and feels overplayed. Largely forwarded by the idea of slandering a Christian holiday, or even done by some Christian groups as a reason not to celebrate Christmas.

But more likely why December 25, or January 7 (Julian Calendar), is because of Sextus Julius Africanus, who in 221 CE wrote a chronology of events placing Jesus’ birth on December 25. At the time, it was not well received, for many Christians were more concerned about the death of Jesus and cared little about the timing of his birth.

For a more in-depth discussion about the dating of Jesus’ birth read Dr. Dikkon Eberhart article. 

Nor was it common at this time in history for Christians to take pagan holidays and Christianize them. At the time, Christianity was an illegal cult in the Roman Empire, and there was little reason to try to adapt or fit into Roman culture.

The date of December 25 is based on an ancient Jewish belief that great men’s life begins and ends on the same day. Of course, with a few years in between. Jesus was crucified on the 14 of Nissan, the day before Passover. His life started and ended before Passover. Nine months after (Length of Pregnancy), Passover is December 25 in the Gregorian calendar.

Yes, this, too, is debated with the dating of when sheep would be outside, etc.

But strictly from our sources, Matthew and Luke, they don’t tell us. So we simply don’t know.

They give us references for the year of his birth but not the date. For Jesus’ exact birth date, you are going to be arguing from other sources.

People’s Response to Jesus’ Birth

The response to Jesus’ birth is distinctly different between the two accounts.

Matthew has Magi and King Herod.

Luke has shepherds, prophets and prophetess.

People Impacted by Jesus’ Birth According to Matthew

Matthew has Magi, who we commonly refer to as Wisemen, tradition by the third century elevate them to Kings. By the 8 century, Excerpta Latina Barbaric gives them the names Bithisarea, Melichior, and Gathaspa. Commonly known as Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar (or Casper). Some sources credit this naming to a much earlier time of Origen in 250 CE.

The Western church goes even further, developing a tradition that Balthasar is king of Arabia or sometimes Ethiopia, Melchior the king of Persia, and Gaspar is the king of India. These most likely develop from Justin Martyr’s writing in 160 CE, “Magi from Arabia came to Herod.”

Clement of Alexandria, living between 150-215) in the Stromata, writes they came from Persia.

None of this is necessarily historical but is often included in stories about Jesus’ birth.

More likely, Matthew is referring to priests in Zoroastrianism or simply as “magicians” studying the stars for signs from the gods about events. Early Christians such as Justin Martyr, Origen, Augustine and Jerome simply refer to them as magicians as the name commonly is understood.

It is interesting that these magicians followed a “star” to Judea to find a king but then stop and ask for directions at Jerusalem. But possibly this was a courteous move, come as the king of the country before going and honouring one of his subjects as a king.

But this visit does trigger Herods’s response.

First getting Joseph to take Jesus to Egypt and then finally moving up to Galilee. Later we will learn is a much better place for an up-and-start new religious figure than Jerusalem.

People Impacted by Jesus’ Birth According to Luke

To start, Mary and Joseph move down to Bethlehem because of the census. Luke only requires that they are there for a minimum of 8 days, but up to 2 years, taking Matthew into account.

The first to see Jesus after his birth are shepherds from nearby fields. You would think with all the singing that, more would have noticed and checked out this new visitor, but Luke limits it to shepherds. But does mention that the shepherds tell other people. We are not told of the results of this news.

Only, that they go to the temple in Jeraslem 8 days later.

Jesus is again recognized by two strangers, Simeon and Anna. Both give foretelling words to Mary and Joseph about who their child is. This must have added to the thoughts Mary and Joseph had about their new son.

Luke is also very clear that Joseph and Mary are religious people. Being careful to do and obey everything required by their Jewish faith. In later life, this to must have impacted Jesus, with the paramount of religion in his life.

Conclusion About Jesus’ Birth

What we do know from Matthew and Luke is that Jesus’ birth was significant enough for both authors to record it. And interestingly, despite many scholars proposing that they are working from a similar source text, Mark and Q (Quelle, German meaning “source”) both crafted a much different birth story. Leading me to believe that they each had independent sources for their story. They could be making them up, but why?

What would have possessed Luke to have two different references for the dating of the events of Jesus’ life and birth?

Why include historical events if they are not needed? As Bart Ehrman says, Luke has got a problem. He needs to get the couple down to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus. Okay, but why a census?

Why does Matthew tie the birth and early life of Jesus so tightly to Herod? He could easily have Jesus born in Bethlehem to fulfill Micah 5:2 without Herod. Unless Herod is part of the story.

But what we can take from these two sources is that Jesus was born a humble birth in Bethlehem but later moved to Galilee, where he grew up to be the man we know.

Interesting side note, both stories include acts of the government playing a significant part in the early life of Jesus.

Luke, it’s a government census bringing him to Bethlehem.

In Matthew, it’s the government’s actions, first Herod and then his son, Archelaus, that pushes him to Galilee.

The other events like the Magi, Shepherds and escaping to Egypt are interesting individual stories. They can be blended together, as often done for Christmas.

Or maybe they are best left separate as the original authors did.

Either way, we have a rough idea of 6 BCE to 7 CE, but most likely 4 BCE as when Jesus was born in Bethlehem.