Life of Jesus Christ, the birth in Bethlehem, banner showing image of new-born baby in swaddling clothes

Jesus is born in Bethlehem

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Tiny, red and wrinkled, the newborn Jesus lay in a pile of hay surrounded by farm animals - the Prince of Peace in a stable. It is a story of love and hope, and a new start. Most people want to live a good life. Jesus is their best model.

Joseph's dream (see the  Gospel texts  at the bottom of this page)

Young Middle Eastern woman with traditional jewelry, paintingJoseph and Mary were betrothed to be married. This was a binding relationship, more than a modern engagement, because it involved not only a promise between two people but the exchange of money and goods.

It was a pre-nuptial contract made in front of witnesses, only broken by a formal process of divorce. Unfaithfulness during the engagement was considered to be adultery, and the consequences for adultery in 1st century Palestine were much more severe than they are in modern society. 

A betrothed girl who was found to be pregnant to someone other than her husband-to-be could be stoned to death, and this might easily have happened in a small rural community like Nazareth - but only if Joseph agreed to it. 

The gospel-writer makes no mention of the pain Joseph, 'a righteous man', felt at what seemed to be Mary's betrayal of her promise to him. He writes about Joseph as a real person, confronted with a real dilemma. What should he do?

The Dream of St Joseph, George de la Tour, painting There was a more civilized alternative: a quiet divorce. This is what Joseph decided to do. 

Something now happened in the story that changed world history. Joseph had a dream, a very powerful one, in which he was guided by God to take Mary as his wife.  

The text describes the message as coming from an 'angel', without going into details of what it meant by 'angel'. Biblical writers seemed to have used the word as a sort of code: the message of an 'angel'  meant that a deep conviction settled on a person that God had a particular purpose or plan, and that they were part of it. They must follow this purpose through to the end, even if it did not seem to make sense to them. They must simply trust in God.

The dream/angel told Joseph to marry Mary, even though he knew the child would not be his. This he did. Then, awed by the dream and God's message, he decided to abstain from sexual relations with her until after the baby was born.

Read the blue text at end of page

Bethlehem 

During the reign of Augustus (31BC-14AD), the Romans systematically reorganised their provinces. As part of this, they may have carried out censuses of the population for the purposes of taxation. Judea, a member state of the large Syrian province, would have been affected by this imperial decree. This could have been the reason that Mary and Joseph, who you would expect to find in Nazareth, were in Bethlehem at the time of the birth of Mary's baby. 

An elderly woman, paintingBut there may also have been another reason, one that the gospels preferred not to mention. Nazareth was a conservative rural community, used to handling its own problems. Under such a system, honour killings were sometimes used as a means of settling disputes linked to sexual misdemeanours. 

It may have been that when Mary's pregnancy became known in the village, she was hastily sent to stay with relatives in the south for her own protection. She certainly visited Elizabeth and Zechariah at this time: they lived near Jerusalem, quite a distance from Nazareth, and were of unblemished social respectability - a perfect haven for a young woman with an unexplained pregnancy.

If this was the case, it could place Mary and Joseph in or near Bethlehem at the time of the birth of Jesus. This is important, since it was prophesised that the Messiah would be born in the 'city of David'. In the Old Testament, Jerusalem is the city of David, but Bethlehem is the city where David came from. Bethlehem is about 5 miles from Jerusalem and about 85 miles from Nazareth.

Read the green text at end of page

Mary bears a son 

According to Matthew, it was Joseph who chose the name of the child. Names were much more important in that culture than in ours. They were meant to point to the actual character and destiny of the child, and so a great deal of thought went into selecting the right name.  

Nativity, Conrad von Soest; Mary cuddles Jesus, Joseph prepares warm food on a fire'Jesus' is the Greek form of the Hebrew Joshua, 'the Lord saves'. Joshua was the heroic warrior who led the Hebrews into the Promised Land after Moses died. To the first Christians, Jesus was the prophet who would save them and lead them into a different, heavenly Promised Land.

Naming a child had an another function: it was a way of claiming a child as your own. When Joseph named Jesus, he was establishing Jesus' Davidic lineage through his own ancestry - which makes Joseph very significant in the story of Jesus.

Mary would not have been alone when she gave birth to Jesus, as pious legend likes to picture her. Even if she was travelling and not at home, she would have been helped by a number of women, some from her own family. It was rare for a husband and wife to travel alone together, without any family members around them, and it seems most unlikely in the case of a heavily pregnant woman like Mary.

Luke's gospel makes a point of saying that 'there was no room for them at the inn', so the birth probably happened in one of the storage caves hollowed out of the rock near each house. Imagine an over-crowded Palestinian peasant house: a single-roomed home with an animal stall under the same roof. Jesus was placed in one of the animals' feeding troughs.

No-one really knows the date that Jesus was born. The early Christian church named the shortest day of the year as his birthday: after that, each succeeding day becomes lighter and longer. The implication was that the birth of Christ brought light and life into the world.

Read the red text at end of page

What happened next? See Shepherds and Angels

The Family, painting by John Dickson Batten

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What  the  Gospels say

There are two descriptions of the birth of Jesus. Matthew focuses on Joseph, Luke on Mary.

1.  Joseph's dream.    Read the blue text

2.  Bethlehem.    Read the green text

3.  Mary bears a son.    Read the black text


Matthew 1:18-25  18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit; 19 and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; 21 she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." 22 All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: 23 "Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel" (which means, God with us). 24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had borne a son; and he called his name Jesus.


Luke 2:1-7   1 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. 2 This was the first enrolment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city. 4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. 6 And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. 7 And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.


You might like to compare the parallel accounts of the births of Jesus and John the Baptist in Luke's gospel. Notice especially statements about

  • the pregnancy reaching term, Luke 1.57 and 2.6

  • the birth statement, Luke 1.57 and 2.7

  • marvelling onlookers, Luke 1.63 and 2.18

  • the taking to heart of what had happened, Luke 1.66 and 2.19

  • circumcision and name-giving, Luke 1.59 and 2.21

John's birth is clearly a prelude to the birth of Jesus. 

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Find out more

Angel flowers, white

What is an 'Angel'?

The Angel Gabriel, by Fra Angelico

Paintings of angels

Mary as portrayed in a movie still

Mary of Nazareth 
Extraordinary woman

The Visitation, painting by Ghirlandaio, detail

Mary's cousin Elizabeth
Refuge in a storm

Maps of Jerusalem, Galilee and Nazareth

Maps
Nazareth & Jerusalem


Reconstruction of the Temple in Jerusalem built by King Herod the Great

Buildings Jesus knew

The birth of Jesus, as shown in the movie 'The Greatest Story Ever Told'

Famous Bible movies
The life of Jesus Christ

A newborn baby

Childbirth at the time

Bread, olives and vegetable stew in an earthenware bowl

Food in ancient times

Woman weaving at her loom

Work in the gospels


   

 


 


 

 

 

Bible Study Guide:  The Birth of Jesus Christ:  Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem, with Mary his mother and Joseph

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Copyright 2012 Elizabeth Fletcher