The Birth of Jesus

The main part of the Christmas Story, the birth of Jesus! But why was Jesus born in such unusual surroundings?

The Story in the Bible

Now it happened in those days, that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment made when Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to enroll themselves, everyone to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David; to enroll himself with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him, being pregnant.

It happened, while they were there, that the day had come when she should give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son, and wrapped him with pieces of cloth, and placed him in a feeding trough, because there was no guest room available for them.

Luke 2:1-7

The History behind the Birth of Jesus in the Christmas Story

The census, or enrollment that's described by Luke has puzzled scholars for a long time. There's no Roman record of a census taking place at this time and, according to Roman records, Quirinius wasn't the governor of Syria at this point either.

Some scholars say that this means that none of the rest of what Luke says can be trusted. However, Luke has been proved to be historically correct many times, with modern archeology finding that many things Luke said are correct, although previously historians had said he was wrong! Most Roman records from this time come from a historian called Josephus. We know that Josephus sometimes 'bent dates' to make them fit his political narrative. So simply saying that Josephus is 'right' and Luke is 'wrong' is naive.

There are also some explanations as to what might have been going on with this passage in Luke.

One option is that Quirinius was governor of Syria twice, so it could have been a census during his first time as governor. However, the evidence for Quirinius being governor twice isn't very good. But the greek phrase for 'was governor of' can also mean 'was leading a war/commanding in'. This could fit with what Quirinius was doing around 6 BCE/BC.

It's also been said that Luke's words could mean something like the census happening 'around the time Jesus was born'. During this time a census could take a very long to happen! There was a Roman census in Gaul (now France) in 6 BCE/BC, around the time Jesus was most likely born, which took 40 years to complete! It could be that a census was ordered around this time, but wasn't finished until the year 6 when Quirinius was governor.

Another theory is that in the original greek of the New Testament, which Luke uses, there's a word 'protos' that can also add a 'before' to 'the first'. So Luke could also mean that it was a census before the one which Quirinius ordered! This could have been a 'Judea only' census and so wouldn't have been in any Roman records.

There is a record of Quirinius having a census taking place in Syria and Judea the years 6/7, (when Jesus was about 10) so that could make sense. This also ties into Luke using the phrase 'the first'. You'd only use that phrase if you were comparing it to something else.

There's also a record, by Josephus, of an oath of allegiance to Augustus in 3 BCE/BC; records also show that King Herod had a copy of the oath. So Herod could have used this as a reason to have a census of the people in Judea. Herod wanted to look like he was loyal to the Romans, so this could also make sense.

In Roman censuses, you didn't 'go home' to be counted, but you normally did with Jewish censuses, so this could also point to it being a 'different' census.

You can read more about the options for the census in an article on the blog of theologian, Rev Dr Ian Paul (goes to another site).

Joseph and the pregnant Mary would have had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem, as this was town that Joseph's family (the royal family of David) originally came from - a journey of about 70 miles (112 kilometres). Some people think that Bethlehem could also have been Joseph's actual home town and he'd traveled to Nazareth to collect Mary, once they were betrothed/married, to take her to his home town to initially live.

The journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem would have taken about three days.

In those times, there weren't really such things as hotels/motels, as we think of them. You would normally would have stayed with some extended family or relations in the guest room.

Most houses would have been shared with the animals that the family kept. Houses had two levels, the upper/mezzanine level where people slept and the ground floor where the animals slept at night and the family lived during the day. The animals were a kind of 'central heating' at night keeping the house warm! The 'guest room' was often an area on the upper/mezzanine level or even a hut put on the flat roof of the house!

In the Christmas story, it's often said that "there was no room in the inn". However, this comes from a not very accurate translation in early English Bibles! The word in the original Greek is 'kataluma' and this usually means a 'spare room' or 'guest room'. (This word is used later by Luke when he describes a 'spare room' being used by Jesus and his friends when they had a special meal.) Luke also uses a different word 'pandokheion' for a commercial inn/place to stay in the story of 'The Good Samaritan'.

So we know that Luke meant that Mary and Joseph didn't have a problem because all the 'hotels' being full, it was that the 'guest room', in the house where they were staying, was already being used!

A cartoon of Joseph, Mary and Baby Jesus in a house - not a stable!

As many people would have traveled to Bethlehem for the census, all the houses, or certainly upper levels were full. Many people think that Jesus was probably born in September or October during Sukkot, the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, rather than during December. During the festival, Jews live outside in temporary shelters (the word 'tabernacle' come from a latin word meaning 'booth' or 'hut').

So Joseph and Mary probably had to sleep with the animals on the low level (where it’s common to have a manger cut into a wall where you put the animal food) or possibly (but rather unlikely) out in a stable, cave or even a covered market stall that sold animals (these stalls could be rented during tabernacles).

You can read more about that here in an article on the blog of theologian, Rev Dr Ian Paul; and you can see a great 3D model of what a house during that period would have looked like from John Dyer (both links go to other sites).

So Jesus was probably born in a 'normal' house at that time and in that area, surrounded by family members and other local people. That's a rather different scene to what's on many Christmas cards and in nativity scenes!

It was the custom in those times to wrap a new born baby very tightly in long bandages called swaddling clothes. The arms and legs of the baby were also wrapped, so they couldn't move. This was done because they thought it helped the baby to grow strong, straight limbs! And as no proper crib was available, the new baby boy was placed in a manger, or feeding trough.

There's a theory that Jesus might have been born a couple of miles outside of Bethlehem where there was a special shepherds' watch tower called the Migdal Eder. So Jesus might have been born out with the shepherds.

The birth of Jesus probably didn't happen in the year 0 but slightly earlier, in about 4, 5, 6 or 7 BCE/BC. The dates that we use now were set by Monks and religious leaders in the Middle Ages and before. It's also quite likely that Jesus was actually born in the autumn (during Tabernacles), not in the winter! It can get very cold in the winter in Israel and it is thought that the census would have most likely taken place during the spring or autumn, at a when many pilgrims, from all over the country, came to visit Jerusalem (which is about six miles from Bethlehem).

There is an excellent article on the dating of Christmas based on the dates of Zechariah's experience and Temple Service also by Rev Dr Ian Paul (goes to another site).

The Bible verses about Jesus's birth also don't mention either an 'ox or ass'! The first mention of a donkey connected to the Christmas story seems come from 'Gospel of James' (sometimes called the Infancy Gospel of James) which was written in the 2nd century and . It describe Mary riding a donkey down to Bethlehem and then giving birth in a cave - so still no stable!

To find a stable, and 'the ox and ass' you have to go to the 'Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew' (or The Infancy Gospel of Matthew) which was written somewhere between 600 and 800. It adds some rather large 'embellishments' to the version from the Gospel of James. Three days after the birth in the cave, Mary and Joseph take Jesus into a nearby stable, where there's an ox and ass - who then bow down before the baby Jesus!

It also references a verse from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah: "The ox knows its master, the donkey its owner's manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.".

With its inclusion in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, some people have taken this a reference to the birth of Jesus. However, in the context of the verses around it, it's also saying that even 'stupid' animals know who feeds them but the people of Israel were ignoring God.

The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew also includes some other animals that you don't normally see in a Nativity scene. During their escape to Egypt, the family stays in another cave, this time one containing dragons. The dragons also worship the baby Jesus, as so some passing lions and panthers!

The 'Infancy Gospels', although not very historically reliable, were very popular during the middle ages as they contain some very 'interesting' stories! They might have also had an influence on St Francis of Assisi, when he created the first nativity play (in a cave) in 1223.

You can watch an animation of The First Christmas Story! (opens full window/tab)