By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The most detailed and influential account of the birth of Jesus Christ is found in the Gospel of Luke. But Luke’s account, as well as being much more informative than the one we find in the Gospel of Matthew, is the version of events which does the most to strain readerly credulity.
Details of the census which Joseph and Mary had to undertake to Bethlehem, not to mention the account of the birth of Jesus and his being laid in a manger, are found in the Gospel of Luke, so let’s take a closer look at what the Gospel says.
Before we offer an analysis of the story, though, here’s a summary of what Luke says about the nativity of Jesus Christ. We’ll follow the Gospel of Luke as that has proved to be the dominant and most influential version of the Nativity story, though in our analysis we will touch upon some of the differences between Luke and Matthew.
Summary of Nativity in the Gospel of Luke
The angel Gabriel appears to Mary in Bethlehem and announces that she will conceive a child, and he will be named Jesus. This baby boy will be the son of God. Mary is shocked by this news because she is a virgin, but sure enough she finds herself pregnant shortly after this, following a visitation from the Holy Ghost. She rejoices.
Caesar Augusts decrees that the whole Roman would should be taxed. This means that everyone has to return to the place of their birth, so Joseph (whom Luke now mentions as being Mary’s husband) and Mary have to return to Judea and ‘the city of David’, i.e., Bethlehem.
While in Bethlehem, Mary gives birth to Jesus, and wraps him in swaddling clothes and lays him in a manger. There was no room for them in the inn (the King James version tells us – see Luke 2:7).
The shepherds in the nearby fields keeping watch over their flock are visited by the angel of the Lord, who comes down and tells him that a Saviour, Christ the Lord, has been born on this day in Bethlehem. The shepherds are told that they will find the infant Christ wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.
It then becomes very celebratory, as a whole host of angels appear around the angel of the Lord to mark the occasion. When the angels have gone, the shepherds decide to go and see this baby for themselves, and once they have done so, they spread the word far and wide.
Summary of Nativity in the Gospel of Matthew
The first two chapters of the Gospel of Matthew provide a slightly different account of the Nativity of Jesus. For one thing, it’s much briefer than the account given by Luke.
Before Mary and Joseph were together, Mary fell pregnant after being visited by the Holy Ghost. So far, Matthew’s account is the same as Luke’s. However, Matthew is more interested in Joseph’s misgivings about his wife – who, it is claimed, is still a virgin – having conceived a child when Joseph hasn’t … lain with her.
So the angel of the Lord appears to both of them to set Joseph’s mind at rest and prove the divinity of the child Mary has conceived. The angel tells them that Mary’s child will be named … Emmanuel, meaning ‘God with us’. However, when the baby is born, Joseph calls his son Jesus, not Emmanuel. (Most Bible scholars explain this strange detail by interpreting ‘Emmanuel’ here as a sort of moniker, not unlike a nickname, or ‘sobriquet’: ‘Emmanuel’, in this interpretation, is a description of the child rather than the literal ‘name’ he is to be given.)
Matthew then breezily tells us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and the ‘wise men from the east’ (no mention of their number) came to worship the baby. After this, Matthew turns his attention to the actions of Herod when he discovers the Messiah has been born in his city.
Analysis of Nativity Story of Jesus
As the above summaries of the two accounts of the Nativity reveal, most of the details associated with the birth of Jesus in the popular imagination (and celebrated in everything from cribs to nativity plays every Christmas) come from Luke, not Matthew. Neither Luke nor Matthew make any reference to the time of year at which the birth of Jesus takes place, and the date of 25 December was only decided as the (traditional) date for Jesus’ birth many centuries afterwards, some time in the fourth century.
The fact that Luke’s account refers to shepherds tending their flocks at night (Luke 2:8) is more likely to suggest spring (and lambing season) than the winter, when sheep may well have been confined to a livestock pen or corral.
Nor did this happen in ‘the year zero’: ‘BC’ may mean ‘before Christ’ and ‘AD’ stand for ‘Anno Domini’, or ‘the year of our Lord’, but the historical Jesus (whoever he may have been) is widely thought to have been born in around 4 BC.
But enough of such details which don’t appear in the biblical accounts. What about those details that do appear? Matthew’s account gives the impression that Joseph and Mary lived in Bethlehem before moving to Nazareth some time after Jesus was born.
This straightforward explanation allows Matthew to fulfil the prophecy (which stated that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem and would be a descendant of King David) but also make sure Jesus was living in Nazareth shortly afterwards. (We’ll leave aside another problematic matter, namely the prophecy stating that the Messiah would be descended of the ‘stem of Jesse’, i.e., the father of David, while Matthew goes to some lengths to prove that Joseph – who wasn’t Jesus’ biological father – was descended from Jesse. Surely it’s Mary’s pedigree that’s important?)
But clearly Luke wasn’t as concerned as Matthew with finding the least wild and far-fetched device for placing the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. Instead of simply saying ‘Joseph and Mary lived in Bethlehem, Mary had Jesus, and they moved to Nazareth’, Luke invents a convoluted and highly improbable story involving a tax levied on everyone living under Roman occupation, which involves every single individual travelling back to the city of their birth.
Why can’t they be taxed in the current city where they live, and state their hometown when they complete the census? Why did everyone, even heavily expectant mothers like Mary, have to make the difficult journey, which, for Mary, would have involved a journey of some 70 miles, while pregnant.
Even with the ‘little donkey’ of popular song to bear her, that’s a long way to travel when your waters might break any minute.
But in a way, raising such questions misses the point that, despite its absurd premise, it is the account given by Luke which has become the dominant narrative detailing the birth of Jesus Christ. Perhaps there is something to be said for the story’s focus on the hardships that attended the birth of the most important person in the history of Christianity. And, of course, there are the humble surroundings in which he was born.
We all know these details: arriving in Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph find there is no room at the inn, so Mary ends up giving birth to Jesus in a stable among the animals.
But in fact, even Luke makes no mention of these details. He simply tells us that the newborn Jesus was laid ‘in a manger’ having been wrapped ‘in swaddling clothes’ (Luke 2:7). He does tell us there was ‘no room for them in the inn’ (King James Bible: see Luke 2:7), which seems pretty clear, but there’s a translation issue.
The Greek word kataluma can be translated as ‘inn’ but also as ‘guest room’, and it’s more likely that the Gospel writer was thinking of the latter thing rather than a commercial tavern. It might then be reasonably assumed that Mary and Joseph were staying with relatives during their return to Bethlehem, but that the guest room was unavailable to them.
Large houses at the time often had a manger in their room where the animals were kept. This was inside the house (rather than outside as a separate stable), so it’s similar to the image of millions of nativity scenes, but the circumstances probably weren’t as difficult as they’re often imagined.
So, in summary: there is no historical evidence for Augustus’ census or ‘tax’ of the Roman world; the Bible makes no mention of when Jesus was born; and the idea of Mary and Joseph being turned away from an ‘inn’ is probably the result of an error (if ‘error’ is quite the word) in translation.
But the Luke version of the Nativity is the fullest account of Jesus’ birth that we find in the Bible, and it’s an inspiring story about the difficult circumstances in which the Messiah was brought into the world, so this is the most likely reason that the story nevertheless became so well-known.